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 ~ Shazam!

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The Facts
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Synopsis: We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s case, by shouting out one word – SHAZAM! – this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult superhero Shazam.

Stars: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David F. Sandberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Those poor souls over at Warner Brothers/DC Comics were likely looking at 2019 and feeling crestfallen at their prospects. With three highly anticipated Marvel films set for release and their Wonder Woman sequel pushed back to 2020, it must have felt like any hopes of getting another foothold in their franchise ladder weren’t going to happen. I’m not sure how much faith they had in Shazam! at the outset but they should have pumped this one up a bit more than they did. Sure, I saw the preview more times than I needed to before other films but going into the movie I wasn’t expecting anything vastly different than the soulless offerings they’ve been churning out in the past decade.

Thankfully, it seems like they may have stumbled onto something good.

Foster kid Billy Baston (Asher Angel) has found himself on the wrong side of the law for the last time when he is apprehended after obtaining information from a police database. He’d been attempting to find his mother after they were separated when he was a toddler and hasn’t given up hope that she’s out there and is looking for him as well. Taken in by another foster family that already boasts a diverse line-up of kids in similar family situations, Billy bides his time until he can run away again to continue his search.

When he’s mysteriously brought to the temple of an aging Wizard (Djimon Hounsou, Serenity) tasked with guarding the seven deadly sins, he absorbs the fading Wizard’s magic and turns into a buff superhero (Zachary Levi, Thor: The Dark World) anytime he says the Wizard’s name: Shazam. Unware of the extent of his newfound powers, Billy has the mind of a teenager in the body of a mature adult and at first doesn’t exactly use his upgrades for good. Though he runs through some trials of his abilities with his foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer, IT), he starts to be the kind of hero that’s only looking out for himself instead of assisting others.

He’s put to the ultimate test when Sivana (Mark Strong, The Imitation Game) enters the picture. Obsessed with finding the temple of the Seven Wizards that he too visited as a young child, the grown man eventually makes his way back to the hidden dwelling and frees the sins from their prison. Now being used as their vessel for evil, Sivana sets his sights on taking the Wizard’s power from Shazam (who has become something of a local Philadelphia celebrity) and eliminating everyone he loves.

If there’s one thing that’s been sorely missing from the DC slate of superhero movies it’s a sense of humor and finally the stiff suits at the studio backed up and let wiser talents guide this process – and it’s largely successful. Though the previous credits for screenwriters Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) and Darren Lemke (Goosebumps) might not have suggested they’d be the right choices to bring Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s superhero to the big screen, Shazam! is a welcome change of pace from the darker-hued adventure films the studio has been greenlighting. Adding director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) was another inspired choice as he’s nicely able to balance the lighter/more comedic elements of the plot with the darker edges supplied by Sivana.

Sandberg has cast the film well starting with Levi as our hero that becomes more than the sum of his bulging muscles and caped suit. Seeing that he’s actually a teen given awesome powers, Levi might overplay the sarcasm and wise-cracks a bit early on but it provides him a place to jump off from as he grows into a more responsible hero and a more understanding teenager. He has a nice rapport with Grazer and his other foster siblings, adding some layers to a character that could easily have been pretty one-dimensional. The villain role doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch for Strong at this point and while he’s perfectly fine in the part it would have been nice to see it played by someone a little less expected. It’s just too easy for Strong to slide into these wicked characters by now.

While it’s a good 10-15 minutes too long, spending unearned time with Sivana and following Levi through perhaps a few too many blunders, Sandberg and the screenwriters manage to introduce a late breaking twist that I found pretty delightful and nicely inclusive. Buoyed by strong performances by the child actors (a rarity these days) and a nice dose of humor and creativity, Shazam! is a fun right turn from the careening curve DC studios couldn’t pull out of.

Movie Review ~ Thor: The Dark World

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Faced with an enemy that even Odin and Asgard cannot withstand, Thor must embark on his most perilous and personal journey yet, one that will reunite him with Jane Foster and force him to sacrifice everything to save us all.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Alan Taylor

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I wasn’t the biggest fan of 2011’s Thor, feeling that for a modern day superhero adventure it was awfully slow and relied too much on special effects imagery to create its fantasy lands in which our hero fought various villains.  Though it was a well-made affair, it paled in comparison to the shoot for the moon efforts from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and lacked the nostalgic feel that Captain America: The First Avenger brought forth.

Well, with a few years and another film appearance under his belt (2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers) Thor has returned and if he’s not better than ever, he’s at least stepped up his game in an attempt to go to bat with the big boys of summer.

The plot for Thor: The Dark World is so convoluted that even if I weren’t a spoiler-free type of critic I wouldn’t know how to succinctly describe the events of the film.  All you’ll need to know is that once again the forces of darkness have set their sights on conquering Thor’s land of Asgard with a greater scheme of reducing our Earth to smithereens for total world domination.  So, in Marvel speak, just another day at the bad guy office.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Snow White and the Hunstman, Cabin in the Woods, Rush) meets up again with Jane (Natalie Portman) but instead of fighting the battle within her world he brings her back to Asgard because she holds the key to its survival…and destruction.  This leaves some of the earthbound players of the first film with mere cameos and beefs up the presence of the Asgard folk that were sidelined in the original.

Hemsworth sports a better wig and about five more expressions than he had the last time and in general seems to have more fun with the role.  As the star of the show, he has to work extra hard to keep the focus of the audience because Tom Hiddleston’s Loki returns as the bad guy you love to hate.  Loki wants to take a lot from Thor that isn’t his…and in doing so Hiddleston the actor nearly scampers off with the movie as well.  In his third go at the role, Hiddleston’s characterization only deepens so that the audience, like Thor, doesn’t really know where his loyalties lie from minute to minute.

Even with more screen time, Portman has precious little to do here but lay helpless as a dark force begins to take over her body.  It was widely reported that Portman was resistant to return to the film after a female director she brought on board was let go by the producers as filming approached.  I’m not sure if that affected what happened in the script but it’s surprising to see Portman play such a one-dimensional role this far into her career.

Television director Alan Taylor makes his feature film debut with a film that feels more cohesive than the overly theatrical gusto of the Kenneth Branagh helmed predecessor.  Even with its kitchen sink plot, Taylor manages to keep things in line…which is why Marvel may have chosen him over Portman’s original selection.  Though these films are designed to stand on their own, there’s little doubt that a larger game plan for future installments and crossovers hasn’t already been etched out somewhere in the basement of a Hollywood film studio.  In that respect, Thor: The Dark World seems to be content in being part of something bigger and not trying to reach so far ahead of its limited appeal in my eyes.

A strong improvement over the original, I’m still hesitant to give myself over fully to the Norse god that wields that powerful hammer.  Though he’s now shown a softer side and his ability to play well with others, there’s an otherworldly aura to both Thor films that has kept this viewer grounded instead of taking off.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Thor: The Dark World

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Synopsis: Thor battles an ancient race of Dark Elves led by the vengeful Malekith who threatens to plunge the universe back into darkness after the events of The Avengers.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts:   I was a bit underwhelmed by 2011’s Thor but recognized the value it had in the Marvel Universe, seeing that it played a larger part in getting the franchise closer to the release of The Avengers in 2012.  With Iron Man 3 releasing in May, the next Avenger to see a sequel is the God of Thunder and this time he’s back with a film that looks more like the film we’d expect from this comic/character.  Star Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods, Snow White and the Huntsman) has this coming out two months after a strong performance in Ron Howard’s Formula 1 racing film Rush so count on him ending 2013 with some extra sawbucks in the bank.  The rest of the gang is back but with a new director at the helm I’m thinking this one will open up a new dimension that previous director Kenneth Branagh wasn’t able to deliver on.