Ben Affleck

The Last Duel

16/10/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

You have to hand it to Ridley Scott. At an age when most people are seeking nothing more than a mug of Horlicks and a pair of comfy slippers, he’s still creating big, powerful movies at a rate that would make most younger directors quail. Lurking just over the cinematic horizon is The House of Gucci, but meanwhile there’s The Last Duel, a powerful slice of true history, that unfolds its controversial story over a leisurely two hours and thirty-two minutes. Set in France in the fourteenth century, it relates the story of the last official duel ever fought there.

After years of military service in various wars under the sponsorship of Count Pierre d’ Alençon (Ben Affleck), Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is struggling to maintain his house and lands, after the death of his wife. So he marries Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer), the daughter of a disgraced but prosperous landowner. As part of the dowry, Jean is promised an area of land he’s long coveted, so he’s understandably miffed when Pierre takes control of it and gifts it to his squire, Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver), a former friend of Jean’s.

A powerful rivalry develops between the two men – a rivalry that finally culminates in Jacques visiting Jean’s castle in his absence and raping Marguerite. Jacques denies the allegation – in his self-aggrandising mind, Marguerite was attracted to him and therefore there was no rape. She meanwhile insists on speaking out against her assailant in an age when women in such situations were advised to keep quiet about such matters for their own safety.

Jean demands that Jacques meets him in mortal combat, and that God should decide who is telling the truth – but the consequences of him losing the fight are severe to say the very least. Marguerite will be burned alive if God judges her to be a liar.

The message here is inescapable. In a world where toxic masculinity holds sway, a woman’s word is worth nothing. She is expected to obey her husband in all matters and keep her mouth firmly shut, just as Jean’s mother, Nicole (Harriet Walter), had to when she was younger. It’s sad to observe that, many centuries later, this situation hasn’t improved as much as it should have done. Only recently, certain commentators in America have insisted on holding to the medieval belief that a woman cannot become pregnant through rape. It beggars belief but it’s still out there.

The Last Duel is told, Rashomon style, in three separate chapters, each one seen from the point of view of one of the leading characters. Often we see the same scene replayed with sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring differences. It’s not until we reach the final stretch that we witness Marguerite’s account of what actually happened to her and there’s no doubt in our minds that hers is the one we ought to believe. The script by Damon, Afflick and Nicole Holofcener, based on the novel by Eric Jager, is perfectly judged and a quick perusal of the actual events reveals that the writers have been assiduously faithful to what happened. Both Damon and Driver excel as men driven by their own overbearing sense of privilege, while Comer dazzles in every frame, clearly a woman on the verge of becoming a major star of the big screen. Little wonder that Scott has lined her up to play Josephine in his upcoming Napoleon biopic.

This is serious, grown-up filmmaking of a kind that’s sadly all too rare in a cinema dominated by cartoonish fantasy films. Scott has always excelled in recreating history on an epic scale and The Last Duel doesn’t disappoint. The big screen virtually explodes with a whole series of magnificent set pieces. Here is a medieval world that convinces down to the final detail, one that looks and feels thoroughly believable. And is there any other director who can depict medieval warfare in such brutal, unflinching detail? For once, the film’s 18 certificate feels entirely appropriate. I find myself gasping at just about every sword, axe and hammer blow.

The Last Duel won’t be for everyone, but for me it provides a visual feast with a compelling and fascinating story – and reinforces my belief that Ridley Scott is one of cinema’s most enduring and most versatile talents.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Justice League

 

24/11/17

After a massive jump in the right direction with Wonder Woman, DC, with director Zack Snyder at the helm, take ten supersteps backwards with Justice League. Where WW was a breezy soufflé packed with humour and cheesy romance, JL takes itself incredibly seriously and this, most of all, is what makes it a terrible thing to behold.

At the start of the film, Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead – don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler – and Batman (Ben Affleck) is feeling the weight of trying to fill those size 11 superhero boots. He’s also rather perturbed by the appearance in Gotham City of some weird winged beasties, which he assumes are of extra terrestrial origin. With this in mind, he sets about assembling a crack team of superheroes with the idea of defending the planet from these new arrivals. The team comprises Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa – for best results just add water), the Flash (Ezra Miller, the film’s best component by a country mile) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a man/machine affair, who appears to have been assembled by committee.

