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Movie reviews: 'The Woman King' is a character-driven action epic steeped in Black history

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THE WOMAN KING: 4 STARS

“The Woman King,” is a ripped-from-the-history books story of fierce camaraderie, discipline and determination, starring Oscar-winner Viola Davis as a general in charge of all-female unit of warriors called the Agojie, who served as the inspiration for the “Black Panther’s” Dora Milaje warriors.

Set in the 1823 West African kingdom of Dahomey, the story begins as menace from white slave trader Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and nearby Oyo Empire, led by the ruthless Oda (Jimmy Odukoya), threaten the reign of King Ghezo (John Boyega). He can no longer rule by diplomacy and cleverness alone. “An evil is coming that threatens our kingdom, our freedom,” says the King, “But we have a weapon they are not prepared for.”

That weapon is the Agojie, a.k.a. the Dahomey Amazons. They are a generations-old fighting force led by a brilliant tactician and general Nanisca (Davis), with right-hands Amenza (Sheila Atim) and Izogie (Lashana Lynch). “We fear no one,” Nanisca says. “We fear no pain.”

Armed with blades, spears and unlimited fearlessness, the Agojie fight against the heavily armed Oyo, for their land, freedom and King. Any Oyo prisoners are sold off to the Europeans in return for weapons. Nanisca knows her King is complicit in the slave trade, and tries to convince him to stop human trafficking and replace the cash flow with the sale of palm oil. “The slave trade is the reason we prosper,” she says, “but it is a poison.”

Until the change, they must train a new batch of recruits, including the 19-year-old Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a rebellious woman offered to King Ghezo by her father. Brought into the Agojie by Izogie, the teenager finds a sisterhood with the group she has never known in her life.

“The Woman King” breathes the same air as 90s era action epics like “Braveheart” and “Gladiator.” Crowd-pleasers that mixed interesting characters with history, some humour, a bit of melodrama and fierce fight scenes. That may feel like a dash of déjà vu, but director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s story comes steeped in Black history, specifically female Black history, and characters that bring it to vivid life.

As the battle-scarred general Nanisca, Davis commands attention, balancing the character’s authority, resilience and battle prowess with a hidden vulnerability.

As Nawi, Thuso Mbedu steals every scene she is in with a combustible charisma that keeps her coming-of-age story compelling.

“The Woman King” is a character-driven epic, one that tempers the rousing action scenes — the audience I saw this with cheered for the Agojie — with powerful interpersonal relationships to keep us engaged. It feels like an old-fashioned action movie, but with a fresh and fascinating update.

MOONAGE DAYDREAM: 4 STARS

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Early on in “Moonage Daydream,” an impressionistic look at the life and work of iconic artist David Bowie, now playing in theatres, director Brett Morgen showcases a performance of “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud,” the B-side to Bowie’s breakthrough single “Space Oddity.”

“You’ll lose me,” he sings. “Though I’m always really free.”

It’s a deceptively simple line, written early on in Bowie’s career, that sums up everything that was to come. Bowie led one of the most eclectic show business careers of the last 60 years. He was a seeker, an artist whose work flirted with everything from mime and music, to acting and art. He occasionally lost track of commercial concerns, but, like the lyrics suggests, he was never less than a free thinker who valued artistic joy over fame.

Morgen’s film emphasizes the restless spirit that defined David Bowie, but don’t buy a ticket expecting a cradle-to-grave, “Behind the Music” style expose. There is no mention of Angela, his first wife, manager Tony Defries or the mountain of cocaine that decorated his nostrils in the 1970s.

Instead, Morgen has created an experience, a collage of sound and vision, that over the two-and-a-quarter-hour running time creates a portrait that doesn’t attempt to define the artist as much as it does to illuminate his ever-changing philosophical mindset. To achieve this Morgen mixes never-before-seen footage and performances, 40 remastered songs spanning the singer’s entire career and, as narration, excerpts from 50 years of Bowie interviews.

There are no talking heads or re-enactments, and neither is this one long music video. It’s an ephemeral collection of ideas and images about an enigmatic artist who once said, “I’ve never been sure of my personality. I’m a collector. I collect personalities and ideas.”

Fragmented and almost overwhelming in its sensory effect, “Moonage Daydream” is a compelling portrait with a solid intellectual underpinning, a philosophical edge and an emotional component for diehard Bowie fans. It also has a good beat and you can dance to it… most of it anyway.

CONFESS, FLETCH: 2 ½ STARS

 

Almost 40 years after Chevy Chase portrayed the smarty-pants investigative reporter Irwin M. Fletcher, aka Fletch, on the big screen, the character is back in action. The gumshoe, who, ironically, doesn’t like to wear shoes, is now played by John Hamm in “Confess, Fletch,” a murder mystery now playing in theatres and on VOD, that aims to reboot the franchise.

Based on Gregory Mcdonald’s 1976 book of the same name but set in the present day, the story begins as Fletch, who now lives in Italy with his wealthy girlfriend Angela (Lorenza Izzo), visits Boston to track down stolen paintings worth millions of dollars. On his first night in town, he returns to his swanky rented townhouse to find a dead woman in the living room.

He calls it in and immediately becomes a suspect, but being his usual unflappable self, he cracks a few jokes, and continues his search for the art, while also trying to clear his name. Complicating his investigation are the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race Detective Monroe (Roy Wood Jr.), germophobe art dealer Horan (Kyle MacLachlan) and a randy Countess (Marcia Gay Harden), who pronounces Fletch’s name as “Flesh.”

This is not your father’s cinematic “Fletch.” Gone are Chevy Chase’s disguises, slapstick and doubletakes. They’ve been replaced with a sardonic, dead pan, smart-alecky delivery that more closely resembles the tone of Mcdonald’s popular novels. In the back of a police car, for instance, murder suspect Fletch asks if they could go on a coffee run. “I’d kill for a macchiato,” he says. “Not literally!” That is the movie’s mood; it’s a flippant crime story that could have used a splash or two of Chase’s heightened irreverence.

Hamm’s slick performance feels like neither fish nor fowl. His, “I have a line for everything,” glibness wears thin early on. The film does have some funny moments—a conversation with a designer about the meaning of the word “bespoke” is laugh out loud—and it is a hoot to see Hamm and his old “Mad Men” co-star John Slattery, who plays a Boston newspaper editor, together again in their foul-mouthed and funny scenes, but Hamm doesn’t register as either serious or comedic. It is a bland performance from an award-winning dramatic actor and one whose comedic work on “30 Rock” was raucous and really funny.

Part of it is the script. “We obtained surveillance footage from a store around the corner,” says Slo-mo Monroe. “Where the fudge is made?” is Fletch’s comeback.

Part of it is the TV-movie-of-the-week feel. The murder mystery is less important than the characters, who are very broadly sketched, and that leaves the film stuck somewhere between first and second gear.

PEARL: 3 ½ STARS

A scene from ‘Pearl.’ (Courtesy of TIFF)

In “Pearl,” a new psychological horror film now playing in theatres, Mia Goth plays a young woman with a bad case of FOMO, a head full of dreams, and murderous thoughts.

Set in 1918, the outside world is suffering through the Spanish Flu pandemic and the First World War, but on the remote farm that Pearl (Goth) calls home, nothing ever happens. Her first-generation German immigrant mother (Tandi Wright) is a strict “be happy with what you have” type who truly believes life never turns out the way you hope it will. When she isn’t caring for her comatose father (Matthew Sunderland), Pearl dreams of being a dancer in the movies. “I’m special,” she says. “One day the world is going to know my name.”

Her husband Howard was supposed to take her away from the dreary farm life, but he went to war instead, leaving her behind. When she meets a “bohemian” film projectionist at the local Bijou, he encourages her to live out her dreams, but she feels bound to her parents. “If only they would just die,” she says.

When an audition comes up at the local church for a part in a dance revue, she sees a way out of her humdrum life, but what about her parents? “I will never let you leave the farm,” says her mother.

“Pearl” is a prequel of sorts to “X,” director Ti West’s previous film. That film starred Goth as Maxine, a 1970s adult entertainer who believes she is destined for a bigger and better life outside the strip club run by her boyfriend. When they concoct an idea to shoot a pornographic film, they choose a remote farm, one that STRONGLY resembles the farm in “Pearl.”

In both films, ambition and dreams blur to turn deadly, but you don’t need to have seen “X” to understand “Pearl.” Above all else, “Pearl” is a character study of a troubled young woman, anchored by a fearless performance from Goth. It’s work reminiscent of Anthony Perkins in “Psycho,” by way of director Douglas Sirk. Goth is both over-the-top and understated, switching from demur to wild-eyed to sympathetic with her malleable, expressive face. The last shot, a grin that will burn its memory in your brain, is not only a testament to Goth’s orthodontist, but also gives Conrad “the man who laughs” Veidt a toothy run for his money.

It is a remarkable performance—including a lengthy monologue that showcases all the various sides of Pearl’s personality—at the heart of this truly oddball and off-kilter examination of the push and pull between repression and the need for attention. Whereas “X” was a tribute to the slasher movies of the 1970s, this film has some brutal moments, but doesn’t have the scares. There are unpleasant moments, but this is an homage to the heightened melodramas of the 1950s and 60s. But with more axes, scarecrow sex and hungry alligators than Sirk could ever have imagined.

“Pearl” is being billed as a slasher, but it’s really a collage of styles with Goth as the glue that binds them together.



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