The Last Duel

At its core, the story The Last Duel tells is straightforward.  Set in France circa 1386, it concerns itself with three characters whose lives become fatefully intertwined: Carrouges (Matt Damon), Le Gris (Adam Driver), and Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the woman who both covet, albeit for vastly different reasons.  Based on our knowledge of other movies or television shows, one might comfortably assume that these three would comprise a standard love triangle.  As the movie progresses, however, any preconceived notions that the story will be romantic in any way, shape or form are thoroughly and decisively trounced.  

The Last Duel begins with an almost casual, unassuming tone, concerning itself with Carrouges and Le Gris fighting the good fight, as they are commanded to do.  A reckless action by Carrouges puts him on the outs with Count Pierre (Ben Affleck).  Le Gris, intelligent and ingratiating, strikes up a relationship with Pierre, who quickly becomes prosperous, often at the expense of his former friend Carrouges.  As the enmity between the two grows, the movie’s tone dramatically shifts from uncomfortable, then to brutal, ending with terrifying.  As a man in the audience, I likened the overall experience to being repeatedly punched in the gut.  I suspect women will be able to take solace (relief?) in how the movie ends, but the journey itself is long and arduous, regardless of your gender affiliation.

The movie clearly is a polemic, a categorization I don’t apply dismissively.  The Last Duel may be a tale involving medieval knights set in the fourteenth century, but it is also unequivocally (and unapologetically) a #MeTo story.  The movie serves as a pretext for the argument that the injustices on display in the movie have been endured by women for centuries, long before there was a hashtag associated with it.

Directed with gusto by Ridley Scott, scenes in the movie will certainly echo with those familiar with Gladiator.  As expected, there are scenes of snow-flecked battle vistas that work in spite of being poorly framed.  The scope of the battle gets lost among screams, sudden spurts of blood and clanging swords.  The hand-to-hand combat scenes are where Ridley excels, and the duel for which the movie gets its name is a tour de force.

The emotional and moral center in The Last Duel is Marguerite.  As acted by the incredibly capable Jodie Comer, she brings raw, emotional honesty to a character whose life is in the hands of men who are pigheaded, self-absorbed and deceitful by varying degrees.  Matt Damon fares well as human battle axe Carrouges, useful during a fight but simplistic and vacant in all other environments.  Adam Driver serves up oily charm as the opportunistic Le Gris, employing 

his intellect only to satisfy his desires.  Damon and Affleck’s portrayals are a bit heavy-handed and cartoonish.  Damon’s Carrouges is presented as thick-headed and prideful, and could have used more subtlety.  Affleck’s performance is geared towards comic relief, and comes across as a strange mashup of Jeremy Irons aristocratic drawl and John Malcovich debauchery.

At two-and-a-half hours, The Last Duel is an incredibly riveting and engrossing endurance test.  This is the rare movie that is completely unsparing towards its characters and its audience, forcing both to relive a brutal sexual assault in its entirety twice.  What the movie lacks subtlety it makes up for with an unsparing view of the reality for women, past and present.  Few movies set out to intentionally damage their audience, and this one definitely succeeds, dishing out a bloody nose and a black eye along the way (metaphorically speaking).  I’ve long since recovered from my wounds, but I suspect the resulting scars will never completely fade away.  Perhaps that’s a good thing.  Recommended.

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Halloween Kills

Halloween Kills is the second entry in a trilogy of Halloween that takes the 1978 movie as their starting point and pretends that all previous sequels don’t exist.  That bit of artistic amnesia is certainly warranted, as pretty much every sequel that followed the original movie only served to cheapen what is generally considered a horror classic.  Halloween (2018), the first movie in the trilogy, was definitely guilty of raided the closest of the original.  There’s a tense opening credit sequence featuring a pumpkin, John Carpenter’s iconic film score, copious throwback scenes and a convincing performance by Jamie Lee Curtis.  Most importantly, that movie had an interesting story to tell.  Specifically, what impact did Michael have on Laurie Strode’s life from that point on, and how did Laurie’s reaction to that trauma affect her family?

Picking up immediately after the action of the previous movie, Halloween Kills shows Laurie heading to the hospital while firetrucks head in the opposite direction.  Twelve movies into the Halloween franchise, we all know that Michael will survive certain death yet again.  What we don’t expect is for this sequel to squander all of the goodwill earned from the previous movie.  Since Laurie is confined to a hospital for the entire run length of the movie, filmmakers David Gordon Green and Danny McBride fill out the story with a collection of flashbacks and various residents of Haddonfield, Illinois.  The flashbacks don’t add anything to the story except to turn the younger version of Officer Hawkins into The Shakiest Gun in Haddonfield.  The townies are an interesting bunch, curiously well drawn for a slasher movie.  Frustratingly, all of them eventually become cannon fodder for Michael Myers and his endless supply of kitchen knives.

