December 23, 2005

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

If you decide to go see Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe you will witness many marvels and wonders. And yet by the final frame, I had found no marvel greater than one little girl's ability to love so openly, freely, and selflessly. I've seen cuter and prettier little girls in movies, but Georgie Henley — who's credited first and deserves to be — towers above the lot of them. Watch her eyes the first time she steps through the wardrobe, and you'll see the wonder so many of us felt the first time we entered Narnia through the pages of a worn old library book. When real terror undercuts that fantasy, she grieves openly and with the fullness of her being. To love is to suffer loss, and one of the film's other great wonders is its steadfast refusal to shy away from consequences or suffering, or let its characters either.
When the Christ parallel reaches its inevitable climax, the movie forces us to watch — and young Susan and Lucy too. They witness the brutality unflinchingly, taking solace in each other of all things, and then grieve over the body and repair some small shreds of dignity to this disfigured form. It won't do any good, they know, but the movie is smart enough to understand the meaning in it. These are children who were raised in an age of horrors, before MTV made genuine feeling passé. Every triumph and loss shines over them; investment in the characters is very nearly unavoidable.
The supporting cast is impeccable. James McAvoy captures the look and spirit of Mr. Tumnus perfectly. I've never heard a beaver talk, but if one did I have little doubt it'd sound like Ray Winstone. Tilda Swinton very nearly Barbara Kellerman as the White Witch in my head, and Kellerman has my childhood on her side. In fact one of the strengths of the movie is the visual interpretation of Narnia, which seemingly springs almost directly from my head. The movie is like a realization of my memory of the BBC miniseries, capturing all of the amplification and texture that my childhood imagination could muster and removing the tell-tale signs of reality that would trip me up today.
Most impressively, it's a fantasy film that remembers colour. The Lord of the Rings series and the last two Harry Potter movies exist largely in a world more grey and dismal than our own. Narnia, especially once the descendants of Adam and Eve rouse it, remembers that fantasy has the potential to be truly fantastic.
And then there is Liam Neeson as Aslan. He is not perfect — the deep throaty rumble of my memory suits a lion far better than a soft Irish brogue, especially one as majestic as Aslan. It bothered me for a while, but then the power and sincerity of what Neeson did achieve took over and I was hooked. More Gandalf than Dumbledore, Aslan doesn't protect our leads from their own failings — or relieve them of sorrow and despair. He does help them realize the potential within themselves for facing and overcoming them. While I would have liked a little greater sense of danger, the famous book declaration that “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good” still applies. One of the great feats of the movie is that by the time He returns the characters have already decided to soldier on without Him, whatever the cost or outcome.
During the final battle, the brothers dive into battle while the sisters nurse the fallen lion's wounds and marvel at his resurrection. It is perhaps an inherently sexist statement, but I left the theatre with the firm belief that the girls were the more heroic.
Finally, I most commend the film for rousing one of the great classics in children's literature from those dusty shelves in the back of the library, and so accurately capturing its many facets. Now perhaps the lingering image of a glowing old lamppost in the middle of a snowy forest clearing won't be limited to the childhoods of the dwindling ranks of the eccentric and exceptionally resourceful variety. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

