A latecomer to the post-"Matrix"/"Donnie Darko" is-the-world-real sub-genre that sprung up around the turn of millennium, "The Nines" is about as ambitious a directorial debut as you could ask for without busting a budget. But in the hands of veteran screenwriter John August ("Go," "Big Fish"), stepping behind the camera for the first time, it's a film that, while rough around the edges and sometimes infuriating, is a pretty nifty little mindbender, and one that anticipates "Cloud Atlas" in its use of multiple roles and parallel worlds. As with "The Fountain," three storylines are followed, sharing a cast. In the first ("The Prisoner"), a burnout actor (Ryan Reynolds) under house arrest finds himself endlessly coming across the number 9. In the next ("Reality Television"), Reynolds plays a TV writer trying to cast his friend (Melissa McCarthy, as herself) in his new show, who may or may not be in a reality TV programme. And in the third ("Knowing"), Reynolds is a video game designer told by a mysterious woman (Hope Davis) that he's a god-like being with the power to undo the universe. Told sequentially rather than intercut, it nevertheless enables the cast (which also includes Octavia Spencer and Elle Fanning; August certainly has a keen eye for casting) to stretch themselves. And though the storytelling can lean towards frustratingly vague rather than intriguingly cryptic in places, it certainly brings a fresh take to material that had seemingly been done to death thanks to a loose, playful approach and the non-alienating and authentic inside baseball elements. It's like a version of "Southland Tales" that isn't a trainwreck.
A warning: “Mr. Nobody” is not a good movie. At all. But in terms of films ambitiously swinging for centuries spanning connectivity, Jaco Van Dormael’s effort is certainly one of the few at least taking a shot. Jared Leto stars at the titular Mr. Nobody, aka Nemo, a 120-year-old man who wakes up in 2092 to find out he’s the last mortal person on Earth, where death no longer occurs. A nosy reporter breaks into his hospital room where he is being confined, and thus the film begins as Nemo -- whose memory is fading -- tries his best to recount his life. What emerges are three different timelines as “Mr. Nobody” takes us through the different lives he might have lived, depending on which female classmate he would have taken up with as a child. Mixing string theory (the film features a staggering four monologues about this), some cornball stuff about angels and a concept that Dormael never gets a handle on, the result is a bit of a muddled mess of ideas. It certainly doesn’t help that the women in the film are one-dimensional and each seemingly saddled with some particular baggage that either makes them unlikeable or unengaging. Also, if you can’t stand Jared Leto, this pretentious film won’t help. But for those taken with the butterfly effect musings of “Cloud Atlas,” “Mr. Nobody” might make an interesting follow-up at home, as some of similar thematic terrain is definitely broached. But don’t say we didn’t warn you.
The idea of interconnected lives across time and space, as we said, seems to be a more modern one; you don't really find anything from the first half-century of cinema dealing with similar subject matter. Wim Wenders' magic-realist masterpiece "Wings of Desire" isn't quite in the same wheelhouse as "Cloud Atlas" or its other forebearers, but you can certainly see the 1987 film as an early seed from which others grew. Set in a Fritz Lang-ish contemporary West Berlin (just before, unbeknownst to anyone, it was all about to come crumbling down), it follows a pair of angels who've been in the city before it was a city, one of whom, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), falls in love with a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin), the other, Cassiel (Otto Sander), tries to save a young man from suicide. Meanwhile, Peter Falk, as himself (Der Filmstar as it is in the credits), is in Berlin too, and as it turns out, used to be an angel himself. A love letter to its setting, its history and its people, shot gloriously by the great Henri Alekan (behind Cocteau's "La Belle et la bete"), it's a sprawling tone poem dedicated to Tarkovsky, Ozu and Truffaut, and the least narratively inclined of these five films, but one whose ambitions aren't dissimilar to what The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer were going for. If "Cloud Atlas" leaves you thirsty for something as bold and cinematic, this could well be a good place to start.