Movie Review (THE WOMAN KING)

THE WOMAN KING, starring Viola Davis in the title role, is beautifully filmed and well-acted from start to finish. Written and directed by Dana Stevens and Gina Prince-Bythewood, the movie takes place in 1823 in the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Ms. Davis plays General Nanisca, leader of an all-female group of warriors, the Agojie, who comprise the core of the story. In her influential role, Nanisca eventually persuades the Dahomey king, Ghezo, to forego participating in the slave trade with Europeans, including Portugese merchants. To follow through with this, King Ghezo prepares for war against the Oyo empire, a larger neighboring kingdom that has long been involved in trading enemy captives, such as Dahomey people, to slavers.

The movie’s primary focus is on Nanisca and Nawi (played by South African actress Thuso Mbedu), a strong-willed young woman who joins the Agojie after defying her father by refusing to marry men who would physically abuse her. She is befriended by a veteran warrior, Izogie (Lashana Lynch, a costar in 2019’s CAPTAIN MARVEL), who becomes like a mentor to Nawi. We viewers witness the young woman evolve into a mighty warrior while navigating an initially fraught relationship with General Nanisca.

Handsome Jordan Bolger plays the half Dahomey and half Caucasian (Portugese) Malik, a man involved with slave traders allied to the Oyo. Nawi first meets him in the jungle as he walks naked out of the water, having just bathed. She grabs his clothes right before they engage in conversation. This scene is filmed from the refreshing lens/perspective of the female gaze, where an attractive man is rendered vulnerable and an object of curiosity and desire by a leading female character, who remains clothed. He wears a metal cross around his neck, which Nawi looks at with curiosity. Malik offers the necklace to her but she drops it at his feet when she runs off upon hearing his companions approaching. The implications are rich in this scene, such as Nawi’s leaving Christian symbolism behind and returning to her home without seeming influenced by this Western religion and its values.

John Boyega as King Ghezo is, well, lovely. He stands tall, handsome, and stately, having come into his own in this role after playing the comparatively child-like Finn in three STAR WARS franchise sequels from 2015 to 2019. For a good while, I couldn’t figure out where I’d seen this actor before. He is so different here, transformed. Impressive.

I was fascinated with a certain supporting character who we see and hear from now and then throughout the movie, but never get to truly know. He is a feminine, cross dressing, probably gay man (and/or maybe a eunuch?), always gorgeously dressed and graceful in movements, who has some kind of attendant (go between?) role with King Ghezo and his wives. After looking up the cast on assorted sites, such as imdb, Wikipedia, and Google, I could not clearly match a name up for either the character or actor who plays him (except, possibly, “Ajahe” for the character). Anyway, his androgynous presence had me thinking of what are called “Two Spirits” in certain Native American tribes, gay and lesbian people that are not gender binary conforming but are given important, respected positions in their society. I found myself wishing for some brief exposition as to his role and presence close to the king and his wives, including his primary wife. That was a loose end in the narrative that left me feeling like the lovely, queer man was made to seem mainly decorative and mysterious even though, clearly, his presence was substantive and relevant. Ah, well.

Without giving anything away, I will say that we the audience are led to hope for a certain outcome between some characters. But, to the writer’s and director’s credit, this movie does not completely fall into formulaic, predictable plot patterns. And to the extent that it does, I found this acceptable and satisfying. The narrative moves along with a balanced mix of character development and intense action.

The portrayal of the Dahomey here glosses over historically just how steeped they were in enslaving people within their own kingdom. Apparently, they also committed human sacrifice, which is not shown or mentioned in this production. The movie is mostly fictionalized, albeit inspired by true events.

The landscape scenery is exquisite in places, the building sets of the Dahomey kingdom’s capital city beautiful in their mix of clean lines and solid earth tones. The costumes of the Dahomey and Oyo are all elegantly worn by people each stunning in their own way. Visually, THE WOMAN KING is a colorful, energetic feast, filled with compelling, interesting characters with whom I was happy to spend a little over two hours.

Movie Review (ESTEROS)

Like many people, I watch movies for various reasons in addition to being entertained. Over the past few years, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have spent a lot of time in my home streaming movies, many of them indies, including ones about gay-oriented love relationships. Recently, it grew crystal clear to me that the adolescent and young man parts of me, these each being who I once was so many years ago, long to witness positive, loving relationships between boys and young men. The physicality of sex as an aspect of that expression of love has been important to see, though prolonged, anatomically graphic detail are not needed. It is more about viewing a balance of warm affection and passion that matter to these younger parts of myself.

I spent my youth longing for, yet fearing and generally avoiding, emotionally-laden physical intimacy with other male peers, a deep-rooted issue stemming from an unstable childhood that I’ve been actively healing for a good while. My husband’s presence in my life since my early forties has been deeply helpful. But, another part of that healing process has been to watch tender, affirming movies about love between adolescent and twenty-something males. Less often, I have also found it satisfying to watch love stories about men older than that age cohort.

