“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

“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: “One False Move” (1992) starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams, & Michael Beach

There was no crime in Star City, Arkansas. No murder. And no fear. Until now. -A tagline for the movie

After a drug rip-off which involves 6 murders, the LAPD are on the hunt for a dangerous trio: a sadistic genius- Pluto (Michael Beach- best known for ER), his volatile former cellmate- Ray (Billy Bob Thornton- also co-wrote the screenplay)- and Ray’s 20ish gf- Fantasia (Cynda Williams). Evidence indicates that these fugitives are headed to the small town of Star City, Arkansas. Detectives Dud Cole (Jim Metzler) and John McFeely (Earl Billings) contact the local Chief of Police- Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton)- then head to Star City to continue their investigation. Dale, an energetic cop/family man, is excited by the chance to participate in a nationwide manhunt.

Can something from 1992 look fresh and unexpected (to modern/jaded eyes)? Every element is firing on ALL cylinders in this (lesser-known) indie film: acting, directing, editing, sound/music, sets/production design, costumes/hair, etc. I kept hearing about how great it was on movie podcasts, so decided to check it out (Amazon Prime). This is NOT a typical action/crime/drama, as it’s more interested in character development. None of the main ensemble is what he/she seems at 1st glance. I was a BIT surprised to see Paxton in a complicated role; he is perfectly cast and able to show his range. Thornton (sporting a few extra lbs. and rat-like ponytail) is an immature/sloppy/volatile villain; his trigger finger is itchy. Beach (pressed/polished) is a calm/calculated villain; he is more dangerous than his partner. Williams (who was married to Thornton: 1990-1992) is NOT the strongest of actors, BUT she does well here, being paired w/ seasoned actors. Like MANY women (incl. women of color), Williams didn’t have much of a career after her 20s. She is also known for her supporting role in Spike Lee’s ‘Mo Better Blues (playing a singer/one of the love interests of Denzel Washington’s character).

The issue of race adds another layer to the story. The director Carl Franklin (a former actor) is a Black man; I 1st heard of him in 1995 (when I saw another great neo noir- Devil in a Blue Dress– starring Washington). The racism depicted in this movie is casual/subtle. The contrast between life/values of the city vs. the small town/country are shown also. For those who want danger, I admit that I was on my the edge of my seat during several scenes. The tension builds… and builds… until the (emotionally powerful) climax! This film was considered “too violent” when it premiered at Sundance; it was produced by a company that makes movies that go direct to video. Luckily, One False Move did get a (limited) big screen release, after critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel spoke of its merits. Siskel put this movie as his fave of 1992; Ebert placed it in 2nd place- WOW! Some of you may recall that 1992 was an esp. strong year for movies; these are some titles: A Few Good Men, Damage, Howard’s End, Malcolm X, The Last of the Mohicans, and Unforgiven.

[1] The film starts off quite violently, but once it gets going, the emphasis is on good old fashioned character study.

[2] Franklin has a wonderful way with his camera, only revealing enough for us to fill in the blanks, and often his camera is used as a character POV device, with close ups and cuts blending seamlessly with mood of the story.

[3] The script deals with the themes of the contrast between the country and the city, racism, and the mask that many people wear to hide the complexities of their lives and their past. Somehow, all these themes come together in the most seamless and nuanced manner to enhance the poignancy of the film.

[4] I have seen this movie twice. The first time, for the whole movie I was on the edge of my seat. This was an intense film. From the extremely brutal beginning to the climatic end, I couldn’t relax once.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews