Hollywood actors Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas united by humor in ‘Official Competition’

1 / 2
Spanish actors Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz attend the "Official Competition" premiere during the 2022 Tribeca Festival on June 14, 2022 in New York City. (Angela Weiss / AFP)
2 / 2
(L-R) Filmwriter Andres Duprat, actress Penelope Cruz, director Mariano Cohn, actor Antonio Banderas and director Gaston Duprat attend the "Official Competition" premiere on June 14, 2022. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 18 June 2022

Hollywood actors Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas united by humor in ‘Official Competition’

  • Throughout the film, directed by Argentinians Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, the deadly sin of vanity is experienced with great intensity

MEXICO CITY: What is art? Do awards make you a better artist? Are blockbuster movies only for pseudo-actors? These are some questions unleashed in “Official Competition,” a comedy starring Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez in a battle of egos.
Throughout the film, directed by Argentinians Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, the deadly sin of vanity is experienced with great intensity. It is felt from the beginning, when an old businessman (José Luis Gómez) seeks to leave his mark on history by financing a film about two brothers fighting to the death directed by a renowned filmmaker — even though he never read the novel in which it is based.
The director is Lola Cuevas (Cruz), a relentless woman with no filter, passionate about film down to the smallest detail, but with a rather unconventional approach.
“She believes that her actors must suffer to get a better result,” Cruz said in a recent interview from New York, where the film was shown at the Tribeca Festival ahead of its theatrical release on Friday in the US.
“She’s a very peculiar character, very quirky, but that’s why she’s so fascinating. When I read it (I said) ‘how wonderful, how lucky to be able to play a person like that, a being with no filters who says everything she feels and thinks and doesn’t care what people think of her’”, the Academy Award-winning actress added.
One of Lola’s first jaw-dropping comments on the film is that “an artist without children has a great advantage, he can create freely, without fear. When there are children, there is panic.”
Cruz, who is a mother of two, disagrees with her character’s statement.
“You can take (motherhood) into your work, for sure it’s a big injection to creativity. Even if you are much more tired all the time, it doesn’t matter, it’s worth it,” said the actor, who recently was recognized with Spain’s 2022 National Film Award for her contributions to the art.
In “Official Competition”, Lola summons two equally recognized but diametrically opposed actors: Iván Torres (Martínez), a very experienced Argentine who has his own school, does theater and hates the deceptive glitter of fame; and Félix Rivero (Banderas), a star of international stature with many awards and blockbuster films, but who tends to be late for rehearsals. The tension is present from the first script reading and increases but, secretly, little by little, Iván and Félix begin to do things that they learn from the other, while trying to demonstrate their superiority.
“They are dangerous animals. They can destroy themselves in order to obtain the predominant position in that production,” said Banderas in a video call from New York.
For the Spanish actor, one of the points of the film is that “you can see how easy it is for people to become what they criticize.” He has avoided falling into the mistakes that Félix makes, despite having a world-renowned career, precisely as a result of meeting actors like his character in real life.
“My career was built little by little,” said Banderas. “I basically started in theater, which is very helpful, because theater confronts you with yourself very strongly every day, you have an audience that responds, or not, to whatever you’re doing, and you start analyzing yourself in a completely different way that cinema actors do. ... I think it’s sometimes very dangerous when you have a very successful career very early.”
In “Official Competition”, Lola acts as a referee, but also as a sparring partner, inciting confrontation between the two actors — if the tension is real, her film will be better, she thinks. One of the tests she puts them through to combat their egos is the destruction of their awards, including her own Palm d’Or and Silver Lion.
“You can take that very seriously, you can just think that is a very real exercise to any human being just to break that kind of attachment that we have to objects, and those objects that they represent things that we obtain in life,” said Banderas.
That was one of Cruz’s favorite scenes, along with another in which the director is alone on the floor talking to herself through a plastic tube, insulting herself.
“I think it’s a very funny and pathetic moment, where you also see the lost girl she has inside,” said Cruz, whose character sports big red, curly hair.
“It was a big statement,” she said of of Lola’s appearance. “She’s not trying to hide herself, she wants people to see her, to look at her. She thinks she always has the most interesting things to say in the room. She is such an egomaniac.”
Coupled with the great personalities of the three main characters, the film, shot in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain, takes place in a cultural complex whose gloomy and modern architecture contrasts with the absurdity of the scenes, but also makes it feel like a conceptual art performance.
“Being in those spaces brings up so many questions about art — What is wrong? What is right?,” said Cruz. “Being in that space is like all that information was floating everywhere in the room”.
The shooting began in early 2020 and was cut short in March by the coronavirus pandemic. They were able to resume it in September of that year.
“The nice thing about this is that I see the movie now and I don’t remember what was shot in March and what was shot in September. I think we recovered the tone that we had when we left the movie ... and luckily we didn’t lose inspiration,” said Banderas.
Playing a director has only fueled a spark that Cruz has since she was 16. The actor directed a documentary, 2016’s “Yo Soy Uno Entre Cien Mil,” as well as two short films for Agent Provocateur, a lingerie brand.
“It is something that I want to do for sure in my life,” Cruz said. “I am preparing a documentary now that is gonna take me a few years, because it’s complicated and requires different treatments, different locations. It’s not an easy subject to approach. I need time to do it right,” she added, without revealing any details.
Although they have known each other for about 30 years and consider themselves friends, “Official Competition” is the first film in which Cruz and Banderas have numerous scenes and dialogues together. Before, they had shared small scenes in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” and “I’m So Excited!”
“It was a pleasure and especially in a comedy world, although deep down it is a very thoughtful and complex film,” Banderas said. “Seeing her create a character ... that has nothing to do with her, that is so different from who she is, it was very beautiful.”


