It is not often that I find myself praising a new release by a first time filmmaker. Nine Lives is the exception that gives me hope and reminds me that I am not a cinematic shark tearing apart every new vision I come across.
Nine Lives had all the potential to be a sentimental time bomb. On paper it reads like a bad Lifetime Movie. Rodrigo Garcia, son of famed poet Gabriel Garcia Marquiez, sets forth to tell the stories of nine separate women with slightly interconnected lives. The cast includes Holly Hunter, Dakota Fanning, Robin Wright Penn, Glenn Close amongst others. This alone should have propelled me to stay home, the fact that the screening was taking place during the final night of the Milwaukee International Film Festival was an equally good reason to catch up on some house cleaning, but I went anyways. For one simple reason I went to the picture show. I had read that the film was made up of nine shots, one long shot for each woman’s story. Being a sucker for such exercises in style I went.
Later I will comment on the film festival side of the screening. For now, I would like to praise Nine Lives for 9 simple things it did right.
1) It stuck to its guns. Garcia decided to shoot the whole film in nine shots and he does not cop out. One could argue that this may have limited him or that he was being lazy, but the Steadicam is no easy tool to use.
2) The camera work shies away from free-floating Steadicam bravado. Rather than exploit the mobile camera with visual tricks or uninformative gestures such as circling around a subject Garcia lets the camera follow the actions of the actors or redirect itself through off camera sounds. In no way is the work showy or invasive, but instead it feels natural and buoyant.
3) In 6 out of the 9 lives, Garcia calls cut at exactly the right time. The fact that he does not score a perfect 9 out of 9 is beside the point. Even a major league baseball player does not get a hit every time he steps up to the plate. For the most part Garica is productive with his choices on when to end a scene/shot. Perhaps he could have done so sooner in one or two scenes, but even so, the little bit of overkill that remains does not destroy the scene or the entire picture. Other new directors should watch Nine Lives just to see the right to get out of a scene, that leaves you feeling both satisfies and wanting to know more.
4) Others may love her, but I think she is a freakish looking child, so I am happy to say that Garica does not fill the frame with Dakota Fanning’s missing tooth smile. He keeps the camera at a distance. Those big eyes set in that big head are just too much for me. They belong on a velvet painting or in a creepy doll. Acting wise, Fanning is decent if not overly sweet. It’s hard to chastize a child actor, but someone should tell her parents or her agent (if they are not one in the same) to put the kid away for a few years before we all rot our teeth out on that precise little sugar cube.
5) The guys. I know this is a film about women, but with out stupid men would women be half as crazy as they are? Joe Mantenga, Aidan Quinn, Ian McShane, and Stephen Dillane. The last two coming as complete surprises; both with great sense comedic timing and class.
6) Speaking of laughs, the film is full of laughs. Garica is smart enough to know that you cannot have life without a little laughter and he sneaks laughter into some of the most inappropriate places. At funerals, during affairs, and in hospitals, humor creeps into the picture in that unsettling way it creeps into life. People laugh when they lack any other response, when their emotions overload, past the point of tears.
7) Two young women – Lisa Gay Hamilton and Amanda Seyfried. These two strong young actresses outdid many of their older contemporaries and they did so through their performance and not just their looks. They are not Hollywood beautiful, they are Hollywood normal looking. It is nice to see young, talented faces not just pretty, young faces.
8) The music is not reliant upon modern music. What a novelty. Pay someone to compose music for your film and ask them to play something classical sounding and not something in tune with the today’s coffeehouse muzak.
9) The women. With the exception of Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning all the women in this film are amazing and many of them are names that are either unknown or growing to old to shine. Hollywood has always had a hard time giving good parts to aging actresses. It is nice to see that you do not need Botox and a boob job to light up the silver screen.
I have lots of praise for Nine Lives and for Rodrigo Garcia, but for the last life I feel something should be said. Unlike the previous eight stories seen in the film, the last story is not really connected to the rest of the stories. Further more, it is a two person piece shared between the two worst actors in the film. Dakota Fanning and Glenn Close vie with one another for an Academy Award as they pour the worst parts of their acting talent into two overly ripe roles. From the on-set of the scene, something feels amiss and it does not take long before a perceptive view will catch on to the forthcoming twist. I will not ruin the mystery here. I will say that there was little or no need for this last story that so bluntly mentions the film’s title and its connection to the legendary nine lives of cats. Everything is too on the nose and the twist is enough to make you feel as if you have been punched in the nose in the hopes of making squirt a few tears.
That one scene aside, this is a rather strong film that received a rather strong round of applause from a very packed theatre. In a week this film will play a normal run at the same theatre and I doubt as many people would have shown up in the course of that run. The high turn out is strictly due to the fact that this was closing night at the film festival. It takes a big event to get people out to the theatre. The problem with big events is that people make them too big. The events stop becoming about the films and instead they become a long series thanks. Before the film could play, the audience had to endure twenty minutes of self-congratulations and promotions for the sponsors of the film festival. Then there would be the promotional video that has played before every film festival film. Even the speakers seem sick of that. Sure, all the speakers say they wish they did not have to go through the litany of thanks, but that with out these people and these companies the film festival would never happen, and so forth. Whatever happened to people giving just to give? Or to support the arts? Whatever happened to anonymous donations? Everything is now an even trade for ad space and name drops. People only seem to support these sort of events so they can put feathers in their caps. The problem now is that all those feathers are starting to obstruct the films. And, this is only year 3 of the Milwaukee International Film Festival.