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.

American Dad

Stillwater

by Hope Madden

A couple weeks back, Nicolas Cage played a man desperate to reclaim a loved one that was lost to him, a man who might stop at nothing to do just that. His film Pig hit every beat of a John Wick or Taken, subverting the genre trappings to create one of the most beautiful films of 2021.

Matt Damon has not lost his beloved bovine, but in Stillwater, he leads a film equally bent on messing with audience expectations.

Damon plays Bill Baker, out-of-work oil rigger headed to Marseilles to see his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin). It’s not your ordinary visit, though. Allison has been in prison for five years for a very Amanda Knox type of incident.

What does Bill want? To get his little girl out of prison. What does he need? To prove himself to himself, and to the world, but most desperately to Allison. There is an aching humility undergirding this performance, giving it richness and tenderness. That humility alone is enough to separate Stillwater from other fathers-desperate-to-save-daughter films like Taken.

But co-writer/director Tom McCarthy does not stop there.

This filmmaker is hard to figure. McCarthy followed up his early indie treasures (The Station Agent and The Visitor among them) with the high profile, catastrophically terrible Adam Sandler movie The Cobbler. Bounced back pretty well, though, with his Oscar-winning Spotlight. Still, his filmography swings back and forth between masterpiece (he wrote Pixar’s Up) and misfire (he wrote Disney’s Million Dollar Arm).

Stillwater falls somewhere between.

The film opens with the threadbare premise of an earnest All American Dad taking justice in his own hands to save his daughter. It picks up that thriller storyline late in the second act with a jarring right turn you simply did not expect. In between, though, in what could easily feel like a self-indulgent side plot, is the real meat of the film.

Bill decides to stay semi-permanently in France, moving in with the French woman who’s willing to help translate and sleuth with him. While he’s drawn to Virginie (Camille Cottin), it’s really her 9-year-old (a fantastic Lilou Siauvaud) that draws him in. And here McCarthy—along with a team of writers, both American and French—betray the real theme of the film.

Stillwater is a tragedy about second chances. Its sloppy construction is both its downfall and its strong point. The film works against your expectations brilliantly to deliver a film that refuses to satisfy. The result is an often brilliant, ultimately unsatisfying work. And that seems to be the point.

Nice Guys Finish Last

Ford v Ferrari

by Matt Weiner

Director James Mangold has a knack for turning the comfortable biopic formula into something genuinely gripping, even when it’s not surprising. In the case of Ford v Ferrari, the film manages to be both.

Anchored by contrasting performances from Matt Damon as the legendary racer and auto engineer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as his prickly driver of choice Ken Miles, Ford v Ferrari condenses the staid American automaker’s quest to challenge Ferrari’s dominance in sports car racing as a way of injecting the company with a shot of glamor for younger car buyers.

The site chosen for that showdown is the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, a grueling endurance race that no American-made car had yet to win. Shelby previously notched a victory with an Aston Martin in 1959 before retiring as a driver due to health problems.

Although Shelby and Miles were accomplished designers and engineers, the story (by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller) uses a light touch when it comes to detailing the actual car building. There’s almost as much time spent in the boardroom as there is on the racetrack.

And the film is all the better for it, as the conflict turns out to be less about Ferrari and more between the misfits Shelby and Miles and the rigid executives at Ford. (The exception is Lee Iacocca, archly portrayed by Jon Bernthal as a budding Don Draper of Detroit.)

But Ford v Ferrari is still a racing movie, and Mangold delivers when the action moves onto the track. In fact he probably deserves extra credit for heightening the tension during a 24-hour endurance race. How many tea breaks were there in Days of Thunder?

There are also the requisite glimpses of danger (this is a biopic), but the script—and especially Bale’s giddy Miles—bring out the meditative joy as well. It hasn’t been this entertaining to hear Bale yell at people in his accent since Terminator Salvation.

