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Mostly formulaic, but still a tasty treat 

Yeah, we've seen it before: single, self-centered, career-minded woman acquires, through generally wacky means, somebody else's sassy kid. Adult and child initially butt heads, but eventually help each other grow emotionally. When this premise is done with no thought, you get something like Bogus with Whoopi Goldberg and Haley Joel Osment. When it's done right, you're treated to Mostly Martha (opening Friday, September 27, at the Little), a terrific German import that invigorates the tired, aforementioned concept with the hunger-inducing food preparation scenes of films like Big Night, Babette's Feast, and Like Water For Chocolate (but, thankfully, not Woman On Top).

            When Martha opens, we hear a woman describing an intricately prepared meal, and we assume the conversation is taking place in a restaurant, possibly as a waitress runs down the evening's specials to her customers. In reality, the conversation occurs in a shrink's office, as Martha (Martina Gedeck) illustrates how she would prepare fresh pigeon, while her doctor (August Zirner) clutches his stomach in an attempt to conceal the growling. Martha is the head chef at Lido, a haute Hamburg eatery whose owner, Frida (Sibylle Canonica), forces Martha to see the therapist because she's a little confrontational with diners who have a problem with her dishes.

            Martha is a rigid, thirtysomething woman who allows nothing into her life other than cooking. Overly controlling, with hair locked in an unforgiving bun, Martha doesn't cook because she loves to do it or enjoys tasting her creations. She does it because she's extremely good at it. She approaches food with the affection of a chemist combining unlovable chemicals. And, of course, Martha's heart has been on ice for a long time.

            One tragic event threatens to derail Martha's carefully constructed, but seemingly joyless, life --- the death of her sister. When Martha becomes the ward of her young niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste), her work begins to suffer. So boss Frida, without consulting Martha, hires an Italian chef named Mario (Sergio Castellitto) to help out in Lido's kitchen. Needless to say, Martha doesn't cotton to the Puccini-humming Mario, but he eventually grows on her, especially after he slyly convinces the withdrawn Lina to eat her first post-tragedy meal.

            The way writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck handled the subplot involving Lina's refusal to eat was one of the things that made Martha work. In addition to being the catalyst for the inevitable relationship between Martha and Mario, it also helps establish just how out of touch Martha really is. A kid whose mother has just died needs comfort food, but Martha tries to feed Lina her nouveau cuisine. "I wish I had a recipe for you," a desperate and concerned Martha says to a withering Lina, as if recipes are the cure-all for life's problems.

            Nettlebeck carefully prepares her story, though it's very formulaic and predictable. The gorgeous scenes involving Martha's food preparation would be enough to separate Martha from other films of this ilk, but Nettlebeck is also blessed with a score of great performances, especially from Foerste and Gedeck, the latter of whom won Germany's equivalent of an Oscar.

           

If I make it to 93, my greatest wish is that I'll still maintain control over my bladder and sphincter. Concern over whether I have command over my craft will be as far from my mind as memories of eating solid food. For Manoel de Oliveira, the four-time Cannes-winning nonagenarian from Portugal, age is more of an inspiration than an obstacle. He's been making films before they became "talkies," and in 1985, he received a special lifetime achievement award from the Venice Film Festival, an honor generally bestowed upon people with one foot in the grave. Oliveira has won three more awards from Venice since then.

            Much like last year's Faithless --- in which an Ingmar Bergman script was brought to life by an actor (Erland Josephson) who's played Bergman's screen alter-ego a number of times --- Oliveira's I'm Going Home (also opening September 27 at the Little) features a lead performance by Michel Piccoli, who has appeared in a handful of the writer-director's films playing roles we can only assume are loosely based on Oliveira. Here, Piccoli plays Gilbert Valence, a very popular but rapidly aging star of the stage in end-of-the-millennium Paris. When Home opens, he's performing in Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King as the titular ruler who is going absolutely insane over the end of his reign. It's not exactly subtle, and the fact that the first 15 minutes of Home is basically a filmed version of the play comes off a bit weird and clunky (especially in a 90-minute film --- if you're one of those dipshits who can't get to the theater on time, you might think you walked into the wrong one).

            The instant Valence leaves the stage after his performance, he learns his wife, daughter, and son-in-law have been killed in a car accident. Flash to "some years later," where Valence has only a young grandson (Jean Koeltgen) to call family, and roles are becoming increasingly difficult to find. His agent (Antoine Chappey) tries to push a high-paying television part, but Valence wants nothing to do with that medium. After briefly appearing as Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Valence is given a big opportunity. American director John Crawford (John Malkovich, in his second straight role as a director following Shadow of the Vampire) is about to begin filming James Joyce's Ulysses. The actor who was to play Buck Mulligan has backed out, and Crawford wants to replace him with Valence, who would have only three days to master the film's difficult English dialogue.

            There are three scenes that really stand out in Home. The first shows a pair of young fans approaching Valence to ask him for his autograph while he's window-shopping. This exquisite scene is shot through a storefront window, which frees it from unneeded dialogue. The second scene, a much more interesting metaphor, depicts the usually reflective Valence deciding to buy a pair of shoes. "I'm constantly in someone else's shoes," he says, referring to his career portraying other people. The third remarkable scene is Home's final shot, which I won't reveal here. It'll break your heart.

           

Stupid people like to make the argument that there just aren't any good roles for older women. I don't necessarily believe that's true, but the pandering, annoying, and completely artificial The Banger Sisters definitely makes a strong case for the stupid people. How much lower can you get than a film with two extremely unlikable female leads preaching a message about the empowerment women receive when they let famous guys have sex with them? In that regard, Sisters is one step above a snuff film.

            The film is about a pair of women who used to be "famous" groupies back in the heyday of the Hollywood rock 'n' roll scene. Set two decades after their last hurrah, the opening scene depicts completely broke current groupie Suzette (Goldie Hawn) deciding to drive to Phoenix to hit up former sidekick Vinny (Susan Sarandon) for a quick loan so she can get back on her feet. Vinny, we're told, married into money and should be flush with cash to spare for an old friend. What follows should be found in the dictionary next to the word "predictable."

Interested in more movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his website, Planet Sick-Boy, at www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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