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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. Berensen’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 hand-crafted 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: Alien Covenant

What can I say? Sometimes reviews come and go out of order. Foregoing the gap of time between seeing this new “Alien” film and this review, let’s get on with it. “Alien: Covenant” directed by Ridley Scott and written by John Logan, Dante Harper, Jack Paglen, and Michael Green is a gigantic improvement over Scott’s last foray into space philosophy with “Prometheus” in my opinion. However, while I was not a fan of “Prometheus”, “Covenant” has given me pause to reconsider elements of that initial film.

This time around the focus is on the crew of the Covenant, a colony ship headed towards a new planet for humanity to thrive on. Aboard the ship Walter (Michael Fassbender), a newer model Android with a middle-American accent roams around keeping an eye on the colonists and runs the ship’s tech. Unfortunately for the colonists (but fortunately for the audience), they never make it to their destination of Origae-6. A neutrino blast rocks the spaceship carrying two-thousand frozen colonist members and causes quite the havoc- outright killing the captain (James Franco) and damaging the ship in the process. After the chaos has calmed the crew comes across a signal that Tennessee (Danny McBride) recognizes as a John Denver song. They investigate and find a planet even more suitable for colonization than Origae-6. The former first mate and new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) makes the decision to go for the much closer planet, dismissing the lone contrarian Daniels’ objection (Katherine Waterston), the widow of the late captain.

Only shortly after landing on the seemingly vacant planet does the crew realize the grave mistake they have made. For those curious to know if Ridley Scott could still handle the inherent gore and gross out antics of the xenomorphs, fear not (Or, maybe do?). Scott tries to outdo his own initial chest-bursting alien scene with a fresh and bloody violent vigor. The crew is quickly outmatched by the albino proto-xenomorphs and that may have been the end of it, had it not been for their savior in David (Michael Fassbender, again), the A.I. android from “Prometheus” (coincidentally the best part of that film). The first and third acts of the film are decidedly more “Alien” in nature than “Prometheus” was, however the second act delves back into the Gothic space philosophy that permeated the first film- and this film balances these differing styles and aesthetics fairly well. Scott’s obsession here lies in the big questions surrounding David himself, and he goes to great lengths to give weight to David’s inner turmoil.

David takes great interest in Walter, teaching him to play the flute at one point cleverly pointing out the obvious distance between the models. Walter can take direction and learn, but only David can teach and create. In fact we learn a great deal more about David in this film and the story paints a much more complete picture of his motivations and purpose, which I assume he himself does a lot of thinking on as well. Once again, Michael Fassbender is the best part of this series of films. Having him become the linchpin of these films was a distinct choice and it paid off for Scott. I know some were disappointed in the more predictable “Alien-ness” of these films, and while the ending can be seen from miles away, I love that this universe is finally shaping up to become more recognizable in form. This film at least felt as if it existed in the same universe as “Alien” and “Aliens”, there was even a bright yellow exo-suit worn at one point as a visual reminder and I admit, I cracked a smile at the sight of it.

While this film is not near the heights of the first two films, it is the third best “Alien” movie in the franchise. There are a few moments here and there that were questionable though. At one point David mimes to a freshly born Xenomorph that stands upright and I outright laughed at the screen- it was cheese-tastic and it immediately brought to mind the scene in “Spaceballs” where a freshly chest-burst Xenomorph dons a hat and cane singing “Hello My Baby!”. Probably not the response that was intended or wanted, but hey- don’t do that next time. There was also a sequence where we, the audience, are given the Xenomorph’s perspective a la “Predator”, and that was just an awful idea to be honest. So, while not perfect- this film is highly enjoyable and has finally hooked me into Mr. Scott’s curious prequel series of Alien films. What Ridley Scott does next is anyone’s guess, but I am now invested in finding out what that will be.

Final Score: 2000 Doomed Colonists and 1 Mad Robot

 

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More ‘Aliens’, Less ‘Prometheus’ please

Recently news broke on twitter by director Neil Blomkamp himself stating that he would be moving on to other projects for the moment as preproduction has been halted on his ‘Alien 5’ film to make room for Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ sequel. Personally I think this move is a mistake. I’m critically biased, though, in that I don’t necessarily love Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ and have a deep connection to his original ‘Alien’ and James Cameron’s fantastic sequel, ‘Aliens’. But my concern comes from more than just fanboy woes. This ‘universe’, if you will forgive the overused term, of Alien films seems to be at odds with each other as one film is fighting to reinstate the old nostalgia filled canon of yore, while the other wants to build a film series around looming existential questions within the world that the Alien films inhabit.

What excites me about Blomkamp’s installment in the Alien series is that it has the potential to put the spotlight back on the Xenomorphs and showcase just how much of a threat even one of those space raptors can be. I feel that the films that the Xenomorph has been a part of in the last decade (and its own sequels in the 90’s) have only weakened the monster’s image as a large hulking terror that thrives in the shadows (Something I believe the videogame ‘Alien: Isolation’ aesthetically nailed. Check it out!). Both of the ‘Alien vs Predator’ films portrayed the slimey villain in large numbers being taken out quickly by humans or Predators, which is hard to argue against at times as that IS what the predators are there to do. Simply having the two iconic sci-fi/horror villains on the same screen might be a problem of too much excess. An embarassment of riches if you will.

Blomkamp’s iteration was also rumored to be ignoring the events of ‘Alien 3’ and ‘Alien: Resurrection’ a wise choice. This would only solidify the series and reestablish tone that was lost in the transition from ‘Aliens’ to its much maligned sequel sisters of the 1990’s. Having the series revisited by an innovative filmmaker like Blomkamp, who is also a large fan of the series, is something that not only seems to be serving other studios interests well, (ie Marvel Studios with the Russo Brothers and Star Wars with JJ Abrams and Gareth Edwards to name a few) but will also inject a new style with a robust and clear love of the material as well.We also have to consider that Sigourney Weaver isn’t getting any younger. If we want a true sequel that continues with the character of Ripley then we ought to get moving, something the ‘Indiana Jones 5’ property is also likely dealing with considering Harrison Ford’s age as well.

Then there’s ‘Prometheus’. A film that asks many big questions, and answers none of them. A film that feels oddly out of place in the Alien canon it tries so hard to insert itself in. The film commits several sins throughout the runtime in its attempt to both connect itself and yet stand alone. *SPOILERS* The ending in particular is the most egregious error if memory serves correctly. In the final scenes the captain of the good ship Prometheus crashes the ship in an attempt to stop the engineer’s spacecraft to avoid the potential calamity of a biological weapon being released on Earth. This wouldn’t be so bad if this entire story took place on the moon from the original ‘Alien’ movie, but it does not. It takes place on an entirely different moon, which makes one wonder why the marketing sold the movie as a direct sequel setting up shots of the sideways fallen Engineer spacecraft that fell on its side in the exact same fashion that the one on a different moon in the future must have done(?). This wouldn’t have bothered me as much if it hadn’t been for the fact that the moon that Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley investigates in the first Alien movie is the one that the crashed ship ‘Prometheus’ distress signal is coming from! A fatal flaw in my mind, why would you go out of your way to contradict yourself and name the location of the events of ‘Prometheus’ as entirely different from ‘Alien’, since Ridley Scott made both films, I seriously question this obvious obstruction.

Even Scott himself has said that the movie only has strands of continuity relating to the Alien universe. I could go on, ‘Prometheus’ does some things very well, particularly Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of David the Android, but the film’s story feels muddled, stretched, lazy at times, and convoluted. The scene where the central character ‘Shaw’ has to cut a version of the alien out of herself is pretty intense and enthralling, but there are so many other parts of the film that just don’t coalesce. So, in my opinion, if Ridley Scott wanted to make a film about big existential questions set in space, why didn’t he just create a new property? This easily could have been it’s own film series,and that’s fine! There’s no need to force other intellectual properties to burden themselves with other sets of expectations and tone unnecessarily. Scott has even said his sequel might not even include any version of the eponymous Xenomorph at all! Which begs the question, why make a movie set in the Alien universe without including the famous baddie in some fashion? The current title for that project is “Alien: Paradise Lost” So hopefully they stick to their roots, we’ll just have to wait and see!

