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The Last Duel

 



Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges and Adam Driver as Jacques LeGris in "The Last Duel." Photo by Patrick Redmond. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

With “The Last Duel,” Ridley Scott steps back into history, as he so memorably did with his Oscar-winning “Gladiator” from 2000. This time, his focus is again on a tale of betrayal and vengeance, but this period piece is set against the brutality of 14th century France rather than ancient Rome. The period is that of Normandy in the late 14th C. during the reign of Charles VI.

Based on actual historical events, “The Last Duel” begins and ends with France’s last sanctioned duel in 1386 between Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), two long-time friends and warrior knights of the king turned bitter rivals over the course of almost 20 years.

Carrouges is a ferocious knight, long engaged in fighting the rival English and also a stolid, unlettered man, with a gift for rampage but none for wit or guile or deceit. Le Gris is his opposite, a poor but clever man who has educated himself in numbers and letters and taken on libertine ways, thereby ingratiating himself to a high prince of the domain, Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck), an advisor and right hand of the King. It is Jean, however, who wins the heart of the most desirable local ingenue, Marguerite (Jodie Comer).

However, Le Gris, lusty that he is,also has eyes for Marguerite and, with her husband away on a Scottish campaign, he breaks into Carrouges’ castle and viciously assaults her. When she becomes pregnant, suspicion is thrown on Jacques as the father. He denies a rape charge, but Marguerite refuses to stay silent and forcefully accuses him as her attacker, an act of bravery and defiance that puts her life in jeopardy. A trial by combat is then authorized by Charles VI ( , a grueling duel to the death, shown in a grim, crashing sequence that opens and closes the picture (Scott gave a similar version of this brutality as the culminating fight of “Gladiator”).

At more than two-and-one-half hours, this “Duel” does grind on, perhaps because Scott wallows too long on medieval detail: pervasive mud, grim stone, and endless candle light, all bathed in a gray-blue cast and carrying a clattering soundtrack. It may make for a convincing 1380, but it doesn’t always keep the story moving. The film can’t help being somewhat repetitive either, since the story is set in three chapters, the first two covering similar events from first Jean’s perspective then Jacques.’

The three-way screenplay—by Nicole Holofcener (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” “Enough Said”), Affleck and Damon—may explain why the movie is part macho mania (from Affleck and Damon?) and part a sort of primitive #MeToo movement in Old France (crafted, perhaps by Holofcener?). The latter’s all-too-contemporary vessel is the young Comer, here comely for sure but also principled and a staunch seeker of the truth, unlike the tired and cynical women all around her.

(Now in theaters, the film is rated “R” and runs 2 hours, 32 minutes)

(October 2021)

 

WORTH

“Worth” follows the aftermath of the horrific 9/11 attacks, after Congress has appointed renowned DC mediator Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) to lead the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which aimed to quickly allocate financial resources to the families of the victims (more than 7,000) of the attacks.


Michael Keaton (left) as Kenneth Feinberg and Stanley Tucci as Charles Wolf try to find common ground in “Worth.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Feinberg, under the title of Special Master, and his firm's head of operations, Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), face the impossible task of determining the “worth” of a life to compensate families who had undergone unfathomable losses. A non-negotiable element of the settlements required that families could never file suit against the airlines for any lack of security or unsafe procedures. The special master was given two years to come up with a valid compensation plan.

At first, Feinberg and company use a basic formula based on each victim’s salary, but, when presenting this to an audience of the edgy families, the latter erupt in protest. One of those attending, Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), a community organizer mourning the death of his wife in the tragedy, calms the crowd down but later informs Feinberg that he totally disagrees with the formula and begins lobbying to “Fix the Fund,” arguing for close listening to the family members instead of treating the victims as part of a cold numbers game.

As applications for the Fund lag behind a hoped-for 80 percent acceptance, Feinberg changes the focus of his team, as we see Biros, a new Asian-American recruit, Priya Khundi (Sunavi Ramanathan), and a black attorney Darryl Barnes ((Ato Blanken-Wood), as well as Feinberg himself, having in-depth interviews with families, gauging what they want on a human and personal level.

Individual cases are highlighted, especial Feinberg’s involvement with the Donato family, one of whom— a firefighter—has left a bereft wife Karen (Laura Benanti) and three young boys, with the added complexity of a cynical Frank Donato, brother of the departed and a firefighter survivor.

Also featured is Biro’s ongoing involvement with the Schultz family, whose dead son’s gayness has been denied by his parents and whose partner, Oliver (Clifton Samuels), seeks compensation that cannot be granted by his home state. Each case is resolved in dramatic ways, as the Donatos come to learn of additional children left behind from an affair by Frank’s brother, and as Biros (a shattered Amy Ryan) must make a heart-wrenching phone call to Oliver to tell him he cannot be the beneficiary of his lover’s portion.

To make the process the more problematic, another team of lawyers, headed by corporate advocate Lee Quinn (Tate Donovan), insists that major businesses housed in the twin towers, as greater earners, deserve a significantly larger portion of the Fund. As the deadline of December 2003 looms, the collective efforts of the Feinberg team, as well as a more sympathetic Wolf, gather steam towards a possible solution.

The film, directed by Sara Coangelo and written by Max Bernstein, plays out this scenario in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner, though the background of 9/11 and its victims creates enough built-in tension to keep the drama compelling. The story has its own kind of mournful momentum.

Keaton and Ryan are under-toned and earnest, as befits the grinding work they are doing, and Keaton as Feinberg has a little more to do, since he has to show a gradual transformation from a “just-the-facts” decider to a more passionate advocate for his clients. The film also shows a different side of the lawyer, a known opera buff, as he privately listens to arias in his den, softening somewhat his stringent side..

Tucci, though an activist and a thorn in the side of the process, acts as the civil figure of reason (he and Feinberg eventually bond over opera). There are a passel of fine featured performances, none better than Benanti’s Karen, the working-class housewife who tearfully acknowledges the impossible task Feinberg and Company had taken on.

(The film could be considered a DC movie since Feinberg’s firm is based here, and he did most of his work on the case in the city. Still, except for a few fleeting special effects shots of DC, the movie (mostly made up of office interviews and other interiors, was filmed in Astoria, Oregon.)

(The film, running 118 minutes and rated “PG-13,” opened in early September and is now streaming on Netflix.)

(September 2021)



CODA

The Rossi family is a tight-knit fishing family living in Glouchester, Massachusetts, working rugged seas every day to make a living. Mom Jackie (Marlee Matlin), dad Frank (Troy Kutsur), and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) work alongside Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of the group. The family is very loving and close, but Ruby alone has the opportunity to live and develop in the wider, hearing world. Good in school and a lover of music, she has joined the senior class choir and is noticed for her clear voice by her choir director, a no-nonsense educator named Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), who pushes her, against her modest nature, to reach her full potential. He deems her talented enough for her to try out for a scholarship to the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, the chance of a lifetime.


The Rossi family, as featured in the heartwarming “CODA,” starring Emilia Jones (left) as Ruby. Photo courtesy of Apple TV +

Thus hangs the drama of “CODA” (Child of Deaf Parents). Can Ruby, who has known nothing outside of her family and the fishing life, go out on her own and away from a family who totally depends on her for connecting with others? This familial dependence on her, so crucial, is made evident when we see the family out on the water without her on one trip, where the local Coast Guard cannot communicate with the boat and assumes they are in danger (the audience hears the distress signals). The Guard warns the Rossis that, for their safety, they must be accompanied by a hearing person to be aware of risks and dangers. Meanwhile Ruby, encouraged by her personal progress, decides to take a scholarship to Berklee and a new life.

