“The Woman King” (2022) starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, & John Boyega

The Woman King is the remarkable story of the Agojie, the all-female unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s with skills and a fierceness unlike anything the world has ever seen. Inspired by true events, The Woman King follows the emotionally epic journey of General Nanisca (Oscar®-winner Viola Davis) as she trains the next generation of recruits and readies them for battle against an enemy determined to destroy their way of life. Some things are worth fighting for. -Synopsis

This historical drama’s title comes from the fact that the people of Dahomey believed in a legend of two kings, a man and a woman who are equals; Nanisca (Viola Davis- at the top of her game) is expected to be crowned a Woman King by King Ghezo (John Boyega- a galaxy way from his Star Wars role). Producer Maria Bello (who acted w/ Davis in Prisoners) was visiting Benin (a West African nation) when she heard the story of the Agojie; she returned to the US, convinced she’d found a great movie pitch. The project stayed in “development hell” for 7 yrs, first at STX (which only offered a $5M budget), then at TriStar. Only after the huge success of Black Panther (2018) was this film greenlit (w/ a $50M budget). Davis and her husband also served as producers; they have a production company.

The actors trained for 4 mos. to get in shape for the action scenes; they’d lift weights for 90 mins, and then train for 3.5 hrs. w/ a stunt coordinator (on martial arts, the use of swords and spears, and did cardio). Most of the department heads are either women or people of color (POC): cinematography, production design, editing, makeup, hairstyling, costumes and visual effects. The screenplay is by Dana Stevens; her work includes: Fatherhood, the adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ novel Safe Haven, City of Angels, For Love of the Game, Blink, and Life or Something Like It. The movie (directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood) began shooting in South Africa (late 2021), but was interrupted by the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus. Production had to shut down for a few weeks; the extra time was used to rehearse the big battle. Prince-Bythewood has said in (recent) interviews that she directs only those movies that she is passionate about.

Izogie: Rule number one: Always obey Izogie.

[she gives Nawi a strict look]

Izogie: I am Izogie!

Unlike Top Gun: Maverick (2022), which also centers on a strong/middle-aged leader and an ensemble of younger “warriors” (pilots), The Woman King is a balanced blend of action and character drama. How much do we know about Rooster (Miles Teller), Hangman (Glen Powell), Phoenix (Monica Barbero), Bob (Lewis Pullman), etc? They have little character development, as Maverick- and to a lesser extent- Penny (Jennifer Connelly)- is the obvious star. In this film, we get to know (and care about) 3 different warriors under Nanisca’s leadership: Nawi (Thuso Mbedu- a petite/20s South African actress in her 1st movie), Izogie (Lashana Lynch- a British actress recently in the Bond franchise), and Amenza (Sheila Atim- a British-Ugandan actress known for Shakespearean theater roles). Izogie brings in moments of (needed) humor, 19 y.o. Nawi is the newbie/audience surrogate, and Amenza is thoughtful/spiritual. Though Nanisca is their experienced, tough, and respected general, she has suffered trauma in the past. Each the women fights in her own unique way, specializing in different weapons.

Nanisca [to Nawi]: Your tears mean nothing. To be a warrior, you must kill your tears.

This a film focused on women, though there are supporting roles for a few men also. Boyega does a fine job (as expected), perhaps channeling Denzel Washington and Eddie Murphy (from his African prince role in Coming to America), as some viewers commented. He says “my love” in a different way when he addresses each wife. The (fictional) white/Portuguese-speaking slave trader, Santo (Hero Fiennes Tiffin- nephew of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes), is welcomed by King Ghezo, but fails to maintain in good relations w/ him. Yes, the main villain is named Hero- LOL! Santo was perhaps loosely inspired by Francisco Félix de Sousa, a Brazilian slave trader who helped King Ghezo gain power IRL; these events are portrayed in Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde (1987). I don’t want to give too much away, but there is another male character who adds flavor to the story. I smiled, I cried (3x), and it stood up to re-watch! You can rent this movie (Amazon Prime).

“Lady Macbeth” (2016) starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, & Naomi Ackie

Rural England, 1865. Katherine is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, whose family are cold and unforgiving. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, a force is unleashed inside her, so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants. -Synopsis

In the north of England, a young woman named Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold into marriage (along w/ some land) to a middle-aged man, Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton- a character/theater actor). Sadly, there is no love or even common kindness involved here; this marriage was arranged by Boris Lester (Christopher Fairbank), Alexander’s domineering father. Katherine is prevented from leaving the house. Boris scolds her for not giving Alexander a son, but her husband doesn’t even touch her! One day, both men have to leave the estate for separate business matters, leaving Katherine alone with the housemaid, Anna (Naomi Ackie- also in an early role). Finally, Katherine is free to explore the area to alleviate her boredom!