If I had my way (Don’t we all wish for that?) I would simply switch the fate of these two films. ‘Prometheus’ didn’t wow me, but here’s hoping Blomkamp can go above and beyond the line of duty and revitalize a franchise both legendary, and a piece of film pop culture.

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Review: The Martian, Saving Private Ryan.. again… in space

*Warning, certain plot points pivotal to the movie explained here contain SPOILERS*

Ridley Scott’s new film ‘The Martian’ is a rousing realism bound sci-fi flick for our time. Its easily the best film Scott has made in the last decade and is thoroughly riveting. This does not mean, however, that it is not without flaws. The film rests the weight of its purpose on Matt Damon’s tried and true shoulders, and because of this, it soars. Damon embodies Mark Watney with a tremendous amount of humanity and heart, and it shows throughout the film’s runtime. And while the cast that lives and breathes on the outer edges of Watney’s story serves their purpose, some better than others, a few performances feel shoehorned in.

In case you didn’t know, Mark Watney’s tale is that of an interstellar castaway. In the midst of an unexpected superstorm on the red planet of Mars, Watney’s team moves to evacuate their base lest their ship topples and strands them there. During this trudge through the storm to the ship Watney is knocked away from the team by a piece of equipment and his captain, Jessica Chastain, makes a hard choice in leaving him behind, as they assume his death. Watney’s team ascend from the red planet and make way for home before he awakens the next day with fresh wounds and a short air supply. From there it is Watney’s perogative to stay alive at whatever the cost, even though he himself knows the almost innumerable odds he faces, ” If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab beaches, I’ll just kind of implode. If none of those things happen. I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. I’m fucked.” This begins the movie with a tangible and tense sense of urgency.

The film does many things quite well, but every so often there is a hiccup that hinders the overall experience. The cinematography, for example, is top notch and really utilizes the landscape to the audience’s advantage. The pacing of the film is also great-most of the time. At times the weight of the two hour and twenty minute runtime can be felt as montages trod on, or when there is time for Watney and others to reflect. Basically, every time the tension is gone, so too does the focus of the film, if only for a scene or two. Which is probably why Watney is thrust into many situations that he must out-think to survive. There are some impeccable sequences in which Watney must react quickly, and intelligently, or he will cease to exist. In fact, the problems Watney frequently encounters are the core thrust of the film in my perspective. They define the film because it is the calm and collected strategy that Watney, and eventually NASA, approaches these problems with that should be hailed with praise. Maybe not for writing’s sake in terms of originality, but in the grand scheme of it all, that despite all odds, we continue. We continue to be, and to be human is to explore, to step out of the cave and do something with ourselves. Fear is crippling, and we shouldn’t let that stop us from advancing, and that is something this movie showcases tenfold. It is something I admire greatly about the film.

There’s also one key scene that reminded me that I was watching a movie rather than being involved in the experience of the movie. When the crew is discussing how to save their man left behind Kate Mara’s character rattles off a line or two that when thought about momentarily was complete movie science lingo garbage. Most of the film does not commit this sin, but that one was particularly brutal. Speaking of the crew, the rest of the cast is quite good. An excellent bunch of actors to be honest. The aforementioned Jessica Chastain gets a few moments, moments where she is referenced particularly by Watney about her mostly disco music selection, which is heartwarming at a time when Watney reflects on his lonliness. With the exception of Jeff Daniel’s CEO of NASA most everyone else is there for exposition, ‘My God!’ scientist scenes, or particularly one note performances. Donald Glover in particular felt especially shoved in, as if his character was from a different movie altogether, not that his performace was lacking, rather that he might not have been given the proper logistics as to what the tone of the film would be.

The moments that do lack however are small and fleeting as most of the movie is with Damon on the lonely red planet, and that’s where the film sizzles. Near the third act news of Watney’s isolation and rescue plan are released to the public and the effect of global teamwork and rallying around the cause of bringing our guy back home is enough to cheer for! Its inspiring and it makes you feel warm in all the right places when you see everyone come together, just to save one man on another planet, 140 million miles away.

Final Score: 8/10