The threat to life as we know it comes from Steppenwolf – not the 70s rock band who recorded Born To Be Wild (who actually weren’t that bad in retrospect), but a great big dude in a horned helmet, voiced by Ciaran Hinds, who – in the best DC tradition – speaks like he’s swallowed a bottle of Rohypnol and who, you just know, would be a really dull drinking companion. He commands the weird winged beasties, The Parademons, who remind me, more than anything else, of the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz. For reasons best known to himself, Steppenwolf is trying to locate three magical boxes in order to bring about the destruction of the world as we know it, ushering in Doomsday. Why? Good question. I guess it’s just what big dudes in horned helmets feel they need to do. But why do they have to be so damned earnest about it?

Inevitably, what it all comes down to is yet another seemingly endless cosmic punch up, brilliantly rendered by the technical team, but incredibly dull and completely lacking in any sense of danger, since everyone involved is seemingly incapable of being seriously injured; even Batman, who we are repeatedly reminded is a mere mortal, seems to survive being thrown though buildings and automobiles without incurring more than a few token bruises. As I mentioned, Miller’s sparky turn as a nervy, possibly autistic young wannabe is the only element that offers any light relief in this maelstrom of misery, but his offerings are too occasional to lift this more than a few centimetres out of the doldrums.

Just when it appears that Steppenwolf is actually getting the upper hand, somebody comes to the aid of the team. Who is it? I’ll give you three guesses.

I know there are many out there who like their DC done with gravitas – and the three Christopher Nolan Batman movies are testament to the fact that it can work in the right hands. But sadly, those hands are not Zach Snyder’s, and this is a turgid, bloated train-wreck of a movie, that will surely have all but the most committed DC diehards turning up their noses.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Live By Night

18/01/17

Ben Affleck has already proved his worth as a director – Gone Baby Gone and Argo are just two examples that spring to mind – and adaptations of the novels of Dennis Lehane have already yielded cinematic gold on several occasions, so it’s hard to pin down exactly why Live By Night fails to measure up to expectation. It’s a handsomely mounted production, its 1920s setting lovingly evoked and there’s a stellar cast in evidence, with the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning submitting strong performances in what amount to little more than cameo roles. But there’s an overpowering conviction that the film is simply trying to cover too many bases for its own good, that a simpler, more linear narrative  would have exerted a stronger grip on its intended audience.

Affleck plays Irish-American Joe Coughlin, an ‘outlaw’ with his own moral code. As he puts it, he doesn’t mind working for gangsters, he just doesn’t want to be one. Which is, it has to be said,  a fairly nebulous difference. After a violent brush with New York Irish mob boss, Albert White (Robert Glenister), results in a lengthy stay in the chokey, Coughlin goes to work for the Italian mob, run by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) and finds himself relocating to Florida, where he becomes a major player in the burgeoning rum-running business. He also romances and marries Graciela (Zoe Saldana) and it begins to look as though a pleasant future is assured for both of them. But when Pescatore’s plans for a big casino go awry (largely because of Joe’s refusal to be as villainous as he actually needs to be), it soon becomes clear that there will be the inevitable deadly reckoning…

This is by no means a terrible film and, every now and then, events do spark into fitful life. An early car chase featuring vintage automobiles is decent enough and Elle Fanning’s role as a former heroin addict who turns to religion for salvation is briefly diverting, but too often events become bogged down in a lot of talking and not enough action. And the screenplay seems to want to have a bit of everything, involving as it does the Ku Klux Klan, Latin American swing music and whatever else happens to be wandering across the cinematic horizon. Even the film’s climactic shootout is followed by another half hour of loose ends being tied, all of which goes to dilute its appeal.

Which is a shame because it’s evident that much love and care has gone into the making of Live By Night. A stronger hand in the editing booth would probably have delivered a different viewing experience but, as it stands, this is to be filed under M for ‘Meh.’

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Gone Girl

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4/10/14

David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s twisted page-turner is a classier affair than the actual book – but as with Before I Go To Sleep, having read the work beforehand is a definite disadvantage, because this is a story that gets its chops from the big reveals it occasionally drops into the proceedings.

On the day of his fifth anniversary, bar owner Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home to find that his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing. Signs in the house suggest that she has been abducted. A police investigation ensues and as it unfolds, Nick begins to look more and more suspicious… does he actually know more about Amy’s disappearance than he is letting on? It would be a crime to reveal too much of the plot machinations here because Gone Girl is all about plot. Indeed, Flynn pushes the various twists and turns to such an extent that, in book form at least, the story starts to seem somewhat risible. But Fincher is so adept at creating atmosphere, it’s easier to overlook such shortcomings on the big screen. What’s more he has cast the film so shrewdly, that we believe in characters that on paper seem flimsy.

The book’s conclusion was a particular disappointment for me, but again, Fincher manages to make it work. This is an assured production that never loses momentum and which serves its source material well. If you haven’t already read the novel, maybe you should wait until after you’ve seen the film.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney