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

“House of the Dragon” (Episode 4: “King of the Narrow Sea”)

SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen, or don’t want to know, details from Episode 4 of House of the Dragon.

Rhaenyra continues her search for a suitable match, Daemon returns to Kings Landing and stirs more trouble for the King. Rhaenyra learns a valuable lesson. -Synopsis from HBO

Are y’all ready for a new dating/reality show- The Bachelorette: Westerosi Edition? Warning: It will get bloody! Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock) is on her “tour” (to find the husband of her choice, as her father decided in E3) w/ her loyal Kingsguard, Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) by her side. We meet her at a castle, Storm’s End, the home of Lord Boremund Baratheon (an ancestor of King Robert from GoT). In the throne room, there is a long line of suitors (noblemen from ALL over the region) waiting to speak to the princess, as well as some onlookers. Rhaenyra looks bored/slightly annoyed; she fiddles w/ her Valyrian steel necklace (a gift from her uncle). An elderly man (Lord Dondarrion of Blackhaven) talks of his lands, home, and being honored by a visit from her grandmother/the queen (MANY yrs ago). FYI: Ser Criston is the son of the steward of Blackhaven.

Jerrel Bracken [to Lord Blackwood]: Protection? The Princess has a dragon, you dumb c*nt.

Rhaenyra [quietly w/ amusement]: I could learn to like that one.

Next, we see a young man (Jerrel Bracken) taunt a teen boy (Willem Blackwood), as the boy presents his case to Rhaenyra. At first, the princess looks amused. which makes the onlookers laugh. Then, the mood turns tense/ugly and swords come out. Rhaenyra decides to cut the interviews short; she and her entourage of royal guards start to walk out. Behind their shoulders, Willem and Jarrel fight, until (surprisingly) the older/stronger Bracken lies sputtering blood from a wound to the belly! WTH is the meaning to this, you may wonder!? Well, as Princess Rhaenys told us (E1), the young men of this society haven’t had a real war to fight in yrs. They’ve mostly fought in tourneys; of course, those could turn deadly. As one astute YT commentator noted, this also reveals Rhaenyra’s character/potential as a queen; she encourages the insults and doesn’t call off the fighting (Boremund does so).

On the trip back to King’s Landing, the boat Rhaenyra is on gets a bump from Prince Daemon (Matt Smith) atop his dragon (Caraxes). Luckily, the princess is NOT hurt, though Ser Criston is V concerned. One critic said this is was Daemon’s way of flirting- LOL! At court, Prince Daemon struts in wearing a handmade crown (made of bones); Ser Harold Westerling (Graham McTavish) keeps him from coming too close to the throne. Daemon offers King Viserys (Paddy Considine) the Crabfeeder’s hammer, saying to “add it to the pile.” After defeating the Triarchy, Daemon (now w/ short hair) was dubbed “King of the Narrow Sea.” Then, he humbly declares that there is ONLY one true king and kneels before his older brother. The tension is the court is eased when the king and prince embrace! Rhaenyra has been watching w/ interest from the back of the room.

Daemon [to Rhaenyra]: You cannot live your life in fear, or you will forsake the best parts of it.

Viserys is quick to welcome Daemon into the family’s fold; he jokes/laughs at the small garden party they have in the prince’s honor. Look carefully and you’ll see lemon cakes (Sansa’s fave food on GoT) on a table! When Rhaenyra is left out, Queen Alicent (Emily Carey) goes over to her; they have a talk about how their lives have turned out. Alicent is already a mother of 2; she feels lonely/restricted in her role as queen. Rhaenyra regrets the fact that she must marry and have children; after all, her mother died in childbirth.

Rhaenyra: Their wants are of no consequences.

Daemon: They’re of great consequence if you expect to rule then one day.

Afterwards, Daemon tells Rhaenyra she has “matured” these past 4 yrs. They last saw each other when she retrieved the stolen dragon’s egg from Dragonstone. It also confirms a short amount of time (about a year) passed btwn E3 and E4. Notice how he relaxes around her, then offers her his cup of wine to drink (treating her as an equal- as some viewers commented). Rhaenyra says that she wants to live a life of “solitude.” Daemon explains that she can marry, BUT find pleasure outside of that relationship. Their (long) dialogue is spoken in High Valyrian; I thought the actors had great tension/chemistry here!

