Thursday 30 April 2015

Blues by the Beach (2004)

Director: Joshua Faudem
This review of a documentary film was posted on 30th April, twelve years to the day since the event at the heart of its story, a suicide bombing of the blues bar of the title in Tel Aviv. This review is dedicated to the memory of the three who died, Dominique Hass, Ran Baron and Yanay Weiss, and with great respect for the Mike's Place family who refused to let this act define them, instead reopening their bar in a week to prove that terrorists cannot win in the face of love, peace and dedication.
I read an advance copy of a new graphic novel called Mike's Place for the Nameless Zine and was quickly caught up by its true story and its powerful message. While it's ostensibly about a terrorist act, a suicide bombing in which a British Muslim, Asif Muhammad Hanif, blew himself up outside a local blues bar in Tel Aviv, killing himself and three others and injuring fifty more, the story is surprisingly detailed because an American filmmaker happened to be shooting a documentary film there at the time. He's Jack Baxter and Blues by the Beach is that film. Over a decade later, Mike's Place tells much of the same story in graphic novel format, with many panels direct copies of film shots, but it adds other things to the mix. It's slower and more considered, due to the increased distance in time from the event, with a deeper exploration of relationships changed by it. It also, fascinatingly, adds the terrorists' perspective. I don't recommend one version over the other; I recommend both and suggest that people watch the film then read the book.

That's because the film is an urgent piece, full of observation, emotion and reaction, while the book is a more measured examination of the bigger picture. The film is an experience, as Baxter opens a portal to a surprising world that he didn't expect to find and beckons us through to join him. Oddly, for a film that wasn't about terrorism until the terrorists showed up, it really begins with terrorism. Told by experts that the 9/11 attacks were a response to America's support of Israel and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, Baxter wanted to find a story that he hadn't heard before. His research suggested a story might surround Marwan Barghouti, a charismatic Palestinian leader then on trial in Israel, so he flew to the Middle East to find out. The Barghouti angle turned out to be a bust but, before Baxter could fly home, he found Mike's Place through unexpected blues music floating through the night to him, walking on the Tel Aviv beach. It was the story he had been looking for, a vibrant community where politics and religion are barred.

Baxter clearly felt immediately at home at Mike's Place. He found an odd extended family, a varied group of people from a variety of backgrounds on both sides of the bar. The book, perhaps inevitably, struggles with sound. It can't play the blues for us and it can't replicate the impressive diversity of accents flooding Mike's Place, but this film can and does. People flock to Mike's Place to eat, drink and dance, enjoying the universal language of music in a venue that conducts its business in English. We hear it spoken in a host of different accents: English, Scots, French, American and, of course, Israeli. This admirable diversity has a lot to do with why Mike's Place spoke to Baxter and why it works so well as the lead character in Blues on the Beach. Unfortunately, it's also why it was chosen as the target for a suicide bombing and, on 30th April, 2003, twelve years ago today, Avi Tabib the bouncer stopped Asif Hanif the bomber, who therefore detonated himself outside the venue instead of inside.
At this point, Baxter had shot forty hours of interviews at Mike's Place and was ready to wrap, expecting the entire story to be about the venue and its surprising international, secular and welcoming outlook in the heart of the Middle East. Gal Ganzman, the owner, was on board and hugely helpful. He even found Baxter a crew, as his new bartender, an old friend called Joshua Faudem, was a documentary filmmaker newly returned from a shoot in Prague with a new girlfriend, Pavla. With a snap judgement that matches the brusque, no-nonsense attitude we hear in his opening narration, Baxter hired them both on the spot to handle the camerawork. After the explosion hospitalised the producer and Faudem continued to shoot throughout its aftermath, Baxter upgraded him to director and Pavla to his assistant. Even if Mike's Place was the right subject for a documentary, it's hard to imagine that film today. The bombing transformed it into something else entirely: before, during and after coverage that hadn't been seen before.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time as a documentarian, but also the wrong place at the wrong time as a human being. The bomb goes off at one on a Wednesday morning in Tel Aviv, but right in the middle of a blues number for us, a startling and stunning edit with noise that rings in our ears like it must have done for the people unlucky enough to be there. Something else that the film does better than the book is record the aftermath. Confusion reigns supreme and it's palpable. There's news footage, of course, in subtitled Hebrew, but that's not what grabs us. It's everything else, as we try to fathom the scene. Faudem keeps his camera rolling, even though he clearly doesn't know what to point it at. People flounder around, asking about other who they know were there but can't find. One of the three victims, Yanai Weiss, started a band that evening with a man who didn't even know what name to ask about. The crowd piece it together for him and he walks away in shock.