Miles and Shelby get a bit of the tortured artist treatment, but just a bit. The film is after something that in its own small way is more subversive: the friendship, love and respect these men have for each other. (Yes, the focus is almost entirely on men, boys and their toys, but at least Caitriona Balfe gets to do more than sketch the faintest outlines of a long-suffering wife. Barely.)

The film builds to the race in France, but Mangold is in top form when he’s remixing and interrogating Americana, from country in Walk the Line to the western in Logan. Ford v Ferrari continues these reflections on our most storied icons, and the world-weary characters who must bear those burdens for the myth to survive.

The Screening Room: A Stocking Full of New Movies

Helping you separate naughty from nice with this weekend’s movie options, The Screening Room looks at Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Pitch Perfect 3, Downsizing, Darkest Hour, The Greatest Showman as well as your new options in home entertainment. Join us!

Listen to the full podcast HERE.





Let’s Get Small

Downsizing

by George Wolf

Word is, writer/director Alexander Payne has had the Downsizing idea for years, apparently waiting for when a satire of endless greed and unapologetic self-interest would feel the most relevant.

Good timing, then.

Payne, working with frequent co-writer Jim Taylor, returns to the political mindset he showcased so effectively in the classrooms of 1999’s Election. Here, their palette is a not-at-all distant future where science has come up with a solution for global sustainability: shrinkage!

By reducing people and communities to a ratio of 2.744 to 1, the potential for a guilt-free good life is off the charts! That sounds pretty great to Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), and a hilariously obnoxious info-mercial (Lauren Dern and Neal Patrick Harris, killing it) seals the deal.

Of course, it isn’t long before human potential meets human nature, familiar class systems develop and, as Paul’s smarmy neighbor (Jason Sudeikis) points out, getting small becomes more about saving yourself than saving the planet.

For three quarters of the film, the satirical slings and arrows find frequent marks, and layers deepen when Paul starts hanging with a crazy new neighbor (Christoph Waltz) and his cleaning lady (Hong Chau, in an award-worthy, film stealing performance).

Payne and Taylor aren’t as sure-footed when the satirical tone gives way to the absurd, or when a budding pretense makes the opening of a white man’s eyes feel a bit too heroic.

But while the scale of Downsizing is small, the film is thinking mighty big. The new world it envisions is engaging, with sharp comedy, unexpected turns and the keen observational structure to make it all impactful.





What We Do on Asgard

Thor: Ragnarok

by Hope Madden

What if the next Avengers movie was a laugh riot? A full-blown comedy—would you be OK with that?

The answer to that question has serious implications for your appreciation of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.

You’re familiar with Thor, his brother, his buddies, his hair. But how well do you know Waititi? Because he’s made a handful of really great movies you should see, chief among them What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Waititi’s films are charming and funny in that particularly New Zealand way, which is to say equal parts droll and silly. So a total goofus has made our latest superhero movie, is what I’m trying to tell you, and you’ll need to really embrace that to appreciate this film, because Thor: Ragnarok makes the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise seem dour and stiff.

There’s a real Thor movie in here somewhere. Thor (Chris Hemsworth and his abs) learns of his older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett—hela good casting!). Sure, Thor’s the God of Thunder, but Hela’s the Goddess of Death, so her return is not so welcome. But daaayumn, Cate Blanchett makes a kick-ass Goth chick.

Indeed, the film is lousy with female badasses. Tessa Thompson (Dear White People, Creed) proves her status by taking all comers, Thor and Hulk among them.

But can you get behind the idea of Hulk and dialog? Because he has dialog in this movie. Like whole conversations. Dude, I don’t know about that.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) returns, as does Idris Elba, so this is one bona fide handsome movie. Mark Ruffalo makes an appearance in a vintage Duran Duran tee shirt. It’s like Waititi thought to himself, how many of Hope’s crushes can we squeeze into one film?

One more! Jeff Goldblum (don’t judge me) joins as a charming and hysterical world leader. His banter with his second in command (Rachel House—so hilarious in Wilderpeople) is priceless.

Also very funny, Karl Urban (who brings a nice slap of comic timing to every bloated franchise he joins), Waititi himself (playing a creature made of rocks), and one outstanding cameo I won’t spoil.

Thor: Ragnarock lifts self-parody to goofy heights, and maybe that’s OK. There’s no question the film entertains. Does it add much to the canon? Well, let’s be honest, the Thor stand-alones are not the strongest in the Marvel universe.

You will laugh. You’ll want to hug this movie, it’s so adorable.

Unless you’re totally pissed about the whole thing, which is entirely possible.





Mighty Neighborly

Suburbicon

by George Wolf

Ah, the good old days.

In these turbulent times, who doesn’t long for a return to that simple life, when everything was just so peachy and America was…what’s that word? Great!

Suburbicon is hardly the first film to cast satirical aspersions onto idealized visions of 1950s Americana, but few have created such a biting bridge to the present while doing it. Just when you might think it’s being too obvious in its messaging, the powerhouse pedigrees of almost everyone involved remind you there must be something more at work here.

There is, something that’s often deliciously dark, twisted and satisfying.

The village of Suburbicon is peddled as the pinnacle of modern living for the upwardly mobile families of the 1950s. It’s a community proud of its diversity…until a black family moves in. Mr. and Mrs. Mayers (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) are careful to mind their own business, even as the angry crowd outside begins to grow.

Right next door to the new unwelcome neighbors, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), sister-in-law Margaret (also Julianne Moore) and son Nicky (Noah Jupe) are dealing with the consequences of a violent home invasion. An insurance claim follows, which brings a visit from an eager fraud investigator (a scene-stealing Oscar Isaac).

It’s a film loosely loosely built from the story of the first black family to live in a 1957 Pennsylvania suburb, as director George Clooney and frequent writing partner Grant Heslov resurrect a decades old script from the masterful Coen Brothers to mine both the ridiculous and the profane.

Connecting the Lodge and Mayers households only through the uneasy friendship of Nicky and young Andy Mayers (Tony Espinosa), we see the Suburbicon residents threatened not by the dangerous lunacy of their white neighbors, but by the mere existence of anything that disturbs their own privilege.

The eye for crisp detail that helped Clooney nab both writing and directing Oscar noms for Good Night, and Good Luck is on full display here, along with stellar performances from a standout ensemble.

But Clooney’s heart is on his sleeve as usual, and surrounding a tale of racial violence with such kitsch and exaggerated satire brings a danger of condescension that the film keeps at arm’s length through a commitment to its long game.

Beyond the tired metaphors of fences and observant children lies the point that this is the history so many want to “take America back” to, and it was far from great.





Just Another Brick

The Great Wall

by Hope Madden

You’ve seen the trailers for The Great Wall, right?

It looks terrible, doesn’t it?

It’s not.

It’s not good – let’s not get crazy. But I was expecting Warcraft bad – maybe worse – and The Great Wall is a borderline-passable piece of monster-laden eye candy.

Matt Damon plays William, a bow-for-hire who travels with a band of ne’er-do-wells into China seeking the legendary black powder.

Dreams of selling this weapon in the West keeps the Irish…Scottish…what kind of accent is Damon attempting?And why does it only show up in about 25% of the film?

Anyway, William and his mercenary friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal) must eventually surrender to the color-coordinated forces within The Great Wall – who actually have better things to do.

After that, director Yimou Zhang (House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern) does what he can to visually wow an audience and draw attention away from the leaden screenplay.

Zhang is a nearly unparalleled visual showman, and though Great Wall never approaches the style of his best efforts, the aesthetic will keep your attention and create wonder. Vivid color and rhythm drive a joyous spectacle of monster carnage once the CGI swarms come calling.

And then we’re back inside, with one-dimensional characters stumbling through obviousness about greed, trust and teamwork.

Zhang takes advantage of 3D as few filmmakers have. The approach rarely serves a larger purpose than to transport and amaze, but those who come to The Great Wall seeking a larger purpose should prepare for crushing disappointment.

