“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).

“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.

#Noirvember: “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995) starring Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, & Don Cheadle

In a world divided by black and white, Easy Rawlins is about to cross the line. -A tagline for the film

In 1948 in LA, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington), a Black WWII vet, is looking for work. At his friend Joppy’s bar, he’s introduced to a white man, DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), who is looking for someone to help him locating a missing white woman (perhaps hiding in the Black community). Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) is the fiancée of a wealthy “blue blood,” Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), the fave to become mayor. Daphne is known to frequent Black jazz clubs and spend time w/ a gangster- Frank Green. Easy accepts Albright’s offer; however, he soon finds himself amidst murder, crooked cops, ruthless politicians, and brutal hoods.

Easy: A man once told me that you step out of your door in the morning, and you are already in trouble. The only question is are you on top of that trouble or not?

I recently re-watched this movie (on Hulu). The source novel for this story is by Walter Mosely; the screenplay was written by Carl Franklin (who collaborated w/ Mosely). Jonathan Demme was the main producer of the the film; he’d directed Washington in Philadelphia (1993). At one point, Demme considered directing this film himself, but deferred to Franklin on the strength of his work on One False Move (1992). Washington also helped produce here; we fans know of his production company (Mundy Lane). The cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, also worked on Star Wars VI: A New Hope, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Sixth Sense. Elmer Bernstein (then in his 70s) composed the musical score- wow! Of course, the score is supplemented with jazz music from that era.

The 1st thing I noticed was the production design; it looks like we’re actually dropped into the late 1940s in the opening scene. We see period-accurate cars, humble/well-kept houses, and Black working-class people of all ages/shades/sizes. We learn (via a friend/neighbor) that Easy is one of the few Black men who owns a house and isn’t a private detective by training; I’d consider him a reluctant hero. Washington (in one of his rare “regular guy” roles) simply inhabits his (non-showy) character. Easy has charm and carries himself w/ dignity. Washington is also looking hot (and sometimes shirtless- wearing just a white tank, suspenders, and khaki dress pants).

Mouse: Easy – if you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?

Beals (5’8″) is NOT intimidated to go toe-to-toe (wearing heels- of course) w/ Washington. I thought she was dressed and made-up to look like Linda Darnell (an actress who appeared in several noir films). We can’t forget Easy’s friend- Mouse (Don Cheadle- in an early screen role)! The young actor (who trained in the theater) makes a great impression; Cheadle brings some (much needed) humor to the dark story. Sizemore creates an unapologetic/dangerous villain who enjoys causing fear and pain.

[1] Franklin’s greatest achievement here is the way he brings the period to life, albeit with a certain amount of nostalgic love for the idea.

Overall this is a solidly enjoyable detective story with all the twists and turns that you could expect from that genre. However, it also benefits from a great sense of place and time that is all through the film, not merely painted on with sets or soundtrack. A class act from Washington and others just adds to the feeling of quality.

[2] It can be argued that Beals as the titular femme fatale of the title is under written, but the character comes with an air of mystery that serves Franklin’s atmosphere very well. Tech credits are high, something of a given with Bernstein and Fujimoto on the list, while Washington turns in another classy show of subtlety and believability.

Lovers of film noir should get much rewards from Devil in a Blue Dress.

[3] The atmosphere is a major asset here; director Carl Franklin has done a magnificent job not only of recreating the Los Angeles of the late forties, but also of showing the story from the black perspective, a rarity in film. All the sights and sounds are there, and if you concentrate real hard you can even detect the smells, too. […] Fans of Washington should watch this, but really anyone who likes film noir will approve.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

#Noirvember: Films from Noir City DC (OCT 2022)

This year was my 2nd time attending the Noir City DC Film Festival at AFI Silver Theatre (here in my current neighborhood- Silver Spring, MD). I ended up seeing 3 movies- one of which I’d never watched before. During the 1st weekend, TMC’s Noir Alley host, Eddie Muller, introduced the films. I bought Eddie’s book on the behind-the-scenes story of Gun Crazy (1950).

All the King’s Men starring Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanna Dru, John Derek, & Mercedes McCambridge

Jack Burden (John Ireland) is a newspaper reporter who hears of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) when his editor sends him to Kanoma County to cover the man. What’s SO special about this “nobody” running for county treasurer? He’s supposedly an honest man! Burden discovers this to be true when he sees Willie delivering a speech and having his son pass out handbills, while local politicians intimidate him. Willie is honest and brave; he’s also a “hick” whose schoolteacher wife educated him at home. He loses the race for treasurer, BUT later makes his way through law school. He becomes an (idealistic) attorney who fights for what is good. Someone in the governor’s office remembers Willie, when they need a patsy to run against the govermor and split the vote of his rival. While these (wiser/experienced) political types underestimate Stark, Burden (who becomes Stark’s biggest supporter) overestimates the man’s idealism.

I’d never seen this movie before; it will esp. interest those of you who follow politics. Here we find some of the same themes as in A Face in the Crowd (1957)- a must-see for fans of classics. After living through the Trump presidency, you’ll (no doubt) find comparisons aplenty! The basis of this movie is a Pulitzer-winning novel, All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren; the book was loosely based on the life of a Louisiana politician- Huey Long. The screenwriter/director, Robert Rossen, also worked on Body and Soul (1947) and The Hustler (1961). Ireland reminded me a BIT of Henry Fonda w/ his looks. This is the 1st movie role for McCambridge; she makes a big impression as a tough/unapologetic political operator. Dru is NOT able to convey deep emotion, so in several moments, she dramatically turn away from the camera. Crawford, known for playing mostly “heavy” (tough guy) roles, seems to inhabit his role here. Both Crawford and McCambridge won Oscars for their work!

A Place in the Sun (1951) starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, & Shelley Winters

A chance meeting w/ his uncle after his father’s passing leads to George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) being caught in the middle of two worlds and NOT truly belonging in either one. The son of poor Christian missionaries, George meets his wealthy (paternal) uncle, Charles Eastman (Herbert Heyes), while working as a bellhop in his uncle’s hotel in Chicago. Wanting a better life for himself, George takes his uncle up on his offer for a job in one of the Eastman factories in California. Under his cousin Earl’s directive, George is placed on the factory assembly line. George sees this position as a stepping stone to something better, which he’s willing to work hard to achieve. Feeling lonely, George breaks the rule of no fraternization when he starts dating a fellow assembly-line worker, Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). Several months later, Mr. Eastman suddenly promotes George professionally and personally. Although he’s NOT used to high society, George is soon befriended by beautiful/young socialite, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor- then just 18 y.o.)

Quite a big audience was present to watch this film; it’s a classic and that stands the test of time. I watched it (w/ my family) as a kid. Mike Nichols said this film was his favorite; the filmmaker watched it 50+ times! Nichols noted that it also influenced how he directed his 1st movie- The Graduate (1967). The director of A Place in the Sun, George Stevens, was one of the most respected/prolific of his era. He came up through the Hollywood studio system, working as a stills photographer, then as a cinematographer. Stevens directed MANY critically-acclaimed/well-loved films, incl. Alice Adams (V early in Katharine Hepburn’s career), Woman of the Year (teaming up Spencer Tracy w/ Hepburn), The More the Merrier (a fun/early rom com), Shane (considered one of the best Westerns), and the epic family drama Giant (also w/ Taylor). The source novel for this movie, An American Tragedy, was written by Theodore Dreiser; it’s based on a true story. The book was adapted into a play by Patrick Kearney. The screenplay was written by Michael Wilson; he also worked on The Bridge on the River Kwai and Laurence of Arabia.

In 1991, this movie was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. One critic wrote that this film represents America, where people are NOT satisfied w/ what they have, BUT always looking for something better. Another critic pointed out the connection shown btwn social class and desirability. The costumes, set design, editing, music/sound, directing, and acting ALL combine to make this an effective (and affecting) story. The director makes some great choices, incl. those memorable close-ups of two of the hottest actors to appear in film. In one pivotal scene, George embraces and speaks reassuringly to Alice, BUT Clift’s body is hidden from the camera. When George and Angela interact, she is often shown in the power position (as a male love interest). Notice their embrace on the balcony, where Clift hunches down and enfolds himself tightly in Taylor’s arms. At the lake, Taylor is sitting up w/ Clift laying his head down in her lap. In the end, did you think that George was a victim of circumstance or a calculating villain?

He would discuss the scene, but not the lines, and would photograph the second or third rehearsal so the scene had an almost improvisatory quality. Stevens would print the first take, then spend the next three hours minutely rehearsing the scene, then film it again. He explained to me that in this way he often got actors’ unplanned reactions that were spontaneous and human and often exactly right. And often when actors overintellectualize or plan their reactions, they aren’t as good. -Winters, describing Stevens’ way of directing

…because Monty was the New York stage actor, and I felt very much the inadequate teenage Hollywood sort of puppet that had just worn pretty clothes and hadn’t really acted except with horses and dogs. -Taylor, on feeling intimidated to act w/ Clift (before they became the best of friends)

Body and Soul (1947) starring John Garfield & Lili Palmer

Charley Davis (John Garfield) wins an amateur boxing match and is hailed as a local wonder. He meets a young woman, Peg (Lili Palmer), the winner of a beauty pageant. Peg lives in the West Village of NYC and is studying to be painter. The young men of Charley’s Lower East Side (LES) neighborhood are mostly jobless; some are looking to make some quick money. Charley’s friend, Shorty (Joseph Pevney- later director of many eps of Star Trek), tries to get the attention of a boxing promoter, Quinn (William Conrad), when he comes to the local pool hall. Suddenly, Charley’s father is killed in a bombing of his small candy store! Charley’s mother, Anna (Anne Revere), is strongly opposed to him fighting; she wants him to continue w/ night school and become a “professional.” Instead of letting his mother sign-up for “relief” (the precursor to welfare), Charley gets Shorty to set up a fight through Quinn. Charley travels to many states and his career grows, as he keeps winning fights. When an unethical promoter, Roberts (Lloyd Gough), shows an interest in Charley, he finds himself faced w/ difficult choices.

This movie (directed by Robert Rossen) is considered to be the best of Garfield’s short/bright career; the screenplay was written by one of his childhood friends- Abraham Polonsky. This role fits Garfield like a (boxing) glove; he also produced the film. Revere (who is related to that Paul Revere) is perhaps NOT the 1st choice for a Jewish mother, BUT she does good in her role (as usual). Palmer (who is British) and Garfield have good romantic chemistry, BUT her (posh) accent is out of place in the gritty world of the LES. Canada Lee plays Ben, a Black boxer who fights Charley, then becomes one of his trainers/close pals. Lee gets a few meaty scenes (rare for this era for people of color in film); he mainly worked in theater. The cinematographer, James Wong Howe (Chinese-American), filmed the pivotal fight holding the camera while being pushed around the ring by an assistant on roller skates! Martin Scorsese saw this movie as a boy; its influences can be seen in Raging Bull (1980), as some viewers noted.

“Storm Warning” (1951) starring Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan, Doris Day, & Steve Cochran

On the way to a job, a NYC based model, Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers), decides to stop at a small town (Rock Point) to visit her sister, Lucy Rice (Doris Day), who she hasn’t seen in 2 yrs. She will be able to finally meet Lucy’s husband, Hank (Steve Cochran- a character actor who often played villains), who works at the local mill. Upon arriving in town, Marsha witnesses a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) murder! She saw two of the men’s faces (after they removed their hoods), BUT they didn’t see her. We soon learn that the man was Walter Adams, a reporter from out of town who’d been investigating the KKK. Upon later arriving at Lucy’s house, Marsha is shocked to see that Hank was one of the men involved in the murder! Marsha is speechless for a moment, wondering how she’ll break the news to her sister (who looks to be SO happy w/ her life). Meanwhile, the county prosecutor, Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan), knows that the KKK committed the murder. It seem that everyone in town is aware of this, BUT Rainey knows that none of the locals will come forward to implicate the KKK.

