By Alex McPherson

An ambitious historical epic with powerful performances, hard-hitting action sequences, and an intelligent condemnation of systemic injustice, director Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” approaches glory, but falls slightly short of achieving it.

Based on actual events and taking place in 14th century France, the film, broken into three sections, begins with Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon, sporting an unfortunate hairdo), a valiant fighter serving under the cuckoo Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). De Carrouges, having lost his first wife and child from the plague, sees an opportunity to father an heir and inherit a large dowry, which includes a huge swathe of land. He weds Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer), the daughter of a wealthy-yet-disgraced nobleman. However, through a series of political maneuvers, longtime friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) ends up possessing a large portion of de Carrouges’ new land, gets promoted to captaincy over him, and rapes Marguerite when she’s alone at home. De Carrouges files lawsuit after lawsuit, eventually requesting a last duel to the death. Retribution for Marguerite’s rape isn’t de Carrouge’s primary motivation — it’s his own pride and “honor” that’s at stake.

We then see the same events from Le Gris’ point of view: he observes as the handsome, fun-loving squire who parties with the Count and helps him improve his fortunes (Le Gris can read and handle basic accountancy). He betters his own lot in life by currying favors. In this version, de Carrouges isn’t a brave warrior, but a bumbling fool. It’s all rather smooth sailing for Le Gris who, after the assault, is reassured from the Count and the clergy that there’s no way that Marguerite’s claims will be taken seriously. 

Jump to section three, the most resonant of them all, and we watch the happenings unfold from Marguerite’s vantage point, getting a more intimate look at the horrible situation she’s become stuck in. She’s left feeling dehumanized and at the mercy of arrogant men whose final battle risks not only their lives, but her own as well.

Suffice to say, there’s plenty of anxious tension headed into the climactic confrontation, a bloody brawl that’s undoubtedly one of the best scenes of 2021. Beforehand, “The Last Duel” takes a creative approach to storytelling that fully fleshes out its subjects — the courageous Marguerite in particular. While Scott’s film isn’t especially profound in revealing that 14th century France was, in fact, horrendously unjust towards women, it slyly demonstrates how shifts in perspective can alter how we perceive the world, and the self-serving ways in which we might perceive ourselves.

Indeed, “The Last Duel” invites viewers to compare and contrast each party’s accounts of what took place, illustrating pertinent differences between them. Alterations in music, camera angles, and dialogue reveal the truth layer by layer, depending on who’s telling it, both serving to fill in narrative gaps and make the film feel decidedly stretched-out by the sword-clashing finale. The costuming and production design are incredibly detailed and period accurate, to be expected. The screenplay — co-written by Damon, Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener — highlights the egomania of de Carrouges and Le Gris, while occasionally throwing subtlety to the wind.   

This episodic structure wouldn’t work if the actors weren’t in top form, and luckily, the whole cast delivers. Comer, bringing to life Marguerite’s kindness, trauma, and steadfast bravery in facing a system designed to subordinate her, is wholly deserving of accolades come awards season. Until the final act, she’s mostly relegated to the sidelines, but she conveys Marguerite’s weathered fearlessness through her facial expressions alone, infusing the film’s final stretch with true emotional gravitas. 

Damon and Driver are similarly effective, albeit portraying more straightforward characters. There’s little redeeming either of them, no matter if we’re seeing through their eyes or not, but “The Last Duel” takes great lengths to show the patriarchal structures that inform their worldviews. Affleck almost seems like he’s in a different film, but it’s entertaining watching him embrace a demented frat boy persona as the Count, drunk on power along with alcohol.

Where the film stumbles involves Scott’s lack of restraint. Witnessing Marguerite’s assault — twice — comes across as exploitative rather than necessary. On one hand, “The Last Duel” paints similarities of Le Gris’ monstrous actions to the “playful” nights he enjoys with women in the Count’s chambers. On the other hand, when shown again through Marguerite’s frame of reference, it serves little purpose beyond shock value, fueling our anger leading into the titular showdown. In this case,“The Last Duel” uses her violation to artificially amplify dramatic stakes.

Although the film is ultimately uneven in execution, there’s still enough compelling characters to carry it through to its squirm-inducing conclusion. “The Last Duel” succeeds in demonstrating how the past informs the present, and the importance of recognizing how a core issue of the time — viewing women as property rather than human beings — continues in various insidious forms today. It’s also just a bone-crushing, suspenseful medieval thriller that prizes at least some brains over pure brawn.

Jodie Comer in “The Last Duel”

“The Last Duel” is a 2021 drama directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Adam Driver and Jodie Comer. The run time is 2 hours, 32 minutes, and it is Rated R for strong violence including sexual assault, sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language. Alex’s Grade: B+

By Alex McPherson

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is an entertaining, four-hour superhero epic that greatly improves on Joss Whedon’s 2017 version. After leaving the first production due to a family tragedy, director Snyder is finally able to give fans what they’ve been craving. 

Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and another familiar face team up to take down a world-ending threat. This time, a horned monstrosity named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) seeks to eliminate humanity from Planet Earth via three powerful “Mother Boxes” and rebuild it under the leadership of Darkseid (Ray Porter), who wants to control the galaxy. Feeling partly responsible for the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) in “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Batman becomes a reluctant leader as he and Wonder Woman bring the squad together. Heroes both new and old undergo their own arcs, to varying degrees — involving the topics of grief, faith, hope, and unity in times of crisis.

Aiming to please those who willed it into existence, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is difficult to recommend to viewers who aren’t already fans of the DC Cinematic Universe. The film contains moments of emotional resonance and visual spectacle, but proves grueling by the final hour — reverting to predictable plotting and repetitive, CGI-reliant action sequences.

At least the central characters are given more opportunities to shine. From its opening frames, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” establishes itself as a slower, mournful affair, with a 4:3 aspect ratio, dour chapter titles, muted color palette, and a clearer sense of organization. Snyder has crafted an unarguably more coherent storyline than before, maintaining a grittier tone than the original cut and giving scenes more time to breathe. Even though the storytelling itself is clunky, largely thanks to hit-or-miss dialogue and frequent exposition dumps, I appreciate Snyder’s ambition. 

The added depth to Cyborg (a.k.a Victor Stone) is particularly noteworthy. After Victor and his mother are killed in a car crash, his father, Silas Stone (Joe Morton) uses a Mother Box to resurrect Victor in a robotic body. Thanks to his new abilities, Victor becomes an all-powerful presence, able to tap into the world’s technological web with ease, and representing the League’s key to vanquishing Steppenwolf. Despite his powers, Cyborg is gripped with resentment towards his father and deeply uncertain of his own future. Fisher’s acting is endearing and empathetic, the most convincing in the entire film. His character  — practically deserving of its own standalone installment — remains the heart and soul of the whole endeavour. 

The Flash (a.k.a. Barry Allen) is also further fleshed out, but his journey lacks the nuance and complexity of Cyborg’s. He is much more confident in his speedy capabilities and doesn’t spout as many cringey quips as in the 2017 iteration. Batman, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman, on the other hand, aren’t given much new material to work with under Snyder’s guidance, but we’re given more context for their actions. This helps create a stronger sense of flow from scene to scene than before, and all the actors give decent performances.

In terms of antagonists, Steppenwolf’s goals are more clearly outlined. Exiled from his demonic homeworld, he’s trying to prove himself to his master, Darkseid. Even though we understand where he’s coming from, Steppenwolf is still difficult to empathize with. Revealing more about his history doesn’t automatically fix his blandness or render him memorable. He’s big, powerful, odd-looking, and ready to slice and dice his way to victory.

Speaking of violence, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is rated R, allowing Snyder to indulge in bloody carnage that feels far more visceral than other cinematic comic book offerings. As expected, however, Snyder deploys an over-abundance of slow motion to present every shot as a work of art to be gawked at. Yes, there’s instances of beauty in his eye-popping, effects-heavy compositions, but they lose their thrill as the hours pile up.

