REVIEW: “The Last Duel” (2021)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

It goes without saying that 83-year-old Ridley Scott is no stranger to sprawling period epics. His latest film “The Last Duel” fits snugly alongside “Gladiator”, “Kingdom of Heaven”, and 2010’s underappreciated “Robin Hood” (a movie I still happily defend). It’s massive in both scope and scale, it brilliantly recreates history through some jaw-dropping production and costume design, and it doesn’t shy away from the brutality. At the same time, this one has some interesting qualities that distinguish it from those other pictures.

“The Last Duel” sees Ben Affleck and Matt Damon penning a screenplay together for the first time since winning the Academy Award for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting”. They’re joined by Nicole Holofcener who wrote 2018’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”. The trio’s script is based on Eric Jager’s 2004 book about the last recorded Trial By Combat duel which happened in medieval France on December 29, 1386.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

The movie opens in 1386 Paris where two combatants, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), prepare for a duel to the death. Both men look intense and focused; doing their best to hide their apprehension. The two leave their quarters and mount their horses, riding into the center of a small arena where France’s King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) presides.

On a nearby platform stands Carrouges’ wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer), clad in black from head to toe and with her ankles tightly shackled. An accusation has led to the duel and she knows that the barbaric outcome will determine her fate. This duel between two men, not her own testimony, will decide whether she lives and is vindicated or she’s stripped, lashed and burned alive. The physical and psychological grotesquery of the scenario isn’t fully felt in the opening. But when we revisit this scene in the final 20 minutes it hits like a ton of bricks.

We learn that Marguerite has accused Le Gris of raping her while her husband was away at war. Le Gris denies the claim which eventually leads to the eponymous showdown. But what is the truth behind the accusation? What really happened? After the gripping tease, the “Rashomon” effect kicks in and we’re treated to three chapters, each beginning with “The Truth According to…”. Scott gives us three tellings of the story, told from the perspectives of Carrouges, Le Gris and finally Marguerite.

It doesn’t take long to figure out the mystery behind what really happened. In fact, the second chapter (the truth according to Le Gris) all but spells it out. Instead we’re tasked with figuring out who these characters really are. Along the way we learn how the duelers went from friends to foes. We’re shown how Carrouges, a man of war, met and married Marguerite, the daughter of a disgraced landowner. We see Le Gris wiggle his way into the good graces of the powerful and hedonistic Count Pierre d’Alençon (a scene-stealing Ben Affleck). And there’s the inevitable ending – a bruising display of savagery between two men where any semblance of humanity vanishes.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Unruly accents aside, the cast is uniformly superb. Damon overcomes a truly hideous mullet to give a brawny yet surprisingly layered performance. Driver portrays his preening entitled opportunist at just the right temperature. And then there’s Comer, a talented actress who navigates her character through an era where misogyny was ingrained in society and issues with women were “matters of property“. Comer brings a quiet strength and resiliency to Marguerite, and while not every scene in her chapter rings true, the performance always does.

“The Last Duel” sees Ridley Scott in top form. His film is oozing with exquisite period detail, captivating characters, and good old-fashioned storytelling. And his staging of the brutally intense finale visually rivals anything he’s done before. It’s a talky movie which may surprise some. But it’s never a slog, and the relevance of its subject matter packs one wicked wallop. It also makes for a nice alternative to the waves of horror and big franchise films filling the multiplexes.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Lamb” (2021)

No other 2021 movie trailer threw me for a loop quite like the one for “Lamb”. Independent film distributor extraordinaire A24 did their job in delivering a fascinating albeit trippy tease for this Nordic folk-horror tale. The movie premieres this weekend and the trailer certainly had the trippy part right. But it’s a little misleading when it comes to the horror element. “Lamb” is a far cry from conventional and the horror it’s going for is far more subdued.

“Lamb” is directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson working from a script he wrote with poet, novelist and playwright Sjón. The film premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the first reactions intrigued me far more than the trailer. “Lamb” is unquestionably one of the weirdest movies of 2021. It’s also captivating from start to finish, beguiling and unsettling, and at times darkly funny in a way that fully embraces the absurdity that’s built into the story.

