Nine Lives, Zero Truth. Plus, Whimsy & Agony in New York
By Fernando F. Croce

Let's hear it for the long-take, and boo Rodrigo García for thrashing it so irresponsibly. The camera records the passage of time, thus mortality, and the unbroken track is its sublimest instrument of creation and transformation, as understood by Renoir, Mizoguchi, Ophüls, Preminger, Godard, Jancsó and Angelopoulos. In Nine Lives, García, son of the magisterial Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, wants the long-take in Nine Lives, his feature debut, to wring raw emotional truth out of semi-connected moments from a group of characters, yet the surface veracity of the technique (Look ma, no cuts!) is continuously demolished by the intolerable falsity of the narratives, culled straight out of a Lifetime Original Movie marathon. Haneke's Code Unknown lent a John Sayles rewrite, basically, kicked off already fortissimo with Elpidia Carillo, Los Angeles County prison inmate and the first of the nine varying shades of female anguish, mopping the floor, getting squeezed for info by guard Miguel Sandoval, then whipping up cyclonic histrionics when her visit-day is interrupted by a busted phone. From there, on to preggers Robin Wright Penn bumping her shopping cart on former flame Jason Isaacs for longing and regret, scored to supermarket muzak. Isaacs kisses her belly, and vanishes into thin air -- could such knotty emotions really be tied in twelve minutes? No time to answer, for Lisa Gay Hamilton is at the door, packing heat and seething with resentment towards daddy, who turns out to be... Sandoval?

Yup, another connect-the-dots LA canvas, as if Crash earlier this year hadn't been bad enough. Robert Altman has a lot to answer for, cuz García is just getting started with his Steadicam moves, so in come Holly Hunter and Stephen Dillane to tour a couple's swanky apartment and offer toasts to continuity and emotive misery. Smartass teenager Amanda Seyfried shuffles back and forth between Sissy Spacek and crippled Ian McShane, her parents, who encourage her to "spread your wings, time passes so quickly"; not to be outdone, Mary Kay Place is to sigh how "time is fleeting" at a funeral while Amy Brenneman has a sympathy-quickie with widower William Fichtner, yet another old flame, who tells her, by subtitled sign language, that he jerks off to memories of her. Still, the Big Statement finally comes from burly, soused Aidan Quinn, on his way to a motel rendezvous with Spacek, babbling on about the moon and connection and the utter falseness of "confections," where the pieces are put together. Is Nine Lives García's cosmic anti-confection? If so, he needed something far deeper than the faux-serenity of Kathy Baker's mastectomy patient anxiously arguing with Joe Mantegna before the operation, or the mock-Shyamalan cemetary stinger with Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning, a cat skipping over graves (nine lives, geeeet it?). "Every woman is a universe," someone says, but here they're little more than wind-up toys of Sundance torment. If, as Godard said, tracking shots are a question of morality, then by abusing them so facilely, García's film can't help but be, artistically, immoral.

*

No tracking shots for Noah Baumbach, but the image in The Squid and the Whale remains indie-degraded -- even Blue Velvet, excerpted during a clip, looks grainy and faded. It's Brooklyn, 1986, and disintegration is finally descending upon the Berkman clan: after years of stifled resentment, monstrously condescending father Jeff Daniels and cheerlessly adulterous mom Laura Linney, both members of New York City's literary aristocracy, decide to break up, their kids (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline) caught up in the emotional upheavals of the split, ping-ponging from parent to parent for a joint custody. Linney takes up with tennis instructor William Baldwin and Daniels moves the brood to a dilapidated home on other side of the world (that is, Prospect Park), a room left empty so Anna Paquin, his girlfriend-student, can move in. The boys, meanwhile, are going through agonies of their own -- sullen teen Eisenberg takes to loathing his mother while parroting his father's misanthropic pontifications (which bags him gal pal Halley Feiffer), and Kline, aged about thirteen, starts downing beer and masturbating in libraries, cum smeared melancholically over bookshelves and school lockers. Messy divorces refuse to wrap in ten-minute takes, and Daniels, who sees Kafka as a "predecessor," can only work emotions through a pane of academic self-absorption. "That was my Jude the Obscure," he says, gazing at the shelf when finally returning to his former house; loaded onto an ambulance after a row with Linney, he quotes Belmondo's misogynistic Breathless epitaph.

Jean-Luc aside, Baumbach's model here is arguably Maurice Pialat and, less arguably, Jean Eustache, whose seminal bleeding wound, The Mother and the Whore, gets a cinephilic shout-out -- harrowing domestic dissection, emotional rawness, the artist's exorcizing-feeding upon his own upheavals. No doubt about the last ingredient, since the picture is scarcely less than brutal in its autobiographic elements: Baumbach's folks are famous New York writers, the Squid and the Whale are Mom and Dad (also a Museum of Natural History diorama), and this is his way of dealing with still-undigested childhood traumas. The director's stabs at aping Eustache's blunt confessionary into his rarefied, bourgeois verbosity are as transparent a cry-for-help as Eisenberg's plagiarism of Pink Floyd's "Hey You" for a talent show. Try as he might to cut to the frayed nerves of a scene, Baumbach lets cuteness get in the way; thus, Daniels' brilliantly unsentimental portrayal of an asshole gets clogged and diffused by the filmmaker's self-satisfied ellipsis and wiseass use of songs. I would have assumed this preciousness comes from his closeness to Wes Anderson, who co-produced it (Baumbach also co-wrote Anderson's nauseating The Life Aquatic), but the truth is that the impulse's streaked his work since 1995 with his debut, Kicking and Screaming. This is only his fourth film; if he can cut the feyness and mine the intensity, he may be able to dodge the disposal bin where Tadpole, Igby Goes Down, and all twee New York quirkiness go to rot.

*

Choose life, choose a job, choose a career, choose a sequel. I missed the first Saw, so I chose The Legend of Zorro. As shamelessly Hollywood as Nine Lives and The Squid and the Whale are drearily indie, the sequel to the 1998 hit is assembly-line (a "confection," if you please) down to the insistent Hispanicness of James Horner's score, yet reasonably rousing, breezily hokey, and touchingly retrograde. Now settled, Zorro (Antonio Banderas again) continues to don mask, cape, and blade to answer the pueblo's bell-tolling as if it were the Bat-Sign, though his family (wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and son Adrian Alonso), no less than the Berkmans, is on the rocks -- all those years of swashbuckling at work, only to come home to a gorgeous nag and a kid who sees you only as an uncool aristo. A midlife crisis? Nimble hack Martin Campbell is back behind the camera, so any unpacked subtext is accidental, second to frenetic action set-pieces and big-star close-ups. Or maybe not. The setting is 1850 California, the State about to become part of the Union, although not before election ballots are nearly taken by a foaming meanie (Nick Chinlund), with a cross scarring his cheek. National divisiveness, a French, fancy-pants bad-guy (Rufus Sewell), sinister pre-CIA agents warning of weapons to "destroy the United States" -- and Good Night, and Good Luck has sneaky agendas? In any case, barely a Spy Kids installment, nitroglycerin-crammed train climax or not.


Reviewed November 3, 2005.

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