Kim’s Career Is Cursed! … Hackman’s Hail Mary

Kim’s Career Is Cursed!

Kim Basinger never struck me as an easy pushover willing to do anything just to keep her career afloat. But here she is in Bless the Child , a turgid, pretentious religious thriller that is anything but thrilling. Why would an actress who finally proved to the doubters she could act (and won an Oscar doing it) lower her standards now? Was L.A. Confidential just a fluke? As career moves go, Bless the Child is a 10-pound coffin nail. In a summer notable for trash dumping, Bless the Child is practically an infomercial for enforced recycling.

The plot outline is so absurd that just remembering it induces pain, but here goes: Ms. Basinger, lovely as ever but looking extremely bewildered, plays Maggie, a New York nurse whose screwy younger sister Jenna (Angela Bettis) shows up full of heroin and hostility with a six-day-old baby daughter named Cody, whom she abandons for Maggie to raise. Maggie doesn’t know it, but Cody is the reincarnation of Jesus, who has returned to Earth to fight the evils of Satan. Six years later, Cody is making the Tupperware spin and bringing dead birds back to life while a gang of killers is on the prowl, ridding New York of all children born on Easter Sunday under the star of Bethlehem. Are you still with me on this? Pay attention. This requires concentration.

Jenna makes an unexpected reappearance, still strung out on drugs and married to the Devil’s chief disciple, Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell), the freaky head of a New Age satanic cult called the New Dawn Foundation, whose orders are to convert the Jesus girl to the Dark Side before Easter Sunday. A number of unexpected angels show up to deliver Casablanca lilies and miraculously open the doors to the Brooklyn-bound F train, but it’s up to Ms. Basinger to save the child from the rampaging devil worshippers before Satan tattoos a pitchfork into her flesh. It’s a risky business. First, Ms. Basinger gets a concussion, then wakes up drugged with her car on fire, hanging from a bridge. Anybody else would wisely move to Kansas, or St. Bart’s. But Auntie Kim is tough (and stupid). She goes to church.

Enter the rest of the cast, all lucky enough to be resigned to walk-ons. First there is Christina Ricci, who is on the screen for all of three minutes (I timed it) as an escapee from the devil cult who gets beheaded in the subway. Then there is Jimmy Smits, a failed Catholic who investigates occult murders for the F.B.I. He can’t even find his way through the fog. “Where’s our backup?” he barks on a country road. “They were right behind us,” says the head-scratching state trooper, staring into pea soup. The movie may be preposterous, but you gotta admit it’s funny. Finally, there is a defrocked priest in a wheelchair (Ian Holm) who opines: “Today, the concept of evil is politically incorrect.” They all end up in Vermont.

But why go on? By the time everything bursts into flames and the angels battle the demons in divinely inspired combat, the noise from Hell is benign next to the sound of an audience in hysterics. Even for veterans of such schlocky soufflés as Stigmata , The Devil’s Own and The Omen , this is cheesy clabber. The direction, by Roger Corman alumnus Chuck ( A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors ) Russell, is unspeakably corny, and the script, by Tom Rickman and the husband-and-wife team of Clifford and Ellen Green, is mind-boggling. Among the many lines that kept the audience roaring: The Satan freak perches the six-year-old Jesus girl on the roof ledge to jump, and the child says, “After you.”

I mean, can’t Kim Basinger read? As beautiful and talented as she is, she can’t bring this dead turkey to life. Bless the Child is asinine, and so is everybody in it.

Hackman’s Hail Mary

Another perfect performance full of wit and irony by Gene Hackman lifts The Replacements above the level of the average formulaic football flick. On the eve of the playoffs, the Washington Sentinels go on strike, creating a crisis for the team’s owner (Jack Warden) and fans alike. Mr. Hackman, a legendary coach beyond his prime, rushes to the rescue, with only one week to recruit a “replacement” team of non-union scabs to finish the season. The new team is a motley crew of screw-ups and misfits that includes a deaf mute who can’t hear the plays, a drunken Welsh barfly, a sumo wrestler, a Whitman’s Sampler of assorted black criminals and one bloodthirsty white cop. The cheerleaders are X-rated strippers, bimbos and lap dancers.

The NFL is not amused when they break every rule in football: mooning the press, smoking on the playing field, beating up the opposing teams, and firing bullets through the windshields of striking sprinters and halfbacks in the stadium parking lot, while famed sportscasters Pat Summerall and John Madden are forced to call the unconventional plays in a whole new way. But by the time the strike is over, Mr. Hackman has turned a wild bunch of renegades into a winning team with an abundance of heart, and elevated a has-been fishing-boat bum (Keanu Reeves) to the status of an $8 million quarterback. In the end, the replacements have proven to be better athletes than the overpaid gridiron stars they replaced, and although they must return to their old jobs and lives, they will never be the same.

It’s a classic theme-ordinary slobs with a common goal who get a second chance at the brass ring through loyalty and bonding, learning new values along the way. The characters are so well drawn and their relationships so funny and touching that you probably won’t notice Keanu Reeves’ dramatic limitations. He’s billed as the star, but he’s just another team player. Brightly directed by Howard ( Grumpier Old Men ) Deutch and crisply photographed by the great cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, The Replacements offers much to enjoy, even if you’re not a follower of the NFL. I’m willing to bet it will even appeal to the oddball date who thinks pigskin is a Judith Lieber handbag.

John Waters at His Worst

Calling Cecil B. DeMented the worst thing John Waters has ever done is saying quite a mouthful. The Baltimore filmmaker has dedicated his life to grossing out sane people everywhere, but I cannot deceive you. With this hopeless disaster, the maker of such epic swill as Mondo Trasho has lost even his basest and most putrid instincts for tackiness as entertainment. Despite a budget big enough to send the opening credits flying off the marquee of a shopping-mall multiplex and the star presence of Melanie Griffith, this violent, filthy sendup of Hollywood commercialism is so witless and over the top it almost makes me nostalgic for Divine crawling through pig shit.

The hastily scrawled synopsis that passes for a plot involves an insane guerrilla filmmaker called Cecil B. DeMented (moronically played by hapless Stephen Dorff) and his criminal cult of movie-buff followers called the Sprocket Holes, who kidnap a brainless movie star visiting Baltimore on a promotional tour. Ms. Griffith plays Honey Whitlock, a star of blatantly excessive incompetence who is also a vicious, temperamental and foul-mouthed slut. When the kamikaze gang of teenage cinema terrorists drag their hostage back to their hideout in an abandoned art-deco movie palace and force her to act in their underground film, she fights back like a cross between Jayne Mansfield and Marjorie Main. But when the gang starts destroying malls showing Patch Adams : The Director’s Cut , firing bullets through cinema books on the films of David Lean, and performing ritualistic chants to the memory of Andy Warhol, Honey likes the taste of anarchy, becomes a willing soldier in the war against popular, commercial and mainstream values, and turns into Patty Hearst (who also makes an “inside joke” guest appearance, along with Waters regulars Mink Stole and Ricki Lake). Protesting the filming of a $65 million sequel to Forrest Gump entitled Gump Again , the revolutionaries turn Baltimore into a battleground that looks like ice cream parlor vomit.

Mr. Waters is clearly staging a one-man broadside against the Maryland Film Commission’s attempts to turn his native Baltimore into the “Hollywood of the East,” but he expands his battleground to mock family sitcoms, G-ratings, video games, expensive remakes, pull-quote ads, 35mm cameras, Hollywood studios and the William Morris Agency, creating an even worse Cinema Hell of his own in the process. Even from a hack like John Waters, this childish idea might work in black and white, with a 300-pound drag queen like Divine, but with a big budget and no talent to back it up, Cecil B. DeMented turns out to be the worst example of the kind of hermetically sealed, air-conditioned cinema Mr. Waters seems to hate.

You can’t use Melanie Griffith the same way you used Divine. She’s a bad actress playacting a bad actress who doesn’t know the difference. Parody becomes reality when she’s on the screen. As her deranged captor, Mr. Dorff is described in the press poop as a charismatic combo of Charles Manson, Andy Warhol and Otto Preminger. It’s enough to barf. Add hypodermic needles, homosexual couplings of every description, and a fiery finale in a drive-in (where everyone in Baltimore seems to die in a blast of gore), and the generally rotten taste of Cecil B. DeMented makes the Farrelly Brothers look like the Warner Brothers.