A 19th century African nation and its army of female warriors fends off a rival kingdom.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, and Lashana Lynch
Review by Jon Kissel
Of all the reasons Black Panther became such a dominant culture force, Afro-futurism played an important part. So much of Western life for a person of African descent is a reminder that only a handful of generations ago, one’s ancestors were enslaved or, in even more recent memory, were crushed under the boot of European colonialism. Envisioning a Black empire that’s strong and vibrant lets the viewer live in the counter-factual for a couple hours, where there’s a place untouched by imperialism and bursting with pride at its own world-beating accomplishments. The Woman King doesn’t have cutting-edge technology courtesy of a unique mineral deposit, but Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical epic does bring viewers to a period of African autonomy when small kingdoms on the Atlantic coast vied for territory and power. In one of these kingdoms, Prince-Bythewood uses an army of female warriors to tell her story of self-determination and vision. The Woman King takes the very American tradition of hagiographic cinematic history and gives it to someone else. It might not be strictly accurate, but what is? The Woman King’s greatest value comes from its locating of grand historical arcs in new places, where the story of Dahomey, like all civilizations, is pulled between its opportunities fulfilled and overlooked.
The best scene in Pig, one of 2021’s best films, finds a reclusive but still renowned chef played by Nicolas Cage sitting down in a molecular gastronomy restaurant. Cage’s character is not there to eat, but to find his titular pet, and he interrogates the restaurant’s chef about its whereabouts while also dissecting the chef’s career path. The chef used to dream of opening a cozy gastropub, but now he toils in a white-coat lab, serving foams and smokes to Portland’s status-obsessed and life-draining succubi. One year later, that character becomes the antagonist in The Menu, a film that was in production when audiences watched Pig. The Menu serves up a similar admiration for the service industry and a hatred towards those they serve, while adding on a hefty dose of black comedy and a continuous stream of reveals in one of 2022’s most delicious films.
Cinema as a propagandistic vehicle got a workout in 2022. Top Gun: Maverick venerated the US Navy and its fighter pilots, generating billions in box office and warm fuzzy feelings towards the most powerful military in the world doing whatever it wants, wherever it wants. The Woman King rebranded a West African slaver empire as a bastion of gender equality. RRR became one of the highest performing Indian films and the first in decades to break out with Western audiences, seducing them with a digestible anti-imperialist story while having a deeper read as a pitch for Hindu nationalism that runs counter to India’s secular founding. Whatever queasy political meaning one takes from these and other films (China’s also figured out how to push a nationalist agenda through action filmmaking), it’s impossible to take issue with the imagination and audaciousness of what gets onscreen, especially with S. S. Rajamouli’s RRR. In a rousing thrill ride, peak spectacle meets operatic storytelling in Rajamouli’s epic of Indian resistance to British rule.
Rick and Morty’s been cranking out episodes for years, and amidst its fast food cross-promotions and raunchy brand of science fiction, Dan Harmon and now-disgraced Justin Roiland have made the ur-multiverse text. They seem to be the only film/TV writers that are engaging with what it would mean if infinite possibilities existed and were within one’s grasp. Marvel’s attempts to do anything with the concept look shameful and pathetic next to Rick and Morty’s imagination. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, otherwise known as Daniels, come closest with their gonzo sci-fi epic Everything Everywhere All At Once, a film so packed with large- and small-scale ideas that if one’s not working, the viewer need only wait a minute for a new one to be introduced. This kitchen sink approach makes for a singular moviewatching experience, though the takeaway still comes off as less-than if the viewer’s head contains dozens of episodes of a portal-gun wielding scientist and his grandson cavorting through the multiverse.
Playwright/filmmaker brothers Martin and John Michael McDonagh have made eight films between them. In the best of them, John Michael’s Cavalry stars Brendan Gleeson as a version of Paul Schrader’s lonely man, the last decent priest during a period of maximal Irish disillusionment towards Catholicism. Martin’s experienced greater success with films like In Bruges and Three Billboards, but thanks to the brilliance of Cavalry, the superior comedy of John Michael’s The Guard, and an insistence on working on American-set films despite neither McDonagh doing their best work in the US, Martin’s been stuck in his brother’s shadow. With The Banshees of Inisherin, Martin’s finally made a film that matches his older brother by returning to the McDonagh’s ancestral home of Ireland. The bleak melancholy of the setting and the wry humor of the characters are a perfect mix in Martin’s best film to date. Despite its setting amidst the Irish Civil War, the McDonagh brothers need not fight against each other for supremacy. They can now lay claim to their own masterpieces.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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