“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).

#Oscars: “Top Gun: Maverick” (2022) starring Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, & Val Kilmer

After thirty years, Maverick is still pushing the envelope as a top naval aviator, but must confront ghosts of his past when he leads TOP GUN’s elite graduates on a mission that demands the ultimate sacrifice from those chosen to fly it. -Synopsis

I know what y’all (regular readers) are thinking: “You watched this movie!?” Heck yeah, I watched it for Glen Powell (looking gorgeous, BUT should’ve gotten more characterization)! Powell (who plays Hangman) lobbied for the role of Rooster (which went to Miles Teller- sporting a thick mustache). Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw is the grown-up/pilot son of Goose (played by Anthony Edwards in the 1986 movie) who is NOT on the best of terms w/ Pete “Maverick” Mitchell when this story starts.

Maverick [to younger pilots]: You think up there, you’re dead, believe me.

There is a diverse ensemble of attractive (and super-fit) young pilots; we don’t know much about them, as this story is concerned re: Maverick and the (impressive) action. I learned that a few scenes btwn Rooster and Phoenix (Monica Barbero) were cut. Bob (wears glasses, doesn’t swear or drink) is played by Lewis Pullman, son of actor Bill Pullman. Maverick is still in the rank of captain; he takes risks and bucks authority, though Adm. Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) covers his back. Ed Harris and Jon Hamm (who some thought looked older than Cruise- LOL) play two of the experienced Naval officers who are NOT quickly impressed by Maverick’s skills/charm. Many viewers were emotional after seeing Maverick and Iceman (in poor health) reunite!

Iceman: One last thing, who’s the better pilot, you or me?

Maverick: This is a nice moment, let’s not ruin it.

Unlike in the 1986 movie, we see a much better romance! Maverick (single/no kids) reunites w/ his former gf, Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly- good in any role), a bar owner/single mom to a teen daughter. Penny was “the admiral’s daughter” mentioned in the original movie (a few astute viewers noticed). There is a V cool scene where Penny and Maverick go sailing on her boat; the actors are actually doing the work! Their love scene looked tame, BUT this has a PG-13 rating.

The opening of the movie is nearly identical to that in the 1986 movie. There are many call-backs (nostalgia); some will find it touching, while others will think it’s repetitive. The cutting-edge plane that Maverick flies past the speed of Mach 10 is sleek and expensive. The “fight” btwn Rooster and Maverick during one of the training exercises is (potentially) deadly, yet V exciting. In the 3rd act, there are some surprises (which I didn’t see coming). Who is the enemy? We don’t know, as the filmmakers chose to keep it apolitical. No doubt that this movie (filmed in 2018) is a technical achievement which became a box-office hit. If you want to check it out, it’s streaming on Amazon Prime (Paramount+). Powell looked V happy promoting the movie- that’s good enough for me!

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) starring William Holden, Alec Guiness, Jack Hawkins, & Sessue Hayakawa

The towering triumph of adventure from the makers of “Lawrence of Arabia.” -A tagline for the film

…it takes its time in a way that is almost unbelievable. […] I timed it- and it’s an hour before the plot happens. It could never be made today, not w/ the computer generation, not w/ the generation that’s used to things happening fast. It’s a true narrative movie. -Sydney Pollack

I also will see before I direct a picture… When I made my Indiana Jones films- anything that has a lot of scope- and is somewhat of an adventure. […] That’s one of the most perfect movies ever made. -Steven Spielberg

This is one of those epic/classic films that your parents watched (and liked); you can see it on HBO Max. During WWII, allied POWs in a Japanese internment camp are ordered to build a bridge to accommodate the Burma-Siam railway. Their instinct is to sabotage the bridge, but under the leadership of Col. Nicholson (Sir Alec Guinness- best kwon for Star Wars), they’re persuaded the bridge should be built to help morale. Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa- a star of Hollywood’s silent era) was inspired by Maj. Risaburo Saito, who (unlike in this film) was said by some to be one of the most humane of all of the Japanese officers, willing to negotiate with P.O.W.s in return for their labor. Such was the respect btwn Saito and Lt. Col. Toosey (upon whom Col. Nicholson was based), that Toosey spoke on Saito’s behalf at the war-crimes tribunal after the war, saving him from the death. Ten years after Toosey’s death, Saito went to England to visit his grave.

Col. Saito [to Col. Nicholson]: Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of cricket!

There is a LOT of interesting trivia re: this movie (which won 7 Oscars). Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman had been blacklisted after being accused of having Communist ties, so went uncredited. The only writing credit, and Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, went to Pierre Boulle (who spoke no English), the author of the French novel. In 1984, the Academy retroactively awarded the Oscar to Wilson and Foreman; when this movie was restored, their names were added to the credits. Guinness had doubts about playing the role of Col. Nicholson; he’d become popular from roles in comedies. He tried to add some humor into his portrayal; Sir David Lean (director) was opposed to this idea, insisting that it be played seriously. The role of the American Navy officer (played by William Holden- V popular at this time) was NOT in the source novel; Cmdr. Shears was added into the screenplay to appeal to a wider audience. At one point, Lean nearly drowned when he was swept away by a river current (on location in Sri Lanka); actor Geoffrey Horne (in his 1st role as Lt. Joyce) saved his life! Many of the extras in the POW camp are South Asians, as I noticed.

