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 ~ Bruised

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A disgraced MMA fighter finds redemption in the cage and the courage to face her demons when the son she had given up as an infant unexpectedly reenters her life.

Stars: Halle Berry, Adan Canto, Adriane Lenox, Sheila Atim, Danny Boyd Jr., Shamier Anderson, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Denny Dillon, Valentina Shevchenko, Lela Loren, Nikolai Nikolaeff

Director: Halle Berry

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  There are few actors working in Hollywood today that I find myself actively rooting for more than Halle Berry.  An actress that had long paid her dues in television and a run of forgettable features in the early ‘90s before becoming the first black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar in 2001 for Monster’s Ball, Berry has a knack for finding herself in terrible projects but coming out smelling like a rose.  I recently watched her in the 1996 stinker The Rich Man’s Wife and, aside from believably pulling off a character named Josie, she managed to elevate what should have been a TV movie of the week to something worthy of a cinematic release. A continuing role in the X-Men franchise has kept her afloat when the big swings don’t pan out, but Berry has never gotten back to that same level of promise she showed around that Oscar era.  I mean, the now 55 year old survived the disaster that was 2004’s Catwoman so she must have nine lives of her own.

One glance at Bruised may give the impression that Berry has found the exact kind of project that could be the significant comeback story she has been looking for.  As the director and star of this gritty story following a retired MMA fighter working her way back into the ring for personal redemption at the same time the son she gave up when he was a baby is left on her doorstep, the film’s logline reads like it was tailor-made for an actress with just the kind of gumption Berry has leagues of.  Even considering that Berry wasn’t the first choice for either role (originally, Nick Cassavetes was signed on to direct Blake Lively), her history as a dedicated MMA fan made her an ideal selection because she understood the sport, athletes, and sacrifice required. It doesn’t quite work out as planned…but, we’ll get to that.

Jackie Justice (Berry, The Call) used to be someone special in the brutal sport of MMA cage fighting until she lost her nerve and walked away from it all.  Years later she’s barely scraping by, working odd jobs she often loses due to her temper.  Living with her boyfriend (Adan Canto, X-Men: Days of Future Past) who wants her to get back into the ring, Jackie simply wants to forget that part of her life, but the past has a way of delivering a right hook when she least expects it.  That sly jab comes when the six-year-old son she abandoned as an infant is dropped off by her pill riddled mother (Adriane Lenox, The United States vs. Billie Holiday) in the middle of the night.  Refusing to speak after seeing his informant father gunned down, Manny (Danny Boyd, Jr.) was told his mother was dead so this woman before him, worked over by life, is difficult to accept.

With the added responsibility of a child to take care of, Jackie begins to clean up her act.  That means ridding her life of several of her addictions, both chemically and personally.  It takes a while for Michelle Rosenfarb’s script to get around to taking care of business and it’s one of Bruised’s drawbacks that the film moves slowly through several situations that should be more incidental than they wind up being.  Basically, it keeps us from meeting Jackie’s new trainer Buddhakan (Sheila Atim) for that much longer and that is just…not acceptable.  As it turns out, this is the most interesting character in the entire film and after we are introduced the viewer spends the rest of the film waiting for them to show up again.  It helps that Atim is such an electric presence onscreen that they could be playing a Bingo card and I’d want to watch them buy groceries.

That a secondary character moves into being the central character the viewer relates to speaks to another problem with Bruised.  Ostensibly the leading character is Jackie but for much of the film she’s so flimsy that it’s hard to find a way into her side of things.  Berry doesn’t help matters with a performance that’s overly earnest in the fight scenes and way too dialed back in the quieter moments.  If it’s worth anything, the scenes with Jackie and Manny or Buddhakan are the best of the best because it allows all three performers to shine the brightest.  There’s no question Berry is a gifted actress and once she has less to contend with in terms of moving pieces around her, she’s right on target. 

Built around a handful of fight sequences and trainings for the fight sequences, I was a little disappointed at how poorly filmed and edited the early scenes were and it didn’t give me a lot of confidence that the final match, what the entirety of the movie was building to, would be much better.  Surprisingly, while I often find these “grand finales” a little overwrought, Berry pulls out all the stops physically and as a director.  You can tell she wanted to get this section, out of all of them, correct and that quest for perfection shows. 

Like the central character, Bruised is often rough around the edges and needs some time to settle down and relax.  Once you get past the some of the scratchier elements that Berry can’t quite smooth out, there’s a fairly decent film to be found with several nicely tuned performances.  It’s not going to be Berry’s new calling card or a golden ticket back to the Oscars, but I think it will continue to open her up to new opportunities like this.  If anything, I was appreciative to be let into Berry’s MMA fandom through this dramatized story that finds occasional emotional resonance through its strongest supporting performances.