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MARCH 13, 2000: 

The Ninth Gate

Roman Polanski is in bed with the devil -- maybe that's the message of his perfunctory, occasionally puckish The Ninth Gate. The director's girlfriend, Emmanuelle Seigner, plays a mysterious woman with shining eyes and ninja abilities who shadows Dean Corso (Johnny Depp in another chameleon-like transformation) as he searches for an old book that can summon Satan. But might she be Satan herself? It doesn't make much difference as Polanski merely slums in the brimstony regions he brought to infernal life in Rosemary's Baby; Corso's investigation, peering into the more baroque nooks of Europe, is literally by the numbers. Based on Arturo Pérez Reverte's overrated bestseller The Club Dumas (Umberto Eco by way of Dean Koontz), Gate does summon up a fair share of atmosphere, suspense, and the filmmaker's trademark macabre humor -- a Black Mass near the end is a hilarious corrective to the ponderous orgy in Eyes Wide Shut. And Frank Langella is diabolically menacing and pathetic as Boris Balkan, the Faustian collector who hires Corso to find the book. But the lure of damnation and dementia that appears so ecstatic and absurd in Polanski's other work here is merely weary and self-parodic. The circularity of the final image is a commentary more on the filmmaker's creative rut than on the rewards of transgression. -- Peter Keough


The Next Best Thing

Save for the scene in which Madonna's yoga-instructor character contorts into a human Rold Gold, the singer/actress doesn't do much stretching in this family-values fiasco by John (Midnight Cowboy) Schlesinger. She's Abbey, a whiny, self-absorbed single gal who boasts a closetful of biceps-baring Hindu fashions, a pretty good singing voice, and an inexplicable popularity among homosexual men. One martini-drenched afternoon, she shags her gay best friend (the indomitably classy Rupert Everett) and gets pregnant. Convention be damned, they vow to raise the dopy tyke (Malcolm Stumpf) together -- until, that is, Abbey gets her kundalini flowing with a sexy out-of-towner (Benjamin Bratt).

Mawkish, clumsy, and howlingly funny, this film works solely as a camp trifle. Madonna's far too brittle to exude any maternal warmth, and the plot pitches and heaves into one hummer of a melodrama. There are goofy montages and leaden deliveries; there's much whooping by Lynn Redgrave. And the best part? When Madonna thuds a line that's a ringer for a lyric in "Papa, Don't Preach." -- Alicia Potter


Orphans

The opening scene might hold the key to watching Orphans, British actor Peter Mullan's bewildering, ludicrous, but never dull debut feature. Four Glasgow siblings -- cynical Michael (Douglas Henshall), sanctimonious Thomas (Gary Lewis), callow college boy John (Stephen McCole), and sickly Sheila -- gather somberly around their mother's open coffin. Sheila asks to give mom a kiss, and Michael and Robert lift her out of her wheelchair, carry her over to the bier as if she were Alan Keyes in a mosh pit, and shove her face into mom's.

True, all grief and misfortune has its wacky side, but Mullan seems determined to take the bathos of this portrait of grief and family conflict to the outskirts of Twin Peaks. Perhaps he means to parody the relentless melodramas of his fellow thespians Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, whose Nil by Mouth and The War Zone blur the line between tragedy and farce. How else account for the escalating absurdity of events, as a teary song leads to a fight, a stabbing, a death vendetta, and, somehow, a trio of drunks using a barman's ass as a dart board? When it rains in this movie, it not only pours, but the wind blows the roof off the church. Tone, though, remains a problem -- when Thomas says, "She's not heavy, she's my mother," are we supposed to laugh? -- Peter Keough


Drowning Mona

Director Nick Gomez, the Somerville native who demonstrated such promise with Laws of Gravity and The Sopranos, finds himself a long way from his usual mean streets with this Fargo pretender. Drowning Mona opens with a punchy, dark set-up worthy of the Farrelly or the Cohen brothers, but as its resolution wanders into Murder by Death territory, it turns bland and predictable. Bette Midler's title character is a nag of a mom, a troll of a wife, and an overall social menace in her small backwoods New Jersey township. She dies in a car accident that turns out to be no accident, and all the locals are suspect. There's Mona's cheating husband (William Fichtner), the waitress (Jamie Lee Curtis sporting a gaudy colored coif) he's having an affair with, the son's landscape partner (a blond and Opie-earnest Casey Affleck), and even the dimwitted son (Marcus Thomas) himself. Danny DeVito is amicable as the law-enforcement head trying to unravel the mess, and Neve Campbell, as his daughter, does well with a working-class accent. All the same, this not-so comic black comedy goes down the drink. -- Tom Meek


Agnes Browne

When you're a widowed mother of seven living in Dublin, putting food on the table can seem just as impossible as attending Tom Jones in concert (since it's 1967, this is a normal desire). And so the sturdy Agnes Browne greets one challenge after another, struggling to keep herself and a derelict kid out of debt to a local loan shark, facing the reality of her best friend's terminal illness. Anjelica Huston's film is based on a bestselling Irish novel; she herself stars as the title character, hurdling each obstacle with wit and charm (and the aid of a few pints of Guinness). Throw in the some old Catholic sexual-innocence jokes (even after having seven kids, Agnes has never had an "organism" during sex) and the well-timed use of the f-word (it's so funny with that accent) and you've got a middle-aged mum's fluffy coming-of-age story. Like Agnes, the film tries to accomplish too much in too little time. By the time her dream comes true, I was already fast asleep. -- Leslie Robarge


3 Strikes

This one used up all three of 'em in the first few minutes. Friday co-writer D.J. Pooh's directorial debut, ostensibly designed to make light of California's "three-strikes" mandatory minimum-sentencing laws and their effect on the black community, is about as much fun as a 25-year sentence.

Do you think a 90-minute screed of expletives, n-words, and crude racial stereotypes is funny? Did you know all black guys drink 40s, smoke a lot of dope, and like a nice round ass? It's funny to see a black guy being chased by the cops down an LA freeway, right? (Especially when he's in a huge SUV being driven by his friend and it's all being televised via overhead helicopters -- sound familiar?) So now Martin Luther King Jr.'s "free at last" speech refers to getting out of jail, and it seems especially eloquent following a brilliant comic soliloquy about how much pussy our young protagonist Rob (Brian Hooks) will be getting once he's sprung. Somehow I don't think this is the dream the good doctor had in mind.

It doesn't have to be this way. Other comedies have been populated with such base caricatures, but in those films (Don't Be a Menace to South Central . . . , Fear of a Black Hat) they were intentional and satiric. Here the drunken, flatulent uncles and dope-smokin' cops don't seem so ironic. Fortunately, the audience still is; at the opening-day screening I attended, its comments were a hell of a lot funnier than the film. -- Mike Miliard


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