Mostly Martha
dir. Sandra Nettelbeck
Opens Fri Aug 23 at the Seven Gables.

American audiences are hot for foreign films about food. Half the time we get so excited about the notion of decadent Europeans indulging their palates that we don't even notice the movies we're slobbering over were made right here in the U.S.--1996's Big Night, for example, or the more recent "slap on a French title, plop in Juliette Binoche, and the art houses won't be able to tell the difference" debacle Chocolat. There's something about food, apparently, that makes us want to project our weakness for sensuality clear across the Atlantic.

Sandra Nettelbeck's Mostly Martha, a German production, is compatible with this American fantasy--but only to a point. Rather than plunge us directly into epicurean abandon, Nettelbeck routes us through Martha (Martina Gedeck), a chef for whom food is more about discipline than pleasure. When a customer complains that his foie gras is undercooked, she marches out on the floor to lecture him about her exacting specifications (to the horror of the restaurant's owner).

Normal social interaction--not to mention etiquette--takes a back seat to her vocation, so when Martha's niece Lina (Maxime Foerste) is placed into her care, the order governing her life dissolves. The man hired to sub for her at the restaurant is Italian, of course, and it is through him that we glimpse the spaghetti-slurping excess that is standard fare for most food movies. He disrupts the assembly-line purity of Martha's kitchen, but since only he can get Lina to eat, the austere chef keeps him around.

What happens next is unsurprising, but the plot unfolds in such a quiet manner that I didn't particularly mind the formula. The interaction between Martina Gedeck and Maxime Foerste never feels forced, and the camera mostly follows Lina at a respectful distance, mirroring the attitude of her guardian. Nettelbeck eases Martha--and, by extension, the audience--into the sensuality of food, and the result feels much less crude than the escapist "foreign" fantasies American audiences have become accustomed to. It's a refreshing break from routine, though it's never quite gourmet cinema. ANNIE WAGNER

Simone
dir. Andrew Niccol
Opens Fri Aug 23 at various theaters.

A film director loses his lead actress halfway through production and, desperate to finish his "masterwork," decides to create his own actress via computer. This is the plot to Andrew Niccol's Simone--a bland, unfortunate Hollywood satire that aims to skewer the cult of celebrity, but instead manages to shoot itself in the foot.

Not that Niccol, whose previous directing effort was the pseudo-interesting Gattaca, doesn't exert himself trying to make said skewering worthwhile. As a comedy, Simone manages a few well-placed shots (the bulk of which come courtesy of the always brilliant Catherine Keener), but as satire it fails miserably due to the sheer unbelievability of the storyline's various twists and turns.

Al Pacino plays Viktor Taransky, a once marginally successful auteur fallen on hard times. About to lose his studio deal, he creates his lead actress, named "Simone" (after Simulation One, the computer program that created her), and unleashes her on the public. Stunningly beautiful and more than able to act her way out of a wet paper bag, Simone takes the world by storm. Unfortunately for Taransky, Simone, awash in critical accolades and an obsessed public, soon grows out of his control.

At its best, satire walks a fine line between the ridiculous and the grounded. Simone is not satire at its best. Not even close. The joke--that celebrity-obsessed culture doesn't care about the authenticity of its stars--is a good one, ripe for exploration, but Niccol has squandered it. Technically flawless and exceedingly well-acted, Simone nonetheless rings as hollow as Simone herself. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Ram Dass: Fierce Grace
dir. Mickey Lemle
Opens Fri Aug 23 at the Varsity.

An hour before writing this review, I was on the #48 bus, heading up 23rd Avenue. Suddenly, there was a commotion: The passengers in front of me (I always sit in the back of the bus, despite Rosa Parks' contributions to our society) screamed at the sight of a loud car accident. I looked up from the book I was reading (The Fact of Blackness: Frantz Fanon and Visual Representation) and saw a smashed-up white car dreamily drifting toward the sidewalk. It stopped at the curb. A handsomely dressed woman stepped out of the car, walked to a nearby tree, fell to her knees, and began crying. At this point I remembered the Ram Dass documentary.

The woman who had been hit by a mysterious blue car--it illegally disappeared from the scene of the accident--was exposed. She was crying because of existential exposure, and if Ram Dass had been one of the passengers on the bus, he would have seen this exposure as a golden opportunity, run across the street, and attempted to win the victim over with spiritual nonsense about how the crazy accident that nearly cost her her life was a part of a cosmic scheme.

According to Mickey Lemle's documentary, Ram Dass was a Harvard professor who was introduced to acid by, of course, Timothy Leary. After losing his job in 1963, Dass traveled to India, found "the way" (as Taoists put it), and became a spiritual leader who wrote a famous book, Be Here Now. Lemle's film focuses on Ram Dass' recent recovery from a stroke, and includes spooky interviews with people whose lives have been transformed by his infinite wisdom.

During her moment of existential exposure, the woman crying under the tree was not, luckily, accosted by Ram Dass. Instead, reason regained control of her senses. She stood up, recovered a cell phone from her wrecked automobile, and called the police. CHARLES MUDEDE