And, with tragedy literally delivered to their door, the Mike's Place family are also in shock. What this film does better than any other I've seen is demonstrate how such a negative act can be turned into positive reaction to stop the terrorists winning. I remember 9/11 well, even though I was living in England at the time. When the word started to spread, we all stopped working and surrounded a small black and white television in the break room to watch the news. Even on that day, we wondered what America would do in reaction. The last fourteen years have shown us precisely what: the invasion of two countries and the War on Terror, with all the security theatre, mass surveillance and erosion of civil rights that came along with it. Terrorists want people to be afraid, hence their name. They want others to change who they are through fear, to spend their time, effort and money to placate that fear, to voluntarily abdicate freedom. The terrorists won the War on Terror by virtue that it exists. Mike's Place didn't make that mistake.
Instead, Gal Ganzman and the extended family that surrounded him, reopened Mike's Place in a week. It remains there today, doing exactly what it always did: providing a place for anyone to come and enjoy a beer, a burger and a live band, leaving religion and politics outside. The security is unchanged: Avi Tabib is still the bouncer, having recovered from his injuries and been released from hospital. In fact, there are no longer two Mike's Places, this one being the extension of the original in downtown Jerusalem. Now six bars and one pizza place comprise the Mike's Place family, which screen this film in the Tel Aviv location every year on 30th April in memory of the three who died, one of whom was a key player in the film as a waitress, bartender and cook. She's Dominique Hass, the first employee hired by Ganzman after starting up the bar, and her appearance in this film is chilling for a number of reasons, not least because nothing here feels staged, though the film was clearly carefully edited. It's loose and real and impactful.

And the reality of this film is why it's so immersive. Mike's Place appears to be a small club with cramped tables, a tiny stage and a portable television on top of the fridge. The music is local, Ganzman's brother's band a frequent performer. Yet the community spirit, the friendly atmosphere and the obvious cohesion, what Ganzman calls 'one big happy family', is infectious from the outset. By the time we get to the bomb, we're part of that family and it shocks us too. I'm sure it will change many of us as well, just as it changed many of the participants. One of the saddest angles was to see the break up of relationships through how people reacted to the bombing, even those who were shooting the film. There's more of this in the book, but the film deals with what was apparent at the time rather than what became so in hindsight. The loose video style aids this massively, because it places us right in the middle of the chaos. It's rarely handheld like a found footage movie, thankfully, but when it is there's good reason.

Blues by the Beach is a massively important film, a record of before, during and after a terrorist attack. It isn't always an easy film to watch, though it avoids some of the more gruesome details that surface later in the book. It also avoids a lot of basic detail that we might expect from a documentary; at no point are we told why Mike's Place is called Mike's Place, given that the owner is called Gal. Wikipedia fills in those gaps easily enough. What it does is make us feel at least a little of what Ganzman and his one big happy family feel on screen before, during and after the most impactful moment of their lives. It's the inclusion of all three of those stages that makes this so special. We see what this venue was like when everyone's blissfully detached from terrorism, what it's like when that unwelcome guest shows up and what it's like when they react in such a stunning way, reopening the venue in a week and celebrating peace, life and community. They refuse to be afraid and that's why they win. That's a lesson we should all learn.

Sunday 19 April 2015

Bread and Butter (2014)

Director: Liz Manashil
Stars: Christine Weatherup, Bobby Moynihan, Micah Hauptman, Eric Lange, Lauren Latkus, Sean Wright, Dawn Didawick and Harry Groener
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
It's always a brave move for a film critic to venture into enemy territory and make her own picture; it's an even braver move for that picture to be a romantic comedy, the safest and easiest genre of all to skewer by anyone with a grudge. However, Liz Manashil, most frequently seen talking about mainstream movies on Just Seen It, succeeded with Bread and Butter in making an indie romcom that would be very tough to badmouth. The only people who might fail to find something of themselves in at least one of the quirkily broken misfits looking for love in this film will be those who identify with the wildly unrealistic movie star leads in mainstream romcoms. This is emphatically and rather pleasantly not one of those. Nobody finds themselves stuck on a blind date with Jennifer Aniston, nobody accidentally bumps into Hugh Grant and nobody has to decide whether to make do with Cameron Diaz when their dream girl looks through them. Manashil loves those movies but but wanted to make one that was believable and realistic.

And so she populated her cast with the sort of characters who would usually play the awkward best friend type who serves mostly to make the romantic leads look even more unblemished. These characters never get depth enough to worry about sexual tension, because awkward best friends are always asexual blobs; it's only the beautiful people who get to torture themselves about whether Male Model #1 or #2 is better in bed. If you watch romcoms but look past the focal characters to those awkward best friends who suffer from terminal uncoolness but would be fascinating people otherwise, this may just be your movie. Amelia Karinsky is the lead here, a young lady who reads books and wears a helmet while cycling. She has fresh looks but there are no magazine covers in her future. She's very aware that she's about to turn thirty and would like to lose her virginity before she gets there. Her lack of a boyfriend merely means pressure from her parents and even her boss, a life coach with no conception of boundaries.

Christine Weatherup is not the most recognisable face in the cast, though she's adding up a varied set of credits, but she's a strong lead who manages to find just the right point on the scale. She's socially inept, acutely awkward and very aware of how these traits are holding her back, but she's a long way from the stereotypical unhygienic dork. She's not Comic Book Guy, Suckup Science Nerd or Basement Dwelling IT Geek. She's refreshingly unclichéd, meaning that there's no simple solution to her situation and so depth to her attempts to find one. She's not a damsel in distress waiting for Prince Charming and she's not the caterpillar who doesn't know she can be a butterfly. She doesn't just need magic and she doesn't need a makeover. She just needs to do, to try, to live and our story is what happens when she decides to allow a border expansion to her small private world and take a chance on possibility. Of course, she doesn't find what she thinks she will, but she does find.
What I liked most about Manashil's script was how it refused to be conventional and make it about choice A or choice B. It seems to phrase it that way, with Daniel and Leonard coming into her life almost at once, suddenly two men for a woman who never had one so she can compare. It seems to set us up to believe that it will be Amelia and Leonard all the way, at least to the point when she realises that it should really be Amelia and Daniel, but it's worth much more than that. It seems to be yet another destination movie, but it's really all about the journey. This is the anti-romantic comedy, remember, refusing to cater to the convenient. You're not going to see twin posters, so tweens can choose between Team Daniel and Team Leonard; if someone does PhotoShop that, please add Team Charles for Daniel's gecko and let me know! This isn't about good or bad, A or B, right or wrong. It's not about a message, beyond, 'Hey, it's OK, girl.' It's as much about being comfortable with who you are and what you can be as it as about romance.

Having raised Daniel and Leonard, I really ought to introduce them. We meet Daniel first, because he's a regular client at Dr Wellburn's, where Amelia is the receptionist. Eric Lange is gloriously inappropriate as Dr Wellburn, in his way even more inept socially than our lead. He played another doctor in the Phoenix Film Festival opening night movie, Danny Collins, and it's easy to see why he lands such parts. Wellburn sets up Amelia and Daniel to date and both pliant characters fall uncomfortably into those roles. Bobby Moynihan, surely the biggest star in this movie after his eight years on Saturday Night Live, has a lot of fun with Daniel, who is the most grounded main character: a combination of thoroughly nice guy, grown up kid and professional social pariah. Asked about his parents paying for his therapy, he calmly suggests, 'They broke it, they bought it.' Like Amelia, he wants to do things but doesn't do them, and there's a sad acceptance to him that resonates: 'Hanging out with weird people makes me feel better about myself.'

Leonard Marsh, however, is one of those weird people. Amelia discovers his name and address in an old book she buys second hand, along with a host of engaging notes pencilled into the margins. They're not annotations as they're nothing to do with the text; they're more like stream of consciousness anecdotes and sheer circumstance helps Amelia to connect strongly with the hidden person who wrote them. Next steps are clear: go to Leonard's address and meet him. Amelia's decision to do this, as uncharacteristic as it is, is really the beginning of her journey but it doesn't turn out remotely how she imagined. He's an awkward character too, but he's awkwardly dismissive, interpreting her tentative impulsiveness as an act of stalking. Then again, he's self-treating depression without any apparent science, which makes him an alive but often broken soul. His eccentricities are wild: nothing can be new because old equals relevant, he lives in a guest room but never touches its floor and he's unable to commit to anything.
Amelia stirs up their lives just as they stir up hers, but it's Amelia who's the catalyst for change. While we can't fail to compare Daniel and Leonard, especially when each of them gets a dance scene with Amelia, it's really Amelia who's pushing things forward. She starts to date both of them, just to see what happens, but of course they soon meet and the awkwardness ramps up from there. Given that the foundation here is awkwardness, it's bizarrely comfort that sells it most. Amelia is getting less comfortable with her life as she approaches thirty so decides to do something about it, but both Daniel and Leonard tell themselves over and over that they're comfortable with who they are. It's as we start to doubt them that this picture moves forward. Daniel is calm and stable in the extreme; he wants to do things but they're all outside his comfort zone. Leonard lives in the moment because he's afraid to live anywhen else; this makes Amelia comfortable because there's no pressure, but it depresses Leonard because he can't change.

