Sunday, 17 November 2019
2019 Directed by Alejandro Landes
UK cinema release print.
A day before I saw Monos, a friend who’d already seen it told me this wasn’t a very good movie. Despite movie trailer comparisons to Apocalypse Now, which I didn’t believe (and rightly so, as it turns out), I wasn’t put off by this statement too much because there was really only one reason I wanted to see this movie... or more precisely, hear it. Yeah, you guessed it, the music. Monos has a score by the fairly new, dazzling composer Mica Levi. I loved her scores for Under The Skin (movie reviewed here) and Jackie (movie reviewed here) and... well I want to end this review with a shot of positive statements so I’ll cover the score last.
Monos is, in fact, not a terrible movie... but I think it’s far from being a great movie also. I’m not sure why the critics are quite so taken with this one but it feels very much like one of those ‘IMPORTANT’ movies from the 1980s which everyone felt the need to be seen to be supporting. I can imagine this might have had a lot of well attended repeat screenings at The Other Cinema and the Scala if it had been made 45 or so years ago. However, it does feel like a relic of a time way before it was conceived and although I’m quite given to fits of nostalgia induced entertainment, this one just kind of left me cold but, I think that’s because some of the more brilliant aspects of it set up their own, perhaps impossible to meet, expectations on the part of the audience.
Okay... so the film looks at a teenage cell of soldiers or terrorists (no idea what) in some unnamed country, in some unknown time period. It’s not, I think, that the filmmakers were deliberately withholding any of this information from me, I just think they assumed a knowledge of possible real life events that just isn’t going to be there for certain audience members. Is there a war of some kind going on in the world right now? No idea but if there is then I think it’s about time everybody stopped trying to kill each other, to be honest.
So I had no clue as to what was going on or why the Monos of the title, which is what this particular group of soldiers is called for some inexplicable reason (I still don’t know what the title means), are guarding a hostage. I couldn’t even tell if the character called Rambo is supposed to be male or female, to be honest. They keep calling him a guy but he’s clearly being played by a woman (perhaps it’s a Peter Pan thing going on). It’s well acted by a whole host of people, many of them first timers, I suspect. Absolutely brilliant performances from Sofia Buenaventura, Moises Arias, Julianne Nicholson, Laura Castrillón, Deiby Rueda, Paul Cubides, Sneider Castro, Karen Quintero and Julian Giraldo are on display here which absolutely make you believe 100% in the characters but, alas, acting and making things credible is not the whole battle when it comes to making a movie.
This is coupled with, despite an abundance of both hand held camera movement and a decision to focus on long shots of the cast during certain situations, some truly great cinematography. The use of colour and contrast throughout the picture is phenomenal but something was holding me back from properly embracing the film in the terms with which it needed to be hugged close, so to speak.
Thinking about it, I think the disappointment stems, as I said above, from expectations set up. The film doesn’t have much of a story, doesn’t enlighten the viewer about anything and doesn’t really even have an ending. It just doesn’t do anything really special and, frankly, none of those criticisms would normally seem like the nails in the coffin that they seem to feel like here. Films don’t have to satisfy these criteria and can still be hugely entertaining movies. I think, for me though, the brilliance of the way the movie is shot, edited and performed is the thing that makes me feel that everything is such a wasted opportunity. With beautiful looking image making like this, I really would expect it to be able to do more with its raw components than just end without any kind of point being made or resolution apparent.
For example, I’ve never read Lord Of The Flies or seen any of the movie versions (unless you count that episode of The Simpsons) but there are some really blatant references to it here (both visual and in spirit) so that even I cant miss them... but do they really help the viewer draw conclusions about the nature of this ‘young army’ here or have much point to them. Other than for it to be very predictable (when a key character is murdered at one moment in the narrative, it’s not exactly a surprise... you can even feel when it’s about to happen). So, yeah... forget the story on this one and stick with the performances, is my advice.
And the music, of course.
Mica Levi’s score is... okay it feels a bit gimmicky this time around in terms of I can see some people coming away and thinking a lot of it was just sound design but, it’s certainly a direct descendent to her Under The Skin score in that it’s driven with unrelenting repeat phrases played at a frenetic pace and helps maintain the films only true sense of edginess in the scenes in which it is utilised. Coming across like the sound of the helicopters in the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now (the only concession I’d concede to any similarities to that film) by way of being, perhaps, a spiritual sister piece to Threnody 1 - Night Of The Electric Insects from George Crumb’s musical delirium Black Angels, the score is the one truly great achievement of the film and you can bet I’ll be ordering the CD as soon as I finish this review (tried to get one in Fopp on the way home from the cinema but, alas, they’d already sold out). Indeed, it perhaps wears some of its musical influences on its sleeve, at least it seems so to me... but it is something I could probably listen to for a good number of spins without getting bored of it... although I don’t think it has any of the emotional resonance of her score for Jackie.
And that’s me done with Monos, I think. Not a movie I’d need to bother watching again but a lot of good ingredients in the mix and I’m sure certain kinds of audiences will go for it... especially those with a sense of nostalgia for 1980s styles of cinema, I suspect. Not really my cup of tea though, I have to say.