Sandra Nettelbeck’s Mostly Martha, from her own screenplay, is a minor miracle: a German movie that is at the same time a literally and figuratively delicious entertainment of prodigious charm, warmth and decency. Granted, this is a film that tells us absolutely nothing new about the problems that face us and is shamelessly hedonistic about the obsession with preparing gourmet food of the protagonist, Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck). But it is still delightful.
Martha works her culinary wiles as the head chef of a chic Hamburg restaurant. She is such a perfectionist that she never hesitates to storm out of the kitchen to scold a customer who has had the temerity to complain about her cooking-much to the dismay of her boss, Frida (Sibylle Canonica), who clings to the old business maxim that the customer is always right. Martha, like many chefs, has no personal life beyond her world-famous recipes. She seems reasonably content, though she regularly consults a perpetually exasperated, neurotic psychotherapist (August Zirner). Martha loves cooking for other people and is overjoyed to see them enjoy a meal. At these moments, at least, she doesn’t seem to realize that she is supposed to feel lonely and frustrated in her spotless home at night.
Then one day, her well-ordered world erupts with a seismic shock as her sister is killed in an automobile accident, leaving behind an 8-year-old daughter, Lina (Maxime Foerste), who is understandably traumatized by the loss of her mother, particularly since her Italian father had abandoned them years before to return to Italy. We are now on more familiar movie ground, as we watch Martha, who has no experience with children, struggle to take care of Lina. First, Lina won’t eat; then she doesn’t want to go to school, and when Martha drags her there, it’s not long before Lina plays hooky. One disastrous experience with a teenage baby-sitter is enough to convince Martha that Lina needs a mother, not a sitter.
As if life had not become complicated enough for Martha, her boss hires a flamboyant Italian chef, Mario (Sergio Castellitto), without consulting her. Martha feels threatened by Mario’s exuberance in proposing culinary innovations. When she digs in her heels, Mario says that he will leave if she does not ask him to stay. Martha recognizes that Mario is good enough to get a job anywhere, and reluctantly agrees to give working together another try.
Meanwhile, she gets into the habit of taking Lina to the restaurant, where Mario quickly bonds with the father-starved little girl and tricks her into eating some of his spaghetti. Martha is grateful to Mario for getting Lina out of her anorexic pattern, but now events have been set in motion that will change several lives forever.
Martha has written to Lina’s father in Italy to satisfy the Hamburg authorities that her guardianship of Lina is only temporary until her father can come to get her. But just when Martha and Mario and Lina have begun to come together as a tentative family, Lina’s father arrives to take her to live with his new family in Italy. What happens next has a bit of fairy tale in it, but so what? I never said Mostly Martha was a great film; there is not nearly enough vinegar in Martha’s recipe to reassure the more captious among us that they are not wasting their time on a piece of sentimental kitsch.
Yet to watch the relationship between Martha and Lina slowly evolve toward an overpowering hug-around-your-neck intensity is to appreciate what the magic of casting and acting can achieve in transcending and transfiguring banality. Ms. Gedeck, especially, projects such a vibrant presence that one wants her to be happy and fulfilled no matter what.
Make no mistake about it, Mostly Martha is all about Martha, despite the title and the misleading trailer for the film, which presents Martha as a ridiculous character until she is “awakened” by her passionate Italian lover. There is a romance of sorts between Martha and Mario, but the real passion is between Martha and Lina, and Mario is intelligent enough to acknowledge his secondary role in the reunion of Martha and Lina. There is also an engaging subtext that expresses Northern Europe’s long love affair with sunny Italy.
Still Honor-Bound To Nail the Perp
Clint Eastwood’s Blood Work , from a screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by Michael Connelly, masks the very real career vulnerability facing a 72-year-old action-hero superstar behind the medical mumbo-jumbo of a heart transplant. Mr. Eastwood’s Terry McCaleb functions as an uncannily good F.B.I. profiler, until he suffers a serious heart attack while chasing a perp. Even before his forced retirement, McCaleb is being given a hard time by LAPD detectives Ronaldo Arrango (Paul Rodriguez) and John Waller (Dylan Walsh), who resent his upstaging of their hunt for a serial killer. What fuels their rage is the fact that the perp seems to be communicating with McCaleb alone in a mysterious code scrawled in blood at the scenes of the murders. Hence, the double meaning of “blood work”-as a killer’s m.o., and as the postoperative procedures of tough-as-nails Dr. Bonnie Fox (Anjelica Huston), who warns McCaleb not to take on another case and place his new heart, and himself, at death’s door.
Of course, the doctor has to be disobeyed or there is no movie. McCaleb is drawn into the search for a new serial killer (who turns out to be the same one he was chasing before his heart attack) because of a peculiar obligation he feels to one of the murder victims, whose rare blood-type matched McCaleb’s own and thereby provided him with his new heart. The victim’s sister, Graciella Rivers (Wanda De Jesús), pleads with an initially reluctant McCaleb to enter the case precisely because her late sister, a single mother, gave him a second chance at life. The well-brought-up little boy now living with his aunt helps persuade McCaleb that the boy’s mother was a good person. The iconically chivalrous urban knight, embodied in the Eastwood persona since Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) more than 30 years ago, is honor-bound to apprehend her murderer.
Several of my colleagues have already hinted that it’s too easy to spot the guilty party, but they’ve shied away from technically giving the show away. I’ve already received hate mail for my previous infractions against this unwritten rule of movie-reviewing. So, only for those who are not interested in being surprised by the identity of the murderer, here’s a hint: look at the billing.
Still, even I, pitifully innocent as I am in these matters-I remain a little puzzled over the climactic twists in The Crying Game (1992) and The Sixth Sense (1999)-managed to spot the killer almost immediately: that is, with his very first appearance in the film. It can be argued, I suppose, that Blood Work was designed from the outset not so much as a whodunit as a why-and-how-dunit, and here the film becomes metaphysically ingenious. What is a hero’s life worth, after all, if he does not rise to the challenge of repaying a mortal debt?
Mr. Eastwood’s direction still has its rough patches, especially a tendency toward overstatement-particularly with Mr. Rodriguez’s relentless mad-dog stand-up-comic-inherited tirades against the laconically imperturbable Anglo. Yet this Anglo’s old flame and best friend in the movie is an African-American F.B.I. colleague, Jaye Winston (Tina Lifford), and his last love is Hispanic. But then Clint has always been a jazzman at heart, and his appeal transcends national, ethnic and racial boundaries.
LaBute’s Victorians, Less Repressed Than We Are
Neil LaBute’s Possession , from a screenplay by David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and Mr. LaBute, based on the novel by A.S. Byatt, labors strenuously to activate and enliven two love stories, one set in our postmodern period, the other in the Victorian era. As is so often the case with this kind of double-entry bookkeeping enterprise, in which the present is pitted against the past, the Victorians come out better than we do.
The story involves two initially unrelated and unconnected literary researchers who follow in the footsteps of their subjects and thereby uncover a secret adulterous love affair of long ago, adding spice to their own budding personal relationship. The jest is that the Victorian lovers are more audacious and less repressed than their counterparts in our own supposedly liberated age.
Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a reputable English academic who is doing research on the life and work of a Victorian poet named Christabel La-Motte (Jennifer Ehle) when she encounters Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart), a brash American scholar in England on a fellowship to study the renowned Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam). Ash was the poet laureate to Queen Victoria but is now better known for a collection of passionate late-life poems ostensibly dedicated to his wife.
Maud is taken aback at first by Roland’s impetuousness, but when they come upon a treasure trove of letters that appear to be written by Ash to LaMotte, they follow a trail of clues drawn from the letters all across England, thus re-enacting the daring journey of the Victorian couple over a century earlier. Somehow, Ms. Ehle and Mr. Northam seem more relaxed in their well-practiced Masterpiece Theatre roles than Ms. Paltrow and Mr. Eckhart do as their modern academic counterparts. After all, Ms. Ehle and Mr. Northam are British to the bone for any age (though Ms. Ehle was born and partly raised in the States), whereas Ms. Paltrow is faux-British, though generally convincing, as in her much-honored run-through in John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998), and Aaron Eckhart is playing a character rewritten from the book’s working-class Briton to the film’s comparatively classless American.
The production looks better than it plays, possibly because the witheringly misanthropic and misogynous Mr. LaBute is a strange choice to direct a double-tiered love story, even though he claims to have taken a literary interest in Ms. Byatt’s 1990 Booker Prize–winning novel. It is not that Mr. LaBute’s direction is unduly harsh and abrasive, but rather that the projection of feelings tends to be flat and tepid. Also, the book crackles with the author’s sharp literary distinctions among the various fashionable options for scholars trying to resurrect the past. One cannot blame Mr. LaBute and his colleagues for failing to catch all the nuances of the novel on the screen. This is the familiar hazard of attempting to transfer bookish books to even an art-house film. Something is inevitably lost in the translation, and there is not enough cinematic red meat to take up the slack.
Ultimately, the film never recovers from the clumsy cliché of the ugly American abroad, and the too-frosty exterior Ms. Paltrow employs to authenticate her British persona is another liability. If I were a travel agent rather than a movie reviewer, however, I could wholeheartedly recommend the film for its marvelous location shooting in London and elsewhere in England.