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.

Movie Review ~ The Water Man

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A boy sets out on a quest to save his ill mother by searching for a mythic figure said to have magical healing powers.

Stars: David Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Lonnie Chavis, Amiah Miller, Alfred Molina, Maria Bello

Director: David Oyelowo

Rated: PG

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It wasn’t that long ago I was talking about actors trying their hand at directing and how some take their time to move behind the scenes.  Robin Wright made her feature film debut with the small indie Land which was practically a one-woman show and now there’s David Oyelowo arriving with his own directorial unveiling.  While both have had formidable careers throughout the past four decades (Wright is actually entering her fifth), it’s interesting to see them both challenging themselves on their first time up to bat in the big leagues with material that mines detailed and emotionally taxing ground. 

Thankfully, the skill that has assisted the likes of Oyelowo in his impressive list of credits makes him an ideal match for The Water Man, a coming-of-age family drama with a bit of folklore magic thrown in for good measure.  Working from an original script by Emily A. Needell (also making her full-length debut after several shorts she wrote/directed received some attention), Oyelowo calls in a few favors to gather a cast with some credibility and lucks out in finding that all-important unicorn in films centered on children: young actors that can actually act without coming off cloying or who grow to be intolerable by the end.

Young Gunner (the warm and winning Lonnie Chavis) has found an outlet for his artistic energy and a retreat from a darkness looming in his home within the comic books he has been creating. Unprepared to accept his young mother (Rosario Dawson, Trance) is terminally ill with leukemia and unable to discuss his feelings with his retired military father (Oyelowo, Chaos Walking) recently back from a long stretch overseas, Gunner fixates on a legend in his small town that has piqued his curiosity.  The tale of The Water Man that supposedly lives in the forest has been passed down through generations but while some elements have changed, one has not: The Water Man can cure disease and stave off death. 

Convinced finding The Water Man will be the solution his mother desperately needs, Gunner teams up with Jo (Amiah Miller, War for the Planet of the Apes), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who he’s heard has firsthand knowledge of the mysterious figure.  At first reluctant to do anything to help this younger kind, teenage Jo strikes a bargain with Gunner to bring him to the man he seeks.  As Jo and Gunner head into the woods and begin an adventure that will put them in the way of various outdoor elements and challenges they couldn’t imagine, Gunner’s dad works with the local sheriff (Maria Bello, Prisoners) and an unkempt town historian (Alfred Molina, The Devil Has a Name) to find the children before they run into danger.

Though The Water Man is being billed as a film for families, I would caution parents to give this one a second thought before showing this to young and/or impressionable children until you’re able to have a discussion with them about its themes.  Needell’s script has a sweet and subtle way of going about talking on tough topics like impending grief and loss but those are ideas which could be hard to grasp for children too young.  For everyone else, Oyelowo’s film winds up to be a film with real spirit and an amiable charm that casts a warm glow over its brief run time. 

It would have been great to see the film’s final act match the strength of what had come before but the magic of Needell’s script can only cast a spell for so long.  When it breaks, it tends to create a vacuum that a number of other pieces of The Water Man begin to get sucked away into.  Suddenly, the performances feel a little wooden and everyone is trying too had to make their final emotions count and that doesn’t jive with the laid-back style that came naturally in the previous 75 minutes.  It should be said that Oyelowo ends the film right where he should and follows it with a well-done end credits sequence over which a song written and sung by his honey-voiced wife plays.

Not the type of film that lingers long in the memory, mostly because nearly everything about it feels like standard storytelling, just done better than most, The Water Man is short enough to fill your cup but not quite to overflowing.  If anything, it demonstrates that Oyelowo has taken much of what he’s learned as a respected craftsman in his field and applied that to his work as a freshman director.  It can come off at times like an artist up to bat for the first time, but this is a solid double for those playing at home.

The Silver Bullet ~ Lights Out (2016)

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Synopsis: A woman is haunted by a creature that only appears when the lights go out.

