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Three independents take on the classics, the Germans, and the comedians

Sweet Sauerkraut

"I'm not compulsive; I'm precise," insists Martha Klein, the accomplished but rigidly self-contained heroine at the center of this enormously appealing German romantic comedy-drama called Mostly Martha. The head chef at an upscale Hamburg restaurant, Martha (Martina Gedeck) is so focused and dour that she doesn't even recognize how empty her life is. Two events transpire to throw her well-ordered existence into turmoil: A car accident forces her to take in her strong-willed eight-year-old niece, Lina, and an easygoing, affable Italian chef is added to the restaurant staff. Martha is convinced that Mario (Sergio Castellitto) is after her job. Anyone evenly remotely familiar with Shakespeare will recognize that the stage is set for a love affair between these two polar opposites. And in a roundabout way Lina is the catalyst for bringing them together. Writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck balances the humor and pathos adroitly, and she gets wonderful performances from all her actors. One or two plot developments prove unconvincing, but overall this is a delightful film. -- Jean Oppenheimer

Charming Chekhov

This thoughtful and somewhat languid adaptation of Anton Chekhov's 1904 play, The Cherry Orchard, finds its beauty in the heady performance of Charlotte Rampling as Lyubov, childlike matriarch of a fast-fading period of social polarity. Returning from a long-term Paris retreat to her Russian estate and its complex web of disparate characters, not to mention its way-symbolic, titular orchard, Lyubov discovers the family coffers are dangerously low and the splendor of her youth soon may be divided for -- ew! -- a bunch of serfs. Those who loved Gosford Park will surely appreciate this swank cast -- Alan Bates as Lyubov's brother, Gaev; Michael Gough as the butler, Feers -- but this is by far a more complex and engrossing production, and if you can get past the wannabe Merchant-Ivory vibe, Chekhov's musings prove as trenchant as ever. Director Michael Cacoyannis (known for Zorba the Greek and his adaptations of Euripides) takes his sweet time with the material, allowing each of Chekhov's points to ring out its echoes before engaging the next, but those with a modicum of patience will find in these characters' foibles a timeless and unique perspective. (Playing at the Cosford Cinema at University of Miami.) -- Gregory Weinkauf

Sassy Lass

Taking up more or less from where her last concert film I'm the One That I Want (2000) left off, Margaret Cho continues her exploration of the outer limits of raunch with considerable brio in her latest, Notorious C.H.O. Like every female standup since the dawn of time, Cho's humor is derived from the disparity between what the culture expects of her and what she's actually capable of doing. But unlike her comedy predecessors, Cho declines to make herself the butt of her jokes. Rather she highlights the culture's failings to deal with women of size, color, and sass. Filmed by director Lorene Machado on direct video, it's a visually primitive affair. But you're not likely to care, given the chance to witness Cho's often-incisive, but never hectoring, take on life as she's lived and observed it. In an especially telling bit she lists all those who -- like her -- are considered to be society's "minority." Cho knows no one needs any further prompting to realize that "minorities" are in fact the majority of the population. -- David Ehrenstein

 
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