This indie film (streaming on MUBI) is based on the Russian book Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov. I learned that iFeatures is a collab btwn the BBC and the BFI; every year, they produce 3 feature films for £350,000 as a stepping stone for 1st time directors. Lady Macbeth (directed by William Oldroyd) was chosen out of over 300 applicants- wow! It was filmed over 24 days on location at Lambton Castle, County Durham and Northumberland, UK. Shaheen Baig was the casting director on Florence Pugh’s 1st film, The Falling (2014); when the script came her way, she suggested Pugh (then just 19 y.o) to Oldroyd.

I loved the fact she was naked all the time. At that point in my life, I had been made to feel sh*t about what I looked like and that film was perfect. There was no room for me to feel insecure. -Florence Pugh, in an interview (ES Magazine)

This is a V dark tale; the first 35 mins. are quite slow and NOT much happens (w/ little dialogue); the next 45 mins. is an unbridled (and often) violent trip! There is almost no music to be heard. The setting is oppressive, the tone is foreboding, and there are bursts of violence (which will be quite jarring esp. to sensitive viewers). Unlike most period dramas you may be familiar w/, this film uses colorblind casting. Ackie is a Black woman from the UK w/ Caribbean roots, Cosmo Jarvis (Sebastian- the horse groomer) is of British/Armenian heritage from the US, and Golda Rosheuvel (most recently Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton) is a British biracial woman. The acting is quite effective, esp. from Pugh (mature beyond her years); I wanted to see more of Ackie’s character (as she does a fine job also). Ackie (only early 30s) went on to work on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. She plays the lead in Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.

[1] The film seems to be a pre-feminism manifesto for women’s rights. […]

The interesting thing is how Katherine evolves from victim to culprit. She seems to have learned from her husband how to use and misuse power. The lack of social conscience of which she at first is a victim, becomes a driving force for her own behaviour.

[2] Lady Macbeth features a mesmerising and beguiling performance from Florence Pugh. It is far away from these slushy chocolate box romantic period dramas. Katherine is steel edged and deadly.

[3] Several archetypal themes arise in this somber, artfully-photographed drama. For instance, one that emphasizes the wages of sin is prominent; another about the subjugated rising against the oppressor; and another about the danger of socially imprisoning smart women in a paternalistic society. A leitmotif also surfaces about the dangers of debilitating class distinctions, which are never a good thing in the long haul.

Ari Wegner’s cinematography is portrait-like if considering only the recurring shot of Katherine sitting on her Victorian couch in a consuming dress that seems to deteriorate with each similar shot. Underneath the dress is the corset, so long a symbol of the era’s tight hold on women.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“Berlin Express” (1948) starring Merle Oberon, Robert Ryan, Charles Corvin, & Paul Lukas

Trapped on a Train of Terror! -A tagline (on the movie poster)

In a divided Germany (shortly after WWII), passengers from several nations are on a train heading to an international conference. Lucienne (Merle Oberon) is a French secretary who catches the eye of almost every man on the train. Dr. Bernhardt (Paul Lukas) is Lucienne’s German employer. Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan) is an American working for the Dept. of Agriculture. Perrot (Charles Corvin) is a French businessman. Sterling (Robert Coote) is an Englishman. Lt. Maxim Kirosilov is young Soviet soldier. When one of these passengers (working for peace) is kidnapped in Berlin, the others set aside their differences/work together to find him. Would you risk your life to help a stranger, IF it was for the good of the world?

Narrator: [voiceover] That’s right – the dove of peace was a pigeon. A dead pigeon.

The director, Jacques Tourneur, also directed the film noir classic Out of the Past (1947). The cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, was married to Oberon; he came up w/ a lighting technique which hid the scars on Oberon’s face. Cary Grant and John Garfield were considered for roles in this film. This is the 1st Hollywood production in Germany after WWII. The crew was the 1st to receive permission to film in Berlin’s Soviet zone. At the time of production, Berlin was divided into 4 separate sectors, controlled by the English, French, Soviet (now Russian), and American armed forces. American soldiers stationed at the I. G. Farben munitions building in Salzburg, left untouched during bombing raids (so the U.S. could use it as an occupation HQ), appeared in the film as extras.

Perrot: What chance has a European got with an American around?

Lindley: I’m afraid you overestimate us.

Perrot: Huh, not at all. How can we compete with your American charm, your chocolate…

Sterling: Your soap?

Perrot: Your cigarettes?

Lindley: Well, it’s more blessed to give than to receive.

Berlin Express is categorized as a crime drama, film noir, and thriller. It’s an unusual movie for its time; it has an international cast (before that became common) and was filmed on location (in rare/unexpected places). I rarely guessed what was going to happen next! I esp. liked the friendly banter between the 3 men (Lindley, Perrot, and Sterling) who seek the attention of Lucienne (who is NOT easily impressed). Each man has a different personality; it’s refreshing that they behave like gentlemen (instead of pushy jerks). Ryan is looking youngish/handsome and gets to show his charm/confidence in a (rare) good guy role. I’m NOT going to say much more; check this movie out! You can rent it on YouTube.

