The Last Duel

Jacques le Gris and Sir Jean de Carrouges face off

Talk about burying the lead. The Last Duel submerges its true story – the rape of a woman in 14th-century France – inside a story about the man who did it and her husband, his friend.

We get the duel, the joust, up front, so we know from the outset where this adaptation of true story is going, and then director Ridley Scott and writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (their first collaboration since Good Will Hunting) and Nicole Holofcener (presumably brought in to de-problematise the very problematical screenplay) wheel us back in time to what brought us to this point.

We’re introduced to all the parties involved – Sir Jean Carrouges (Matt Damon), in spite of his epicene name a chunky nightclub bouncer of a knight, a hothead, uncouth; Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver), a lowly squire rather than a knight but more naturally noble, a thinker, educated… and hot (say all the ladies of the court); Carrouges’s wife, Marguerite, a smart, educated woman more or less sold into marriage with Carrouges by her impecunious father.

In Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, the story of a woman being raped is told and retold by four witnesses to the deed, each of them putting their own spin on events. Here, we get three versions of the same facts, from the point of view of Jean Carrouges, from Jacques le Gris and, finally, from Marguerite, each chapter fronted by a “The truth according to… “ heading, with the words “the truth” remaining slightly longer on screen in the case of Margeurite, as if to suggest… 

But never mind the tilt at Rashomon, this is essentially a “bro’s before ho’s” tale of two men wrangling over a bit of property, one higher in social status than his more noble-looking friend. It’s only as we enter the final straight and the heavily pregnant Marguerite is at a trial on a charge that she went along with the disputed rape that all the elements line up and some of the understated themes start to make sense. If a woman does not have “the little death” (ie orgasm) she cannot conceive, we’re told. “A rape cannot cause a pregnancy,” says one man of the cloth eager to convict. So the fact that Marguerite is here and obviously pregnant means she enjoyed the sex, hence no rape.

It’s the standard defence to rape (she acquiesced) and the standard problem in almost every rape trial – whose word do you accept? The film comes alive here, forcing other questions to the surface. Like why have Ridley Scott and his vast technical team lavished so much time on scenes of bloody battle, brilliantly executed though they are, since this is much more a Game of Thrones-style tale of intrigue and courtly goings-on?

Jodie Comer as Lady Marguerite
Jodie Comer as Lady Marguerite

It is lavishly appointed in every way – lots of extras, fabulous settings in Norman castles, a cast of heavyweights (like Harriet Walter, as Jean’s severe mother, or Ben Affleck as the feckless and libidinous liege lord of both Carrouges and le Gris), gorgeous cinematography, courtesy of Scott regular Dariusz Wolski (who makes visual references to the candlelit interiors or Scott’s first film, The Duellists). There is nothing wrong with this film as a work of visual drama. It’s as a story that it falls apart. Who’s it really about?

Jodie Comer comes into her own in the final stretch, first as a woman defending her honour, then as the wife explaining to her slow-on-the-uptake husband that if he fails at the duel he is so insisting on and is killed by le Gris, then that will be seen as a sign from God that she was lying, and she’ll be burnt at the stake. A “yeh, thanks for that” speech (probably written by Holofcener) Comer does very well.

Other little joys include Alex Lawther as the King Charles VI, the boy king with a smirk permanently on his lips, the ruling elite neatly caricatured in a performance that takes the film in a direction it is always straining towards – Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

That’s the funny thing about Ridley Scott – his track record with historical epics is not great. For every banger like Gladiator, there’s a 1492: Conquest of Paradise, an Exodus: Gods and Kings, a Robin Hood or a Kingdom of Heaven, all flappy and windy as hell.

He now has Gladiator 2 in the works. Let’s hope for great things.

The Last Duel – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Justice League group portrait

The day I sat down to watch Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the death of Jim Steinman, songwriter for Meat Loaf, among many others, had just been announced. And it occurred to me about halfway through watching that this epic is a case of same/same: a big, loud, glorious, ever-crescendoing Bat Out of Hell of a movie.

Snyder himself pops up before the action gets going, to say a big thank you to the fans who hash-tagged his version of the movie into existence with a #ReleaseTheSnyderCut campaign. They were disappointed with the original 2017 version, which, having fought a guerrilla campaign against the Warner Bros suits, Snyder finally abandoned after his daughter died. Joss Whedon was brought in to complete, rewriting, reshooting and only using about 10 per cent of Snyder’s original material.

