By Alex McPherson

A thoughtful, meditative, unabashedly far-out sci-fi gem, Edson Oda’s directorial debut, “Nine Days,” asks intriguing questions about the rollercoaster of life.

This quietly bonkers film centers around Will (Winston Duke), an individual deciding which souls get the privilege of being born in a human body. He watches present-day Point Of View footage from everyone he’s allowed into the “real world” from the comfort of his modest house in the middle of nowhere, a salt lake limbo, taking copious notes on their day-to-days in an attempt to understand humanity.

Sometimes accompanied by his good-hearted helper and friend, Kyo (Benedict Wong), Will takes pride in seeing them lead healthy, happy lives. One of them unexpectedly perishes, however, tearing Will apart inside as he struggles to make sense of what happened — vowing to never let it happen again. 

Thus, a vacancy opens that needs to be filled. Will meets a variety of applicants wishing to experience life. This archetypal group of souls includes the self-doubting Mike (David Rysdahl), the laid-back Alexander (Tony Hale), the hard-justice-driven Kane (Bill Skarsgård), the earnest, wide-eyed Maria (Arianna Ortiz), and the inquisitive, plot-altering Emma (Zazie Beetz), among others.

They are asked to watch the POV screens and to give answers to various questions examining their moral toughness over the course of nine days, with a victor announced at the end. Upon failing, some applicants get a chance to have a moment they’ve observed recreated for them before disappearing into nothingness. As the group winnows in the passing days, Will is forced to reckon with his own inner demons and consider the unknowable nature of life itself.

A captivating effort from everyone involved, “Nine Days” uses this bold premise to explore what it means to be alive. Oda’s unconventional allegory plays out in frequently powerful fashion — carried by excellent performances and an ethereal, at times mournful atmosphere pulsing with feeling. Along with methodical editing, arresting cinematography, and Antonio Pinto’s haunting score, the film brings viewers into this twisted median space in a manner mixing warmth with menace. 

Although the finer details of the film’s universe aren’t clarified (don’t think too much about how or why Will acquired his “job”), “Nine Days” sinks emotional hooks into viewers from the first frames onward. It’s somewhat of a downbeat watch, prizing patient reflection over bombast, but “Nine Days” knows when to strike lighter notes as well and occasionally poke fun at itself despite the bleakness.

Duke does sterling work portraying a mysterious man playing God who’s trapped by his own cynical worldview, his decisions rooted in a desire to protect the applicants from a reality he views as cruel and demoralizing. Thanks to Duke’s pathos and the script’s empathy towards Will, his troubled mindset remains easy to connect with regardless of his flaws. Duke, with wire-rimmed glasses and a reserved demeanor, conveys Will’s inner tensions with a subtle performance that brilliantly showcases his severe facade gradually being chipped away.

Similarly effective is Beetz, a compassionate critical-thinker who doesn’t view human beings in a simplistic manner. Rather, she realizes the importance of relishing the good in the world, not letting negativity or nihilism corrupt her worldview. Her conversations with Will, inquiring into his own troubled past and encouraging him to reflect on what it all means, feature some of the most moving moments in “Nine Days,” tying into overarching takeaways. 

Wong is a lovable, comforting presence as Kyo, helping Will recognize his faults and his potential to grow as a human being, providing the bulk of the film’s unexpected humor. The other characters, brought to (sort-of) life by a wonderful cast, get less screen time and aren’t as well developed as the main three, but there’s more to most of them than meets the eye. Like every human soul, they cannot be simplified to a few characteristics — rendering their passage or failure all the more heartbreaking. Their “Last Moments” are masterfully directed and difficult to forget. 

Heavy without being dour, intricate yet accessible, “Nine Days” builds towards a conclusion that contains one of 2021’s best scenes. All the emotions felt throughout the film coalesce into a marvelous, life-affirming, slightly convenient resolution that’s aware of its own bizarreness while remaining highly impactful. 

An assured effort from everyone involved, “Nine Days” satisfies both the mind and the soul. The world is full of darkness, but there’s still rays of hope bursting through the shadows. Oda’s film is a provocative reminder to appreciate the light where we can and strive to see another day in our beautifully inexplicable existence. 

“Nine Days” is a 2020 sci-fi fantasy drama written and directed by Edson Oda and starring Winston Duke, Benedict Wong, Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz and Bill Skarsgard, Rated R for language, its runtime is 2 hours, 4 minutes. The film is available in theaters beginning on Aug. 6. Alex’s Grade: A-

By Lynn Venhaus
While it is tempting to learn more about the true story that made national news in 2013, hold off on any online searches until after watching “Joe Bell.” It will be a more satisfying experience the less you know about one father’s redemptive journey.

“Joe Bell” is the true story of a working-class father (Mark Wahlberg) who embarks on a solo walk across the U.S. to crusade about bullying after his gay son Jadin (Reid Miller) is tormented in their small town of LaGrande, Ore.

Wahlberg plays a gruff father who is loving but not necessarily understanding. He attempts to be more compassionate, revealing his pain and regrets.

And his ‘a-ha moment’ rings true. When he speaks about tolerance and accountability, his heart ultimately emerges. While a deeply flawed man, Bell’s mission is to help other parents by sharing his story, and possibly make things easier for kids living in places that might not be so accepting. He tells people “Understanding begins at home.”

Bell reflects on what he’s gone through and how he arrived at this point as he walks the highways and byways.

“Everybody’s against bullying, aren’t they?” he asks his wife.

In a sit-up-and-take note breakthrough performance, newcomer Reid Miller delivers a heart-wrenching portrait as Jadin Bell, a gay teen trying to live his life out loud without the harassment about “being different.”

A persecuted outsider who feels alone, his truths are universal, which is why the movie has such an emotional wallop. Miller will move you to tears — unless you have a heart of stone.

The thoughtful script, by Oscar winners Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, who adapted “Brokeback Mountain,” is sensitive about the family dynamics and the closed-minded attitudes of a small town. It’s McMurtry’s last film, as he died earlier this year. The celebrated author wrote “The Last Picture Show,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Lonesome Dove.”

The screenwriters employ copious use of flashbacks to set up what vicious actions Jadin endured by cruel classmates, how his scruffy dad got to this juncture in his life, and what being an activist is teaching him.

They propel the movie forward without the usual sentimental beats, relying on the moving story to present itself.

Connie Britton is Joe’s wife Lola, who has her own issues, and is frustrated by Joe’s quick temper and rush to judgment. Their complicated relationship unfolds while he is on his cross-country trek, staying in cheap motels and sleeping in a tent along the way.

Maxwell Jenkins plays Jadin’s younger brother, Joseph, who is having a tough time as well.

The movie, originally called “Good Joe Bell” when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2020, is just simply called “Joe Bell” now, no need to embellish. Its blunt message is the same.

Reinaldo Marcus Green directs with empathy. His past work includes “Monsters and Men” in 2018 and he will be coming out later this year with “King Richard,” starring Will Smith as the father of Venus and Serena Williams.

It is also an economical film, told in 90 minutes. Cinematographer Jacques Jouffret beautifully captures the panoramic vistas of America along Joe’s sojourn.

In a small but pivotal role, Gary Sinise plays a kindly sheriff who is also the father of a gay son. They bond over their initial resistance, and how they grew because of their experience.

The music is particularly mournful, composed by Brazilian Antonio Pinto. Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” aptly plays over the closing credits.

While there have been great strides in the past decade about LGBQT rights, humans still have a way to go, filmmakers point out. Jadin’s essay on people hating you for reasons you can’t change is a poignant plea for awareness.

Ignorance and immaturity will continue to be roadblocks but listening and learning will go a long way – that’s the message of “Joe Bell,” which comes across in a simple and straight-forward manner.

The gut punch is tailor-made for helping to create a kinder, gentler world. This is an important, if imperfect film, that sheds light on hard-earned truths.

“Joe Bell” is a 2020 true-life drama starring Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton and Gary Sinise. Rated R for language including offensive slurs, some disturbing material, and teen partying and runtime is 1 hour, 30 minutes. It is available in theaters on July 23.
Lynn’s Grade: B+