Later that night, Rhaenyra covers her hair w/ a cap, dresses in rags, and leaves her room (via a hidden passage). The princess experiences the sights/sounds of Fleabottom; her uncle is the guide (of course). There is a fire breather, sellers w/ a variety of goods, and couples kissing in dark corners. One man walks on a tightrope above the crowd; the director (Claire Kilner) commented that “this perhaps best reflects the precarious life of girls.” They stop to watch a “mummer’s farce” (street theater); the actors wear gawdy costumes/wigs and make fun of the royals. Rhaenyra is surprised to learn that these common folk aren’t happy re: her being heir. When she retorts “I don’t care,” Daemon replies that she’ll have to care about these people IF she hopes to rule one day! Some viewers thought that Daemon was trying to make Rhaenyra feel “insecure,” so she’d “depend on his judgement.” I thought that this was also a clever way to get the (sheltered) princess to see how she is viewed outside court.

Next, we have several scenes that the internet was abuzz about! I liked the way that the tense/moody/romantic scenes were directed; we get to see two young women’s POV. Ser Criston takes a long look at his white cloak (representing the chaste life of a Kingsguard), some viewers noted. Scenes of Rhaenyra enjoying her night of freedom were intercut w/ (less than exciting) scenes w/ Alicent. Why do you think Daemon stopped himself in the pleasure house? Did you like the (playful/light-hearted) scenes btwn Rhaenyra and Ser Criston, or did you think their brief romance was a bad idea?

Viserys: Daemon and Rhaenyra share the blood of the dragon, They are restless and chaotic.

It turns out that spies (or “little birds” as Lord Varys used to saw on GoT) are everywhere to get dirt on the royals! The little peasant boy who saw Rhaenyra out on the street comes w/ a note for Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans). In the early morning, he goes to see the king w/ the reports of Daemon and Rhaenyra “coupling” (and wow- is it awkward)! The king is (obviously) angered by this; he doesn’t want to believe that his brother could put his daughter in such a precarious position. Alicent overhears what her father said; she also doesn’t want to think badly of her former best friend. When she summons Rhaenyra to the garden for a talk, the princess lies (w/ conviction) to Alicent! Well, teens can rebel, cause their elders headaches/heartaches, and NOT realize the consequences of their actions.

Later, in the throne room, Viserys berates and kicks Daemon, as he lies dirty/tired/hungover on the floor. The king wonders who’ll marry Rhaenyra, now that there are rumors she’s NOT a virgin. Daemon (showing his audacity- yet again), asks for Rhaenyra’s hand in marriage! The king throws him out of the castle- yet again. This was my fave scene in this ep! Smith and Considine are a great acting pair; they’re V good at portraying the conflict btwn brothers. We learned that Daemon’s former mistress, Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno) AKA The White Worm, is no longer a “common whore.” She has been working for 2 yrs (since their break-up, we assume) as a spy; that little boy was working for her. Some asture viewers said maybe Daemon wanted to get caught in a compromising position.

That night, the king and his daughter have a serious talk; she has been his “political headache” for some time. When Rhaenyra holds the Valyrian steel dagger (part of her legacy) in fire, inscribed words are revealed: “From my blood come the Prince That Was Promised, and his will be the song of ice and fire.” Rhaenyra points out the hypocrisy of this society; a nobleman can sleep w/ whoever he choses. Viserys tells her that she’s NOT man, so she’s held to different standards. He also tells her the importance of being his heir; she can’t just seek out pleasure whenever she wants! Rhaenyra MUST marry a nobleman and birth her own heirs (which will strengthen her claim to the Iron Throne). She agrees to do what her father wants, BUT he needs to get rid of The Hand- Otto!

Later that same night, Otto and Viserys meet in the Small Council room; there is tension and a sense of foreboding. This is one of the (rare) times where the camera is positioned above/to the side of Otto’s head, putting him in a subservient position. Viserys confronts his friend/associate re: (alleged) wrongs he has done. Though he handles himself w/ dignity, Otto looks hurt and (slightly) shaken by being fired. This is also a fine scene w/ two veteran character actors who know their stuff!

There is a BIT of mystery in the final scene of the ep; we don’t see Rhaenyra drinking the “moon tea” (or Plan B: Westeros version) brought in by Grand Maester Mellos (David Horovitz). The tea was prepared carefully by himself; it was ordered by her father. So, Viserys didn’t believe that Rhaenyra was a virgin after all! Don’t forget to watch the Inside the Episode; you’ll learn a LOT more re: this story! Did you agree w/ the analysis of the cast/crew?

“You Belong to Me” (1941) starring Barbara Stanwyck & Henry Fonda

A JOYOUS REUNION OF THE STARS OF “THE LADY EVE” -Tag line on original movie poster

A young general practitioner, Dr. Helen Hunt (Barbara Stanwyck), meets a millionaire/playboy, Peter Kirk (Henry Fonda) when he crashes at her feet during her vacay at a California ski resort. He insists ONLY she can treat his (minor) injuries; it’s obvious he has a crush on her. After knowing each other for a few days, Peter suddenly proposes marriage- Helen accepts! They marry and settle in his (huge) estate somewhere in LA. On their wedding night, Helen is called away on a medical emergency. When she returns, Peter has fallen asleep. Soon, Peter becomes jealous of her career, getting into physical altercations w/ two male patients (yikes)!

Peter: Are there many lady doctors?

Helen: A few.

Peter: As beautiful as you?

Helen: No doubt.

Peter: The time I’ve wasted being well.

There are (serious) underlying themes in this movie. Remember that this was a time (here in the US) when women (who could afford it) quit their jobs immediately after they got married. Professional women (incl. doctors) made up a small percentage of the workplace. Fonda and Stanwyck make a believable couple, as they have (obvious) romantic chemistry. Stanwyck had great comic timing; Fonda was good at using his physicality for humor. There are some close-up shots of both actors that are gorgeous. Peter is no doubt “problematic” (as the young’uns say today); he goes from sweet/chill to irrational/jealous! As one astute viewer commented: “The Stanwyck character would’ve dumped this guy in 24 hrs in real life.”

The script has some snappy dialogue, as well as a few fine scenes for the supportive players. Billings (Edgar Buchanan) is the grumpy gardener who offers down-to-earth advice to Peter. Moody (Melville Cooper) is the stuffy butler full of sly comments for the entire household. Ella (Maude Eburne) is the understanding nurse/secretary to Helen. I learned that a young Lloyd Bridges (uncredited) plays one of the ski patrol (early in the film).

[1] …feminists would probably be aghast at it.

In fact, Barbara Stanwyck herself didn’t like it at all. She liked working with Henry Fonda right enough, but thought this film was ridiculous. As well she should have.

[2] The first portion at the ski lodge and the next did NOT fit well together, nor did the final “Horatio Alger” inspired section…

[3] In a year where Stanwyck was really busy, three out of four films have become classics. One of them had to be a disappointment, and this is it, albeit a minor one. She was a sexy gold-digger (opposite Fonda) in “The Lady Eve,” a sequin-wearing gangster’s moll nightclub entertainer in “Ball of Fire”, and a hard-as-nails reporter in “Meet John Doe.” Those films all have outstanding screenplays, something this one lacks. The comedy moments are infrequent…

-Excerpts from IMDb comments

“Ophelia” (2018) starring Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, & George MacKay

As a rebellious/motherless child, Ophelia, is taken into Elsinore Castle by Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) as one of her ladies-in-waiting. Years later, a grown-up Ophelia (Daisy Ridley- who had her breakout role in the recent Star Wars sequel trilogy) captures the affections of Prince Hamlet (George MacKay). A romance kindles between the two in secret, as the kingdom is on the brink of war, amidst internal intrigue and betrayal. When Hamlet’s father (Nathaniel Parker- who has no lines) is murdered and the prince sets his mind on revenge against the new king/his uncle, Claudius (Clive Owen- wearing a terrible wig), Ophelia must choose between love and survival.

What happens when “the message” (feminism- in this case) and style (locations/sets, hair, costumes, etc.) are made more important than substance (good writing)? Well, we get movies like this (available on Netflix) from Aussie director Claire McCarthy. The cinematographer (or D.P.) is McCarthy’s husband, Denson Baker; I think he did a fine job. This movie was shot on location is the Czech Republic on a mere $12M budget- wow! I learned that it’s based on a young adult (YA) novel by Lisa Klein, NOT the tragic play Hamlet by Shakespeare. The chanting (repeated in several scenes) comes from Hamlet’s letter in Act 2, scene 2: “Doubt that the stars are fire. Doubt that the sun doth move. Doubt truth to be a liar. But never doubt I love.”

Things just don’t make sense here- which is frustrating! Young Ophelia is running around the castle dressed in raggedy clothes w/ a dirty face, though her father is the king’s main advisor. As a young adult, the other ladies-in-waiting belittle Ophelia as she wears flowers, NOT jewels (b/c Polonius can’t afford them). WTH!? As one astute reviewer noted, lines and scenes from other Shakespeare plays (Much Ado About Nothing; Romeo and Juliet) are used here. In the play, Hamlet hates the wild/drunken parties thrown by Claudius; here he wears a mask and dances w/ those at court. Of course, Ophelia (being NOT like other girls- eyeroll), is self-conscious b/c she “dances like a goat.” Whatever… There is V little development of the love story; I also didn’t see any chemistry btwn Ridley and MacKay. I’ve heard that MANY young actors want to tackle the role of Hamlet, BUT I felt kinda sorry for him here. Emasculating men or casting them ONLY as baddies is NOT going to improve stories of women. Just don’t waste your time!

