Movie Review ~ The Woman King

The Facts:

Synopsis: 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.
Stars: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Adrienne Warren, Jordan Bolger
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Rated: R
Running Length: 135 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review:  At some point, much lauded and well-seasoned actors that have paid their dues in the business get to pick whatever projects they want to without apology.  That’s my thinking, at least.  Giving their all to studio pictures and independent productions over time, these actors have been through the Hollywood wringer of press tours and galas, awards shows, and far-flung media events.  So, when an actress like Meryl Streep chose to do Mamma Mia! and people were aghast, I was thrilled because it felt like a project she wanted to do, rather than one she felt she had to. 

Initially, I felt like Streep’s co-star in Doubt, Viola Davis, was taking a page from that same playbook with The Woman King.  The movie had all the makings of a passion project that allowed Davis another prestige run at the Best Actress Oscar while telling an important piece of world history.  Surrounded by an array of up-and-coming talent and helmed by a director who has more than paid her dues in the industry, the entire package has the essence of pre-destination toward one goal.  That kind of turned me away from it.  Originally.

Once again, it shows you just how much of an impact marketing has on the viewer.  Far more commercial than expected, The Woman King is rousing entertainment that hits the ground running and barely takes a breath over the next 135 minutes.  Oscar-winner Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) disappears into the role, dedicating herself physically and emotionally to the work.  Featuring terrific supporting performances you can engage with, this could be a word-of-mouth sleeper hit if enough people get to it early on and keep it in the conversation. 

A quick history lesson at the top of the film gives audiences the backstory of the Kingdom of Dahomey and its conflicts with the neighboring Oyo Empire.  With the Kingdom guaranteeing their survival by organizing their economic income around the Atlantic slave trade with the Europeans, there was much strife as they quickly grew in power, wealth, and status.  Protecting these resources were the Dahomey Amazons, the Agojie, which grew in strength and number after the males of their population fell to wars with the Oyo.

General Nanisca (Davis) is the respected leader of the Agojie, rising to a high rank as a trusted confidant and advisor to the King (John Boyega), encouraging many successful decisions that kept them secure.  She has concerns over the increased reliance on the slave trade, hoping to redirect the King’s attention to exporting goods available on their land instead of the people with families that could harvest it.  The Agojie must maintain their numbers and have just accepted a new batch of recruits that will need to train and pass a series of tests.  Among them is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a girl turned out of her house for refusing a pre-arranged marriage. 

Headstrong and fearless, Nawi would make a perfect Agojie if she could turn off her emotions as quickly as the others.  The more Nanisca and her two most revered second-in-commands, Izogie (Lashana Lynch, No Time to Die) and Amenza (Sheila Atim, Bruised), push Nawi to break away from the spirit that guides her, the harder she fights to retain her individuality.  With tensions rising between visiting Europeans hoping to broker better deals between Dahomey for enslaved people and the Oyo who want to move in on this business, the Agojie will band together to ward off those threatening their land as well as their family.

Bound to draw comparisons to semi-similar works such as Braveheart and Gladiator, in the end, The Woman King sits capably on a throne of its creation.  Screenwriters Maria Bello (an Oscar-nominated actress most recently seen in The Water Man) and Dana Stevens (who penned 1993 thriller Blink) did their homework, making an effort before the movie was even off the ground to ensure the film had accuracy and a valid point of view from which to speak.  They’ve partnered nicely with their star, who takes the leading role and surprises us again with the mastery of her craft.  Another transformative part she can add to her lengthy list of incredible roles, Davis charts the cracks Nanisca shows and how it begins to eat away at her ability to be the same leader she was in the past. 

Amplifying her performance is Mbedu as the headstrong newbie of the group.  Whether it was intimidating going toe-to-toe with Davis or not, it’s no small feat to swipe scenes out from under the more experienced star.  Yet Mbedu is fascinating to watch each time she’s on screen, learning internal truths about herself through her training and time with her Agojie sisters and conveying them outwardly to us in small ways.  You’d be hard-pressed to choose an MVP in The Woman King between Lynch and Atim; both offer beautifully realized different sides to the same coin flipping back and forth between Davis and Mbedu.  

If there’s one area where The Woman King struggles, it’s the male characters.  Every man is presented as an obstacle to some woman trying to get the job done.  This plot device is well-worn, and while Boyega (Breaking) fares the best, the rest are as crudely drawn as the woman finely etched.  That’s especially evident in Jordan Bolger’s storyline with Mbedu, adding a romantic subplot that feels like a concession for the studio instead of a fully realized development.  The sparks aren’t there between the actors (more Bolger’s fault than anything), and anytime they’re together, the film drags significantly.  

Prince-Bythewood is comfortable staging the movie, whether it be a large-scale action sequence or a more intimate moment shared between the women when they let their guards down.  These human passages give the film its best heart and set the stage for the battles that get more involved as you understand the Agojie better.  Once you have a warrior to root for, you track their every move and hope no harm comes to them.  A new, more realistic hero for a young generation to look up to (it’s PG-13 and astonishingly gruesome), the Agojie and The Woman King are getting ready to reign.

31 Days to Scare ~ Blink (1993)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Emma, a blind violinist who had recently undergone a revolutionary surgery, joins with a police detective to track a serial killer after she was an inadvertent witness to his latest crime.

Stars: Madeleine Stowe, Aidan Quinn, James Remar, Peter Friedman, Bruce A. Young, Laurie Metcalf

Director: Michael Apted

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: My review of 1993’s Blink has to begin with another sad lament that mid-range thrillers like these are no longer made. Throughout the ‘90s movies like this would be released every few weeks and while none of them were going for awards or even enormous box office, many became small gems that are perfect for revisiting even two decades later. I remember looking forward to this one for some time and making sure my dad (who also had a fondness for thrillers) had this on his radar as well. Even at the ripe age of 25, Blink holds up considerably well as a suspense yarn and boasts quite a few good performances and one terrific one.

A blind violinist (Madeline Stowe, Playing by Heart) has been without sight since a childhood accident plunged her into darkness. Independent and more than a little flawed herself, Emma undergoes an experimental surgery that restores her vision but has several side effects. The most troubling to overcome is a visual delay that causes her to see things long after they occurred – so blurry people that visited her in the hospital one day won’t register as clear faces until the next. It may sound like a condition created for the movie but it’s a very real thing.  When Emma’s neighbor is found dead, she realizes she may have “seen” the murderer and tries to convince the detective assigned to the case (Aidan Quinn, In Dreams). He has a hard time believing her when she proves to not be the most reliable of witnesses, eventually pitting her newfound and still shaky sight against a killer’s aim to eliminate the only witness to his crime. There are several twists to the story as it chugs along, including a love affair between the detective and the woman he’s supposed to protect and the true motives of the killer which gradually come to light.

Directed with skill by Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough) and bolstered innumerably by Stowe’s believably rough around the edges performance, Blink is a nifty little thriller with some strong suspenseful sequences. The screenplay by Dana Stevens doesn’t make Emma a perfect heroine, she’s a drinker who was emotionally and physically scarred by her mother and isn’t necessarily the victim people make her out to be. There’s some deep wounds here and Stowe navigates these tricky character nuances well. She’s nicely matched by Quinn and the two create more than believable chemistry (helps they already played a couple, albeit a troublesome one in 1987’s Stakeout). I also liked Peter Friedman (Single White Female) and Stowe’s doctor and even though I feel her part was majorly trimmed in the editing suite, Laurie Metcalf (Pacific Heights) is always a welcome presence.

Worth keeping your eyes open for, Blink is a strong reminder why we need these modestly budgeted thrillers to make a comeback. They are great for a rainy day or a stormy night!

The Silver Bullet ~ Safe Haven

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Synopsis: A young woman with a mysterious past lands in Southport, North Carolina where her bond with a widower forces her to confront the dark secret that haunts her

Release Date: February 14, 2013

Thoughts: You may be asking yourself…didn’t I already see this movie and wasn’t it called The Lucky One?  The answer is kinda yes and kinda no.  Last February saw the release of the Zac Efron movie adapted from a novel by Nicholas Sparks and one year later another Sparks romance is primed for release.  These are some of the most formulaic films ever made but the continued success at the box office makes them candy to studio executives targeting that elusive female movie goer.  After directing another Sparks adaptation (Dear John), director Lasse Hallström takes on another soapy Sparks story with the same cookie cutter people, places, and problems.