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Hear My Cry
By Shawn Stone

Read My Lips
Directed by Jacques Audiard

You know a thriller is hyped if it’s described as “Hitchcockian.” In the case of the imaginative French import Read My Lips, the adjective actually fits. As in the esteemed films of Alfred Hitchcock, the relationships between the characters in Jacques Audiard’s film are as important—perhaps even more important—than the criminal mystery at the heart of the story.

Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) is enormously put-upon and taken for granted in her job. As the principle secretary and receptionist for a Paris construction company, she is given the maximum amount of work and given the least credit. When she finally passes out from exhaustion (in the middle of the office), Carla is allowed to hire an assistant. Mousy and lonely, Carla contrives to limit the pool of applicants to males between the ages of 20 and 25.

Matching the important aspects of her criteria, the employment agency sends Paul (Vincent Cassel), a recent parolee with no office experience. Paul is unsuitable for the job, but Carla finds that his surly good looks suit her, and she hires him. The former stick-up man and petty thief adjusts to the world of copy machines and faxes with some difficulty, but makes a real effort because he doesn’t want to do even more menial work.

Paul is also intrigued by her: He’s the first person in the office to notice that Carla, who is severely hearing-impaired and wears aids in both ears, can read lips. As the outsiders in the company, they form a bond. Given Paul’s criminal past, we immediately suspect that he will find some innovative use for her unheralded talent—one that will provide the romance and danger Carla clearly craves.

Her path to crime and his progress to a functional level of respectability form the heart of the drama. Each exploits the other’s talents for their own benefit. When a slimy sales rep named Keller (Pierre Diot) at the construction firm takes over a project Carla developed, she blackmails Paul into helping her get it back. When Paul is clued in to a potentially big heist going on under his very nose, he manipulates Carla into using her lip-reading skills to get all the details. He becomes smoother; she becomes less conventional, buying sexy clothing to go nightclubbing. All the while, the two are drawn ever closer in a relationship based on needs that transcend love, or even lust. It’s almost a kind of spiritual fulfillment through crime.

Director (and co-screenwriter) Jacques Audiard makes imaginative use of Carla’s disability, both in the story and as a cinematic device. Much of the drama is based on the point of view of Carla and Paul—the audience never learns the details of the big score, or many other details outside the direct experiences of the two partners. Mirroring this, most scenes in which Carla appears include an awareness of her hearing impairment. We hear what she does, depending on whether she has her aids turned on (what she does and doesn’t want to hear is also a window into her character).

The performances by Devos and Cassel are remarkable. Since the characters don’t fall in love at first, second, or even third sight, audience interest in the curious progress of their relationship depends on the subtlety of the actors’ interplay. When Carla’s and Paul’s moment of truth arrives at the end of the film, the effect is emotionally and dramatically affecting.

The Menu of Life

Mostly Martha
Directed by Sandra Nettlebeck

My mother used to have a collection of cooking books, each centered around a particular cuisine, circa 1935. As a child, I absolutely loved perusing these tomes, lingering over the pictures and conjuring up dinner parties. That is, I enjoyed all the books save for the German, whose gobstopping takes on entrails and other organ meats did little to recommend the illustrations of hearty Teutonic hausfraus in braids and corsets, handing out tankards of what could only have been bitter ale to wash down those horrible recipes. Really, how romantic could German cuisine be?

This was my thought as I settled into Mostly Martha, a new comedy espousing that food-as-metaphor-for-life ideal that countless columnists are using to explain the success of, say, the TV Food Network. With the exception of a narrative on how best to prepare pigeons, we are spared the agony of watching German chef Martha (Martha Gedeck) make her own sausauges. Instead, director Sandra Nettlebeck features the winsome if rigid chef deftly sautéing rainbow slivers of vegetables and perfectly delectable-looking meats like lamb and steak. As she recounts to the psychiatrist whom her boss orders her to see, Martha has an affinity for the poor lobster, who eats himself from the inside out when trapped. Here is a woman at the peak of her career, commanding her own kitchen, but unable to embrace life, let alone ever eat the incredible dishes she makes for herself at home.

All of this changes, slowly, when she has to take in her niece Lina (Maxime Foerste) upon the death of the girl’s mother. Forced to share, first, her life and home, and then, when her boss hires assistant chef Mario (Sergio Castelitto), her sacred kitchen, Martha is rattled to the core. Can she find those maternal instincts nestled within? Will she take after Mario and begin spilling sauce over the sides of pans—here clearly seen as the sign of a healthy psyche? How will she deal with that pesky customer who demands a redo on his steak?

Admittedly, this is fluffy stuff, made more, er, palatable by agreeable stars, a sense of fun, and, of course, gorgeous food, played out against an aural backdrop of decidedly un-Germanesque jazz. Mostly Martha is squarely targeted at foodies like myself, who devour each new issue of Gourmet and wax orgasmic over the sight of fresh sorrel at the farmer’s market. It’s easy to overlook the rather simplistic way in which Martha’s character is written: She is yet another successful career woman whose starched toque hides a barren love life. Mario is likeable, sure, and his way with Lina sure beats Martha’s, but are we supposed to find it ludicrous that Martha would have a near panic attack when she sees the way in which Mario, having made her an Italian dinner, has soiled her home kitchen? Indeed, all I could think was, great, she gets this terrific dinner, but she still has to wash the dishes—which I guess is, in the end, what relationships boil down to.

As if we don’t get the point, Nettlebeck does the classic hair thing—Martha spends most of the movie with a neat bun, but following a night of love and truffles with Mario, she’s wearing it loose over her shoulders. Food may be a metaphor for life, but in Mostly Martha, it’s a way to meet guys who can improve your life.