The fact that Whedon’s version didn’t do well at the box office also called the entire DC Cinematic Universe project into question, so perhaps the studio’s intentions in greenlighting the new cut weren’t entirely charitable and fan-facing. Maybe, just maybe, Snyder could pull the movie out of the fire, fix its problems and, with not too much in the way of reshooting and extra expense ($70 million), save the movie, the franchise and the day.

That’s a superhero story all on its own. But what of Snyder’s actual finished product? In bare bones it’s the same film. Superman is dead and Steppenwolf is keen to get his hands on the three boxes which, when reunited, will bring to fruition an invasion of Earth abandoned millennia before. Apocalypse.

In all other respects it’s a completely different film. At four hours long, as compared to Whedon’s two-hour cut, it’s also a case of more is more. More everything, in particular of Steppenwolf and his peregrinations into different realms in pursuit of the boxes, plus his dealings with the even more ominous Darkseid (who is to Steppenwolf what the Emperor is to Darth Vader – technically a superior, dramatically unimportant).

The original cut was chaotic and unsatisfying. Here, there’s a chance for everyone to breathe, for their characters to gain a bit more heft, in particular Cyborg, who has his entire origin story restored – he’d been almost entirely deleted from the 2017 movie.

Whedon’s quippy, pop-culture-heavy references have been expunged. However, that funny interchange between Flash and Batman – Flash asks Batman, “What are your super powers again?” and Batman replies, “I’m rich.” – remains. I thought that was one of Whedon’s. Apologies to writer Chris Terrio. In general, though, the tone is dark, stern. Black leather, splayed legs. Smoke machines. 1980s rock.

Terrio and Snyder clearly equate backstory with daddy issues. Everyone has them in this version. Most obviously Cyborg (dad’s an unfeeling scientist) and Flash (dad’s in jail for murdering his mother), but also Batman (dad famously dead, Alfred is surrogate), Aquaman (abandoned by despised dad), Superman (haunted by his) and so on. As for Wonder Woman, it’s not clear that she even has a father, what with Amazons being all women.

The one thing both versions share is perfect casting: Henry Cavill as godlike and noble Superman, Ben Affleck as sour and workmanlike Batman, Gal Gadot as resourceful and Amazonian Wonder Woman, Ray Fisher as techy and mighty Cyborg, Jason Momoa as cool and impulsive Aquaman and Ezra Miller as lithe and irreverent Flash.

The four hours do not fly by – it’s half a working day, after all – but they don’t drag either. At one hour in we have the shape of the plot, by two the gang has finally been assembled, and at three we start heading into the final countdown and the big fight finish towards which all epic movies build.

Darkseid and his forces
Darkseid and friends

Through what could very easily have been a slog, Snyder’s command of pacing is what’s really impressive. He brings the rhythm up and then takes it down again. Action, a pause for breath, more action, another pause. The action is not always a fight, though it often is. Flash, for instance, is introduced in a brilliant sequence involving him saving a pretty young woman from certain death.

The soundtrack shifts too, starting out all breathy, lyrical songs and ending up with the massive Wagnerian score of JunkieXL’s massed orchestras as the superheroes take on Steppenwolf in a special effects showdown that somehow keeps all the characters in play. Even here Snyder pauses – mid-bombast – as if to give us a bulletin from the real world. While battle rages between our heroes and Steppenwolf, Darkseid and his Parademons, Snyder switches the action to a cornfield, where Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) are swapping emotional confidences about Clark/Superman. Corny, literally.

If you want a big message, Wonder Woman gives us one about “Men, Atlanteans and Amazons” working together – diversity, inclusivity and, in the shape of Cyborg, black lives mattery.

One carry-over from the original film is that some of the CG is a bit shonky. It barely matters. It feels like complaining about the font used in a letter informing you that you’ve won the lottery.

Audaciously, there’s even an epilogue, containing an entirely unnecessary dream sequence, which feels like Snyder having a bit of a joke with his audience – I could go on doing this all night, sort of thing. While setting up a sequel – more audacity – he even introduces, right at the last gasp, a new character, the Martian Manhunter.

And if that isn’t enough for you, apparently there’s also a black and white version on the way, with a different ending. Nerds, assemble!

Zack Snyder’s Justice League – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Dazed and Confused

Rory Cochrane, Jason London and Sasha Jenson

Dazed and Confused is Richard Linklater’s 1993 film doing for 1976 what George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) did for 1962. That is, it looks back fondly at a group of teenagers on the cusp of adult life on their last day/night of high school, while also observing how long ago it now all was, and in more than plain old years.

Like Lucas’s gang, Linklater’s crew are a mixed crowd of jocks and nerds, lookers and plain-Janes and Johns, sensitive souls and bozos, cool kids and the terminally awkward, kids whose best days are to come and those whose lives have already peaked.

The style builds on the loose, superficially disorganised approach of Slacker, Linklater’s film of three years earlier, which followed one person then another. Here it’s as if Slacker had watched Robert Altman and taken to heart that overlapping, collage, multi-stranded approach and then tried to go one better.

Linklater sets his film in 1976, the Last Year of Rock, before punk split the genre and rap arrived to announce a new era. Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, Peter Frampton and Black Sabbath all feature on the wall-to-wall soundtrack, much as music of an earlier era had in American Graffiti. The world is still white and male, or it is on movie screens. 1976 is the Bicentenary of the USA and also the moment when the ever-increasing wealth of the average person, the post-War consensus, was about to stall, before going into reverse. From the vantage point of 1993, when Linklater made his film, very few people had realised that 1976 was probably Peak USA. As with Lucas’s 1962, the year before Kennedy was assassinated, this is a watershed.

“Driving around, mostly,” is how one of Linklater’s characters responds when asked what she’s been doing all night. And this is part of the genius of the film. It looks like it’s nothing more than excitable teenagers driving around, doing a lot of talking, getting involved in initiation rituals, making out, drinking, smoking weed, all that stuff. Nothing momentous happens. See Slacker, or Linklater’s debut feature, 1988’s It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, for where this was coming from.

The cast of unknowns alone make it worth a watch. Jason London is as close as you could come to the star of this film, as Pink (his surname is Floyd, so it figures), the cool, inclusive, socially adept, good looking dude, a football player who also likes to party. London is also such an easy and obviously charismatic presence that it’s a mystery why he didn’t become a star (though he’s never stopped working, at a prodigious level). Compare some of the other unknowns in the cast – Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck.

Jovovich is essentially the slightly drippy girlfriend who plays the guitar and doesn’t figure much, but the other three are more interesting. They’re as near as the film gets to proper villains – over-invested in the high school’s hazing rituals, nasty bullies for the most part. In McConaughey’s case, as Wooderson, he’s the older guy whose high school days were as good as it’s ever going to get.

Parker Posey
Parker Posey’s breakout role

The cast list insists Renée Zellweger is in it too, as Girl in Blue Truck. Further investigation required.

Linklater is a poet of the mundane. He weaves a spell with everyday ingredients, chat mostly. Think of his Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight) – two people talking. Or his sci-fi film, A Scanner Darkly, which turned a story by Philip K Dick (source writer of Total Recall) into a series of scenes in which people either sat around talking or drove around talking.

Some things in Dazed and Confused now seem odd. Jason O Smith as the token black guy. When Linklater returned to this era and subject matter in his 2016 university movie Everybody Wants Some!!, J Quinton Johnson played the same function, so maybe a recreation of the movie ethos of the 1970s might be more Linklater’s interest than the period itself.

By the end, as it introduces its stars in a montage of end credits with photos, there’s the sudden realisation that we’ve got to know a lot of people, and really quite well. The scale of Linklater’s achievement is suddenly apparent. Beneath the surface, while his characters have been packing more weed into a bong or chasing down a brewski, Linklater has been incredibly busy. It’s all going on here at the same time as nothing appears to be going on.

Dazed and Confused – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Ben Affleck and Diane Lane in Hollywoodland

Looking on paper like something better than it actually turns out, Hollywoodland is one of those films purporting to lift the lid on Hollywood, LA Confidential style. It tells the lightly fictionalised story of George Reeves (Ben Affleck) the man who played Superman on 1950s US TV, and asks the simple question – who done him in?

The answer is, at least partly, he did it to himself, this being a tale of an actor who’d appeared in Gone with the Wind and yet by the mid-50s was in a TV serial aimed at kids. The ignominy. If you need a lesson in counting your blessings rather than dwelling on what might have been, Hollywoodland is it.

To unpick the story of Reeves, we have Adrien Brody doing Citizen Kane-digging, as Louis Simo, a private investigator trying to work out the who and the what and the why. Was it suicide, which was the conclusion at the time? Or did Reeves’s mistress (Diane Lane) accidentally shoot him? Or did a Mob-connected studio boss (Bob Hoskins) order a hit on him? More to the point, do we as an audience care?

