“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).

“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!

“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.

“The Bedford Incident” (1965) starring Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, James MacArthur, & Martin Balsam

The cold war just got hotter. -A tagline for the movie

Capt. Finlander: It’s been my experience with the press that they ignore truth for sensationalism.

Capt. Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) plays a hardened cold-warrior on the American Naval destroyer USS Bedford. Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) is a famous photojournalist given permission to interview the captain during a routine patrol. Lt. Cmdr. Chester Potter (Martin Balsam) comes with Munceford; he is the new doctor assigned to the ship. As they are adjusting to the ship, the Bedford discovers a Soviet sub nearby. Capt. Finlander begins a relentless pursuit, pushing his crew… perhaps to the breaking point!

Ben Munceford: I’ve heard a lot about you, Commodore, but I never expected I’d meet you.

Commodore Schrepke: Is that so?

Ben Munceford: Not aboard an American destroyer.

Commodore Schrepke: [Is] that so surprising in these times?

Ben Munceford: I guess not, if one can make the switch mentally. But I, uh… I still connect you with… Hitler’s navy.

Commodore Schrepke: Your pardon: Admiral Dönitz’s navy, sir.

This movie unites (real-life pals) Widmark and Poitier; they also worked on No Way Out (1950) and The Long Ships (1964). Poitier had been making films for 15 yrs at this time, BUT this was the 1st film in which his race was neither mentioned nor relevant. The role of the medical officer was written for Poitier, BUT he asked to play the journo instead. The former U-Boat commander onboard, Commodore Wolfgang Shrepke (Eric Portman- a Brit known for playing Germans), is a NATO advisor. The eager/cute Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur) MAY be familiar to some viewers; he played the older bro (Fritz) in the 1960 Disney classic- The Swiss Family Robinson. Look out for a 20-ish Donald Sutherland; he’s one of the nerdy scientists in the ship’s lab in an early scene.

Commodore Schrepke: That permission specifically said “if the sub is still in territorial waters,” is that not so?

Capt. Finlander: A matter of interpretation, Commodore.

Commodore Schrepke: But the Russian is in international waters. The ocean is free, my captain.

Capt. Finlander: Yeah, so it is.

Commodore Schrepke: So you have lost your opportunity. It was magnificent –

Capt. Finlander: Look, if I catch a man robbing my house and he makes a break for the street, do I let him go just because he made it to the sidewalk?

The director (James B. Harris) and screenwriter (James Poe) were able to visit a Navy destroyer in Norfolk, VA for pre-production research in late 1963. When Munceford and Lt. Cmdr. Potter are flying out to the destroyer, they are aboard an H-19 helicopter, which was called the Whirlwind by the British. Interior scenes were filmed aboard a British Type 15 frigate (the H.M.S. Troubridge); much British military equipment can seen around the ship. The cameras Munceford uses are the Nikon Model F and Pentax; the tape recorder he uses is a 1964 Philips EL3300 (the world’s 1st commercial compact cassette recorder).

I’m a long-time fan of Poitier and saw several of his more famous films growing up; he was a hero to MANY people (of all backgrounds) for his acting and activism. In the pandemic, I’ve been focusing on the noir genre; Widmark got his start there, though he later made many Westerns. I plan to watch and review more of this movies in the near future. I’m also a fan of the submarine drama Crimson Tide (1995) starring Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman. There are a LOT of sub-related movies out there; I recently listened to reviews of a few on the podcast Submersion.

Spoiler-Free Review: “The Last Duel” (2021) starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, & Ben Affleck

The film (based on a book by UCLA English prof Eric Jager) gets its title from the fact that the duel depicted was the last (judicially-sanctioned) trial by combat in France. Originally, two of the three writers of the project (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) were to play the two leading roles. However, Adam Driver took over from Affleck (as he had another movie to do), and Affleck stepped into a smaller/supporting role. The third screenwriter is Nicole Holofcener; she previously wrote Can You Every Forgive Me? (2018), Enough Said (2013), and Friends with Money (2006). Both Driver and British actress Jodie Comer (best known for Killing Eve) played a small role in Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019), although they didn’t share a scene.

The true story of a woman who defied a nation and made history. -Tagline for the film

On March13, 2020, production was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Filming in France was finished; the production had moved to Ireland. Director Ridley Scott had already filmed for 4 wks; he had 1 hr. completed. There was a (brief) time when it was in theaters (NOV 2021). Before its streaming release, I recall seeing the opening (7 mins.) on YouTube. The filmmakers were inspired by the structure of Akira Kurosawa’s Roshomon (1950); I saw that classic (1st time) a few mos. ago. The Last Duel was recently listed as one of former Pres. Obama’s Favorite Films of 2021.

This movie is divided into 3 chapters w/ shorter bookends depicting the duel. At this time, rape was NOT considered a crime against a woman, BUT a crime against a man (EX: her father or husband) as a violation of his property rights. The duel in this case is NOT about showing the men’s skill in fighting, it’s a process of trial and judgment. First, we see events from the POV of a knight- Jean de Carrouges (Damon); then from the POV of a squire- Jacques Le Gris (Driver); finally, the POV of Jean’s young wife- Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer). There are scenes depicting the Battle of Limoges (1370); the enemy are the Britons. The Black Death (and tragedies this plague caused) is mentioned. In 1377, the Jean and Jacques become vassals of Count Pierre d’Alencon (Affleck), one of the wealthiest barons in France and a cousin of King Charles VI.

Some have called this a “medieval #MeToo” story showing “toxic masculinity.” This is NOT for more sensitive viewers; there is strong language, nudity, violence (in various settings), sexual assault, and misogyny (reflective of the time depicted). The running time (2 hr. 32 mins.) could also be a turn-off for others, though it looks like movies (of ALL genres) are getting long these days. The duel takes up about 20 mins. of the story; it’s exciting, bloody, and V brutal. I was on the edge of my seat, as Jean and Jacques made (unexpected) moves at some moments. If you’ve seen Game of Thrones, then the fighting/action here won’t be shocking.

The acting and the dialogue are the main reasons to see this film, IF you haven’t been put-off by now! I thought that most of the actors did a fine job. The accents used are NOT all quite British; one viewer thought they sounded like those at a Renaissance fair (LOL)! I watched this movie mainly for Driver, as he is my (current) fave actor; he continues to impress (and NOT just w/ the muscles, which we see in one scene). Comer (tall, beautiful, strong, yet able to also be vulnerable) is the stand-out; she is under 30 (and deserves to have a big career). I don’t know why she wasn’t recognized w/ any awards! I think Damon is a good actor, though here his look is more modern than medieval. Many viewers complained re: Damon’s (mullet-like) hairstyle and the scar on one side of his face. Others thought Affleck was miscast. Affleck’s personal life has been in the media a LOT; this will (no doubt) influence viewers. I can’t forget veteran character actress Harriet Walter (Jean’s mother); she does V well w/ in her scenes.

The locations, settings (incl. real castles- V cool), wigs, costumes, armor, and ALL of the production design elements looked great to me. Of course, we’d expect the highest standards from a team working w/ Scott. I esp. liked the huge fireplaces, use of candlelight, and the capes/furs. When he has the shorter style, it’s Driver’s real hair; the longer hair is a lace-front wig. Costume designer Janty Yates said that 6 sets of armor (in different states of damage) were created for the duel- wow! Let me know what you think; I feel like this didn’t have a big audience.

[1] Ultimately a very well made, intelligent, highly original film with multiple layers and themes. Production values are excellent

[2] …this movie is dialogue-heavy. However, with credentials like “The Gladiator”, Ridley Scott did not disappoint with the climactic, long duel finale.

[3] …a movie for grown-ups that deserves a grown-up audience. Let’s hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews