Tel Aviv on Fire (2018)

FYI: This film was released in 2018 in France, Israel, and parts of Europe. It is now in theaters here in the U.S. Have you ever been a fan of a soap opera? Would you like to see a (fresh/light) take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is a certain level of camp (incl. melodrama) OK w/ you? Then this comedy (co-written/directed by Sameh Zoabi- a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts) is worth a watch. It’s light and fluffy at first glance, but there is the weight of history, occupation, and everyday struggles underneath.

Salam (Kais Nashif- Palestinian-German actor seen in AmericanEast) is suddenly promoted to scriptwriter on a historically-based soap opera developed by his uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha- veteran British Jordanian actor/father of actress Julia Sawalha)- Tel Aviv on Fire. During a time of war in 1967, Manal (AKA Rachel) is a Palestinian spy trying to get secrets from the Israeli army. She is in a love triangle w/ two very different men- Marwan (a poetic Muslim freedom fighter) and Yehuda (a straight-laced Jewish general). Tala (Lubna Azabal from Rock the Casbah) is the lead- egotistical, glamorous, and very successful (based in France). She gives her opinions on the script, explaining that at her level, she won’t act if the dialogue is bad.

Salam (very anxious about his job) tries to find inspiration for his character- Yehuda. He is a former bartender and not gifted at writing, as Salam’s ex-girlfriend Mariam (a doctor) reminds him when they run into each other. One morning, Salam is pulled over at a checkpoint between Jerusalem (where the TV studio is located) and Ramallah (where he lives w/ his elderly mother). He meets Assi, an arrogant captain of the guard whose wife (along w/ many Israeli Jewish women) loves the show. Assi’s wife is sure that Rachel will end up w/ Marwan (her favorite character), not the boring Yehuda.

Assi (who is both funny and potentially dangerous) has opinions, incl, on how the season should end- a wedding between Rachel and Yehuda (his favorite character). Assi objects to the way Yehuda has been characterized so far- he doesn’t speak like a real military man. At first, Salam is bemused by these suggestions, then relies on Assi for dialogue. Salam also analyzes his failed relationship w/ Mariam, putting some of her words into scripts. Yehuda becomes a more authentic and sensitive character. Can a mere TV show unite two divided peoples (audiences)?

Blinded by the Light (2019) directed by Gurinder Chadha

Gurinder Chadha (a British Asian Sikh journo turned filmmaker) made a big splash w/ the 2002 indie film, Bend it Like Beckham, starring Parminder Nagra (a theater actress who US audiences watched on ER) and a teen Keira Knightley (who became a worldwide success). At first, Chadha (now a mom of twins w/ her writing partner/husband Paul Mayeda Berges), felt that Blinded was too similar to her previous film. After Brexit happened, she was determined to tell the story (based on the life of a journo of Pakistani/Muslim heritage Sarfraz Manzoor). The movie was approved by Bruce Springsteen two years ago; after a private screening, The Boss told Chadha: “I love it. Don’t change a thing.”

Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a 16 y.o. living in ’80s Luton, England; it’s not a good time to be Pakistani, Muslim, or a dreamer who wants more than what’s planned by his parents. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister. The National Front (NF) supporters spray hateful graffiti on mosques and homes, including in Javed’s working-class neighborhood. Though he (secretly) wants to be a writer, his immigrant father- Malik (Kulvinder Ghir from Goodness Gracious Me)- wants him to be a doctor, engineer, or estate agent. Jobs are scarce in this town; money is tight in the family; the parents are anxious re: upcoming wedding of Javed’s older sister. Javed and his mom give their earnings to Malik; this was a surprise to many people in my screening.

Javed has been keeping journals for many years; he also writes songs for his best friend/neighbor Matt’s (Dean Charles Chapman from Game of Thrones) band. Things start to change between the long-time pals when Matt gets his first girlfriend and Javed goes into the sixth form (in preparation for university). Javed’s new English teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), sees potential in his work. She explains that he has an unique voice. Another British Asian kid in school, Roops (Aaron Phagura), introduces Javed to the music of Springsteen. Roops is based on the (real-life) best friend of Manzoor, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Javed falls in love w/ this American rock music (which was fading from popularity- FYI), feeling that Bruce is singing about his life!

