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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New Chefs on the Block


Aaron Silverman gets intense.

(2016) Documentary (Lateral Line) Aaron Silverman, Frank Lynn, Michel Richard, Frank Lynn Sr., Konstantin “Kosta” Troupos, BJ Lieberman, Anne Lynn, Emily Sprissler, Mike Isabella, Dan Silverman, Libby Diamond, Michael McNamara, Drew Adams, Kate Diamond, Danny Meyer, Andy Erdmann, Elizabeth Parker, Scott Muns, Aziz Shafi, Justin Eobstel, Andi Chesser, Alison Danie. Directed by Dustin Harrison-Atlas

It is said that the second hardest thing to do in the small business realm is to open up a new restaurant. The hardest thing to do is keep it open. As most people are aware, restaurants come and go with almost a terrifying regularity. People tend to be fickle and may pack your eatery one day and the next day be on to the new flavor of the week. Banks are very loathe to give out small business loans for that reason, particularly for would-be restaurateurs with no track record.

One of the toughest markets for restaurants is the Washington DC area. This documentary follows two men with very different concepts and very different hopes; one is Aaron Silverman, a chef with a pedigree that has brought him under the tutelage of some of the best in the business, including Michel Richard (who sadly passed away shortly after filming concluded for New Chefs on the Block). He had an idea of a five star dining experience at two star prices. In order to accomplish that he loaded up his kitchen with experienced chefs.

He also gave his staff health and dental benefits (a rarity in the food service industry) and regular hours, giving them the ability to plan their lives. This is also revolutionary stuff in an industry well-known for creating personal life chaos. Silverman is something of a perfectionist and the price it would take to make his dream happen was a heck of a lot more than the second chef.

Frank Lynn (who in the interest of transparency is the brother-in-law of the filmmaker) had been operating a successful pizza-oriented food truck for two years and yearned to have a brick-and-mortar location to call his own. He found one in the Maryland suburbs of DC but the space would need some extensive work. Believing that the $86,000 he raised through family members and Crowdfunding would be more than sufficient to get his neighborhood pizzeria open, he set about remodeling his space mainly with the help of his family and friends.

Both project take longer than expected to reach opening night and both are fraught with issues that threaten to kill the dreams of their prospective owners before they even get started. We see pretty much everything; the process of getting permits, the physical construction, ordering a pizza oven that turns out to be defective, the compromises and calamities all told.

Many restaurant owners are going to see this and chuckle ruefully to themselves. Others who are thinking about opening a restaurant might turn white as a sheet. However, the cautionary tale is that Harrison-Atlas turned out to be extraordinarily lucky; most restaurants don’t make it to their first anniversary and the number that make it to their second is terrifyingly low. Still, this is a fascinating behind the scenes look at how your neighborhood restaurants came into being. That the two owners are engaging and charismatic fellas makes this a lot more palatable because some might find the somewhat clinical view of the start to finish process a bit of a slog. However I assure you that you’ll leave the theater (or your home couch if you are watching through streaming or home video) a little bit more educated about the business and, even more likely, craving something good to eat.

REASONS TO GO: An informative look at what goes into opening a restaurant. A rooting interest is maintained even when the expectations aren’t realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little bit too “nuts and bolts” for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity occasionally.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rose’s Luxury would go on to win the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant, Mid-Atlantic Region in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Georges
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: A Quiet Passion

Chef


Just don't call it a roach coach.

Just don’t call it a roach coach.

(2013) Dramedy (Open Road) Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey Jr., Russell Peters, Gloria Sandoval, Jose C. Hernandez ‘Perico’, Nili Fuller, Aaron Franklin, Roy Choi, Gary Clark Jr., Benjamin Jacob, Rachel Acuna. Directed by Jon Favreau

This might well be called the age of the Chef. We are more aware of those who cook are food than ever; some develop into a kind of rock star status with television shows, restaurant chains, food products and frequent appearances on talk shows. Getting to that point though takes a lot of hard work.

Carl Casper (Favreau) had reason to believe he was on that fast track to the big time. He came out of Miami as one of the most acclaimed up-and-coming chefs in the business, but it is certainly a business of “what have you cooked for me lately?” as that was a decade or more ago. Now, he toils as the head chef in a popular Beverly Hills eatery run by the control freak Riva (Hoffman). He’s lost his edge and his passion, cooking Riva’s menu even when one of the more influential bloggers and food critics Ramsey Michel (Platt) comes to review the restaurant.

That review goes very badly for Carl as Michel trashes the food but also Carl himself, blasting him for complacency and assuming the reason he’s put on so much weight is that “he’s eating all the food returned to the kitchen.” Carl takes it very personally, leading to a heated exchange with the critic which is caught on enough cell phones to go viral. Carl finds himself without a job and too much of an Internet punch line to get a new one.

On the personal front, Carl has an amiable relationship with his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) but his 10-year-old son Percy (Anthony) wants more of a relationship than his dad is able to supply right now. Percy lives in a perpetual state of disappointment when it comes to his father. Inez thinks that Carl needs to go back to his roots in Miami and get himself a food truck. Her other ex-husband Melvin (Downey) has one that’s pretty dilapidated but has some potential.

Right at his side is his former line cook Martin (Leguizamo) who is far more loyal than Carl maybe deserves, but between the two of them they come up with the best Cuban sandwich you may ever eat. They are going to drive the truck to L.A. from Miami with stops in New Orleans and Austin; of course, Percy will come along for the ride. This is a road trip that Carl needs to discover his passion not just for food but for life.

Favreau started out as a director doing Swingers which 20 years ago redefined the whole indie film genre and while Favreau has gone on to big franchise films for the most part, his heart has always been with these sorts of movies. The trouble with being an in-demand franchise film director is that there isn’t time for him to do small movies like this one. However, after excusing himself from the Iron Man franchise he went in this direction first and to his credit it’s a wise move.