Director Allen Coulter asks us not to engage with the man, his plight and his fate, but with his own command of pastiche, and it’s here that the film’s stabs towards The Maltese Falcon, with Brody’s side-of-mouth gumshoe, start to get wearisome.

Affleck – only ten minutes ago the star of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor – is perfectly positioned to play a sad sack for whom things have not quite worked out, his hurt eyes telegraphing disappointment and a career that’s gone awry – could this be his attempt to hit the reset button after becoming better known for his private life than his screen work?

Brody’s detective Simo gets his own back story, which includes his own disappointments as a father and husband (several times over), and he’s a lively presence in a film that needs an injection of vitality, as is Lane as Reeves’s older-woman rich mistress, both shaking this often torpid essay in 1950s stylistics into something approaching life. Bob Hoskins does his usual quack/bark as the studio exec who is sharing his wife with Superman, though he doesn’t yet know it.

But they’re all distractions in what should be Affleck’s film, and the more lively they get, the further into the background the character of Reeves starts to slip. Something of a minor tragedy, because Affleck’s representation of flayed dignity, wounded ego, is well worth seeing.

Hollywoodland – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2006


John Goodman and Alan Arkin in Argo


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



17 April


John McCarthy kidnapped, 1986

On this day in 1986, the British journalist John McCarthy was taken hostage in Lebanon. Like most of the hostages taken during the so-called Lebanon hostage crisis, which continued from 1982 to 1992, McCarthy was chosen not because of any particular political affiliation but because of the country he came from and because, as a journalist, he was easy to target. Aged 29 when it happened, he was working for WTN news when he was grabbed by Islamic Jihad, and spent the next five and a half years locked up. Every time the location of his incarceration was changed, McCarthy would be wrapped in parcel tape, head to toe, like some mummy, and slid into drawers below a lorry. In the ten year crisis 96 people were kidnapped and treated similarly to McCarthy. Some died, some escaped or were rescued, McCarthy spent much of his time sharing a cell with fellow hostage Brian Keenan, who had been taken six days before him. Keenan was released in August 1990, a year before McCarthy.




Argo (2012, dir: Ben Affleck)

At the height of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, the CIA came up with a brilliant mad plan – to try and get the hostages out by using a fake movie as a cover. Movie people are rare beasts, they work to their own inscrutable logic, they operate at odd times of day, go to places other people don’t go. Ergo (if not argo) they are the ideal cover for a team of “extractors”. Argo tells that story, only lightly fictionalised, breaking the events down into three distinct fields of action. Back in Hollywood we have John Goodman and Alan Arkin, a pair of old Hollywood salts being seconded as the front for the operation and taking it all very seriously – “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” says Arkin’s Lester Siegel, a wiseass cigar-chomper of the old school whose Star Wars-alike film, Argo, is the stealth cloak under which the CIA will operate. Which takes us to the extractors themselves, led by Ben Affleck, edging his way into the “quiet dignity” area that George Clooney has a virtual lock on (Clooney is the film’s producer), hirsute in a 1970s way that’s also very now, playing the guy who is going to get the hostages out by disguising them as location scouts for the imaginary film. And then there’s the hostages, fearful, and the other occupants of the embassy – some of whom look like good guys but are bad guys, and vice versa.
How things play out is what the film is about, of course, whether they will or won’t succeed. But this three-way structure – fun at home, fear abroad and Affleck as the fixer go-between – is why it works so entertainingly. We get jokes, we get thrills and we get plenty of that procedural stuff that movies do so well.
There are other things going on too. For a start there’s the rewriting of history – President Carter’s big failure turned into something less ignominious. There’s the fact that this is a movie about movie-making, particularly Hollywood movie-making, when Hollywood and by extension the US was still the pre-eminent force.
There is intelligence too, from Affleck the director, dropping in shots of women in burkhas eating Kentucky Fried Chicken to remind us that the world isn’t black and white, we’re all more similar than we sometimes let on, but that situations can develop where black and white are really the only two choices on the table. Where Affleck really shows his mettle (and betrays that he’s obviously been watching the Bourne films) is in his choreographing of the actual operation to get the hostages out, which is constructed like a heist movie. Piling tension on tension and pulling so many whoops-nearlys, his film nearly tips over into parody. And over the end credits Affleck flashes up photos of the people actually involved – how closely Affleck and co resemble them. What a tense, polished thriller this is.



Why Watch?


  • For Alan Arkin – again stealing the movie
  • For the support turns by Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Scoot McNairy
  • Because truth is stranger than fiction
  • Because Affleck’s third movie as a director makes it three out of three


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Argo – at Amazon






Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck in Armageddon


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



7 November



The Ensisheim meteorite hits Earth, 1492

On this day in 1492, a large meteorite landed in a field outside the walled town of Ensisheim, in Alsace (present-day France). The flaming passage of the meteorite through the sky was visible from over 150km away. It was one of the earliest instances of a meteorite fall on record. The stone can still be seen today in the town’s museum, though it is now nowhere near the original 127kg it weighed when it fell – the locals, having dug it up from a metre down in the soft arable land, started prising chunks off it as keepsakes, before the local authorities stepped in to claim it for King Maximilian, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III and known, depending on who he was trying to impress, as either King of the Romans or King of the Germans (he was later also Holy Roman Emperor). Such an event was obviously an omen, and Maximilian soon arrived in person, consulted with the stone on a man-to-stone basis, before he too prised off a couple of chunks, one for himself, one for his friend Archduke Sigismund of Austria. He then ordered the meteorite to be chained down, lest it make good its escape using the same celestial force that had brought it hence. But what did this messenger from the heavens portend? Before long Maximilian and his council had determined that the meteorite was a good omen, and augured well for the upcoming wars with France (Ensisheim was at the time part of Further Austria) and Turkey.



Armageddon (1998, dir: Michael Bay)

Armageddon is the first example by director Michael Bay of what has become a recognisable genre. In the Michael Bay film a lot of money is spent destroying things in the most spectacular way possible, often at the expense of coherent characters, plot or dialogue. Pick your way through Pearl Harbor or the Transformers films for evidence. There are entire websites devoted to putting forward the proposition that Michael Bay is the worst director who ever lived. But I’m going to stand up for Armageddon, and here’s why. Yes, it’s a big, noisy, spectacle about a group of oil-drilling guys (and a token woman; always with the token woman) who head off into space to nuke an asteroid “the size of Texas” before it crashes into Earth. But, unlike Bay films since, it actually spends time with the guys. We get to know and like them (much as we got to know Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in Bay’s previous film, Bad Boys). It helps that the guys have faces that tell half their personal story – Bruce Willis (tough), Billy Bob Thornton (wildcat), Ben Affleck (prettyboy), Steve Buscemi (ker-ay-zee), and so on. It helps even more that the screenplay is co-written by JJ Abrams, who took a background working on smallish films about human feelings, rather than industrial hardware, and projected those hopes and fears into the sphere that was to bring him the big bucks – sci-fi adventure. True, Armageddon is loaded with cheese – the tension between Willis and Affleck, the former the father of the girl (Liv Tyler) that the latter wants to marry – is several kilograms of ripe Brie on its own. But it’s also loaded with self-sacrificing heroics which for all their corniness somehow just work. And for all its faults it has a swagger and a mad glint in its eye which made the other asteroid film of that year, Deep Impact, look as inert as an old 1970s disaster movie.



Why Watch?


  • Michael Bay when he was still good
  • JJ Abrams’ breakthrough into sci-fi and action
  • Bruce Willis in one of his first “dad” roles
  • The locations, the space suits – the real Nasa deal


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Armageddon – at Amazon





Smokin’ Aces

Alicia Keys in Smokin' Aces



For anyone who gets confused between Ben Affleck and Ryan Reynolds, Joe (Narc) Carnahan’s latest feast of bang-bang macho will be very bewildering indeed, since they’re both in it. But then bewilderment seems to be what Smokin’ Aces is about. The hip-feast is built around Jeremy Piven, playing Buddy “Aces” Israel, a Las Vegas showman and stool pigeon whose decision to turn state’s evidence has signed his death warrant. Enter just about everybody else – either part of his close-knit retinue, part of the FBI team trying to protect him, one of the mob out to get him, or one of the other guys who also, confusingly, seem out to get him. Girls too, not just guys, since it’s Alicia Keys and Taraji Henson – a faintly lesbionic duo – who get some of the best of the weapons-assist screentime. It’s a busy, touchingly old-fashioned drama – the whiplash Guy Ritchie camera trickery, the timewasting, jivetalking Tarantino dialogue. If you’re watching at home the subtitles make things a lot more easy to follow, though the plot is still verging on the impenetrable – someone’s been reading Raymond Chandler, obviously. And how about Andy Garcia and Ray Liotta as cops? Carnahan is clearly having a laugh. I entirely enjoyed it. But then I was watching this live-action cartoon with one eye shut.

© Steve Morrissey 2006


Smokin’ Aces – at Amazon