“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).

Spoiler-Free Review: “The Menu” starring Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, & Nicholas Hoult

Painstakingly Prepared. Brilliantly Executed. -A tagline for the movie

A young couple travels to a remote island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the chef has prepared a lavish menu, with some shocking surprises. -Synopsis

Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes- who always does a great job) is at the top of his field; the multi-course meals at his restaurant (located on a small private) island cost $1,500. Elsa (Hong Chau) is the manager (AKA right hand) of the chef. Chau is a Vietnamese-American actress who just received an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actress for The Whale (2022); she is having success after age 40 (quite rare in Hollywood). A young couple, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), are two of the guests; Tyler is V excited, being a foodie/fan of Chef Slowik. John Leguizamo plays a character called George Díaz, simply credited as “Movie Star.” Leguizamo based his character on former action star, Steven Seagal, whom he called a “horrible human” due to a V bad experience while working w/ him on Executive Decision (1996). The references to Diaz playing a cook in one of his movies may be a nod to Under Siege (1992), where Seagal played a cook- LOL! George is accompanied by his young assistant, Felicity (Aimee Carrero). A well-known food critic, Lillian (Janet McTeer), and her editor, Ted (Paul Edelstein), are among the guests; she’d written V positively re: this restaurant. Three jovial 30-ish Wall Street bros (played by Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr) want to spend their money and have a new experience. A tense/posh older couple, Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light), round out the group of 12 diners.

Tyler [eating some oysters]: You have to try the mouthfeel of the mignonette.

Margot: Please don’t say mouthfeel.

This movie (which I saw recently on HBO Max) premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on September 10, 2022. It was released November 18 in the US in 3,211 theaters (the widest release in Searchlight’s history). The director, Mark Mylod, has mainly worked in TV (Succession). One of the screenwriters, Will Tracy, came up w/ the idea of the story while on his honeymoon in Bergen, Norway, when he took a boat to a fancy restaurant on a private island. Tracy realized that diners were stuck (trapped) on the island until the meal was done!

Elsa: Here, we are family. We harvest. We ferment. We slaughter. We marinate. We liquify. We spherify. We gel.

Margot: [to Tyler] They gel?

Elsa: We gel!

There are many references to restaurant Noma (Copenhagen, Denmark), starting from the location, idea, concept, and ending w/ the menu itself. Several of the beach shots were filmed at Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island (Georgia). The food layouts were prepared by the famed French chef, Dominique Crenn, the ONLY female chef in the US to attain 3 Michelin stars for her restaurant, Atelier Crenn (San Fran). At one point, Chef Slowik insults Richard by calling him “donkey,” a reference to (famous/abusive) chef Gordon Ramsay. The kitchen team were trained to actually create the dishes, broken down station by station, as one would see in a real restaurant.

Chef Slowik [introducing the dessert course]: The s’more. The most offensive assault on the human palate ever contrived.

This is a social satire that makes fun of the uber-wealthy, esp. pretentious foodies and the celeb chefs who cater to their needs. I heard that Triangle of Sadness (2022) deals w/ similar themes. The look is sleek/ultra-modern and cold. It’s moody, atmospheric, and (often) tense. However, some of the occurrences are preposterous! The characters act like those in a horror movie in one scene, then turn goofy in the next one. This movie has been called “silly” by critics/viewers; I think it’s a waste of talent and under-cooked (pardon the pun). I was impressed esp. by Fiennes and Taylor-Joy (who have good chemistry), though some others were under-developed.

[1] This is a movie that plays on something everyone has come across in their lives: obsession. The movie starts out as a seemingly eerie thriller/suspense type movie with weird and unique quirks, but slowly devolves into something much more wild and very obviously takes it too far.

[2] I think I understood what The Menu was trying to convey with its deeper meaning, but I still came up disappointed. Anya Taylor-Joy and the rest of the cast gave great performances, but there was little that really brought the movie together.

[3] The entire cast gives great performances with Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy truly being the standouts as they playoff each other very well. Each character purposely reflected a personality type that, if you ever worked in service, you would encounter and come to know very well.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

Spoiler-Free Review: “Normal People” (2020) starring Daisy Edgar-Jones & Paul Mescal

The series follows Marianne and Connell, from different backgrounds, but the same small town in Ireland, as they weave in and out of each other’s romantic lives. -Synopsis

Marianne (British actress Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Irish actor Paul Mescal) are classmates at a secondary school (high school) in County Sligo on Ireland’s Southern coast. Among her peers at HS, Marianne is regarded as an oddball/loner; she has an abrasive personality and says she cares nothing for social standing. Despite her academic achievements, her family life is unhappy b/c of her dismissive/solicitor (lawyer) mother, Denise, and resentful/older bro, Alan. Marianne’s father is deceased. Connell is a high-achiever also, but popular w/ athletic skills/laid-back attitude. (FYI: The sport they play at school is Gaelic football, a combo of rugby and soccer.) He lives in a humble (yet happy) home w/ his single mother, Lorraine, who works for Denise as a cleaner of their (fancy/spacious) house. There is no father in the picture; it’s obvious that Lorraine had Connell when she was a teen. The focus is Marianne and Connell’s romantic relationship over their last year of HS through college (undergraduate) years.

Normal People is based on the bestselling book by a millennial/Irish author, Sally Rooney, who co-wrote the first 6 eps (out of 12 total eps at less than 30 mins each). The show became hugely popular worldwide (esp. w/ young adults) when it was released in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can watch it now on Hulu. I saw it a few weeks ago, after some of my Twitter gal pals praised it; I’ve been skeptical of shows re: teens/college kids in the past. Wow, was I (pleasantly) surprised; the writing and acting are terrific! Silence is also used effectively at key moments. As I’ve written before, there is nothing like a love story, BUT only when it is done well (NOT cliched or simplistic). I kept thinking- why can’t we (Americans) have smart/sensitive entertainment like this w/ teens/young ppl!?

I hadn’t seen the lead actors before; they had great chemistry together. Mescal (now garnering acclaim for the indie movie Aftersun) will play the lead in the sequel to Gladiator; director Ridley Scott will be filming it after he wraps up Napolean. Connell is (traditionally) masculine, yet also has a sensitive/vulnerable side. Edgar-Jones was the lead in Where the Crawdads Sing (2022), based on a bestselling novel by Delia Owens. Marianne can be tough, mysterious (as in hard to know), yet also quite vulnerable. Check this show out ASAP- you won’t regret it!

[1] Brilliant, heartbreaking viewing experience. Give yourself over to this wonderful story and be ready for a genuine rollercoaster. 

[2] What I liked is that I felt both Marianne and Connell were well-rounded characters that didn’t fall into stereotypes. […]
That it pierced the heart of this wretched old soul speaks volumes to the quality of the series.

[3] These young new faces are truly engaging and they are beautiful to boot. As characters, there are emotions beneath that are really worthwhile to explore. They become more and more fully formed people and that’s the brilliance of this limited series. These are great characters performed by compelling new faces.

[4] It felt almost like reading a book where you envision the characters so vividly, you can almost touch them. The chemistry the two leads have, their acting, the cinematography, are all so well blended together, so seamless, it’s palpable. A melancholy trip worth taking, if only to remind the ones past teenage years how vulnerable and all-engulfing a young love is.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

Quick Reviews of Three Noir Films

Impact (1949) starring Brian Donlevy, Ella Raines, Charles Coburn, & Helen Walker

A unfaithful wife plots with her lover to kill her husband, but the lover is accidentally killed instead. The husband stays in hiding and lets his wife be charged with conspiracy.

This is a B-movie w/ a lead actor (Donlevy) who usually plays the 2nd lead. Walker is the cold-hearted femme fatale in the big city; Raines is the charming small-town widow/businesswoman (good girl). Raines is esp. lovely, even wearing overalls! As usual, Coburn does a fine job; here he plays a wise (yet also kindly) cop. There are a LOT of twists and turns that keep it interesting. I was reminded of Out of the Past in the country life scenes. If you want to take a deeper dive into noir, then check this out.

Niagara (1953) starring Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten, & Jean Peters

As two couples are visiting Niagara Falls, tensions between one wife and her husband reach the level of murder.

This is a rare (technicolor) noir which highlights Niagara Falls and Monroe- two gorgeous sights (no doubt)! Two V different types of marrieds staying at a mobile lodge in Canada get to know each other… and vacay drama ensues! There are many close-ups on Monroe’s face (always w/ glam makeup), her figure, and signature walk- the typical “male gaze” comes to mind. Monroe does a good job, as does Cotten as her troubled/PTSD-affected war vet husband. Peters is beautiful also, BUT she gets the “girl next door” role and some action scenes. Unfortunately, Casey Adams (more known for his light/TV roles) acts like he’s in a totally different movie! If you’re a fan of Monroe and like suspense/psychological dramas (such as Hitchcock), then I esp. recommend this movie.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) starring Jeanne Moreau & Maurice Ronet

A self-assured businessman murders his employer, the husband of his mistress, which unintentionally provokes an ill-fated chain of events.

This film ushered in the French new wave; it was directed by Louis Malle (who was ONLY 24 y.o.) I’m a fan of his 1992 erotic thriller- Damage (starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche). The music was composed by an American jazz great- Miles Davis. Malle shot Moreau (before fame) in close-up and natural light (often w/o make-up). The scene of Moreau walking down the Champs Elysees at night was shot using fast film in a camera mounted on a baby carriage; it used ONLY natural light from the street and store windows. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something different.

“Submergence” (2017) starring James McAvoy & Alicia Vikander

In a room w/ no windows on the Eastern coast of Africa, James More (James McAvoy- an actor I really admire), is held captive by jihadists fighters. Thousands of miles away in the Greenland Sea, Danielle Flinders (Alicia Vikander), prepares to dive in a sub to the ocean floor. They’re drawn back to the Winter of the previous year, where a chance encounter in Normandy, France led to an intense romance. This was one of the recs (on Amazon Prime) a few weeks ago; I liked the lead actors and the trailer was V interesting. You can also see it on YouTube (for free). The veteran German director, Wim Wenders, is considered an “auteur.” The French cinematographer, Benoit Debie, does a fine job. This film is based on the novel by a British-born writer, J.M. Ledgard, who was a war correspondent and political consultant for 20+ yrs.

James: Death. It gets very real when you’re watching somebody die in front of you. You’re thinking, is this all I am? Is this all I added up to? And all the clichés are true. You’re thinking, why now? Why did it have to be… this happen, before I realize what life truly is? It’s direct, it’s immediate, and it’s their whole life exposed to you.

Dani: Did you think about your own death a lot?

James: I did, and I do.

Dani: I’ve heard people telling me that they’ve had those exact same thoughts when they fell in love.

James: No, you don’t die when you fall in love.

The 1st half is an intelligent and stylish love story; I thought it was told V well. James (an ex-soldier/intelligence expert) and Dani (a scientist who studies the deepest layer of the ocean) are opposites in many ways when they meet on the beach during vacation. It’s refreshing to see a romance where brains (as well as physical beauty) count! At first, James is the one to show interest, BUT it’s Dani who takes things to the next level (rare in modern films, as some critics/viewers noted). Their love/romantic scenes are shot in a way that is classy, unique, and soulful.

The 2nd half contains some action/intrigue, though is NOT as effective (yet important/modern issues- esp. terrorism- come up). Dani’s side of the story comes off as dull (unless you’re a scientist maybe), while James is put in more… and more danger. There are several scenes that drag on; the editing could’ve been much tighter. We see a few supporting characters, incl. a doctor played by Alexander Siddig (best known for his roles on Star Trek: DS9 and Game of Thrones). Many viewers were disappointed that the lovers were apart for such a big part of the movie. Also, there is a (possibly confusing) ending; we needed to see more! One of the main reasons to check out this film is its (natural) beauty. There was a LOT of shooting on location; sadly, the elegant home that serves as a hotel isn’t intended for tourists.