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Taraf Talet: Ramadan Thriller
Three friends, all of whom have a very punch first, think later approach to life, work as hired guns for a big time thug. When they start to get angsty over their pay, they find themselves on the wrong end of his wrath.
As the title implies, the show takes place post Jan 25 and focuses on Egypt’s number one national treasure; baltageya (thugs). It’s an attempt to humanize them and to paint them as complex individuals and not the shadowy creatures that hysterical rumours have made them out to be. From this angle, it actually works. We spent some time actually puzzling over the choice of title until it suddenly clicked that the three leads were supposed to be baltageyya and not your run of the mill criminals. These are the people we hear about on the news disrupting protests and poll stations, kidnapping people, stealing their cars, etc. Refreshingly though, it takes a balanced approach to the thugs without either demonising or making excuses for them.
The show stars Karara as Mimi, Abdel Moghny as Dibo and Youssef as Youssef; the same trio who starred in Mowaten X together last year. Despite the fact that their actions can occasionally be quite awful and their cavalier attitude to violence is rather disturbing, the actors play their parts with a nuance that prevents these traits and deeds from defining them. The material they’re given helps us to get to know the leads and their friends and family so well that you barely see them as petty criminals let alone baltageya since the show humanises them so much.
The supporting cast, which is mostly female, is also packed with good actors with El Shirbeeny and Raeis being the two main standouts. Shockingly enough, the show features a couple of present and former belly-dancers who unapologetically like their work, weren’t forced into it due to an abusive father/partner and who don’t treat their job title as a euphemism for hooker. It’s a complete break from the norm and a thing of beauty. Of course to balance it out, the majority of the female characters so far both think and speak almost exclusively about men and marriage.
Taraf Talet does a great and pretty entertaining job of weaving the political events into a dramatic structure without being too heavy on the clichés; it rightfully focuses on telling the story and not on thinly veiled political analysis.
Harrelson has a starry supporting cast backing him up made up of the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Ice Cube, Ben Foster and Robin Wright Penn. Brie Larson plays Dave’s daughter Helen, and after him, she’s the best thing about the film. The relationship between the two runs on hate and scorn mixed with a twisted kind of love. It brings to mind the saying about how blood is thicker than water. How you can hate a family member so much and see them for the worthless scum that they are, yet still allow their opinions and words to affect you. It’s a toxic relationship, one of many in the film, yet it packs a punch that the others don’t.
The story is occasionally difficult to keep track of as it jumps abruptly from one topic to another, but Dave’s internal conflict is more compelling than anything the story throws at you. Dave and Helen’s scenes together are far more powerful and infinitely more interesting than any of the scenes in which he brandishes a gun or kicks a guy to a bloody pulp. The film has some fine camera work; it forgoes flashiness just for the sake of it and instead focuses on bringing the viewer in closer to the actors. It works with the actors to set the scenes’ mood instead of just framing them.
Titled from a popular term which describes the early transfer of a young offender from a juvenile detention facility to an adult penitentiary, Starred Up is by no means an easy watch. However, as much as it is difficult to digest at times, there is a certain poetic beauty behind its seemingly violent and destructive quality that makes it difficult to look away from.
Shot within the walls of an abandoned Belfast prison, the film opens with troubled nineteen-year-old Eric Love (O’Connell) undergoing an embarrassing admittance process, involving a complete body strip down, as he’s transferred into an adult reformatory.
Immediately marked as a “single cell, high risk” type detainee, it doesn’t take long for Eric – whose frequent and violent outbursts got him relocated there in the first place – to stir up trouble and make enemies both with fellow inmates and security guards.
After a mistaken attack on another inmate lands the young delinquent into the disciplinary hands of the law, Eric is soon approached – and rescued – by the in-house therapist, Oliver Braumer (Friend), who believes that he can help the young man rehabilitate.
Unfortunately, getting to the root of Eric’s problems - and getting him to open up - is no easy task and Oliver - together with the other rehabilitating convicts - often find themselves the targets of both verbal and physical abuse. To top it off, Eric has to find a way to learn to share the walls of his new confinements with his estranged father, Nev (Mendelsohn), who is currently serving a life-sentence in the same prison.
Penned by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser – a former prison psychotherapist whose own experience with the British penal-system adds a hefty dose of authenticity and realism to the film – Starred Up, told through a series of wordless and violent expositions, is fuelled with gripping intensity which is hard to shake off. Relying on action, rather than words, the uniqueness – and the heart - of the story lies with the father-son narrative, whose bonding difficulties are depicted through the oppressiveness of life in prison.
Contributing to the movie’s relentless and uncompromising approach to despair and violence, O’Connell – mostly known for his role in the British TV-series Skins and recently seen as the lead in Angelina Jolie’s war-drama Unbroken – is an absolute standout; feral and unpredictable, his performance carries the film, while Mendelsohn is equally superb as a man whose persona and motives are seemingly hard to read.
Powerful, emotional but never too sentimental, Starred Up is a true British-prison drama classic whose quietly yielding power and passion for storytelling will leave you feeling captivated and moved.