[1] The all-star cast were OK in their roles, but nothing earth-shattering. The love story needed loads of developing and loads more could have been made of Clive Owen’s character being a threat to Hamlet’s family, crown and future. Naomi Watt’s duel roles was super confusing and brought nothing to either characters. (Which pains me to say as I love her as an actress). I really feel this film is style over substance.

[2] Hamlet is a non starter, some angry little boy. and the men of course are evil: deny education, don’t take care of their wife, kill other men, try to rape and so on.

[3] Preachy, not empowered. Lose the agenda and the attitude. Too bad, this could have been something interesting.

[4] I’m an ultra-lefty feminist and even I eyerolled. Why couldn’t it be a genuine dramatic tragedy? It didn’t need this type of girl power remake.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“Sudden Fear” (1952) starring Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, & Gloria Grahame

HEARTBREAK… Poised on a Trigger of Terror! -A tag line for the film

Actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance- his 1st lead role w/ Oscar nom) has almost landed the lead in Myra Hudson’s (Joan Crawford- in her 3rd/last Oscar-winning role) new Broadway play. However, Myra (a writer/patroness of the arts) vetoes the director and producer b/c she doesn’t think Lester looks like a “romantic leading man.” On a train from NYC to San Fran, Lester and Myra meet again by chance; he sets out to prove her wrong- by romancing her for real! Later on, we meet Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame), who has recently been dating Myra’s friend/young lawyer, Junior Kearney (Mike Conners- a former football player). Another long-time pal/lawyer of Myra’s is Junior’s older bro, Steve (Bruce Bennett- also Crawford’s no-good ex-hubby in Mildred Pierce).

Lester [after being rejected for the lead role]: Miss Hudson, in your own native city of San Francisco, there’s an art gallery in the Legion of Honor in which there’s an oil painting of Casanova. It’s quite obvious that you have never seen this painting. For your information, Miss Hudson, this is what Casanova looked like: he had big ears, a scar over one eye, a broken nose, and a wart on his chin, right here. I suggest, Miss Hudson, that when you return to San Francisco, you visit this gallery and see this painting!

Crawford was a “boss lady” BOTH in front of and behind the camera, as many of y’all classic fans know! As the executive producer (EP), she was heavily involved in ALL aspects of the production. Crawford hired Lenore J. Coffee (screenwriter), David Miller (director), and suggested using Elmer Bernstein (composer). The music score comes partly from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring. She insisted on Charles Lang (cinematographer) and personally cast Palance and Grahame as co-stars. Crawford’s 1st choice for Lester was Clark Gable; Brando was offered the role also.

Lester: [quoting Myra’s play] When I wake in the morning, when I go to sleep at night, I think of you. You’re like the air which surrounds me, the sky which spreads above me, the earth beneath my feet. When I hear music, when I see beauty, when I breathe in the sunlight, I think of you. You are the sister I never had, the mother I have almost forgotten, the wife I have always dreamed of. There isn’t a relationship you can name which exists between a man and a woman of which I wouldn’t say let it be you. Let it be you.

On the train, Lester tells Myra he was born in Pittsburgh and spent some of his early years as a coal miner. In real life, Palance was born in Lattimer (in the eastern part of PA), and he did follow his father (an immigrant from Ukraine) into the anthracite coal mines for a time. Lester also mentions being in the Army during WWII; Palance was in the Air Force during the war. Palance (just in his early 30s) is a great match for Crawford both w/ his acting talent and physicality (height, severe cheekbones, square jawline, and intense gaze). Grahame’s character is more clever, nasty, and take-charge here (than in other roles); she looks a BIT fragile in scenes w/ Palance (w/ an imposing physique).

[1] This is a real edge-of-your-seat nail-biter. David Miller did a terrific job of directing this one, and the cinematography is spectacular by Charles Lang. Some of the shots are as inspired as anything ever seen in Hollywood…

[2] The three leads, Joan Crawford , a wealthy lady getting old and thinking she ‘s found true love, Jack Palance, not the romantic lead of her play but a disturbing character, and Gloria Grahame at her bitchiest are terrific.

[3] Truly thrilling in places and just plain classic Crawford. Watch for the moment when Joan embraces her love interest Palance and asks, “I was just wondering what I’d done to deserve you.”

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews