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The Ninth Gate (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released March 10, 2000:

The latest from old school horror pioneer Roman Polanski is a dark and brooding thriller that is… very long and brooding. What begins with noir charm and decadence grows thin by the movie’s over-bloated running time – giving new definition to the term “tedium.” The visuals are grim and noirish, but hang forever. Half of the movie is seeing Johnny Depp walk from Point A to Point B; and then the other half is watching him light up a cigarette usually already with drink safely in hand. Depp plays a librarian that doesn’t play by all the rules, or something or other. He’s set out to authenticate the last three books of a Satanic worshiper only to discover they lead to a path of devilish power. By the time Ninth Gate reaches its climax at an Eyes Wide Shut-style group gathering the audience has already hopelessly lost feeling in their ass. The vague ending is a cop-out after what the viewer is forced to go through to finally find out the secrets of these special 15th century books/doorstops. When it’s not carelessly lingering The Ninth Gate has some interest to it, but too often than not, it just rolls ahead forgetful of the audience that paid to come see it.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Times sure have changed for famous director Roman Polanski. He’s been filming movies entirely in Europe for years since he fled the United States to escape prosecution for rape charges. He even won an Academy Award in 2002 for The Pianist, though he wasn’t present to accept naturally. However, in a post-Me Too realm of improved scrutiny over the bad habits of bad men with power and influence, Polanski hasn’t had a movie with notable names since 2012’s Carnage. He’s made a few foreign-language films since but his sphere seems notably smaller, more confined, and more shut off from the industry and actors and moneymen that want to work with the famous director. They’ve even attempted to get him extradited back to the U.S. again. All of this cannot help but color re-watching The Ninth Gate, especially when it already plays upon memories of Polanski’s own Rosemary’s Baby. I wondered if this movie might actually be better twenty years later, and for a while I was feeling like my young film critic self was perhaps a little too quick to judgment. However, upon recent viewing, this is still a long and boring misfire.

The premise is slightly intriguing until you realize what it exactly entails. Johnny Depp’s character, Dean Corso, is a rare book evaluator and unscrupulous profiteer. He’s been hired by wealthy magnate Boris Balkin (Frank Langella) to authenticate a book reportedly co-written by the Devil himself and, if real, has the ability to summon Old Scratch to boot. Hey, we got something there for an intriguing horror movie that delves into the occult. And for perhaps the first act, The Ninth Gate works well enough to establish its mood and its central conflict. Then it just kept going. And kept going. And that’s when you realize that much of this movie involves one man traveling to different chateaus and other European estates to simply look at books. There are three copies of this rare Devil-penned tome, so Dean Corso is traveling to at least two different locales simply to compare and contrast books. I don’t think I’m fully articulating just how boring this can get. Imagine a significant other sitting beside you and deep in thought with a dense textbook. Imagine watching them read and make the occasional verbal noise. That is The Ninth Gate. Watching people read is boring, especially when it’s done repeatedly. There are MULTIPLE scenes of simply watching Depp look over a book while music plays. Film is a visual medium, and reading is inherently an internal function unless adjusted in context. It’s not like he’s deliberating over whether to send a text to a special someone, what the personal correspondence means to his concept of his family, it’s a man compare old books for a job. It’s not like he’s obsessed over this book for years or is a true believer of its power.

Some of this might even be permissible if the stodgy 133-minute film wasn’t so tediously repetitive (spoilers to follow). Corso is paid to authenticate the book but every person he encounters that knows a little about this book ends up dead. The book dealer he has stash the book? Dead. The old man with the second copy who says he’ll never sell his book not even if his life depended on it? Dead. The old lady expert with the third copy who despises Boris Balkin? Dead. By the time that wheelchair-bound woman is found to be repeatedly running into a wall, and upon further inspection has her tongue hanging out her mouth in an unintentionally goofy sight, the plot structure of The Ninth Gate has entered farce. Dean Corso doesn’t seem terribly alarmed by any of this or observant of an obvious pattern of events. He has several run-ins with goons and a mysterious blonde woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) that follows his every move. He seems comically oblivious to the danger all around him. Part of this is the repetitive plot structure where over an hour of the movie follows Depp going to a place, discovering one minor addition of information, finding that person dead, being chased, then repeating. It takes over an hour simply to note that there are minute differences in the engravings in the three copies of the devilish book. Then it simply shifts into a game of who can capture all the copies, which it should have been from the start, and would have introduced a very necessary sense of urgency from a prosaic script. Another reason for that general turgid feeling is that Depp seems to be sleepwalking through this performance absent emotion. Even Polanski himself complained.

This is a movie about a special book that can unleash the powers of the Devil, so why is the finished film so boring and frustrating to sit through? It has rival cults and business tycoons fending for ownership over that power. At least it does in theory. The fact that there are competing interests should have been a substantially larger element of the movie. Once Lena Olin’s rich widow character sleeps with Dean Corso to get the first copy back, she disappears from the narrative until the very end, where she’s dispatched without any intervention from her assembled cult of would-be Satanists. Seriously they just stand by and watch a guy strangle her to death and jump at the word “Boo!” They were never a threat even if they were responsible for one part of the mysterious stalkers. The other stalker, our ever-present blonde, will literally float at times and come to kung-fu kicking rescue, which made me snort out loud. It just comes across so goofy. Her identity is clearly in a supernatural answer but the movie never fully explains who she is, what her real motivations are, her allegiances, and even what the ending is supposed to mean. After 133 minutes, it’s egregious that Polanski doesn’t provide a conclusion that feels even fleetingly conclusive. The whole movie is a mystery that moves with irritatingly incremental steps that leads to one big shrug.

I can see the appeal of the idea of this story but I don’t see the appeal of making The Ninth Gate as is, beside visiting some fabulous locations in Portugal and Spain. Why get an actor of Depp’s caliber if he’s going to read on camera and not worry about his encroaching danger? Why does this movie need 133 minutes to set up a plot that could have done it in 100? I think Polanski was eager to revisit the old school horror of his early works and didn’t sweat the details. Mysterious castles of old. Dangerous strangers. Cults. The Devil. Book authentication. Okay, maybe not that last part. I suppose one could charitably say Polanski is trying to establish an unsettling mood with patient-yet-paranoid camerawork and a story that feels unhurried. It feels to me like Polanski doesn’t know what movie he wants to make and is in no rush to get there. The most overtly horror moments fall into self-parody. That’s really where the movie errs for me. It takes great horror story elements and says instead of running with cults and the Devil, what if we focused more on the slow authentication of dusty old books? Not their power or meaning or value to devious men and women, but on whether they are real. That would be like finding a treasure map and then trying to make sure the ink was authentic for its era rather than, you know, hunting for treasure.

My original review twenty years ago is a bit harsh and angry, though I can understand why especially after such an anticlimactic ending. I would say the movie is more than watching Depp walk from Point A to point B, though to be sure that is heavily represented onscreen. I might even slightly raise my letter grade but the criticisms still stand as stated. Even twenty years later, with a fresh set of eyes, The Ninth Gate is a disappointing story that says too little and takes too long to do so.

Re-View Grade: C

Robot & Frank (2012)

It’s the age-old story about an elderly man (Frank Langella) suffering from Alzheimer’s who teaches his robot helper to be his partner in jewelry heists. While that sounds a lot more fantastic than the movie we eventually get, Robot & Frank is a mellow, sincere, and overall nice movie that treats the particulars of its world with a wry sense of whimsy. The movie is really a mismatched buddy film as Frank is hostile to being forced to live with robotic help, but soon the two of them form the basis of a friendship, and when things get dangerous it’s heartwarming the lengths they’ll go to save the other. Give the Alzheimer’s subject, expect some twists in the final act concerning Frank’s world. The movie wants to hit us emotionally but I felt mostly remote, smirking at some of the fun of the old codger back in the burglary business of his youth. But the film just stays at a very even-keel level of emotional resonance, drawing us in but not exactly taking us anywhere. The ending is curiously without any sort of comforting resolution that could have put a solid piece of punctuation on the film’s emotional drama. Langella, it should be said, is excellent. Robot & Frank is a high-concept buddy film, fairly pleasant and entertaining but when it comes to a close you may wish that the film had relied less on chaste understatement.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Box (2009)/ Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)

Both films on the surface seem so radically different and yet I found lots of common ground between a sci-fi conspiracy and a muckraking documentary about the biggest financial meltdown of the modern era. Both are centered around the concept of greed and whether humanity can forgo selfishness for empathy of their fellow man. Would you kill a stranger for a million bucks? Would you rig a financial system so that the richest one percent can gamble the life of a nation? Both movies also bite off more than they can chew and both movies exist as interesting yet dispirit elements that could use more cohesion and resolution.

You have been given a box with a button. If you press the button tow things happen: somebody you do not know will die and you will receive a million dollars. Do you press it? That’s the hook of writer/director Richard Kelly’s sci-fi morality tale based upon a short story by Richard Matheson. The Box is a messy and outlandish conspiracy sandwiched between two moral tests, the second a consequence of the first and a means to wipe the slate clean. There’s plenty of weird unsettling moments, including the horrendous wallpaper of the 1970s, but not everything really hangs together. Kelly’s intergalactic conspiracy can get readily outlandish with all the variables and needed participants, but like in Donnie Darko, he lays out enough tantalizing info to keep your attention and then keeps the narrative vague enough for personal interpretation. However, unlike Darko, this movie needed to cleanup its loose storylines. It just sort of ends in perplexing rush, and I sat in silence through the end credits waiting for some kind of scene to help tie together dangling storylines that were left to dangle for an eternity. The Box has a nicely tuned foreboding atmosphere, and it certainly keeps you guessing, but it will also keep you scratching your head to try and make sense of everything from button boxes to teleportation pools to Mars probes to sudden nosebleeds to Satre’s No Exit. Kelly, as he has done with his previous movies, packs a lot in two hours. Whether or not it all formulates is up to the viewer’s wearying patience. I’d rather have more movies like The Box than more thoughtless drivel from the Hollywood assembly line.

After 20 years, you pretty much know at this point what you’re going to get from a Michael Moore documentary. There’s the anecdotal evidence, emotional interviews of the downtrodden, the one-sided arguments, the nods to the depressive state of Flint, Michigan, and Moore trying to bully his way to see the powers that be that have no interest seeing him. In a way, Capitalism: A Love Story is like a greatest hits collection for Moore that reminds you of his better moments and better films. Despite all the outrage, Moore wants to throw the baby out with the bath water. He cites capitalism as an evil that needs to be eradicated. His thesis isn’t very cohesive and consists of a series of related and unrelated anecdotes, some of them grossly offensive like companies profiting from the death of employees thanks to “Dead Peasant” life insurance policies. But at no point do you walk away thinking, “Let’s start from scratch. What has capitalism gotten us?” Several of his points are easy to agree with. There is a flagrant disregard for the well being of others on Wall Street, who carelessly gambled the nation’s fortunes and then got the taxpayers to cover the loss. The bailout is a crime of pure capitalism and in a true capitalistic society there is no such thing as “too big to fail,” there is only fail. It’s not following an ideology built upon greed that has hurt the U.S., it’s unchecked greed, capitalism run amok without any oversight or regulation that has endangered the nation’s livelihood, and I’m surprised Moore didn’t emphasize the process of deregulation from Reagan to Bush more. The story of our financial meltdown is too large for a confined two-hour narrative window, and it’s too important a lesson for a man like Moore to use it as fire to ignite a people’s revolution.

Both movies: C+

Frost/Nixon (2008)

The adaptation of the hit stage play, with its original leads, is an intellectually stimulating experience and a fluid adaptation from stage to screen, thanks to director Ron Howard. The acting is top-notch; Frank Langella may not readily resemble President Richard Nixon but he inhabits the man completely. In a surprising twist, Frost/Nixon is not a heavy-handed story that merely beats up on an antagonist that can no longer defend himself. Nixon’s faults are not excused but the man is presented in a deeply humanistic portrayal. This isn’t a mustache-twirling rogue but a man who came from abject poverty, who rose above his critics who dismissed his humble beginnings, and who has regret and shame for what transpired while he was in office. And he’s funny. Nixon is a funny man. Characters are not just political punching bags here. Peter Morgan’s screenplay, based upon his stage play, brings tremendous excitement to the art of debate, framing it like a boxing match. The sparring side notes present some of the more fascinating details between the series of four interviews between Nixon and British personality David Frost (Michael Sheen). But here’s the thing. Frost/Nixon is an entertaining movie but once it’s over it completely vanishes from your brain. It leaves little impact. The movie tries to make Frost’s coup a bigger deal than it was. The film is constantly trying to convince you of its importance. It’s a swell time for two hours but after that, what? Obviously the grilling of the president for getting away with crimes in office is supposed to be a statement on the outgoing President Bush, but what? Should we hope that an unassuming figure much like Frost will be able to get Bush to open up his soul? Get Regis Philbin on the phone.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Superman Returns (2006)

It’s been a total of 19 years since we saw Superman grace the silver screen in the mega-bomb Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The big question is… did we miss him at all? I know a lot of people that say they just can?t get into Superman as a character. He’s always been a do-gooder, someone with infinite power but too great a sense of nobility to abuse it. Does the Man of Steel still hold relevancy in today’s more erratic, cynical, fearful world? Is it possible to make an indestructible alien relatable or empathetic? Director Bryan Singer is interested in finding out, and he brought nearly his whole X-Men 2 team with him. Instead of retooling the franchise Singer has adopted the idea of starting shortly after the events of 1980’s Superman II. (Yes, I know Richard Lester is credited with directing Superman II but it’s still contentious that Richard Donner, who helmed the first super outing, directed a majority of the sequel. From here on out, Donner will cited as the director of Superman and Superman II).

Superman (Brandon Routh) has been absent for five years trying to look for pieces of his home world, Krypton. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) and his moll (a cheerfully batty Parker Posey) have got some big plans up their villainous sleeves. Using crystals from Superman’s home world, they plan on building a new continent of land to prosper with. He also has a nice supply of kryptonite to make his own fortress with. When Clark Kent does arrive back in town, coincidentally along the same time Superman rescues Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) in a plane crash, he’s shaken by the changes that have taken place in his absence. Lois is engaged to Richard (James Marsden), nephew of The Daily Planet‘s editor in chief, Perry White (Frank Langella). She’s also won a Pulitzer Prize for her article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” (a kiss-off letter to a lover if ever there was one). To top it all off she also has a five-year-old son, which would put him within the realm of having a super dad (Lois and Supes took a roll in the hay at the Fortress of Solitude in Superman II). The Man of Steel has a lot on his plate, obviously.

This is rumored to be the most expensive movie of all time, with budget predictions going as high as $260 million. If that?s true than Singer let’s you see every dollar onscreen. As a movie going experience, Superman Returns has little to no equals. The special effects are astounding and the imagery is simultaneously iconic and awe-inspiring. We now exist in a world where we can see a man in a red cape zoom through the sky and have it become believable. Singer, after two X-Men flicks, has a terrific eye for glistening visuals and boy does he know how to conduct Hollywood bombast with equal parts genuine character. His loss was considerably noticeable with X-Men 3, which wilts in direct comparison as unfair as it may be (it’s like the difference between a Van Gogh and a third grader’s imitation of a Van Gogh). The difference is that you can feel the respect the filmmakers had for superman; not so much with X-Men 3. But alas my countrymen, I come here to praise Superman not to bury X-Men 3. The sheer breathtaking visual artistry of Superman Returns demands to be seen on as big a screen as possible. Singer has crafted a wonderful tableau for the eyes and ears, filled with religious symbolism, opening the wonderful possibility of the movies just a little wider.

Singer’s film is a show-stopping pop spectacle, which is good, because the story itself, upon fresh perspective and distance, is good, but not great. The story doesn?t pursue character as strongly as last year?s fellow franchise reboot, Batman Begins, nor does it interlace themes as well. The characters in general are pained but left with little other expressions. Lex Luthor’s evil scheme is grand in cataclysmic scope but at the end of the day it’s still a real estate scam. It’s like if Donald Trump was human or less evil (he’s definitely got the same hair stylist as Luthor). How exactly is Luthor planning on keeping control of a new continent of land? I would think the world would have some way of establishing order. Once again a villain’s scheme is ruined by the less dastardly, more squeamish baddie in the entourage. In fact, the villains are on their own for a long while, embarking on their own tangential movie to play alongside the return of superman. The first hour is slower paced and the final climax could have used an additional boost, but these are quibbles. Superman Returns could have done a lot more with their characters, especially considering their take-off point is two films hence, but this movie is more about reassembling the pieces. To that end, Singer’s satisfying retread is forgivable for its shrift characterization.

Do not let any misgivings about character and story betray how awesomely entertaining Superman Returns is when it turns on the magic. Even at a bladder-unfriendly 2 hours and 40 minutes in length, the film has little drag and a great sense of confidence of a crowd pleaser that knows how to play to an audience while respecting their intelligence. The movie is self-indulgent (how many slow-mo shots do we need of Superman in the air?) but it never falls short on thrills. Between plane crashes, bank robberies, sudden explosions, and spontaneous, cavernous land masses, you’ll likely be glued to your seat waiting for the outcome, which even with a nigh indestructible being isn’t always a given.

The action is grand in scale but Superman Returns also has the unmistakable stripes of a chick flick. Lois is jilted, moves on to a good man, and suddenly the man of her dreams, the one she thought was gone for good, reenters her life. The film’s sharpest plot point is the complication of its love triangle with Richard and a child in tow. The romantic yearning and interplay give the film its biggest emotional involvement. Even though the filmmakers are deliberately vague, the answer of who’s the father should be rather easy to deduce. Still, the audience has an increasing desire to know the paternal truth.

Singer’s louder, brighter Superman is a loving tribute to the Richard Donner Superman films, you know, before Richard Pryor, evil twins, and the rather rash, though very effective, decision of hurling the world’s supply of nuclear weapons into the sun (the less said about The Quest for Peace the better). It even exists in the same universe so we don’t have to go the origin tale route, though we do get flashbacks to Clark’s past. Marlon Brando’s original performance as Jor-El, father of Superman, is reused and John Williams’ theme gets a new polish. Even the opening title graphics, so horribly dated like a “cutting-edge” Atari game, are the same from the Donner era. There’s such reverence for nostalgia and a fondness for what makes Supes Superman, and that’s why it gets closer than even the Donner flicks, which are good but have weathered with age and can come across as too silly or cheesy.

Even Routh looks uncannily like Chistopher Reeve. Routh is an interesting choice; he’s chiseled, handsome, and questionably appealing. He comes across more like a being finding his place, like a kid fresh out of college, than a being of incalculable power protecting our blue planet. At any rate, Reeve played the comedy better, being both suave hero and clumsy earthling. I wish Superman Returns would go further exploring the perils and expectations of being Superman, a life devoted to servitude and always being an outsider. There’s a small scene where he orbits the Earth listening to 1000 overlapping voices crying for help before zeroing in on one. Otherwise, the movie doesn’t pay much notice to the burdens of Superman, which may unfortunately keep many at a distance.

