FlixChatter Review: The Last Duel (2021)

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I have a thing for Medieval stories. In fact, a few years ago, I was quite obsessed with the Wars of the Roses after seeing The White Queen miniseries. So when the first trailer of The Last Duel first came out, naturally I was intrigued! As a big fan of Gladiator, I know Ridley Scott can mount spectacular battle sequences so this is definitely right up his alley, but this time he tackles something that’s based on a true story. It’s worth noting that the film marks a reunion of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, both behind the scenes as screenwriters, as well as on screen as co-stars. The two besties collaborated with Nicole Holofcener in adapting Eric Jager’s 2004 book titled The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France. 

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For a film titled The Last Duel, obviously one expects a ton of gritty battle sequences and that is precisely what we get. The looks of the movie resembles to Scott’s 2010 Robin Hood with the steel gray tones that evokes a moody, atmospheric but also downright miserable feeling. Life was hard back then surely, with rampant bloody wars fought by power-hungry men. Jean de Carrouges (Damon) is always present figure in many of those wars–he’s the Medieval Jason Bourne with equal ferocity and fighting skills. On one of his rare off days, however, Jean meets Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the beautiful daughter of Sir Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker), a Norman lord who’s considered a traitor by some, as he’s gone against the French king in a few territorial conflicts. Given his financial troubles, marrying Marguerite would be beneficial as it comes with a rather sizable dowry which includes a desirable piece of land in Normandy.

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For a while Jean and Marguerite live a nice quiet life, that is until Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck) who somehow bears resentment towards Jean demands that he pays off his debt. Pierre sends his squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) to do his bidding, and soon Jacques practically becomes not only his party buddy but also his accountant. Despite having fought together in battles, there seems to be tension between Jean and Jacques, which only intensifies the more Jacques gains favors from Pierre.

The film’s title refers to the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history, which took place following Marguerite’s claim that Jacques had raped her while she was alone in her estate. Out of anger, Jean challenges Jacques to trial by combat despite King Charles VI court’s warning that if he loses, not only would he be killed but Marquerite would also be burned alive as his loss is considered that her accusation is false. As I mentioned before, life was hard back then, but it’s even harder for women in Medieval times. The Last Duel is perhaps the first big-budget, Medieval ‘Me-Too’ film with a woman’s story at the center and her narrative is what drives the main events throughout the film.

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The film is broken down into 3 chapters to show different viewpoints from the three main characters, starting with Jean, Jacques and lastly, Marguerite. The multiple-chapters concept itself is intriguing, as it potentially allows viewers to immerse themselves in the story. However, the execution can also become a distraction. The way Scott sets it up here, at its best, it enables me to analyze the story from different angles. For example, when we see the story told from Jean’s perspective, he paints himself as a good guy who’s victimized by Pierre and Jacques. But once we see Marguerite’s POV, it’s apparent he’s no saint and that his sense of righteousness and entitlement is what brings him and his wife into the mess they’re in.

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At its worst however, this verbose narrative style prolongs the film’s already bloated running time and becomes annoyingly-repetitive. It doesn’t help matters that the way the most horrific scene is filmed is seen twice!! It’s bad enough that I had to see a woman being brutalized, but I feel that the way the scene was directed lacks sensitivity as it ends up glorifying the perpetrator in the act. There’s that term ‘the female gaze’ and it would have really been beneficial having a woman’s influence in filming THAT scene, especially the second time that scene is shown, which is supposed to be viewed from Marguerite’s perspective. I really think the scene should’ve been ‘seen’ from her eyes… putting the audience in her shoes as she experiences such a heinous act done to her, but instead we see the perpetrator’s face in the throes of ecstasy, twice! From a director who’s been said to be a feminist-ally (after all he gave us Alien and Thelma & Louise), I expected more from him in this regard.

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In terms of performances, Jodie Comer is a a standout amongst the mostly-male cast. Having enjoyed seeing her in the Killing Eve series and in Free Guy recently, she displays a terrific range as a dramatic actress. She’s got such strong screen presence and has the nuance and subtleties as Marguerite endures not only her husband’s callous insensitivity, but also the rejection from her own mother-in-law and girlfriends for coming out about being raped. The script does a good job showing the impossible situation women in the Middle Ages found themselves in when it comes to sexuality and their own bodies.

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As for besties Damon and Affleck, I actually find their casting (and haircuts) a bit distracting here. The fact that the script makes Pierre so unfairly mean to Jean seems amusing given that they’re best friends. I’m glad Affleck didn’t end up playing Jacques as seeing the two duel to the death (Batman VS Bourne) would definitely take me out of the movie! It’s amusing to see Affleck as a comic relief of sort, it helps to have some moments of levity given the sense of dread surrounds the movie. As for Damon, his physical prowess is on display once again with all the fighting scenes he got to do. He still manages to make it believable that he could tackle someone bigger and 13 years his junior like Driver.