December 07, 2005

Rent

Rent is like every other Chris Columbus movie I've ever seen. It is impossible to enjoy it without reservation, but the good outweighs the bad in the end. In case you've been living under a rock for the past decade, Rent is an update of Puccini's opera La Boheme. Paris's Latin Quarter become New York City's Alphabet City. The painter Marcello becomes the filmmaker Mark Cohen. The poet Rodolfo become the rocker Roger Davis. His object of affection is a stripper, not a seamstress, though still named Mimi. The flirtatious Musetta become the flirtatious Maureen. The philosopher Colline becomes the professor Collins. Tom Collins. Schaunard becomes Angel Dumott Schunard, a transvestite.
The soundtrack is amazing, brimming with with and invention. For many, myself included, the only exposure to this production had been through the Original Broadway Cast Recording. If you too are one of those people the first half of the film will be especially awkward as songs are rearranged and bits that were sung are now spoken, even though the words rhyme. It's an awkward mechanism, and makes segueing into song more difficult than if the whole thing hadn't been song. I was more enamoured of the visual creativity that went into translating a stage production into the three-dimensional universe that film is capable. Right from the get-go, I couldn't imagine seeing this production on the stage.
The movie finally connected emotionally with the first rendition of La Vie Boheme, my favourite song. It is a massive group performance with insane choreography sold by the complete and utter joy on each and every face as they bring it to life. This sequence alone was enough to hook me. So it make the tragedies that followed all the more powerful. I felt the pain in "I Should Tell You" and "Take Me Or Leave Me" even as I acknowledged how over the top they were. Love done right is supposed to be over the top. We tread back into familiar territory and then "Without You" hit with unexpected power and pain. It was the first time I got choked up in a movie theatre in long time, the height of film musical craft, with visuals that reinforce and deepen what I hearing. There are some startling contrasts to earlier visual moments and one bit of manipulative flourish that absolutely positively works. To say anything more would be to deprive of the experience. If you've already seen it, you know which one I'm talking about. With a set-up like that, the reprise of "I'll Cover You" would have struck home no matter what they did to it. "Goodbye Love" is equally magnificent, with a performance by Rosario Dawson that is piercing, and tragic, and transcendent. Adam Pascal does an equally amazing job on "Finale A"/"Your Eyes"; another scene where the emotion struck right in the chest.
Once "Finale B" finished, I wasn't ready for it to be over. It ties with Revenge of the Sith for the most dramatic turn-around of 2005. Viva La Vie Boheme! ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

December 06, 2005

Dick

Dick tackles the Watergate scandal with the broad yet pointed humour that "The Simpsons" used to be known for. It is therefore not a surprise that one of the chief architects, G. Gordon Liddy, is played with an utterly hilarious moustache by the voice of Montgomery Burns. A casual understanding of the scandal will enhance the humour and make some of the peripheral punch lines hit home. If you've spent even as much time looking into Woodwood and Bernstein's investigation as I have, some of the key scenes fall apart — even ignoring W. Mark Felt coming out as Deep Throat (which one can't fault the film for since it was made first) But it covers the bases nicely, bouncing earnestly from sight gags and drug humour to wicked satire to delightful character sketches.
It's the characters that make Dick work. We follow two fifteen-year-old girls who are dim and seem shallow but prove spirited and resourceful as they soon find themselves wrapped up completely within the unravelling Nixon White House, but we get to see wonderful little asides that they obviously miss. Many of the featured White House staffers appear in both Dick and All the President's Men played in wildly different fashion. But while that straighter take chose to capture the panic in their voices, Dick seems to capture the essence of people in such positions more clearly — with liars and thieves whose calm confident voices say one thing while their wild and darting eyes say something completely different. Dan Hedaya's performance as the President is masterful: after Dick I understood both the qualities that attracted people to Nixon and the qualities that led to his downfall — and how they were often the very same things.
Will Ferrell is better than average here, playing Woodward in the broad strokes one would expect from one of his performances but without the baggage of past successes. In fact, Ferrell is only one of the many guest shots from cult heroes. Dave Foley plays Bob Haldeman like the straight man in the most zany of sitcoms. Watching him as he is confronted with one colossal disaster after the next is a truly hilarious treat. Ana Gasteyer is also fun as Nixon's secretary whose loyalty to the president borders on obsession. Ted McGinley was a casting masterstroke as the operative placed to nail the mother of Michelle Williams's character. The fact that he's Ted McGinley tells us all we need to know about him. Ryan Reynolds pops up in an early role that perfectly sets him up for the huge disaster called Just Friends that was to come. Then there's French Stuart at the beginning as an news interviewer clearly patterned after Larry King. Casting French Stuart as essentially Larry King is a fairly good representation Dick's approach to history.
If this movie were even a hair meaner, it would be a failure. It is not nearly enough for a comedy to make people laugh. It has to make people smile as well. What keeps this one afloat is a good-natured inspection of humanity at its sleaziest. Sure, the events didn't play out like this the first time around, but they might as well have. Watergate, when it comes down to it, is just a case of school children not willing to play fair — played out upon a national stage. Dick remembers that, and mines all of the humour such an understanding entails. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

