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

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Strawberry Flavored Plastic


Sometimes even filmmakers feel the walls closing in on them.

(2018) Drama (Self-Released) Aidan Bristow, Nicholas Urda, Andres Montejo, Bianca Soto, Raelynn Zofia Stueber, Marisa Lowe, Giovanni Lowe, Maureen Winzig, Jim Cairl, Stuart Fray, Crystal Wolf, Kitty Robertson, Steve Boghossian, Erica Duke Forsyth, Maria Severny, Henry Hernandez, Logan Kenney, Margeaux Caroline, David Beach, Despina Drougas. Directed by Colin Bemis

 

Being an aspiring filmmaker is no easy row to hoe. Making films is generally an expensive proposition; it’s not just a matter of picking up a camera and pointing it at something. Even a documentary has to have a story to tell and in order to get a good one, research is needed. A good filmmaker will go to extraordinary lengths to get their film made. Sometimes they might just go too far.

That’s the position Errol Morgan (Urda) and Ellis Archer (Montejo) are in. They want to make a documentary but first they have to find the right project. It appears they have found one when after putting an ad on Craigslist they get a response from a gentleman named Noel Rose (Bristow) who was just released from prison after a crime of passion left two people dead. Sounds like a story, right?

But it’s not that story Noel has to tell. It turns out that while there are bodies in his past there are more than two – and that Noel has never actually been to prison. As a matter of fact, Noel is an active serial killer whose body count in a quiet suburb of New York City has begun to pile up.

That puts the documentarians in a difficult position. They have already committed time and money to Noel’s story and essentially if they call the authorities and drop the project, their careers as filmmakers are over before they start. Still, if they continue to roll cameras and document the process, it could be the biggest film, like, ever.

The thing is that playing with serial killers is inherently dangerous. Noel is a ticking time bomb with a temper that can go nuclear at even the slightest provocation and when Ellis commits a very serious no-no regarding the ground rules, Errol realizes that there is a target painted very squarely on his back and the backs of his wife and son.

Interviews with serial killers are not a new concept, but this one is executed in a fairly unique way. It combines found footage films along with a 48 Hours-like crime documentary vibe. Some independent horror sites have picked up on this film but I wouldn’t (and didn’t) classify this as horror although there are a couple of scenes that qualify – one in particular where Noel breaks into a home and commits an act of violence that is sudden and shocking.

Bemis has a very good grasp of tone and realism and the viewer remains firmly invested in the film’s back story and environment. He benefits from having an unknown but solid cast; Bristow in particular excels here; he reminds me of Arrow regular Josh Segarra from a vocal standpoint. Noel is handsome and charming and Bristow captures that. The one objection I have with the character is that when he shows his mad side, it gets too over the top with lots of screeching and maniacal laughter like The Joker on speed. I think the character would have been far more menacing and realistic if the madness had been more subdued; the fits of rage should not be tantrums so much as unexpected explosions of violence. Urda has a kind of Ben Stiller look to him and also delivers a very strong performance.

The movie runs a bit long and part of the reason for that is that some of the characters, particularly Noel, often go off on somewhat flowery monologues which really add nothing to the story. These should have been edited a little bit; they tend to take the viewer out of the film because this is not how real people talk. It probably looked good on the page but sometimes dialogue should be spoken out loud by the writer before committing it to paper. Some of the scenes were a little on the talky side, particularly when delivering exposition. That needed to be edited too.

This is a very strong effort and despite its flaws a worthwhile one. Bemis has a good deal of potential as does Urda and particularly Bristow. I thought the movie stands very well on its own merits and I don’t have a problem recommending the film to my readers. It was due to have been released on Amazon today but that has been delayed as the movie is being shopped at Sundance and Berlin for potential distribution. I can only keep my fingers crossed that it will find an audience because it certainly deserves one. I will try to keep you updated when it becomes available either theatrically or for streaming.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the performances, particularly Bristow and Urda, are very strong. This is a very cerebral movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the dialogue is a little flowery. A few scenes are a bit on the talky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, adult themes and some situations of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bemis’ first feature film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Anatomy of Monsters
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made


Dr. Jones, I presume.

Dr. Jones, I presume.