—Laura Leon

Odd man out: Ledger in The Four Feathers.

Lighter Than Air

The Four Feathers
Directed by Shekar Kapur

In The Four Feathers, Shekar Kapur’s slavish adaptation of the 1902 novel by A.E.W. Mason, a British outpost in Sudan is overtaken by the fanatical rebel forces of Mahdi Mohammed. The scene is suffused with a dread that Mason could not have imagined in the days when Great Britain ruled over a quarter of the world, and the petrodollar and the Taliban were far in the future. This politically charged sequence, however, is almost accidental: Kapur’s romantic epic avoids geopolitics like the plague, to the point where some of plot is almost incomprehensible. Those soldiers in the fezzes, it might be helpful to know, are Egyptian allies of the British.

With more strategy and less Victorian melodrama, The Four Feathers might’ve rivaled the thrilling ahistoricism of Shekur’s previous film, Elizabeth. This film certainly has a lot going for it: a tumultuous story ripe for revisionism, exotic locales, and natural-born swashbuckler Heath Ledger as the hero. Ledger is Harry Faversham, an officer engaged to Ethne (Kate Hudson), and close-as-brothers with vainglorious Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), who is equally smitten with Ethne. Why these two dashing aristos are so taken with the blandly sensible young blonde (Hudson doesn’t cut it as a great beauty or as a Brit) is just one of many vaporish notions that Kapur substantiates with his astonishing visual flair.

Affable Harry turns suddenly sullen when war is declared, and he resigns his commission. He has a mild objection to fighting in the desert, for which he pays dearly when his father disowns him and his comrades send him four white feathers—symbols of cowardice. Determined to redeem himself, Harry makes his way across hostile northeast Africa, alone, to join the fighting and return the feathers with honor. First he is afraid, and then he is fearless. He almost dies in the desert and is saved by Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), a Muslim mercenary who, for some vaguely karmic reason, becomes his devoted protector. Harry disguises himself as an Arab and spies for the British, unbeknownst to his beleaguered regiment. At one point, he surrenders to the horrific Omdurman prison on the exceedingly slim chance that he can save one of his fine-feather-friends. Harry’s motivations are patently ludicrous, and both Harry and Abou are little more than ciphers.

But as ciphers go, they are intensely watchable. Hounsou (Amistad, Gladiator) has a sensational physicality that matches the breathtaking cinematography. Abou is far more interesting than Jack, who, unfortunately for the plot, remains the object of Harry’s heroics. Jack is played by Bentley (American Beauty) with a ridiculously stiff upper lip and a matching accent; that two of the three leading roles were cast with Americans was probably meant to bolster the marquee, but it weakens the film’s unabashedly anglophile ambience. Britain’s presence in the Sudan is never questioned, not even by Abou, although the action bristles with barbarities committed by both sides.

The climactic set piece, where the British are distracted by unarmed dervish martyrs only to be assaulted east, west, north and south by Mahdi cavalry, is one of the most exciting battle sequences in recent memory, and is greatly aided by Kapur’s facility for dramatic camera angling. The director is especially dexterous with crowd scenes, and the depictions of Egyptians, British and assorted African tribes jostling in the wake of the Empire’s military juggernaut are indications of the film that might have been. As promised, The Four Feathers gallops with the energy of the Four Horsemen of the lavish cinematic epic: “Freedom, country, honor,” and sumptuous art direction. But for all its grand passions, the film’s impact is strictly featherweight.

—Ann Morrow

Empty Chamber

Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever
Directed by Kaos

We have seen our share of video/computer games turned into dull movies. And from Super Mario Brothers to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, we have seen such vital actors as Bob Hoskins and Angelina Jolie forced into two- dimensional roles that only drew interest from what charisma the actors innately possessed. Now we have Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, arguably the worst of the lot.

To play the roles of international spies Ecks and Sever, the producers have enlisted Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu, two strong presences who serve as cool eye candy while posing in front of any of the film’s myriad explosions. Ecks is a former FBI agent who sits around in bars feeling morose and looking handsomely unkempt, because he thinks his lover died in a car fire due to his being an agent. Sever is a renegade agent who wants to avenge her child, who died as a result of another former agent’s willingness to sacrifice innocent lives in his pursuit of greed and “justice.” Now, Ecks and Sever are crossing paths and gun sights as they pursue separate goals that have more in common than they first realize.

I won’t bother summarizing any more of the routine plot lest it rob viewers of what scant intrigue the film offers. Essentially, the entire film functions to set up various confrontations that culminate in high ballistics and a plethora of pyrotechnics. True to his name, the Thai director creates chaos and shoots enough holes in the plot to dissolve any suspense or logic. Meanwhile, all Banderas and Liu get to do is to look rugged.

Banderas has more dialogue (not that it matters), while Liu gets to engage in more physical martial arts. She comports herself very well and cuts an exciting action figure, as she did in the enormously more enjoyable Charlie’s Angels, but it is sad to see her reduced to a series of poses as she impassively regards the havoc she wrecks. Still, she has an undeniable magnetism even in the film’s dullest moments. Sever is supposed to be a ghostly enigma, and Liu easily accomplishes this. But it is all too easy.

If the film had functioned along the lines of Mad Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon, it might have been more diverting—certainly, the hand-to-foot fight in which Ecks and Sever repeatedly disarm each other is great fun—but inventiveness is quickly jettisoned in favor of munitions. Sort of makes you think of the real world. Maybe they could do a sequel: Fatalistic: Bush vs. Hussein.

—Ralph Hammann

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