TazzekaDirected by Jean-Philippe GaudFrance, Morocco
Growing up in a remote village in the Middle Atlas mountains, a young Moroccan named Elias (Mahdi Belemlih) nurtures hopes of one day recreating the French dishes that he’s memorized from the cookbooks of the late Joël Robuchon. At the local restaurant, though, his boss won’t let him cook poularde de Bresse, so Elias must content himself with elevating the local tajines while dreaming of emigrating to Paris and mourning his older brother, who died at Gibraltar while trying to reach Europe. That dream of emigration suddenly starts to seem more real when Elias’ cousin Salma (Ouidad Elma) comes back to the village from Paris—wearing jeans and no headscarf, smoking cigarettes and sunbathing in the nude, and making out, briefly, with Elias. Under the encouragement of Julien Blanc (Olivier Sitruk), a hotshot Parisian chef who hosts a reality TV show called Super Chef, Elias finally braves the trip, only to become a day laborer in Paris and a fugitive from the raids of the French immigration police. He soon learns new styles of cooking from the migrant Senegalese friends he makes on construction sites, enjoying their dishes of yassa and repaying them in kind by making couscous with French toast. Director Jean-Philippe Gaud presents you with a variety of obvious narrative possibilities (Elias and Salma pursue a Jules et Jim-style passion! Elias wins Super Chef! Elias gets really into fusion cooking as a metaphor for migration!), and then dismisses each, in turn, as facile and incomplete. Tazzeka is thereby all the more powerful as a portrait of south-to-north migration in the 21st century: All the deep hope and loss are here, as well as the small, life-saving grace that immigrants can show toward one another. —Ted Scheinman
Screens Saturday, April 27 at 4 p.m. and Wednesday, May 1 at 6 p.m. at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Echo In the CanyonDirected by Andrew SlaterU.S.
In Echo In the Canyon, singer/songwriter Jakob Dylan leads viewers on a trip back to a legendary time and place in rock history: mid-’60s Laurel Canyon, where the folk-rock sound was born. Artists from The Byrds, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Buffalo Springfield, and The Beach Boys all lived in the neighborhood, and according to the those who remain, it was commonplace for one musician to show up on another’s doorstep, smoke a little weed, and write a masterpiece or two.
Can we trust the memories of these aging rockers? Probably not, but it hardly matters. Dylan is more interested in printing the legend, and listening to Eric Clapton, Roger McGuinn, and David Crosby search out loud through the smoke-filled recesses of their mind is its own reward. Add in Dylan’s live performances of their best songs—with friends like Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, and Beck in tow—and Echo In the Canyon has the timeless appeal of a tasty riff.
It’s the sunny equivalent of a tourist bus trip past the homes of famous rock stars, and director Andrew Slater carefully avoids the dark alleys. McGuinn recounts the time Brian Wilson stayed up all night on amphetamines just to write a terrible song, but he does so with a laugh and a smile, with no mention of the troubles that lay ahead for Wilson. But despite Dylan’s best efforts, a sadness creeps in. “I still believe music can change the world,” Stephen Stills says at one point, before continuing, “I’m not letting this go.” The documentary is meant to be a celebration of the era’s legacy, but the freedom on display in both the songs and the stories behind them feels so ancient it might as well be gone. Echo In the Canyon is not quite the party it wants to be, just a funeral with really bitchin’ music. —Noah Gittell
Screens Saturday, April 27 at 8 p.m. at the Lincoln Theatre.
General MagicDirected by Sarah Kerruish and Matt MaudeUnited Kingdom, United States
General Magic opens with this statement: “Please turn your phone off or switch it to airplane mode. The film you’re about to watch is the story of how your phone first switched on and how a handful of people changed the lives of billions.” Indeed, General Magic was an offshoot of Apple dedicated to creating a personal communications device that you could keep in your pocket. Way back in 1989, founder Marc Porat drew a diagram of what would become a prototype of a smartphone. Along with other Apple visionaries and some talented young engineers, Porat set out to introduce the world to the information age.
General Magic chronicles the rise and fall of the company: the excitement when its technology and innovation worked (it also created the first emoticons), the disappointment years down the road when it became clear the employees had become too enamored with fucking around with possibility instead of focusing on delivering a product. The film is very Behind the Music in arc and feel; we’re happy, we’re sad, then we’re happy again. It kind of trails off near the end and ultimately seems longer than its 90 minutes. But what makes it remarkable is its footage of those halcyon days: A filmmaker had chronicled it all, and it’s fascinating to see legends such as Andy Hertzfeld and Joanna Hoffman (portrayed by Kate Winslet in Jobs) in their prime. The team predicted the impact their creation would have: “Once you use it, you won’t be able to live without it.” —Tricia Olszewski
Screens Sunday, April 28 at 3:30 p.m. and Wednesday, May 1 at 6 p.m. at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
The Best Sommelier in the World
Directed by Nicolás CarrerasArgentina
There’s a point in The Best Sommelier in the World when any viewers who have been in the service industry will start to sweat. The three finalists in the global competition have to serve a table full of judges, who order a bottle of extra brut champagne. But of the four bottles provided the sommeliers, none are extra brut. They have to satisfy their customers. What to do?
