The Last Duel

I looked it up to see how it came out, Ridley Scott has directed 26 feature films, including some classics that are award worthy, and some that have been left on the curb to be disposed of. I have seen 18 of those films, so I am pretty familiar with his work, and frankly I am a fan. This movie came up and I had not heard anything about it in the production process. He has a second film that is coming in a couple of weeks that will no doubt get a lot of awards potential due to the cast. “The Last Duel” ought to have the same sort of cache because it’s cast is nothing to sneeze at, but I think because this is a Twentieth Century Films release, which means it was one of a handful of movies the Disney Company acquired when it bought 20th Century Fox, it feels like it is an unwanted child. Little P.R., no Oscar talk and it is disappearing from theaters rapidly (look for it on Disney + any time now. 

As it turns out, this film does not stack up to Scott’s best work, but it is not down at the bottom with “Exodus: Gods and Kings”, or “the Counselor”, neither of which I have bothered with since I never saw a single recommendation for either. “The Last Duel” is a very well made film, it looks great, it contains some great action sequences, and the story is intriguing. The problems with the film have mostly to do with pacing and story structure, which may be partially the fault of two of the films stars since they co-wrote the script. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have collaborated with Nicole Holofcener to bring this story, based on a book which is based on an historical incident, to the screen. Like a medieval “Rashomon”, “the Last Duel” gives us different perspectives on the same event, each one favoring the person at the center of that section. So one of the problems is that we are seeing the events again, already knowing large amounts of information that are not going to change. The smaller changes, in tone and  character  probably needed to be emphasized in shorter segments because the length of each of these chapters is tedious. The film runs two and a half hours and unfortunately, that run time is noticeable. 

Maybe this was an attempt by Affleck and Damon to answer critics who wondered how they could have worked with Harvey Weinstein and not noticed his reprehensible behavior. As a #MeToo story, Jodie Comer plays a woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted,  but in a society that treats marriage as an economic contract and the wife as property, her needs in this situation seem to be the least important. Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon), has plenty of reasons to have animosity toward his former friend and warrior, Jacques Le Gris, played by Adam Driver. While not the most sympathetic of husbands, he engages in a strategy to clear his wife of fabricating the story and also exacting revenge on his opponent. Driver’s character on the other hand is supposedly shown in the most favorable light in his segment of the film, and Le Gris, still comes off as a cad, deserving of the dirtying of his name that he objects to. Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer) is trapped as a pawn for the most part in a misogynistic society that treats women as suspect simply for being women. The questions that get asked in the inquiry are humiliating and the “science” accepted at that time makes the process even worse for her. There is also a clear stigmatization of women as sexual beings, despite their sexuality being critical to the purpose of marriage which was to prove heirs. In a nod to some of the hypocrisy we see in the #MeToo movement of today, women are just as capable as men of bending events to their prejudices. Marguerite cannot even count on her best friend.   

All of the soap opera and segments of battle and political intrigue that took place in the first two hours is largely there to set up the climatic title moment. Scott is in his element here, having made “Gladiator” as well as “Robin Hood” and “Kingdom of Heaven”, he knows his way around brutal one on one combat. Damon and Driver go at each other both mounted and unmounted . There are staves, axes, swords, daggers, gauntlets and assorted blood sweat and tears in the arena. All the while, we are reminded of the stakes because they are sitting right there, waiting to burn under the woman in question if the combat goes the wrong way for her. This actual historical event is the last recorded case of trial by combat to determine who is the just party. Since I did no background research before seeing the film, and I did not know the outcome, that probably added to the impact the combat sequence had on me. 

So I suspect this film will soon be forgotten, but it does have some strong elements to recommend it. Affleck plays a conniving count who uses political power to protect his prized friendships, Damon builds more action hero cred with his battle scenes, Driver gets to be tall, dark, and handsome, but Jodie Comer is the one who emerges with the most credibility after our two and a half hours spent on this arcane event. 

Ford v Ferrari

Let me start by saying, I am not a fan of racing. I have nothing against it but the idea of watching cars travel at high speeds is attractive to me for about five minutes. After the first thrill, it seems like a lot of waiting around. I know I am an exception because NASCAR is incredibly popular and the Indy car circuit has been around for more than a century. The same can be said for formula one racing which enjoys international enthusiasm that I can’t muster. With that out of the way, I can say I am a fan of  racing films. Several years ago, I listed “Rush”  as my second favorite movie of that year. Earlier this year I enjoyed “the Art of Racing in the Rain“. I even liked the Stallone racing film and “Days of Thunder”. So how is it that I ended up liking this film so much?

My appreciation for a film about a subject that I am not well versed in or passionate about comes down to the simple fact that film making is all about controlling the audience perspective. As an illustration, I posted a list a few years ago of my favorite sports films, three of the ten films were hockey movies. I’ve never been to a hockey game, I’ve never watched a whole hockey game on television and the idea of a sport played on ice is appalling to me, I hate the cold. Film makers however, are not worried about the contest, they know the outcome already. They don’t worry about the rules, they can ignore them or alter them to suit their purpose. What screenwriters and directors do care about is the audience, what is it we want out of the experience? That is the thing that makes a movie like this work for us.

In “Ford v Ferrari” we see the races from the best angles. We focus on the key moments and not all the drudge work that gets to those points. Best of all, in a racing film we are in the cockpit and we see the race from the perspective of the driver as well. That creates the drama that keeps us focused on the story of watching someone drive a car. In this film Christian Bale plays driver Ken Miles and his character is one worth following. He is a hothead who also happens to be an excellent driver. His volatile relationship with the car designer and the corporation that is backing the team is emphasized not just in scenes played out in garages and offices, but while he is driving the vehicle they are all counting on. I think he nails the English accent spot on [those of you who don’t get the joke are excused from making a comment on my ignorance]. He has to act opposite a big movie star, a child and a piece of machinery. He makes each of those relationships work in a realistic way.

My friend Doug is a big race fan and he will tell you how there is a better story somewhere else, or how the film is not accurate is some way that matters to race fans. The rest of us don’t have to worry about that because we know what we are seeing is a fictionalized version of the events. Like all story tellers, the three screenwriters and the director, exaggerate to make a joke work or emphasize a dramatic beat with a piece of information that we need just at the right moment. The film does center on racing, but most of Matt Damon’s work is in the garage or board room rather than behind the wheel. The background on the Ford Company attempt to purchase Ferrari may not have happened in the sequential order that the film presents but that presentation makes the rivalry more meaningful and interesting. You could easily be fooled into thinking that Christian Bale also played Henry Ford II, since the portrayal is a mirror image of the Dick Cheny performance he was responsible for last year.

Since the events depicted are based on real historical incidents, you will be aware of the outcome of some of the suspenseful moments, but James Mangold manages to make them suspenseful anyway. Having worked with Christian Bale in “3:10 to Yuma”, Mangold probably felt comfortable in the casting of Bale and Damon in parts that were originally scheduled to go to Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. While I would have enjoyed seeing those two reunited on screen, I think this pairing works really well. The loyalty but pragmatism of Damon as Carrol Shelby is a good counterpoint to the flashier Ken Miles and it is to Damon’s credit that he lets Bale drive not only the vehicle but the film as well.

The Martian

Ridley Scott is one of the most ambitious film makers of our time, he is closing in on eighty years old, but like Clint Eastwood, he continues to prove that he still has it. This is a smart, big screen entertainment with a good mix of drama and humor and a well realized visual environment in which to play. As a consequence, this film should be a smash, coming as it does at the end of a long stretch of mediocrity in the cinema year.

A combination of “Cast Away”, “Apollo Thirteen” and “Macgyver”, “the Martian” tells the story of an astronaut abandoned accidentally on the surface of Mars, and the effort that he and others make to try to bring him home. It is heroic in the sense that an individual facing incredible odds, continues to strive to live, but it is equally heroic to think of the sacrifices and efforts made by a litany of others who would bend heaven and Earth to help him. The complexities of a journey to Mars are outlined in the continuing series of crises that Matt Damon’s character has to face. Basic survival requires ingenuity that would challenge the wisest of us, but driven by  hope and an indefatigable will to live, a smart guy manages to find ways. From a storytelling perspective it works really well. As a slice of imagined reality, it squeezes by on some convenient fictionalized story points. If “Gravity” got criticized for playing fast and loose with some aspects of physics, then this movie should end up in a jailcell right next door. The truth is that story is more important than physics when it comes to cinema, and the theme of hope trumps all.

Most of the plot that takes place on Earth and on Mars, feels real. There are political considerations and bureaucratic power issues at home that spice up the dilemma on Mars.  A solid cast of actors makes the NASA organization recognizable to anyone who has worked in a large environment. Government regulations on transparency complicate the problem solving on Earth, but allow a decision to exclude the crew of the expedition vessel from some of the early events in the film. Fortunately, Matt Damon, looking like Leo in the upcoming film “The Revenant” manages to inject enough humor and personality into the story to keep us interested. The talking and planning and arguing that takes place at home plays second fiddle to the adventure on the red planet. I will say however, that it was an amusing touch to have “The Lord of the Rings” referenced while “Boromir” was sitting right at the table.

The one place where the movie does not quite fill it’s potential is in the main ship and crew that left their colleague behind. They are cut out of the story for a big chunk of time and then when they are brought back into it, the answers to problems that were at least a struggle for Damon’s character, get resolved a little too quickly with some of the same scientific hocus pocus that would fix a problem in “Star Trek”.  By the end of the film, we can live with that as well because the movie really is a little long. The visuals on the ship are fun to look at but never seem as real at those on the surface of the planet. The jokes about the music selection available suggests that in the future, we have less technology available for an app than an ipod from 204 had. These are minor quibbles but the film is strong enough to overcome some of that.

A whole planet comes together in a way that we would hope it would with a situation like this. International cooperation might be expected but this might be a fantasy as well. If it is too fantastic to believe, it’s still inspiring to fantasize about. Duct tape and the human heart can overcome almost any obstacle, and that feels true, even when the science says it is not.