Filmed on location in Glouchester, the film brims with authentic fishing scenes as well as Rossi family life and spirit (the three deaf actors in the film are all actually deaf (while Emilia Jones studied nine months to attain signing competence). They are all first-rate and play off each other with wit and intelligence (the four won an award for Best Ensemble in this year’s Sundance Film Festival and the movie also carried away the Grand Jury Prize). Matlin, who broke through with her first role (in “Children of a Lesser God” in 1966) is a bright and randy figure, along with Kutsur, the family comedian. Durant’s character has a tart presence and harbors some resentment to his bright sister, who, even though shy and restrained, is the motor behind which the picture moves.

Besides the family foursome, the film is also aided considerably by supporting performances from Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez as the choir director Mr. V and Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as Ruby’s shy, young love interest and fellow chorister. Young American writer/director Sian Heder composes their story masterfully, with a wonderful balance between the actors and a clear delineation of their differing—and contending—personalities.

The movie is graced with several telling scenes. One, for example, finds the Rossis watching a concert with the school choir, of whom Ruby forms a part. They are enjoying their daughter’s participation but can hear nothing. At one point, the soundtrack goes silent, placing us in their condition of deafness, not understanding what everybody else is enjoying—moving and sad. Another has Jackie in Ruby’s bedroom, where she signs how, when her daughter was born, she hoped that she would emerge deaf, like the rest of the family, but how, with the arrival of a hearing child, that desire just vanished. A scene touched with relief and remorse.

Most effecting of all is a cumulating scene when Ruby, auditioning to qualify for the program at Berklee, offers her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” She begins softly, tentatively, but, seeing her family, who has snuck into the balcony of an almost empty theater, she gradually starts fully signing the number as her voice rises, communicating to her deaf family the only way she knows, with graceful hand and body movements, playing to them as much or more than to her three-judge panel. It fires her performance to a level where she is granted acceptance to the program. Thrilling.

We are still some distance away from awards season, but watch for this one to earn accolades at year’s end.
(The film is rated PG-13 and runs 111 minutes and is available in theaters and streaming).

(August 2021)



Second Look: An Annual Survey of Overlooked Films

With this annual column, I again signal several “Movies That Got Away,” feature films (from 2020) less noticed or hyped upon release. This selection avoids blockbuster fare for movies which offered something distinctive, discriminating, or novel. Most of the films mentioned below had short runs and modest US box office but glowed with quality.

As in all movie seasons, there are standout individual and ensemble performances that too few people saw and which were mostly ignored during awards season. I cite one lead performance and two 19th C. period pieces with standout ensembles.

Sound of Metal – A triumph of a lead performance from Riz Ahmed as Ruben, a rock drummer who gradually loses his hearing, laments his fate, then struggles to come to terms with that loss with grudging acceptance and a careful, thoughtful reconstruction of his life. That redemption comes through working and learning within a small deaf community where he is mentored by Joe, a Vietnam War veteran, who helps him find his own way by learning signing. The film exhibits stunning sound design, with clots of sound whirling in and out of the sound track, mimicking Ruben’s auditory experience (The film won an Academy Award for sound design).



EMMA - Debut director Autumn De Wilde’s take on the Jane Austen classic is strikingly traditional and fully in period. Locations, costuming and hair, high-toned dialogue, and period music (a mix of Mozart, church tunes, and traditional airs)—all combine to present a world that Austen would recognize. As a “comic” Austen novel, the picture opens as flighty and twee, but then develops a more poignant mood as the miscues of Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) come to actually affect people’s lives. Young Taylor-Joy shows she can handle period rom-com quite capably. Her look—porcelain skin and marble eyes—gibes with the character, and she expresses moods both shallow and spirited with poise. For now, she will do nicely as the latest EMMA.

Anya Taylor-Joy (left) as Emma Woodhouse and Bill Nighy as her officious father in EMMA., a Focus Features release

The Personal History of David Copperfield – This is a triumph of a movie adapting a literary masterpiece, achieving, in boisterous style, the feel of the original. The diverse cast, led by a lively Dev Patel as David, offers a parade of fine comic actors performing as if oblivious to their own comic world. Peter Capaldi (Micawber), Ben Wishaw (Heep), Hugh Laurie, and Tllda Swinton, among many others, are standouts in their clueless unawareness of their circumstances. Director Armando Iannucci choregraphs his charges in a headlong series of quick cuts and lively vignettes that keeps the pace hectic yet the plot clear. The production lovingly creates the world and wardrobe of rural Victorian England to a tee, and the jaunty music and smart cinematography enhance the fun.