The last movie in the trilogy, Halloween Ends, is due to arrive next year.  That movie will undoubtedly feature the last confrontation between Laurie and Michael.  Until then, Halloween Kills passes the time, existing only as the equivalent of cinematic padding between episode one and episode three.  Aside from one surprising death at the very end of the movie, Halloween Kills is inconsequential, irrelevant and completely superfluous.  If you wish to save yourself 1:45, scroll down past the included YouTube video where I reveal the name of the character who dies.  You can make use of the time you’ve saved by rewatching the original.  Not Recommended.

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Midnight Mass

Mike Flanagan, the creative force behind The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, returns with Midnight Mass, a new limited series on Netflix.  Similar to his two previous series, Midnight Mass is a combination of earnest performances, thoughtful, introspective dialog and stealth horror elements.  This time around, Flanagan has decided to de-emphasize the scary stuff, and the result is incredibly underwhelming, to the point where the series should have been titled Tedium.

Unlike his previous two series, Flanagan declines to scare us and instead spends nearly all of its run time on a) dialog that would feel right at home in a Philosophy 101 class and b) Catholic religious practices.  I think it is the first horror series that feels like it was written for NPR.  While the acting is fine, and there are a few disturbing scenes here and there, the overall effect I got from watching it was an overwhelming urge to check how much time was left.  The only thing scary about Midnight Mass is how boring and self-satisfied it is.  Not recommended.

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No Time To Die

For the record, I’m a casual Bond fan.  How casual?  Of all the actors who’ve played Bond, the only one where I’ve seen all of their performances in the role is Daniel Craig.  I’m nearly there with Pierce Brosnan, but I have yet to see Goldeneye.  I’ve only seen a couple of Roger Moore’s movies.  The only Sean Connery movie I’ve seen is Never Say Never Again.  I’ve never gotten round to watching From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or The Spy Who Loved Me.  Maybe I’ll get caught up after I’ve retired.  The 007 movie canon is definitely on my bucket list.

Since No Time To Die is Craig’s finale, I want to say that I really enjoyed his turn as Bond.  Craig’s entries have eschewed the desire to become live-action cartoons, an impression I’ve had with the movies that preceded him.  The raw physicality he brought to the part, coupled with an almost pathological desire to confront mayhem head-on, made even his lesser entries watchable (I’m looking at you, Quantum of Solace and Spectre).

So how does No Time To Die stack up with the previous four Craig entries?  I’d put it behind Casino Royale and Skyfall, but above Quantum of Solace and Spectre.  The pluses outweigh the minuses, but those minuses are difficult to ignore.  There is a great Bond movie in No Time To Die, but it treads water in the last act, and overstays its welcome by at least thirty minutes.  The movie is watchable and enjoyable, though, and as a grade I’d give it a solid B.  Recommended.

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Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Venom: Let There Be Carnage is one of the best comic book movies I’ve seen.  There, I said it.  Damn me to hell, or force me to have breakfast with Venom.  How can I make this claim with a straight face?  Notice that I said “best comic book movie”.  Unlike the vast majority of superhero movies put out by Marvel and DC, Venom: Let There Be Carnage (a.k.a. Venom 2) isn’t striving to be taken seriously.  That doesn’t mean that the movie wasn’t created with skill, it certainly was.  Venom 2 has no pretenses about wanting to be mistaken for a great dramatic experience, filled with angst, paint, guilt and self-doubt intermixed with fistfights.  No, Venom 2 only wants to entertain you, and it succeeds so thoroughly I hope the other superhero movie factories take notes.  Highly Recommended.

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Malignant (long take)

Malignant is a combination of horror movie references, James Wan’s usual bag of tricks and other things that he likes thrown into a blender and pureed together.  The resulting mixture is slick and very entertaining, but not as engrossing as Wan’s previous horror movies.  The movie is a creepy funhouse, relying on paper-thin characters to drive the plot.  The movie works, and horror movie nerds will find it’s fanboy signalling endlessly entertaining, but the movie lacks the emotional connection that elevated The Conjuring to more than your average horror movie.  Recommended.

A detailed summary and analysis follow.  Spoilers abound.  You have been warned.

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