Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 29, 2021 12:16 pm 
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Philosophical sci-fi about souls in limbo that's also a meditation on suicide

Imagine if you can (I find it hard myself) a "world" in which "souls" appearing as grown-up people in bodies are selected to live as mortals. But here's the catch: most of those "souls" won't make the cut. And imagine also if you can a large black man named Will (Winston Duke of Black Panther and Us) in a one-storey house in the middle of nowhere (possibly Utah) in charge of a small segment of what may be a vast, global operation. He has previously chosen 25 or so to live lives on earth. In the house, there's a big room full of old tube TVs playing full blast all the time. These are POV films of these lives, and Will needs to monitor them, to keep track whether his choices are holding up. Is it any surprise that life and TV are conflated? Or that VHS tapes are much used, as well as notebooks and pencils? This is sci-fi whose spiritual and moral bent is softened by retro trappings.

Will, whose moodiness relates to his having lived on earth before but not very successfully, has one favorite among his group of chosen beings, a talented young violinist called Amanda (Lisa Starrett). Her big moment is coming up, which Will and his sidekick and pal, a free-floating soul at this outpost called Kyo, pronounced here "Kee-oh" (Bennedict Wong), call "her concerto." (They seem to mean a concert where Amanda will solo in a concerto for violin; the musical details are left a bit hazy here for my taste.) But things turn sour when, on the way to the "concerto," Amanda drives her car into a concrete barrier and is killed. It takes most of the film for Will to fully ascertain and then accept that this was suicide. He struggles to know why. He blames himself. And so on. Kyo tells him to let it go yet he cannot.

But all that, though important, is secondary. The main focus of the screenplay is the process of choosing Amanda's replacement. There is a "soul" to "body" quota system in which Amanda's death creates an opening that must immediately be filled - within the titular nine days. A group of "souls" (shall we say half a dozen?) come around - the candidates. Will begins observing them, interrogating them and testing them with hypotheticals, in administering which he tends to be abrupt, repetitious, and brutal.

It hardly matters who is chosen, and some of those who aren't may even be more important than the one who is. What counts is that the self-contradictory, repressed, shut-down Will should learn to be more of a mensch. Hopefully he will become less brutal, master his ill-concealed rage issues, stop yelling so much, and stop being sadistic and arbitrary in dealing with candidates in any future soul-selection rounds.

This is a big and perhaps unexpected role for Winston Duke and he proves to have the range for it and then some. Will plays God, and he's certainly the God of this movie. Much of the time he seems one-note, but when his other facets jump out they're astonishing. The little round silver spectacles Will mostly wears make him look prissy. But when they and his vest come off at the end and he dramatically recites from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," the sun shines forth, the voice waxes Shakespearean, and the eyes sparkle with youth and hope that show what magic an actor can work who has the chops this man has.

In that triumphant final scene and many short ones before Duke plays opposite Zazie Beetz, a light skinned, wild-haired black woman of considerable beauty and presence. She plays Emma, a seemingly promising, or at least consistently arresting, "soul" candidate who could be described as Will's favorite reject - so much so that he keeps her around as long as he can and wants her back when he has let her go.

Additional cast members who stand out are Tony Hale as Alex, the joker and hang-loose guy among the "souls," and Bill Skarsgård, as Kane, the toughest one (though his part is underwritten). The others, I fear, come off as rather pathetic. What else can you be when you are told that you didn't make the cut, and that means very shortly, with or without a "favorite moment" reenactment, you will simply cease to exist? But they are at least briefly memorable. Importantly, director Edson Oda skillfully maneuvers a complicated game in this film of shifting rapidly from "soul" to "soul" and wrangling all those old TVs broadcasting POV films of separate lives, and he manages to do this without too much confusion or overwhelm.

There have been both raves and hoots of derision for this movie, but the raves sound loudest. Viewer doubts are understandable. How can you have people who are "souls" that haven't got bodies yet - if they appear to us as flesh and blood? Relax, it's a movie. Some critics feel the second half fails to sustain the excitement of the first. I must be missing something because I don't really even see two clear halves.

What confuses me more is that reviewers think this is an extraordinary and unique work. Director Oda handles this material in an original and highly competent manner. He has evident talent for the feature film medium. But the theme of creatures in limbo being chosen or not chosen to go down and live on earth seems familiar enough, even without the example of Koreeda's After Life, which is frequently mentioned. One last saw it notably in Pete Doctor and Kemp Powers' Soul for Disney. Oda has managed a pretty interesting mise-en-scène considering the dry, house-bound nature of the action, how theoretical it is, and how reliant on moral questions.

An example of the latter, posed brutally by Will: in a concentration camp you must agree for your teenage son to be hanged or you and everyone else in the camp will be killed. What do you do? Tough one, eh? Maybe being in Will's house really isn't a lot different from that concentration camp, for these souls in limbo.

Director Oda has said that when he was 12 his uncle committed suicide. The need to deal with that terrible event seems one of the chief personal sources of this screenplay. A compensation for the intellectuialism is the "souls'" passion for physicality: hence one feels with joy the flow of hot and cold water from a shower nozzle, and another delights in treading barefoot in the sand, virtually. The message is obvious but it is spelled out too: we are blessed to be able to live on this earth.

Nine Days is the promising and original debut feature of the Brazilian-Japanese, USC-trained maker of commercials and music videos who has won prizes for them and workshopped the film at Sundance.

Nine Days, 124 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020, also Cologne, The Hamptons, AFI, Austin, Savannah, Stockholm, Thessaloniki, Taiwan, and other fests. US release by Sony (NYC, LA) Jul. 30, 2021; northern Calif. Jul. 6. Current Metascore: 78%.



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