(2016) Documentary (Drafthouse) Eric Zala, Chris Stompolos, Jayson Lamb, John Rhys-Davies, Eli Roth, Harry Knowles, Chris Gore, Kurt Zala, Casey Dillard, Rob Fuller, Ryan Pierini, Scott Lionberger, Ernest Cline, Tim League, John E. Hudgens, Karl Preusser, Mark Spain, Guy Klender, James Donald, Michael Mobley, Angela Rodriguez. Directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen

Florida Film Festival 2016

The dreams of our childhood are often set aside in favor of those things that as adults we are required to do; to create a family and home of our own, to earn a living, to raise children. Those dreams don’t die completely; they stay with us, often as regrets which is what unanswered dreams generally become.

For a trio of boys in Mississippi in 1981, that dream was the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas collaboration Raiders of the Lost Ark. This tribute to the serial pulp adventures of the 1930s really captured the imagination of these boys and inspired them. For Eric Zala and Chris Stompolos, the solution was simple; make their own version of Raiders but shot for shot like the one Spielberg directed. And, that summer, they set about doing it themselves.

For seven more summers and several winter breaks as well, they did just that. Stompolos, who played Indiana Jones, aged from age 12 to 19 onscreen; Zala (who played Belloq and was director for the venture) went from 11 to 18. They were joined by Jayson Lamb who also stayed mainly behind the camera and did much of the special effects.

They were aided by many adults who gave the kids serious leeway, allowing them to follow their dream although later on when some saw the results of their labors accused their mothers of “bad parenting,” particularly in lieu that one fiery scene set in the Nepalese bar owned by Marion Ravenwood that they created in the basement of the Zala home nearly burned the house down.

What is striking is how the boys, with zero filmmaking experience, managed to think outside the box to make things work. For example, they substituted the family dog in place of the “Sieg Heil” spider monkey that is used in the Cairo scenes. The boys were too young to drive in the truck chase, so they got someone to lend them a truck without an engine and had someone who could drive (a parental chaperon as it were) haul the truck (you can see the hauling  vehicle in a couple of shots).

The boys eventually got every scene in the movie filmed but one – the scene after Indie and Marion escape the Well of Souls and stop a Flying Wing airplane from carrying the Ark to Berlin, blowing up the plane and creating general mayhem in the process. At seven years in and their friendships frayed to the breaking point (Jayson had already left the project), they decided to call it quits.

But the idea stayed with them and it bothered Zala and Stompolos to a lesser extent that they’d pulled the plug so close to completing their dream. They took the footage they had and edited it together, made a videotape of it, staged a world premiere in their hometown and went on with their lives.

The funny thing about dreams is that sometimes they refuse to die on their own. A copy of the tape made its way to actor/director Eli Roth of the Hostel franchise. He was blown away by what he saw and arranged to have the movie shown during a meal break at Harry (Ain’t It Cool News) Knowles’ annual birthday celebration and film festival the Butt-Numb-a-Thon at the Drafthouse Theater in Austin – Tim League, the influential owner of the Drafthouse was also in attendance.

The audience was so enraptured by the adaptation that they booed when the projectionist stopped the film to prepare for the world premiere showing of a Peter Jackson Hobbit film, no less – and gave the film a three minute standing ovation. League and Knowles were both impressed. The buzz about the movie began to circulate and a cult film was born.

Eventually word got back to Zala and Stompolos, both living separate lives and the two old friends decided to get the band back together again and raised a Kickstarter campaign to fund the filming of the final scene in their hometown of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Even so, it wasn’t easy; Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and the very pyrotechnic-heavy scene proved more difficult to stage than they’d anticipated, even with a professional pyrotechnician calling the shots.

There is plenty of footage from the Adaptation as well as outtakes and interviews (I’ve been fortunate enough to see the Adaptation twice, once in the backyard of a friend’s house and the second time as part of a Raiders! Event at the Enzian) and while it’s true that the footage of the Adaptation is crude, you do get a sense of the love and care that went into it. Because of copyright laws, it is next to impossible to view the Adaptation theatrically, but it can be done so if you’re interested, contact your local art house theater and have them look into it.

The movie is about the heart and soul of a dream. Kyle Smith of the New York Post, who has distinguished himself as being one of the most clueless film reviewers in the country, sniffed that the venture is like “rewriting Moby Dick in crayon.” For one thing, he oversimplifies the difference between copying and adapting. The boys with no training at all proved to be resourceful and persistent, both traits that should be encouraged rather than torn down. They showed their love for a film that by paying tribute to it, putting their own stamp on it at the same time. Both of them, since this documentary was completed, have formed a production company of their own and quite frankly I’m eager to see what they turn out next (Lamb also works in the industry). Either way, this is the kind of movie that may inspire others to follow their dream, be it remaking a beloved movie shot for shot or making a movie of their own.

REASONS TO GO: One of those movies that sneak up on you and lift your spirits. Fascinating story.
REASONS TO STAY: Not everyone will get why this story is inspiring.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zala for awhile lived and worked in Orlando for EA Sports as a game developer.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burden of Dreams
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: March of the Living

Blue Ruin


Fear comes home.

Fear comes home.

(2013) Thriller (Radius) Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidne Anderson, Bonnie Johnson, Daniel L. Kelly, Ydaiber Orozco, Erica Genereaux Smith. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier

When we commit a heinous act, the ripples from that act often reverberate for years and decades. We may consider the incident at an end, but those affected by it may not.

Dwight (Blair) lives out of his car. He talks to nobody, eats out of garbage cans and basically is completely off the grid. In the quiet beach community in which he’s taken up residence, he bothers nobody and from time to time can be seen under the pier staring out at the sea. His is a wounded soul and people generally stay away from him.

One morning a cop (Anderson) raps on the window of his bullet pock-marked blue Buick and informs him that one Wade Cleland has just been released from prison. That seems to wake him up from his fog. After all, Wade was the one who murdered both his parents some years before. So Dwight does what he thinks he ought to – head back home and take the vengeance that the justice system didn’t give him. He finds Wade and murders him. That should be the end of it but it’s only the beginning.

Now the Cleland clan is out looking for revenge of their own so Dwight needs to protect his sister Sam (Hargreaves) from the rampaging Cleland brothers Teddy (Kolack) and Carl (Werzner) as well as rabid sister Hope (Rock) and matriarch Kris (Plumb). Dwight isn’t ex-Special Forces. He’s no martial arts expert nor is he a marksman with a gun. In fact, when he tries to steal a gun from the front seat of a car, the trigger lock the owner installed is enough to defeat him.

With the help of his friend Ben (Ratray) he will go after the Cleland family but being something of a bumbler, Dwight is going to make a mess of things and certainly he’s not getting out of this in one piece. Then again, revenge isn’t exactly known for being the type of affair that leaves those who seek it intact.

This low-budget affair which was financed almost entirely through Kickstarter has been receiving rave reviews from filmgoers and critics alike and for good reason. You are unlikely to find a film that will be more intense and stressful to watch (in a good way) than this one. From nearly the opening scene to the final denouement the tension never lets up. Part of the reason for that is that Saulnier wisely adds no extraneous parts to this. Every scene is necessary to the plot; there’s not an ounce of fluff to this film. Perhaps that’s due to the budget as it is to the filmmaker but either way, that’s a good thing for the viewer.

Blair does a bang-up job as Dwight. His eyes show the wounds that never healed and throughout the movie his expression is one of near-panic, as if he is the lone passenger on a runaway train which isn’t far from the truth. One of the more original aspects of the film is that Dwight is an ordinary guy who is somewhat of a screw-up to begin with, so his plans for vengeance and protection of his sister are pretty much prone to being messed up more than they are being successful. He isn’t Dwayne Johnson, an expert in hand-to-hand fighting or a crack shot; he’s more likely to miss from point blank range than he is to hit his target. He’s basically in every scene, so the movie relies on him to carry it and Blair does. It’s a career-defining role for him.

Certainly the plot isn’t necessarily a new one – we’ve seen revenge films before, and in environments as rural as this one. It’s the way that Saulnier and company handle the premise that is refreshing and exciting. The suspense that is created is at times excruciating and I loved every minute of it. While veteran moviegoers may have a pretty clear idea how things are going to end up, the ride getting to that point is one worth taking.

REASONS TO GO: Great tension and suspense. While the premise isn’t original, the execution is. Dwight is realistic and not a superhero.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence is strong and bloody and there’s plenty of cursing going on here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yes, that’s the actress who once played Jan Brady playing the Cleland matriarch.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: Metacritic: 77/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lawless

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: X-Men: Days of Future Past