Beluga whale lost in French river euthanized during rescue

Updated 10 August 2022

Beluga whale lost in French river euthanized during rescue

  • A team of 80 people tried to save the animal’s life by transporting the cetaceous into a refrigerated truck to the port in Ouistreham, in Normandy region.

PARIS: A beluga whale that became a French celebrity after a wrong turn took it up the Seine River had to be euthanized Wednesday after experiencing health complications during an urgent rescue operation, authorities said.
The sparkling white marine mammal appeared deep inside France last week, having accidentally veered off the normal ocean migration route that takes belugas to and from Arctic waters.
Fearing the malnourished creature would not survive in the Seine much longer, a wildlife conservation group and veterinarians planned to move the lost whale to a saltwater port in Normandy, from where they hoped to return it to the open sea.
A team of 80 people assembled to try to save the animal’s life, and it was successfully moved Tuesday night from a river lock in Saint-Pierre-la-Garenne, west of Paris, into a refrigerated truck for the 60-kilometer (99-mile) journey to the port in Ouistreham.
But during the drive, the 4-meter-long (13-foot-long) whale started to breath with difficulty, according to Florence Ollivet Courtois, a French veterinarian who worked on the rescue operation.
“During the journey, the veterinarians confirmed a worsening of its state, notably in its respiratory activities, and at the same time noticed the animal was in pain, not breathing enough,” Courtois said.
“The suffering was obvious for the animal, so it was important to release its tension, and so we had to proceed to euthanize it,” she added.
Environmentalists had acknowledged the plan to move the beluga risked fatally stressing the mammal. But marine conservation group Sea Shepherd said that it couldn’t have survived much longer in the Seine’s fresh water.
The group and veterinarians noted the whale had responded to a cocktail of antibiotics and vitamins over the last few days, making them hopeful it would recover once it was back in a saltwater environment.
A necropsy is planned on the whale, which weighed about about 800 kilograms (1,764 pounds).
Rescuers had hoped to spare the whale the fate of an orca that strayed into the Seine and died in May. In 2006, a bottlenose whale — nicknamed “Willy” — swam up the Thames River as far as London and died during a its attempted rescue.
Another complicating factor during the beluga’s rescue attempt was the extreme heat gripping France. Authorities tried to keep it cool and wet with soaked towels and moved it at nightfall when temperatures are at their lowest.
The sad end to a saga that gripped France in recent days came after experts determined the whale “was too weakened to be put back into water,” Guillaume Lericolais, the sub-prefect of France’s Calvados region, said.
Rescuers tried to feed the whale fish without success since Friday. Sea Shepherd France said veterinary exams after the beluga’s removal from the river showed it has no digestive activity.


To beat high obesity rates, Saudi Arabia pushes to promote fitness, active lifestyles

Updated 10 August 2022

To beat high obesity rates, Saudi Arabia pushes to promote fitness, active lifestyles

  • Obesity and related health implications cost Saudi healthcare system $3.8 billion in 2019 alone
  • According to the World Health Organization, obesity is more prevalent among women than men

JEDDAH: Obesity rates worldwide have been steadily rising over the past half-century, reaching a point at which experts say many nations are way off schedule to meet the World Health Organization’s 2025 global nutrition targets.

Mindful of the pressures that high obesity rates place on local healthcare systems, to the detriment of quality of life, countries such as Saudi Arabia are working hard to promote fitness and challenge people to change their sedentary lifestyles.

According to a recent study by Ohio State University College of Medicine, obesity and the associated health implications cost the Saudi healthcare system $3.8 billion in 2019 alone, equivalent to about 4.3 percent of the Kingdom’s total annual health expenditure.

Keeping weight under control is nevertheless easier said than done in the age of globalization. (AFP)

Excess weight and obesity — defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that can impair health — is not only a concern in the Arab world. More than a billion people worldwide are classified as obese, which means that they have a body mass index (a measure of body fat based on height and weight) of 30 or higher, and the number is rising.

According to the WHO, obesity is more prevalent among women than men, with factors such as sociocultural issues, economics, genetics and biology all contributing factors. Worldwide, obesity affects 15 percent of women and 11 percent of men. In the Middle East and North Africa, this gender gap is even wider, with 26 percent of women classified as obese compared with 16 percent of men.

A recent article published by The Economist attributes the problem in the region to two key factors: Socioeconomics, on the grounds that the cheapest local foods are usually the most unhealthy, such as bread and rice; and culture, on the grounds that pervasive social conservatism in the Arab region can prevent women from participating in outdoor exercise or shedding calories passively in the workplace.

The reality is, of course, more complex than that. The perception of Arab women as mere sedentary housewives appears grossly outdated as women in the region increasingly enter the labor force, take charge of their diets, and seize new opportunities in the worlds of sports and fitness.

Obesity and the associated health implications cost the Saudi healthcare system $3.8 billion in 2019 alone. (AFP)

Keeping weight under control is nevertheless easier said than done in the age of globalization. Arab countries, too, have experienced significant lifestyle changes and rapid urbanization that have introduced many additional high-fat foods to the market alongside the preexisting unhealthy eating habits, including the traditionally carbohydrate-rich Arab diet.

Nations in the Middle East and North Africa, including Saudi Arabia, have not been immune to such changes. Obesity levels have soared in recent decades owing to a mix of unhealthy eating, inactivity and keeping “fat in fashion” — a stereotype associated with Gulf countries on account of their affluence.

Globally, the perception of obesity varies widely. In many high-income and, increasingly, middle-income countries, weight gain carries a social stigma that fuels a perception of individual weakness that undermines the support for comprehensive prevention, treatment and management measures.

Different ideals associated with weight and body shape can found in various cultures. Specific cultural pressures to be tall and thin are postulated to cause people to misreport their height and body weight in an attempt to appear what is deemed more socially popular and desirable.

A similar situation exists in some places in terms of attitudes to excess weight. Many African and Polynesian, and some Arab, cultures associate overweight women with affluence, health, strength and fertility. In the Gulf region at least, however, being fat is certainly no longer in fashion.

Sulafa Kurdi, a photographer and cafe owner, has been overweight almost all of her life. In August 2020, she took the first steps on a nearly two-year journey to get fit and healthy by signing up with a gym. She chose Sweat Army in Jeddah and began her transformation.

“I was waiting for the right time to make the move and turn my life around,” she told Arab News. “Breaking down that wall was tough but, with the support I received from my coach, the journey was what I needed. I wanted to lose weight the healthy way, the right way and the difficult way.

“Within three months of signing up, I found the discipline to maintain a healthy lifestyle that I still stick to as best as I can. Yes, we all fall off the wagon and feel sluggish at times. With the right support, I’ve managed to get back again and move, breaking my own records.”

FASTFACT

• Obesity is closely linked to chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

• Excess weight and the associated health implications cost the Saudi health system $3.8bn in 2019.

Indeed, contrary to the assertions in The Economist’s article, anecdotal evidence suggests more and more women in the Arab world are taking control of their physical lives and setting off on a journey to improved their fitness. This has in turn motivated many to pursue their dreams of becoming professional athletes.

Studies have found that engagement in sports and physical activity has been lower among women than men. Now various government-led and private programs are providing women and girls with access to sports facilities, encouraging them to become athletes and even role models for younger generations.

This has challenged outdated stereotypes about women in Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab region and the incorrect notions about social conservatism preventing them from going outdoors both to exercise and to take part in organized sports.

Dubbed “Cleopatra Squash,” Egyptian Nuran Johar has won padel tournaments such as the England Open Junior Championship five times. Meanwhile, Ulfah Alkaabi, one of the UAE’s top padel players, has been making her mark on the court.

Halfway around the world, Saudi Arabia’s female national football team won a silver medal at the Special Olympics Unified Cup in Detroit, Michigan this month.

Although Saudi sprinter and first-time Olympian Yasmeen Al-Dabbagh fell short in her first race in Tokyo 2020, she has set her sights on bringing home a medal from the next Games in Paris in 2024.

By all accounts, women’s participation in sports and fitness boils down to a supportive community. In the Kingdom, the Sports For All Federation has been building community-driven programs to improve overall health through community sports programs, a powerful tool to create a healthy society in line with the Vision 2030 Quality of Life objectives.
 

The Saudi female athletes leading the way. 

SFA says its programs and initiatives are created based on a community’s specific needs and what motivates them, and can be incorporated easily into their daily routines such as walking, running, cycling and other activities. It says the number of female participants in community sports has increased dramatically.

“Since 2018, we’ve seen the numbers reflected across our programs,” an SFA spokesperson told Arab News. “SFA wants to provide women with the right programs and female-driven initiatives to encourage them to go further.

“We provided a special course for ladies in our Spartan race, there was an area for women at SandClash to compete, and the same goes for our Neighborhood Clubs across the Kingdom for women who prefer to have their own spaces.

Women’s participation in sports and fitness boils down to a supportive community. (AFP)

“SFA has also hosted the Global Goals World Cup, a five-a-side women’s football tournament, and is the first country to add basketball to the games. One of the main objectives of SFA is to enable them, provide them with access to facilities, motivate them and feel that they are part of the community.”

Underscoring the importance of community-based physical activity programs, Haya Sawan, a fitness trainer and the owner of SheFit Gym in Jeddah, told Arab News that having such programs is helping to build a strong fitness culture among women.

“There’s been a huge jump in the past five years and you can see more people engaged in some sort of physical activity than ever before. It’s not just a matter of gyms opening, it’s more about changing the mindset and changing the lifestyle,” said Sawan.

“The region’s climate and unique environment restrict us from walking for miles, so we need to put in extra effort just to stay active all day. We utilize the space that we have and create programs fitting for the space, and using vast spaces such as malls and outdoor pathways designated for walking or jogging is a great way to engage the public.

“Initiatives such as the ones launched by SFA where they cooperated with malls makes it so much easier for people to be active. It’s accessible and you can count your steps. It’s a small gesture that makes a difference in the long run.”

That said, personal motivation remains an integral part of any fitness journey, and changing perceptions among Arab women — and wider society — about their role, status and body autonomy no doubt has a part to play.

“I am a strong believer that your thoughts can really control your life,” said Sawan. “A positive mindset will always believe that there’s room for improvement, and look at challenges as a source of motivation to overcome, rather than challenges that would stop you from moving forward. Everything changes.”


Olivia Newton-John, ‘Grease’ star and singer, dies aged 73

Updated 08 August 2022

Olivia Newton-John, ‘Grease’ star and singer, dies aged 73

  • Olivia Newton-John gained worldwide fame as high-school sweetheart Sandy in the hit musical movie ‘Grease’

LOS ANGELES: Australian singer Olivia Newton-John, who gained worldwide fame as high-school sweetheart Sandy in the hit musical movie “Grease,” died Monday, her family said. She was 73.
The entertainer, whose career spanned more than five decades, devoted much of her time and celebrity to charities after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992.
Newton-John “passed away peacefully at her ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends,” said a statement from her husband John Easterling posted on her official social media accounts.


Hindu nationalists push boycott of Bollywood ‘Forrest Gump’ remake

Updated 05 August 2022

Hindu nationalists push boycott of Bollywood ‘Forrest Gump’ remake

  • Latest example of Bollywood actors, particularly minority Muslims, feeling increased pressure under Hindu nationalist PM Modi
  • “Laal Singh Chaddha,” Indian spin on 1994 Hollywood hit with Tom Hanks, expected to be one of India’s biggest films of 2022

NEW DELHI: According to Forrest Gump, life is like a box of chocolates because “you never know what you’re going to get.” Now, an Indian remake of the movie has been hit by boycott calls over years-old comments by its Muslim star Aamir Khan.
It is the latest example of how Bollywood actors, particularly minority Muslims like Khan, are feeling increased pressure under Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Modi.
“Laal Singh Chaddha,” an Indian spin on the 1994 Hollywood hit with Tom Hanks, is expected to be one of India’s biggest films of 2022.
This is due in large part to its main star, 57-year-old Khan, one of the Indian industry’s most bankable actors with past blockbusters like “3 Idiots” (2009) and “Dangal” (2016).
But ahead of the August 11 release, the Internet is awash with clips from a 2015 interview when Khan expressed a growing “sense of fear” and that he and his then-wife discussed leaving India.
“She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers every day,” he said.
More than 200,000 tweets, many from supporters of Modi’s BJP party, have been shared since last month calling for people to spurn the movie with the hashtag #BoycottLaalSinghChaddha.
“Aamir Khan married two Hindu Women, yet named his kids Junaid, Azad & Ira. (Hindu co-star) Kareena (Kapoor) married a Muslim & promptly named her kids Taimur & Jehangir,” said one tweet, referring to the children’s typical Muslim names.
“That’s enough reasons to boycott Lal Singh Chaddha, basically a production from Bollywood’s Love Jihad club. #BoycottLaalSinghChaddha,” it added, using a derogatory term coined by Hindu nationalists who accuse Muslim men of marrying Hindu women and forcing them to convert.
Nicknamed “Mr Perfectionist,” Khan has been credited with pushing films beyond Bollywood’s traditional fare of song and dance into social and cultural issues.
He also hosted a TV chat show — “Satyamev Jayate” — that discussed touchy themes like rape, domestic violence and corruption.
The furor over his new film — which adapts Hanks’ famous line to say that “life is like a golgappa,” an Indian snack — is such that this week Khan stressed his patriotism, a key tenet of the Modi government.
“I feel sad that some of the people... believe that I am someone who doesn’t like India,” he told local media.
“That’s not the case. Please don’t boycott my film. Please watch my film.”
Films have long sparked controversy — as well as violence — in the movie-mad country of 1.4 billion people.
But the heat being felt by Khan, one of a clutch of Muslim megastars in the industry along with Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan, mirrors growing intolerance, marginalization and vilification of the minority, commentators say.
“There is no doubt that Aamir is being targeted by those spreading hatred toward Muslims,” one commentator, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of becoming a target himself, told AFP.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) owes its origins to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militaristic group espousing “Hindutva,” or making India an exclusively Hindu state.
Lynchings of Muslims by Hindu mobs over so-called cow protection — a sacred animal for many Hindus — and other hate crimes have sown fear in the 200- million-strong Muslim population.
Social media is full of misinformation claiming that Muslims will soon outnumber Hindus — due to inter-religious marriages — or that the minority is a treasonous fifth column backed by Pakistan.
Critics say that the world’s most prolific film industry and its stars have been gradually changing their output to fit the government narrative since Modi came to power in 2014.
In 2019, the hagiographic “PM Narendra Modi” was too much even for the Election Commission, which delayed its release until after a vote that year.
There has been a recent string of military-themed movies that have been nationalistic, all-guns-blazing stories of heroics by soldiers and police — usually Hindus — against enemies outside and within India.
This year’s “The Kashmir Files,” about the fleeing of Hindus from Muslim-majority Kashmir in 1989-90, saw incidents of people in cinemas calling for revenge killings of Muslims.
Film critic and author Anna MM Vetticad said the methods to “subordinate India’s Muslims and Christians to the majority community... include demonizing these minorities, and constantly demanding proof of their patriotism.”
But little is expected to change.
“India’s tragedy is that a majority in Bollywood... are apathetic, opportunistic or afraid,” Vetticad told AFP.
 


Lady Gaga appears to confirm casting in ‘Joker’ sequel

Updated 04 August 2022

Lady Gaga appears to confirm casting in ‘Joker’ sequel

  • The musical clip depicts silhouettes dancing together to the tune of the song "Cheek to Cheek"
  • If confirmed, Lady Gaga will be the newest in a long line of actresses who have played or voiced the iconic character of Harley Quinn

DUBAI: Pop star and actress Lady Gaga appeared to confirm her casting in the upcoming motion picture sequel to the Oscar-winning psychological thriller “Joker” on Thursday by posting a musical teaser on Twitter.
The musical clip depicts silhouettes dancing together to the tune of the song “Cheek to Cheek,” originally written by Irving Berlin in 1935 for the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie Top Hat, with the names Phoenix and Gaga flashing on the screen.
“Joker: Folie a Deux,” which will see Joaquin Phoenix reprise his role as the titular character, is set for release in theaters on Oct. 4, 2024.
Phoenix had first played the role in the 2019 film “Joker,” which earned him the Academy Award for best actor, depicted an origin story for the arch enemy of DC Comics’ superhero Batman.
No further details about the sequel have been immediately made available by Warner Bros. But Hollywood trade publication Variety has reported the new production will be a musical with Lady Gaga expected to play Joker’s co-conspirator, Harley Quinn.
If confirmed, Lady Gaga will be the newest in a long line of actresses who have played or voiced the iconic character of Harley Quinn. Most recently, Margot Robbie played the role of the ‘Crime Queen of Gotham City’ in the 2020 film “Birds of Prey” and in “The Suicide Squad” the following year.
It is unclear if Robbie will continue as Harley Quinn. However, the Joker movies featuring Phoenix are set in a separate cinematic universe, which would likely mean Robbie can still reprise her role as the iconic villain in any future movies.
Folie à deux is a rare psychiatric syndrome also known as shared psychosis, likely hinting at the traditionally co-dependent relationship between Joker and Harley Quinn.

Related