“Lamb” kicks off with a scene that introduces us to one of the film’s biggest assets – DP Eli Arenson. In the opening, his camera slowly eases across a stark snowy tundra where something moving in the icy mist has spooked the local animals. Arenson shoots the sequence from the lumbering something’s point-of-view and the only hint of what it may be is found in its deep heavy breathing and the crunch of the snow under its feet. The camera ends at a barn full of rattled sheep. Cut! Jóhannsson smartly ends the scene, giving us just enough to wet our appetites.

Image Courtesy of A24

That gives you a good sense of Jóhannsson’s approach to storytelling – patient, methodical, and as reliant on the gaze of Arenson’s camera as the three lone (yet sublime) performances. The dialogue is sparse at times (particularly in the first of the three chapters) and the use of music is strategic. And then there’s Ingvar Lunderg and Björn Viktorsson’s crafty sound design which plays a big part in developing mood and instilling a lingering sense of unease.

The above mentioned barn belongs to Maria (Noomi Rapace) and her husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), owners of a sheep farm nestled in a scenic mountain valley in Iceland. The farm is as distant and remote as Maria and Ingvar’s relationship. There are no signs of enmity or bitterness between them. They’re just two emotionally withdrawn souls marching to the somber beat of their own drums. Their few conversations consist mostly of farm talk. Attempts at anything else comes across as awkward and frivolous.

But things turn towards the peculiar when a young ewe lamb is born; one alarmingly different than all the others. How is it different? Jóhannsson doesn’t show us, at least not at first. Instead he focuses solely on the farm couple’s astonished expressions. It’s yet another smart directing choice that connects us emotionally with Maria and Ingvar while effectively building our curiosity and anticipation.

Maria’s maternal instincts immediately kick in and she takes the lamb as her own, much to the consternation of the bleating birth mother. Maria names the lamb Ada, wraps her in warm blankets, and let’s her sleep in a washtub bassinet until Ingvar can dust off an old crib from the barn. Something is clearly off with this scenario and the audience members aren’t the only ones who recognize it. The observations of the couple’s sheep dog and house cat as well as the eerie cutting stares of the disapproving sheep convey a similar apprehension.

Image Courtesy of A24 Studios

Things get even more complicated when Ingvar’s deadbeat brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) shows up unannounced needing a place to crash. He is immediately taken aback by Ada and his wordless deadpan first reaction is an instance of both perfect timing and perfect framing resulting in a true laugh-out-loud moment. It’s that kind of subtle dark humor that Jóhannsson sprinkles throughout his middle chapter. Yet he always maintains a straight-faced sincerity that keeps his movie from becoming farce.

I won’t spoil anything, but it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s going on. What you won’t predict is what happens in the final ten minutes. Myself, I’m still trying to figure out how well the ending works. On one hand, it feels underdeveloped, abrupt, and a bit too ambiguous for its own good. On the other hand, it’s startling, bizarre, and in a sense a perfectly fitting wrap for a movie like this. The emotional payoff is almost certain to hit people differently and the final shot is as puzzling as it is affecting. Does it make for a satisfying finish? I’m still wrestling with that.

If you’ve read everything up to this point, you’ve probably figured this out – “Lamb” won’t be for everyone. Its strangeness alone will confound some while it’s simmering slow born may push away others who bought into the trailer’s more conventional sales pitch. Personally, I gravitate towards this deliberate observational style. Jóhannsson’s keen direction, the striking visuals, and the palpable emotion from the performances carry a lot of weight and ground the story (as absurd as it is). At the same time, themes of parenthood, loss, and human/animal coexistence bubble under the surface, often snapping us out of the film’s intoxicating hypnotic spell. “Lamb” opens in select theaters tomorrow (October 8th).

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Last Mercenary” (2021)

The action movies of the 80’s and early 90’s had a goofy and over-the-top style all their own. During my teen years and early twenties I couldn’t get enough of them. At the top of the food chain were the marquee names Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Just a step below were a handful of others including the martial artist known as The Muscles from Brussels (yes kids, that’s what some called him) Jean-Claude Van Damme.

For several years Van Damme was a big box office draw, but he fell out of the mainstream once the cinema landscape began its shift away from the machismo-infused romps that made him and others famous. Still, Van Damme has continued to make movies, releasing mostly straight-to-DVD action flicks every year since 2001. His latest film is “The Last Mercenary”, a French action-comedy from Netflix Studios.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

“The Last Mercenary” is a weird experience. At times it’s a painfully bland and erratically edited genre blend that bounces here to there with no real sense of flow. But then you see a self-deprecating JVD, his hair a little thinner and his wrinkles a little deeper. You see him joyously riffing on his past action star persona (even his infamous bad dancing). You watch him poke fun of his own enigmatic up-and-down movie career. Suddenly you can’t help but smile.

The film is directed by David Charhon and co-written by Charhon and Ismael Sy Savane. Their story puts the 60-year-old JVD in the role of the near mythical mercenary Richard Brumère aka “The Mist”. He comes out of seclusion after learning that the French government has accused his dim dope-peddling son Archibald (Samir Decazza) of being a wanted arms dealer named Simyon.

The movie features an off-beat blend of action and comedy that’s built around a fairly predictable father/son reconciliation. Richard left his son and late wife to protect them from the violence that comes with his job. Archibald feels his father abandoned him, and his mother’s death only deepened those wounds. There are occasional moments of heart where this fractured relationship gets some attention. But it always feels secondary to getting a laugh.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

In order to protect Archibald from the real Simyon (wildly overplayed by Nassim Lyes) and to root out the corrupt government officials working to keep Simyon’s identity concealed, Richard forms a team of local outcasts to help him. Dalila (Assa Sylla) and her brother Momo (Djimo) make for good comic sidekicks while Alexandre (Alban Ivanov), who was booted from the French Ministry for getting too close to the truth, is the movie’s clown – occasionally funny but way too over-the-top.

It’s fun watching JVD ham it up, whether he’s winking at a poster of his breakout movie “Bloodsport” or donning goofy disguises reminiscent of Peter Sellers’ bumbling Inspector Clouseau. But even that eventually wears thin leaving us with a haphazard movie that has more in common with a hyperactive cartoon. The humor ranges from silly to cringe-worthy with the worse being this running gag about Richard’s ‘ladies man’ status. Meanwhile the skittish editing only emphasizes the story’s overall clunkiness. And JVD’s best (and silliest) efforts can’t quite make up for it.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “The Last Letter From Your Lover” (2021)

The new Netflix romantic drama “The Last Letter From Your Lover” strolls across three(ish) timelines to tell the story of two lovers who embark on one illicit love affair during the summer of 1965. Bouncing back and forth between the then and now, “The Last Letter” sets out to capture the look and feel of a classic Hollywood romance while at the same time contrasting it with a budding modern love story. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but there’s just enough spark to keep us caring.

Directed by Augustine Frizzell and written by Nick Payne and Esta Spalding, the film is an adaptation of a 2012 novel of the same name by Jojo Moyes. The time-hopping narrative begins in 1965 London. Jenny (Shailene Woodley) sits in the car gazing out the window with a look of poorly veiled apprehension and uncertainty. A scar on the left side of her face runs from the corner of her eye to mid-cheek, hinting at the story we’re about to be told. “Everything’s going to be fine darling” says her seemingly concerned husband Larry (Joe Alwyn).

Image Courtesy of Netflix

We learn Jenny is returning home from the hospital following a serious car accident. In addition the the scar, the wreck also left her with short-term memory loss. But when she stumbles upon a letter tucked away in a book, pieces of her memory slowly start falling back into place. She begins to recall details of a romantic relationship she had with a young writer named Anthony (Callum Turner). Soon she’s searching everywhere for more letters that can help her remember this man and what he meant to her.

Jump ahead to current day. Ellie Haworth (Felicity Jones) is a features writer for the London Chronicle who comes across an old love letter while researching for another story. It’s addressed to someone called “J” from someone going by “Boot”. Captivated, Ellie begins looking for more letters, enlisting the help of the company’s jittery archivist Rory (played with just the right amount of humor and warmth by Nabhaan Rizwan).

Now stay with me, Jenny in 1965 and Ellie in the present day begin pasting together the romance behind the letters. The movie hops back six months prior to Jenny’s car accident when she and Larry are in the French Riviera. There she meets Anthony O’Hare who’s in town to write a piece on her husband. Hurt by her husband’s belittlement and neglect, Jenny sees the opposite in Anthony and soon the two are engaged in a whirlwind affair across the beautiful French countryside.

As you can probably guess (or if you saw the trailer) all of storylines eventually converge with various degrees of success. For the most part Frizzell holds it all together (the time-jumping is a little clunky but never becomes convoluted or overbearing). And while the story has its share of contrivances, Frizzell maintains a good sense of pacing so we never get stuck in one place very long. Also, I wouldn’t call the film visually flavorful, but Frizzell and DP George Steel do give us several scenes, almost exclusively in the 1965 setting, that crackle with old Hollywood style.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

The movie’s biggest issue comes with the current day storyline where Ellie begins a romance of her own with Rory; one that never gets above room temperature. Not enough time is given to building the connection between them and their relationship feels like an awkward inevitability, existing strictly because it’s in the script. The movie could lose the entire angle and never miss a beat.

In a very real way I’m glad “The Last Letter From Your Lover” exists. It’s extremely rare to get a true romance these days, not a romcom or a teeny flick, but a straight-up old-school romance soaked with longing and full of heart-pumping desire. They don’t come along very often. Today’s filmmakers have no interest in them and studios seem happy to leave them for the Hallmark Channel made-for-television assembly line. But there is something robustly cinematic about a well-made romance. “The Last Letter From Your Lover” isn’t the movie to usher in a new wave of romance films, but it does give a little taste of what the genre can be. I just wish it was a more filling meal. “The Last Letter From Your Lover” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Lorelei” (2021)

In “Lorelei”, the feature film debut for writer and director Sabrina Doyle, an ex-con, a single mother, and three children form the backbone of this blue-collar story set in the Pacific Northwest. On the surface it’s an unconventional family drama about people trying to find their way individually and together. But underneath it’s a movie about pressing forward and not being anchored to the past.

The movie opens as a man named Wayland (Pablo Schreiber) is getting out of prison after serving a 15-year sentence for armed robbery. After a night of boozing with his biker buddies Wayland checks into a halfway house ran by the amiable Pastor Gail (Trish Egan). Shortly after, he bumps into his old girlfriend Delores (Jenna Malone) and the two quickly reconnect. We learn that they were high school sweethearts and had big plans together. “We were something, me and you,” she laments.

But instead of moving to Los Angeles and spending their life together, Wayland went to prison and Delores went through a rough patch of her own. Now he’s an ex-con and she’s a struggling single mother of three working as a housekeeper at a rundown motel. But they still share a mutual affection and soon Wayland has moved in with Delores and her three children (played with stunning authenticity by first-time performers Amelia Borgerding, Parker Pascoe-Sheppard, and Chancellor Perry). It feels like a recipe for disaster and an arrangement doomed to fail.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Thankfully Doyle writes textured characters who are firmly grounded in the real world. They don’t fit any conventional mold so we’re never sure how things are going to turn out. She doesn’t gloss over their flaws or sugarcoat their failures. In fact, it’s impossible to condone some of the choices her characters make. But at the same time Doyle gives us glimmers of hope – faint and often hard to recognize, but hope nonetheless.

Also, Doyle’s story dodges many of the trappings that often come with this type of subject matter. “Lorelei” could have easily been just another small town tragedy. And while there are tragic elements, the movie digs deeper into real-world experiences that many will relate too. It’s all strengthened by Doyle’s working-class roots which gives her a clear-eyed perspective into the struggles of economically depressed communities and those drowning under the poverty line. There is a palpable realism in the situations her characters face and the choices the make feel natural.

While “Lorelei” plays like an authentic slice of life, dramatically it stays on slow simmer. Nothing about it feels false, not the characters or their stories. But it more or less stays in one gear. And it introduces several compelling supporting players, but (with a couple of exceptions) few of them are given more than a scene, two at the max. But in fairness to Doyle, she has a very specific story she’s telling and her laser-sharp focus on that story is what makes the movie tick. It looks great and the performances are terrific. But it’s Doyle’s grounded true-to-life perspective that gives “Lorelei” its pulse. “Lorelei” is now showing in select theaters and on VOD July 30th.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Loki” (2021)

The delightfully strange and occasionally perplexing “Loki” is the third foray into streaming television for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. First there was the homage heavy and magic filled “WandaVision”. It was followed by the scattershot yet stage-setting “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”. Then along came “Loki”, a six-episode mini-series that I can safely say has practically nothing in common with the previous two shows. It is completely it’s own thing which is part of what makes it work so well.

The enigmatic “Loki” was created by Michael Waldron who set out to make a time-hopping adventure that would constantly subvert audience expectations. Marvel Studios president and producer Kevin Feige brought in Kate Herron, a big fan of the Loki character, to direct all six episodes. Their creative efforts would result in a show that Feige said would have “more impact on the MCU than any show so far” and “lay the groundwork” for the MCU’s future.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

So was he right? Well, in a nutshell YES. It’s true that we don’t know for sure how things are going to play out, but “Loki” is a genuine game-changer and its events are certain to reverberate throughout the entire MCU. One thing’s for sure, “Loki” has a style all its own (both visually and narratively) that feels unique within the MCU catalog. It’s also brazenly bizarre at times which is one of its biggest strengths. As usual some episodes are better than others, but overall there’s more than enough fun and offbeat ambition to make this a must-watch for any Marvel fan.

To no one’s surprise, a key ingredient that makes the whole thing work is Tom Hiddleston reprising his role as the titular god of mischief. I feel like we say this a lot about the MCU’s stellar casting, but Hiddleston has been a perfect fit and he has truly made the character his own. Like many, I was surprised to hear that Marvel Studios was investing in a Loki series. I was even more surprised to see how fun and wildly original it turned out to be. And not just that, but it is the first Disney+ series that I would call essential viewing for anyone following the MCU. Both “WandaVision” and “TFATWS” set up some things for the future but nothing as far-reaching as what we get here.

The series begins with Loki being snatched up by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), an secret bureaucratic organization tasked with monitoring and protecting the “Sacred Timeline”. Loki threatened the timeline with his hijinks way back in the first Avengers movie. While in custody he is questioned by Agent Mobius (an absolutely delightful Owen Wilson) who reveals that Loki is what’s called a variant, a term that suddenly carries a lot of weight in the MCU. Essentially a variant is someone who branches off of the pre-ordained Sacred Timeline, disrupting its flow and creating an alternate path. The TVA then apprehends the “criminal” variant and restores the timeline.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

To no surprise Loki doesn’t buy it, but Mobius can be pretty persuasive especially when showing off just how powerful the TVA really are. Standard procedure would be to eradicate Loki. Instead Mobius recruits him to help catch a rogue variant who has been killing TVA agents and wrecking havoc across the timeline. Over time Mobius takes a liking to the cunning trickster. Hiddleston’s manic energy along with Wilson’s goofy charm brings a fun buddy time-cop vibe to some of the earlier episodes.

Not everyone at the TVA is as convinced as Mobius that Loki can be an asset. Namely Mobius’ friend and superior Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a high-ranking TVA judge overseeing the Loki investigation. She has a lot on her plate with running the TVA and reporting to the Timekeepers, three all-knowing ancient beings who basically write and preserve the Sacred Timeline. Loki wants an audience with the Timekeepers in exchange for his help catching the rogue variant. Renslayer doesn’t trust him and is only allowing him to help because of her friendship with Mobius. So there are several interesting dynamics at play.

But then a wild card is added to the mix – a pivotal character named Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) whose identity is best left for you to discover for yourself. She turns out to be a major piece of the story going forward and has discovered some damning revelations about the TVA that makes her a threat. Di Martino and Hiddleston have a sparkling chemistry that’s a nice mix of humor and dramatic tension. And the relationship between their characters has a surprising amount of depth and nuance.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

To say anymore about the story or character arcs would be a disservice. Just know you can expect all kinds of time-hopping shenanigans, fun character moments, and some wild unexpected flourishes that you never see coming. There is one stray episode that’s slower and less compelling than the others. But even it move things forward by focusing on and building up one of the story’s central relationships. And then you get to the end, a surprising and welcomed departure from the MCU’s usual action-fueled finales. Instead “Loki” finishes with an mesmerizing dialogue-rich showdown that’s sure to have MAJOR implications.

There’s even more to like about “Loki” including Natalie Holt’s beguiling score, the terrific production design (highlighted by the eye-popping TVA headquarters with its ominous blend of Soviet brutalism and neo-futurism), and the truly zany turns it takes in the later episodes (episode 5 introduces a certain scaly caiman variant that more-or-less steals the show). It all adds up to the strongest MCU series to date. Not a perfect one, but a show that feels important, is full of surprises, and adds a spark that the MCU roadmap needed. All six episodes of “Loki” are now streaming on Disney+.

VERDICT – 4 STARS