Mostly Martha and more
Film premieres on DVD and VHS
With so many excellent foreign films coming out at an almost continual rate, our local theaters can’t keep up. Many a great little film passes our fair city by, and so we dutifully wait for their eventual release on video and DVD. Juan-Carlos Selznick, the chief film critic for the Chico News & Review, tells us about several recent releases worth tracking down at the local video shop.
Smart, politically astute films about contemporary society are hard to come by these days, except in France, which has given us such trenchant dramas as La Haine, Beau Travail, Code Unknown, Human Resources, Humanité, Time Out, Read My Lips and Godard’s pair of idiosyncratic meditations, For Ever Mozart and In Praise of Love, along with Agnes Varda’s marvelous documentary The Gleaners and I.
It All Starts Today
Starring Philippe Torreton, Maria Pitarresi and Nadia Kaci.
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier.
Not rated, video rental.
Bertrand Tavernier’s It All Starts Today, a 1999 film finally getting video release from Facets Multimedia, makes an outstanding addition to the above list via its portrayal of a teacher and others struggling with the day-to-day operation of, and the heartbreaking human dilemmas within, a preschool in a poverty-stricken mining region of northern France. Such Tavernier films as The Clockmaker, Sunday in the Country, A Week’s Vacation, The Bait and this one carry on in the generous humanistic tradition of Jean Renoir, with both the warm sympathies and the quietly biting realism of the old master coming into play.
It All Starts Today is sensitive without being sentimental, and its quasi-documentary-style portrayal of the teachers’ multi-faceted concerns for their small pupils’ well-being takes a matter-of-fact approach to the endemic social breakdowns and still finds heartening signs of everyday heroism. Philippe Torreton brings earthy conviction and pragmatic credibility to the central character, the teacher/poet/activist who is the school’s principal. Tavernier wrote the no-nonsense screenplay with his daughter Tiffany and the teacher/poet Dominique Sampiero.
A side effect of the runaway success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding is that a number of other worthy little comedies were effectively shut out of local venues in which they most likely would have played.
Starring Martina Gedeck, Sergio Castellitto and Maxime Foerste.
Directed by Sandra Nettlebeck.
Rated PG, video rental.
A particularly striking case in point of the above is the feisty romantic comedy Mostly Martha, a smart and gently amusing film from Germany that is now available locally on video. The title character is a proud and rather unsociable young woman (Martina Gedeck) who is a brilliant and surpassingly arrogant chef in a Hamburg restaurant. When a flamboyant Italian chef (Sergio Castellitto) is hired while Martha is away from work, the sparks begin to fly—professionally, at first, but romantically soon enough after that. And this coincides with a wrenching shift within Martha’s family—when her sister dies in a car wreck, 8-year-old Lina (Maxime Foerste) must come to live with her devoutly single aunt.
The relationships that develop between these three characters are fresh and piquant even though the storyline is familiar and routine. Writer-director Sandra Nettlebeck gives the characters’ idiosyncrasies full play and coaxes beguiling mixtures of brashness and tenderness out of her actors. On paper it’s a routine romantic comedy, but Gedeck and Castellitto in particular bring so much quirky, difficult vitality to their parts that the whole enterprise takes on a zesty life of its own.
Some other new films, and a few classics, that are also premiering locally on video:
An all-star extravaganza from France, this highlights Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant, and Emmanuelle Béart as a set of female relatives called to meet at a country manor. Once there, they encounter a faux murder mystery and witness a wholesale coming-out of family secrets. Director François Ozon (Under the Sand) revels in the color and artifice of the situation and gives each of the stars a character-defining song to sing. Rated R.
This genial and literate feel-good frolic from Norway follows two roommates recently released from a mental hospital as they attempt to “return to reality” from a welfare apartment in the center of Oslo. The title character (Per Christian Ellefsen) is elfish and perpetually anxious, insisting on calling himself “a mama’s boy.” Hulking Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin) is still a virgin as he nears age 40, and that of course is just one of the things that’s about to change as these two charming misfits play out a Scandinavian version of Rain Man Meets the Odd Couple. Rated R.
Rebels of the Neon God
Tsai Ming-Liang (The Hole, The River, What Time Is It There? etc.) has made a whole string of brilliantly gloomy mood pieces about life in contemporary Taiwan. This one follows a lonely student drop-out (Tsai regular Lee Kang-Sheng) who quietly and obsessively stalks a swaggering petty thief, perhaps out of envy for the latter’s comely girlfriend and spiffy motorbike. The pessimism of this slow, simple, sharply observed tale is countered by Tsai’s broodingly poetic sense of urban isolation, particularly nightlife, in the global economy and mechanized electronic culture of the 21st century. DVD rental, not rated.
In this extraordinary non-narrative film, director Bill Morrison combines assorted images from partially decayed nitrate film stock with a modernist symphonic score by Michael Gordon. Technically, the results are rather like a mixture of Koyanisqaatsi and the “found-footage” films of Bruce Conner, but with a bigger role for the anarchic abstract imagery produced by the decay in the ancient black-and-white film stock. At times, Decasia is fascinating exercise in abstraction, but more often it has surprising power as a meditation on memory, the past, aging, and the gradual loss of all things in the flow of time. Morrison’s film has been picked up by the Sundance Channel, and video copies can be purchased through decasia.com.
The double-disc Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer showcases an astonishingly inventive array of short subjects by the Czech filmmaker/animator.
The Early Years Vol. 1 Mostly works from the 1960s, showing Svankmajer at his most inspired. The Flat (1968) and A Quiet Week in the House (1969) use stylized live action to Kafkaesque effect. Punch and Judy (1966) shows his fierce-humored penchant for myth and fairy tale, and the marvelous A Game With Stones (1964) reveals a surrealist animator of the first order.
The Later Years Vol. 2 includes the widely admired claymation masterpiece Dimensions of Dialogue (1982).
The classic Mystery of Picasso, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ingeniously filmed documentary on the great artist at work, may be even better in the new DVD edition. The daring and magic of the creative process come across in surprisingly strong visual terms. Clouzot’s methods permit us to see the step-by-step evolution of drawings and paintings created exclusively for this 1951 film, and his use of time-lapse photography and reverse transparencies gives the emerging images the lively rhythms and motion of animated film. Verbal commentary by Picasso himself, and sometimes by Clouzot, recurs throughout, and the DVD edition features two alternate tracks of fascinating audio commentary by art scholars.