November 21, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the forth film in the series based on J.K. Rowling's books, but the first to get it absolutely right. I enjoyed the first three films, and rated each highly. The first two had charm, and real human heart. The third was a visual sensation, and a generally wiser adaptation. Goblet of Fire is all of these things — but where the first two were occasionally cloying this one is sincere, where the third was pragmatic and drab this one takes the necessary beats to marvel at its own invention and find flashes of vibrant colour in the most dark and foreboding of settings.
If Prisoner of Azkaban can be credited with turning Hogwarts into a cohesive world, than Goblet of Fire must surely be credited with turning Hogwarts into a cohesive community. Where before the trio essentially existed in isolation, with other characters popping up now and again to fulfil their given moment of exposition or plot, now everyone is everywhere. Snape barely says a word in this film, as an example, but he is seemingly always peering over Harry's shoulders. Ginny Weasley is Neville's dance partner, but she also fills Harry's slot when Ron and him have a falling-out, and alternatively consoles or admonishes her siblings with each moment of bruised ego. Harry helps and is helped by Cedric Diggory, the Hogwarts champion, who is dating Cho Chang; the same girl Harry has a crush on. The weaving of the subplots between each other helps unify the whole. It also saves time. When a character is needed for one, they can be recalled with a sort of shorthand because they have already been established in another capacity.
As an adaptation, this is also the best yet. More has probably been lost from this book than from any of the others. But I didn't feel than anything essential was missing, nor did I feel like the alterations rubbed against the grain. The first film would have been better off with the dragon left out and the potions challenge at the end left in. The second film would have been perfect if it has ended with them all leaving the Chamber. The third film would have highly benefited from making the connection between the Marauder's Map and its creator; and between Harry's Patronus and his dad. By contrast, Goblet of Fire trims plot instead of character. The emotions of the book came through with perfect clarity, so it was all too easy to forgive when the details didn't. I missed Dobby giving Harry the gillyweed, but I don't think his absence hurts the movie; indeed having Neville do it credibly threads the plotlines even tighter. The conspiracy behind the tournament is substantially streamlined, but then it's really enough just to know there's a conspiracy in the first place.
This condensation — even of the big set pieces like the three tasks — gives the characters room to breathe. When a strange new man with a fake eye and a fake leg hobbles into the room, it is Ron who rightly provides the exposition as to who the hell he is even though Hermione is the one with all of the books. Since Ron's dad and this stranger both have worked at the Ministry it makes more sense that he would know. When Harry and him get in a fight, it is mined for the humour inherent of the scene but without disregarding the pain felt when lasting friendships start to sour. Amos Diggory is recognized as a blustering fool, blind behind the abounding pride he holds for his son. But that doesn't make his aching sorrow any less searing at the end.
Michael Gambon fails again to fulfil the expectations for Dumbledore that Richard Harris created in embodying the headmaster in the first two films. But while I recognize that this isn't nearly the definitive take on the character, I admire the way it plays into the tale being crafted. Having Dumbledore nearly as mystified and confused as our title character makes the stakes all the higher as the film charges along toward its finale. He nails the physical presence Dumbledore should have if coming up just a hair short on the emotional presence. Still, in a lesser film this would be a showcase performance.
Our other returning players are as pitch-perfect as can be expected, and Brendan Gleason as Moody is a revelation. He's not a perfect reflection of my mental image of the character, but he captures exactly the manic and unpredictable energy and even menace that Moody has to possess. Afshan Azad and Shefali Chowdhury as the Patil twins makes the most of their small screen time, brilliantly realizing their utter disgust at dates that turn out to be entirely less than satisfactory. David Tennant as Barty Crouch the junior has eyes and a tongue that are more disturbing than perhaps anything else in the film. Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort doesn't bring all the menace I'd imbued in the character while reading the books, but neither does he let the film crumble into the anti-climactic. His Voldemort doesn't chew scenery like I might have desired; his menace is lethal, simple, and direct.
The younger returning cast is the biggest area of improvement. Rupert turns Ron from a series of elastic faces into a character with real bitterness and sorrow behind the humour. Emma as Hermione trades in girl power for fragile optimism, in a take that has never been so courageously emotionally exposed. Dan has banished any traces of stiffness from his portrayal of Harry, bouncing effortlessly from moments human to moments heroic. Among the secondary schoolchildren there are some genuine surprises as well. The Phelps twins finally got a handle on the mischievous essence of Fred and George last time around; this time they attack the characters with fearless swagger. Bonnie Wright as Ginny steps up to her expanded role with confident articulacy, slick dance moves, and a sense of comic-timing nearly that of the Phelpses. Finally, Matthew Lewis turns Neville Longbottom from a lovable loser into a character with real tragedy and true courage. They, along with newcomers Katie Leung and Clémence Poésy, provide much of the wild and uncontained joy of Newell's Hogwarts.
The fourth time is the charm for Steve Kloves, who finally turns in a screenplay I can enjoy without reservation. Mike Newell as director brings Harry Potter's world some much needed joy. Roger Pratt's cinematography is spot on, pitch perfect; bringing the colour, light, and composition from his Chamber of Secrets photography and marrying it with the evocative motion of Michael Seresin's work on Prisoner of Azkaban. All of these elements come together for a smooth and grandiose ride, heads and shoulders above its predecessors. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

