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Ramadan TV: El Aar
Loosely based on the classic 80s film of the same name, Ramadan TV series El Aar ('The Disgrace') tells the story of a struggling family that ultimately succumbs to greed. It’s a modern-day pulp serial, where characters are constantly exposed to temptation and forced to make tough choices.
Part of the fun of watching El Aar is to see how it deviates from the original film. Some of the dramatic alterations are included to stretch the story into a month-long series, while most of the updates are added to inject more relevance into the classic text. Both the original 1982 film and the new version are written by members of the Abu Zaid family. The old script was written by Mahmoud Abu Zaid, while the new serial is the work of his son Ahmed Abu-Zaid. The son-father relationship allowed a great deal of creative freedom for Abu Zaid Junior to take his father’s original material and turn it into a grander saga.
In the new El Aar, there are no drug lords; in fact, the Abdel Sataar family members are all honest working individuals. The father (played by Hassan Hosny) works in the leather business and owns a huge dye shop. His older son, Mokhtar (Shaaban) is a street-smart fellow that dropped out of school to join his dad’s business. Ashraf (Salama), the second son, works in the police force, while the youngest, Saad works as a stock market broker. The youngest of the four is Nora, a sweet girl with a strong sense of integrity.
Everything is fine until the father meets a younger woman named Naama and decides to marry her. The father lets his sons in on his secret but he instructs them to keep the news from their mother. Naama then starts advising the old Abdel Sataar to invest his small fortune in shady operations and the old man adheres. After getting a taste of easy money, he goes ahead and puts all his eggs in one basket by investing in a huge shipment of expired medical supplies.
Then the unthinkable happens, the old made dies from a heart attack and leaves his family in huge debt, and the only way they can get out of this mess is by going ahead with the expired medical supplies deal. It’s at this point that every family member’s true colours show. Mokhtar and Saad take the devil’s route and decide to finish what their father started, while Ashraf the cop, Nora, and the mother take a vow to shun the dirty money.
El Aar asks to what extent people are willing to go for the sake of money, regardless of the means. Ashraf, the honest cop is faced with a tough ultimatum. His only son suffers from a rare heart condition and the only way that he can survive is if he undergoes an expensive operation abroad. At first Ashraf refuses to treat his son with his family’s money, but under the pressure of losing him, Ashraf crumbles and gives in. The lines between what’s right and wrong gets more hazy as the characters become more entangled in crime; and redemption seems less and less of a possibility.
The show has a distinct Egyptian flavour much like its big screen predecessor. Unlike other dramas from the season, the picture isn’t crisp nor is it glossy; instead, it’s ghetto-vibrant and organic, shot using the same Betacams used for Egyptian series in the 90s. The colourful set designs and costume choices also heighten the modern pulp quality of the story, but what truly takes it over the top is the choice of music, from the urgent score filling the soundtrack with cheap thrills to the opening and closing cues sung by shaabi crooner Adham.
El Aar’s players all do a great job on screen and it’s all due to great casting. At first, the casting seems a little odd, but after watching the show and seeing how harmoniously they all work together, it makes sense. The standout is Shaaban, who despite a long history of imbuing his characters with useless sleaze, plays Mokhtar with an infections sense of fun. He’s like the insatiable bad guy that you find yourself rooting for while watching a film.
She wakes up from her coma to a husband who she doesn’t remember and parents who are overjoyed that she’s forgotten about their dispute. While Paige’s parents try to bring her back to the way of life that she’d rebelled against, Leo tries to help her remember why she’d left all that behind in the first place. Fighting for a wife who doesn’t remember him and is a completely different person than the one he knew, Leo tries to get her to fall in love with him again.
The film rarely gets unbearably cheesy, setting it apart from your run of the mill Sparks adaptation. It gets mushy, emotional and sappy, but it’s more likely to make you smile than roll your eyes. Leo’s pain and heartbreak combined with Paige’s family’s delight at having their daughter back, gives the film a level of grit that keeps it from becoming overly cloying. However, the secret of the film’s success is the leads, who have great chemistry and manage to pass off some of the cheesiness as bearable.
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.