Nine Lives(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2.14.2006)
While it may seem necessary to view (or review) Nine Lives as a single film, it's probably more appropriate to review this occasionally dull, occasionally vibrant creation as nine distinct shorts. Yes, there is some overlap in these mini-films comprised of single long takes -- a few characters appear in multiple stories, to little dramatic or narrative effect -- but their quality, discipline, and appropriateness to the format varies considerably.
It's hard to pin down exactly why some of these shorts succeed and others fail. At first glance, narrative urgency would seem key to the film's two most effective sequences -- the justly celebrated Robin Wright Penn grocery store sequence and the unjustly ignored Stephen Dillane/Holly Hunter troubled marriage sequence -- but two of the film's weakest sequences are even more urgent (Lisa Gay Hamilton's gun confrontation and Amy Brenneman's funeral encounter with a deaf ex-husband).
In essence, what distinguishes feature films from shorts is their greater room for character development, juxtaposition, visual and narrative structure, an articulation of time, etc. These issues all come into play when trying to form a coherent whole out of the pieces we're given to work with in Nine Lives, but the film yields cumulative results that are only mildly satisfying.
It's also worth noting that, while the long take format is extremely effective in small doses (ie. 2 or 3 shorts), it quickly grows tiresome and predictable. This kind of conceptual approach to style is interesting on paper but, in practice, it can render a film formally lifeless. Halfway through Nine Lives, you begin to realize that two key dimensions are missing from the film's visual design: variety and the element of surprise. The long take approach also feels like a lazy directorial short cut, affording writer/director Rodrigo Garcia the opportunity to focus on the acting, rather than spend time conceiving unique and inventive visual strategies for each sequence.
Still, on a short-by-short basis, there's a great deal of worthy, nuanced work here. Never less than watchable, Nine Lives is a flawed but intelligent, serious-minded film and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has a issued a generous DVD release. While the standard features (commentary, deleted scenes) are absent, we get something far more entertaining...and even educational.
Any film with this much emphasis on acting deserves a serious consideration of that under-appreciated art and that's exactly what Sony gives us. Similar -- but far more substantial -- to one of the extras on Sony's DVD of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, we get a cast and crew Q&A taped in front of a live audience/class at The Lee Strasberg Theater Institute in Los Angeles.
Over an hour in length, this 3-part conversation allows Garcia and several members of his cast (Amy Brenneman, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Kathy Baker, and Joe Mantegna) to share their always stimulating perspectives and philosophies on acting. Mantegna offers a particularly entertaining dissection of the Academy Awards and their habit of rewarding show-off performances that he believes his 90-year-old mother could give. This is like an episode of Inside the Actor's Studio, but with more guests and less James Lipton. In other words, it's a real treat (although I do secretly enjoy Lipton's bizarre Goldblum-meets-Walken verbal affectations).
In addition to the lengthy Q&A, we get four solid featurettes: "The Women of Nine Lives" (7 minutes), "Maggie: A Day at the Cemetery" (5 minutes), "Working With One Continuous Take" (9 minutes), and "Sonia: Blocking a Scene" (7 minutes). The latter provides an interesting glimpse at the process of blocking one of these long takes and, like the other extras on this disc, it adds something significant to our understanding of Garcia's process and intent.
Good-intentioned as it may be, Nine Lives is a flawed experiment. However, if you can look past that and appreciate the film for what it is, this disc's a no-brainer. -- Jonathan Doyle