The Last Duel

Posted on October 14, 2021 at 9:49 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense medieval combat violence, characters injured and killed, brutal rape, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 15, 2021

Copyright 20th Century 2021
“The Last Duel” is well-intentioned but ponderous and pretentious. It wants to be about the different perceptions of its three main characters, telling the same story three times. But for the viewer it is about the different perceptions of its actor-screenwriters, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and its director, Ridley Scott, who seem to be making different movies. The screenwriters wanted to tell a story about honor, truth, misogyny, and justice. Scott wanted to tell a story about medieval combat. You can tell from the title which side won.

Like the classic “Rashomon,” this is the story of a rape and a death told from three different points of view. Damon and Affleck wrote the segments of the two male characters in the story, and the third segment, the point of view of the woman involved, was written by indie writer-director Nicole Holofcener.

It is based on real historical events, the last officially recognized “judicial duel,” meaning a battle to the death to determine the outcome of a trial, fought in France. The duel was fought in 1386, based on the notion that God would not let the combatant telling the truth lose the fight.

At one point the two men were friends, but they were very different. Jean de Carrouges (Damon) was a knight (he gets very angry when his hard-won title is not recognized). He was extremely brave and firmly dedicated to his ideals of honor. We first see him disobeying orders and going into battle to prevent the slaughter of innocent citizens. He was not educated and could not read or write his name. After his wife and son died, he married Marguerite (Jodie Comer) the daughter of a wealthy but disgraced (for supporting the losing side in the war) man. She was well-educated and they were genuinely affectionate and devoted.

Squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) was well-educated in languages, literature, and numbers. He was something of a libertine, encouraged by his patron (Affleck), Pierre d’Alençon, a powerful nobleman, after Le Gris ingratiated himself by straightening out the books and collecting the back taxes.

Marguerite tells her husband that when he was away Le Gris came to their home and raped her. Rape, at the time, was not considered an assault on the woman but a crime against the man in her life. She was seen as his property and it was he who was damaged by the degrading attack. Marguerite is encouraged not to tell anyone by her mother-in-law, who admits that she was once raped as well. To accuse a man so close to the nobility is dangerous. But de Carrouges has courage in life as he does in battle and a sense of honor — plus some more personal grievances against Le Gris — that will not allow him to pretend it did not happen. He knows Le Gris’ patron will protect him, so he takes the case to the king. And that is what takes us back to the joust we glimpse at the beginning of the film. If de Carrouges wins, that means God has protected him for telling the truth. If Le Gris wins, then he will be deemed to have told the truth and Marguerite will be burned for falsely accusing him.

Scott does a great job with the combat scenes and special credit goes to DP Dariusz Wolski and especially to the sound crew for some of the all-time great clanky sounds as swords strike shields and armor. Unfortunately, the dialogue is even more clanky. Affleck and Damon, whose Bahston townie talk in “Good Will Hunting” was both believable and exceptionally sharp, have made the dialogue in this film heavy with clumsy exposition. The reiteration of the story does not add as much as it thinks it does, and ultimately becomes tedious and heavy-handed. And the hair and make-up may be based on historic styles, but Affleck, as the louche embodiment of white privilege, has a blonde surfer look while Damon has an unfortunate mullet that goes with his unfortunately superficial character. This is the second time in a row that he has tried to convince us he’s an uneducated person of limited experience and both movies suffer from his efforts.

Parents should know that this film has strong, bloody violence with medieval combat and disturbing and grisly images. There is some strong language, explicit sexual situations with nudity and a brutal rape, and alcohol.

Family discussion: Why does de Carrouges decide to believe Marguerite? Given the ideas at the time, was his mother right?

If you like this, try: “Gladiator”

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Needle in a Timestack

Posted on October 14, 2021 at 5:30 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and references to violence including an accidental death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 15, 2021

Copyright Lionsgate 2021
“Needle in a Timestack” has an intriguing twist on the time travel genre. Ever since the originals, from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to “The Time Machine” and up to “Back to the Future,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” “About Time,” and “Avengers: Endgame,” we almost always see time travel through the eyes of the travelers. The stories are about their goals, their discoveries, their impact. But in “Needle in a Timestack,” based on the story by Robert Silverberg, time travel is, unsurprisingly, extremely expensive, and thus available only to the very wealthy.

The main character is Nick (Leslie Odom, Jr.), and early in the film we see him at a meeting in his office, the boss and staff seated around a table in a conference room, and they are talking about ordinary business topics. But then something that looks like a virtual tsunami washes over the room. What is most surprising about it is that everyone acts as though it happens all the time. It turns out to be something like a temporal sonic boom, the backwash of some wealthy person’s time travel.

As we all know from concepts like “the butterfly effect” and many other time travel movies, the slightest difference a time traveler creates in the past can have enormous impact in the present day. Nick’s response to this evidence that someone has been tampering with time is to make sure that what he values most is still the same. And what he values most is his wife, Janine (Cynthia Erivo, and I cannot be the only person watching this film who wishes it was a musical, with both stars legendary Broadway singers). He calls her to make sure she is still the Janine he knows, the one who loves him and is committed to their life together.

