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Posts Tagged ‘Jodie Comer’

You can say a lot of things about Ridley Scott, and I certainly have in the past, but one comparison that I never recall being made is between the veteran director and Stanley Kubrick, which is odd when you think about it. Both of them have or had the knack of making films which were (by and large) critically well-received and also financially extremely successful; both produced a number of iconic films, spread across a range of genres. And yet Kubrick’s reputation is that of a visionary artist blessed with the popular touch, while Scott’s is (merely?) as a supremely skilled maker of popular entertainment, who happens to be well-liked by the critics.

Perhaps it’s because Kubrick came from the world of art, while Scott emanated from TV, with particular reference to advertising. Kubrick’s legendary pickiness may have something to do with it, too: as director alone, Scott has knocking on for thirty films on his CV, while his ‘unrealised projects’ list for the 2010s alone has sixty items on it (Kubrick scholars take note: he is apparently developing a biopic of Napoleon). He even seems to be speeding up: my partner and I went to the cinema recently and were treated to trailers for Scott’s next two films at the same time. Then again, it’s been a few years since his last, All the Money in the World. In any case, his new film is The Last Duel.

Ridley Scott got started by… well, actually, he got started as a designer at the BBC, where (the folklore has it) he played a small part in history by managing to dodge out of the job of creating the look of the Daleks in Doctor Who. His actual filmography got underway with The Duellists in 1977, a good-looking (of course!) tale of feuding French soldiers, and so there is perhaps something of a circle being closed with the new film.

The context for the title is that the film concerns the last duel to the death given legal sanction in France; this occurred in 1386. The movie opens with the build-up to the clash, which is a big crowd-puller; the King and Queen are present, and also in the crowd is Ben Affleck, playing a Count. Hostilities are scheduled to break out between veteran warrior Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and captain in the King’s service Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver); taking a natural interest in proceedings is de Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer).

But why are they fighting? Well, thereby hangs a tale, or perhaps three. The lazy go-to when it comes to describing The Last Duel is that it owes a debt to Kurosawa’s Rashomon, in that the central narrative is told several times, from the points of view of the main participants. This makes for clever storytelling but can easily lend itself to an awkward synopsis.

Anyway: de Carrouges and le Gris are initially friends, fighting together for the King of France (Scott retains his ability to put together crunchingly immersive and convincing battle sequences), but then their lives take different paths. De Carrouges, a stubborn, short-tempered man ill-suited to anything but swinging a weapon, finds himself struggling for money and recognition. Le Gris, a sharper and more emollient customer, finds favour with their liege-lord, the Count of Alencon (Affleck), and reaps the rewards of this, including receipt of honours that de Carrouges believes are his by right. De Carrouges, meanwhile, has married a rich man’s daughter (Comer), an intelligent and cultured young woman who naturally catches le Gris’ somewhat peripatetic eye. An encounter occurs between them while de Carrouges is away. But was it consensual, as le Gris insists, or the brutal act of rape that Marguerite declares it to be?

This being one man’s word against another during the late middle ages, the obvious recourse is to fight a duel to the death (the principle being that God will be on the side of whoever’s telling the truth). But are de Carrouges’ motivations quite as noble as he insists they are? His concern for his wife doesn’t quite extend to letting her know that if the duel goes badly for him, she will also be declared a liar and burned at the stake…

You have to look carefully to find a less-than-entirely-successful film on the Ridley Scott CV – the last one, I think, was A Good Year, back in 2006 – but it looks like The Last Duel is tanking badly in cinemas. As long-term readers will know, I’m far from an unconditional fan of Ridley Scott’s films, but this one does not deserve to be a failure. Have events conspired against it, with its target audience still wary of going to the cinema? Probably yes. Was it really a good idea to schedule its release against the latest outings from reliable bankers like James Bond and Michael Myers? Arguably not. But I fear that people in charge of budgets will ignore all this and simply conclude that adult-oriented drama about ‘difficult’ subjects isn’t worth investing big budgets in any more, something which would impoverish our culture still further.

Superficially at least, it’s hard to see why the film should be struggling: it looks fabulous, presenting a wholly convincing (if inevitably grotesque) mediaeval world, filled with life and persuasive detail; the battle sequences and final duel are, as mentioned, tremendous. There are also very able performances from the four leads – apparently Ben Affleck, who co-wrote and produced the film with Damon and Nicole Holofcener, was initially intended to play le Gris, but chose to step back and take the smaller role of the Count, which may have been a smart move – Adam Driver is very good as le Gris, and Affleck gives his best performance in ages as the hedonistic nobleman.

But, on the other hand, it’s a film about a rape with a story structure that sounds suspiciously like something out of an art-house movie. It’s not quite a Rashomon clone, though: the differences between the three accounts of what happens are established solely through editing choices and the addition of different scenes; the dialogue and performances remain almost entirely unchanged. It’s skilfully achieved, with the characters appearing in subtly different lights as a result.

It is still a film about a sexual assault – which, when it comes, is soberly presented but still uncomfortable to watch (as it should be, of course). Here there is an unsettling mixture of unsavoury historical detail and contemporary parallel – the Count counsels le Gris to ‘deny, deny, deny’ the charges against him, while ‘victim-shaming’ is the very mildest way you could describe the way Marguerite is treated, particularly at the trial. On the other hand, it is made clear that rape is considered to be a property offence, with the husband being the wronged party, and the then-current view that rape could not result in pregnancy also becomes an element of the story.

If I had a criticism of The Last Duel it’s that the social commentary is not handled as subtly as it could have been; there is also the fact that the film appears to be playing favourites. The whole subtext of a multiple-perspectives narrative like this one is that truth is an objective and impossibly elusive thing – but one of the testimonies presented here is given privileged status, with the implication being that one of the participants really is telling the truth. It’s hard to see how this kind of editorialising is justified, even if one of the characters has a more natural claim to our sympathies than the other two.

Apart from that, I found this to be an absorbing and satisfying drama, with great production values, strong performances, and fine direction; the lengthy running time floats past. Perhaps its message is that things haven’t changed that much in society in over 600 years; even if they have changed, it’s clearly not enough. Either way, another strong movie from Scott and a reminder that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are more than just fine actors. Hopefully this movie will eventually get the recognition it deserves.

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Some kind of threshold in the delexicalisation of the word irony was surely passed when the Original Film Company announced it was going to release… well, take your pick, really: Sonic the Hedgehog, the Total Recall remake, any of the Fast and Furious movies… not that all of these films are necessarily bad, of course. It’s just part of a larger trend, anyway, and one which we have discussed before: such is the expense and exposure involved in making a major tentpole summer blockbuster these days, that the big studios invariably hedge their bets by backing properties with a history of success – which translates as doing sequels, remakes, and adaptations of properties from other media (TV shows, comic books, video games, theme park rides).

It’s a slightly dismal state of affairs even when, as noted, some of the sequels, remakes, adaptations, etc, stand up pretty well on their own terms. The arrival of a big popcorn movie which is none of these things is always therefore a noteworthy occasion (especially if it’s not been directed by Christopher Nolan).

That said, I wasn’t particularly grabbed by the early publicity for Shawn Levy’s Free Guy, partly because it didn’t honestly look all that much like an actually original film (a grab-bag of ideas and visuals from elsewhere, really) and also because it’s a star vehicle for Ryan Reynolds, who has undeniable ability as a light comedian and leading man, but also often comes across as a bit smarmy. Still, you know, sometimes you just want to see something colourful and lively and not too demanding on the higher brain functions.

Reynolds plays Guy, who is a bank clerk in Free City. Guy thinks Free City is a utopia, the greatest place to live in the world, even though it objectively seems to be a dismal, insanely violent, crime-ridden hellhole, where the streets are filled with outlandishly-dressed violent psychopaths all wearing sunglasses and intent on non-stop mayhem and slaughter. But Guy still likes it there. But is there something missing from his life of cheery routine? (Wake up – grab coffee – go to work – be robbed six or seven times a day – go home etc.) Perhaps there is.

He gets an inkling of what it may be when he encounters a mysterious woman (Jodie Comer), one of the sunglasses-wearing faction. This provokes him to break with the old routine, stop doing all the usual things, and even – his best friend is appalled by the thought – get a pair of sunglasses for himself. To say the world takes on a whole new hue when he pops them on is an understatement.

The audience is a step ahead of Guy by this point, anyway, as the movie doesn’t hang around in elaborating on its central conceit: Free City is the setting for a computer game (something like a MMORPG version of Grand Theft Auto) and Guy is one of the background, non-player characters (NPCs) whose main function is to be brutalised by the players (the psychopaths in sunglasses). But something has happened to Guy, allowing him to evolve beyond his designed function and take control of his actions…

This concerns and baffles the people maintaining the game systems, but is also of great interest to two programmers in particular (Comer again and Joe Keery). Comer’s character believes the Free City game includes code illegally swiped from one of their own productions, and is seeking evidence for a lawsuit against the tycoon responsible (the increasingly ubiquitous Taika Waititi). Can Guy have something to do with all this?

I will concede that for a theoretically original film, there is a lot about Free Guy which feels suspiciously derivative: you could make a very long list of all the films which it feels like it owes a debt to, one way or another, starting with Westworld and going on to take in movies as diverse as They Live, The Truman Show, The Matrix, Gamer and Ready Player One. (This is before we even consider some of the crowd-pleasing pop-culture references Reynolds has managed to sneak in courtesy of his relationship with Marvel and Disney.) But it manages the very neat trick of taking all its influences and combining them to produce something which doesn’t feel like it’s obviously ripping off any of them in particular.

The result is a very clever and visually dense film – the corners of the screen are filled with little gags and throwaway details – as well as one which is solidly structured and written (managing to handle some of the issues with this type of scenario with notably more grace than some of its donors). It’s not just clever as a piece of entertainment, either – it manages to take big and potentially unwieldy ideas and smuggle them in front of the camera, usually disguised as jokes or incidental detail. There’s a lot of satire of computer game norms and gamer culture in general, but also more thoughtful and even philosophical ideas about free will and the nature of reality. That the world around us is not what it initially seems is a foundational premise of much great science fiction; which means that Free Guy easily qualifies as one of the best SF films in ages.

Smart summer blockbusters are rare enough, but the other thing which really makes this film stand out is that it has a genuine sweetness and positivity about it which is, to be perfectly honest, incredibly rare in a major studio movie these days. What makes Guy stand out and get noticed as he begins his quest to improve himself is that he is attempting to be a hero in a world where the default assumption is that everyone will behave like a sociopath. He is cheery and upbeat and often apologises to people after finding himself required to do violence upon them. Reynolds finds a way to do this without coming off as bland or saccharine or preachy; I can’t think of a better performance from the actor. But then the whole film is notably well-cast as well as being well-written; the closest thing to a stereotype is Waititi’s grasping businessman, but then he is largely there to symbolise the evils the film is setting out to challenge (he even gets a line about how originality isn’t profitable and that sequels and IP are where the money is).

A film flying the flag for creativity and new ideas, and doing so while suggesting there is indeed value in doing the right thing, would get my support no matter what (well, maybe not if it seemed to be acted by drones, edited by chimps and directed by a committee) – but for a film to do these things while being consistently engaging, clever and funny is virtually miraculous these days. Free Guy, rather unexpectedly, turns out to be a real treat and almost certainly the best popcorn film of the summer.

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