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@ The Movies! “The Last Duel”, “Last Night in SoHo”, & “The French Dispatch”

Over the last few weeks I saw three new releases in theaters, and in this film critic’s humble opinion, each one was a cinematic triumph. The main thread linking each film, unfortunately, is that despite these films having mid to large budgets, numerous big name actors attached to each one, AND the fact that each film is directed by auteur film directors in Ridley Scott, Edgar Wright, and Wes Anderson- none have performed well financially at the box office. Granted, there are a huge number of caveats to this year’s box office numbers for every major film release- but given the recent major resurgence in theater-going audiences that began in earnest this year with “Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings”, it’s a bit discouraging to see a lack of interest in these excellent films. I sincerely appeal to you dear reader, please go see these films at the theater. If you care at all about the filmmakers and actors putting these films together, and the future of adult themed films being able to obtain star power and big budgets, again, I implore you, give these films a shot if you’re feeling safe enough to do so. Unfortunately, studios will take note when the money doesn’t exactly roll in. Especially in the case of “The Last Duel” and it’s dwindling box office returns, which is a crazy turn of events considering the talent involved.

“The Last Duel”

Written by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, and directed by Ridley Scott, “The Last Duel” is a medieval “Rashomon” of sorts in which characters reflect on the events leading up to the titular duel. The first version of the story is told through the eyes of Matt Damon’s Sir Jean de Carrouges, a man of war who works for Dukes and Kings, even when looked down upon by those he serves and those who galivant with the powerful. The second version of the truth is from Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris, a Nobleman of the realm who did indeed fight alongside Jean de Carrouges in war, though he eventually befriend’s Ben Affleck’s Duke Pierre d’Alençon- who bristles at even the sight of Jean de Carrouges. The third and last truth is told from Lady Marguerite’s (Jodie Comer) point of view, and her story holds the most revelations as she is the victim of a brutal sexual assault by Jacques Le Gris. Obviously, each person believes they are the hero of their own stories, and as each of them will not budge from their account of the truth, the solution is to have both men battle in a duel to the death and, “Let God decide who is right”. As far as the production of the film, everything looks great, Scott keeps each story on the same visual level creating a cohesive world while distinctly altering each repeated scene as the characters view them. It’s a damn smart film on a technological level. The action scenes, especially with the titular duel, are outstanding, visceral, and powerful. Naturally, as the Knight of the three, Jean de Carrouges has the majority of these scenes in his version and within Jacques Le Gris’s story as well. They truly add to the overall theme of the film, that living in the past may not be as glorious as we’d all like to think it could be. Story wise, the film also excels as each version of the truth told by each character layers the other two’s perspectives to a level that ultimately may be the closest thing to the truth. Though, the film does take a side of the three characters as to whose version actually IS the truth. Within the context of the film, it makes all the sense in the world to have Lady Marguerite’s version of the story be the true version, but admittedly, I prefer Kurosawa’s take on the central idea- that everyone embellishes and no one is capable of telling the truth without muddying the waters a bit. In “Rashomon”, for example, even the ghost of the dead character who speaks on the issue of their own murder couldn’t help but embellish the truth. Though, Lady Marguerite’s version greatly impacts the other two chapters of the film and how each character could misinterpret each other’s intentions. Though I have to say that even in Jacques Le Gris’s version of the rape scene, it’s not easy to watch. Sure, he sees it as a more playful endeavor- but he’s still, clearly, in the wrong. Lady Marguerite’s version of that scene is so much worse and far more brutal- even with subtle changes in the edit, like punching up the sound design to sound… well it’s just worse and more painful. It’s certainly hard to watch, but it does give the actual duel more weight. Speaking of the duel, the film also chooses to depict the battle as a disgusting, and frankly gross, way to solve a dispute. In this world and time however, it’s the closest thing society had to…. justice? It’s a brilliant move that informs the audience that even with all of the pomp and circumstance, all the talk of honor and pride, it’s just two men fighting to the death in the mud over what happened to a woman- who in this time is viewed, unfortunately, as property. History is brutal dear friends, and while it’s fun to romanticize Knights, Kings, and Queens- it wasn’t exactly a great time to be alive for many of us. That being said, I do highly recommend seeing this one.

“Last Night in SoHo”

Written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Edgar Wright, and directed by Wright, “Last Night in SoHo” is a Horror Mystery film in which a young aspiring fashion designer moves to London and eventually finds herself being transported to 1960’s London every night. Thomasin McKenzie stars as Eloise, a young woman who’s accepted into a fashion design school in London and promptly travels there from the countryside. She’s quite obsessed with the culture from the 1960’s through films, fashion, and music. After Eloise encounters a bit of a rude social awakening with her peers at the university, she moves to a small one-bedroom flat nearby. Once she rests her head in her new home at night, she’s transported to that glitzy and glamorous 1960’s London. After a moment out on the street in dazzling wonder, Eloise makes her way into a nightclub and in the reflection of some walled mirrors she sees not herself, but the magnificent Anya Taylor-Joy reflecting back at her. She decides to follow the moment and watches Anya Taylor-Joy’s confidence whisk her into a dance and departure sequence with the charming Matt Smith as her eventual manager in entertainment. To reveal much more would be a disservice to those interested in giving this film a shot, but I must say that I do highly recommend it, the mystery of the story is a lot of fun! I was recently reading a book titled “The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark” and Edgar Wright’s chosen film was an informative one. The film that irrevocably changed his perception of films and filmmaking was “An American Werewolf in London” a briskly paced horror-comedy from 1981 whose immediate spiritual connection with Wright’s own “Shaun of the Dead” is immediately noticeable. In his passage, Wright spoke about that film’s relationship with the horror genre and how much he wanted to tackle the genre himself one day, and here we are in 2021 with Wright’s first legitimate Horror film. As it’s his first film in the genre, there’s some genuinely creepy and harrowing ideas that Wright throws at the screen, especially once the third act gets rolling. However one of the more interesting aspects of the film comes with how he approaches nostalgia. Those rose-tinted glasses might be lying to you, the past may not be as romantic as you once thought. While at times he does rely on a bit of jump-scares, nothing is outright obnoxious, but it’s a trait revealing his beginnings within the horror element. The jump-scare ghosts within the film itself aren’t all that scary, however the scenes depicting Eloise’s inability to escape being transported back to 1960’s London at night- that is some terrifying stuff. What’s worse is the horrible awful things done to young women in the entertainment industry in the past (and in the frighteningly recent past too as the Me-Too movement revealed). If you’re a fan of the British filmmaker this is just another fascinating entry in his evolution as a director and screenwriter and I highly suggest seeing it if you can. If you’re new to Wright in general, go see it! Then give his older films a watch, they’re to die for!

“The French Dispatch”

Written and directed by Wes Anderson with story elements written from the likes of Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman. “The French Dispatch” is Wes Anderson’s tenth film, and it feels like the culmination of all his previous films rolled into one gigantic smorgasbord of cinematic delights. The whole conceit of the film is that The French Dispatch was a fictional American Newspaper, set in a fictional French city (Ennui, pronounced AHN-WEE), with the story focusing on the last edition of the Newspaper and the journalists who wrote each piece. First we get a small bit of information about the Newspaper, how it started, and the editor who ran it up until his death, Arthur Howitzer Jr. played exquisitely by Bill Murry. Which is the inciting incident of the film and the reason it’s the last issue. Each major section is narrated by the journalist that wrote the piece, and each one is a depiction of life in Ennui as seen through the eyes of the writers. The first bit is effectively a short written by Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), which details the city itself and the downtrodden, homeless, school children, street walkers and prostitutes who live in it. The three major pieces are written by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright). Each one focuses on different aspects of the city they lived in and the stories they thought worthy of telling. Each one is unique and fantastically fabricated. Berenen’s piece focuses on an artistic savant, who also happens to be a psychotic killer living in prison in perpetuity while Ms. Krementz chose to dive into the student revolution taking place in the city in a war of ideologies between Ennui’s generations. Roebuck Wright’s piece delivers the goods on an infamous night in which he was invited to dine with the Police Chief’s superb in-house chef, known far and wide for his culinary skills. The infamy in question began with the kidnapping of the Police Chief’s son during the dinner. I’ll leave the plot descriptions at that for now, as they are told much more skillfully by the writers and performers of the actual film itself. This is the sort of film that I go to the movies to see. Actors in costumes, on sets, using practical props, with monologues and action beats and lots and lots of wordplay. I’ve always been somewhat 50/50 on Wes Anderson, though the back half of his career has given us some of my all-time favorite films. Notably, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Life Aquatic”. This one however, may be my new favorite Wes Anderson film, and possibly my favorite new film of the year. I’ll have to reflect and see it again when thinking back on 2021’s admittedly outstanding collection of film releases if I’m being honest. However, anyone that’s not much interested in Wes Anderson films to begin with, may not be as in tune with “The French Dispatch” as I was. For anyone uninterested in the quirks, that commonly come packaged as criticisms, of this director, mainly that he’s “too literary“, “too invested in European culture“, or “too kitschy or twee“- these potential audiences will most likely not be persuaded by this film. Indeed “The French Dispatch” is all of those things and more, some could call it style over substance, but I’d take issue with that criticism personally- there’s heaps of substance, whole island nations of substance, if you ask me. It just may not be for you in execution. Yes, his dollhouse aesthetic is still present, as is his love of symmetrically composed shots and lateral movement tracking shots, but would it really be a Wes Anderson film if he didn’t do any of those things? Probably, but perhaps not? This film is amongst his strongest work, and I really do recommend giving it a watch, even if you haven’t enjoyed Anderson’s work in the past, this one was particularly enjoyable in my opinion.

