Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
Amy (Naomi Watts) and her husband, Peter (Naomi Watts), live in the suburbs with their adopted son, Luce (Kelvin Harrison). Mrs. Wilson (Octavia Spencer), Luce's high school teacher, becomes suspicious when she reads an essay that Luce wrote that defended the pro-violence of writer/political philosopher Franz Fanon. She gets even more suspicious of Luce and comes to conclusions about him when she opens his locker and discovers a bag of fireworks inside.
Writer/director Julius Onah and co-writer J.C. Lee leave a lot of room for interpretation because you never know whom to trust among the characters. They're all flawed in their own ways and, just when you think you have them figured out, they take you by surprise. They have more than meet's the eye, including Mrs. Wilson who has to deal with her mentally ill sister. When Luce and his parents go to a meeting with Mrs. Wilson and a school administrator, the complex dynamics between Luce and his family start rising the surface. Who's the abuser? Who's the enabler? The answers aren't quite clear, but there are many possibilities to consider. Luce has toxic relationships with his parents, and there's even a scene with covert sexual abuse which raises even more questions about the true nature of Luce and his mother's relationship. Amy and Peter also have a dysfunctional relationship with each other as husband and wife, and the tensions that arise after Mrs. Wilson's accusations only magnify that rift.
Onah and Lee have woven a complex, intriguing psychological thriller that's slow-burning up until its very dark third act. It's not a bold as the ending of Arlington Road, but it comes close. Both Luce and Arlington Road are smart thrillers that gradually build suspense and a sense of paranoia while remaining grounded in humanism. There are Hitchcockian elements to both films which makes for a suspenseful roller coaster ride as seemingly ordinary people are thrust into unexpectedly tense conflicts and become anything but ordinary nor what you expected them to be by the time the end credits roll. The screenplay trusts the audience's intelligence and imagination, but when it comes to trusting their emotions, that's a whole other matter because the grating soundtrack feels intrusive, overbearing and even repetitive. If its goal were to annoy the audience, it succeeds at that, but what's the purpose does annoying them serve? Fortunately, the performances, especially by Harrison, are strong and convincingly moving without a hammy or stilted performance in sight. The title of Luce in Israel translates as "The Truth Has Many Faces" which is a very accurate way of describing the film's fundamental message. Very few things in life are purely black-and-white, and the same can be said about everything that transpires in Luce.
Tel Aviv on Fire
Salam (Kais Nashef), a Palestinian man, lands a job as a screenwriter for a TV soap opera, "Tel Aviv on Fire, produced by his uncle, Bassam (Nadim Sawalha). The show is about a Palestinian woman, Manal (Lubna Azabal) who goes undercover as Rachel, steal secrets from an Israeli general, Yehuda (Yousef 'Joe' Sweid), and reports back to her Palestinian boyfriend, Marwan (Ashraf Farah). To reach the studio in Ramallah from his home in Jerusalem, he must pass through a security checkpoint at the border. One day, Assi (Yaniv Biton), the commander of a security checkpoint, stops him and recognizes him from the soap opera. He persuades Salam to make changes to show's ending which to make the Israeli general in the show look more favorable and to please his wife because it's her favorite show. Meanwhile, Salam tries to win back his ex-girlfriend, Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi).
Tel Aviv on Fire's screenplay by writer/director Sameh Zoabi and co-writer Dan Kleinman is smart, funny, heartfelt and refreshingly witty. It's part satire, part fairy tale, romance, drama and comedy, but the screenplay manages to blend all of those elements in way that never feels clunky, uneven nor overstuffed. At heart, the story is fundamentally about an intercultural friendship between two seemingly different individuals. There's no real villain or hero; just human beings who connect with each other in spite of their differences. Not of all of the scenes feel believable, but that's forgivable because it's satire/fairy tale, after all, which requires some suspension of disbelief. The filmmakers ground the film in just enough humanism to make you buy the relationships, especially the one between Salam and Assi. The evolving dynamics of their friendship is fascinating, and it's fun to hear their witty banter much like the banter between Tony Lip and Dr. Shirley in Green Book.
It's also worth mentioning the terrific casting. Every actor, even the supporting ones, is very well-cast. Kais Nashef has wonderful comedic timing as the awkward, yet relatable Salam. The same can be said about Yaniv Biton. They both bring warmth and charisma to their roles. Nadim Sawalha is just as extraordinary as is in the underrated Captain Abu Raed. The film's pacing is just brisk enough so that there aren't any scenes that drag like in the overrated, vapid and pretentious Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood. There's nothing pretentious nor vapid about Tel Aviv on Fire. Unlike too many modern comedies, it makes you laugh without making you feeling like you're losing any brain cells. You'll also crave some good hummus after watching it. If there were any justice, Tel Aviv on Fire would be as popular as the equally crowd-pleasing film Green Book.
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