When I viewed "The Nines" I was speechless afterwards. It's not that I was blown out of my socks by a revolutionary picture of unimaginable quality, it was more that I was slightly perturbed that another filmmaker decided to try sludgy interpretational cinema on for size, and the fit was too tight. This is a well-made piece of befuddlement, but where's the line between fantastic daredevil screenwriting and a masturbatory voyage of premeditated mystification? "The Nines" takes a certain delight in dancing between the two.
I wouldn't know how to summarize the plot for "The Nines" even if writer/director John August came up and told me himself. In the easiest of definitions, the film is about Gary/Gavin/Gabriel (Ryan Reynolds), three men who are dealing with disruptions in reality over the course of three short stories. Involved in the madness is Margaret/Melissa/Mary (Melissa McCarthy) and Sarah/Susan/Sierra (Hope Davis), two women who pull the men in different psychological directions for both insidious and protective purposes. Within the context of a T.V. star battling addiction while on house arrest, a writer facing the demise of his own series on a "Project Greenlight" reality show, and a video game designer lost in the woods, the consequences of destiny are given a thorough workout as evidence of the mysterious nines start to pile up.
August is perhaps best known as the screenwriter of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Big Fish," and "Go," while also one of the many pilots behind the agreeably sugary "Charlie's Angels" big screen adventures. "The Nines" is his first directorial effort and it comes across as a detoxification of all his mainstream impulses; an itch of metaphysical musings that he just had to scratch. Calling the film "weird" is being kind, for this is a journey that takes the viewer to askew plains of reality while firmly grounded in the mental frustrations of an entertainment participant, namely a writer much like August, who battles the hurricanes of heavenly manipulations as furiously as he does the knuckle-dragging studio suits.
Overall, I responded to "The Nines" as a sly Cronenbergian chess game of the mind. As impenetrable as it becomes, it's easy to perceive that this is straight-from-the-heart work from August, who takes every shot with the kind of ideal enthusiasm a first-time director should have. It's a low-budget romp for the filmmaker, and if it doesn't ring the lucidity bell for the audience loud enough, there's some comfort in the idea that at least August gets what the heck is going on.
The largest thematic bomb the picture cradles is the manipulation of reality; that comfort of fate ripped away to reveal a larger network of control to comprehend. Through the characters Reynolds inhabits, the taffy-like pull of psychosis is examined, to a point of messianic contemplation, which is a more natural fit into the framework of the film than it sounds. August scripts in a big way, however "The Nines" is more intimate and consoling, tweaking out on the terror of insanity, than defining the film on ideas of horror and dementia. The more lofty presentations of spiritual hocus pocus tend to annoy, seemingly whenever Hope Davis pops up in the film, but overall August has command over the confusion, deliberately withholding clues to inflate the profundity of the end product.
Casting is where the director hits a bull's eye, giving Reynolds a lead role that requires the actor to pull out a rainbow of emotions, sold by the talented performer with real elegance. With the walls of sanity closing in on his characters, Reynolds dodges most clichés, showing vulnerability and a palpable tingle of fear as the three films wind tighter. It's a brilliant piece of acting.
Matching him note for note is national treasure Melissa McCarthy, an instantly lovable screen presence handed something thematically weighty to play for once. The ying to Reynolds's yang, McCarthy nails the sympathies and ominous nature of her roles with alarming ease, adding a much needed placement of heart in what can be a cold, isolating construct of a movie. McCarthy and Reynolds share exquisite chemistry, and I hope another daring filmmaker scripts up more adventures for these exceptional actors.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio, with one moment in 2.35:1), "The Nines" manages to staple together several film and video sources and create a distinctive visual experience the DVD exhibits well for most of the running time. The desaturated color scheme is crisp and attractive, but the black levels tend to smear during the evening sequences.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is very concentrated on creating a specific sonic mood for the story, with heavy emphasis on atmospherics and soundtrack cuts. It's a tight track, bringing the viewer deeper into the mystery of it all. It's best played at top volume.
The first of two feature-length commentary tracks is provided by John August and star Ryan Reynolds. Initially conceived as a podcast to be played during the film's theatrical run, it was shelved due to a) Kevin Smith learned with a similar podcast idea for "Clerks 2" that theater owners don't approve of the "bring a commentary with you" approach, and b) "The Nines" didn't get much of a theatrical release.
Track #1 is led by August, who sprints through a discussion of the technical challenges he faced while assembling his ambitious feature. He's a slightly awkward speaker, and with Ryan playing the straight man, it leaves the track a little on the dry side. For added aggravation, the commentary is out of sync, with comments trailing the action by a few seconds. It's not a huge blunder, and the track appears to correct itself midway through, but it's just enough to reconsider if slugging your way through the experience is worth the headache.
Track #2 brings back August, joined by editor Douglas Crise and actress Melissa McCarthy. Again, August leads the talk with heaping spoonfuls of production minutiae, and the results are a little more interesting, revealing the limitations he faced while working with a tiny budget and his history with some of the supporting performers. Also of interest is August speaking briefly about his cursed time on the canceled T.V. show, "D.C."
Both tracks are virtually alike in information and tone, only separated by the syncing issues and your choice of commentary co-stars.
A collection of deleted scenes (13 minutes) fail to offer any clues to cracking "The Nines." What we have here instead are more moments with Reynolds and his posse of characters as they try to fight off boredom and interact with fellow Hollywood writers. Also included is an alternate ending that August feels is perhaps too vague. Hilarious. These scenes can be viewed with or without commentary from August and Crise.
"Script to Storyboard to Screen" (5 minutes) is a wonderfully constructed look at how the final product of "The Nines" was shaped through various steps of the artistic process.
"Summing Up 'The Nines'" (14 minutes) is a making-of featurette, only with a more confessional attitude than normal EPK offerings. Comprised of terrific on-set footage, concise interviews with cast and crew, and some honesty about artistic inspiration, it's the most direct piece of information to be found on the DVD.
A photo slideshow (3 minutes) of publicity stills and on-set snapshots is included.
"God" (11 minutes) is a short film written and directed by August back in 1998. Starring Melissa McCarthy as a young woman in a volcanic telephone relationship with God, it's here on this DVD to serve as a prequel of sorts to one of McCarthy's characters in "The Nines." It can be viewed with or without commentary by August, McCarthy, and Crise.
No theatrical trailer is offered, but peeks at "Dragon Wars," "Southland Tales," "Revolver," "Resident Evil: Extinction," "Boogeyman 2," "Gabriel," "Slipstream," "Across the Universe," "Romance & Cigarettes," "Zombie Strippers," "Black Water," "Damages: Season 1," and "We Own the Night" are included.
With the occasional musical number, end-of-days twitch, and general vivisection of the television testing process, "The Nines" is a peculiar brew of strange; a puzzle that has no desire to be solved. It's not for every taste out there, but the picture should feel like a warm bath to those who love a movie that spirals out into a million different directions, lying in wait for the open mind to come along and try to piece it together.
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