It’s one of the more nerve-wracking of a series of very difficult challenges the contestants face, and of course some handle the situation better than others. (They also have to make a dry martini for the table. Did you know that sommeliers deal with liquor as well as wine?) The downfall of the film, however, is that it ultimately lacks suspense, telegraphing which contestants will make it through to subsequent rounds by paying attention to them via commentary from others or simply following them with a camera. But what the film lacks in excitement it makes up for with uniqueness, especially if this is not a world you’re familiar with. After all, as someone close to the competition says, “to excite people through a liquid is the biggest virtue that a person could have.” —Tricia Olszewski
Screens Wednesday, May 1 at 6 p.m. at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Thursday, May 2 at 6 p.m. at AMC Mazza Gallerie.
Fading PortraitsDirected by Ali ShilandariIran
Fading Portraits is a dutiful tribute to the prolific dissident Iranian photographer Maryam Zandi, as well as a document of Zandi’s six-year effort to persuade Iran’s Ministry of Islamic Culture to let her publish one of her proudest collections—the photos Zandi took of blacklisted artists during and following the revolution of 1979. In 2010, Zandi snubbed then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he tried to give her an award and says she’s faced heightened censorship ever since, though the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani gave her hope. (Failing approval from the new administration, Zandi vows to take her photos to Afghanistan or Pakistan and publish them there.) The film gives us dreamy passages showing Zandi taking photos on the Gulf or in the desert, but director Ali Shilandari intercuts these sequences with agonizingly long phone calls detailing the bureaucratic play-by-play at the Ministry of Culture. The film is strongest when Shilandri presses Zandi on her philosophy of photography, which Zandi explains is born of her lifelong sense of imminent death. Zandi says that she gravitated toward portraiture because it was a way to preserve people whose lives she feared for, and repeats the mantra that “forgetting is death.” The statement is true literally: Old age brings forgetting, and then death. But a censorious state, too, brings forgetting, and with it another kind of death. Fading Portraits is a deeply personal history of how the Iranian revolution betrayed the progressive artists who had protested the old regime—and especially how it betrayed the women among them. —Ted Scheinman
Screens Thursday, May 2 at 6 p.m. and Friday, May 3 at 6:30 p.m. at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in AmericaDirected by Brigitte BermanCanada
Hugh Hefner abused women in public and private while promulgating moderately progressive politics that established him among an audience of credulous Boomers as a socially conscious aesthete. No matter that the closest thing Hef had to taste was an upscale bordello underscored by inoffensive jazz; for over half a century, he was able to cast himself as a tastemaker, when he was little more than an appetite-server. Hefner’s two television shows inadvertently underline these hypocrisies, as does Brigitte Berman’s new rose-tinted documentary about Hef’s rather unsuccessful TV career. The first show, Playboy Penthouse, ran from 1959-1961; the second, After Dark, from 1969-1970. Each is set in a party context where Hefner plays host with a curious, lock-jawed anti-charisma that makes these ostensibly swinging affairs feel oddly square. The musical guests (Nina Simone, Smokey Robinson, Sammy Davis Jr.) are the natural highlights. In latter-day interviews, Dick Gregory and Whoopi Goldberg stress the importance of featuring black artists on national television in a mixed-race setting (Hef was a “pioneer,” Whoopi says), and credit here is surely due. Yet Berman, who won a best documentary Oscar for her 1985 portrait of the clarinettist Artie Shaw, operates in full hagiography mode here; if a viewer knew nothing else about American cultural history, they might leave the theater imagining Hefner as the Abraham Lincoln of American media. On race, though, he was more of a Branch Rickey—a progressive, but also aware of the benefits to be reaped through making a certain amount of space for black talent. There’s a fine line between capitalizing on counterculture and promulgating it, and Hefner straddled that line as it suited him, in the same sad arrangement that in more recent years has given us woke corporations. In both his shows, Hefner offered his male audience a fantasy of having it both ways: the opportunity to bask in the reflected virtue of the brave and the downtrodden, from the comfort of a sofa in a penthouse apartment staffed by unseen servants and furnished with beautiful young women who appear to have taken a vow of silence. —Ted Scheinman
Screens Thursday, May 2 at 6 p.m. and Saturday, May 4 at 6 p.m. at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
DC NoirDirected by George Pelecanos, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Nick Pelecanos, and Stephen KinigopoulosU.S.
In his career as a novelist, George Pelecanos specializes in detective novels set in his hometown of D.C. He also collaborated with David Simon on the iconic crime series The Wire. DC Noir, an adaptation of an anthology of his stories, seems split between these two lanes. It tries to do what The Wire did for Baltimore: tell a multi-faceted story about the underworld of a city. But he overlays it with hard-boiled voice over and a misleading title, creating confusion in the viewer and, ultimately, disappointment when you realize you’ve been duped. DC Noir is not noir at all, just an average crime film.
It’s a series of minor stories about people we’ve seen many times before: a working-class teenager who gets mixed up in a drug deal, a veteran cop trying to make a difference on tough streets, and a police informant taking care of his elderly father. The film spends so little time with any of them that they feel more like cliches than well drawn characters, and while there are some tense moments throughout, the film is missing the sense of style and place that has always defined noir. The most disappointing thing about DC Noir is that it could have been set anywhere. Outside of the terrific title sequence that films D.C. landmarks from ominous angles, there is nothing in it that speaks to Washington’s character. This city deserves a better dark side. —Noah Gittell
Screens Saturday, May 4 at 8:30 p.m. at AMC Mazza Gallerie.