How this all manifests itself in the film is a combination of well-written dialogue and capable acting, most obvious on the faces of all three leads. Christine Weatherup acts with her face far more than her body, as if she's always trying to show simultaneously what she feels and what she believes others want her to be. It's telling that this decreases as she becomes more comfortable in who she is. Bobby Moynihan, for the majority of the film, is the picture of calm, so accepting of everything in his life that he lets those around him provide the emotions. However there are points where Amelia stirs that pot enough that his face has to step in and join the fray; those moments are all the more magic because they have to be drawn from him. As Leonard Marsh, Micah Hauptman is great at smiling and looking both wrong and scared all at once. Everything he is shows through his face and that goes double for the inner conflict of a man who wants to change but has a phobia about doing so.

Bread and Butter was the first film I saw at this year's Phoenix Film Festival and it was a great way to kick things off. It's light and fluffy and easy to watch, but with depths for those who want to explore them. It's familiar in that it's a romcom with one girl and two guys, but it never settles for the usual way out of any situation, let alone the usual way in. It's well-written in the way that indie features should be but so often aren't. It's cast from faces both fresh and familiar; I've seen a few of these actors before and appreciated their work but didn't recognise any of them here. That holds true for Moynihan, who I know for The Brass Teapot rather than Saturday Night Live; but I heard his name often during the festival, even from people who hadn't seen the film. It's also a personal piece, with Manashil claiming 30% of it as autobiographical, with characters amalgamations of herself and friends. All this is good news and it leaves 70% left for her next film, which ought to be entirely expected after the success of this one.

Monday 13 April 2015

Blood Punch (2013)

Director: Madellaine Paxson
Stars: Milo Cawthorne, Olivia Tennet and Ari Boyland
This film was an official selection at the 11th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
Winner of the Audience award at last year's Dances with Films and the Best Horror Feature award at this year's International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, amongst a bundle of others, Blood Punch is a real peach of a movie, even if it didn't look like it should be on paper. There are a bunch of reasons why it shouldn't work, from the working title that stuck, even though it has nothing to do with anything; the clichéd setup (shenanigans at a hunting lodge on cursed tribal land); and the fact that almost everyone involved got to know each other on Power Rangers RPM: all three of the leads, many of the supporting cast, the director, writer and probably the kid who served breakfast every morning. Yet I haven't had this much fun with an indie movie in years. The title really doesn't matter, the clichés quickly fall away to expose a deceptively intricate story with a set of neat little twists and hey, who cares where they met? What matters is that it's as unlike Power Rangers as can comfortably be imagined, with drugs, death and bad language in droves.

In fact, it's not particularly like anything else. It's a horror feature, sure, but not primarily, however much blood gets spilled and however supernatural the concept. It's a black comedy long before that and it's a modern film noir first and foremost. In fact, it's a quintessential film noir, with almost the entire running time devoted to three characters stuck in a love triangle set up for criminal purposes and presided over by a sassy femme fatale. She's Skyler and she starts out the picture in rehab, not to get off drugs but to hire herself a capable cook to turn 110 pounds of pseudoephedrine into an insanely large batch of crystal meth in a single day, enough to make them rich before they can ever be raided. She leaps into bed with Milton, a bright student in rehab for running a meth lab out of college and he immediately falls hard for her. Only in the sack does she explain to him that the third and last in the gang is Russell, her 'pure 100% psychopath' boyfriend. Shenanigans immediately ensue and continue on for the rest of the movie.

Now, if that doesn't sound particularly supernatural, I should highlight that the very beginning of the film, before we even get to rehab, happens a day later, with Milton puking his guts up and finding a video tape containing a message for him from himself. He doesn't remember recording it, but it's definitely him and, to ensure that he listens to himself, he very deliberately chops off two of his fingers with a cleaver. Given that the present day Milton isn't missing any digits, it succeeds in grabbing both his attention and ours in the cheap seats. The script is by Eddie Guzelian and it's a real gem. He hooks us at the outset with Milton and his supernatural video on Tuesday morning, then jumps back to rehab on Monday to ground us in the basic crime and the dark but comedic tone of the piece and moves on carefully so that when we return to Milton in the bathroom we know a lot more than we did first time around. He's more than happy to set us up with odd little clues here and there, but waits 43 minutes to hit us with the big twist.
I'm in two minds whether to spoil that twist because it's hard to talk about the film without it, but I guess I should let you discover it for yourself. I can safely add that there are quite a few more twists to follow the main one too, because the entire script is a clever little set of puzzles, both for the three leads and for us, and we're all happy to try to solve them. Every time we solve one, and some of them are much easier to figure out than others, Guzelian emphasises another angle that means that we have to keep on puzzling for a little while longer. M Night Shyamalan made a career out of one big twist per movie; Guzelian gives us one great big twist here, then adds another three excellent little ones before the end credits roll. I'd be all over IMDb looking up what other movies he's written, but his long and respected career has, up to this point, been hilariously restricted to children's television, with his most adult work prior to this film being perhaps his three episodes of Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. Not a lot of blood in there!

Let's just say that this riffs on the old 'Indian burial ground' theme, but never in the usual way, as the low budget was never going to extend to zombie hordes and didn't need to. The majority of the movie follows only three actors in three locations, but never once even hints at getting boring. There's Milton and Skyler at the rehab clinic, picking up Russell the psycho state trooper on the way out. There's the three of them at the hunting lodge, with a wild collection of dangerous weapons on the walls which surely all get put to use sooner or later. And eventually there's the lair of Archer, the man to whom Skyler plans to sell all the crystal Milton will cook up at the lodge. That's not a lot of opportunity for cinematographer Neil Cervin to keep everything looking fresh, but he does a solid job, aided by the neat surreality that Guzelian conjures up with his Coen Brothers-esque take on Luis Buñuel. He's the big star here, not only for his ideas but for his dialogue too, which is plentiful and agreeably sardonic.

Olivia Tennet gets the best of that dialogue as Skyler. The first time through I wondered if she was a little too young for a character with such assurance and experience, but there are layers to what she does and she delivers her lines with panache. It helps that she plays an interesting character too, independent but under Russell's thumb, tough but submissive. She's manipulative in the extreme, as every femme fatale worth her salt has to be, and that could well include her classic battered wife syndrome dialogue, as she often repeats Russell's questions to her verbatim to underline his power over her. Ari Boyland has a blast playing Russell, even if he's too nice a person to nail as many of his psychoses as he'd like. He certainly has some strong moments but he's just not enough of a lunatic to be the devil that Skyler makes out. He also has the most limited part of the three, without real growth as a character, for very good reasons that I'm completely unable to go into without providing spoilers.

That leaves Milo Cawthorne as Milton, who is the character with the real story arc. He starts the picture as nobody but promptly becomes somebody, even if it isn't who he'd like. With Russell far from the brightest bulb in any pack, it falls to Milton to figure out what's going on and how to beat it. The unspoken question is always whether he'll get to outwit Skyler in the process, because she's no dummy and clearly looks out for number one under every circumstance imaginable. It's also telling that Cawthorne manages to garner a great deal of sympathy from us, even though he's a drug dealer when we first meet him and escalates from there into a callous and thoughtless murderer. Then again, Tennet manages to find a little sympathy for the sociopathic Skyler too by manipulating us as much as she does Milton, Russell and everyone else she meets. We really shouldn't feel for any of these characters but, by the end of the film, we can't quite help feeling just a little even for poor psychopathic Russell.

There are problems here, but they're mostly minor and ignorable. Director Madellaine Paxson does more with her limited budget than many would manage, but most will notice it at some point or other. For me it was most obvious in the cheap and cheerful credits and the public domain songs (and songs by members of the cast) which accompany the solid score by Adam Berry, not to mention the limited cast and location lists. I don't see any of these as a problem, but others might when the film inevitably makes it out beyond the indie festival circuit to the wider public. One detail that did annoy me was how much storage Russell's police car has for its onboard surveillance camera. I might kill for a hard drive like that and land myself in the same trouble these crooks find themselves in here; that could have been handled differently without losing any of the effect, but it's hardly important in the grand scheme of things. I certainly can't fault the progression at the heart of the story, even if I didn't see every cue first time through.

At the end of the day, this is one of those little pictures that could and I'll happily pimp it out to everyone who will listen. It's a twist movie but it's worth watching more than once. It's a dialogue heavy film with a dearth of characters but a lot of action. It's a low budget picture that looks far better than it should, given the cost. It certainly isn't remotely like what you might expect from a debut director whose previous work was on Peter Rabbit, the co-writer of Disney's Cinderella III: A Twist in Time and a cast of Power Rangers RPM alumni. It has more drugs than an Irvine Welsh novel, more bad language than a Steven Seagal flick and more death than a Lucio Fulci picture. And yet it's a film noir, brought up to date with blood like Sam Raimi's and dialogue like the Coen Brothers. Imagine an Ealing comedy remade by Takashi Miike. That's how out there this manages to go, but that clever script by Eddie Guzelian never loses focus. Hopefully the success of this will mean that he'll never have go back to the Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.