Soufra


This is the joy of cooking.

(2017) Documentary (Pilgrim Media Group) Mariam Shaar, Teresa Chahine, Nabil Mansour, Ghada Masrieh, Bente Scheller, Maral Hassan, Hussein Ali, Ayman Bouz, Abeer Hassan Almassry. Directed by Thomas A. Morgan

The refugee crisis around the world has been heartbreaking and seems to only be getting worse. In Lebanon, the Bourj el-Barajneh was founded in the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon back in 1948 for Palestinian refugees. It has recently swelled as Syrian refugees have joined them in the densely populated and cramped ghetto, complete with knots of electrical wires overhead that short out whenever it rains.

Life for refugees in Lebanon isn’t a kind and easy one. There are certain occupations that refugees cannot work in; there is absolutely no path to citizenship. Most residents of the camp just while away the days, wallowing in frustration and hopelessness. Into this world was born Mariam Shaar, who quit school at an early age to help her family. She got the idea that the women of the camp, particularly hit hard by the malaise that permeated the camp, could contribute the skill nearly all of them shared – cooking.

She founded Soufra, a catering company whose name approximately to “full table of bounty.” She wisely surmised that working would give the women a sense of purpose and of self-worth. At first her company catered school lunches, serving up traditional and healthy food for the children of the camp. Soon word got around of their delicious food and they were hired for corporate functions and high-end parties. The business was taking off.

But beyond that Mariam had enough native business acumen to realize that her group must continue to grow or stagnate. To that end she initiated a Kickstarter campaign so that Soufra could purchase their very own food truck. Sounds like a good idea, right?

What she didn’t anticipate were all the bureaucratic hurdles that she would need to overcome in order to make the purchase. Even with the help of a sympathetic lawyer, it seemed like the refugees were regarded with suspicion and the women even more so. However, every time she was told “no” only added to her determination to make the food truck a reality and if there’s anything I’ve learned in over 20 years of marriage, never get in the way of a determined woman.

Morgan wisely doesn’t turn this into a crusade. More than anything, this is a story about how determination and faith can move mountains. It’s an inspirational character study – not just of Mariam, who is certainly the front and center of the group, but all the women who work together and form the kind of bond that can only come with hard work and long odds. The inspiration comes from within.

I’m not really well-versed with middle eastern cuisine but the food here looks absolutely tasty. Those who recognize these recipes as comfort food will no doubt have an even closer connection to the film than I did – but even those who don’t like myself may well find themselves wanting to take a crash course in Palestinian and Syrian cuisine. I know I do.

Sometimes “inspiring” is overused when it comes to documentaries but in this case it does fit. While this is essentially on the festival circuit, I wouldn’t be surprised if it shows up on a streaming service relatively soon. Keep your eyes peeled for it. Also, if you want to give some of these dishes a whirl at home, the website (which can be accessed by clicking on the photo above) is selling the Soufra cookbook. It’s expensive but think of it as going to a good cause and not just to some celebrity chef’s offshore bank account.

REASONS TO GO: The story is very inspiring. The film is an eye-opener as to what refugees face on a daily basis.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may note that there is a gut of refugee documentaries out there right now.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the executive producers is actress/activist Susan Sarandon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Any episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Funeral Day

New Releases for the Week of April 13, 2018


RAMPAGE

(New Line/Warner Brothers) Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Joe Manganiello, Marley Shelton, P.J. Byrne. Directed by Brad Peyton

A rogue genetic experiment goes way out of control, turning normal animals into giant monsters. A primatologist whose friend – a rare and unusually intelligent white ape – is a victim of the experiment joins forces with a discredited scientist to come up with a cure not just to save humanity but to save his buddy.