Sheriff Art Jaeger: Well, that’s all there is. I take orders. You give me an order, l’ll do it. You know anybody in Rock Point who will go to the inquest for you and testify against the Klan? Tell me, and l’ll bring ’em in. If you don’t, and you don’t, stop kicking my men around for not doing what you can’t do yourself.

Burt Rainey: I know. But every time someone from New York, Washington, or points north, starts poking his nose in our affairs, we holler foul. Well, if we don’t want the meddling, one of these days we’re gonna have to start cleaning up our own messes. You and me. All of us.

Warner Bros. wanted Lauren Bacall to star, but she’d decided to travel to the Belgian Congo (as it was then called) w/ her husband, Humphrey Bogart, who’d be making The African Queen (1951). This is Day’s first non-singing role. Joan Crawford was asked by studio boss Jack L. Warner to play the lead role; Crawford declined by saying: “Come on, Jack. No one would ever believe that I would have Doris Day for a sister!” LOL- too real! Alfred Hitchcock liked Day’s performance here so much that he asked her to act in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Day was V happy to work w/ Rogers; before Day’s success as a big band singer, she’d aspired to be a dancer (and Rogers was one of her childhood idols). The writers (Daniel Fuchs and Richard Brooks) were known for fine work; Brooks was nominated for 6 Oscars over his long career.

Burt Rainey: Nobody saw anything. Nobody heard anything. It’s a shame Adam’s body keeps getting in the way.

Walt Walters: I don’t know who’s the guiltier, the one who commits the crime or the one who just stands by and refuses to do anything about it.

Burt Rainey: Sometimes, I sit around for hours trying to figure that one out.

This is an (oddly) compelling film noir/melodrama that I saw recently for the 1st time (Amazon Prime). It’s playing during the Noir City DC film festival at AFI (in my neighborhood of Silver Spring, MD). Where is this town located: Midwest, Southwest, or South? None of the locals have a Southern accent. Christmas is coming soon, BUT there is no snow or Winter weather. There is no mention of race; the ONLY Black residents are seen in a crowd scene (blink and you’ll miss them). There are references to “safety” (incl. of women on the streets) and “outsiders” (who are looked upon w/ suspicion). Local lawmen and businessmen are fearful and complacent; they’ve put up w/ the KKK’s influence for yrs. The KKK is considered more of a criminal organization rather than a hate group.

[1] In many ways, this is a taut and excellent drama. BUT, it also pulls some of its punches. It’s VERY strange that there are no black folks as characters in the film–not even as the victim. Now I am NOT saying the KKK didn’t sometimes kill whites, but this was the exception to the rule and completely negates the whole racism angle. It’s sad, but the film seemed to want to play it safe by playing it that way. However, while Hollywood was very hesitant to address race…

[2] The Ku Klux Klan might have been the Elks in white sheets. No pun intended, but they get quite a white washing here. No mention at all of their racism or hatred of Catholics, Jews, and foreign born of all kinds. Still they are a nasty bunch who have a habit of doing in people who disagree with them.

Ronald Reagan here is a District Attorney who is bland in a very poorly written role. The problem with the Klan was that the various county District Attorneys in the South were more than likely Klan members, or who, at best, just looked the other way. After all, these cretins with the hoods were the very voters who put in the District Attorneys. When the Klan was prosecuted, if witnesses were found against it back in those days, it was always done at the federal level by appointed United States Attorneys.

[3] …this film isn’t very good as a history lesson… […] Storm Warning is still pretty entertaining and worth a look for anyone curious about how such subject matter was treated in an era of censorship and post-war political atmosphere.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews