- Talent show Arab Idol brings unity into sharp focus
- The spies among us in The Americans
- Jennifer Love Hewitt, sexy and loving it
Posted: 16 Jun 2013 09:04 PM PDT
The fresh voices of the Middle East have elevated Arab Idol into much more than a TV reality show.
IT took Mohammad Assaf two days to get from his home in Khan Younis, Gaza in Palestine, to Egypt for the Arab Idol auditions. The 23-year-old Palestinian literally had to beg Hamas officers and bribe the border guards to let him pass through the border to attend the auditions, according to a report on online media monitoring network, The Middle East Monitor.
When he finally stepped into the hotel in Cairo where the auditions were being held, he realised he was a little too late. There were no more audition tickets left.
Disappointed but not willing to give up just yet, Assaf burst into song right in the hall where the other hopefuls were waiting.
Upon hearing him sing, Ramadan Adeeb Abu Nahel, another Palestinian youth at the auditions, decided to give his ticket up to Assaf telling him, "I know I won't reach the finals, but you will."
Ramadan Adeed made the right call.
Assaf – the first contestant on the show from Gaza – has made it to the finals of the second season of the reality singing show, a version of the original British show Pop Idol created by Simon Fuller.
In Palestine, Assaf has become somewhat of a national hero. Each week, millions of Palestinians switch on their televisions or log on to YouTube to watch the handsome, dark-haired youth with a megawatt smile (who is a college student moonlighting as a wedding singer in his hometown) belt out songs – mainly patriotic folk songs and romantic ballads – on the reality show which began broadcasting from Beirut, Lebanon, in March.
His strong, rich vocals along with his gutsy determination (evident by his struggle to get to the auditions) has inspired not only ordinary Palestinians – who apparently convene at restaurants and coffeehouses to watch the show – but also the judges of the show.
"You are the authentic Palestinian voice. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!" commented judge Ragheb Alama, a prominent Lebanese singer, after one performance. The judges then surprised the young performer by asking him to release his new song, Ya Rayt Riyyi Khabiha, as a duet with him.
Assaf also reportedly received a telephone call from Mammoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, who expressed support and encouraged the youth to keep at it.
But it isn't just Assaf's voice and swagger that have captivated millions. It's the spirit he embodies in all his performances. His Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Mohammad AssafArabIdol2013) is filled with comments from fans – largely Palestinians from all corners of the world – proclaiming their support and adulation for the young singer.
"Palestine and the world is so proud of you. God protect you," said one fan, Jamal Hilmi, on the fan page.
Majida Abu Almeaza, a 45-year-old mother of five from Gaza, said that Assaf is showing the world that Palestinians are "humans who have a deep and beautiful culture".
The Arab incarnation of the hugely popular Idol franchise, into its second season now, has given the non-Arab world an alternative view of the region which has been unfortunately blurred by stereotype for decades due to politics in the region: the sectarian strife in Syria, the West Bank and Gaza division and the ongoing dispute between Iraq and Kurdistan over land and oil.
On the Idol stage, however, you see none of this. It's entertainment, first and foremost. And plenty of melodrama, a hallmark of what the show is about in the first place.
If the series is past its glory days in the United States – what with the ever-revolving line-up of judges and the all-too formulaic nature of the show – in the Middle East, Arab Idol is bursting with a robust energy.
The show is forcing the world, particularly the Western world, to view unseen perspectives of the Middle East: music (which dates back to the ancient civilizations, to even pre-Islamic times), culture, youth and fun.
The show features four judges and 12 finalists from countries in the Middle East. Contestants sing live each week and viewers get to vote for their favourite singers after listening to feedback from the judges.
The four judges – Alama (who is known as the Lebanese Elvis) who heads the judging panel, the two glamourous female judges, Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram and Ahlam Ali Al Shamsi, a singer from the United Arab Emirates, as well as Egyptian composer Hassan Al Shafei – are feisty and fun. The two women are as glamorous as their counterparts in Hollywood and are quite unlike the view of Arab women (veiled and oppressed) that is held by the Western world.
And the contestants, youth from all corners of the Arab world, such as Morocco, Tunisia, Suadi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Egypt, are no different from their counterparts on the British or American versions of Idol.
The show is down to the final stages now and competition is rife. While Assaf may be the crowd favourite, he faces stiff competition.
Syrian songstress Farah Youssef is said to be his main adversary. Like Assaf, she too faced enormous challenges to get to the competition - her bus from Syria to Cairo was ambushed. And like Assaf, she is bursting with talent and symbolizes hope for her nation. Other finalists are Faris Al Madani from Saudi Arabia, AbdelKarim Hmdan from Syria (a student of opera who, during one performance, made the studio audience break down in tears), Ahmed Jamal from Egypt, Ziad Khoury from Lebanon, and Yosra Saouf and Salma Rachid from Morocco.
The hopefuls will vie for the Arab Idol title in the finale which will air on June 21.
Posted: 17 Jun 2013 01:22 AM PDT
The enemy is next door in the drama series, The Americans.
On a bone-rattlingly cold winter morning, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are sitting in a Lincoln sedan the size of a small barge, adjusting Walkman-era fashion accouterments and whispering about the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt. Russell and Rhys are not oddball nostalgists. The actors are shooting a scene for The Americans, a Cold War thriller set in the early 1980s.
Created by former CIA officer Joseph Weisberg, the show stars Elizabeth (Russell) and Phillip (Rhys) as KGB agents who are sent to live in the United States, start a family and blend in as the all-American couple next door. The couple's task is dangerous: They must feed information to the motherland while covering their tracks so that their neighbours – including a suspicious FBI agent – don't catch wind of their Kremlin ties.
"Some of the younger people on set have been asking me 'What was it like back then?'," Rhys said to a reporter between takes. "And I'm thinking 'back then'? This wasn't the 1800s. Lincoln wasn't president. We had indoor plumbing."
You can forgive the millennials their naivete. Thirty years since the Reagan administration and The Day After-like fears that went with it, the Cold War seems far removed from today's concerns of Chinese economic dominance and Islamic radicalism.
On television though, such fears don't ever go away; they simply get rehabilitated for prime time. The Americans seeks to revisit them, playfully piecing together bits of Cold War entertainment (The Manchurian Candidate, Mission: Impossible, No Way Out).
Yet, where most TV and film from that era blurred the lines between the Cold War superpowers to up the dramatic stakes, The Americans turns the Soviets into the good guys to explore issues of identity and values.
"This is a show where the enemies are the heroes, with all the questions that come with that," Weisberg said. "You couldn't do that right after the Cold War. But you can do it 30 years later."
Weisberg didn't set out to become a go-to Hollywood writer on covert affairs. Coming of age in Chicago during the late 1970s and early 1980s, he wanted to be in on the action. He bought the Reagan talk of evil empires and strategic defensive initiatives and, shortly after college, enlisted in the CIA.
Weisberg spent four years with the organisation in the early 1990s, largely at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, then left to write novels and freelance scripts inspired by his experiences. Now less of an ideologue, he mixes CIA recollections with the conventions of espionage thrillers.
The idea for The Americans came about because he thought it was time to address the personal costs of a career in espionage.
"One of the things that struck me about the CIA is that parents don't tell the truth about what they're doing to their kids," he said. "It's such a painful and difficult thing, but it's not portrayed much on screen."
Though the past year has seen a number of entertaining spies – Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall were box-office hits, while Homeland has won numerous awards – The Americans largely rode a separate track. The show was developed as a pilot before Homeland was even on the air and was green-lighted to series status about a year ago when the programme was a niche hit.
"The thing that interested me was the notion of a show about family, marriage and fidelity, but in a very heightened context," said FX chief John Landgraf. He and others felt The Americans was similar to The Shield, only with geopolitics instead of police-department corruption.
Perhaps the most difficult choice in crafting The Americans, creators say, was casting. Elizabeth's character was more unadorned ideologically than Phillip and less attracted to an American way of life – "an icy automaton" in the words of David Madden, president of lead production company Fox Television Studios – which required a friendly face to take the edge off.
Enter Russell, who as the likable, soft-spoken star of the series Felicity and the movie Waitress would give viewers license to sympathise with a character bent on undermining the US.
Weisberg and co-creator Joel Fields wanted the cast to capture the sense of paranoia that existed at that time, on both the Soviet and American sides. The period setting, they thought, could help.
"The thing that makes it so exciting to me is there was no technology," Russell said. "If you wanted to find out what someone was up to, you had to drive by several times and leave a message under a rock."
As the director yells "action!", Russell and Rhys get out of the Lincoln parked on a street and walk briskly up to the suburban home of a nurse who treated the president after he was wounded in an assassination attempt. Their characters are trawling for information on the president's condition – it wasn't clear at that moment, to them or the world, that the Kremlin wasn't behind it.
Assuming the guise of vice presidential aides, they coax the nurse to admit that Reagan is going to be OK. They then turn on their heels – she in 1980s-style pumps, he in a very Cold War-era trenchcoat – and head back to the car.
The principals say that the issues the show raises aren't necessarily political.
"I see a lot of the spy issues as a metaphor for marriage," Russell, who is married with two children, said of her character. "It sounds funny, but there are similarities to spy work, because you can never really know what your spouse is doing or who they're talking to."
Madden calls it "a show about trust. At a personal level, it's about how two people can trust each other, and at a global level, it's about whether two countries can trust each other."
Those behind the show, which shoots in New York for Washington, DC, say they hope that by drilling down into the two main characters and their relationship issues, it can avoid the obvious pitfall.
"The stakes of the show are not whether America will survive the Cold War," Landgraf said. "We know it will. It's whether these two people will survive the Cold War." – Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
The Americans starts tomorrow night at 9.50pm on Fox (Astro Ch 710).
Posted: 17 Jun 2013 01:21 AM PDT
Jennifer Love Hewitt plays against type in The Client List.
The billboards are impossible to miss. There she is: Olive skin glistening, leg arched seductively, virtually naked save for flesh-coloured lingerie that barely contains her ample cleavage.
Jennifer Love Hewitt has towered over fast-food joints and gas stations in the United States for months to sell the actress' new show, The Client List, which premieres on the new Lifetime channel in Malaysia tonight. On the show, she plays a Texas single mother who works at a full-service massage parlour to make ends meet.
The series marks a new creative direction for the relatively chaste Lifetime, best known for its ripped-from-the-headlines, made-for-television movies and tacky reality shows like Dance Moms. The move signifies no less of a change for the 34-year-old actress who rose to early fame playing a wholesome girl next door on the long-running 1990s family drama Party Of Five.
But after appearing in a few teen movies – most memorably 1997's I Know What You Did Last Summer – her big-screen turns weren't as well-received. It wasn't until the 2005 launch of Ghost Whisperer that Hewitt regained her stride. The series, about a woman able to communicate with spirits, earned solid ratings and ran for five seasons.
"I think people were expecting me to go play another network show and play the same girl I've been playing for a long time," she said, sitting at a booth at Corky's diner in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, where The Client List crew members were preparing for a scene in the show's sixth episode. "But now starting my 24th year in the business, I needed a little bit of a re-creation. I looked at my career and thought, 'Let's shake it up a little bit. Let's have butterflies in our stomach'."
The Client List grew out of a movie of the same name, also starring Hewitt, that ran on Lifetime in 2010. Lifetime executives, who've struggled with ratings in recent years, were encouraged by the film's strong numbers.
"This is a bold series for us, there's no doubt about it – and we want to bring in new viewers," acknowledged Rob Sharenow, Lifetime's executive vice president of programming. "We're proud of our Lifetime movies, but we are trying to evolve the mother ship and do things that are more accessible to the general public. And with this show's marketing campaign, I've definitely had a lot of anecdotal comments from men who have never noticed Lifetime in quite the same way."
Hewitt, too, has heard from men intrigued by the risque advertisements. But by now, she says, she has become accustomed to public commentary about her body. In 2007, some unflattering bikini shots made the rounds on the Internet, prompting the actress to appear on the cover of People magazine under the headline "Stop calling me fat!"
"Because my body has certainly been talked about in a negative way, the fact that people are talking positively about it now makes me feel good," said Hewitt, who is also an executive producer on the new series. "It would be great if there was an equal amount of 'Wow, she really gave us a great performance' as 'She has big boobs'. They're not always equal. ... I always try to remember that it's Hollywood, and part of our job as actors is to be eye candy – so it's fine."
Playing up her sexuality hasn't always come easily to Hewitt. Harry Elfont, who directed the actress in 1998's Can't Hardly Wait, said the studio initially had reservations about casting her as the "prettiest girl at school" when her image was more the "cute, supporting best friend".
"She was figuring out the balance of how sexy she should be," recalled Elfont, who noted, "she was still girlish and innocent, but at the same time – she knew she looked good."
It's partly that sexy-but-sweet reputation that has endeared Hewitt to audiences. While she realises the importance of her sex appeal, she also believes there's a "best friend vibe" about her: "a dorky, throw-my-hair-in-a-ponytail-and-pillow-fight-with-my-friends kind of girl," as she puts it.
Hewitt isn't shy about using social media and has been exceedingly open on her Twitter account. She shares pictures from The Client List set, muses about her desire to become a Victoria's Secret angel and re-tweets saccharine love sayings, like "come live in my heart and pay no rent". She has also been candid about her relationship struggles, most notably in the 2010 self-help book The Day I Shot Cupid: Hello, My Name Is Jennifer Love Hewitt And I'm A Love-aholic. (Hewitt and fiancé Brian Hallisay are currently pregnant with their first child)
"She's enormously approachable," said Cybill Shepherd, who plays Hewitt's mother on the new show. "I loved the experience of working with her so much that I'd probably do the phone book with her. And she looks gorgeous on those billboards. They'll get people to tune in, and then they'll see her wonderful acting."
Indeed, Hewitt's TV movie role earned her a Golden Globe nomination – an honour that still leaves her dumbfounded.
"It was like, 'Wow, somebody noticed something else'," she said with a laugh.
"I'd like to find some more parts like that that could offer a different side or a different conversation piece. I have not been offered those yet," she said. After pausing for a moment reflectively, she tried to regain her optimism. "But, hey, I've only got a few years left before I'm a character actor, anyway, so might as well work it." – Los Angeles Times/ McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
The Client List premieres tonight at 10pm on Lifetime (Astro Ch 709).
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