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
The Woman King
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.
There Will Be Blood
For my money, Paul Thomas Anderson’s never made a film that deserves less than an A-. He’s made more A+ movies, at three, than any other filmmaker. That kind of consistency makes him my favorite director, and though it’s not my favorite of his films, There Will Be Blood is the thing he’ll be most remembered for. It’s won the most Oscars, made the most lists, and found a place on the Sight and Sound list only five years after its 2007 release. This is his objective masterpiece, though I prefer the raucous Boogie Nights and the mysterious Master. It’s no surprise that a film this overwhelming and epic and ostentatiously important would receive the most critical acclaim. There Will Be Blood stomps around in its frontier setting and therefore can’t help but have something grand to say, set as it is in a grand environment. In his homage to the expanses of John Ford and the chilliness of Stanley Kubrick, PTA gets the most prestige-y of pictures checked off his resume.
The Right Stuff
The TV show For All Mankind posits that if the Soviets had gotten to the moon first, the shame of it would’ve kept the US competing in the Space Race long after the end of the Apollo program. Moon bases would’ve been established, rocketry would’ve continued to advance, NASA would’ve widened its reach to women and minorities, and we’d get to Mars. The technological leaps would’ve kept coming because the pure discovery of the thing isn’t enough to keep the money spigot open. National security interests, more than anything else, are what makes the dollars flow. The Right Stuff meticulously documents the way that the first stages of the Cold War are driven by the military and the raw masculine desire to come out on top, watching admiringly at the results produced by the sheer resources of the government and the derring-do of the cast. Phillip Kaufman’s three-hour-plus epic gets back to an exciting time in American life, one that feels like it was metaphorically elevating the citizenry as it was shooting the ‘best’ of us into the outer atmosphere. The Right Stuff also pokes fun at a period of repeated failures and humiliations that is aggressively sold to the public as a mythic adventure. Though it seems unlikely that anyone would call it the most imaginative or cinematic of any American film about space travel or the space program, Kaufman does produce a thorough depiction of the men of the Mercury program, their predecessors at Edwards Air Force Base, and what distinguished the two groups.
Shakespeare’s tale of paranoia and guilt gets a stylized adaptation in Justin Kurzel’s MacBeth. The Australian director, when he’s not doing the ultimate one-for-them with an Assassin’s Creed adaptation, is fascinated by contemporary monsters, as evidenced by his debut feature The Snowtown Murders about a serial killer and his latest, Nitram, about the Port Arthur mass shooting. In between, Kurzel made True History of the Kelly Gang, a period piece that both lionizes and undermines a 19th century Australian outlaw. Kurzel’s twin interests in violent extremity and curiosity about the people who commit those kinds of crimes make him well-suited for Macbeth, a play about an ostensibly good man who turns into a tyrant without much convincing. Starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard at high points of their respective careers, Kurzel’s Macbeth has all the ingredients for a top-notch adaptation.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
The films of Joel and Ethan Coen have a recurring set of themes, and over their almost 40 year career, those themes have been applied across all genres. They’ve arguably made the best comedy, the best film about a musician, the best Western, the best Hollywood satire, and the best small-time crime film of recent film history, and with The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Coen has made the best English-speaking Shakespeare adaptation, with only Akira Kurosawa’s Ran as competition. Without his brother, Joel Coen doesn’t miss a beat in a film that reaches objective perfection in scene after scene. This is an assemblage of actors, crew members, and creative contributors without peer, all working in sync under a director at the peak of his powers. The Tragedy of Macbeth represents the end of a wildly successful partnership, as Ethan Coen has reportedly moved into theater, but there’s no diminishing of what the viewer can expect when a film has the Coen name on it.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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