Review – Long Live The Queen. . . Er, King! (“The Woman King”)

This movie is based on the true story of the Agojie, the all-female African military regiment for the Kingdom of Dahomey. In turn, they were the inspiration for the Dora Milaje, the all-female warriors & security team for the MCU’s Black Panther movie. How about that!

Take the ferociousness of 300, the sweeping saga of Braveheart, the training practices of Spartacus, swap in a female hero, and you have this; a raw look at the power struggle between two warring kingdoms in 1823 Africa. The Dahomey is a smaller kingdom, beset by the larger, more vicious Oyo Empire, run by the brutal Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya). Fortunately, Dahomey has its own fierce General, Nanisca (Viola Davis), and her tribe of ruthless female warriors. Entering into this elite sorority is a newbie recruit, young Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) who wants to be part of the gang, too.

As her training begins (along with all the others), we learn of the inner secrets going on, like self-serving King Ghezo (John Boyega) who still believes in slave-trading his own people if it means a tidy profit. And one of his many wives, Shante (Jayme Lawson), has one eye on her husband, and the other on the throne. Meanwhile, the Oyo Empire demand their tribute and that’s where Nanisca decides enough is enough. As this taking place, two Portuguese slave traders, Santo & Malik (Hero Tiffin & Jordan Bolger), are trying to strike a deal with Ghezo.

Nawi finishes her training, thanks to the inspiration of veteran Agojie warriors, wise-cracking Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and serious-minded Amenza (Shiela Atim). And it’s a good thing, too, as the Dahomey go into bloody battle with the Oyo soon after. Will Nawi win the respect of Nanisca? Will the King sell out his kingdom? And how many times can Malik look like he’s gonna walk down a runway like a fashion model?

Dana Stevens (City of Angels, Safe Haven) has written a compelling narrative, with Nawi serving as our guide. It’s a compelling story, based on historical facts, but much of this movie is a contrived re-do of other films. Not to mention a flimsy and unconvincing second-act twist that adds nothing to the story and should have been jettisoned. However, it does give us a grand and moving showcase for these women who command the screen. Even at a lengthy 2hrs 15min, I wasn’t bored at all. Viola Davis gives another powerhouse performance and looks so totally ripped she could tear your heart out without even trying! But it’s Thuso Mbedu that steals this movie with her charm and innocence. . . until she wields a blood-soaked machete!

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard, Love & Basketball), the film does have some issues here and there with regard to its editing. Many scenes are cut too short and not allowed to breathe or continue to give you the full impact, and other times the transitions are choppy. And you need a good director to film those all-too-important fight & major battle scenes. Gina doesn’t back the camera up to let us see what’s happening in many critical fight scenes, a fatal flaw in her filmmaking. But where she does excel is the more intimate, personal scenes of the women bonding and acting one-on-one. Therein lies the movie’s strengths, along with the incredible acting from the entire cast.

**Now showing only in theaters

Widows (2018)

Remember the ABC-TV series, Good Girls? It was dramedy about three ordinary housewives forced to do illegal things after the girls rob a supermarket, not knowing it was from a local mobster. Taking it up a notch or two, this movie has murder, mayhem, robbery, and twists ‘n’ turns that you don’t see comin’.

We start with a robbery gone very bad and four deaths. Renowned thief & leader Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his three partners all die horribly after a botched robbery, leaving his Harry’s grieving wife, Veronica (Viola Davis), being threatened by crime boss Jamal Manning (Brain Tree Henry), who also happens to running for local Alderman against the super-corrupt Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Looks like the $2mil that Harry stole (and was consequently burned up) was for Jamal’s campaign, so Veronica is told to come up with that money. . . or else!

Veronica, armed with only sheer guts and Harry’s playbook/blueprints of a future heist, gets a crazy idea: Get the other widows of the other dead men to pull off this robbery with her. Widows Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and too-tall Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) are all-in, but not widow #4. While this is going on, the campaign nastiness and Veronica’s woes is increased with Jamal’s evil and dangerous brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), who has NO problems in killing anyone, anytime, anywhere.

Pretty soon Veronica, stone-cold and hardened, is taking over for her late hubby, calling the shots and meticulously planning the caper down to the smallest detail, even with contingency plans. But they need a driver after Veronica’s BFF and chauffeur got iced (Jatemme don’t play games), so in comes hard-core Belle (Cynthia Erivo), whose more than willing to play with the girls. Meanwhile, the Alderman race is heating between Jamal and Jack, with no love lost between these two, especially with corruption being their best friends.

The third act is by far the best with the robbery, its execution, and the after-effects. One thing is for certain, there are many scenes in this movie you don’t see coming. Thanks to the brilliant screenplay of director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl). I actually found myself not knowing what was going to happen next; a pleasant surprise! Starting off like a shotgun, the film does drift off into exposition-land in act two, dragging the tempo down, but the third act pops for a crisp, solid finish. The dialogue is fresh, smart, and has a punch to it.

And enough cannot be said about McQueen’s dazzling direction. As impressive as Scorsese, his use of the camera isn’t just “point ‘n’ shoot”, he uses clever tricks and nuances to balance the film and tell the story for you. One scene in particular stands-out: in one Steadi-cam shot we see Jack’s car leave a poverty-stricken poor neighborhood to the exquisite brownstones of his suburban estate, which is only a few blocks away. This is done in all one-take and from the car’s POV! Nice! Now, that’s filmmaking!

Then there’s Viola Davis, carrying the film with her firm commitment and countenance. Rodriguez, finally away from driving fast ‘n’ furious cars, really excels here, but it’s Debicki that shines with her ‘punching-bag’ persona that grows into a strong figure. And you DO NOT want to run into Kaluuya! His Jatemme is positively blood-curdling scary, a far cry from his Wakanda days! And let’s hear it Robert Duval, who makes any movie he’s in just that much better by sheer will of force. The man is a national treasure. 

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