See the trailer and video featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, DBOX, DBOX 3D, Dolby 3D, Dolby Atmos, IMAX, IMAX 3D, RPX, RPX 3D, XD, XD 3D
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for scenes of action, violence and destruction, brief language, and crude gestures)

Aardvark

(Great Point) Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate, Jon Hamm, Sheila Vand. The brother of a TV star who has issues with his brother’s popularity falls under the care of a therapist who herself begins to develop obsessive behavior towards his brother. Unable to tell fantasy from reality easily, her patient begins to fall in love with a woman – it’s just that he isn’t sure if she is real or not.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic issues, language, some sexuality and violence)

Beirut

(Bleecker Street) Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris. A disgraced diplomat who lost everything during an assignment to Beirut is forced to return to that city in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s to negotiate the safe return of his best friend, a CIA operative. However, everyone around him has their own agenda and there’s no way to know who to trust. You can read my review at the link below.

See the trailer, video featurettes and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Town Square (opened Wednesday)

Rating: R (for language, some violence and a brief nude image)

Krystal

(Great Point/Paladin) Nick Robinson, Rosario Dawson, Grant Gustin, William Fichtner. A young man who’s led a sheltered life falls hard for the most unlikely woman – a junkie/stripper/prostitute named Krystal. From a completely different world that might as well be another planet, he joins Alcoholics Anonymous even though he doesn’t drink just so he can be in the same room as her. Needless to say, his family does not approve William H. Mach directs this and has a supporting role as well.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Universal Cineplex

Rating: R (for language throughout, drug use, some nudity and brief sexuality)

Mercury

(Stone Bench) Galaraj, Ramya Nambeeshan, Prabhudheva, Sanath Reddy. Five childhood friends, all disfigured due to mercury poisoning in the town they grew up in, return for a high school reunion. However in a moment of mischief they disturb something that should have better been left alone. The movie was filmed without dialogue.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Now Playing: Cinemark Artegon Marketplace

Rating: NR

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero

(Fun Academy) Starring the voices of Helena Bonham Carter, Logan Lerman, Gérard Depardieu, Jordan Beck. A soldier adopts a stray dog near the barracks during the First World War. That dog would go on to become the most decorated canine in American military history.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for war action and some thematic elements)

Truth or Dare

(Blumhouse/Universal) Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, Violett Beane, Sophia Ali. A group of friends playing what seems to be a harmless game of truth or dare discover that they have stumbled into a supernatural entity which insists the game be played properly. Those who lie or refuse to do the dare are punished – terminally.

See the trailer and video featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for violence and disturbing content, alcohol abuse, some sexuality, language and thematic material)

Where is Kyra?

(Great Point/Paladin) Michelle Pfeiffer, Kiefer Sutherland, Suzanne Shepherd, Sam Robards. An unemployed woman tries to find work and care for her ailing elderly mother as her debts continue to mount up. Desperation drives her to do a dangerous act in order to survive. Find a link to our recent review of this film below.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: NR

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Krishnarjuna Yudham
Venemo

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

20 Weeks
Back to Burgundy
Baja
Beauty and the Dogs
Big Fish and Begonia
Borg/McEnroe
Final Portrait
Gultoo
Ismael’s Ghosts
Krishnarjuna Yudham
Mister Lonely
October
Venemo
Women of the Venezuelan Chaos

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Flock of Four
Krishnarjuna Yudham
October

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Fanny
Krishnarjuna Yudham
October
Pandas

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Back to Burgundy
Beirut
Borg/McEnroe
Rampage
Truth or Dare
Where is Kyra?

FILM FESTIVALS TAKING PLACE IN FLORIDA:

Florida Film Festival, Orlando FL
Sarasota Film Festival, Sarasota FL

Beirut


It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad in the desert.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Jonny Coyne, Leila Bekhti, Kate Fleetwood, Alon Aboutboul, Larry Pine, Sonia Okacha, Mohamed Zouaoui, Ben Affran, Ian Porter, Idir Chender, Nora Garrett, Mohamed Attougui, Anton Obeid, Jay Potter, Brahim Rachiki, Max Kleinveld. Directed by Brad Anderson

 

Lebanon has a history of being a cosmopolitan, beautiful country. Beirut was once described as the Paris of the Middle East. There were sizable Christian and Muslim communities but in the 1970s with an influx of Palestinian refugees Beirut became a powderkeg that exploded into Civil War that by the 1980s left Beirut the usual analogy for dangerous, hostile places.