The generally strong Damon struggles with more than the accent. Though glib humor enlivens several scenes with Pascal, the deadly serious tone the film takes and the broadly drawn characterizations of the Chinese warriors make chemistry or human drama impossible.

But damn, look at those hills and swirling bodies, the acrobatics of monster mayhem.

It may be that the only thing The Great Wall did right was to swap out director Edward Zwick (associated early in development with the film) for Zhang, because if you weren’t so distracted by how glorious this film looks, it might really be as bad as the trailers made it out to be.

Verdict-2-5-Stars





Bourne This Way

Jason Bourne

by George Wolf

If you’ve got some asses that need kicking, Christmas comes early this year. Jason Bourne is back, with a sack full of fuzzy memories and furious fists.

Star Matt Damon and director/co-writer Paul Greengrass return to the franchise after nearly ten years, trading some of the emotional depth of the previous films for a stab at new relevancy and two of the most effective action sequences of the entire series.

Since we left him at the end of Ultimatum, Bourne has basically been wandering the Earth like a violent Caine, grabbing cash in back alley fights across the globe. Old friend Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) tracks Bourne down to deliver more clues about his past, with CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), cyber division chief Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and the agency’s favorite assassin (Vincent Cassel) close behind.

Bourne’s search for his identity gave us a connection to the character that is now largely gone, and this film is anchored instead with what it calls “the great question of our time:” personal rights vs. public safety. Dewey’s new black ops program promises total cyber surveillance of the populace, even as he’s reminded that “computer privacy is freedom – you should think about defending it.”

Timely? You bet, but this layer isn’t explored as deeply as it could be, even as Bourne catches up with a whistleblower who is “worse than Snowden.” As it moves on to the next fistfight, the film sometimes feels like its running in place, content to feed the formula without a large chunk of the human element that drove it.

Still, this director/star tandem can run pretty well.

Damon’s brooding-yet-vulnerable intensity makes Bourne an effective anti-hero who’s easy to root for, and Greengrass is still a master of shaky cam tension. An early sniper showdown delivers sharp, hold-your-breath action, and the climactic car chase through the packed streets of Vegas is over-the-top spectacular, with a well-placed sign for self-parking becoming the exhale-inducing coup de grace.

It’s repetitive in spots, a bit ridiculous in others and slightly overlong, but Jason Bourne reclaims its legacy with a keen eye toward landing one last thrill before the theme park of summer shuts down.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





What Is the Meaning of Life?

The Zero Theorem

By Christie Robb

Director Terry Gilliam questions the meaning of life in The Zero Theorem, but instead of exploring the idea via Monty Python antics, Gilliam approaches the topic in a more Brazil-like satire.

Imagine Times Square having a three-way with CNN’s scrolling text and Facebook ads– a colorful chaos of noise, both aural and visual.

This is the world inhabited by Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a monkish data cruncher who speaks in the royal we. Qohen longs to escape the life of a cubical drone and work from home. He doesn’t want to miss a call-back. Years ago, someone cold called him dangling his personal reason for being. But Qohen dropped the receiver and the line disconnected.

Management, embodied by Matt Damon, grants his request, putting him on a notorious burnout project, the Zero Theorem, its goal to prove that everything adds up to nothing. If Qohen’s project succeeds, Management will help him get his call.

Sidetracked by Management’s constant, unrealistic deadlines, his former supervisor-turned-computer-repairman (David Thewlis), a company-provided AI shrink (Tilda Swinton), Management’s teenage hacker son Bob (Lucas Hedges), and a manic pixie call girl (Mélanie Thierry), Qohen is wooed back toward the little pleasures he’d abandoned.

Zero Theorem is an often beautiful, somewhat heavy-handed film that explores the extremes of hedonism and asceticism, the consequences of living among scads of information and the distractions of virtual reality. Studded with allegory and stuffed with zany Gilliam details that can only be fully explored in subsequent viewings (including a delightful ad for the Church of Batman the Redeemer), it derails a bit in the last act, but fans of Gilliam’s dystopian flicks will find much to enjoy.

Verdict-3-0-Stars