Release Date:  July 22, 2016

Thoughts: Boy, horror maestro James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) sure wants to keep your summer scary.  A month after the release of Wan’s The Conjuring 2 comes Lights Out, a Wan-produced feature length adaptation of a scary as all get out short film. I know that any trailer editor worth their salt can make even the lamest of fright flicks seem like a Grand Guignol spectacle of shrieks, but this first look at Lights Out sent a nice layer of shivers up and down my spine.  Starring Teresa Palmer (The Choice), Maria Bello (Prisoners), and Billy Burke (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), this one could be a nice bit of mid-summer frightening fun.

Movie Review ~ The 5th Wave

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Four waves of increasingly deadly alien attacks have left most of Earth decimated. Cassie is on the run, desperately trying to save her younger brother.

Stars: Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Alex Roe, Maria Bello, Maika Monroe, Liev Schreiber, Ron Livingston, Maggie Siff

Director: J Blakeson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: As is tradition, January is proving to be a rough month at the movies…which is largely why The 5th Wave is only the second movie I’ve seen in the theaters so far in this new year.  While it’s not as pretentiously terrible as the other movie I saw earlier in the month (Anomalisa…oy), the latest big screen first installment of a Young Adult trilogy of novels struggles to set itself apart from the numerous other (and better) page to screen adaptations.

Coming off like a Muppet Babies retelling of Independence Day, The 5th Wave is the first novel in Rick Yancey’s trilogy following the after effects of an alien invasion that leaves the world in ruins. An electromagnetic pulse has destroyed anything with a current or engine, a super strain of the bird flu, and a series of catastrophic earthquakes that yield gigantic, yes, waves, has trimmed the population down by the millions.  The screenplay by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), Akiva Goldsman (Winter’s Tale), and Jeff Pinkner (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) often feels more mature than the characters speaking the lines, but that winds up helping the film overall.

At the center of the mayhem is 16-year-old Cassie and her younger brother Sam (spoiler alert if you miss the first 15 minutes of the movie: the parents don’t make it…), left to fend for themselves against an alien race known as the Others who are taking steps to rid the planet of its inhabitants.  When Cassie and Sam are separated by the kind of “just missed the bus” moments that can only exist in fantasy movies, the siblings find themselves split into two separate plot threads.  One thread follows Cassie’s rocky journey to reunite with her brother and the other tracks Sam as he is recruited into an army of children trained to exterminate the alien species by a grumpy looking Liev Schrieber (Spotlight) and a heavily made up Maria Bello (Prisoners, who, it must be said, gets the biggest laugh of the movie thanks to a sight gag involving her red lipstick).  There are a few twists that aren’t hard to predict, though to its credit the film doesn’t expressly telegraph each and every move.

It’s the end of the world as she knows and she feels…ok?  Though the first 1/3 of the movie is decently paced and mildly involving, its biggest problem is its bored-looking star.  Using flared nostrils and expressive lips as a substitute for deep emotion, Chloë Grace Moretz (Carrie, Dark Shadows) saunters through the majority of the movie killing time and collecting her paycheck. She gets a few good tough chick moments but they are weakened by the film feeling obligated to give her googly eyes for a hunky piece of could-be-alien man meat (Alex Roe, filling the man-meat qualifications nicely).

I actually found myself more interested in the parallel storyline of a squad of teens and pre-teens going through basic training, though overall it’s given unfortunately short shrift in favor of more Moretz moments.  Led by Zombie (Nick Robinson, Jurassic World) alongside interesting but underdeveloped characters (like Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel and especially Maika Monroe, Labor Day), had the film focused solely on the squad, it may have found its footing easier when it rounds the corner into its final act.   A brief side note, I’m growing a bit weary seeing kids killing kids and being put into such deadly harm so parents, even though its based on a book your kids can pick up in their library, this easily earns it PG-13 thanks to several overly violent and disturbing passages.

As to the conclusion of the movie, it’s no secret that this is the first in a planned trilogy so there’s little resolution to offer by the end…making the previous two hours feel like a large set-up to sequels that may not happen should The 5th Wave get deep sixed at the box office.  My advice would be to wait until the second (or third, or fourth if they dare to split it into two movies) is released and catch The 5th Wave from the comfort of your own home.

The Silver Bullet ~ Demonic

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Synopsis: A police officer and a psychologist investigate the deaths of five people who were killed while trying to summon ghosts.

Release Date:  TBD 2015

Thoughts: Now I love a good demon/exorcism/scare film as much as the next easily entertained horror fan but even I have to draw the line somewhere.  So even though I enjoy the two leads of Demonic (Frank Grillo, The Purge: Anarchy and Maria Bello, Prisoners) I have to say that this looks like a big ‘ole stinker…made even more clear by a constantly shifting release date and the fact that it has next to no buzz in the US though it’s been released in foreign markets since the beginning of the year.  Likely to be found on some streaming service in the near future where you can opt out if the first act isn’t to your liking, it may be time for filmmakers to find new real estate where the haunted house film is concerned.

Movie Review ~ Prisoners

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Keller Dover’s daughter and her friend go missing, he takes matters into his own hands as the police pursue multiple leads and the pressure mounts. But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family?

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Terrance Howard, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, David Dastmalchian

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: R

Running Length: 146 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: When I reviewed the first trailer for Prisoners back in June I was mad.  I had reached my breaking point for trailers pushing the three minute mark that seemed to show the entire film, freely giving away plot twists and turns that I so enjoy discovering when I’m watching the entire film.  Seeing the trailer often before films these last few months I would always turn to my seat mate and say “They showed the ENTIRE movie!”…even when I was seeing a film solo.

Then I started reading more about the movie as it started to be screened at various film festivals and heard that there was more to this crime drama than the trailer was letting on.  As the film gathered steam (and award recognition) I began to hope that the buzz was true and Prisoners, with its impressive cast and dark plot details, was more than met the eye.  Could there be any secrets left unturned?

The answer was a resounding yes and Prisoners has now hurdled to the top of my Best of 2013 List (don’t worry, The Way Way Back…you are still going strong as my favorite film but you’re a different movie than Prisoners).  It’s not only one of the best, most satisfyingly intense films of the year but one of best crime dramas of the last decade…taking a place on the shelf next to L.A. Confidential and Zodiac.

The set-up of the film is exactly how the trailer opens, two young girls go missing on a drizzly Thanksgiving day in a modest suburban development.  While their families are lounging around suffering the effects of a filling turkey feast, someone has infiltrated this quiet neighborhood and now the girls have vanished.  These early scenes are played by the actors so casually and unassuming that we instantly know the relationship these neighbors have formed.  As the realization that the girls are missing grows, the film begins its vice grip on the audience, applying only light pressure as we watch Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables, The Wolverine), Maria Bello (Abduction), Viola Davis (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and Terrance Howard (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) begin their search as concerned parents before giving way to frantically tearing through the neighborhood to find their children.

The next character to be introduced is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, End of Watch) as he’s brought in to investigate a Winnebago that was seen in the vicinity, now ominously parked at a rest stop.  Inside is Alex Jones (Paul Dano, Looper, Being Flynn), who looks like the perfect suspect with his slightly off personality and big “I’m a creep” glasses.  Trouble is, with no girls found and no evidence in the Winnebago Alex is soon released back into the custody of his aunt (Melissa Leo, Oblivion, Olympus Has Fallen) only to be taken himself by Jackman’s survivalist father that isn’t satisfied with what the police have done to find the girls.

Now that’s about as much as the trailer shows you and it’s as much of the plot that I’m going to give away…because all of this happens in the first 40 minutes of the 2 ½ hour film…I know because I checked my watch wondering what would take up the remainder of the film.  Well, the turns the film takes and the secrets that are slowly revealed are explored fully, making Prisoners one of the rare films that gets more interesting the more you know about what’s going on.