Mason Skiles (Hamm) in 1972 was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. A disciple of Henry Kissinger, he was the fair-haired boy in the State Department, on his way to an ambassadorship of his own and at the very least becoming a major player in the diplomatic corps. Then, a terrible tragedy leaves his career in tatters and Skiles personally broken.

Fast-forward ahead ten years and Skiles works as an arbitrator in labor negotiations and not a very good one at that. Maybe it’s due to the fact that Skiles has fallen into the bottle and shows no signs of emerging. However, he is summoned to Beirut – the last place on Earth he wants to go – ostensibly to lecture at the American University there but in reality he is savvy enough to know that’s only a cover.

In fact, his good friend Cal (Pellegrino) has been kidnapped by a PLO splinter group and they will only negotiate with Cal for reasons that will become readily apparent. The problem is that Cal, who works for the CIA, knows enough to make life uncomfortable for the agency in the Middle East. Mason soon discovers that everyone in the American embassy seems to have an agenda of their own; nobody is trustworthy, not even the assistant/handler Sandy (Pike) who has been assigned to Mason. Getting Cal back alive will be no easy matter, not will it be easy for Mason to stay that way as well.

Veteran movie fans will note that Tony Gilroy wrote the script and won’t be surprised at the often convoluted plot – nor will it be surprising that the story is interesting throughout. Anderson is a strong director who keeps the pace brisk without going too fast and glossing over things. Despite having a plot that requires some concentration to follow, this is nonetheless an easy movie to watch.

.Hamm has been on my radar ever since he starred in Mad Men and I’ve always thought that he was going to one day be a big movie star; he’s just one good role away. This is the closest he’s come to that role; despite his character being deeply flawed, Hamm makes him sympathetic. He shows a great deal of charisma and onscreen charm from start to finish. In short, he’s the best thing about the movie which is saying something in a movie with Rosamund Pike in it.

The dialogue can be a bit noir-ish (which can be a bad thing) and the flashbacks can be jarring. Most negatively, there are sequences in which handheld cameras are used that are literally jarring. Those are all minuses to be sure but the pluses just edge them out enough to make this worth a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Hamm continues to show off star quality. The pacing is very crisp.
REASONS TO STAY: There are some unnecessary handheld camera sequences. The ending is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and a brief image of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hodge and Hamm have appeared on the Netflix series Black Mirror.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Feels

Zaytoun


Stephen Dorff can't understand why he isn't a star and neither can Abdallah El Akal.

Stephen Dorff can’t understand why he isn’t a star and neither can Abdallah El Akal.

(2012) Drama (Strand) Stephen Dorff, Abdallah El Akal, Ali Suliman, Alice Taglioni, Loai Nofi, Tarik Kopty, Ashraf Barhom, Mira Awad, Joni Arbib, Ashraf Farah, Adham Abu Aqel, Nidal Badarneh, Hezi Gangina, Morad Hassan, Michel Khoury, Osamah Khoury, Doraid Liddawi. Directed by Eran Riklis

The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israeli is one of the world’s great tragedies. From the west, our perspective is that if only cooler heads could prevail on both sides perhaps they could live together in peace. Closer in however the perspective changes and things get a lot more complicated.

In 1982, Lebanon is in civil war and the Israelis are making noises about invading. Palestinian refugee camps house cells of the PLO who from time to time lob rockets into nearby Israel. Young Fahad (El Akal) lives in one such camp in Beirut but despite having a fairly laid back father and grandfather, he skips school regularly to sell gum and cigarettes on the streets of Beirut. The Lebanese themselves are not overly fond of the Palestinians who bring nothing but trouble. They chase Fahad and his friends and sometimes shoot at them. Fahad however s 12 years old and invincible. As for the camp, well, they’re more concerned that Fahad get his training by the PLO. Their homeland isn’t going to reclaim itself, after all.

