Don’t believe the trailer, which gives a poor impression of what’s in store: Ridley Scott’s latest historical epic is lighter on the action than you’d expect, and, for a blockbuster, formally adventurous. Based on true events that took place in 14th century France, The Last Duel tells the story of a lifelong feud and a sexual assault… then it tells it again, and then once more. Three perspectives are brought to bear on the events, those of Jean (Matt Damon), a soldier and vassal; Marguerite (Jodie Comer), his wife and the daughter of a treacherous lord; and Jacques (Adam Driver), his oldest friend, and squire to a count – each controls a third of the film, shaping the story as they understand it. It’s an ambitious project, drawing consciously on narratives and discourses around patriarchy and sexual assault whose importance to our cultural conversation have become increasingly established in recent years – but does it work?
Matt Damon gives arguably a career best performance in Stillwater, as a tightly-wound, reserved, Oklahoma roughneck doing his best to support his daughter, who has been convicted of murder and resides in a Marseille prison. We discuss the film’s origins in the real case of Amanda Knox and Meredith Kercher, consider how well the characterisation works and where it might fail, and work through our fundamental responses to the film: for José, it’s is an unusual and complex critique of American society and culture; for Mike, it’s hard to take seriously, its animus obvious and milquetoast. Wherever you land, though, Stillwater is a deeply engrossing drama and worth seeing.
We may be living under lockdown conditions, but no virus can stop us, and to prove it we’re taking on Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller Contagion, about a virus that rips through every country on Earth, the scientific work to stop it, and the social decay that it leaves in its wake. Suggested as a podcast by an irony-seeking Mike, it backfires as it actually just frightens him.
At least, for a while. We think about the film in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic currently upon us, of course, praising what we recognise in the film’s imagined crisis, remarking upon the differences. Much of what it depicts feels very true to life, and it strongly evokes panic and a sense of uncertainty; on the other hand, the difference less than a decade makes is thrown into sharp relief with the film’s essentially competent and well-intentioned government response to the disease, a far cry from the lies and bluster being spouted by certain American presidents today – something that would have been not only unimaginable but laughable at the time of the film’s release. José notes that a high proportion of the public worry in our current outbreak comes down to its economic effects, which again, Contagion does not imagine as even a minor point.
It’s a well-made film, tightly plotted and paced, juggling several plots and sets of characters, understanding keenly how and when to jump between them, and its staging, editing and cinematography bring to life the paranoia of living in a society in which any surface innocently touched by any stranger’s hand could spread a deadly disease, and the fear and confusion engendered by a lack of trust in the government and loud countervailing voices. Contagion uses its characters and scenes as representative of ideas as much as, or more than, things in and of themselves, which Mike argues leaves it emotionally distant and overly simplistic – though there’s plenty of room for debate, particularly over Matt Damon’s performance.
All in all, Contagion is an impressive piece of thriller fiction whose successes and failures are both given oxygen in the light of very recent developments. If you watch it, be prepared to be made even more paranoid than you currently are… because the world we’re living in now is even more insane.
Cars, business, and a big chummy Brummie combine in 1960s California as Ford sets itself the mission of beating the all-conquering Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, in a film that has not one but two boring titles: Ford v Ferrari in the USA, and Le Mans ’66 in the UK. Mike had a good enough time to see it twice, even though it’s directed by James Mangold, for whom he has little love; José, incredibly, even welled up at the end.
Although one might expect clashes between the egos of our heroes, the Texan car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Brummie racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale), their relationship is really one of friendship, common goals, and coping with the management at Ford, for whom Le Mans is about business opportunity and making their way into the increasingly deep pockets of the American teenager. José finds Ken’s family life of particular emotional interest, the support he receives from his wife a pleasure and their arguments complex, though Mike isn’t as complimentary, seeing the film as overall too slick for its own good, failing to generate real tension in the problems it depicts. This goes for the racing, too, for which he reserves some criticism, opining that while the races are good fun and entertaining larks, they don’t convey the stresses or feeling of endurance as they should. But José, a man who cares not a jot for cars or racing, enjoyed the heck out of them, and perhaps that is an achievement all of its own.
The film offers some rather crude comic representations of Italians, the Ferrari pit crew running around like cartoons, which despite only really showing up twice do stick in the mind; and lightly poses the competition as a continuation of the Second World War, the Allies at Ford battling the Axis Power of Italy (at one point, Henry Ford II, played to a T by the great Tracy Letts, brags to Shelby about the role his factory played in building planes for the American war effort, telling him, “Go to war”). It’s an American film about the greatness of America at the height of America’s cultural standing in the world; as José describes it, their empire.
And plonked in the middle of this American myth-making is a sarcastic showoff from Sutton Coldfield, unable to keep his mouth shut except when he’s got some tea in there. Mike responded with unbridled joy to the attention to detail shown to Ken’s origins, not only in the broad, charming accent Bale employs, but also in the dialect he brings with him, talking of cheese cobs and using the phrase “round the Wrekin”, something most of Britain probably has no clue about, let alone America. Peaky Blinders may have given Birmingham a platform in modern pop culture, particularly amongst Americans, but Mike enjoys Ken here much more, ecstatic that a $100m movie that’s going down well with audiences features a Brummie as one of its heroes.
Le Mans ’66 is an honest to god charm offensive of a film, with entertaining action, performances that do the well-written screenplay justice, and even an emotional sting in the tail. Get yourself to the cinema for it. It’s bosting.
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Mike is in a tailspin of grief. José likes Matt Damon and little else. It’s Downsizing, a film that looked good in the trailers. Ostensibly a light satire on middle class life and aspiration, it leads us into discussions of its attempt to weave several themes together, its lack of humour, the way it constructs its worlds, whether its use of stereotypes drifts into offensiveness, and most importantly, how unbelievably tedious it is.
Mike reminisces about the few movies he saw at the cinema that inspired him enough to leave the film for a bit to play on his phone, or just leave. And Sideways is rubbish too.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.