Suddenly, Javed’s father is laid off from the factory job he’s had for 16 years. From the nightly news clips, we see that many people in factory/industrial towns are out of work. His mother, Noor (Meera Ganatra), has to take in more sewing to support the family; she works well into the night w/o complaint. Even Javed tries to go back to the bread factory where we worked the last summer, but there are no jobs. About half-way through the film, we get a (touching/sensitive) scene between Malik and Noor. I don’t think another filmmaker would have done it as well as Chadha. The parents would’ve remained more stereotypical, one-note, and unchanging. One critic esp. liked how they showed how much Malik cared for his fellow Pakistanis and mosque.

Javed’s younger sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta), doesn’t understand why he’s so into Springsteen. We later learn that Shazia has a bit of a rebellious side also; she goes to “daytimers” (parties featuring bhangra music w/ fellow British Asian students). I had never heard of these events before- they look fun! Though this story is centered on a boy and his dad, it’s great to see a bit into a girl’s life.

One of the girl’s in Javed’s English class, Eliza (Nell Williams), is an activist who is impressed by his writing and personality. We eventually learn that she’s from a wealthy Tory (politically conservative) family. Her parents comment that Eliza dates boys who are “controversial” in the scene where Javed goes to their house. Aside from his obsession w/ Bruce, Javed is “a good, straight arrow kid” (as a film critic noted), so there isn’t much for her parents to worry about.

There is more to this (optimistic) story; you should check it out if it’s playing nearby. It doesn’t shy away from (in your face; period accurate) racism. FYI: People in my screening were shocked by a few scenes. A desi man in my audience commented after the film: “I grew up in Birmingham; it’s pretty accurate.” There is lot to like about this film, but it’s not perfect. The musical scenes may put some people off; a few viewers in my audience and critics considered them “cheesy” or “cringey.” They didn’t always fit well w/in the story; I was expecting them to be more naturalistic. FYI: 19 different Springsteen songs were featured through the film- WOW!

JxJ Film Festival: Abe (starring Noah Schnapp)

Abe (Noah Schnapp who plays Will Byers on the popular Netflix show, Stranger Things) is a quiet, sensitive, 12-year-old half-Israeli and half- Palestinian kid living in Brooklyn who loves cooking. He has a food blog, IG account, and many (online) friends who follow his progress in the kitchen. One side of the family prefers to call him “Avraham” (in Hebrew), the other side “Ibrahim” (in Arabic), while his atheist parents call him “Abraham.” But he prefers Abe. A few boys in school are turning 13 y.o. and planning big bashes for their bar mitzvah; Abe admits that he’s curious about the Jewish religion. This is music to his (maternal) grandfather’s (Mark Margolis) ears. Abe also wants to know more re: Islam; he tries fasting for a day (like his paternal grandparents).

Abe’s parents, Rebecca (Dagmara Dominczyk, wife of Patrick Wilson and 1st gen Polish-American) and Amir (Arian Moayed, a Tony nominee of Palestinian heritage) want him to make more (real-life) friends, so suggest he go to a summer cooking camp. It’s too easy for Abe, so he decides to bail w/o consulting his parents. He seeks out an experienced Afro-Brazilian chef, Chico, who specializes in fusion food at local pop ups. At first, Chico is reluctant to let a kid work in his kitchen, but then he sees the passion and potential in Abe. He rides the subway on his own, starts working at Chico’s kitchen, and eventually creates some recipes of his own (combining the ingredients used by both sides of his conflicted family).

This is such a well-made, timely, and unique film; I hope it comes out on a streaming service soon (so can get a wider audience)! Abe is just one representative of the many kids in modern society w/ families from different races, cultures, religions, etc. He’s not sure if he wants to be atheist, like his parents, b/c the traditions of his grandparents appeal to him. His maternal grandmother left a box of family recipes; his mom gives these to Abe. He does some research and discovers that Jews and Palestinians, who have a contentious past, use many of the same ingredients in cooking.

New Series Trailers: Turn Up Charlie, Delhi Crime, & Ramy

Turn Up Charlie (Netflix) – This show is now streaming!

This show stars British actor Idris Elba; he worked as a DJ in London & NYC for years in his 20s & 30s.

Delhi Crime (Netflix): March 22nd

NYC-based writer/media critic Aseem Chhabra (who I’ve been following since 2005) posted re: this show on IG. He “loved the first two episodes,” which were directed by his Canadian friend (Richie Mehta). The cast includes Rasika Dugal (Bombay Talkies) and Shefali Shah (who some of you will recognize from her memorable co-starring role in Monsoon Wedding). The show focuses on the Nirbhaya rape case of Jyoti Singh. I’m guessing that most of the actors in this show are theater veterans.

Ramy (Hulu): April 19th

You may have seen Ramy Youssef’s stand-up before. In his 1st series, he plays a young man (NOT unlike himself) who is a first generation Egyptian-American exploring the challenges of being a Muslim in today’s world. His mother is played by internationally-acclaimed Israeli Arab actress, Hiam Abbass (The Visitor; Blade Runner 2049). Mo Amer (another stand-up comic) who is a Palestinian-American/refugee is part of the cast; he has a Netflix special (The Vagabond) that is funny and educational. Dave Merheje, a Canadian-Lebanese stand-up featured in Comedians of the World (Netflix), also has a role; he just won a Juno award this week. Indian-American actress Poorna Jagannathan (The Night Of; Gypsy) is also listed in IMDB for 3 eps; she is a friend of one of my writer friends (from my NYC days).

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (Amazon) starring John Krasinski

So you MAY have heard that this ain’t your dad’s (or grandpa’s) Jack Ryan! There are MANY negative reviews (bordering on Islamaphobic) to be found re: this new Amazon series. FYI: It has been renewed for S2. I saw the 8 eps over a 3-day weekend soon after its release; I thought it was meh (like some critics I follow). The writing is (mostly) predictable; I wanted to see a LOT more depth. You can check it out; it keeps your attention (w/ its editing/pacing, high production value, and a few unique characterizations). The action (if that’s your thing) is well-done; Michael Bay is one of the executive producers. Carlton Cuse (Lost) is one of the creators.

Jack Ryan (John Krasinksi) is a 30-something former soldier w/ a PhD working as an “analyst” (they don’t say “officer”) for the CIA. He rides his bike to work, dresses preppy (BUT has a V fit body underneath), and works in a (nice/modern) cubicle. One of his young co-workers is played by Mena Massoud (who will be star of the new live action Aladdin); he doesn’t have many scenes. Jack’s direct supervisor, James Greer (Wendell Pierce- one of my fave actors), has been aged down and is a Muslim convert divorced from his Arab-American wife. THIS is one of the points that that die-hard Clancy fans objected to in their reviews. There is a scene early in the series where we get to know a BIT re: Greer’s family life, incl. his conflicted relationship w/ Islam. He meets w/ an older immigrant man at a little cafe who says that he is missed at the mosque (masjid); I haven’t seen a scene like this on ANY (network) show!

In the Harrison Ford helmed movies, Jack is older and has two young kids w/ his eye doctor wife. Here, Jack’s future wife- Dr. Cathy Mueller- is an epidemiologist. Cathy (Aussie actress Abby Cornish) tells a work friend that Jack’s NOT like the guys she usually goes out w/; perhaps he’s more brainy, reserved, and unsure of himself (when in comes to romance). Their paths (work-wise) eventually cross; this is a staple in MANY network TV shows and movies. Some Clancy fans didn’t like this coincidence; I wouldn’t have cared IF Krasinski and Cornish had chemistry onscreen. I’m sure there are MANY other actresses who could’ve done better w/ this role.

The villains of this story are NOT cartoonish stereotypes; Suleiman (Ali Suliman), is a former banker who grew up partly in the ghettos of France w/ his artistic younger brother, Ali (Haaz Sleiman from The Visitor). As kids, they survived the bombing of their hometown in Libya. Suleiman has a young/beautiful/clever wife, Hanin (Dina Shihabi), as well as three children who live in a spacious compound in Syria. Shihabi grew up in Saudi Arabia and (quite naturally) portrays a woman who would do anything to protect her kids. I hope this actress gets more roles! There is great (familial) chemistry between the actors, making them believable as brothers. How did they become terrorists? We get to see the backstory (also unusual in a typical network show). As some viewers noted, these characters are MORE interesting than the Westerns who are on their trail.

Below are excerpts from some IMDB reviews:

The writing is far from great. This could’ve been an amazing series, but instead the writing is very TV. Also, I can’t with the love interest. Her acting is terrible and there is zero chemistry between them.

If you are new to Clancy, or the action spy drama all together, you will probably enjoy this. The acting, action, and production value will carry it a long way.

…it doesn’t break any new ground. But it provided a season of tense, tight entertainment, if this is a genre that you find appealing. There, of course, is lots of violence, some of it graphic… but I thought all of the particulars of good visual storytelling were present.