More than anything, the film raises some questions about justice and how far we’ll go to get the answers that we want…which could make us no better than the criminals that are out there.  It’s not the most revolutionary question to ask an audience but the delivery is so skilled, detailed, and profound that it’s a punch to the gut when you consider the very real situation on hand in Prisoners.

The vice that keeps applying more pressure to the audience is given greater strength by a full battery of actors that push off any pre-conceived notions we have of them and let true characters shine through.  Jackman is always a dependable presence but he goes deeper with his tormented father than he ever has before, showing the blood and pain that hides below his exterior.  Davis and Howard work well both in tandem and solo as their characters have a moral bridge to cross that they may regret going over.  Bello is probably the least successful in her draft of the character, not ever being fully convincing as Jackman’s suddenly fragile wife.  Her performance has guts, true, but it left me wanting more.

For my money, the film belongs to Gyllenhaal.  After End of Watch, I wasn’t sure I could me more impressed with his work but he raises the bar on his own career with a nuanced and deeply etched detective that hates to be wrong and beats himself up for missing obvious clues.  Gyllenhaal fills his character with quirks and ticks that aren’t ever really explained and never go into “performance” mode.  He’s an actor that builds his character from the ground up and he’s made the wise choice to put a back-story in that only he knows and lets the audience try to figure out what makes him tick.  It’s a brilliant, haunting performance.

The whole film is a haunting experience, actually, and that’s thanks to not only the cast but director Denis Villeneuve excellent pace in handling Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) dense script.  Guzikowski has only written three scripts and is clearly someone to pay attention to.  Making maybe even more of an impact that the direction or script is the brilliant cinematography of Roger Deakins (Skyfall), giving the film even more complexity.  Though the film is largely shot in the grey gloom of winter, Deakins comes up with some incredibly vivid images that highlight the terror and the hidden darkness that plagues these two families, the detective that is desperate for clues, and an evil that’s not revealed in full until the final moments.

I know films of this nature can be hard for some people to take and if you’re one of those people I’m sure you’ll make the decision on your own if putting yourself through this intense experience is worth it.  I found the film to be practically flawless, achieving success on every level without making sacrifices.  There were genuine surprises that made me gasp and a denouement that felt justly earned…it’s not the punishing experience that so many of these films tend to drift toward but instead it emerges as a rewarding piece of filmmaking that will easily land the movie in prime awards consideration.

The Silver Bullet ~ Prisoners

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Synopsis: A Boston man kidnaps the person he suspects is behind the disappearance of his young daughter and her best friend.

Release Date:  September 20, 2013

Thoughts: Here’s the thing…the premise of Prisoners suggests a halfway decent flick that could provide some great opportunities if everything lines up like it should.  The problem I have so far with Prisoners is that the trailer gives away more than a few key plot points, leaving the viewer to wonder why they need to see the finished product.  With a starry cast that includes Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables), Jake Gyllenhaal (End of Watch), Viola Davis (Beautiful Creatures), and Melissa Leo (Oblivion) and Oscar-nominated director Denis Villeneuve making his English language debut this might be a modest hit…but man, think of what the movie could have been had you not known where it was headed!

The Silver Bullet ~ Grown Ups 2

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Synopsis: After moving his family back to his hometown to be with his friends and their kids, Lenny finds out that between old bullies, new bullies, schizo bus drivers, drunk cops on skis, and 400 costumed party crashers sometimes crazy follows you.

Release Date:  July 12, 2013

Thoughts: Grudgingly, I’ll admit that when I caught the original Grown Ups at a second-run movie theater I liked it more than I thought I would.  A few years later, I’m confident that I’m over these types of lame-brained comedies from lame-brains Adam Sandler, David Spade, and director Dennis Dugan (other stars Kevin James and Chris Rock get a pass…for now).  This summer releasing sequel looks like more of the same antics so chances are I’ll wait on this one to see if lightning can strike twice at the discount movie houses.