A final plunge into a few more regional premieres at the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival
Three writers share their thorough analyses of "Little Woods," "Monos," and "Long Day's Journey Into Night." | By Jason Fuhrman, Edwanike Harbour, and Grant Phipps
As Tone Madison's film writers gathered their thoughts on their experiences at the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival, a few selections across the festival’s comprehensive programming stood out as deserving a deeper look. To close out our WFF '19 coverage, Edwanike Harbour, Jason Fuhrman, and Grant Phipps offer formal reviews of Nia DaCosta's Little Woods, Alejandro Landes' Monos, and Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey Into Night, respectively.
Little Woods, reviewed by Edwanike Harbour
The current zeitgeist of feminine energy in virtually all forms of media has brought a breath of fresh air and balance in perspective not just to Hollywood but also to smaller indie features. While this shift in our culture is welcome, it is still important to bring substance and realness to the stories of those without a voice. Nia DaCosta's directorial debut, Little Woods, fell just short of my expectations in accomplishing this task. Tessa Thompson (Ollie) and Lily James (Deb) play two sisters living in a North Dakota boom town who are struggling to make ends meet by selling opioids and bringing more medically crucial drugs in from Canada. The subject matter is timely, and all the tropes are there for a film about poverty and loss, but DaCosta did not quite mold an effective vehicle for this content.
As the economic downturn held America firmly in its grasp, directors such as Kelly Reichardt and Courtney Hunt were able to dive feet first into the cold snares of poverty and its reverberating effects. Part-Western and part-character study, Little Woods finds itself pushing through multiple agendas at one time and never handling the themes with the level of understanding and subtlety of its predecessors (like 2008's Frozen River 2008 and 2010's Winter's Bone). The burly men around Ollie and Deb see women as receptacles for their sexual frustration, or otherwise subservient. Every interaction with a man in Little Woods seemed to have this sexual undercurrent—that one could barter their way out of predicament by acquiescing to sexual demands. DaCosta keeps the film from delving into much darker territory, but that underlying threat always seems to be lurking around the corner.
Deb is struggling to raise her son, Johnny, as his father works in the oil town but remains absent from his life. Deb's relationship with Johnny's father is volatile, but she needs him, as she has no resources. Ollie is on the verge of losing the home she lives in because she is behind on the mortgage. Their mother has passed away, and Ollie still has her wheelchair and pills as painful reminders of her role as her mother’s caretaker prior to her death. She's also on probation for getting caught with drugs at the border. Many of the residents of this town are doing extremely dangerous work in the oil fields, and for better or worse they resort to treating their injuries and illnesses with OxyContin. The film's indictment of big pharmaceuticals and the American healthcare system is clear: It takes Ollie, the more valiant of the two sisters, to not just sell Oxy to keep her head above water, but to provide medication for the oil field employees. Ollie finally has a chance to turn things around with the prospect of a new job, but with the pending loss of the house over her head and threats from another dealer, she finds herself getting drawn in to yet another major drug run.
Little Woods neatly packages the opioid crisis, sexual harassment, for-profit healthcare systems, and access to women's care into its 103 minutes. But these topics are far from neat and much more nuanced than the film gives them credit for. DaCosta does manage to show scenes of Ollie selling coffee and refreshments to workers at the oil sites, and you get a feel to an extent for how Ollie is a part of this community. However, what really pulled me out of this film was how both Tessa Thompson and Lily James were clearly miscast in these roles. While the subject matter is believable, these two actresses are simply not convincing as two struggling lower-class sisters. Cultural identity was not explored in any real depth in the film but there are a host of issues that would come up for anyone who looks like Ollie living in this area. Some actors can transcend their own glamour to get down in the emotional muck and lower rungs of society, but Thompson and James lack the roughness around the edges that Michelle Williams pulled off in Wendy and Lucy (2008) or Jennifer Lawrence did in Winter's Bone (2010).
DaCosta definitely has the skills to deserve another shot at directing a feature, as she successfully depicted these characters with sympathy and was not exploitative. There is something to be said about films revolving around poverty in which people who are experiencing poverty are not always telling their own stories. We put ourselves in a position where we must trust that the filmmakers are treating their material with the proper care. Here's hoping that DaCosta can continue to build off of the strengths of Little Woods while learning from its flaws.
Monos, reviewed by Jason Fuhrman
Monos opens at the peak of a lush, remote mountain, the land below obscured by a layer of drifting, blue-tinged clouds. Director Alejandro Landes plunges viewers into an ethereal, otherworldly zone that seems to float outside of space and time, where a motley crew of child soldiers engages in grueling training exercises. We gradually learn that the eight young insurgents, known as monos ("monkeys" in Spanish), belong to a shadowy rebel army called "The Organization." Bearing semi-automatic weapons and adopting code names like Smurf (Deiby Rueda), Wolf (Julián Giraldo), Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), and Bigfoot (Moises Arías), they occupy an abandoned mine, while holding an American engineer (Julianne Nicholson) hostage, along with a confiscated milk cow named Shakira. Although the junior guerillas intermittently receive instructions via radio, they are mostly left to their own devices.
Monos interweaves gritty naturalism with heightened stylization to depict the fragile hierarchy of this strangely idyllic outpost on the fringes of civilization. Landes creates a haunting, dreamlike atmosphere as he meticulously observes the daily lives of his fledgling fighters. By stripping away the sociopolitical context, he deliberately keeps the origins and purpose of the Organization shrouded in ambiguity. The director's elliptical approach contributes to a pervasive sense of moral dislocation, while allowing for a raw, visceral, and unrelentingly intense cinematic experience. With one striking composition after another, Monos presents a deliriously apocalyptic vision of modern warfare.
Though the Organization serves as a thinly veiled proxy for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a paramilitary group that has contributed to years of chaotic conflict in that country, Monos aims for something more subversive and allegorical than an indictment of war. (The actor playing the kids' commander is an actual ex-FARC guerilla, Wilson Salazar, who had risen from child soldier to high in the ranks. He deserted, with a price on his head, just two years before filming.)
The monos are evidently impelled less by any specific political ideology or revolutionary fervor than by alienation and their own primitive instincts. Devoid of strong individual identities or clear motivations, none of them seems to know, or care much about, what they are fighting for.
When a bloody nighttime raid forces the adolescents to abandon their base camp, the delicate balance of power within the outfit begins to shift unpredictably along with the scenery. As the film descends from the vast open spaces of the mountaintop to a claustrophobic, dense jungle environment, the underage soldiers' behavior becomes increasingly violent and uncontrollable.
Cinematographer Jasper Wolf's evocative imagery imbues Monos with a childlike sense of wonder amid the harsh realities of life in the rearguard—veering from discomfiting close-ups of mud-caked faces to mesmerizing shots of sublime natural beauty and unexpected moments of swift, graceless violence. Landes, who wrote the script with Argentinean filmmaker Alexis Dos Santos, keeps the audience on edge with a narrative that enables him to switch fluidly between character viewpoints. In the absence of either a real protagonist or any clear-cut notions of good and evil, Monos challenges viewers to consider the circumstances of every person on screen. As the combatants and their prisoner engage in a series of fierce power struggles, we see them alternately as victims and villains, until nothing matters but the impulse to survive. Composer Mica Levi's percussive, operatic, thunderous score accentuates the intensity of these grim confrontations, while reframing the action from a peculiar perspective.
Landes' innovative approach to representing violence in Monos stems from his desire to convey the political truth of violence without desensitizing viewers. Throughout the film, we directly or indirectly witness acts of violence from various points of view. In an interview with No Film School, the director explains, "With the violence in Monos, the most important thing was always to create some type of mirror—be it in your imagination, or be it in the reaction of the character that's suffering the violence, or the executioner of that violence. You can sometimes infer it. You can see a reaction to a gunshot. I wanted there to be fragmentation, like a hall of mirrors."
Landes has cited texts like Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, William Golding's Lord Of The Flies, and films like Apocalypse Now, as direct inspirations for Monos. While it may venture into this familiar territory, his captivating, abstract war film finds a new path, using the conflicts of adolescence to explore the irrational, unconscious human impulses lurking at the boundaries of civilized society. With its meandering, elliptical narrative, bold, dynamic visual design, complex treatment of war, and unforgettable performances by a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors, Monos vividly imagines a life-or-death situation that could exist simultaneously nowhere, anywhere, and everywhere.
Long Day's Journey Into Night, reviewed by Grant Phipps
While functioning within the well-tread traditions of art house cinema, poet-turned-filmmaker Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey Into Night hypnotically expands upon the conceptual splendor of his first feature, Kaili Blues (2015), a personally driven time-bending Weerasethakul-like odyssey into the heart of mainland China. Here, Bi spins tropes of neo-noir—haunted voiceover narration, almost perpetually nocturnal environments sporadically doused in rain, and darkly dressed elusive characters—into a scrambled narrative tapestry about the search for those lost to time and memory: a father ("Wildcat"), a rival (Zuo Hongyuan), and a lover (Wan Qiwen).
It's cinema of transformation in the way that David Lynch's Mullholand Drive (2001) claims with its literal cinematographic plunge into the oneiric blue box halfway through its run-time. In Long Day's Journey, Bi uses a similarly distinctive device. He not only tracks the sleuthing of protagonist Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) in his estranged hometown of Kaili, but then envelops viewers in the character's tortuous consciousness through the retro-futuristic idea of physically sliding on a pair of tinted glasses, perhaps peripherally riffing on the iconic eye-opening prop in Carpenter's They Live (1988).
It's obvious that Bi Gan highly regards the established and deliberate techniques of art cinema/ However, he is also audacious in indulging what may be perceived as 3D implementation gimmick over 70 minutes into a feature, a risk that could potentially remove an audience from the immersion of theatrical experience. And yet, his intrepidity is mirrored in his dedication to poetic associations throughout the film that take precedence over narrative lucidity. It is nonlinear, but there are no stupefying double-crosses, frustratingly false endings, or tacky twists in the denouement. Rather, like the great Andrei Tarkovsky, son of one of Russia's most illustrious poets, Arseny Tarkovsky, Bi Gan utilizes his chosen format to demonstrate the power of spoken language in the manifestation of the visual and vice versa.
The fixation on broken or immobile clocks and watches in Kaili Blues has evolved into something grander in the epic scale and frame of Long Day's Journey Into Night, which runs about 25 minutes longer than Kaili Blues, yet seems perpetually suspended and excluded from those measurements by droll references to its own timepiece symbols. Seemingly insignificant objects of discussion assume romantic, talisman-like qualities here—an out-of-season pomelo fruit, apples, a ping-pong paddle engraved with a bird, a green pocket-sized storybook, the flames of a lighter gas burner, microphones, and circular mirrors/viewfinders. Even physical gestures like a mimed kick of a soccer ball and expressions of recognition or concern are implemented with unusually attentive elegance.
In creating a single narrative composed of two halves, the latter ostensibly without a single cut, Bi demonstrates the compatibility or symmetry of even the most polar opposite modus operandi and the significance of a single mind's cinematic universe—the possibilities and inextricable links of visual/verbal language that share strong association with magical realism in shaping and reshaping identity. Hong Sang-soo's Right Now, Wrong Then (2016) employs a similar aesthetic and methodology, as it exists as another piece of art cinema composed in two complementary parts about a chance encounter between a director Ham Chunsu (Jung Jae-young) and artist Heejung (Kim Min-hee). Repetition of narrative events and seemingly innocuous details like the phrasing of a question or the changing color of acrylic paint take on wry, surrealist qualities. While Bi leads with greater technical ambition and mood over characterization and Hong's take is invariably more loquacious and whimsical, both harness an artistry and self-contained commentary on variation and comparison that are radically innovative in the medium. This sort of bifurcated film template exists as a reflexive, complex puzzle, and yet paradoxically as a pared down mode of invention comparable to the reiterative composition of minimalist music.
Perhaps it's not until a second or third viewing of Long Day's Journey Into Night that its scant plot seems to emerge from Luo Hongwu's mystified inner monologues about his gambler father's passing ("Wildcat"), the shifty criminal (Zuo) whom his father owed debts, and the alluring woman in the emerald dress (Wan) as the missing link, who seems to appear and vanish at will as the personification of enigma. Bi hides certain intention behind veils of cigarette smoke, a fixation on character movements over their interactions, and a general belief in the abstract and dreamlike construction harnessing an altogether greater fascination than the more direct elucidation of film noir from which it has borrowed and ultimately transfigured not only through modern technology but progressive ideology.