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"Sweet and Lowdown," "Rear Window," "Mission to Mars" and "The Ninth Gate"

Quick Flicks

!B! "Sweet and Lowdown"
!B! "Rear Window"
!B! "Mission to Mars"
!B! "The Ninth Gate"

"Sweet and Lowdown" — In this sweet but slight Woody Allen comedy, Sean Penn is Emmet Ray, a 1930s jazz guitarist second only to the legendary Django Reinhart. When he's not obsessing over Reinhart's talents, he's engaging in his three favorite pastimes: performing, chasing women and shooting rats at the dump.

Using "mockumentary" touches, "Sweet and Lowdown" traces the ups and downs of the fictional Ray's career. Allen nicely recreates the '30s through period details such as cars, clothing and music. As Ray, Penn is delightfully understated, appearing almost always under the influence. This is so atypical a role for Penn, his fellow actors have given him a Best Actor nomination for this work. As his true love, Hattie, a mute washergirl, Samantha Morton shines in a demanding role without a word of dialogue. Morton's work here has also earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

"Rear Window" What can you say but "Wow!" It is such a rare treat to experience one of Alfred Hitchcock's and cinema's classics as it was intended — on the big screen. Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly and Raymond Burr star in this tantalizing look at the dark, voyeuristic tendencies hidden within even the nicest people.

This is a creepy and believable treat where the screen niceness of Stewart is undercut by Hitchcock's trademark moral dilemmas which tarnish that "good" image. Stewart is terrific as the voyeur-by-accident turned fanatic; Kelly is luminous as his model-girlfriend who worries about his obsession, then finds herself drawn in. Simply terrific.

"Mission to Mars" — What a waste of $90 million as well as the talents of such usually fine actors as Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins and Don Cheadle. Not to mention director Brian DePalma. I'm not sure which deserves the blame — the sappy dialogue, the unashamed cribbing of other sci-fi motifs or the near-actionless script. Even the special effects are merely OK, except for the ending, which is too little too late.

When the first manned mission to Mars gets decimated by a mysterious force, Sinise and Robbins head off on a rescue mission to pick up the lone survivor, Cheadle. But things go quickly awry for them as well.

"The Ninth Gate" — Enter at your own risk. Johnny Depp plays a bookish tough guy named Corso. He's a sort of literary bounty hunter for folks with a taste for rare books. A scary-looking Frank Langella hires Depp to authenticate his copy of "The Ninth Gate of the Kingdom of Shadows," a text whose woodcuts supposedly hold the power to summon Lucifer himself. Directed by the infamous Roman Polanski, this occult thriller plays like a lame excuse for pyrotechnics and nudity — the latter coming in the shapely form of Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski's wife). "The Ninth Gate" wants to be a new hybrid, a kind of PBS meets MTV mix. It doesn't succeed.

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