A movie in this category of affirming emotional and physical love between young males I most recently viewed is ESTEROS (released in 2016), a warm and thoughtful Argentinian production, directed by Papu Curotto. The story is a simple and beautiful narrative, encapsulated in just eighty-seven minutes. Filmed back and forth in present day and flashback scenes, the movie stars Ignacio Rogers as the adult Matias, Esteban Masturini (adult Jeronimo or “Jero”), Joaquin Parada (pubescent Matias), and Blas Finardi Niz (pubescent Jero). The footage of the two sets of actors seems almost equal, with probably a little more of it featuring the two main characters in adulthood.

After about ten to twelve years of absence from each other’s lives, previously best childhood friends Matias and Jero unexpectedly meet up in a small city, the name of it eluding me. Matias, who lives with his girlfriend, has recently returned to Argentina after having resided in Brazil with his parents since about aged thirteen. The family had left for there due to Matias’ father pursuing a major employment opportunity. Soon, the two young men figure out who the other is and resume their friendship. Sexual and romantic tension between them immediately returns, with Jero taking the lead on expressing this chemistry, as he had originally done when he was twelve or thirteen.

The natural playfulness and comfort between the two boy actors, Parada and Finardi Niz, immediately sets for us viewers a tone of believable pubescent innocence, curiosity, and slowly building passion. Their on-screen chemistry matches that of the young adults, Rogers and Masturini, and steadily builds in intensity at a graceful, credible pace. Pure cinematic alchemy gets created by these four principal personae and their excellent direction. The writing, which is quite simple but succinct and good, adds to this alchemy. None of these males ever seem to waver in screen presence and ability. They are all well supported by a solidly competent rest of the cast, although I admittedly didn’t feel the need to notice and care that much, due to the compelling power of the main four.

I would add that the fifth principal player or presence in ESTEROS (ESTUARIES in English) is the Argentinian countryside, particularly an area of estuaries that abut a farm owned by Jero’s parents. This is the summer getaway the boys go to and begin to explore their romantic feelings for each other, which Jero initiates between them one evening in a bedroom they share. The estuary water, accompanying mud, and wildlife, including verbal references to alligators (or crocodiles? I believe alligators), which we viewers never actually see, underscores the sense of intriguing, somewhat unpredictable, even scary sensuality flowing between Matias and Jero. The former is fearful and uncertain while the latter of the two is clearly more of an early bloomer with his sexual interest and confidence. Such is often the case between and among peers.

The movie’s predictable but believable love triangle is an added layer of tension between Jero’s readiness and Matias’ hesitancy. The latter’s girlfriend, Rochi (Renata Calmon) plays, sadly, an all-too-common, thankless role of unknowingly aiding him in trying to be completely heterosexual, which Matias is not and never was. Thankfully, her character is respectfully, sensitively written as having an intuitive sense that something is very much not right. Matias is not fully present and interested in her as he should be. And so a classic dance of intimacy unfolds, quite beautifully, with all players stepping along through their parts in a mix of relatable struggle and grace.

Mini Movie Review (BROS)

The movie BROS just happened to be newly available to stream for free, so I watched it. Billy Eichner stars as Bobby, an angry gay white guy who protects himself with cynicism and perpetual bachelorhood. Enter a love interest, Aaron (Luke Macfarlane), a handsome, muscular and macho lawyer who Bobby meets at a gay dance club. They seem as believable together as, say, combining mustard and peanut butter. The purposeful overacting, especially by Eichner, feels tiresome and annoying more than funny. And Eichner as Bobby can’t stop his righteous ranting, which quickly grows old. That all said, there are some humorous moments, such as an awkward orgy scene involving the two main characters and two other men. But, what had me laughing the most is a certain scene in a gym, and the one that immediately follows, where Bobby pretends to be macho by deepening his voice and talking like a “bro.”

Basically, the movie is often structured like a television sitcom, with a few scenes being quite funny and most seeming only slightly so or not at all. There is a sweet song performed towards the end by Eichner, which feels like a pleasant respite from the production’s intentionally forced, stilted, and inane dialogue. BROS is worth checking out for free, but I’m glad I didn’t pay to see a show that’s about eighty-five percent irritating drivel and maybe fifteen percent humorous and endearing.

Micro/Mini Movie Review (BURIED IN BARSTOW)

In BURIED IN BARSTOW, Angie Harmon stars as Hazel King, a kick ass woman with a dark past who owns and runs a diner outside of Vegas. She is beautiful, somewhat scratchy voiced, and entertaining in this new, trashy suspense drama on the Lifetime Movie Network. Her high heels, leather jacket, and form fitting pants add to the high camp factor.

Movie Review (THE AFTERMATH)

THE AFTERMATH (2019) is generally well-done and deeply moving in a few places, particularly a scene where Keira Knightley’s character plays “Clair de Lune” on a Steinway piano and becomes overcome with grief.

The cultural, political, and subsequent relational tensions between English military personnel with their spouses as one social group and German citizens as another are effectively explored in the movie. From there, the major theme/wider implications of navigating cultural and political differences towards finding shared or common threads within humanity come through in THE AFTERMATH, which is primarily a tender post World War II love story set in the fall and winter of 1945 Hamburg, Germany.

