Review: ‘Nine Days,’ starring Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale and Bill Skarsgård

September 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Winston Duke and Bill Skarsgård in “Nine Days” (Photo by Michael Coles/Sony Picture Classics)

“Nine Days”

Directed by Edson Oda

Culture Representation: Taking place in an otherworldly dimension, the dramatic film “Nine Days” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, black, Asian and Latino) representing souls who can observe humans on Earth.

Culture Clash: A “soul gatekeeper” must decide which one among five soul candidates will get to be reborn as a human on Earth. 

Culture Audience: “Nine Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching thoughtful dramas about what spiritual life could look like before being born.

Zazie Beetz in “Nine Days” (Photo by Michael Coles/Sony Picture Classics)

What if you were given the responsibility of deciding which souls could be born into humans? And what if you were one of those souls who had to be evaluated as “worthy enough” to be chosen? Those are the questions facing the main characters of writer/director Edson Oda’s feature-film directorial debut “Nine Days,” a somber-yet-hopeful meditative film about the existence of spirits in a dimension where they are chosen to either continue their lives in a human being or disappear entirely.

It’s a heavy burden for anyone to bear, so it’s no wonder that “soul gatekeeper” Will (played by Winston Duke) takes it so seriously, he almost never cracks a smile during the entire story. Will exists in an unnamed dimension that looks like an outpost house in a remote area, where he spends a lot of his time looking at several stacked-up TV monitors at once. (“Nine Days” was actually filmed in Utah.) Each TV monitor shows Will what’s going on at that moment in the lives of various people on Earth. The monitored people’s entire lives are recorded from birth to death on VHS tapes (yes, you read that right), so Will has a massive archive of people’s histories.

There’s one monitored person in particular who has a profound effect on Will. She is a 28-year-old successful violinist named Amanda Grazzini (played by Lisa Starrett), who was a child prodigy and is described as “emotionally strong.” That’s why it’s a shock to Will when Amanda commits suicide by driving her car into a wall. This tragic death happens early on in the movie and is the catalyst for what happens in the rest of the story, so it’s not really spoiler information.

Amanda’s suicide sends the usually unflappable Will into an emotional tailspin. With her soul having left Earth, Will now has to decide which soul will be born on Earth, to replace Amanda’s life that was taken away. Five soul candidates arrive at the house and are interviewed separately by Will.

Each candidate is evaluated for nine days. All of the candidates are told that after this nine-day evaluation process, anyone who isn’t chosen will then cease to exist. Each rejected candidate gets to decide on a personal ultimate fantasy that will get fulfilled as a sendoff.

The five candidates are:

  • Mike (played by David Rysdahl), a serious soul who is prone to worry a lot.
  • Maria (played by Arianna Ortiz), a shy soul who’s somewhat afraid of trying new things.
  • Kane (played by Bill Skarsgård), an arrogant soul who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else.
  • Alexander (played by Tony Hale), a wisecracking soul who can be neurotic and insecure.
  • Emma (played by Zazie Beetz), a “free spirit” soul who is naturally inquisitive.

Will has a friendly co-worker named Kyo (played by Benedict Wong), who is not as uptight as Will. Kyo’s job is to give his opinion to Will on whether or not Will has chosen well. Even though Will has a monumental task of deciding which souls will live and which will cease to exist, “Nine Days” makes it clear that Will is not God or some other supreme being. In fact, at one point in the story, Will describes himself as “a cog in the wheel.”

The candidates are told they must answer certain questions about what they would do when faced with certain ethical dilemmas. Will assures them that there are no right or wrong answers, but they must answer truthfully. All of the candidates except for Emma answer the questions.

Emma tells Will that she can’t answer the questions because she doesn’t know how what her answer would be in these ethical dilemmas. Emma also replies to Will’s questions with more questions. This back-and-forth conflict irritates Will, but it also intrigues him.

During this evaluation process, the candidates are encouraged to look at the TV screens to watch the lives of three people on Earth: Rick Virgil (played by Sterlin English), a 14-year-old who is being bullied; Luiza Coolin (played by Erika Vásquez), a newlywed; and Fernando Pereira (played by Álvaro Cortez), a police officer.

“Nine Days” is a richly layered film that might be too much to wade through for people who prefer more straightforward stories about life in other dimensions. The acting is solid all around, but the heart of the movie is in how Will and Emma get to know each other better. Will has a dark secret that is hinted at and eventually revealed. It explains a lot of his angst. If viewers are willing to tolerate the slow pacing of “Nine Days” and immerse themselves in this fascinating story, then they will be rewarded with seeing a movie that will inspire existential thoughts that go beyond the movie’s 124 minutes.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Nine Days” in New York City and Los Angeles on July 30, 2021. The movie’s theatrical release expanded to more U.S. cities on August 6, 2021.

Review: ‘Naked Singularity,’ starring John Boyega, Olivia Cooke, Bill Skarsgård and Ed Skrein

August 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Olivia Cooke and John Boyega in “Naked Singularity” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Naked Singularity”

Directed by Chase Palmer

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, the dramatic film “Naked Singularity” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: An idealistic public defender, who gets involved with a female drug courier, has to decide if he’s going to help her or betray her by stealing one of her big drug hauls that’s worth a small fortune. 

Culture Audience: “Naked Singularity” will appeal primarily to people who like watching cliché and unrealistic heist flicks.

Ed Skrein and Olivia Cooke in “Naked Singularity” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Naked Singularity” is a perfect example of talented stars who are stuck in a terrible movie. All of the principal cast members have done much better work elsewhere. This heist movie, which could have been thrilling to watch, is instead mired in a permanent creative rut filled with outdated depictions of women.

There’s absolutely nothing original about “Naked Singularity,” except some mystical mumbo jumbo from a conspiracy-spouting nutcase—a supporting character in the movie—who rambles on about how singularity in the universe is the loss of physics. This crackpot theory serves as the basis for the title of this film, which was adapted from Sergio De La Pava’s 2008 novel “A Naked Singularity.” This award-winning book has been turned into a horrific mess of a movie.

“Naked Singularity” is the feature-film directorial debut of Chase Palmer. He co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with David Matthews, who has a background in television and also makes his feature-film debut with “Naked Singularity.” Palmer wrote the screenplay for the 2017 horror movie blockbuster “It,” which might explain why “It” star Bill Skarsgård (who played the evil clown Pennywise) was suckered into being in a flop like “Naked Singularity.”

The cast members actually do fairly good jobs in their roles. Too bad they have to spout some ridiculous lines and depict even more ludicrous situations. The first clue that this movie is going to be horrible is in the opening scene, which depicts a New York City courthouse that looks more like a jail or psychiatric institution. Belligerent criminals, one with his trousers down to expose his half-naked butt, get rowdy in the hallways and have to be subdued by security officers. Random people are yelling at each other. An attorney snorts cocaine in a bathroom.

Amid this chaos is idealistic public defender Casi (played by John Boyega), who’s in his mid-20s and in his first job out of law school. Casi (whose name is pronounced “Cassie”) wants to be a public defender because he thinks the system is rigged against disenfranchised people, and he wants to try to level the playing field. Viewers will soon see that Casi doesn’t level the playing field for his clients. He demolishes it because he’s such a terrible lawyer.

Even though Casi is the movie’s protagonist, don’t expect much of a backstory for him or any of the other characters in “Naked Singularity. ” Apparently, these people don’t have families or anything else going on in their lives besides work and the dumb heist that’s at the center of this movie’s flimsy plot. It’s an example of how hollow and boring these characters are.

Meanwhile, tough-talking and sarcastic Lea DeLeon (played by Olivia Cooke) works as a front-desk clerk at a tow pound. One day, a sleazy-looking guy comes up to her window and tries to flirt and sweet-talk his way into convincing Lea to let him drive one of the impounded cars off of the parking lot. His story is that he’s there to pick up the car for a friend, whom he says is unavailable.

Lea doesn’t fall for this obvious lie, because this guy doesn’t have a notarized statement from the so-called “friend.” Lea casually dismisses this con artist, and he reluctantly walks away. But judging from how Lea looks at him, it’s easy to see she thinks he’s kind of cute, in a way that seems to say, “I know he’s up to no good, but I’d sleep with him anyway.” Lea looks like the type to go for “bad boys.”

And sure enough, not long after meeting this liar, Lea (who’s single and lives alone) is swiping through a dating app on her phone, when she sees him. She finds out his name is Craig (played by Ed Skrein) and he’s very single and available. The next thing you know, Lea and Craig are having sex at her place.

The next morning, Lea is about to send Craig on his way because she sees him as just a one-night stand. But you don’t have to be a psychic to know that this loser, who tried to con Lea the first time that he met her, is still going to try to find a way to get the car that he wants. He won’t leave Lea’s apartment, he starts making threats, and she ends up pulling a gun on him.

Viewers later find out why he wants the car. It’s for the most obvious reason possible when it’s revealed that a Mexican drug cartel wants the car too. There’s a stash of heroin hidden in the car. And it’s supposedly worth on the low end of several million dollars.

It’s not shown in the movie, but Lea eventually did agree to help Craig, but she got busted at work for it. Not only did she get fired, but her boss had her arrested. And that’s how Lea ends up as Casi’s client. Lea and Casi have met each other before, although the circumstances under which they met are a little vague. It has to do with her previous criminal record, which is never explained in the movie, but whatever she did was serious enough for her to spend time in prison, because she’s on parole.

Even though Casi and Lea have met before, this is the first time that Casi has become Lea’s attorney. She admits to him that Craig offered $100,000 to Lea get the heroin that’s stashed in the car. The car and the heroin are still at the tow pound.

Casi soon finds out that being Lea’s attorney is going to be a lot more complicated than he thought it would be. She tells him that her life is in danger from Craig unless she can get the heroin. Craig wants to sell the heroin to a drug lord called the Golem (played by Kyle Mooney), an Orthodox Jew who leads a criminal gang of other Orthodox Jews. Yes, this movie is that bad.

Casi wants nothing to do with this drug deal at first, but there would be no “Naked Singularity” movie if he stayed clear of Lea’s messy problems. After Casi gets suspended from his job for six months for breaching courtroom protocol, his corrupt co-worker Dane (played by Skarsgård), the attorney seen snorting cocaine in the movie’s opening scene, convinces Carl that maybe the two of them should try to steal the heroin for themselves. Don’t forget the Mexican drug cartel, because they want that heroin stash too. Meanwhile, a narcotics cop named Detective Winston (played by Robert Christopher Riley) is hot on the trail and wants to bust this drug cartel.

“Naked Singularity” has a subplot of the antagonistic courtroom relationship that Casi has with the stern Judge Cymbeline (played by Linda Lavin), who is apparently the only judge in New York’s criminal court system, since she’s the only judge whom Casi is seen interacting with every time he has a case. Casi, like an idiot, mouths off and is rude to the judge, which leads to the judge filing the formal complaint that gets him suspended. The movie tries to make it look like Judge Cymbeline could be racist, but anyone with common sense can see that Casi is his own worst enemy in the courtroom. He’s woefully incompetent at his job.

Who does Casi have in his life to turn to for advice? An eccentric and scruffy loner named Angus (played by Tim Blake Nelson), who spouts a lot of what he thinks is deep philosophical thoughts but it’s really nonsensical crap. Angus is the one who imparts his “singularity” theory on Casi. Angus also has a samurai sword that Casi ends up taking, because you know that sword is going to be used at some point during the inevitable fight with the drug dealers.

It should come as no surprise that Casi and Lea end up sleeping together. It happens after he’s suspended and can no longer be her attorney. It’s an example of how Lea, who’s supposedly “street smart,” is still treated as a not-very-smart sex object by the filmmakers. Needless to say, the filmmakers have Lea usually dressed in some type of revealing clothing.

Lea made the dumb decision to invite Craig over to her place, knowing he was some kind of criminal who wanted to illegally get that car from the tow pound. Did she think that Craig would forget about that, just because she slept with him? Apparently so. But it just set her up as an easy target for him to threaten.

However, later in the story, this movie inexplicably has Lea threaten Craig, by demanding that he give her $1 million so that she will give up her criminal lifestyle and go away. Does that make any sense? Of course it doesn’t, because this is an idiotic movie. By the way, Lea’s $1 million demand isn’t blackmail, because whatever incriminating information she has on Craig, she’s involved in those same crimes. And remember, she’s on parole.

Throughout “Naked Singularity,” there’s a countdown to what this movie calls “the collapse,” which might lead people to believe that Casi or someone else in the story might be headed toward some kind of mental breakdown. “Naked Singularity” is too shallow for that. It’s just a dumber-than-average heist movie, with predictable double crosses and violence.

Although all of the principal characters in this movie are American, the principal stars of the movie all come from other countries. Boyega, Cooke and Skrein are British, while Skarsgård is Swedish. Their American accents vary from convincing and consistent (Cooke) to average (Boyega and Skarsgård) to a little shaky (Skrein). Boyega adopts a nerdy Midwestern American accent, even though the movie gives the impression that Casi grew up in New York City. However, viewers will never find out what Casi’s background is because “Naked Singularity” is such a poorly written movie.

“Naked Singularity” is one of those “let’s try to outsmart the gangsters” movies written and directed men, who give male actors the most prominent roles and have one token female (almost always young and attractive) who gets to tag along for the ride. In these “boys club” movies with top billing going to several men and one token woman, older women have much smaller roles, usually as nurturing maternal types (which doesn’t apply to this movie’s characters) or as hard-nosed battle-axes, like Judge Cymbeline. Casi has an older female boss named Liszt (played by Liza Colón-Zayas), another “battle-axe” type, and she gets less than five minutes of screen time. All the other female characters in this movie are just extras, almost all of whom have no names and don’t speak.

Women and girls are 51% of the population in the United States and in the world. Therefore, it’s really moronic how certain filmmakers, such as the people who made “Naked Singularity,” continue to peddle these narrow-minded, outdated and inaccurate views of women as a minority who only exist for men to fight with, have sex with, or do dirty deals with so the men can get rich. That’s how women are portrayed in this garbage movie. And yes, Lea could get a cut of the deal that’s at stake, but the men get more money out of it overall, so the men still come out on top.

“Naked Singularity” starts out trying to be a message movie about bucking the legal system as an underdog. But it ends up going into a lazy and uninteresting downward spiral of being a doltish heist movie that looks as phony as a counterfeit bill. Luckily for the stars of “Naked Singularity,” their talent will land them in better projects, and this embarrassing dud will be a forgettable footnote in their careers.

Screen Media Films released “Naked Singularity” in select U.S. cinemas on August 6, 2021, and on digital an VOD on August 13, 2021. The movie’s release on Blu-ray and DVD is on October 5, 2021.

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