Every time I see “Nine Lives”, there is always some detail waiting to be discovered that remains invisible until the latest viewing. I’ve seen it twice in the past three months and as reliable as George Lucas wanting cash, the once-invisible elements appeared, a lesson in watching movies, in that even the most miniscule detail can contribute more to what you’ve seen.
Little did I know those previous times that Henry Stanton (Aidan Quinn) was the counselor Samantha (Amanda Seyfried) and her mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek) talked about when Ruth asked her why she decided not to go east to college. I also had no inkling that Ruth, in talking to Samantha on a cell phone in that lonesome hotel room, knew Diana (Robin Wright Penn), who’s the second of the stories in this utter masterwork of short stories for the screen. They’re hardly short films, since they all connect, especially since writer/director Rodrigo Garcia obviously learned much from his father, renowned novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Watching a bevy of great actresses give everything they have to their characters, it’s easy to imagine the elder Marquez telling the young Garcia, “Never leave your characters until you’re absolutely certain that you’ve taken them as far as they can go. When you’ve reached that point, leave your audience not only wanting more, but also with enough for them to think about themselves in the light of your characters.” Or something to that effect.
More dramatic power is also brought by way of Garcia’s style for “Nine Lives”, of having nine unbroken shots of 12 minutes or less for each woman. Walking through a graveyard with her daughter Maria (Dakota Fanning in the finest role of her career), Maggie (Glenn Close) gets as much time as Sandra (Elpidia Carrillo), locked away in the L.A. County Jail, distraught and angry that because the phone’s not working, she can’t speak to her daughter. Robin Wright Penn, walking around pregnant in a supermarket as Diana, has many powerful moments, briefly happy in seeing her former lover Damian (Jason Isaacs), but realizing that this can’t happen again. Her life is different, she’s different, the time that has passed since then is different. But man oh man, just watch that final scene of hers. It’s one shattering moment that lasts right on through to Samantha’s story as she shuttles herself between both her parents (Ian McShane and Spacek) in separate rooms in their house, presumably staying there and not going to college in the east to take care of her disabled father. Why does she stay? Is it because her parents would devastatingly break apart if she left? Seyfried—whose most well-known mainstream role is in “Mean Girls” and now the HBO show “Big Love”—is so expressive, far more different than the usual spate of 20-something actresses who couldn’t be dramatic even if they were handed an Oscar just for doing nothing.
The list of greatness in “Nine Lives” goes on and on and on. It’s filmmaking technique, it’s all the actresses and the actors (including Joe Mantegna as a patient husband to Camille (Kathy Baker), scared by the surgery she will have to undergo), it’s Garcia’s dialogue which sounds so natural from these characters, from their current stations in life.
The “Nine Lives” DVD almost tops that list, resting below Dakota Fanning’s performance. It should serve as a model DVD, the magic that can be done when a DVD only contains featurettes. It’s undoubtedly true that for many movies, the DVDs depend on the box office dollars. Big money in theaters means big DVD releases. The right notes are struck with this DVD since it should be pushed out to waiting eyes and minds even more than it was when it was in select theaters.
This disc is loaded with all that can be said about “Nine Lives” and even a little extra with a Q&A at the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute giving way to Lisa Gay Hamilton, Amy Brenneman, Kathy Baker, and Joe Mantegna sharing their feelings about auditions, performing in front of a camera that won’t turn away for the entire time the film is running through it, and just discussing the mind that is Rodrigo Garcia. Garcia, also part of the Q&A, talks about his early days which were partly spent at the Sundance Film Lab, directing scenes featuring Kathy Baker and Marg Helgenberger. Garcia pushed Calista Flockhart and Valeria Golino far beyond what they usually do in his first film, “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her” and it was a shock to see Flockhart in such a wrenching role. When Garcia figures out his next film, he needs to cast Helgenberger. It’s not just the prospect of seeing her far outside of Catherine Willows from “CSI”, but also because she and Garcia sound like such a dynamic combination. And with every film he does, each actress gives him her flawless best.
There are also a few featurettes which show other mainstream DVD labels how these should be done. The film in question should be the main concern of a DVD and each documentary/audio commentary/whatever should pertain to that. No one should have to hear so much of stars, producers, and directors verbally going down on each other in praise. “Oh you were so good in this and you were so good in that and I think you need to sign my breast because it’ll never heave like this after you leave this commentary recording session,” is how extreme I could imagine it getting one day. “The Women of Nine Lives” featurette sticks to the bare basics with Garcia giving up why he wrote this movie and many other actresses talking about their characters. That’s it. Garcia is good, Garcia is great, but editor Andrea Folbrecht knows that there’s only so much space on a DVD. Fortunately, these actresses look genuinely impressed over the work that they’ve done as well as with Garcia, so that’s an exception. Enthusiasm’s fun to watch, but not when it looks like it’s been created just to make it seem like something went on.
“Sonia: Blocking a Scene” splits the screen into two boxes with the actual shot playing on the right side and Garcia and cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet blocking the shot on the left. Talk about logistics! Small spaces, elevators; that they did it at all is remarkable! “Working with One Continuous Take” allows a few words about the shooting schedule and how many times the stories were shot and even more detail can be found with “Maggie: A Day at the Cemetery” where the entire Steadicam package is fitted on to one of the camera operators. 85 pounds.
So this is nice. A great movie and a first-rate DVD. And watching filmmakers do their thing on DVD is always a good time. Don’t wait too long for drama like this.