[1] Tourneur did a grand job in making use of the bombed out locations in Frankfurt where most of the story takes place. It certainly gives authenticity to the story.

[2] Filmed in the rubble of German cities in 1946 this film, basically is a very good and constantly weaving espionage drama; and not unlike NORTH BY NORTHWEST in deception, missing persons, terrific set pieces in ruins and epic visuals of genuine locations. Robert Ryan as the US everyman, all casual but tough, Merle Oberon gives ze Fronnch occent a good go, and a solid cast enjoying a provocative script.

[3] Some of the lines seemed stilted and staged, particularly toward the end, but given the time period when the movie was filmed, not at all surprising. There was a good mix of characters, but the real star of the film is the location: there are wonderful shots of Berlin and Frankfurt right after the war, and the devastation around the characters adds a powerful unspoken dimension to the film.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

Paul Newman’s 1st Movie: “The Silver Chalice” (1954)

A young Greek artist, Basil (Paul Newman), is commissioned to cast the cup of Jesus in silver, and sculpt around its rim, the faces of the disciples and Jesus. He travels to Jerusalem, then eventually, to Rome to complete the task. Meanwhile, a magician, Simon (Jack Palance), is trying to convince Caesar and the Romans that he is the new Messiah. James Dean was offered the role of Basil, but he and his agent thought the script was poor. Newman, who was a finalist for the role of Cal Trask in East of Eden (1955) that eventually was played by Dean, and made him a star, took the role, which Newman later regretted. While shooting East of Eden, Dean went over to visit Newman on the set of this film, where he met the love of his short life, a young Italian actress- Pier Angeli (Deborra, a Jewish merchant’s daughter/convert to Christianity).

I had a cocktail dress. Nero had a cocktail gown. -Newman (joking re: costumes in this movie)

Let’s begin with the good points; it got 2 Oscar noms- one for William Skall’s color cinematography and the other for Franz Waxman’s musical score. A teen Natalie Wood makes a brief appearance. That’s it- sorry to say! The story is boring, it drags b/c of its long running time, and the dialogue is bad (which caused some viewers to laugh). There are some sad-looking (minimalist) sets which were obviously built on a soundstage. No one can call a movie “epic” w/ sets like that! Newman is looking gorgeous (as usual); his legs aren’t “too skinny for a toga,” as he later commented. You can tell he had no direction; he doesn’t seem to know where to turn or how to say a line! As a young actor, Newman said that he was “cerebral, rather than intuitive.” I’ve never heard of this director, Victor Saville, so maybe he left Hollywood? Mayo seems to be sleepwalking, while Palance is SO campy at times (that some viewers admitted they were entertained). Of course there are worse movies than this, BUT you don’t need to watch!


[1] The Silver Chalice is best remembered for a Variety ad that Paul Newman took out after he got famous and apologized for, not only his performance in this film, but also the film itself. Of course, doing something like this is only going to get people interested in the film, so I’m sure many people have watched this because of Newman’s plea for you not to.

[2] They [actors] are hindered by very sketchily written characters and as dreary and stilted a script as you can get… Victor Saville’s direction never comes to life and the story feels overlong, stodgy and over-stretched with scenes that are either stagey, superfluous or unintentionally funny…

[3] Mayo looks as though she just left the chorus line of The Goldwyn Girls and had the artists paint her eyebrows in what someone must have assumed would resemble women of antiquity. She saunters around in her veiled costumes as though she is about to break out into a burlesque queen’s rendition of a bump and grind song number.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

In My Ear (June 2022): Podcast Episodes for Cinephiles

The Feminist Frequency (hosted by Anita Sarkeesian):

1950s Hollywood with Alonso Duralde, author & podcaster (Breakfast All Day)
Femme Fatale: 1940s Hollywood & Film Noir w/ Julie Grossman, literature & film studies professor
30s Hollywood: Did the Hays code actually create opportunities for queer subtext? w/ Patricia White, professor

You Must Remember This (created/hosted by Karina Longworth):

For Fans of the Erotic Thriller Genre (my “guilty pleasure” in pandemic life):

1988: KEVIN COSTNER, SEAN YOUNG, NO WAY OUT & BULL DURHAM (EROTIC 80S PART 11) /JUNE 13, 2022

1987: FATAL ATTRACTION AND DIRTY DANCING (EROTIC 80S PART 10) / JUNE 6, 2022

1986: 9 ½ WEEKS, MICKEY ROURKE & ZALMAN KING (EROTIC 80S PART 9) / MAY 30, 2022

1985: FEAR SEX. JAGGED EDGE & AIDS (EROTIC 80S PART 8) / MAY 23, 2022

For Fans of Classic Films:

SIX DEGREES OF JOAN CRAWFORD: THE MIDDLE YEARS (MILDRED PIERCE TO JOHNNY GUITAR) /AUGUST 29, 2016

HE RAN ALL THE WAY: JOHN GARFIELD (THE BLACKLIST EPISODE #6) /MARCH 14, 2016