Alexander Skarsgard portrays a widowed German architect who is forced to host a married British couple, played by Keira Knightley and Jason Clarke. Clarke is Lewis Morgan, an Army colonel charged with assisting in the post bombing cleanup of Hamburg. The two have lost their young son a few years before. This leaves an emotional rift between them, creating the perfect situation for romantic intrigue to develop between the gorgeous, cultured, yet sad Stephen Lubert (Skarsgard) and Knightley’s lonely and grief-stricken Rachael Morgan.

I enjoyed the gradual build up of tension between characters in such stark back-drops of a bombed out city and a large, solid house filled with beautiful things. Like hollowed out and anguish-filled Hamburg, the pristine house the main characters inhabit also feels hollow and anguish-laden.

I’m not sure if this movie is particularly original and/or intellectually challenging or stimulating with any of its themes. However, it is generally pleasant and relaxing to watch, especially if you’re in the mood to view something that moves along while not being over-stimulating with too much visual busyness or details to remember and follow.

Mini Movie Review (THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING)

THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING is beautiful and poignant, exquisitely so I might add. The colorful visuals are lush and fun, expressions of rich, sensual imaginations. I often felt like I was watching a series of moving paintings. Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba play their roles fabulously, but the whole cast is terrific.

This movie is indeed a lovely, thoughtful adult riff on THE ARABIAN NIGHTS. I was moved to tears towards the end.

Djinns have long fascinated me since childhood. This is the most dynamic, compassionate, and sexy portrayal of a djinn that I’ve ever seen on screen.

Bravo to director George Miller and everyone else involved in the making of this cinema gem.

Mini Movie Review (Pasolini’s ARABIAN NIGHTS and THE DECAMERON) and Who I Personally Associate with Pasolini

I’ve been meaning for the longest time to watch some Pasolini movies, so I started with ARABIAN NIGHTS (1974) and THE DECAMERON (1971), which was by far the better of the two. I enjoyed the lush cinematography (especially in THE DECAMERON), costumes, and unvarnished sensuality the most about these two productions. THE DECAMERON contained more memorable humorous moments than ARABIAN NIGHTS did.

I intend to watch Pasolini’s productions of MEDEA (1969), starring Maria Callas, OEDIPUS REX (1967), and TEOREMA (1968) someday. I will probably eventually watch THE CANTERBURY TALES (1972) too. That will probably be enough for me with viewing Pasolini’s work. I think I’ll stay away from his sadistic final movie SALO (1975), which, some years ago, precipitated a mental breakdown of a young man I knew shortly after he’d watched it.

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) was an old flame of mine’s favorite filmmaker. I think he especially liked SALO, which he voluntarily referred to in at least two conversations with me, many years ago. In other respects, along the lines of why he seemed to enjoy the darker elements of Pasolini films, he also had some disturbingly warped views and tastes, such as a shameless pedophilia, which contributed to why I ultimately left him.

It’s interesting how watching some old movies can bring one to a different and/or enhanced perspective over memories of people, places, and situations.

Micro/Mini Movie Review (NOPE)

NOPE was the dope…until the hokey ending. I enjoyed the acting and found the four main characters interesting and likable. The movie’s cinematography was beautiful and there were some effectively creepy and suspenseful moments. Imagery and dialogue were often clever and creative. There was a lot of humor, much of it quite dark— all chuckle evoking. But, the very ending’s action and imagery did not match the quality of the rest of the production, leaving me with a deflated sense of “nope.” Ah, well.

Movie Review (I MISS YOU WHEN I SEE YOU)

Hong Kong-based film director Simon Chung’s I MISS YOU WHEN I SEE YOU (2018) riveted me from start to finish. Other than some early scenes set in Australia, the film takes place in Hong Kong. The narrative moves gracefully between flashbacks in secondary school and the present time, about eleven years later, of two best friends, Kevin Fong (Jun Li) and Jamie (Bryant Mak). Impressive acting and writing carries this tension-filled story along to an emotion-laden ending that left me feeling tired but relieved.

Kevin has long been in love with his best friend Jamie. He suffers from major depression to the point of him requiring psychiatric care at a residential facility. After Kevin leaves there, he and Jamie resume contact in Hong Kong. Thus begins a fraught process of reconnection between them, complicated by Jamie having a live-in girlfriend (Candy Cheung).

The film-work is purposefully uneven, juxtaposing harsh outdoor street lighting and claustrophobic indoor scenes with expansive and pleasant outside settings among trees and sky. I found myself longing for more of the latter, which intuitively made sense as the two main characters struggle to broaden and deepen their constricted lives. I the viewer felt effectively drawn into both their inner and outer emotional and sensory worlds.

Obviously and touchingly, this is a movie about the pursuit of true love between two men, one being the pursuer while the other is the avoider, made all the more complicated by the gay “taboo” element. But, on another level, this is a deeply moving screenplay about the challenge to reach a more genuine, meaningful state of existence. And that is what makes I MISS YOU WHEN I SEE YOU so humanly relatable, regardless of one’s gender or sexual orientation.