Spoiler-Free Review: “The Last Duel” (2021) starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, & Ben Affleck

The film (based on a book by UCLA English prof Eric Jager) gets its title from the fact that the duel depicted was the last (judicially-sanctioned) trial by combat in France. Originally, two of the three writers of the project (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) were to play the two leading roles. However, Adam Driver took over from Affleck (as he had another movie to do), and Affleck stepped into a smaller/supporting role. The third screenwriter is Nicole Holofcener; she previously wrote Can You Every Forgive Me? (2018), Enough Said (2013), and Friends with Money (2006). Both Driver and British actress Jodie Comer (best known for Killing Eve) played a small role in Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019), although they didn’t share a scene.

The true story of a woman who defied a nation and made history. -Tagline for the film

On March13, 2020, production was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Filming in France was finished; the production had moved to Ireland. Director Ridley Scott had already filmed for 4 wks; he had 1 hr. completed. There was a (brief) time when it was in theaters (NOV 2021). Before its streaming release, I recall seeing the opening (7 mins.) on YouTube. The filmmakers were inspired by the structure of Akira Kurosawa’s Roshomon (1950); I saw that classic (1st time) a few mos. ago. The Last Duel was recently listed as one of former Pres. Obama’s Favorite Films of 2021.

This movie is divided into 3 chapters w/ shorter bookends depicting the duel. At this time, rape was NOT considered a crime against a woman, BUT a crime against a man (EX: her father or husband) as a violation of his property rights. The duel in this case is NOT about showing the men’s skill in fighting, it’s a process of trial and judgment. First, we see events from the POV of a knight- Jean de Carrouges (Damon); then from the POV of a squire- Jacques Le Gris (Driver); finally, the POV of Jean’s young wife- Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer). There are scenes depicting the Battle of Limoges (1370); the enemy are the Britons. The Black Death (and tragedies this plague caused) is mentioned. In 1377, the Jean and Jacques become vassals of Count Pierre d’Alencon (Affleck), one of the wealthiest barons in France and a cousin of King Charles VI.

Some have called this a “medieval #MeToo” story showing “toxic masculinity.” This is NOT for more sensitive viewers; there is strong language, nudity, violence (in various settings), sexual assault, and misogyny (reflective of the time depicted). The running time (2 hr. 32 mins.) could also be a turn-off for others, though it looks like movies (of ALL genres) are getting long these days. The duel takes up about 20 mins. of the story; it’s exciting, bloody, and V brutal. I was on the edge of my seat, as Jean and Jacques made (unexpected) moves at some moments. If you’ve seen Game of Thrones, then the fighting/action here won’t be shocking.

The acting and the dialogue are the main reasons to see this film, IF you haven’t been put-off by now! I thought that most of the actors did a fine job. The accents used are NOT all quite British; one viewer thought they sounded like those at a Renaissance fair (LOL)! I watched this movie mainly for Driver, as he is my (current) fave actor; he continues to impress (and NOT just w/ the muscles, which we see in one scene). Comer (tall, beautiful, strong, yet able to also be vulnerable) is the stand-out; she is under 30 (and deserves to have a big career). I don’t know why she wasn’t recognized w/ any awards! I think Damon is a good actor, though here his look is more modern than medieval. Many viewers complained re: Damon’s (mullet-like) hairstyle and the scar on one side of his face. Others thought Affleck was miscast. Affleck’s personal life has been in the media a LOT; this will (no doubt) influence viewers. I can’t forget veteran character actress Harriet Walter (Jean’s mother); she does V well w/ in her scenes.

The locations, settings (incl. real castles- V cool), wigs, costumes, armor, and ALL of the production design elements looked great to me. Of course, we’d expect the highest standards from a team working w/ Scott. I esp. liked the huge fireplaces, use of candlelight, and the capes/furs. When he has the shorter style, it’s Driver’s real hair; the longer hair is a lace-front wig. Costume designer Janty Yates said that 6 sets of armor (in different states of damage) were created for the duel- wow! Let me know what you think; I feel like this didn’t have a big audience.

[1] Ultimately a very well made, intelligent, highly original film with multiple layers and themes. Production values are excellent

[2] …this movie is dialogue-heavy. However, with credentials like “The Gladiator”, Ridley Scott did not disappoint with the climactic, long duel finale.

[3] …a movie for grown-ups that deserves a grown-up audience. Let’s hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Free Guy” (2021) & “The Lost City” (2022)

I just got past a V busy time at work; my team was under a LOT of pressure these past 6 wks! So, I decided to watch these newer/comedic movies. I didn’t have high expectations, so I wasn’t TOO disappointed. These movies already played in theaters; you can watch them on streaming now. Just don’t think too much and try to analyze entertainment like this- LOL!