Cmdr. Shears [to Maj. Warden]: You make me sick with your heroics! There’s a stench of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and L-pills – they go well together, don’t they? And with you it’s just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war! You and Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman, how to die by the rules – when the only important thing is how to live like a human being!… I’m not going to leave you here to die, Warden, because I don’t care about your bridge and I don’t care about your rules. If we go on, we go on together.

Why are there SO many war movies/shows out there!? Well, the stakes are V high, so there is potential for a LOT of drama. This is actually an anti-war movie focused on 4 different men (NOT all gung-ho about fighting); we see this even from the early scenes btwn Shears and the doctor, Maj. Clipton (James Donald). Now, if this were made today, Shears (being a POW for some time) would NOT be looking so healthy/buff (as some viewers commented)- LOL! The reluctant warriors are thrown together b/c of circumstances; Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) doesn’t come in until almost half-way through the movie. Warden is a former prof who trains spies that on the gorgeous estate in Sri Lanka; there is a sequence that reminded me of a Bond movie. The (brief) romance btwn Shears and an (unnamed/blonde) nurse (Norma Sears) was put in by the studio at the end. Lean was strongly opposed to it, but producers insisted the movie have at least one white woman character. Even in modern times, it’s V rare for a director to get “final cut,” so have to make compromises. Some viewers have commented that this feels like 2 separate movies which come together in the 3rd (last) act.

Col. Nicholson: [looks at the completed bridge] I’ve been thinking. Tomorrow it will be 28 years to the day that I’ve been in the service. 28 years in peace and war. I don’t suppose I’ve been at home more than 10 months in all that time. Still, it’s been a good life. I loved India. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But there are times… when suddenly you realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything – or if it made any difference at all, really. Particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking’s very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts on those lines from time to time. But tonight… tonight!

As Shears. Holden is given a LOT of darkly funny/irreverent lines; he’s NOT out to be a hero, he just wants to get out. Of course, the audience can relate! Col. Saito was the most interesting characters IMO; I was surprised that he got some development (rare for Asians even today in mainstream Hollywood). Hayakawa and Guinness have this uneasy tension in their scenes together. Building the bridge (on schedule and well) becomes an obsession for Col. Nicholson, who wants to prove that the British are superior to the Japanese. I was surprised by some of the directorial choices Lean made, incl. the monologue (above) by Col. Nicholson after the bridge is completed. Instead of doing the obvious close-up on Guinness, we see a shot from behind his shoulder. The finale of the movie is terrific, as it feels fresh, exciting, and dangerous!

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 Reviews of 2022 Movies: “Nope” & “Don’t Worry Darling”

Nope starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, & Michael Wincott

After random objects falling from the sky result in the death of their father, ranch-owning siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood attempt to capture video evidence of an unidentified flying object with the help of tech salesman Angel Torres and documentarian Antlers Holst. -Plot Summary (Universal Pictures)

I saw this movie a few mos. ago (w/ 2 gal pals) when we got discounted tickers. IF you’re expecting a story (somewhat) like Jordan Peele’s previous work (as I was), you MAY be V disappointed. The (slow) pace of the film is a big issue, until perhaps the last 30 mins. (which was a BIT interesting). Kaluuya plays a quiet/reserved man, more comfortable w/ horses than people. The actor can express a LOT w/ his eyes (though I don’t think this role is an acting challenge for him). Palmer (who had success as a child actor) plays the total opposite; she’s extroverted, quick to joke, and a (potential) risk-taker. It’s rare/refreshing to see a brother-sister relationship in movies.

I had issues w/ the (dark) lighting, BUT I think that was done on purpose. At 2 hr. 10 mins, it’s much TOO long; this is the case w/ current movies. Though it’s categorized as a horror/mystery/sci-fi movie, there are few thrills. However, IF you like a look at behind-the-scenes (BTS) of the movie biz, then it MAY be of interest. Peele has some V interesting themes and ideas, BUT the execution didn’t work (for me) this time.

Don’t Worry Darling starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, & Chris Pine

A housewife living with her husband in a utopian (1950s style) experimental community begins to worry that his glamorous company could be hiding disturbing secrets. -Plot Summary

I saw this movie a few wks. ago on HBO Max; as some of you MAY know, there was BTS drama btwn. Wilde (actor/director), Pugh, and Styles. At 2 hr. 3 mins, it’s still a BIT long. This is (another) case of style over substance; I think the cinematographer did a great job. Pugh is already a V respected actress; she does a fine job (w/ what she is given) here. Sadly, she and Styles have NO romantic chemistry; their (much talked about) love scenes are boring. In one particularly dramatic scene, you can see that Styles (known more for his music) is in over his head. There are ONLY 2 scenes btwn. Pugh and Pine that have any tension! There is a twist which MANY viewers could see coming. I see a LOT of critics were mad (some calling it Don’t Watch It Darling), BUT I simply didn’t care b/c it was banal!