Time to catch up on recent releases that passed me by.
Nine Lives (Rodrigo Garcia, 2005)
This is yet another one of those movies with a number of interlocking stories woven into one big tapestry. Actually, it's a little more formally rigorous than some of its ilk, with Garcia (who's the son of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez) telling nine stories of women's lives, each shot in a single uninterrupted take. In a way, it's like nine short films strung together, although some characters from some segments pop up in other segments. Certain aspects of the film work well - the single-take premise, which seems gimmicky at first, actually goes a long way toward putting the viewer right in the moment with the characters and creating a sense of overwhelming vitality, something that's important to Garcia's emotionally charged stories. These are all little character dramas, so the acting is important, and Robin Wright Penn and Amy Brenneman do especially outstanding work. But too many of the other players come off as wooden and stagy, and that hurts the film's verisimilitude. Likewise, the connections feel forced and unnecessary, especially when at least half of the scenes have no relation to any other scene. And the final story, with Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning having a picnic in a cemetery, is just awful. Overall, this isn't quite a successful film, although the scene with Wright Penn as a seemingly settled wife and mother-to-be who unexpectedly encounters an old lover in the grocery store is beautiful and heartbreaking, and would have made for an outstanding short on its own.
Shopgirl (Anand Tucker, 2005)
If you're interested in a wry, Steve Martin-written film about romantic travails in Los Angeles, you'd be well-advised to check out the underrated 1991 film L.A. Story, which is both funnier and more lively than this rather dour and restrained movie. I think that L.A. Story, Bowfinger and this film could form a sort of unofficial Steve Martin Los Angeles trilogy, giving you a glimpse into the way he's mythologized the city as the embodiment of romantic and creative longing. In L.A. Story, a freeway billboard guides Martin's wacky weatherman to love and fulfillment, while in Bowfinger a group of movie industry hangers-on achieve their artistic dreams via a set of improbable circumstances. Here, a shopgirl from Vermont finds both love and artistic success, and comes of age thanks to the romantic attention of an older man. In each film, L.A. is as much a character as any of the human figures; in Shopgirl, it's very nearly more interesting than the people. The story here is set up almost as a fable, and at times it works in its sort of dreamlike way. More often, though, it just meanders, and never seems to quite know what its point is. Claire Danes is wonderful in the title role, and it's a shame she doesn't get more and better parts. Given the reviews for this film, it's not about to be a stepping stone to greater things for her.
Where the Truth Lies (Atom Egoyan, 2005)
I loved Egoyan's 1997 movie The Sweet Hereafter, one of the most beautifully depressing movies I've ever seen. I really ought to go back and see some of his earlier movies, since what I've seen of his since then has been disappointing. This isn't as bad as his last film, the didactic and stilted Ararat, but it's still very uneven, thanks mostly to an unfortunately awkward performance by Alison Lohman, whom I usually think is wonderful. She was outstanding in Matchstick Men and White Oleander, so it's a shame to see her so lost in her role as driven journalist who'll do anything to get at the story of a murder cover-up that led to the dissolution of a famous comedy team. Some of the thick noir in this film works well, and there are some very steamy but tasteful sex scenes. On the whole, though, it misses the mark a little, which is too bad since it seemed to have so much potential.