Free Guy (2021) starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Taika Waititi, Lil Rel Howery, Joe Keery, & Utkarsh Ambudkar

Guy [saying his catchphrase]: Don’t have a good day, have a great day.

In the (fictional) popular video game, Free City, a NPC (non-playable character) named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) somehow breaks out of his programming and starts behaving differently from the other NPCs. (Gamers noted that this world has elements from Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite.) He eventually learns the true nature of his existence after he meets a human player, Millie AKA Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer). Guy’s best friend is a security guard, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), who can’t see the game as Guy does. Key (Joe Keery) and Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) are two programmers who work on user complaints at Soonami, the company that owns Free City. Antwan (Taika Waititi- in a rare bad role) is their boss.

The scenes in the real world are shot w/ anamorphic lenses, while the scenes in the game are shot w/ standard spherical lenses; the film is at 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Though the establishing shot of Free City is downtown Pittsburgh, the movie was largely filmed in Boston. In later scenes, when Antwan is standing in his office, the background is the Seattle skyline. The director, Shawn Levy, is perhaps more known as a producer; he worked recently on Stranger Things (Netflix). This movie was shot in 2018, BUT was delayed for some time.

Guy: Millie, how many times a day are the banks robbed in your world?

Molotov Girl: Hardly ever, Guy.

Guy: What about corpses, Millie? Do ya see a lot of those? How many an hour?

Molotov Girl: None per hour, Guy.

Guy: What about gun violence? See a lot of gun violence in your world?

Molotov Girl: Actually, that’s a big problem, Guy, it’s a massive problem.

This joke above is one of the few clever/funny parts of this movie, sorry to say. There are a LOT of cameos- voice and in-person! The two up-and-comers – Comer (one of the co-leads in The Last Duel) and Keery (best known as Steve on Stranger Things)- are doing as well as they can w/ the material; this was actually her 1st movie role. Reynolds is (as MANY critics/viewers commented) playing a version of himself; I haven’t seen a LOT of his movies yet, BUT he doesn’t impress me much. Reynolds (personally) asked Mariah Carey for the rights to use her iconic song- “Fantasy.” You can watch this movie on HBOMax.

[1] Free Guy (2021) feels as though it’s been made by people who have never actually played a video-game. […] …the fact that it lacks a proper sense of logic isn’t its biggest issue, although it is undeniably irritating that a movie which is supposed to celebrate video-games clearly doesn’t understand them and also partakes in the kind of banal ‘gamer’ stereotyping that perforates pretty much every piece of traditional media about the subject. No, the biggest issue is that, for me, it simply isn’t fun.

[2] Free Guy is worth going to see because it is one of the few quality films right now that increases one’s faith in human nature. Lately, I feel as though I have lost my faith in humanity, with all that is happening in the world, so it is refreshing to get a movie that feels confident in the human experience. Maybe I’m looking too deep into the message of Free Guy and maybe it was conceived just so Ryan Reynolds could screw around for two hours…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The Lost City (2022) starring Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum, & Daniel Radcliffe

Reclusive author Loretta Sage (Sandra Bullock) writes about exotic places in her romance novels. The model for her hero- Dash- is named Alan (Channing Tatum); his look is based on Fabio. While on tour promoting her latest book- The Lost City of D– w/ Alan, Loretta gets kidnapped by an eccentric billionaire, Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe), who hopes she can lead him to an ancient city’s lost treasure. Determined to prove he can be a hero in real life, Alan sets off to rescue her w/ the help of a former Navy Seal- Jack Trainer (Brad Pitt).

Loretta: Why are you so handsome?

Jack: My father was a weatherman.

This movie was shot on location in the Dominican Republic (during the pandemic); the scenery is gorgeous! Ryan Reynolds was originally sought for the lead male role, marking this a reunion w/ Bullock after The Proposal (2009), but a deal couldn’t be reached and Tatum was cast. IMO, Tatum is a better actor than Reynolds. The said the nude scene where Bullock pulls leaches off Tatum’s nude body was shot on the 2nd day of filming. They barely knew each other and he joked w/ her that they were about to get to know each other very well- LOL! They had to shoot it 50 times b/c Tatum kept laughing at the line: “They’re sucking on my butt like a Jamba Juice.” I liked their dance scene in the 3rd act, BUT I thought the romance was a BIT forced. These characters had more friend chemistry.

This movie needed more of Pitt (as MANY critics have said)! Bullock and Pitt became friends after they acted together in Bullet Train (2022). Pitt’s character- Jack Trainer- is a nod to the film that this is a loose remake of- Romancing the Stone (1984). In that film the male lead (played by Michael Douglas) was named Jack Colton; Mary Ellen Trainor (wife of director Robert Zemeckis) had a small role. The name of Loretta’s book tour is Romancing the Page– another callback to the 1984 movie. You can see this on Amazon Prime (Paramount+ Channel).

Loretta: How do they keep finding us?

Alan [pointing out her purple/sequined jumpsuit]: You’re basically a walking disco ball.

[1] Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum can play these characters in their sleep, and to their credit, they both seem engaged and willing to put forth the necessary effort. Tatum especially embraces the duality of a preening cover boy and the sensitive type out to prove he has substance.

[2] The Lost City has pieces that work and pieces that don’t. Placing pretenders into an actual adventure is good for laughs and heart, yet much of this script is generic. Unimaginative MacGuffins, flat villains, and predictable romances are individually forgivable, but together, they override the premise’s charm. Furthermore, the dialogue, humor, and plot devices are subpar.

[3] In the end, The Lost City is exactly what I think moviegoers need right now. Nothing too serious or weighed down by heavy drama. This is a good old-fashioned, silly comedy/romance that I feel works for what it is. It’s not going to be the type of comedy that a lot of people are going to watch over and over again, at least I don’t think, but the heart of the film is in the right place and it never takes anything too seriously.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Spoiler-Free Review: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2021) starring Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, & Michelle Yeoh

Shaun (Simu Liu) is a sweet/laid-back man in his mid-20s working as a valet parker at a fancy San Fran hotel, along w/ his bestie, Katy (Awkwafina). He has a small/humble apt. in Chinatown and is V close to Katy’s family (which incl. her grandma, mom, and teen brother). However, while on their commute one morning, we see that there is much more to this mild-mannered young man! Katy almost can’t believe her eyes as Shaun fights off a gang of (V tough/skilled) ruffians on the bus. This is a long and quite impressive action sequence which reminded me of Speed (1994). It turns out that Shaun has a (complicated) family and a painful past (which he will need to face). Thinking that his younger sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) is in danger, Shaun and Katy fly to the glam/island city of Macau.

In the late 1980s, Stan Lee had considered a film/TV series about Shang-Chi, and had in mind Brandon Lee (son of Bruce Lee), for the role. Shang-Chi was visually based on Bruce Lee. Liu was knowledgeable in taekwondo, gymnastics, and Wing Chun. For this role as the Master of Kung Fu, Liu trained in tai chi, wushu, Muay Thai, pencak silat, Krav Maga, jiu-jitsu, boxing, and street fighting. The young actor tweeted in December 2018 re: asking Marvel for the role; he later retweeted that original tweet on July 20, 2019, thanking them! Tony Leung (a star of Hong Kong cinema) gets his 1st role in an American film here as the multi-faceted villain (Wenwu); it’s his first English-speaking role (he speaks it fluently). The character upon who Wenwu is based, The Mandarin, wears 10 alien rings on his fingers. In this movie, the rings were revised to be Hung Gar iron rings worn on the forearms (5 on each arm); these are traditionally used in martial arts training to strengthen the arms/fists.

I tried to explore the reasons that could have led him to become who he is. He’s a man with history, who craves to be loved. He is a sociopath, a narcissist and a bigot, but he is also human and has a family. -Tony Leung

The director/co-screenwriter, Destin Daniel Cretton, is Asian-American and raised in Hawaii; he received critical acclaim for his indie movies, most recently- Just Mercy (2019) starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Kung Fu Hustle (2004), Tai Chi Master (1993), The Matrix (1999), Donnie Yen’s Ip Man films and Jackie Chan films were cited as influences on the martial arts action. Michelle Yeoh (who plays Ying Nan) starred in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as some viewers will recall; she brings gravitas to any role she takes on. Shang-Chi started filming in March 2020, but was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Filming resumed at the end of July and ended in October. This production was recognized as the 1st feature film to reopen Disney operations globally since the COVID-19 lockdown.

I heard a BIT re: this movie from some of the podcasters and YouTubers I follow. A few weeks ago, I got curious to see it after having convos w/ a few (much younger) gals on Twitter who have Asian heritage also. A few were already Marvel fans; others were curious to see a movie focused on Asians and Asian-Americans. Way back in 1995, the V handsome/martial arts expert, Russell Wong (who has Chinese/Dutch heritage), starred in the short-lived TV series Vanishing Son; I think that was the 1st time that I saw an Asian-American man as a lead anywhere! There are elements in Shang-Chi here that are unexpected in Hollywood movies, incl. “code-switching” which is done quite well by Shaun. Liu (in his 1st lead role) comes from Canada and speaks both English and Mandarin fluently. Much of the dialogue is in the Mandarin language. As the main villain, Leung does a fine job; you can see why he’s so respected in his field! Though some viewers were disappointed that Shaun and Katy didn’t end up having a romance, Cretton explained that he wanted to show a close/platonic relationship of a male and female (as this still is rare in movies).

Spoiler-Free Review: “House of Gucci” (2021) starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, & Jared Leto

A name to die for. -A tag line for the film

This is inspired by the family empire behind the Italian fashion house of Gucci. When Patrizia Reggiani, an outsider from humble beginnings, marries into the Gucci family, her unbridled ambition begins to unravel the family legacy and triggers a reckless spiral of betrayal, decadence, revenge, and ultimately… murder. -Synopsis

While it’s based on factual events, the story told in House of Gucci has significant parallels to Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie (1901). Mann’s chronicle of the decline of a wealthy German merchant family over 4 generations also deals w/ themes of decadence, social class, family image, the search for happiness, destructive relationships and disappointing children, the conflict between art and business and capitalist society at large. The acting style of the ensemble was in part inspired by the Commedia dell’arte, an Italian comedic theatre style popular in the 16th, 17th and 18th century. This style goes for comedic effect through exaggeration and sharply-drawn character types, also sometimes using colorful costumes and masks.

Paolo: You picked a real firecracker.

Maurizio: She’s a handful.

Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Margot Robbie, and Natalie Portman were all considered for the role of Patrizia. Christian Bale was considered for the role of Maurizio. While Scott wanted Driver for Maurizio, there were some scheduling issues at first. Chris Evans was considered as a back-up, in case Driver couldn’t free up his schedule. Robert De Niro was originally announced as being in talks to play Rodolfo Gucci, but Jeremy Irons was cast instead. Huston- who plays lawyer/advisor Domenico De Sole- was born and raised in England, and naturally speaks w/ an English accent. On his Hollywood (paternal) side, he’s the nephew of Angelica and Danny Huston and grandson of John Huston. Monica Bellucci was considered to play Pina, but turned down the part. Salma Hayek took on Pina; she’s married to François-Henri Pinault (founder/CEO of French multi-national company- Kering- which owns Gucci as of 2021).

Paolo: Never confuse sh*t with chocolate. They may look the same, but the taste is very different. Trust me I know.

Yes, the above are real lines written by an (experienced) screenwriter- LOL! To put it bluntly, this movie is a hot mess! I wasn’t shocked to see this, as I’d read much about it (on social media) long before viewing it. No amount of realistic wigs, glam clothes, or fancy sets/beautiful locations can ever make up for lackluster writing and uneven acting. Comedian Wanda Sykes referred to it during the Oscars as “House of Random Accents.” Many viewers commented that they enjoyed the 1st act, which is focused on the budding romance of Maurizio (a law student) and Patrizia (a secretary at her father’s trucking biz). Some critics noted that Driver gets the “boring” role; his acting is naturalistic (unlike several others here). Lady Gaga said she worked long and hard on her role; she shows the (unabashed) ambition of Patrizia. Her famous line: “Father, Son, and House of Gucci” was improvised. Irons (using his British accent) is the intimidating/snobby Gucci patriarch, Rodolfo. Uncle Aldo (Al Pacino) is the one who helps the young couple when Maurizio’s father disowns him (temporarily). Pacino looks V tame when compared to onscreen son, Paolo (Jared Leto). I don’t know where Leto got his accent and those mannerisms, BUT wow- is he annoying! Many felt that Paolo was a stereotype of an Italian man.

Aldo: Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.

Music is a big part of this movie. Early in the film (1978), we see a big party w/ crowd dancing to Donna Summer’s On the Radio (which wasn’t released until 1980). Another song at this party- Bad Girls– wasn’t released until 1979. Patrizia is shown using a Sony Walkman cassette player (which didn’t come out until 1979). During the wedding, which in the timeline of movie happens before 1983, Faith by George Michael plays (but it wasn’t released until 1987). Some viewers wanted to hear the vows and see more of the actual wedding. In reality, Patrizia and Maurizio Gucci were married in 1972; they had 2 daughters- Alessandra (shown in the film) and Allegra (not shown).

[1] Adam Driver and Lady Gaga can leave with their reputations relatively unscathed, even if perhaps Gaga hones an accent that’s a bit more Transylvanian than Milanese. Al Pacino and Jared Leto though are in a different film, with broad comedic performances...

I could, perhaps, forgive their choices if the overall film hung together better, but alas it doesn’t. The story is glacial at some points, but at others either skips over or brushes through sections that are required to make the story make sense.

In lesser hands, this might be more forgivable, but this is Ridley Scott and we’ve come to expect more. This was, in no uncertain terms, a shambles.

[2] Ridley Scott’s filmography is hit and miss, brilliant at his best like with ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ though some of his films, such as GI Jane and Robin Hood (Legend is underrated in my view), are not too great.

As far as Scott’s films go, it’s a middling effort. Neither one of his best or worst.

House of Gucci has a lot that is good in my view. Have very little to complain about when it comes to how it looks, apart from some editing being in need of a tightening in the final act. The Italian scenery and the costumes are truly stunning though and the camerawork is similarly sumptuous. Scott’s direction is uneven dramatically, but is very impressive on a technical level, especially in his use of multiple cameras (which must make it easy for actors to know where to look).

[3] For me, this is all about the accent. Everybody is speaking English but in an overt Italian accent. It’s distracting. […] Maybe this needs to be a limited series on a streaming service. The acting seems to be getting accolades. I don’t mind that. They’re doing good work. The accent is just not my preference. All in all, this is a functional biopic with interesting actors doing a specific choice.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Spoiler-Free Review: “Nightmare Alley” (2021) starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Colette, & Rooney Mara

In the late 1930s, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) buries a body and burns down a house in a rural area. Stan gets a job w/ a traveling carnival, after helping the owner- Clem (Willem Dafoe)- capture one of the escaped performers, a “geek.” This term comes from the German word “geck,” meaning fool/simpleton; it “geek” was used around circuses/carnivals to describe a wild man/woman. A typical geek show in the mid-19th c. would have a person on stage biting the head off of an animal (a chicken is seen in this case) and drinking its blood. Stan is silent (Cooper doesn’t speak until 11 mins. into the movie) and observant for a time, taking in the new environment and its inhabitants. He starts working w/ clairvoyant act of “Madame Zeena” (Toni Colette- who I wanted to see more) and her older/alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn- always great in any role). He has his eyes on a young performer, Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), and approaches her w/ the idea of a 2-person act (away from the carnival). An older strongman, Bruno (Ron Perlman), is suspicious of Stan and protective of Molly.

I saw this move last week on HBOMax; it’s a mix of noir and horror (w/ a few gruesome images which may turn off sensitive viewers). Director Guillermo del Toro noted that this is NOT a remake of Nightmare Alley (1947) starring Tyrone Power, BUT a re-adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel. However, several critics/viewers commented that they saw callbacks to the original. Leonardo DiCaprio was originally picked for the lead, but when negotiations fell through, he was shortly replaced by Cooper. As one movie podcaster said: “I hope DiCaprio didn’t turn this down for ‘Don’t Look Up,’ b/c that isn’t a good movie.” I’m NOT a fan of Cooper or a hater; I don’t see the big appeal. I get the sense that his skills are suited to lighter (comedic) roles; Cooper lacks the gravitas of someone like DiCaprio. In his characterization of Stan, Power is more compelling; he’s able to convey the dangerous/dark side to his character.

I was impressed w/ the supporting actors, though Mara should’ve gotten a BIT more character development. In the original, Coleen Gray’s Molly exuded innocence/positivity; here, she is morose/jaded. Do you think Stan loves Molly or is he just using her b/c she is young/impressionable? Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) is a fascinating/mysterious character; she fits into the femme fatale role (a few critics were reminded of Lizbeth Scott re: her look). I enjoyed Blanchett’s scenes w/ Cooper, BUT it’s obvious who’s the more stronger/charismatic performer. The wealthy/powerful businessman, Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), makes a more formidable adversary than in the original.

I wanted to love this movie (as a big fan of noir), BUT this is a case of style over substance. There are some good scenes, so it’s worth a look. Del Toro creates a world that is visually V interesting. The cinematography, musical score, production design, costumes/hair, etc. suit the story well. There are a few (creepy) people and props in the carnival that will stay in your mind- yikes! There is a B&W version; I’d be interested in seeing that sometime. Like MANY recent films, the running time is TOO long. It takes more than an hour to get out of the carnival atmosphere. There are a few elements which will remain a mystery, such as Lilith’s past and her motivation for what she is doing. I just expected more from such an ambitious film!