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Review: Justice League

SPOILER WARNING: In order to have more a free form discussion on the film I will be removing all restrictions to give a more complete picture of my perspective.

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Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon and directed by Zack Snyder, “Justice League” is the superhero movie culmination of the DC film universe (so far). Going into this film admittedly my expectations were fairly low after the mess that was “Batman V Superman”. This past summer’s success in “Wonder Woman” was a delightful surprise in the series and so I began to hope, with cautious optimism, that maybe the DC team-up film could have potential. To be honest the film hooked me right at the opening of the film, in which some children with a camera interview Superman before his death in the previous film. They ask him what his favorite thing about Earth is and he looks away in thought before turning back to face them, and he smiles right before the scene ends without his answer. That was just the first nugget of reassurances that the whole movie bends over backwards to tell us, We know these characters- we will fix our mistakes.

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This film is a gigantic step in the right direction, by focusing on what they needed to fix most from previous installments they’ve carefully reexamined their heroes and mended the past’s wounds. Let’s focus on what they did right first, the heroes. The newcomers in this film, Ezra Miller’s Flash, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman all shine in various moments and scenes. Ezra Miller was a comedic hit throughout the film, his reactions to the other league members were memorable, and his Barry Allen was different enough from Grant Gustin’s version that no one at the CW should feel maligned or discredited by Miller’s take on the character. Ray Fisher surprised me with his performance of Victor Stone A.K.A. Cyborg, he was subdued and subtle and he grew over the course of the film as he became more adjusted to his evolving abilities and new body. We even got a “Booyah!” and as someone that grew up with the animated Teen Titans show, that’s all I needed, and I appreciated it. Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry was intimidating when he needed to be, and a great presence in the film, but he seemed to be a hero lost in his own storyline at times-an effect of not having his own solo film before the team up entry. Make no mistake though, I am now enticed by the idea of an Aquaman movie, something I thought I’d never say years prior.

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The trinity of DC’s superheroes, Wonder Woman, Batman, and (let’s be honest we all knew he would be back) Superman worked so well in this film that I was wonderstruck. Gal Gadot proved to be the beating heart of this film franchise this summer with her World War One origin story and she again earns her rightful place as one of the most well rounded and consistent of these characters. All hail Diana Prince, respectfully. However my two favorite re-renditions of characters in this film were that of Ben Affleck’s Batman and Henry Cavill’s Superman. These characters went under massive overhauls since the last time we saw them onscreen, and I couldn’t have asked for a better apology than Batman himself telling Superman at one point, “I was just fixing a mistake, righting a wrong” (Or something along those lines), and he’s right. Warner Brothers has righted many wrongs here for me and it will be exciting to see where the franchise goes from here.

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This doesn’t mean that the film is without it’s flaws though. The main problems that I have with the film echo what most take issue with, namely the villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and his motivations. I understand that there needs to be a huge threat facing the planet for the league to assemble, but when you compare this film to, say, “The Avengers” Loki may have been playing a cosmic gamble for power in allegiance to Thanos, but we know his inner issues of pain and spite towards his father Odin and thus his dive into a darker path. This is where Marvel’s plan of having standalone films before the team up event films make more thematic sense. Steppenwolf was essentially a mindless drone with cardboard thin characterization. You can only shout “MOTHER!” so many times before people start asking questions. Which is why the filmmakers were bright enough to keep the focus on the heroes and them gearing up to face the threat of Steppenwolf rather than examining a character that’s not worth examining.

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“Justice League” was a success in my eyes because the people behind the film took the time to ask, Why are these heroes beloved worldwide? What are the core essences and values of these people and how do we develop a compelling story about them? Batman never once picked up a shotgun in this film, Superman smiles and has become a more recognizable Clark Kent, and the filmmakers were wise enough to throw some well timed self aware humor into the story. Hopefully this is indicative of the DCU’s future, because it is one where we finally have some hope.

Final Score: 10,000 Leagues above Batman v Superman’s quality

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Review: Suicide Squad or “DC’s Modern day B-movie”

At the time of writing this article everyone that wants to see Suicide Squad, directed by David Ayer, either has or has made up their mind not to based on word-of-mouth and critical review. Because of this I will be spoiling several key points, you’ve been warned.

This latest movie marks another incredibly divisive entry into the DCEU after this year’s punchy slogfest that was Batman V Superman: Dawn of Darkness. My main issue with that film was that it seemed that the people behind-the-scenes didn’t really get the true nature of their two main characters. There was no hope in Superman whatsoever and Batman murdered everyone (I suspect a hidden skull shirt underneath that fresh new batsuit). This next iteration of page to screen comic movie in Suicide Squad actually does improve on that issue, but proves to muddy the waters on almost everything else. There is fun to be had in it though and I’d say it’s a more enjoyable experience than Batman V Superman, but it really, truly is a mess of a movie with clear studio intervention.

In the DCEU the wake of Superman’s presence is felt throughout all of its corners, most especially in paranoid shadowy agents like Amanda Waller. She urges the government to consider a drastic plan that involves utilizing captured villains to form a team to take on the greater threats that face humanity in this new world of Superheroes, because what if the next Superman decides to rip off the roof of the White House? (I assure you this squad couldn’t stop him if he wanted to do just that though) Thus begins the story, or rather the first half of the movie, which is purely flashbacks and introductions to the squad set to cheeky top ten pop songs or hits in lieu of a soundtrack to match the emotion of the movie, which drastically fluctuates across the runtime.

Deadshot

Will Smith’s presence in this movie is what makes it watchable. His skill in emoting, and making the deadly assassin worth rooting for, is the emotional hook of the story and really the only good motivation across the board for the team, besides not wanting to die. Deadshot’s through line comes in the form of him attempting to provide for his daughter. Plus he’s one of the few characters to get a scene with Batman involved. Truthfully this is one of the best performances from Smith in years, personally I just wish it had been in a better movie.

Harley Quinn

Margot Robbie is the other standout among the squad. Not only is her performance spot on with the nature of the character she injects moments of humanity into this classic case of stockholm syndrome that makes you believe there is more to the queen of crime without you just waiting around for Mista J to appear.

Captain Boomerang

Jai Courtney, and I really thought I wouldn’t be able to say this after “A Good Day to Die Hard”, is actually pretty damn entertaining here. Granted Captain Boomerang doesn’t do much in the film but his greaseball criminal antics make him worth watching, and yes, he even throws his boomerang once.

Diablo

Billed as the conscience of the squad, portrayed by Jay Hernandez, Diablo is one of the characters that was weakened by the size of the cast and the choppy mess of editing and direction. His backstory, once revealed, is dark and ripe for character work but its almost cast aside as soon as it is mentioned almost as if the producers read it and said “Oooo.. that’s too dark, we just had Batman V Superman shrouded in darkness we can’t have that again, cut that up and put some pop songs in there, lighten it up a bit Geez.” His death in the third act is set up for an emotional pull but the film hasn’t gotten us aquainted with Diablo all that much for the moment to mean anything and it isn’t lingered on or even acknowledged afterward.

Killer Croc

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Croc was also fairly underused in the film. He’s almost mute the entire runtime save for several attempts at humor and for one specifically underwater portion of the mission near the end which was clearly tailor written for Killer Croc to have a reason to swim. It too is quickly passed by, only briefly mentioned “Oh yeah, Killer Croc, he can swim, lets have him swim.” Now if he had been as monstrous as he has been depicted in comics and animated Batman cartoons before he could have been a real powerhouse monster, but that must not have been in the budget. He has essentially no backstory either.

Slipknot

Guess who’s only in the movie for about twenty seconds and dumped at the viewers feet near the beginning of their mission? His only reason to exist in the movie is to confirm that Amanda Waller’s explosive threat is legitimate.

Katana

At about halfway through the movie Katana, Karen Fukuhara, is introduced as an associate of Rick Flagg, the defacto leader of the group. She, apparently, uses a sword that encapsulates the souls of those killed by it. The soul of her dead husband is also in that sword. Honestly throw the rest of this garbage out the window and give me that movie, that has a hook I’m actually interested in. We get nothing else from her except cool sword action when the inevitable faceless army comes into play.

Rick Flagg

Joel Kinnaman’s Army grunt Flagg is serviceable as the character that has to wrangle this rag tag team. He’s only truly there because of his love interest, June Moon. This is a manipulation by Waller as she plays her chess pieces to try and make this erratic group work. He has some shoddy lines here and there, but some actual emotional work in the third act.

The Enchantress/June Moon

Here’s one of the biggest problems with this movie. The Enchantress, Cara Delevingne, is one of the weakest villains in years. Her motivation is.. world domination? Almost everything about this character is a joke. She’s over sexualized. She basically just belly dances for the last half of her performance. She also ruins Amanda Waller’s plans easily right from the beginning thus setting up the squad’s very existence as the threat that has to be abolished. Her plan was to revive her brother kept by Waller, I suppose they were some sort of magical gods from an ancient Mayan-like society? After she frees him they have a small back and forth where she explains to him that Humans worship machines now, and that she will build a powerful machine to… rule with? Thus giving her the opportunity to have a giant beam of light reach up into the sky like we’ve seen a thousand times before, and to create a massive faceless army for Deadhot to shoot at and Harley Quinn to bash their noggins in with her baseball bat. What is the purpose of such a machine that has no moving parts, is powered by belly dance inspiring magic, and takes an incredibly long time to create with no visualization of progress being made on said “Machine”. Magic, I guess…

Amanda Waller

The real villain of the movie is portrayed quite well here by Viola Davis. I say real villain because while that might not have been the intention of the screenwriters, or the director, Amanda Waller plagues the villains..err heroes(?) far more than anything the Enchantress accomplishes. Amanda Waller is a cold and calculating agent of A.R.G.U.S., they’re like S.H.I.E.L.D. but with less cool spy stuff and more shady goverment dealings.

The Joker

You might be wondering why I mentioned the clown prince of crime last. That’s because he’s barely even in this movie at all. Jared Leto handily gives us a Joker with traits cherry picked from the late Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson, and Cesar Romero respectively, something new that feels familiar. Not bad, but certainly not the best Joker to grace the screen yet. Of course there was (supposedly) a large portion of Jared Leto’s performance that was cut from the film, and until we get more of him it’s really unfair to judge him until we see how he squares off against Ben Affleck’s Batman.

In the end we have a movie with some middling success, a few visually interesting action sequences, but nothing to make you really feel anything for any of these characters. It’s a classic example of throwing everything at a wall just to see what sticks. There is a battle waging across the film’s runtime for what tonal shift the filmmakers want the audience to feel, but they never decide between the two being both bright, and dark. There is a constant feeling that there is a good movie, maybe even two, hidden somewhere in this version we got. I highly suspect we will see another ‘ultimate edition’ of Suicide Squad to spring forth just as one did for Bats and Supes. But whereas that movie was already too long and initially a mess as well I’d actually be interested in an ultimate edition of this film, if only to sate my curiosities on Jared Leto’s Joker if his performance truly was that limited here.

Oh and as mentioned there were several Batman cameos that were fairly entertaining, seeing Batman punch Harley Quinn in the face underwater was truly pleasing. The Flash also showed up for the first well executed Superhero quip in the DCEU, so that’s saying something. At the risk of any kind of comments section retorts, I have to say, at least we have Marvel Studios, those guys know how to tell superhero stories, DC might yet make the best version of what they can do and surprise us all, but until then they are the definitive second fiddle to the house of ideas.

Final Score: 2/5