Bosworth is just too young for her role; she resembles Lois Lane’s baby sister, not the feisty Margot Kidder incarnation that left such an impression. This Lois Lane doesn’t so much bicker as she does harrumph. It’s like they took the role, dolled her up, muted her, and then told her to play Lois Lane as if she had stayed up all night binging on Sex and the City reruns. Bosworth is at the mercy of her character, a figure pressed into danger more than she is into emotion. There are some nice moments, like a midnight stroll through the atmosphere with her knight in blue tights. I just wish there were more.

But at least there’s two-time Oscar winner Spacey, who’s terrific as the infamous Lex Luthor. He’s got a funny quirkiness and a perfectly deadpan sarcasm. The opening that reveals how Luther earns back a sizeable fortune is hilarious and perfect to a T. Everyone else seems a bit dour but Spacey is having a ball; he’s even employed Kumar as part of his muscle (you’re a long way from White Castle, Kumar). However, Spacey’s spirited take is a lot more menacing than Gene Hackman’s version, which always came across as an oily used car salesman, more huckster than arch villain/evil genius. Spacey has a really strong disdain for the Man of Steel and his eyes sparkle at the opportunity to get vicious. I’m all for a darker, angrier, down-and-dirty villain to better torment Superman. Not to be out done, used car salesmen have their moments of intimidation.

The story may be good, not great, but Superman Returns is a first-rate cinematic spectacle. Singer and his X-Men 2 team have crafted a nostalgic, reverent movie that smartly addresses whether today’s world has outgrown a big blue Boy Scout. The action sequences and special effects are astounding, and, for the first time in a Superman movie, they are wholly believable. This helps when the main guy wears his underwear on the outside and shoots lasers from his bullet-proof eyeballs. The film stalls when it comes to characterization and the interplay of strong unified themes, but much is forgivable because Singer has worked his ass off getting a storied franchise back on its feet with dignity.

After three super hero films in a row, each with an escalating budget and running time, I’d say the man needs a break, perhaps a tiny independent movie to rejuvenate the batteries. But after watching Superman Returns, what I really want is for Singer to get right back to work as fast as possible. We’ve got this world back in order. Now it’s time for Superman to truly take flight.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

George Clooney’s pet project is articulate and a tad dull. The black and white cinematography is elegant; you can practically taste all the smoke onscreen. The idea of press vs. fear-mongering politician is very relevant today, and the film’s insight into the running of TV news is really interesting, but this is a movie that works best as a study and not as strict entertainment. It?s not stuffy or ideologically overwhelming; in fact it’s easy to follow and easy to get into, even if it leans too heavily on speeches. Clooney, as I predicted, is transforming himself into a terrific director with a great feel for his material. With Good Night, and Good Luck it seems like he got exactly what he wanted, regardless if an audience is going to walk away feeling they got their money’s worth.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Ninth Gate (1999)

The latest from old school horror pioneer Roman Polanski is a dark and brooding thriller that is… very long and brooding. What begins with noir charm and decadence grows thin by the movie’s over-bloated running time – giving new definition to the term “tedium.” The visuals are grim and noirish, but hang forever. Half of the movie is seeing Johnny Depp walk from Point A to Point B; and then the other half is watching him light up a cigarette usually already with drink safely in hand. Depp plays a librarian that doesn’t play by all the rules, or something or other. He’s set out to authenticate the last three books of a Satanic worshiper only to discover they lead to a path of devilish power. By the time Ninth Gate reaches its climax at an Eyes Wide Shut-style group gathering the audience has already hopelessly lost feeling in their ass. The vague ending is a cop-out after what the viewer is forced to go through to finally find out the secrets of these special 15th century books/doorstops. When it’s not carelessly lingering The Ninth Gate has some interest to it, but too often than not, it just rolls ahead forgetful of the audience that paid to come see it.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Reviewed 20 years later as part of the “Reviews Re-View: 2000” article.

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