All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.


A movie doesn’t have to be good to be vastly entertaining–
something proven quite nicely by the latest exercise in stylish
comic horror from exiled bad-boy Roman Polanski. Based on a
novel by Arturo Perez Reverte, “The Ninth Gate” is a thematic
descendent of “Rosemary’s Baby,” centering on seedy rare book
investigator Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), who’s hired by Boris
Balkan, a collector of arcane treatises on demonology (Frank
Langella), to track down two of the three surviving copies of
a legendary Renaissance handbook of satanic invocation and
compare them to the third extant copy, which he’s just bought.
Balkan is convinced, he says, that only one of the three is
authentic, and wants to know which.

Before long, of course, Corso’s inquiries lead him into contact
with a host of unusual characters, including Jose Lopez
Rodero as a pair of twin Spanish book dealers, Lena Olin as
the widow of the suicide who supposedly sold Balkan his copy
of the text, Barbara Jefford as a wheelchair-bound scholar of
the occult, Jack Taylor as an effete aristocrat with the
remnants of a spectacular library, and Emmanuelle Seigner as a
mysterious girl with extraordinary powers who becomes the
investigator’s protector and confidante. Along the way there
are murders, threats and grisly deaths aplenty, as well as
evidence of demonic cults and dark forces at work. Balkan’s
intentions, too, appear more and more sinister. At one point
toward the close, in a sequence which evinces accidental
similarity rather than intentional homage (the picture was
already in the can last year), a costumed Corso finds his way
into the meeting of a coven which is strikingly similar to Tom
Cruise’s notorious visit to an orgy in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes
Wide Shut.”

While Kubrick’s film was an intensely serious examination of
human interrelationships, however, Polanski’s picture is a
darkly humorous lark, filled with sly allusions to the absurd
conventions of the genre and wonderfully baroque touches that
connoisseurs will absolutely relish. The director showed his
skill at conjoining horror and farce in “Rosemary’s Baby,” of
course, but he did the same in his brilliant but grossly
underappreciated “The Fearless Vampire Killers (or, Pardon Me,
But Your Teeth are in My Neck” of 1967. Now, after years in
the cinematic wilderness (his last really interesting effort
was “Tess” was back in 1979), he’s recaptured the charmingly
perverse spirit of those early films to a large extent. “The
Ninth Gate” isn’t in their league, but the fact that it can be
mentioned in the same breath is itself an accomplishment.

The picture represents a return to form for Johnny Depp, too.
After dull turns as the possessed flyboy in “The Astronaut’s
Wife” (itself a ripoff of “Rosemary’s Baby”) and staid Ichabod
Crane in Tim Burton’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the young
star seems reinvigorated here, exhibiting anew his good comic
timing. Langella makes a marvelously malevolent foil for him,
and Barbara Jefford comes to a hilariously gruesome end as the
imperious Baroness Kessler, whose archive of demonic text
rivals Balkan’s. As for Seigner, she’s no better an actress
than she was in Polanski’s misfire “Bitter Moon,” but she is
properly attractive and enigmatic.

At 133 minutes, “The Ninth Gate” goes on about twenty minutes
too long, and the twists and turns of its plot aren’t nearly
as surprising as the makers apparently thought. Its twin
climaxes, moreover, are so utterly over-the-top that they move
dangerously into the territory of pure camp. But for the most
part the picture meshes spookiness and stylish humor to
excellent effect, and provokes far more chuckles than hoots
of derision. It’s complete hooey, but also lots of fun.


Having forsaken his series of homages to Alfred Hitchcock,
which ended with the dreadful “Raising Cain” in 1992, Brian De
Palma has now apparently turned his attention to aping the
late Stanley Kubrick’s work. “Mission to Mars” is like a
version of “2001: A Space Odyssey” stripped of all the
earlier film’s intelligence and grandeur. While Kubrick’s
1968 opus was a transcendent experience, deeply ambiguous and
visually startling, De Palma’s picture is, despite its outer-
space motif, an entirely earthbound affair, as crudely explicit
as an episode of the old “Flash Gordon” serials and just about
as cheesy to look at.

The juvenile plot involves an emergency mission to the Red
Planet designed to rescue any members of an earlier expedition
who might have survived a catastrophic encounter with some
unexplained force on the Mars surface. Peopled by cardboard
characters and told in incessantly lame dialogue that sounds
as though it’s been written by a 13-year old who’s been held
back several grades in school, the movie details the myriad
vicissitudes suffered by the crew before concluding with a
dopey denouement that’s part great escape and part “Close
Encounters of the Third Kind”-style beatific optimism. It’s
typical of the difference between Kubrick’s and De Palma’s
visions that while the fotmer’s film ended in existential
mystery, the latter’s winds up with sentimental drivel.

Given the poverty-row quality of the script, it’s not
surprising that while the cast is good, the acting is atrocious.
Tim Robbins smiles vacantly as the mission commander, and Gary
Sinise, as his co-pilot, seems to be making up for his rabid
overacting in “Reindeer Games” by here underplaying so
stenuously that he almost disappears from the screen. Jerry
O’Connell tries to provide some comic relief as the most
exuberant member of the crew, but what passes for wit in his
lines is puerile, while Don Cheadle, playing the commander of
the apparently doomed first expedition, works hard to create a
character where none exists. As Robbins’ spouse, who’s also
a member of the rescue mission, Connie Nielsen is simply awful.
Under the circumstances it’s understandable that Armin Mueller-
Stahl should have decided to remain unbilled as the NASA
mission director; apart from a couple of instances when he’s
required to throw up his hands and irritatedly say “Now wait
a minute,” he’s given approximately nothing to do but look
bored–an expression which would seem to qualify him for a
place in the audience, not the cast.

Is there anything of note in “Mission to Mars”? Well, a few
of the effects are decent enough; but overall they pale
beside the impact of Kubrick’s work of more than three decades
ago. And its alternately comic-book, soap-opera approach is
embarrassing in comparison to the brilliant iconoclasm of
“2001.” De Palma has made some excellent films (“Carrie,”
“Blow Out,” “The Untouchables” and “Casualties of War”), and
even his lesser efforts (“Sisters,” “Obsession,” “The Fury,”
“Dressed to Kill, “Scarfare,” “Carlito’s Way”) often had
compensating virtues that made them watchable. But this new
picture falls into the third category of his big-budget works–
resolutely bad movies in which the strengths are few and far
between. “Wise Guys,” “Body Double,” “Raising Cain,” “Bonfire
of the Vanities” and “Mission: Impossible” are representative
examples, and “Mission to Mars” may be the worst of the bunch.