COMING SOON: Madonna, Movie Star (Take 14)

Acting ability aside, you have to admire Madonna‘s tenacity when it comes to putting herself time and again in front of the lens, raw and intrepid — as if she’s never heard of seriously bad flicks such as “Body of Evidence,” “Who’s That Girl” and “Shanghai Express.” The list goes on and on.

Next Best Thing” So this Friday finds the M One going at it all over again with “The Next Best Thing” (opening nationwide). In her continual quest to prove that she’s a legit screen actress, Madonna tackles the role of a straight woman who forms an alternative household with her gay pal (played by her real-life gay pal Rupert Everett) and their son, whom they conceived on a night of drunken stupor.

The idea of a gay man living with a straight woman living with their kid may have been intriguing (or even provocative) a couple years back. But given the primetiming of similarly themed offerings such as “The Object of My Affection” and TV’s “Will & Grace,” the whole thing’s looking a little played out. Maybe that’s why for a twist, the “Next Best Thing” powers-that-be got the hardcore guy who made “Marathon Man” and “Midnight Cowboy,” (John Schlesinger), to direct. (Take that, Will and You-Know-Who.)

Also of note with this release: the electronica’d-out, streamlined three-and-a-half-minute version of Don McLean’s eight-and-a-half-minute opus “American Pie,” which the pop queen specially reworked for the film. Like the notion for the flick, the idea to cover the anthem was originally Everett‘s (who also sings backup on the track).

— Speaking of people (and/or things) with a history of duds, the folks at Destination Films are probably hoping that “Drowning Mona” (opening nationwide Friday) will rescue them from, well, drowning. For those who tend to remember film names rather than studios, Destination is the wannabe major studio that put out pointed duds such as the horrid “Bats” and the haphazard (although commercially successful) “Eye of the Beholder.”

Drowning Mona” — a wacky flick about the unsolved death of a woman who crashed her Yugo down a river — does have, in its favor, one helluva ensemble cast. (But then again, so did “Eye of the Beholder” with Ashley Judd and Ewan McGregor.) Bette Midler plays the corpse, Danny DeVito the sheriff, and everyone else, including Neve Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis and Casey Affleck, plays the suspects.

— Also opening wide Friday is “What Planet Are You From?” starring HBO’s king of comedy Garry Shandling and the resurgent Annette Bening. And if you’re wondering where the heck this film came from — well, so did we. (It’s certainly not getting a lot of publicity for a flick co-starring a current Oscar nominee in Bening.)

Co-scripted by Shandling (his first feature effort) and based on a story by Michael Leeson (the same guy who wrote the novel “The Battle of the Roses,” which spawned the movie of the same name), “What Planet …” is a battle-of-the-sexes story with an E.T. motif. In it, Shandling portrays an alien (the space kind) who travels to Earth on a mission to shag woman earthlings, one of whom is played by Bening.

A slew of talents including John Goodman and Greg Kinnear co-star. The director is Mike Nichols, whom we’re told did a little thing called “The Graduate” some years back.

In other releases:

— Opening wide Wednesday is the action-comedy “3 Strikes.” Written, directed and starring DJ Pooh (who co-penned “Friday” and “Next Friday“), the film follows a sprung-from-prison young man.

— Career indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (“Night on Earth,” “Stranger Than Paradise“) is back this week with the genre-blurring “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (opening Friday in New York City). The flick, which premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival to mixed reviews, stars Forest Whitaker as a hit man working for a mob family. Blending elements from three subcultures: hip-hop, the Mafia and the ancient Japanese code of the samurai, Jarmusch‘s latest offering is (get this) supposedly his most mainstream and accessible work to date. Word even has it that the usually indie-minded director is consciously trying to do a crossover with “Ghost Dog.” Of course, John Frankenheimer already explored the connection between assassinhood and samurai ethics in “Ronin” and French-noir director Jean-Pierre Melville did the same with the ultra-sleek “Le Samourai” in 1967, but we’ll give Jarmusch this much: The hip-hop angle is truly unique. Not to mention sort of weird.

— Films bowing in limited release include the French drama “The Little Thief” (opening Wednesday) and “Homo Sapiens 1900″ (opening Friday, New York only), a doc that examines the history of eugenics.

— Spurned Oscar hopeful “Agnes Brown” (zero nominations) is going into expanded release Friday. It’s about a bereaved widow (played by Anjelica Houston, who also directs) toughing life out with her seven children in 1967 Ireland. The film got a hurried one-week release in New York and Los Angeles back in December to qualify for Academy Award balloting. A lot of good that did.

Other films slated to go into expanded release include: “Beautiful People,” “A Girl Called Rose Marie,” “Mifune,” “My Dog Skip” and still-alive Oscar hopeful “Tumbleweeds.”