Reviews for May 27th, 2009
Directed by Rashid Masharawi.
In Arabic with subtitles. Abu Laila (Mohamed Bakri), a judge, has just returned to Ramallah where he lives with his wife (Areen Omari) and young daughter, Laila (Nour Zoubi), who’s about to turn seven-years-old. On the day of her birthday, he drives his brother-in-law’s bright yellow cab to work at the Ministry of Justice in hopes of everything returning to normal. His wife reminds him to be home by 8 PM and to bring a cake and a present for Laila’s birthday. Little does he know that the day won’t be exactly as he had hoped it would. First of all, when he arrives at work, he’s told that the judge position he had before isn’t available at the moment and to come back the next day. Secondly, when he returns to his taxi and drives around carrying different passengers, some of them behaving quite bizarrely. He finds a cellphone in the backseat that belongs to a passenger who left it there and, like you’d find in a comedy of errors, Abu gets mistaken for someone else. When he tries to simply drop the cellphone at a police station, the police ask him all sorts of questions ranging from what kind of work he does to what kind of work his brother-in-law does. Other strange situations he gets into include an ex-convict who’s angry that he can’t smoke inside the taxi. He admits that he had passed the time in prison over the last 11 years by smoking. Abu refuses to pick up a passenger who’s wearing a weapon on him and he also won’t drive anyone to the checkpoint boarder. The screenplay by writer/director Rashid Masharawi doesn’t have any laugh-out-loud moments, but there’s plenty of wit, gentle humor and offbeat humor to be found. Balancing the comedy, there’s the tension going on in the background as explosions go off every now and, in a rather alarming scene, a man whom Abu nearly runs over, tells him that he should’ve run him over. By later in the second act, after all of those obstacles, among others, Abu hasn’t even returned the cellphone to its right owner yet or picked up a birthday cake and present for Laila just like he had promised. At a brief running time of only 71 minutes, Laila’s Birthday is funny, refreshingly witty and offbeat with a delicate balance between comedy and drama. Number of times I checked my watch: 1 Released by Kino International. Opens at MoMA.
Directed by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman.
This lively, but uninsightful documentary follows a group of all-black students at a Frankford High School culinary arts class in Philadelphia as they compete for culinary arts scholarships. Their teacher, Wilma Stephenson, seems much like Judge Judy except with all the finger-pointing. She’s often stern, quick-witted and isn’t afraid of saying what she means and meaning what she says to them without euphemisms whenever she’s instructing them. Beneath her toughness, though, there’s an ocean of compassion for her students and intelligence. Her students include Erica Gaither, Tyree Dudley and Fatoumata Dembele, among other seniors who come from low-income families. Erica is a cheerleader for the school basketball team and spends her time outside of school taking care of and bonding with her blind, younger sister. Fatoumata emigrated from Mali to the United States a few years earlier and now cooks for her family at home in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Tyree plays football at school and does his best to maintain good grades so that he can stay on the team and taking the culinary arts class. You get to hear Ms. Stephenson criticizing them whenever their dishes don’t turn out looking professional. She also makes a simple, yet important point that the students should learn how to open up their palates beyond what they’re accustomed to at fast food joints like McDonald’s. Did she also happen to know that McDonald’s and other restaurants use MSG as a means to enhance the flavor of the food? What is her position about the use of MSG to begin with? Wouldn’t it be important for her students to learn about the hidden forms of MSG and all of its potential health risks? (Please click here for more info) These just represent some of the unanswered questions. Co-directors Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman do a decent job of showing how the students interact with Ms. Stephenson and prepare all sorts of scrumptious-looking dishes, but not enough time delving into how her and her students truly think and feel. It’s surely uplifting to watch them honing their talents in culinary arts and having the passion to do something productive with their life, but what is it particularly about cooking that makes them so impassioned? The same can be asked for Ms. Stephenson, who you don’t really learn much about except that she struggled as part of a broken family during her childhood just like her current students struggle. The inevitable competition toward the end does have its fair share of suspenseful and moving moments, but, for the most part, you’ll feel like you haven’t gotten to know any of the students enough to care about what happens to them wholeheartedly. Ultimately, Pressure Cooker manages to be an engaging, uplifting, well-edited and occasionally suspenseful documentary that leaves you hungry for more insight into the lives of the culinary arts students and their Judge Judy-like teacher.
Number of times I checked my watch: 1 Released by BEV Pictures. Opens at the IFC Center.