As usual, each film season presents great foreign-language films worth a look. Here are two of last year’s best:


Collective – This documentary about ingrained corruption in contemporary Romania is a wonder: a meticulously crafted landmark of investigative journalism. The title comes from the name of a Bucharest nightclub, scene of a fatal fire in October 2015. After the fire deaths, multiple burn victims died of infections in the aftermath, causing a national scandal. By early 2016, director Alexander Nauau and his crew began covering the scandal, following crusading journalist Catalin Tolotan, who leads a team to discover the truth through persistent inquiry and shoe leather. That inquiry is told in a pokerfaced style reminiscent of documentarian Frederick Wiseman: no interviews, no voice overs, no suggestive music track: just the steady presence of the all-seeing camera.



The Traitor - The story of the man who broke the Mafia in the 1980’s told in gripping detail. Tomasso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) makes a fateful decision in prison to tell all to another Sicilian as tough as he is: Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi). The result of his vast testimony is the famous maxi-trial in Palermo, with Buscetta the star witness before more than 300 Mafiosi defendants. Favino carries the film with a mix of toughness and grace, portraying a once violent man seeking a way to a better life. While there is action and suspense, the best scenes are quiet, thoughtful ones where Tommaso pours out his revelations to the solemn but sympathetic Falcone. The film, directed by legendary Italian Marco Bellocchio, swept the 2019 Italian film awards.

Pierfrancesco Favino as Tommaso Buscetta (on the lamb) in “The Traitor.” © Fabio Lovino. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics


Splendid documentaries, too, surface every film year. Below, note three intricate and heartening American exemplars:


Crip Camp – In the early 1970s, teenagers with disabilities faced a future shaped by isolation and institutionalization. Camp Jened, a camp "for the handicapped" in the Catskills, exploded these limitations. And it became their breakout Utopia, a place with summertime sports, smoking, make out sessions, and campers who finally felt fulfilled as human beings. Those bonds endured as some migrated to Berkeley, California, where friendships forged at the camp morphed into movements that realized that disruption plus unity could secure life-changing accessibility for millions. Co-directed by Nicole Newnham and former camper Jim LeBrecht, this exuberant documentary depends crucially on found footage from the 1970’s camp that introduces us to irrepressible characters who will later lead to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.



Boys’ State - “Boys’ State” is a week-long program in which rising Texas high school seniors gather at the University of Texas for an elaborate mock exercise: building their own state government. Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine tracked the 2018 edition of the program, where some 1,000 17-year-olds participated in a riveting gubernatorial race. The filmmakers, showing an eagle eye, focus on a quartet of committed, distinctive kids to carry the drama. It is a kind of miracle that the directors pulled off the film from out of this ten-ring circus. One reason is that they collared seven different sound-and-film crews to troll the campus, collecting hundreds of offhand conversations, speechifying moments, and personal interviews with the boys themselves.

A contingent of attendees at “Boys’ State.” At center, front row, is Rene Otero, one of the convention’s leaders. Photo courtesy of A24 and Apple

The Fight – Though hardly a reclusive organization, the ACLU has never granted access to its offices, where it battles rights issues like immigration, abortion, LGBTQ issues and voting—subjects that remain more significant than ever. The filmmakers of “The Fight” were granted that access and followed four inspiring attorneys, all handling landmark cases. Each lawyer is given equal time in this smartly edited film, making complex cases clear while keeping up the tension. Though the four are nerdish workaholics, their humanity also comes through. To get that rounded view of brilliant individuals, the filmmakers show their vulnerable sides, too, as when one panics trying to charge his cell phone, and another dutifully practices his Supreme Court speech at his bathroom mirror.

(August 2021)