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Speaking of Adam Driver, the prolific actor is no stranger for playing unsympathetic characters, but he takes that despicable factor up a notch here. His Jacques is the kind of man who has a warped sense of morality and entitlement, someone who thinks that even doing something as horrible as taking a woman by force is completely justified. Even amongst a long list of terrible characters he’s portrayed, I think Jacques is right up there. In fact, as a big fan of his, I’d say his performance here just might cure me of my infatuation with him, ahah. Of course that is a testament to his strength as an actor and his screen presence is undeniable.

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In terms of action, I’d say the 82-year-old filmmaker’s still got it and his direction big battle scenes are perhaps the best in the business. All the war and fight scenes have such a high degree of realism—Scott and his DP Dariusz Wolski stage those scenes in such a visceral way. I remember the rush of the Germania battle sequence in the opening scene of Gladiator, with the horses galloping and soldiers clashing into each other on muddy grounds with swords/axes clanging. I felt the same way watching the battles in this one, down to the vicious, high-stakes climactic duel to the death that takes my breath away.

Given just how much armors these two guys put on, under lesser direction it’d be like seeing two giant tin cans whacking each other. But the fight scenes are dynamically-choreographed where you can really see what’s going on and they’re fused with real tension and suspense. The costumes, set pieces and locations all help create an authentic depiction of Medieval France. Harry Gregson-Williams‘s music perfectly complements the look and events in the film without overpowering it.

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What you won’t find authentic would be the accents. Most of the actors use whatever accent they want, only Comer and a few of the British supporting cast actually speak with British accents. Apparently Comer helped Affleck with his dialect, while Damon and Driver sound pretty much like themselves with a few ‘British sounding’ moments few and far between. To be fair though, all of the characters are French anyway so even if they ALL sound British, it still wouldn’t be authentic.

Overall, The Last Duel is a competently-made film, but I couldn’t really give it high marks for the main issues I’ve mentioned, which I think detracts from the progressive female-empowerment theme. If you’re a fan of Sir Ridley or any of the cast, I still highly recommend this one. For sure, the epic action sequences did not disappoint and truly lived up to its title.

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Have you seen THE LAST DUEL? Well, what did YOU think?

FlixChatter Review: NEWS OF THE WORLD (2020)

First, a confession: I’m not a big fan of Westerns. Yes, there have been some Western movies I liked, most notably The Big Country, The Magnificent Seven, 3:10 To Yuma, The Dark Valley (this last one is an Austrian Western!). But when I received a screener of this one, I was intrigued because of Tom Hanks in the lead role, and later I learned it’s his first Western.

Well, his first foray into the genre proved to be more of a drama than a shoot-em-up action, which I actually prefer. The film is set five years after the end of the Civil War in the late 1800s, a turbulent, dark period in America. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) is a Civil War veteran who now works as a news reader, traveling from town to town and charging a dime per person to read aloud from newspapers. Honestly I didn’t even know such a profession exist before I watched this movie. But what perfect casting, who doesn’t want Mr. Hanks to read news to you in the only way he can.

Capt. Kidd is about to move to another town after he read the news when he came across an overturned wagon, a lynched black man and a young white girl dressed in Native American clothing. He soon realized she’s a German native who had been taken by the Kiowa tribe and able to speak the language. It’s upon meeting the 10-year-old Johanna (German actress Helena Zengel) that the adventure began, as Kidd reluctantly agreed to deliver the girl to the only family she has left. But the hundreds-mile journey to San Antonio proved to be a rough and dangerous one, but provided ample time for the two of them to slowly bond.

I quite love a road movie when it’s done well and News of The World is a road-Western that makes the most of the two strong characters. Even though it’s mostly the two of them on screen for long periods of time, it’s never boring to me. There are a few shoot-em-ups up on a treacherous mountain region when the two were pursued by ex-Confederate soldiers-turned-hoodlums who wanted to purchase Johanna. The wilderness shootout was perhaps one of the few tense scenes in the film that’s also a key bonding moment for Kidd and Johanna. They also face more danger in their next stop when they encounter a radical gang who turns out to be in control of a small mining town. The gang leader obviously wants to keep outsiders out and feels threatened when Kidd disobeyed his orders to only read the news from his own ‘approved’ paper.

The quieter moments prove to be the most emotionally moving, such as when the two were trapped in a ferocious dust storm. The storm itself was remarkably filmed as it felt quite real, but it’s the moment when Kidd thought he’d lose Johanna forever that’s truly memorable. It’s a genuinely surprising moment that got me teared up, and the two actors’ performance truly brought the beautiful moment to life. Which brings me to the major strength of the film, which is the synergy between these two unlikely pairing. Hanks has always been a reliable actor, but it’s the now 12-year-old Zengel that’s the biggest surprise. She’s not only captivating to watch but she’s also able to match Hanks’ intensity and her taciturn role require her to act with her eyes and mannerism, which she pulled off beautifully.

It’s quite a departure for Paul Greengrass (who worked with Hanks in Captain Phillips) who’s known for his hand-held camera style in his action films. I’d say it’s a pretty restrained direction that works well for the story. There are slow moments in the movie, but it never felt tedious, which is a testament to the solid script Greengrass co-wrote with Luke Davies. Working with DP Dariusz Wolski, it’s a stunning film visually that made me wish I had seen this on the big screen. I also like James Newton Howard‘s reflective music that complements the vast open spaces of the American west.

This movie boasts one of the most memorable finale that closes the chapter of the two characters wonderfully. The themes of identity and sense of belonging, especially in regards to Johanna, are explored well here. It doesn’t pass judgment in regards to her dark past and how she ended up being a lost girl, but I feel like it presents the reality of that time period in an authentic way. I also love that in the end, that sense of belonging isn’t just confined to Johanna, but also to Capt. Kidd, and that’s what makes the ending so special.

Have you seen NEWS OF THE WORLD? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: The Martian (2015)

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It’s a testament of a truly good film when two weeks after I saw it I’m still thinking about it fondly and can’t wait to see it again. I mentioned in this post that I had been anticipating this film for a couple of reasons, but deep down I still wished it’d be good as I like Ridley Scott. Well, glad to report that the 77-year-old British thespian certainly still got it.

If the plot makes you think of Saving Private Ryan because it involves saving Matt Damon, well you wouldn’t be wrong, but the similarities pretty much end there. The film doesn’t waste much time to get to the part when Mark Watney is left alone in Mars following an accident that made his teammates presumed he’s killed. It turns out he survives the accident but that’s only the beginning of his journey being stranded in a desolate planet. The first act pretty much contains scenes of Watney dealing with the concept of surviving on whatever resources is left on the space station, as the next Mars mission would take at least four years.

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There are similarities to Gravity and Interstellar, but I think The Martian is a heck of a lot more entertaining than both. It’s an intelligent crowd pleaser that doesn’t dumb down the audience, but it also doesn’t bog us down with scientific mumbo jumbo or bludgeon us with over-sentimentality. Even the scenes in NASA with a terrific ensemble cast doesn’t feel at all boring or obligatory and has its share of amusing and fun moments. The emotional moments throughout the film feels natural and not at all manipulative, a testament to the shrewd script by Drew Goddard and Scott’s direction.

The whole concept of an astronaut growing potatoes inside a space station certainly make for some amusing and highly entertaining scenes. Whether it’s actually possible or not doesn’t really matter, and that’s what I find about this film. I find that I don’t pick apart the science as much as I did with say Interstellar, as I was completely invested in Watney’s journey from start to finish. It helps too that the script is really focused about the ‘bring him home’ storyline and keep it frill-free from unneccessary subplots.

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As for that ensemble cast, I’ll mention those who impressed me most, starting with Jeff Daniels as NASA chief Teddy Sanders. He made him memorable even though he’s not the most interesting characters. The same could be said with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong as two lead scientists tasked to help bring Watney home. Sean Bean is always great to watch but there is one particularly memorable scene involving a very famous fantasy trilogy that made his casting even more perfect. They actually have more to do in the film than Watney’s fellow team mates including Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie, though they are all pretty good in their roles. Donald Glover also has a brief but memorable role as a young genius astronomer who provides a key theory for the recovery mission. But the real star here is obviously Damon, who has the most screen time and most of his scenes are basically a one-man-show of him talking to the camera.

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The Martian looks phenomenal and has some breathtaking *aerial shots* by Dariusz Wolski of the red planet, shot in Wadi Rum, Jordan, which has a red-colored desert. That said, it’s not a style-over-substance film, in fact, it’s a story and character-driven piece, which is what every film should be. It must have been hellish for Watney to be stuck up there on his own, but thankfully, watching him being stuck there isn’t. The survival story is more akin to Tom Hanks’ Castaway, given the humorous tone and amazing survival skills of the protagonist. This is perhaps one of my favorite roles of Matt Damon, and he’s as likable and funny as he ever as astronaut Mark Watney.

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As with any survival story, there is an element of inspiration that make you appreciate what you have on earth, from profound things like spending time with your family to seemingly-trivial things like duct tape. But the film does it in such a droll and fun way, which seems to be faithful in terms to tone to Andy Weir‘s sci-fi novel, described by one book critic as “…sharp, funny and thrilling, with just the right amount of geekery” (per Wiki). I also love that The Martian is not dark and brooding despite the rather grim subject matter of a man being trapped alone in space. It’s also not nearly as violent as Scott’s other sci-fi film, apart from an earlier scene that definitely made me avert my eyes. This could very well be the most enjoyable theatrical experience from Ridley Scott since Gladiator, so yeah sir, we’re definitely entertained. And thanks for making another epic film that I can watch and appreciate for years to come.

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Have you seen The Martian? What did you think?