Neverending Story

The Last Duel

by George Wolf and Hope Madden

Take a look at the list of screenwriters on The Last Duel, and one name jumps out at you. There beside Oscar-winning writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck is Oscar nominee Nicole Holofcener. All three, along with director Ridley Scott, are also listed as producers, and while this project may seem out of character for Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Please Give, Enough Said, Lovely & Amazing) her insight proves indispensable,

Based on the 2004 book by Eric Jager, the film chronicles events leading to the last officially recognized judicial duel in France, a 1386 trial by combat between knight Jean de Carrouges and squire Jacques Le Gris.

Carrouges (Damon) accused Le Gris (Adam Driver) of raping his wife Marguerite (Jamie Comer). Unsatisfied with the lenient decision handed down by Count Pierre d’Alencon (Affleck), Carrouges appealed directly to King Charles VI (Alex Lawther), where Carrouges threw down the challenge that Le Gris accepted. 

Scott presents the tale with exceptional craftsmanship and spectacle, getting big assists from Dariusz Wolski’s gritty, expansive cinematography and Michael Fentum’s detailed sound design.

This is a brooding, brutal, violent and sexually violent film, one that utilizes a Rashomon-style narrative to frame an often-debated moment in history around a centuries-old struggle that continues today.

Separated into three chapters, the film gives us the truth according to Carrouges, Le Gris, and then Marguerite, when the onscreen text holds a few extra beats on the phrase “the truth.” And while what changes with each new side of the story is vital, there’s equal importance to be found in the elements that don’t change.

One man’s crime is another’s entitlement, one man’s denial gets “the benefit of the clergy,” while one woman’s truth is disregarded among the power of men.

The ensemble cast is outstanding, led by Driver’s convincing cad, Damon’s gruff brute and Affeck’s delightful range as the shallow Count. But as Marguerite’s acerbic mother-in-law (a terrific Harriet Walter) dresses down her accusation with a pointed “You think you’re the only one?” Comer shoulders the courage that becomes the soul of the film. 

Her nuanced performance chapter to chapter tells us everything about the perspectives of the two men involved, and she carries Marguerite’s mindset with a weary bravery that depicts just how tiresome – even 600 years ago – it is to have to defend yourself after you’ve been raped.

It’s not just Comer, though. Scott’s camera lingers tellingly on the reactions of different women throughout the story as they silently respond to the charges.

Scott presents the climactic duel with the completely thrilling treatment it requires, but by then it’s clear why Holofcener’s contributions were so vital. As talented as Scott, Affleck and Damon are, making this film without the filmmaking perspective of an equally gifted woman would have amounted to more of the same: men telling us how rape is for women.

The Last Duel aims for more than just a gripping history lesson. It’s ultimately able to use that history to remind us that the way society treats women generally – and women’s sexuality specifically – has changed little since the freaking Middle Ages. 

Shame.

One Vision

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

by George Wolf

No matter what you thought of Justice League 1.0, the mere arrival of this “Snyder Cut” is fascinating on multiple levels.

It’s more than the Everest of fan service. There just isn’t any way Snyder’s DCEU epic – this version of it anyway – would exist without the Snyder/Whedon mashup mess of 2017.

It’s four freaking hours, people! You think Snyder’s gonna get that (and the extra millions for reshoots) without the whole hashtag campaign? But while the extended time and money giveth, they also taketh away, meaning that first JL debacle can take some ironic credit for all that’s better – and worse – about round two.

But it is indeed better.

More than anything, it’s a singular vision. The first was nothing if not a super-sized compromise, but this is Snyder unbound, no compromises. The 4:3 format is enriched with greatly improved CGI, specifically the “armor of scales” appearance of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), the underwater depths of Atlantis and the complete absence of Superman’s (Henry Cavill, again a perfect Clark Kent) distractingly altered upper lip.

The character development – as you would hope with this run time – is much more satisfying, especially with the two justice leaguers we know the least: Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).

And while truly important moments (Superman’s death and rebirth, for example) get the extra time they need to resonate, Snyder can still linger too long (those mini music videos, ugh) when he could be moving on.

Ben Affleck reminds you he’s a fine grizzled Batman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman gets more badass moments and fewer leering camera angels, and at its core, the basic plot remains the same. Steppenwolf is seeking to unite the three “mother boxes” that will conquer another world for his master Darkseid (voiced by Ray Porter). But with the nurturing of return characters and the welcome appearance of new ones (like Darkseid), the chaptered storytelling feels more natural and complete.

Yes it is dark and brooding, and this League may hold the mother lode of daddy issues, but it never becomes tedious. And while you can’t quite call it fun, it is super, and heroic, and sometimes thrilling.

The stinger (actually an epilogue)? It’s a humdinger (nothing rhymes with epilogue), one that will more than satisfy the die hards while setting a major hook for more justice, darkly served.

Strike a Pose

Justice League

by George Wolf

Fair or foul, each new superhero film release spurs a check of the scorecards: Marvel vs. DC. Last year, Wonder Woman finally put a solid check in the DC column, one that Justice League only leaves frustrated and alone.

Nearly every facet of the film not only betrays a few promising avenues left undeveloped, but also its basic superhero tenets that are bettered by similar films (including the underrated Batman v. Superman). These friends aren’t super, they’re awkwardly forced and often helpless against some distracting CGI.

Perhaps even more than superpowers, big screen heroes need memorable villains, and the newly formed Justice League offers none. Instead, they have Steppenwolf.

Steppenwolf is a mass of weak computer graphics (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), born to be wild but currently in search of the three “mother boxes” he needs to unleash “the end of worlds” and send everyone back to the Dark Ages.

With Superman (Henry Cavill) still dead, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit the surly Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the young Flash (Ezra Miller) and the brooding Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to join the cause.

They have the bodies. What they don’t have are characters worthy of investment.

Director Zack Snyder has them pose, trade overly dramatic declarations, and then do some additional posing while you may be checking your watch.

Comparisons to the first Avengers film are inevitable, especially with Joss Whedon on board as a co-writer, but Justice League just cannot get any resonance from the darker tone of the DC franchise. The push to be heavy and meaningful is an empty suit, despite well-meaning lip service to refugees and the importance of science.

Ironically, as the Marvel films continue to lean more comedic, the humorous moments in Justice League, usually courtesy of Miller and Mamoa, are among the film’s best. Rather than undercutting any dramatic tension, the humor here feels more logical and organic, similar to the highly effective funny bone in the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming.

And, with Gadot back on board, the difference in Wonder Woman through a male director’s lens is hard to miss. Yes, she gets some bad ass moments that she’s more than earned, but she also gets a more sexualized, less earnest presentation.

There are two extra “stinger” scenes to send you out discussing who the JL is fighting next, but perhaps the lasting impression of Justice League is just how behind-the-curve it all looks. Steppenwolf seems lifted from an old gaming commercial you might find on that VHS tape still lurking in your basement, while Cavill’s digitally-altered mouth (to remove a contractually obligated porn ‘stache he had during reshoots) sits there proudly like a new zit on prom night.

There is substance to be gleaned from DC, Wonder Woman was proof of that. But for now, Justice League is two tired steps back.

 





Cruel to be Kind

Live by Night

by George Wolf

The jury on Ben Affleck’s skills as a filmmaker came in about one and a half films ago. After Gone Baby Gone and halfway through The Town, it was clear this guy can direct. Argo hammered that point home but good. And don’t forget that Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting.

But after all that’s good about Live by Night, seeing Leonardo DiCaprio’s name in the producer credits instantly makes you wonder how much more effective he might have been in the lead role.

Instead, Affleck casts himself as Joe Coughlin, an “outlaw” in prohibition-era Boston who runs afoul of the local crime boss after getting cozy with the wrong dame (Sienna Miller). A few years and double-crosses later, Irish Joe is working Florida for the Italian mob, cornering the rum market and laying complicated groundwork for a sprawling casino.

Give Affleck credit for challenging himself with a big slice of genre filmmaking, and he comes close to pulling it off. In adapting the novel by Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone), Affleck pens a smart script that’s full of juicy twists, satisfying callbacks and requisite noir touchstones that never feel overdone (though the questionable voiceover pushes it). We also get consistently interesting characters brought to life by a stellar supporting cast. Through Brendan Gleeson and Zoe Saldana to Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning and beyond, we see soul after soul facing serious moral compromises, and, to the film’s detriment, all resonate more deeply than Affleck.

This is Joe’s journey, rife with sin, judgement, hypocrisy and redemption, but Affleck never makes Joe worthy of being the center of all this gravity. Though the character isn’t that far removed from the outlaw Affleck played effectively in The Town, his move to genre actor, classic jawline aside, is clearly unnatural.

The film often looks fantastic, with nifty period details, sweeping panoramas, nicely backlit interiors and exciting shootouts, but Affleck’s incessantly gradual pace eventually takes a toll. In reaching for a sweeping gangster saga, Affleck includes too much plodding exposition that makes the film’s just-over two hour running time feel a good bit longer.

Though Affleck makes sure his film pushes all the genre buttons, Live by Night ranks as an ambitious overreach, never quite finding the right mix to make it truly memorable.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 





Bottom Line Business

The Accountant

by Hope Madden

For a middling thriller, The Accountant offers a handful of worthy items.

Its central character Christian (Ben Affleck) is an unusual choice for a hero. He’s a mathematical genius on the autism spectrum whose youth was spent learning to function in society, and developing mad mercenary skills. Why the second? Never really clear.

Affleck is a proven director. He doesn’t direct The Accountant, but recent roles suggest he’s become savvier with his acting choices as well. He seems to recognize what the rest of us have known for a while – he lacks range.

What better character for him, then, than a man who struggles to show the slightest emotion?

The film also boasts – much thanks to Affleck’s performance – humor. Rather than an amalgam of stereotypes and contrivances, Affleck’s bean counter comes off as a relatable human.

Another item of note: director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) choreographs the impeccable action sequences with the kind of clarity and efficiency that reflect the film’s protagonist. Even as that sounds potentially dull, the result is quite the opposite. These are some of the clearest and most interesting action pieces of the year, actually.

O’Connor’s direction and Affleck’s performance are subtle with Christian’s tics, focusing our attention instead on slight changes in the character that make him more provocative. By pairing him with Anna Kendrick’s corporate CPA Dana – a sweet, jovial type – O’Connor explores the social awkwardness in all of us.

Now for the problems.

These fall mostly to the script, penned by Bill Dubuque, whose triad of storylines climaxes in a clean and witty shootout. Too bad every intentional surprise has long-since been guessed, leaving only those inconsistencies in the plot that are probably not supposed to have been noticed, either.

Christian, drawn to puzzles and possessing a super human knack for math, often works with disreputable clients. He’s taken a legit client – a robotics firm that makes prosthetics for the medical industry. But this isn’t as it seems, and brings Christian in contact with a corporate hitman who wants him silenced.

Meanwhile, the Treasury Department is finally piecing together Christian’s whereabouts and may be onto him. Why now? Another mystery.

The criss-crossing, flash-backing, money-following and head-scratching don’t pay off because, at its core, the thriller is just exploiting a gimmick. But Affleck and O’Connor are not, which is why the film turns out as well as it does.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





The Darkest Knight

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

by George Wolf

Just how dark do you like your superheroes?

With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, director Zack Snyder battles his own penchant for excess while combining the Marvel formula of assembly with the damaged psyche of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. And while Snyder is dealing with a few less avengers, his film makes Nolan look downright drunk on human kindness.

Utilizing an ambitious script from Chris Terri (Argo) and David S. Goyer (all three of Nolan’s Batman films), Snyder is not shy with metaphor or message.  As spectacular events unfold in Metropolis and Gotham, we’re given an unflinching rumination on how 9/11 has changed us.

Terrorism, paranoia, torture, and toothless media are woven into more standard superhero tenets. This is a battle between God and man, and the film also has plenty of moments worthy of a classic Greek tragedy.

So there’s a lot going on here? Sometimes too much. Ideas are plentiful and often repeated, as are dream sequences and Snyder’s patented wide angle slow-motion set pieces. And really, do we need another ‘young Bruce Wayne watches his parents get shot’ sequence?

Speaking of Master Wayne…after all the uproar, Ben Affleck makes a fine caped crusader, as the hero’s square-jawed intensity fits perfectly into Affleck’s low-emotion comfort zone. The great Jeremy Irons brings some welcome badassed-ness to the role of Alfred, effortlessly stealing scenes and laying claim to the film’s most surprisingly interesting character.

In the other corner, Henry Cavill continues to impress as Clark Kent/Superman, finding a subtle nuance in the role that makes his ache for humanity ring true. Amy Adams gives us a Lois Lane that is smarter and sexier than ever, and her chemistry with Cavill brings a new depth to the iconic super couple.

To the delight of arch villain Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, over the top), the Dark Knight and Man of Steel finally come to blows, and it is glorious. In fact, their battle makes the film’s final act feel a bit superfluous, save for the cheer-inducing entrance of the new Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot).

The ironic twist to her slightly-more-appropriate-for-crime-fighting outfit is the instant reminder of just how masculine the entire superhero universe remains. Still, there is enough mystery here to hold out hope that Wonder Woman’s upcoming stand alone film will be one of overdue substance.

After the rubble finally settles, Dawn of Justice is just that, as we get glimpses of the other “meta-humans” that will take their places in the upcoming Justice League franchise. Batman v Superman wanders, but it’s enough of an epic to make following it worthwhile.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Crime Dramas For Your Queue

Butts did not fill seats when Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini’s small time mobster flick The Drop screened theatrically, which is a shame. But the film releases today for home consumption, so eat up, people! The two play cousins running a bar used to launder Chechan mob money, with Hardy adding layers and layers to a fascinating, maybe simple bartender. Shady characters, double crosses, symbolism and meager redemption keep your attention, plus there’s an incredibly cute dog. It’s worth a look.

The Drop writer Dennis Lehane has penned a number of Boston-based crime dramas, including Shutter Island and Mystic River, but the best of the bunch is Gone Baby Gone. The film that shocked us all with the knowledge that Ben Affleck is a genuinely talented director follows two private investigators working a missing kid case. Morally complicated, brilliantly filmed and boasting a career-best turn from Amy Ryan, this is a surprisingly great crime drama.





Real, Real Gone

Gone Girl

by Hope Madden

David Fincher makes a lot of good films, but in his best films, he seems to be having wicked fun. Such is the case with Gone Girl.

Don’t let the trailers fool you. This is not a dour whodunit tragedy. It’s a brightly crafted melodrama that embraces its pulpy center as lovingly as its razor sharp edges. Infused with acerbic wit and delivered with stellar performances, Gone Girl is an absorbing twist-and-turn-athon and a ton of fun.

Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, suspect #1 in the disappearance of his beautiful wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), and he’s never been better. That’s not such a strong statement, because in general his performances are blandly likeable, but here he’s able to channel his inner douchiness and it works wonders. He’s the exact mix of endearing everyman and disappointing schmuck the film needs to work.

But Pike is the reason to watch this movie. It’s easy to see why every heavy hitter in Hollywood – including the film’s producer Reese Witherspoon – banged on Fincher’s door in search of this role. Amy Dunne is a hell of a character and Rosamund Pike gives a hell of a performance – fluid enough to meet the high, constantly changing demands.

Fincher’s casting throughout is slyly wonderful, with unexpected faces in exactly the right roles. Tyler Perry is a hoot as Nick’s high-powered ambulance chaser and Neil Patrick Harris is just as unconventionally cast and just as enjoyably spot-on.

Fincher takes aim at current American culture – tragedy groupies, local law enforcement, the media and Nancy Grace-style “news” programs, in particular – and scores bull’s eyes every time. It gives the film an air of self-satisfaction, sure, but the barbs are so very precise and relevant that any smugness can be forgiven.

Fincher’s craft is on full display here, dreamily weaving multiple points of view and saturating the mystery with wit and tension. What feels stilted and flat in early scenes evolves into a series of “aha!” moments for viewers.

Gone Girl is not a heavy, thoughtful awards season drama. At its heart, it’s paperback trash, and in Fincher’s exceedingly capable hands, that’s all it needs to be to amount to a memorable, satisfying, constantly surprising movie.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 





Worthy of a White Flag

 

by George Wolf

 

From 1973 to 1998, Terrence Malick created a grand total of three films. He must be slamming down the energy drinks, because it just the last eight years, he’s finished three, with three more currently in post-production.

The latest release is To the Wonder, a sort of companion piece to the brilliant and beautiful The Tree of Life from 2011. This time, Malick’s mind is on the mysteries of love, both physical and spiritual.

Those who were perplexed by the abstract nature of The Tree of Life will be even more challenged by To The Wonder. Unlike Tree, it does not have a tangible narrative at its core, existing mainly as a series of exquisite montages undercut with whispers of philosophical dialogue.

Of course, writer/director Malick does have a philosophy degree from Harvard, so he’s in his element.

The film’s abstract centerpeice is the relationship of Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). They meet while Neil is traveling in Marina’s native Ukraine, eventually settling (along with her 10 year old daughter) in his home state of Oklahoma.

When things get rocky, she finds emotional comfort through Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest who has begun to question his own faith. As Neil and Marina pull farther from each other, Neil reconnects with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a girlfriend from years past.

Malick is often elusive, and it would be easy to dismiss To the Wonder as a beautifully filmed commercial for a dating service, as lovers playfully chase after one another,  romping in tall grass with adoration in their eyes.

Look deeper, and you’ll find a meditation on troubled souls struggling for spiritual fulfillment.  Affleck is rarely held in the frame and barely heard, suggesting his character may not represent flesh and blood at all, but rather a faith-based spirit with which the other characters are striving to bond.

Much like the love Malick is exploring, his film requires a certain amount of surrender. Though not the wondrous success The Tree of Life was, To the Wonder is worthy of a white flag.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





For Your Queue: Affleck Proves his Mettle as Director

After racking up several big wins this awards season, Argo has emerged as the favorite to win Best Picture this Sunday at the Academy Awards. If you didn’t catch it in theaters, you can bring it home this week on DVD, and you’ll be glad you did. The true story of how a CIA operative got six hostages out of Iran in 1979 by posing as a film producer, Argo is simply fantastic moviemaking.

Working with a smart, taut script by Chris Terrio, director Ben Affleck expertly layers political intrigue with Hollywood deal-making. He also crafts an effective period piece, with a sharp eye for details that not only recreate an important slice of history, but also foreshadow more recent international events.

Though you already know how it ends, Affleck infuses Argo with tension and urgency. Regardless of his perplexing snub in Oscar’s Best Director category this year, Affleck, after just three directing efforts, has emerged as one of the best in the business.

Honestly, he showed the skill right from his directing debut in Gone Baby Gone…

Four-year-old Amanda McCready has gone missing in one of Boston’s rougher neighborhoods. Not the neighborhood of Will Hunting and his buddies, because this is not Ben Affleck’s Oscar winning turn as screenwriter. This film is Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s first, hauntingly successful attempt at directing a feature film.

The director’s kid brother Casey, in fine form, plays a baby-faced PI working his neighborhood connections to find the girl as the mystery plays out among Boston’s nickel-and-dime drug dealers, mules, perverts and ex-cons.

Gone Baby Gone is a complex work examining place as an existential determiner, using setting as character, and plumbing the validity of conscience, all the while developing a disturbingly absorbing mystery. And though the mystery itself tailspins into something less than the story deserves, the final moments of the film remind the audience again of the craftsmanship that went into creating a film you may have missed back in 2007, but you need to see now.