Combined with an unnecessary epilogue that’s purely fan service, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” doesn’t quite justify its existence for casual moviegoers. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly support Snyder’s efforts to realize his vision. That being said, four hours is a huge time commitment, especially when viewed in a single sitting, and his film doesn’t differentiate itself enough to truly stand out.

A self-serious, over-indulgent, yet admirable effort, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” isn’t the masterpiece that some have touted it as, but it proves sporadically enjoyable. I just needed a long nap afterwards.

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is a 2021 release from Warner Brothers that is exclusively showing on HBOMax, as of March 18. It stars Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Henry Cavill, Ray Fisher and Ezra Miller as the six superheroes in the DC Justice League. is Rated R for violence and some language. It has a run time of 242 minutes. Alex’s Grade: B –


By Lynn Venhaus

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” – The Serenity Prayer

This is really a movie with the Serenity Prayer theme front and center. A grieving alcoholic father’s road to redemption is wrapped around an inspiring high school sports story – think “Hoosiers” meets “A Star is Born” (2018), “The Verdict,” and/or “Flight.”

Once a high school hotshot, Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) threw away his full ride to Kansas. His adult life – construction job, failed marriage, personal tragedy – has not turned out that well either. Using alcohol to mask his pain and self-hatred, he’s mired in a bad place. Then, his alma mater, Bishop Hays High School, calls to offer the head coach job. Going back to the school where he had his glory days proves to be redeeming as he turns around the team. But it’s not an overall fix, as he needs to deal with his demons and addiction, and his family ultimately helps put him on the path to recovery.

“The Way Back” is not your typical rah-rah sports underdog tale, to director Gavin O’Connor’s credit. O’Connor worked with star Ben Affleck in one of his best performances, “The Accountant,” and gave us “Miracle” about the U.S. 1980 Olympic hockey team and his acclaimed estranged family drama with a mixed martial arts focus, “Warrior.”

O’Connor knows how to stage sports action and captures well the re-energized youths of the Hays Tigers, with stand-out performances from Melvin Gregg as showboat Marcus and Brandon Wilson as loner Brandon, the team’s best player. Al Madrigal is memorable as assistant coach Dan.

But make no mistake, this is Ben Affleck’s comeback, and the parallels between his real-life battles with alcoholism, relapse and recovery come into play. You can’t help but think of his demons that he has wrestled with his entire life, for it is a genetic family disease.

Many families can relate to this struggle, which is why the film succeeds. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s realistic.

Beefy, with slumped shoulders signaling life defeat, Jack makes it through the day by drinking. He’s a construction worker with a cooler in his truck and vodka in his water bottle. After work, he’s either stopping at a liquor store or is a barfly, helped up the steps of his drab L.A. apartment at closing time.

His family watches his self-destruction. Sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) sees their father in Jack’s downward spiral. His ex-wife Angela (Janina Gvankar) tries to be supportive.

While he can’t get a handle on adulting, he sure finds his purpose in coaching his alma mater’s basketball team. He turns the team into a unified group who believes in their ability to win.

Yet, until Jack deals with his alcoholism, his life can’t get back on track. So, we see all the steps – the hitting bottom, the facing his troubles in rehab, the making amends. It’s a one day at a time process, no simple solutions.

It’s a sobering film, unconventional in a way because nothing is neatly tied up.

Understated, using natural light and dark shadows, its view is clear, despite some clunky transitions in the script by Brad Ingelsby.

And Affleck, with a strong body of work – and two Oscars – doesn’t have to prove his talent, but shows he is ready to move on to a better second act.

And his character sees more clearly now because of this hard-fought journey, which is reason to cheer, no matter how the team did in the playoffs.

The Way Back” is directed by Gavin O’Connor and starring Ben Affleck. It is rated R for language throughout including some sexual references. Running time is: 1 hr. 48 min. Lynn’s Grade: B+.