Friday, April 26, 2019

Ladies' Night: Little Woods & Wild Nights with Emily

I still see #52FilmsByWomen pop up as a hashtag every once in a while from people who are far more committed to making sure they see movies from a broad range of voices than I manage to be; if I get there, it's more or less going to be through volume - I'll get to 52 films by seeing 300 or something like that, and nights like Sunday, where I add a couple by figuring out the double feature at the Kendall that gets me home the earliest with the least hanging around between screenings, are more happy accident than goal. I kind of didn't realize that I was doing it - I hadn't particularly noted who was directing either, just that Tess Thompson being in a movie was usually a good sign and Wild Nights with Emily looked like a more playful take on the movie biography than usual.

Ideally, just showing up and having half the movies one sees directed by women would happen more often, and they'd be as seemingly-uncompromised in their perspectives as these two. Little Woods in particular centers things that might otherwise be relegated to the margins of a story. That's not really how it works, though, especially if you also like the big stuff, and I should probably spend a little more time checking out who's making the films that come out a given week and nudging my viewing accordingly. Heck, that applies to this coming week at IFFBoston; through the first two days, one of the three films I've seen was co-directed by a woman, and I'm not sure how the rest of the week sorts out, even when you figure some things are the only options.

Little Woods

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 April 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run, DCP)

Little Woods is the sort of decent independent film that catches your eye more for the star who has been doing bigger things lately than anything else a preview or description can hook you with, and that's while sometimes that sort of movie will surprise you, this one basically does what it says on the label. It's the kind of straightforward, probably-authentic sort of rural lament that the rest of the country could probably do with seeing a little more often, and that's okay. It never becomes an exceptionally tense thriller or knife-twisting drama, but it tells stories that don't necessarily get their due fairly well.

The town of the title is in North Dakota, one of those places where all the money from the initial oil boom has wound up concentrated in the drilling company's hands and everyone else is striving to make ends meet. Oleander (Tessa Thompson) - "Ollie" for short - scrapes up the odd buck by doing laundry for the workers and selling hot coffee and sandwiches for less than the company cafeteria. She also used to sell pills, but she's kept out of trouble while on probation so she could take care of her sick mother. She's passed, but the house is about to be foreclosed upon, and Ollie might have a good prospect out in Spokane, but her sister Deb (Lily James) is living in an illegally parked trailer with her son Johnny (Charlie Ray Reid), and has just found out she's pregnant again. The only way to save the house seems to be that bag Ollie buried when smuggling their mom's medicine over the Canadian border.

The border is one of the first and last images that Nia DaCosta lays on the audience, and it's an unconventionally striking one, a sort of notch in the landscape and a bit of cleared space with a post in there, highlighting how artificial and arbitrary it is that you can get decent health care there but not here. The actual danger to crossing this clear but also kind of theoretical line is elsewhere, although DaCosta has built enough tension up in previous scenes for some to bleed over. It's the most overtly dramatic section of the film, and DaCosta plays that notch for all it's worth.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Wild Nights with Emily

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 April 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run, DCP)

This genuinely peculiar little movie that does its best to correct the long-held and deliberately created impression that Emily Dickinson was a reclusive spinster is not just an acquired taste but also kind of a hard sell, and filmmaker Madeleine Olnek tends to concern herself less with opening this sort of highly-targeted movie to a broad audience than with the act of setting the record straight. It sometimes makes for the sort of movie where sometimes only one person in the room is laughing at a joke, but that one person is enjoying it.

Where does Dickinson's reputation come from? The film shows Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz) giving talks on how she discovered the poet's work and letters in a trunk and brought them to the world, but there's obvious insincerity as she describes Emily as morbid and suffering from unrequited love. This would not be the case - as teenagers, Emily (Dana Melanie) and her friend Susan Gilbert (Sasha Frolova) fell hard for each other, and while Susan would marry Emily's brother Austin, it was in mainly to remain in Emily's orbit. Twenty years later, the relationship between Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler) was plain to see for anyone who bothered to look, with Susan doing whatever she could to help Emily get her poems published despite dismissive male editors. Of course, this wasn't necessarily a satisfying arrangement for Austin (Kevin Seal), which means that when Mabel came along and set her sights on him, things got contentious.

The film is an adaptation of Olnek's play, though one wonders a bit about how direct the adaptation is. There are quick tangents and asides that benefit from not having to shuffle people on and off a stage but which also pull the focus from Emily and Susan, such as a bit about a potential publisher's Civil War service that gets a laugh but seems like a bit of a detour for how much of a part he has in the movie compared to its short length and how the filmmakers sometimes skip over other material with a wink, as if to acknowledge there isn't room. The end credits seem to suggest that the film was shot piecemeal - entire crews are listed for specific scenes - so maybe Olnek just couldn't do more. If that's the case, she does well to pull together a lot of good bits into a film that doesn't just feel like a random overview.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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