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Worst of 2016: Nine Lives

Nine Lives

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Continuing my spotlight on the worst films of 2016, today I am going to be covering the Kevin Spacey talking cat movie, Nine Lives.

The plot of Nine Lives, according to IMDb, is as follows:

A stuffy businessman finds himself trapped inside the body of his family’s cat.

The director of Nine Lives was Barry Sonnenfeld, who is best known for movies like The Addams Family, Men In Black, Men In Black II, Men In Black 3, Get Shorty, Wild Wild West, and RV.

The screenplay for Nine Lives has five credited writers, including Caleb Wilson and Matt Allen, who previously wrote Soul Surfer and Four Christmases.

ninelives20162The cast of the movie includes the likes of Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, House of Cards, American Beauty, Swimming With Sharks, Se7en), Christopher Walken (Suicide Kings, The Deer Hunter, King of New York, Dead Zone, Catch Me If You Can, Seven Psychopaths, Pulp Fiction, Kangaroo Jack), Jennifer Garner (Alias, Dallas Buyers Club, Juno, Daredevil, Elektra), and Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm, RV, The Ugly Truth).

The cinematographer for the film was Karl Walter Lindenlaub, who also shot the movies Stargate, Independence Day, The Haunting, Universal Soldier, and Dolphin Tale.

Don Zimmerman acted as a co-editor for the movie, adding to a long list of credits that includes Marmaduke, Half Baked, Patch Adams, Over The Top, Cobra, Galaxy Quest, The Cat In The Hat, Night At The Museum, and Liar, Liar.

ninelives20163The visual effects for Nine Lives were primarily provided by the company Rodeo FX, which is credited for work on movies like The Amazing Spider-Man, Terminator Salvation, Source Code, Jupiter Ascending, Jonah Hex, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Warcraft, Gods of Egypt, and Deadpool, among many others. On top of that, they provided all visual effects work for Game of Thrones seasons 4 and 5.

The famously odd-looking cat, Lil Bub, who has a massive social media following that numbers in the millions, has a cameo appearance in Nine Lives as one of the cats under Christopher Walken’s care.

Nine Lives was made on an estimated production budget of $30 million, on which it took in a lifetime, worldwide gross of $44 million. While this covered the production budget, it likely didn’t net much of a profit after post-production and marketing costs.

Critically, Nine Lives was, understandably, not received well. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 5.2/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 11% from critics and 43% from audiences.

ninelives1The first and biggest problem with Nine Lives is one that plagues most productions that feature talking animals: bad CGI. While technology has improved since movies like Cats & Dogs and Son of the Mask, the computer-generated cat work that appears prominently in Nine Lives is still solidly within the uncanny valley: it is good enough to be convincing on one level, but still obviously not natural to an off-putting degree. While this might be passable in limited use and in low-light conditions, the effects sequences are almost all in full light, and are often painfully prolonged.

One of the things that bothered me the most about the film were the cat-related sound decisions made on the part of the production. During the sequences where Kevin Spacey inhabits the cat, his attempts at communication with humans are shown from other characters’ points of view as being intense, pained, and jarring feline yowls. Not only is this profoundly annoying to listen to, but it doesn’t always make sense: cats have a range of noises that they can make, so why would communication attempts always come across as yowling, as opposed to purring or meowing?

It is worth noting that, despite the inane plot, most of the prominent players in the film put in surprisingly decent performances. Spacey doesn’t seem to be totally phoning in his role, despite the fact that most of his role is voice-over.  Likewise, Jennifer Garner has some moments of genuine emotion, and Christopher Walken is his usual eccentric self.

As far as other positives go, I have to say that I kind of like some of the design choices for the movie, particularly in regards to the color palette. For instance, each of the primary locations has a unique color theme: Walken’s store is dominated by greens and browns, giving it a natural and home-y look, which is a stark foil to the Firebrand offices, which are immaculately white with bright, red trim. Likewise, Walken’s store is cluttered and busy, and he always has complicated patterns in his darker-toned clothes. In contrast, Brand and his corporate building are almost always shown in bright solids, with little to no patterns involved: everything is sharply angled, sleek, and clean-cut. This is a minor thing that often gets overlooked in movies, and is usually meant to cause subliminal associations as opposed to overt ones. In Nine Lives, however, the stark contrasts and vivid colors contribute to a cartoon-y, hyper-realistic atmosphere that actually works pretty well. In most movies, these over-the-top colors and contrasts might be a distraction, but in this very specific case, they fit.

One aspect of the film that I have seen some reviewers complain about is the plot’s focus on corporate minutiae.  Even though it didn’t stand out to me when I was watching the movie, it is definitely a problem that so much of the plot is about corporate back-dealings and Kevin Spacey’s will: not only because it doesn’t make for interesting watching, but because the core demographic for the film, children, generally aren’t going to understand or care about it.

Related to this, I have a bit of an issue with the moral compass of the movie. Initially, the curse is put upon Kevin Spacey so that he would learn to appreciate his family. Prior to the transformation, the biggest object between Spacey and is family is his new skyscraper: a surrogate image for his ambition, hubris, and obsessive work behavior. After the transformation, Spacey’s son winds up taking on the task of completing the building, in an effort to both prove himself and solidify his father’s legacy.

However, this focus on the building by his son bothered me. Spacey’s son is always shown in the context of his job: he is never revealed to have a family or partner of his own beyond his cold mother and Kevin Spacey, despite clearly being an adult with an accomplished career. As the plot progresses, he is shown distancing himself from his warmer step-family in order to focus on the building project, just like Spacey did. In the final act, he even goes so far as to neglect being present at his father’s potential death bed so that he could commit a corporate power play. It seems to me that this character should have come away from the story having learned not to devote all of his life to work, like his father had. Instead of the idea of legacy being tied into a company or a building, both characters should have come away understanding that loved ones, good will, and relationships are what really build a legacy. Instead, the conclusion vindicates Spacey’s obsession with his building and company being the symbols of his legacy: both are retained/completed, letting him have his cake and eat it too.

Despite my issues with the writing and the effects, this movie could certainly have been a whole lot worse. In fact, a number of reviews lamented that it wasn’t, because it would then have had more entertainment value. As it stands, I think that some children might just be entertained by Nine Lives: there are at least enough requisite bodily fluid and excrement jokes to meet certain infantile humor quotas. That said, there is no way that I could recommend this movie to anyone. The positives are outweighed by the negatives, and the negatives aren’t even entertaining negatives that could help you power through.

 

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Scotland, PA

Clerk’s Pick

Clerk:
Hannah, Video Central
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Movie:
Scotland, PA
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Pitch:
“It is ‘MacBeth’ retold as the story of a fast food restaurant. But it kind of works? Christopher Walken is pretty great in it as an investigator on the case. It seems like ‘MacBeth’ doesn’t get these odd adaptations as often as ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Romeo & Juliet’, but this is definitely an interesting one. Andy Dick plays one of the witches.”

Background:

“Scotland, PA” was written and directed by Billy Morrissette, an actor who has primarily appeared in bit roles throughout the late 80s and early 90s. As of the moment, “Scotland, PA” is Morrissette’s sole directing and writing credit, though he has apparently penned another movie set to release in 2015 (“My Dead Boyfriend”). Billy Morrissette is quoted as saying that he cooked up the concept for “Scotland, PA” while he was still in high school, making it a long time passion project for the actor.

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Morrissette

At the time, “Scotland, PA” received mixed reviews from critics (59% on Rotten Tomatoes), but was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at 2001’s Sundance Film Festival. Audiences regard it quite a bit higher than the critics, as it is sitting at a 74% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.9 rating with the IMDb user base.

“Scotland, PA” stars a host of character actors, led by the always delightful Christopher Walken. Maura Tierney, the female lead, was then married to writer/director Billy Morrissette, and reportedly had significant input on the writing of her modernized Lady MacBeth surrogate character. Other notables in the cast include the much maligned comedian Andy Dick, the recently deceased James Rebhorn, frequent mob-movie character actor Kevin Corrigan, and James Le Gros, best known recently for his role as Wade Messer in the hit TV show “Justified.”

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Tierney as Pat McBeth

The crew, outside of Morrissette, includes most notably the now prolific cinematographer Wally Pfister, who has done extensive work with director Christopher Nolan in recent years (“The Dark Knight,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Insomnia,” “Batman Begins,” “The Prestige”).

Some of the more interesting and unique aspects of the movie include the eclectic soundtrack and score, which features a large number of songs from the band Bad Company. Apparently this decision was not only made to accentuate the 1970s aesthetics, but also because the band’s catalog was “surprisingly cheap.”

Despite the setting and updated dialogue, “Scotland, PA” is pretty faithful to the spirit and content of the original Shakespeare play it is based on. Surprisingly, the movie even retains most of the Scottish character names from the play with only minor updates, such as MacDuff (changed to McDuff), MacBeth (changed to McBeth), and Banquo (changed to Banko). In a tongue-in-cheek move, apparently the press kits for the movie were designed after Cliff Notes booklets of “MacBeth.”

Review:

“Scotland, PA” is quite the eccentric adaptation of the “Macbeth” story, to say the least. It isn’t incredibly crafted by any means, but the movie is without a doubt fun to sit through. The characters have interesting voices, and all interact well with each other. As mentioned previously, the 1970s aesthetic is pushed to the maximum, which gives the movie a campy feel to it. The fashion, references, and soundtrack all do a great job of building the atmosphere, and help keep the film comedic in spite of the tragic content.

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Speaking of which, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this adaptation is the light-hearted and comedic aspects of it: most of the creative “MacBeth” adaptations out there don’t mess with the pure drama of the story, such as Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” and William Reilly’s “Men of Respect.” However, “Scotland, PA” is written and cast in such a way that what is essentially the same tragic story winds up being really funny, even if it is an incredibly dark way. Outside of the music, the dialogue and delivery is fantastic at keeping the tone lighter and ultimately out of the blood-drenched gutters of the story.

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Going into the movie, I was curious if there would be any nods to Polanski’s “Macbeth” from 1971, given the 1970s setting of this unconventional adaptation. Sure enough, James Le Gros’s “McBeth” is clad in a wig that resembles Jon Finch’s lengthy, 70s-tastic hairstyle. It was a small detail to be sure, but one that I definitely appreciated.

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I would be remiss to not mention Christopher Walken’s role in this movie. Unsurprisingly, he steals every scene he shows up in. I am a big fan of Walken’s style, and this is just the right kind of dark, quirky movie and role that he works spectacularly in these days. He still carries some of the gravitas from his days playing more serious roles, but also has genuinely fantastic comedic timing with his line delivery. That, in my opinion, means that he fits dark comedies brilliantly: he can participate in the comedic banter, and then turn the scene into a tense stare-down in a matter of seconds with the delivery of a single line. I was reminded of Walken’s famous scene with Dennis Hopper in “True Romance” more than once over the course of “Scotland, PA”, which I think illustrates this kind of interaction fantastically.

“Scotland, PA” is another movie that I can recommend to some very specific sets of people. I think most audiences might find the pacing too slow to be really fun, but fans of Shakespeare or indie comedies are almost certainly going to enjoy this movie. It definitely relies on knowledge of the source material, but in the case of a Shakespeare adaptation, that isn’t nearly as much of an issue as it is with other works. I can say that I personally enjoyed it quite a bit, although I think it could have been edited down a little bit more for the sake of pacing. In total, it clocks in at just over 1 hr 40 mins, so I think it could have lost a little bit of run-time. In any case, it is a plenty enjoyable film. If it sounds like it is up your alley, then definitely check it out.