November 07, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck.

I desperately admired Good Night, and Good Luck. for its purpose and its conviction. The things the movie has to say are more relevant now than ever, and they desperately need saying. Murrow's time was dominated by a culture of fear driven by the threat of communism. Our time is dominated by a culture of fear driven by the threat of terrorism. The threat is the same, and all too real.
Secondary to the message is the craft. This film looks and feels like it was made in the era portrayed; indeed many of the key figures — McCarthy chief among them — are portrayed with actual footage from the era. The soundtrack, dominated by an onscreen studio singer, comments on the going goings-on much like the stage performances of Bob Fosse's film adaptation of Cabaret. The believability of this world is otherwise absolute.
Still, it is not a perfect film. Unlike the charismatic and emotionally gripping All the President's Men, this one engaged me almost solely on an intellectual level. Throughout too much of the film, the immediacy of the threat is kept at bay. At one point, the ridicule against one of the CBS journalists (Don Hollenbeck) accused of being a communist gets so bad he commits suicide. Boy, now that's interesting!, I thought to myself; but alas, the character gets only a handful of lines before he offs himself and only the most minimal exposure as to what he was up against.
The Robert Downey Jr./Patricia Clarkson subplot was undoubtedly aimed at humanizing the film, but this effort largely falls flat. They're likable enough, and sometimes the source of some cut understated humour. But I can't really relate to their situation and so my capacity to invest emotionally is limited.
At the end of the screening I attended, an elderly man seated in the row in front of me leaned over to his wife and complained, "It was a documentary." That it feels like one explains both the film's power and its shortcomings. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

Jarhead

Jarhead is surprising not so much for its commentary as its lack of commentary. Neither a pro-war movie nor an anti-war movie, it would be more appropriately categorized as a barely-war movie. It takes a while to get to the Gulf War, and even once it does, the most we see of battles is the jet fighters blasting by overhead. There are a couple altercations with the enemy, but unlike Midway or Saving Private Ryan we get nothing for the history books — or even for that matter, the nightly news.
This is just as well, because the film wouldn't stand out as a war movie. The lack of a clear political message or goal leaves it free to explore characters that embody the full spectrum of philosophies, temperaments, personalities, and ideas. Some characters, like Anthony Swofford — also the man whose memoirs the film is adapted from — want nothing more than to get out and go home. Others, like Fowler, Troy, and Staff Sgt. Sykes, live to be Marines. Neither viewpoint is elevated about the other; we spent enough time with these characters to judge them by other means.
Fowler, played by Evan Jones, is the typical stupid, blood-thirty war nut. But Troy and Sykes, Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx, are complicated and introspective. Swofford, soured on the military, is the one who nearly lowers himself to savage action. Troy, who lied about his criminal past he so wanted to join up, is the one who reigns him in. Sykes proves to be a true hard ass in some scenes, but in others he appears fatherly if not likable. He is the smartest kind of leader, one who takes the time to know his men well enough to understand their individual limits and how to use the others shore up weaknesses.
The presence of sex in the film dominates in many large and small ways. Much of the lingo is sexually-oriented. When they go to war, they are denied sex for long periods at a time. Their girlfriends and even wives back home stray and move on. After one scene, I came away not only never being able to view The Deer Hunter the same way again, but also understand through the myriad of sexual and emotional tensions that being a serviceman creates. It was at once amusing, heartbreaking, and enlightening.
Mendes's attention to the mundane little details is pitch-perfect. His more artistic flourishes are hit-and-miss. The way he uses the igniting of the oil wells to turn the stark desert into a hellish landscape is inspired. So too is the use of music to alternatively support and counter the mood of the action on screen. On the other hand, Swofford's hallucinations feel out of place in a movie so otherwise grounded in reality. The connections drawn with the war movies of the era of Vietnam felt forced and off.
Still, the total effect is something new and unique. At one point Troy declares, "Fuck politics. We're here. All the rest is bullshit." Jarhead captures the truth of that statement with illuminating clarity. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

November 03, 2005

Pieces of April

Never can I recall being so furious at a movie as I was near the climax of Pieces of April. It was right before April's disapproving family were about to go up to her apartment. Bobby, April's boyfriend, comes flying at the car, bloodied and beaten from a run in with Tyrone — the new incarnation of April's drug-dealing ex-boyfriend Eddie. He goes up to send her down. They take off. Were I not in a public theatre, I would have screamed at the television. There are movies for disappointment and misunderstanding, but they need to be structured differently. Had this been the end of the story, I would have left the theatre betrayed. I still feel like the plot twist exploited the audience, but fortunately the movie finds its way to the right ending in the end.
April's dying mother Joy is in the bathroom when she hears another mother yelling at her young daughter, then watches as she storms out. The girl, in the stall, makes sorrowful eye contact with Joy before quietly pulling herself together and leaving the bathroom. It is a low-key moment, but it comes very close to justifying the plot point at the heart of my fury. Joy, having desperately disappointed April as April had so often disappointed her, the moment of eye contact with this total stranger finally allows her to relate to and connect with her black sheep offspring. So she and her pot-rolling son take off in the bitch seats of two other patrons' motorcycles. It is a moment typical of this movie — where the quirky details for a change feel true, right, and natural instead of tacked on and deliberate.
The film begins with an April that is hopeless, lifeless, and aimless. It ends with an April that is optimistic, resourceful, and connected. The main reason having the family take off was such a big slap in the face was because we watched this girl over the time it takes a turkey to cook grow, change, and aspire for that which all parents and children should share. She had earned that happiness and the movie had crafted no obvious reasons to deny her that. I never watched "Dawson's Creek" and was underwhelmed by her performance in Batman Begins. But here she has a real likable vulnerability about her. It's a performance that is affecting with its openness.
When her previously unused stove turns out not to work at all, she scours the building looking for someone to lend her theirs. One couple she meets, Evette and Eugene, begin by laughing at her and end up rooting for her. Their world has a warmth and safety to it, recalling the feeling a child has when under the roof of his protective elders. They introduce her to the heart and soul of true Thanksgiving cooking, but soon need their stove back for their own Thanksgiving bird. Her back-up stove doesn't pan out when its owner, a vegan with a door plastered with bumper stickers for liberal causes, decides she wouldn't be able to stand the smell of flesh cooking. The bird's next home, in the apartment of a character representing Sean Hayes at his most unusual, only lasts an hour and costs fairly literally an arm and a leg. The dinner's saviour finally comes with an apartment of Chinese whose English is limited but whose generosity extends beyond cultural boundaries.
With each, the film recognizes the inherent humour but looks beyond to find the humanity. Like the population of a Wes Anderson film, all the characters seem half a notch off-kilter. But writer/director Peter Hedges is able to make the off-kilter relatable nearly effortlessly. Anderson's characters are caricatures. Hedges's are living and breathing human beings.
Yes April's sister was irritating, and yes the grandmother had nothing really to do. Bobby's storyline was probably a distraction, and that plot twist at the climax pissed me off. But once the film gets back on track, the final moments are captured poignantly through pitch-perfect music and the sheer emotion of April's brother's camera lens. Finally, with those few still frames, the film gives me the only thing I was really asking from it. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

October 31, 2005

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants has all of the trappings of a flick for the preadolescent girl. Indeed, it services that market well. Those trappings give the movie structure, but fortunately for all of us, they do not give the film its soul.
Rarely have I seen a movie that so unabashedly celebrates the beauty of the human spirit, or the wonder of the world in which we all reside. It is not afraid of the darker side of the world either. In being compatible with the twelve-year-old psyche, it never peers too far down the dark alleys of our world, but there is a clear recognition that few of us really live in the sunlight world the Lizzie Maguires seem perpetually graced to inhabit. The supporting characters, like the video gamer at the local 7-11 type shop or the woman who inhabits the truth behind Wal*Mart's P.R. campaign, force us to stare at world that is cruel and unfair and seemingly dead end.
Then it does something truly amazing. It shines its light on these dismal prospects and unveils the extraordinary behind them. In doing so, the people aren't changed. Their threads and futures are much the same as they would have been had the movie never paid them much mind. The only thing that changes is our perception of them. There is love, there is loss, there is misery, heartache, and disappointment. The four girls experience all of these things and so do we, right in the stomach. But above all, the four girls experience hope. Things are no more perfect at the end of the film than at the beginning, but the people who must deal with the imperfection are more equipped to do so. This is a coming of age film in the most essential and central way.
It was not long ago that I reviewed The Weather Man, starring Nicholas Cage. Things were no worse in his life than these four girls'. And yet that movie preached that despair and disappointment and insurmountable, that love and hope are lost causes. The filmmakers of that movie need to meet a young girl named Bailey, who at twelve years of age already knew more about this world and humanity than all of them put together.
Nicholas Cage's character in that film needs to meet Bradley Whitford's in this one, whose failures as a father are far more damning and yet who learns over the course of a phone call that small fundamental gestures are far more powerful than grand empty ones.
Michael Caine's character in that film needs to meet Amber Tamblyn's in this film, and realize that to understand capture the world around you is not enough. At some point, you need to let go of your judgements and discover the beauty of imperfection and intent.
I can recall a few times when the Sisterhood made me cry. Tibby and Carmen's storylines are beautiful, and tragic, and pure. They pierce at the heart of what it is to love, to expose yourself and invest in another human being to such an extent that losing them can destroy everything about you. Bridget and Lena's are more pedestrian, and yet in their characters I found certain understated truths. In my review of the The Weather Man, I noted that "I do know that I look to cinema to show me something new, to inspire me or entertain me or challenge me." That film, for all of its artistry, provided me none of those things. And yet a movie about a pair of pants made me laugh, made my cry, made me smile, and made me think. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants made me reconsider how I view the world, and that is cinema at the very peak of its power. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

October 28, 2005

The Weather Man

In Michael Caine, The Weather Man has one of the year's great performances. The cinematography is wonderful, the overall craft virtually impeccable. And yet the film ranks among the bottom of my list. Why? Because when I left the theatre, I didn't come away with anything more than I went in with. It's a lot of talent and artistry towards no true end. They're a bunch of likeable interesting losers, yes, but losers none-the-less. The Weather Man is Broadcast News from William Hurt's perspective. The flash is there, but there's no urge or real desire to go any deeper.
The film reminds me of another piece of Oscar bait. About Schmidt also had an interesting script with big name actors doing challenging things. This film is funnier and truer than than that one, but the journey — or lack there of — is essentially the same. Even when Cage's character is trying to be deep, he focuses on the surface issues: he didn't get his father the newspaper, people will think his eulogy was shallow and sucked. He wonders why everyone is so unhappy but makes no real headway into resolving it. Two moments truly affected me: when he broke down in tears in the passenger's seat of his fathers car, and when he kicked the shit out of the man who was making moves on his son. They were the two scenes of advancement and truth, the only whiffs of where a better movie would have gone.
There is a very strong argument to be made that this was the only reasonable path that these characters could have taken. I accept that, to the extent that it's true. I'm not asking for him to become father-of-the-year, I'm just asking that he show some signs of growing from the previous scene in the movie.
Or maybe, like so many dark comedies, I just don't get it. I do know that I look to cinema to show me something new, to inspire me or entertain me or challenge me. This movie did known of those things. It simply spread a blanket of isolation, loneliness, and despair in a world that already has too much of each. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

October 25, 2005

Nine Lives

Nine Lives is the sort of movie I don't have much experience with. There is no traditional unifying narrative structure. There are only nine real shots. And for the duration of each shot, we are stuck with these people whether we want to be or not. There's something unflinching about that. As the time builds, so does the tension. We are trained to expect cuts every couple of frames these days; by the time minute six rolls around there is a connection to place and time that is concrete and absorbing.
A large part of its power is derived from this novelty. Some of the scenes engaged me much stronger than others, and when I wasn't involved with the drama I used the time to admire the craft. By the time I'd gotten my head around the flow and form of the film, it ventured into places surprising and exciting. The first scene creates a feeling of repressive, overbearing reality. The last scene is a delight of barely disguised abstract and whimsy. The seven sandwiched in the middle thread between the two philosophies, creating seemingly impossible connections and raising serious questions of how the world relates to itself, both literally and thematically.
It is ostensibly a film about seven woman and seven relationships. My experience was that some lingered with me more than others. Elpidia Carrillo sticks because the scene gives us little else to cling to. I recognized the skill in crafting the cohesive transformation from humble mopper to arrogant rabble-rouser. But it failed to engage me on a personal level. Contrast that to Robin Wright Penn, where the slightest shift in facial expression changes the whole feeling of the scene. Carrillo was working against a void, and in contrast Penn and a hauntingly understated Jason Isaacs share a familiarity that is rather claustrophobic. Every turn, every moment — even the funny ones — carried a feeling of unease.
Then there's Lisa Gay Hamilton, with the performance of the film. Though her character shares the bulk of the screen time with Sydney Tamiia Poitier's character, the latter's role is so reactionary that Hamilton has full reign. There is something so fragmented, unhinged, and fatally wounded about the performance that nearly knocked my breath away. From moment to moment, her actions are completely unpredictable and yet never less than believable. The character is a prime candidate for scenery chewing, but Hamilton internalizes the drama to such an extent that each outburst pierces to the core.
I could spend two hours watching Holly Hunter pick at her toe nails and come away better for the experience. But what she and Stephen Dillane achieve here is something rather than extraordinary. The scene utilizes the vulnerability inherent in Hunt's film persona and radicalizes it. She is open and optimistic, and so the most open to disappointment. Dillane is the antithesis of all of these things. From the very first moment, I understood why they were together. They're banter was vibrant, a much needed respite from the heavy drama that had preceded it. But like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the vitrol that quickly accumulates underneath the dialog undermines much of the appreciation. The arcs of the two couples will run parallel, without quite the over-the-top theatrics of that celebrated 1966 affair.
Amanda Seyfried's Samantha in the next story is perhaps the most relentlessly watchable character of the film. As she bounces back and forth between the dominant personalities of each parent, I found myself totally drawn into each shift in body language and every slightest facial expression. I found myself regarding this passive personality, and watching the way the camera regarded her. I can't remember a word of dialog from this scene, but I remember every slightest twitch.
The Lorna scene isn't driven so much by Amy Brenneman's perfectly acceptable performance so much as by a narrative thrust that offers some exciting new twist with each new encounter. It consistently surprised me, and entered places that I couldn't have expected going in. A true delight.
"Ruth" shifts the focus to the depressed and disappointed mother from two sketches back. In the time it took me to make the connection, I had already shifted my allegiance to the Other Man — in this case, Aidan Quinn. The details of their affair are utterly mundane. Yet the perspective of the Quinn character is utterly unique. He takes one look at the ordinary and in a simple turn of phrase unearths the extraordinary.
"Camille" gives Kathy Baker and outlet to just bat for the fences. But it's her straight man, Joe Mantegna (brilliant in almost anything), that imbues her ravings with depth. Despite her behavior throughout, there is never a doubt that the bond between them is concrete. Something that could have been merely amusing becomes one of the most poignant experiences in the movie.
Finally, "Maggie" ties everything thematically to a close. The rapport between Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning is natural and true. Before we even know how they relate, we realize that the presence of this child is what makes Maggie complete. It isn't hammered into the audience. It is enough simply to observe them, and everything makes sense. That's all it takes to drive Maggie home.
I cannot say whether Nine Lives would have been so effective had the novelty of it not felt so original and fresh. The fact is, it did feel original and fresh. I left the cinema with a greater appreciation of film and the ideas that it captures. It is a film with a thorough understanding of what it means to only connect. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT