Movie Review ~ The Mauritanian

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A detainee at the U.S military’s Guantanamo Bay detention center is held without charges for over a decade and seeks help from a defense attorney for his release.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Tahar Rahim, Zachary Levi

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While I wouldn’t say the topic of The Mauritanian is something to get excited about, the release of it is because it signals another big screen (or small screen depending on your COVID-19 comfort level) appearance of Jodie Foster.  The notoriously picky Oscar winning actress doesn’t show up much in front of the camera these days, preferring to sit in the director’s chair more than anything else and while I appreciate the work she’s done for television and movies I do miss seeing her…she’s one of the best.  Foster returned (the same weekend The Silence of the Lambs turned 30, by the way) with this true-life story that casts her in a supporting role as famed criminal defense lawyer Nancy Hollander.  Even though many may be wary of another heavy-handed 9/11 political thriller, thanks to a powerful lead performance and assured direction this is one that should be given consideration.

Based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s best-selling 2015 memoir Guantanamo Diary, which was infamously released with a number of the pages heavily redacted (it was later re-published with all of the redactions fully restored), the film sets out to tell Slahi’s story from a mostly bipartisan standpoint.  Shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States, Slahi was an electrical engineering student going to school on scholarship in Germany when he returned home to Mauritania for a wedding.  It was there the local police detained him after suspecting Slahi of ties to Al-Qaeda through his cousin and other loosely laced evidence that could easily be explained had he been given the opportunity.  This was 2002 and was only the beginning of a 14-year fight for freedom that would stretch across two presidential administrations, several countries, and many legal challenges.

By 2005, Slahi (Tahar Rahim) had been incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay without being charged with a crime and subjected to the interrogation techniques that would be the downfall of several leading military officials.  Taking on the defense of a suspected 9/11 terrorist might seem like poison to an established professional like Hollander (Foster, Carnage) but something smells off to the seasoned attorney and she isn’t scared off by her disapproving colleagues or a stern military prosecutor (Benedict Cumberbatch, 1917) out to thwart her progress.  Working with junior associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars), Hollander meets with Slahi who might be the most dubious of all about her prospects at success.  Over time, she begins to win his trust as they begin to make the mightiest argument of Slahi’s life so he may reunite with his family and have his freedom restored.

Plenty of films have been made about the horrors that occurred at Guantanamo “Gitmo” and wisely director Kevin Macdonald (Whitney, How I Live Now) and screenwriters M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani avoid making the focus of the film on that aspect of Slahi’s experience.  Instead, they shift the attention to Slahi’s current encounters with his attorney’s as well as detailing how he was moved from Mauritania to Gitmo.  Though Macdonald wants to frame some of this in mystery at times and adds some flash by changing the aspect ratio of the film (less obvious in a home viewing experience, probably), The Mauritanian is one of those experiences that works better when it sticks to the facts and tenets of straightforward narrative.  It’s when the Macdonald jumps around in the timeline that it becomes hard to follow and track.  For this film in particular, losing the thread of where we are in the overall Slahi lifecycle can set you back a few precious minutes.

Where the film is receiving the most notice are the performances of Rahim and Foster and I can’t help but agree that both are shouldering most of the weight, with a slight edge going to Rahim considering he’s the de facto lead of the film.  Rahim is able to take Slahi from an idealistic young man to a unjustly kept detainee without the urge to instill a bitter bite to his delivery.  Like the real Slahi who miraculously kept a positive outlook throughout even the worst of his low points, Rahim’s chin is always up and squared with his belief that he will be proven innocent.  Sporting a white-blonde wig and the reddest lipstick that’s just ever so slightly imperfect, Foster gives Hollander knowing authority and never backs down when challenged.  It’s exactly the type of role we want to see Foster chew on, and she happily snacks away…but does it with her mouth closed because while she takes big bites out of scenes, they aren’t obnoxious ones.

The supporting players are a bit all over the map.  Like she did within the cast of TV’s Big Little Lies, Woodley shrinks a bit when sharing the screen with more dominant females, eventually fading from view and memory.  In a small role that turns pivotal somewhat out of the blue, Zachary Levi (Shazam!) reminds you of John Krasinski and makes you wonder if Macdonald didn’t have that actor in mind originally for the part.  Levi is fine for the requirement but is missing some of the easy-going guard-down charisma someone like Krasinski could have brought to it.  Then we have Cumberbatch in a downright crazy wig and an even more eyebrow-raising accent.  Both don’t do him any favors and it’s another case of wondering if the actor wasn’t a last-minute replacement for someone else or if it was just a bit of casting that didn’t go as planned.  Scenes that should crackle between Foster and Cumberbatch only fizz and it’s largely because Foster is working harder than she has to as a way to make up for Cumberbatch’s lack of vigor.

While I wouldn’t rush out and line-up The Mauritanian for a Friday or Saturday night selection, this is a solid choice for a Sunday afternoon or mid-week bit of entertainment.  The story is quite a ride and kudos to the filmmakers for doing their level best to leave major politics at the door for what is ostensibly a movie all about political maneuvering.  Both Bush supporters and Obama fans will come away with something to grumble about, I’m sure, and that will lead to a good discussion…so be sure to choose your movie watching party carefully!

Movie Review ~ Whitney


The Facts
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Synopsis: An in-depth look at the life and music of Whitney Houston.

Stars: Whitney Houston

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When I was young and MTV was just starting, I remember asking a friend’s sister to record this one video from an artist I just loved because I wanted to be able to watch it whenever I wanted. I even used a tape recorder to nab a sound recording so I could listen to it on the go. The song? How Will I Know. The artist? Whitney Houston. It was the start of a life-long devotion to the singer and sometimes actress, one that didn’t end with her tragic death at 48 on February 11, 2012.  Before she died and even after she was gone, rumors about drug use, sexual abuse, and destructive behavior swirled around the artist leaving many to believe the lies without knowing the truth.

In the new documentary Whitney, director Kevin Macdonald (How I Live Now) explores Houston’s meteoric rise and untimely fall through an introspective lens. Though he’s become more well known for Hollywood films, Macdonald got his start with documentary filmmaking and has kept to his roots throughout the years. It’s Macdonald’s experience with this genre and his piqued interest in the subject that propels Whitney from being a standard biography to an electric showcase of the dark side of fame.  Seeing the previews for Whitney I expected to come out of the film sad but never expected to come out as mad as I did. Here’s another tale of a talent surrounded by people that loved her for what she gave them but turned a blind eye to her cries for help. Not wanting to upset their meal ticket, it’s clear that family, friends, and co-workers were unwilling to tell the troubled performer no and largely sat idly by as she imploded.

An interesting technique Macdonald uses is to give viewers a snapshot of what was going on in the world at various points throughout Houston’s career. Interspersed with family photos and videos are television ads of the day and news clips from key events. It’s not exactly a revolutionary method but it helps set the scene quickly and distinctly. Through the years we get a better idea of what kind of impact Houston had on pop culture and how, after her public battle with drugs, she eventually became a joke to the very people that once sang her praises.

As she was growing up in New Jersey, Macdonald interviews those that knew Nippy (Houston’s nickname) and could tell at an early age that she possessed something special. Raised by her civil servant father and groomed by her famous mother (Cissy Houston, a singer), Houston was exactly the kind of fresh face and powerful voice that the music industry didn’t even know they needed. Shepherded by Clive Davis at Arista records, Macdonald boldly moves the action far forward, jumping from the popularity of her first album and skipping over the next several years as Houston cements herself as a gigantic star.  Going beyond the music, Macdonald shins a light on secrets within the Houston family and goes into uncomfortable detail in how everything in Houston’s upbringing wasn’t as rosy as her PR team made it out to be.

A telling sign of how fame can affect family and friends, many of the subjects interviewed get “employee” added to their onscreen relationship credit over time. Eventually, everyone that she was close to got on her payroll which caused great conflicts of interest between the star and those she trusted. Were they giving her advice as a friend or as an employee? Did they have her best interest as a person in mind or were they just looking the other way to keep getting a paycheck.  Thankfully, Macdonald doesn’t fall on either side of this issue but keeps Whitney as objective as possible. This viewer surely made his own conclusions but the filmmaker lets the words of Houston and those that knew her tell the story…and lets some of them dig their own grave. In frank and honest interviews, people admit to, among other things, providing Houston with drugs, knowing about sexual abuse within Houston’s extended family, and worrying about her parenting of daughter Bobbi Kristina. Houston’s notorious ex-husband Bobby Brown pops up and does himself no favors while the brief time we sepnd with Houston’s mother tells us all we need to know about the fire in their bellies that fueled their dreams of success.

While Macdonald covers a lot of bases (including the rumors about Houston’s sexuality) he never fully ties up any loose ends. There are several items that are introduced but never truly explored, a sign the film could have been a lot longer had Macdonald been free from the constraints of a theatrical running length. My hope is that any excised footage or interviews are made available on a home release or that a longer version is compiled at a later time. There’s just too much to cover in two hours and, while it’s all fascinating, too many of the fairly important pieces to  a much deeper puzzle are left in the box.

Let’s just face facts, Whitney Houston was one of the best singers in history and to lose her so early was an outright tragedy. Could her death have been prevented? Was there something more someone could have done? Sadly, the answer is yes and while Whitney doesn’t try to answer all the questions audiences may come with, it does provide stunning evidence that many people let her down.

Movie Review ~ How I Live Now {Twin Cities Film Festival}

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An American girl sent to the English countryside to stay with relatives finds herself fighting for her survival as the UK turns into a violent military state.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay, Anna Chancellor, Harley Bird

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The more movies I take in the less surprised I seem to be.  When you think about it, isn’t everything just a variation on the same several plot points across a limited amount of genre categories?  That’s why when I catch a movie that surprises me, I tend to sit up a little straighter in my seat and find that I’m willing to give myself over a little more to it.

I didn’t know what to expect from How I Live Now before I saw it at the 2013 Twin Cities Film Festival.  I had read a little about it and knew that it was adapted from a YA novel penned by Meg Rosoff but I deliberately skipped watching the trailer and generally avoided anything that might give away too much, lest I go in with certain expectations that wouldn’t, couldn’t be met.  When you’re as in to movies as I am, this lack of knowledge can sometimes be a huge gift and it’s probably the reason I wound up liking the movie as much as I did.

Though she started out 2013 in a blah adaptation of another popular YA novel (The Host – for which my negative review inspired an unhappy fan to say they wanted to punch me in the face), Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan comes back swinging here with a performance unafraid to be unlikable.  She’s a temperamental (read: bitchy) American girl visiting her aunt and cousins in their quaint English countryside estate when nuclear war breaks out in major cities around the world.

That’s about all you’ll need to know before seeing where How I Live Now takes this character and charts her experiences as she struggles to come to grips that her life will never be the same.  Where the first half of the film has the audience reeling at how bitter Ronan’s character is (we get the sense that her widowed father shipped her away for some peace and quiet), the second half turns the tables and easily wins the viewer back to Ronan’s side.

There’s nice support from a largely unknown and young cast who handle the harrowing material very well.  I liked Tom Holland’s performance in 2012’s The Impossible and he does equally strong work here as Ronan’s sensitive younger cousin. George MacKay rises above his characters questionable relationship with Ronan and tiny Harley Bird survives several scary scenes where her character is in grave danger.

The movie struggles with some tonal shifts that may be a little hard for people to roll with.  One moment it’s a dark comedy, the next a survivalist tale before switching to human drama and then into a dewey (and kind eeeewy) romance.  Even so, there was something about how director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) keeps everything afloat and slightly off balance that had me modestly mesmerized.  I wasn’t sure how the movie would end or if I’d even be happy with the resolution but thankfully the wrap-up makes sense as it aligns with everything that came before it.

You probably missed this one during its brief run in theaters but if you happen to be browsing your local Blockbuster (whoops!) I mean, your local Redbox or Netflix queue this one might be a more than pleasant surprise.  After all, it’s always the movies you are least expecting that find a way to sneak up on you.