There is a reason he is anxious about this. Nick and Janine were part of a group of friends in college, and Nick suspects that another member of the group, an extremely wealthy man named Tommy (Orlando Bloom), who was once married to Janine, may be using time travel to get her back, not by wooing her in the present but by preventing her from falling in love with Nick in the past. As science fiction writer David Brin says, time travel stories are all about “make it didn’t happen.”

Writer-director John Ridley gives the film a lived-in look. This is not one of those futuristic settings where everything is shiny and spotless and people wear clothes made of some fabric that has not been invented yet. Nick and Janine live in a world very much like the one we know and when we finally see how the time travel experience works, there are no fancy contraptions with spinning dials and Tesla coils. It is almost like a spa and its very ordinariness makes the story more intimate and compelling. The connection between Nick and Janine is powerful enough we think — and hope — it can survive any attempt to interfere with it. But it is clear that the tension caused by the risk of “didn’t happen” may have a destructive impact with or without Tommy’s involvement.

No one in science or fiction has figured out a way around the inevitable paradoxes of time travel, and this movie does not withstand too much attention to its internal logic. And some characters feel padded or distracting. But as a variation of Orpheus and Eurydice with some economic justice issues added in plus the electricity between the two stars (please put them in a musical together, please), its deep, unabashed romanticism makes it a worthy watch.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language, an off-screen accidental death, and some mature themes.

Family discussion: If you could go back in time, what would you do? What would you change? What do you think someone else would change that could affect your life?

If you like this, try: “About Time” and “Reminiscence”

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Middleburg Film Festival 2021: Belfast, Cyrano, Red Rocket, C’mon C’mon and Much More

Posted on October 13, 2021 at 2:02 pm

In just seven years Virginia’s Middleburg Film Festival, set in the fabulous Salamander Hotel, has become a great way to see the films we’ll be talking about all awards season and to talk to the people who created them. Sheila Johnson has made MFF one of the post prestigious and coveted places to premiere a film. Following a “hybrid” year with online access in 2020, the festival is back in person in gorgeous, gracious, Virginia hunt country, always spectacular in the fall.

I’ll be speaking in the “Talk Back to the Critics” panel again this year, with my friends Travis Hobson, Susan Wloszczyna, and Tim Gordon. And some of the films I’m most looking forward to are “Cyrano,” starring Peter Dinklage and two ready-for-stardom up-and-coming young actors, Hayley Bennett and Kelvin Harrion, Jr., Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical “Belfast,” “Red Rocket” from “Florida Project’s” Sean Baker, and “C’mon, C’mon” with Joaquin Phoenix. Stay tuned for more!

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Mass

Posted on October 7, 2021 at 5:09 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content and brief strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended references to murder/suicide, school shooting, parental grief
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 15, 2021
Date Released to DVD: January 10, 2022

Copyright Bleekeer Stelt 2021
Mass” takes its time letting us know what is happening and who we are watching. With his first film as writer and director, Franz Kranz begins by giving us a sense of place. We are in a church and a woman named Judy (Breeda Wool) is bustling around, a little anxious, a little apologetic, the kind of community-spirited, good-hearted soul that houses of worship rely on. A young man (Kagen Albright) is washing dishes, and we can see she is helping him by letting him help. Judy is preparing a room for some kind of event, fussing about what kind of refreshments should be provided and how the chairs should be arranged. Then Kendra (Michelle N. Carter) arrives. She is in some kind of official capacity, but it is still not clear what her role is.

And then two couples arrive. They are the ones the room has been prepared for. They greet each other cordially, but awkwardly. Linda (Ann Dowd) has brought a gift from her garden. She and Richard (Reed Birney) are somehow both together and not together. They exchange uncomfortable small talk about their children, indicating that there is some history between the four and yet they are not exactly friends and not exactly enemies.

The other couple is Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs). We slowly realize that what has brought them together is an incident of unspeakably tragic (and yet perpetual) violence.

Kranz has created distinctive, believable, complicated characters and the cast is one of the best ensembles of the year. Everyone grieves differently, and those differences can drive a wedge between couples or family members who do not understand each other’s way of mourning. We see all of that here, delicately but heart-wrenchingly delineated as the various social, performative layers fall off and there is nothing left but truth and the rawest of emotion. One moment shines through like a beacon as Gail admits her fear that if she lets go of anger and resentment she will lose the connection with the son who died. The conversation ranges from the mundane to the clinical to the most viseral pain, echoing the great Auden poem Musee de Beaux Arts, and it never feels less than real and vital.

Parents should know that this is a movie about devastating pain and loss with references to the murder of children and a suicide in a school shooting and to mental illness and its impact on a family. There is brief strong language.

Family discussion: How many different ways of grief do we see in this film? How many different kinds of forgiveness?

If you like this, try: “Elephant” and “Amish Grace”

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Trailer: Cyrano, Starring Peter Dinklage

Posted on October 7, 2021 at 9:56 am

This new version of the play about the man who can only woo the woman he loves through letters signed by someone else looks gorgeous, and swooningly romantic. For earlier versions, see Jose Ferrar in “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Steve Martin’s modern update, “Roxanne.”) Peter Dinklage has all of the dash and world-weariness we want to see in the character and up-and-coming stars Hayley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. look like they will cross over into well-deserved mega-stardom from this film. Can’t wait.

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