That all changes with sudden ferocity when Fahad’s father is killed by a falling bomb. Fahad’s feelings for the Israelis moves from disdain and disrespect to downright hatred. Shortly afterwards, Yoni (Dorff), an Israeli fighter pilot, is shot down and captured by the PLO. Fahad is given the job of guarding the prisoner whose return to Israel might well bring about the exchange of many of their brothers-in-arms.

Fahad, still seething with hatred and sorrow, torments the prisoner and makes his feelings known to Yoni. When Yoni grabs one of Fahad’s friends to get some leverage to escape, he finds that he can’t harm the child even to secure his freedom. After he lets him go, Fahad shoots him in the leg.

While Yoni is recovering in the local clinic, an incident occurs that gives Fahad second thoughts about his current situation. He approaches Yoni who’s offered to take Fahad to Israel with him if he helps him escape. Yoni seizes the opportunity and agrees. The two steal out into the night.

At first they are antagonistic towards each other (Fahad swallows the key to Yoni’s shackles in order to make sure he can’t run off) but as time goes by, they are forced to rely on each other and they reach an understanding. For starters, Fahad lugs around with him a small bag, a soccer ball (he idolizes the Brazilian star Zico) and an olive tree which he means to plant at the family’s home in Palestine. Yoni thinks he’s nuts at first but slowly grows to realize what the olive tree means. For Fahad, his aha moment is that Yoni is not such a bad man and if one Israeli can be decent, perhaps they are not all as bad as his PLO trainers have made them out to be.

This is essentially a combination of a road film and a buddy film set in the Middle East. Naturally the politics of the region play a heavy role in the plot. Riklis, who previously directed Lemon Tree and  The Syrian Bride, both fine films as this one is as well. In many ways, this is a much more mainstream Hollywood-like film than the other two. Riklis seems to have a real empathy for the Palestinian cause; while he doesn’t come out and say in any of his films that he is in support of their determination to create a country for themselves, all three of these films are seen not from the Israeli viewpoint but from the Palestinian and in all three cases the Israelis are seen as bureaucratic and somewhat insensitive to say the least.

Dorff has been quietly putting together some really quality performances lately (see Brake) and in a just world would be well on his way to the A list. Unfortunately this isn’t a just world and so his work goes mainly unnoticed in small indie films. This is one of his stronger performances and one can only hope that someone is noticing.

El Akal has been in 12 movies in six years and at 15 years old looks to have a pretty strong career ahead of him. While I was a bit frustrated by his performance here – in some scenes he shows tremendous emotional range while in others he is as wooden as the tree he carries around with him – the moments when he is on his game he literally carries the movie. If he can be a little more consistent with his performance there’s no telling what he can achieve.

The movie is divided in three parts; the opening act which focuses on Fahad and his life in (and near) the camp; the second is his and Yoni’s dangerous trek through Lebanon to get across the border – with the help of a Bee Gees-loving taxi driver who provides some needed comedy relief – and the third Yoni and Fahad in Israel and their quest to get Fahad to a home whose location he only vaguely knows. They are all three different in tone; the first harsh and sometimes shocking (a woman is executed for infidelity while Yoni and Fahad negotiate with the cab driver to get them to the border), the second more of a thriller as the two are hunted by the Lebanese military but also by the Palestinian guerrillas. The last act is a bit more warm-hearted and sweet-natured. The three mesh surprisingly well together but that third act is a bit of a letdown after the tension of the second.

I liked the movie about equally with Riklis’ other works. I can’t say that it gives any more insight into the conflict than what we already know – that the two peoples, other than their religious differences, are essentially much more alike than they’d probably care to admit. At the very least they both share a love for a harsh and often unforgiving land which has a beauty all its own.

REASONS TO GO: Dorff delivers another strong performance. Some good suspense and drama.

REASONS TO STAY: El Akal is inconsistent. Some actions taken by the characters aren’t explained well.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s violence and children in harm’s way; there’s smoking (some of it by children), some foul language and some adult themes and situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Zaytoun” is Arabic for “olive” and refers to the olive tree Fahad carries around with him throughout the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Defiant Ones

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Aftermath

This Narrow Place


This Narrow Place

Sammy Sheikh and Jonathan Stanley affect Motor City tough guy poses.

(2011) Drama (Self-Released) Sammy Sheikh, Jonathan Stanley, Sayed Badreya, Anthony Azizi, Lonette McKee, Val Howard, Rita Khori, Oscar Brown, Mike Batayeh. Directed by Sooney Kadouh

 

Anger can only take you so far. When you are wounded as deeply as it’s possible to be, your first instinct is to lash out. Sometimes that may take you on a journey you never intended it to.

Hassan (Sheikh) is on a mission. His little brother died in a bombing in Beirut. He has entered the United States illegally to plant a bomb, using parts manufactured at the same plant where the bomb that killed his brother was manufactured. While stuck in an unsavory part of town, he meets Chris (Stanley), a drug addict who lives on his own in Detroit. Chris gives Hassan a ride to the home of Hassan’s Uncle Aziz (Badreya).

At the urging of his aunt, Hassan invites Chris over for dinner and weaves a tale about his attending Wayne State, where Hassan’s sister Nadia (Khori) is also attending (Nadia has been staying with Aziz for some time). As Hassan spends more time with Chris, he begins to see a side to America and Americans that he hadn’t planned on. The drug addict and would-be bomber begin to form an unlikely friendship, to the point where Hassan begs Tina (Howard), Chris’ drug connection, to “let him go.” Chris also develops affection for Nadia, not a welcome thing to her conservative Muslim family.

However with terrorist Faoud (Azizi) breathing down his neck, Hassan must make a choice between carrying out his plans and avenging his brother, or letting his rage go and perhaps creating an entirely different legacy for his brother and himself.

There are a lot of “fish out of water” buddy movies out there but this is unusual in that both the main characters are fish out of water, as it were. Hassan is from a completely different world; the life of a suburban Detroit family is like an entirely different planet to him. He is conflicted by his need to avenge his brother and by his own decency. He genuinely wants to help Chris kick his habit and uses the fasting of Ramadan to help him find some self-discipline.

Chris lives on the fringes of society, shunned by his own family who have declared him dead in order to deal with his situation. As the family life he never knew begins to give him new strength, he begins to change – becomes less the hustler, less the hedonist and finding more important things to focus his attention on.

There are some grungy neighborhoods on display here, both in Detroit and Beirut – I suspect the filmmaker was trying to draw a line between the two. There are also some nice neighborhoods and families that are welcoming and caring. The two worlds are in the same city but completely alien to one another. It’s hard to imagine they exist so close together.

Both Sheikh and Stanley are engaging, charismatic performers. It is their job to carry the film and it is their relationship that drives it. I’m not familiar with either actor, but I would venture to say that not only do they have good chemistry together they also individually do striking jobs to make their characters memorable and realistic.

They have a surprisingly good supporting cast. Often in indie movies, the acting chops begin and end at the leads but here, it’s uniformly there from top to bottom. That’s simply gold for a young director trying to establish a reputation.

I was a little bit unsure of the kicking of Chris’ drug habit; it seemed a little bit too pat and too clean and as we all know kicking that kind of habit is generally horribly painful. I also have to admit the ending was a little bit to the Hollywood side, but that’s all right; I liked it anyway. Indie movies often try to go out of their way to make their endings dark and depressing, but this one would probably have made a studio marketing chief sigh blissfully – and there’s not necessarily a bad thing. I do think that they could have used a bit of a trim on some of the subplots – was it really necessary to visit Chris’ mother and discover that he’s literally dead to her? – but all in all this is a pretty well-crafted movie with enough strong moments to make it recommendable to anyone, even those who might not necessarily be indie film fanatics.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances from the leads and an interesting story. I liked the ending although it might have had some “Hollywood” overtones to it.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the subplots could have been trimmed or cut altogether.

FAMILY VALUES: Some drug use, some foul language and a bit of violence.

HOME OR THEATER: Worth seeing in either venue.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Dog Sweat