Not that the Iron Man films are without heart but they are so much less intimate than a movie like this. Chef is often described as a foodie film (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone) but it really isn’t about food so much as it is about being an artist; Carl’s medium happens to be food. Inspiration is important to any artist; ask any artist who is working for somebody else how easy it is to have their own inspiration and style curtailed by someone who doesn’t understand art, doesn’t understand the artist.

One of the problems with art is that from time to time an artist will take themselves too seriously but this isn’t about the arrogance of the artist (although Carl certainly has some of that – art requires an absolute belief in your own talent) but about the artist who has lost their way and must find it again. First though he must find his own heart.

Kids can often be cloying in roles like this one but Anthony manages to avoid that. Sometimes he comes on a bit strong with the disappointed face, but other than that he has a very natural relationship with Favreau. The two seem genuinely fond of one another and that translates well to the screen.

Favreau, who often plays smartass sorts (maybe hanging around so much with Vince Vaughn early on in his career contributed to that) but while his character can be a bit of a dick sometimes, this is a much more mature character than we’re used to seeing from him although on paper, he is pretty childish in places. By mature, I mean a character that has a lot more depth to them than just one-line zingers. This is one of Favreau’s strongest performances to date both in front of and behind the camera.

And yes, you will leave the theater hungry, longing for a good Cuban sandwich or some fine beef brisket (Aaron Franklin, whose Franklin Barbecue in Austin is considered to be the best in the country by many experts, makes a cameo appearance showing off his brisket). That’s all right. For my own purpose I left the theater not just hungry for good food but for more films like this from Favreau.

REASONS TO GO: Warm without being overly sentimental. Will make you hungry. Realistic relationships.

REASONS TO STAY: Will likely end up somewhat dated.

FAMILY VALUES: A decent amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Favreau was trained in knife-work and cooking techniques by Roy Choi, a well known fusion chef and food truck owner in the LA area who was also credited as a producer on the film (and makes a cameo appearance as himself).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations 

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Immigrant

Lola Versus


Lola Versus

Greta Gerwig smirks at Brooklyn from the safety of Manhattan.

(2012) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Greta Gerwig, Joel Kinnaman, Zoe Lister-Jones, Hamish Linklater, Bill Pullman, Debra Winger, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Jay Pharoah, Maria Dizzia, Cheyenne Jackson, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Jonathan Sale, Adriane Lennox. Directed by Daryl Wein

 

The rite of passage as we turn 30 isn’t a ceremonial one nor is it even one we even are aware we’re doing. When we’re in our 20s we can be wild, but as we enter our 30s the responsibilities of job, family and relationship put dampers on our tendencies to party like, well, 20-somethings.

Lola (Gerwig) is 29 years old and life is a bowl of cherries. She’s working on her doctoral dissertation and planning a wedding to her artist boyfriend Luke (Kinnaman) who is handsome and sexy and adores her. Her BFF Alice (Lister-Jones) kvetches constantly about her own inability to attract a guy. She and her ex Henry (Linklater) are Lola’s support system.

Lola is going to need it too when just a few weeks before the wedding, Luke bails on the marriage – and on the relationship. Lola is devastated, comforted by her parents (Pullman, Winger) who are a couple of ex-hippies with a possibly kooky New Age outlook but warm hearts beneath the jargon.

Lola is urged to stop moping and obsessing on Luke and starts to go out with other men. She develops a deep friendship with Henry which both seem to want to take further but neither seem to be able to find a way to make it work. Lola winds up having sex with Luke, then with a creepy prison architect (Moss-Bachrach) with a large….um…well, you can guess.

Lola is a sweet girl but as she approaches birthday number thirty, she is making some fairly egregious mistakes – some out of awkwardness but some in an effort to hurt. She alienates some of her friends, particularly when she begins to realize that of all of them she’s the only one who is truly alone.

For those who love indie hipster romantic comedies with a serious undertone, this is right up your alley. Gerwig has become an indie film darling (much like Parker Posey and Zooey Deschanel have been). She tends to play slightly neurotic but ultimately good-hearted sorts who have difficulties with relationships. The neurotic part utilizes her comedic skills, which are considerable; the good-hearted part engenders audience identification. While most of her parts seem to have been limited to girlfriend types, Gerwig is a talent with a future.

Sadly, she isn’t given much to work with here. It seems like it was written in an Indie Film 101 course with all the clichés that one finds in the average independent film. Artistic types living in Manhattan lofts they couldn’t possibly afford, check. An apparently unlimited income that comes in from no discernible job, check. Quirky friends, check. Montages set to indie music, check. Spiffy dialogue that nobody really talks like, check. A haughty New York-centricity that looks down on all other locations as vastly inferior, check. It all has a kind of been there done that feel.

This is a movie that is too hip for its own good. It’s not that I have anything against being hip, I just feel that it’s a bit overexposed. I’d rather see a few movies that have nothing to do with artists living in lofts, are located anywhere but New York and have characters and dialogue that aren’t clever. I like Gerwig (and Lister-Jones has some good moments as well) but by and large, this just left me flat.

REASONS TO GO: Frank about female sexuality. Gerwig is extremely likable.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too indie hipster for its own good. Might make those who find sex objectionable uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of sexuality, plenty of cursing, some drinking and drug use as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lister-Jones co-wrote the screenplay with Wein.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100. The reviews are more or less mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tiny Furniture

MACROBIOTIC FOOD LOVERS: Lola’s parents own a vegan restaurant and throughout Lola mostly eats and snacks on macrobiotic and raw food.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian