[Early Review] The Sparks Brothers (2021)

Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Ron Mael, Russell Mael
135 mins. Rated R.

When I first heard that Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) had directed a documentary, I remember taking a moment to ponder the idea. How would an Edgar Wright documentary actually work? What topic would Wright choose to document? Where would his signature style best be utilized? After the moment ended, I said, “Well, it would have to be a music doc, right?” Yes, as a matter of fact, it was.

The Sparks Brothers is the story of…well, the Sparks Brothers, or perhaps, the band Sparks and the two brothers who have continued to make music for about 50 years, having created 25 albums, and basically being the most underground of musicians, loved by many but never discussed in the pantheon of great artists. As musician Beck eloquently puts it at the beginning, if you get a bunch of musicians together for a conversation, by the end of the night, they’ll end up talking about Sparks (he put it better than I did, but I don’t have the quote in front of me). But who exactly are Ron and Russell Mael? Are they really Americans? How have they persisted, decade after decade, as the culture has evolved? And why does no one talk about them the way they deserve? These are the questions Edgar Wright, fan of the band, puts forward, as we hear from former members of the band and fans like Patton Oswalt, Weird Al, and Mike Myers, as well as the titular brother themselves. The film is a narrative odyssey of a band I never knew.

As stated above, I was familiar with one Sparks song, and I’d only heard that one song one time, and I can’t even remember where, so don’t take this next statement lightly: in less than 2 1/2 hours, Edgar Wright turned me into a Sparks die-hard fanboy. I caught the film last night at an early screening, and all day today, I’ve been listening to their music nonstop. At lunch, I stopped by a record store to see if I could find any old albums. I’ve been humming the music even when it’s not playing. I’m obsessed, and there lies the brilliance of this Edgar Wright documentary. It’s not the style (though the style is great), it’s that he chose a topic that is so universally unrecognized, and he gave a crash course for viewers like me. In a way, this is a sister (or perhaps brother) doc to Searching for Sugar Man, another brilliant doc from several years back chronicling a musician that the public seems to have missed.

We spend a lot of time with the brothers, Ron and Russell, throughout the film, and their onstage charisma works just as well when they’re sitting on some stools being asked questions and walking us through their careers and lives. From the noble beginnings as Half Nelson to all their successes and failures (though I would only refer to these as commercial failures because the music throughout is never less than astonishingly funny, catchy, entertaining, and deeper than expected), we see a band led by two artists in a constant state of rebirth. Sparks is like a butterfly that gets out of the cocoon and then says, no, let me try that again, before jumping back in.

It was also interesting to see the wide berth of fans that the band has accumulated in their time. There are some interesting personalities I wouldn’t have guessed to appear here, like Neil Gaiman and Flea. Hearing how each of them fell in love with the band is just as much fun as hearing the songs themselves.

On that note, Wright makes the strong choice of dissecting the band from their very beginning, understanding that many of the people who watch this documentary will likely not have known much about them. I didn’t, and the doc is at its best when it recognizes this feat. Perhaps the only flaw (if there has to be one) is that the finished film is pretty long, but I’m not even sure what I would cut. I think it takes a bit before it really gets going. I wanted to hear the music of the band, so perhaps waiting on the backstory and childhoods of the brothers in order to anoint viewers with the band as adults might actually have helped, but again, I don’t think I’d cut anything. The film is working to its strengths as it guides us through, album by album, year by year, like a stylistic and frenetic VH1 Behind the Music episode.

I cannot recommend The Sparks Brothers highly enough. Seek this film out, and (dare I say) see it in a theater if you can. I know, you’re probably balking, “But it’s just a documentary!” To that, I would argue that this doc feels, at times, like a concert film and a comedy and a love letter to music, artistry, and pop culture. Edgar Wright’s masterful directing keeps the narrative flow at an accessible level, even for those of us who knew nothing about Sparks going in. It will make a fan out of you, one song at a time.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, click here.
For my review of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, click here.
For the Why I Love…Cinema episode on Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, click here.

[Early Review] In the Heights (2021)

Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Screenplay: Quiara Alegría Hudes
143 mins. Rated PG-13.

We are starting to return to a level of normalcy. Projects that I’ve been excited about for many months are actually coming out, and they are coming to theaters (and, in some cases, HBO Max at the same time). Last week was the first official time I’ve been in a theater since March 2020. I went to see Spiral (From the Book of Saw). A few days later, I attended my first Early Screening for another anticipated film, In the Heights, which we’ll be discussing today. In the Heights is an exciting movie for me in many ways. Following up on Crazy Rich Asians, I was very excited to see what director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2) would direct next. I’ve also become a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda (even though, I’ll say it, I haven’t seen Hamilton yet), and I’ve enjoyed the music and elements he has added to productions like The Force Awakens and Moana. I’ve also been following the trajectory of Corey Hawkins (BlacKkKLansman, Iron Man 3), who has consistently impressed me. The trailers also continued to raise my interest in the project (I love a stylish new musical), and thankfully, upon seeing the finished product, I have to consider it (mostly) successful.

Set on the streets of Washington Heights, New York, we follow several intersecting stories in the days leading up to a massive blackout in the hot summer. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, A Star is Born, Hamilton) strives for identity as he searches for a way out of Washington Heights, all the while working up the courage to utter just a few words to Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, L for Leisure, Two Times You), a frequent customer in his bodega. Benny (Hawkins), a taxi dispatcher, finds his situation further complicated when his ex, Nina (Leslie Grace), returns home from Stanford unexpectedly. Nina’s father Kevin (Jimmy Smits, The Tax Collector, TV’s NYPD Blue) has been scraping and surviving to help pay her college, but in doing so, he is losing a portion of himself. As the days get hotter and we head toward that inevitable power outage, the residents of Washington Heights are all in search of their passions and worth in a society that seems so often to forget them.

A film adaptation for In the Heights has been in development since 2008, and several directors have stepped in to attempt to get the project off the ground, and off the success of Miranda’s Hamilton, the project finally saw some movement, and director Chu at the helm was the perfect choice to capably adapt the musical for theater audiences. There’s an understanding from Chu that adaptation is not perfect translation (a stage musical is very much not the same thing as a film), and he adds stylistic flair to the film, especially during the many musical numbers, that showcase that this is indeed a throwback to classic Hollywood musicals and their occasional excessive grandeur. Specifically, I really liked the added animation as our cast of characters head toward the pool, and I wish the film did this more often. Chu has a notable gloss to his visuals, sometimes to his detriment, but in a film like In the Heights (and his glamorous predecessor Crazy Rich Asians), it provides a joyful and entertaining bit of movie-making that’s just beautiful to look at. The cinematography, in conjunction with the impressive dance choreography, is stunningly on display here.

The musical numbers may not work for everyone who doesn’t like the speed of rapid-fire rap dialogue, but I rather enjoyed them, even if I admit to have missed a lot of information being relayed in each song. The film’s simultaneous release on HBO Max may actually work to its benefit (the experience is best in theaters, but I’m excited for a free second viewing on my HBO Max account on release day just to put subtitles on and re-experience the music this way). Most musicals require a second viewing for a full appreciation (or at least some repeat YouTube plays for some of the more memorable numbers) and In the Heights is no exception, but at least you have the option of that second viewing at home. I’m particularly looking forward to revisiting “96,000” (seriously, knowing nothing of the film, I wondered how a song with that title could be enjoyable, and I admit defeat in this arena).

It’s obvious that the director took inspiration from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in presenting Washington Heights in the hot summer sun. Whereas Lee’s film showed the heat heading to a boiling point, Chu’s less-stressful film instead allows the resiliency of his characters to be whittled away amid the heat. Keeping all the action on these streets and using the ticking time-bomb of the blackout, similarly to Tarantino’s countdown to the Manson murders of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, is very effective and consistently reminds the audience that we are heading to a collision, uncertain of what exactly will transpire when the lights go out on Washington Heights.

Let’s talk about the characters, starting with Usnavi. Screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the theatrical production as well) captures something very exciting about Usnavi, and her creation of the character alongside Anthony Ramos’s earnest portrayal gives a larger-than-life character that still feels so human and relatable. I foresee a solid future for Ramos, who stayed memorable with limited screen time in A Star is Born and truly shines here. The framing device works even if it is something we’ve seen before and know where it’s heading the whole time.

Corey Hawkins and Jimmy Smits both consistently turn in exemplary work, no matter the project, and here again is no exception. Hawkins takes the musical stylings he learned while working on Straight Outta Compton and turns Benny into a likable albeit flawed man who oversteps his bounds when his heart is checked, and I liked the back-and-forth with Smits’s Kevin Rosario, who mines the tension from their working relationship and the complication of his daughter Nina. Smits is never not putting forth the effort and elevating the work around him.

For me, the absolute surprise breakout of In the Heights has to be Melissa Barrera as Vanessa. I’m unfamiliar with anything she’s done previously, but I was unable to take my eyes off her throughout most of her screen time. Hers is an honest and passionate portrayal of someone who feels the unflinching hands of time working against her and life goals, and I felt for the confusion she is facing as multiple major life decisions come upon her. She never once feels overplayed or cliché, even in a film that has more than a few plot conveniences.

I can’t think of a single performance in In the Heights that was underwhelming, and the biggest flaw with the film is not the performances of the characters but perhaps a bit too much focus on too many secondary characters. In the Heights is overly long, and it feels lagging after the major blackout begins. The night of the blackout is full of interesting plot movement, but the days following the blackout up until when the electricity finally returns to Washington Heights feel unnecessary, seeking to service too many characters that don’t have the impact of our leads. I kept wondering why the film continued, and it wasn’t until the final time jump following the blackout that the film finally reeled me back in. In the Heights does not need to be over two hours, and while some of the secondary characters perhaps had more purpose in the theatrical production, I just didn’t need to see an ending for some of the secondary characters like Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wild Things, Sex and the City), and it didn’t really grab me until we returned focus back to Usnavi, Benny, Nina, and Vanessa. I like the vignette-style of the film, but I didn’t feel the need to keep checking in on certain characters. Look at the Piragua Guy (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda). His character shows up a few times, gives some lightheartedness and musical delight, and then recedes. I needed nothing more from his character, and the film didn’t necessitate an arc for him. That same mentality could have been given to Daniela and the salon girls. They provided some great character beats early in the film, but the meandering post-blackout story for both them and other secondary characters gave me nothing of interest to grasp onto.

In the Heights was a breath of fresh air, and it seems like the perfect film for this time. Not only is the Midwest experiencing an epic heat wave (power, don’t fail me now), but as we continue our return to normal life and, for many of us, return to the cinema for the first time in months, In the Heights is a joyful welcome back, full of captivating characters, an accessible and relatable story, and a significant reflection on the immigrant experience in America. I don’t have to tell you that, as a straight white male in society, I am represented to an overwhelming extent within the entertainment industry, but I love seeing the full representation of other races that movies like In the Heights and Crazy Rich Asians brings to cinemas. Though the finished film drags a bit, In the Heights was the enjoyable experience I needed as life returns to some semblance of pre-COVID normalcy, and I think you’ll find something to love here too.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2021oscardeathrace] Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Director: Shaka King
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen
Screenplay: Shaka King
126 mins. Rated R for violence and pervasive language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Daniel Kaluuya) [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Lakeith Stanfield) [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Original Screenplay [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song) “Fight For You” [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Cinematography [PENDING]


Judas and the Black Messiah, according to the Academy, doesn’t have a lead actor. Both Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Queen & Slim) and Lakeith Stanfield (Knives Out, The Photograph) received nominations for Best Supporting Actor. So who is the lead for Judas and the Black Messiah? Let’s break it down.

The follows Bill O’Neal (Stanfield), a criminal-turned-informant for the FBI, as he infiltrates the Black Panthers and becomes acquainted with Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), the passionate and charismatic leader. Along the way, lines start blurring between Bill’s alliance to the FBI and his handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, The Irishman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things), and the Hampton’s quest for equality and freedom from impression in the highly divisive 1960s.

The first element of Judas that struck me was the cinematography. This is an excellently-shot piece of cinema. Starting with Bill’s criminal activity at the film’s start, this camera is commanding the screen, almost a character of its own. Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) has a true handling of the action set pieces, and he knows when to let his powerhouse performers have the spotlight.

Kaluuya and Stanfield are electrifying as Hampton and O’Neal. Kaluuya’s is the more flashy of the two performances as Hampton, who is presented with a silver tongue for unity and a restrained fire to protecting his people, both within the Black Panthers, and for Black Americans across the nation. On the opposite is Stanfield, who is able to access a subtlety in his absolute terror as he stands by Hampton and the rest of the Black Panthers, forced to confront a choice within him that could forever alter the Civil Right Movement. Not knowing a lot of the real story of these two men, I was entranced by the quality of these two performances within the confines of the tension that director Shaka King (Newlyweeds) has constructed.

Let’s be honest here. Stanfield is the lead of the film and Kaluuya is the supporting player. We’re following Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal throughout the narrative, and the decision to push them both for Best Supporting Actor is likely to split the votes and garner neither of them with wins.

It’s shocking to note that this is only the second feature film for Shaka King as a director. King had served as director on a few television series and shorts, and I’m not denigrating those accomplishments, but a show, a short, and a feature film, while being genuinely the same, are very different undertakings. When I watch King’s understanding of character and plot while also being able to give an extra stylistic flair to Judas, I can see how all of that previous work helped and developed the work seen here, but the scale of this particular project is so much larger.

Judas and the Black Messiah was initially envisioned as “The Departed inside the world of COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program)” and that is essentially what we get from a story perspective, but King comes at the material with a totally different and distinguished voice than Martin Scorsese had with The Departed. Judas is blessed with some incredible performances from not just Kaluuya and Stanfield but the entire principal cast, some real lions in the room. King’s film pairs well with another Best Picture nominee in The Trial of the Chicago 7, as Hampton plays a role in both, and it should make an intense and thoughtful film that will captivate your night.

4/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2021oscardeathrace] The Nominees for the 93rd Academy Awards

Nominations are officially out for the 93rd annual Academy Awards. This year, it almost didn’t happen, and to be true, as I’ve said before, it’s been a weird year. I’m happy to have the Oscars occurring, even with the adjusted eligibility window making it very confusing as to what is allowed and what isn’t (and I’m sure, next year, it’ll be weirder when we talk snubs only to have forgotten that snubs for next year’s awards may actually have just been nominated this year and we forgot, much like the entire fourth season of Community), but I digress. The Oscars are here, and I’m so happy to have this feeling of normalcy in a very abnormal year.

The pandemic has had a shroud of much of the film community since last year. I recall that the last group party I attended was an Oscar party. There was a lot of us having fun, laughing and yelling at the TV, and we all joined together in praise when Parasite took the top prize.

It all feels like so long ago. I haven’t been in a theater in over a year. I can’t wait to go back to some kind of normal.

And normal is coming. With it, one of my favorite events is gearing up. In fact, the nominees were announced on my birthday, an altogether strange happenstance that likely won’t happen again. So here are the nominees. I’m sure you already know them, but I’ll be using this page to link the reviews that are incoming.

I’m ready to begin the 2021 Oscar death race. It’s a term I heard many years back, referring to the attempt to see every Oscar nominee before the big night. In recent years, I’ve been rather successful, at most missing a short here or there and perhaps a foreign language film that hasn’t reached wide release in the states. If you’d like to join in the Oscar death race this year, feel free to drop the hashtag #2021oscardeathrace so I can see what you’re watching and what you think on these nominees. It’s one of the best times of the year, and I look forward to sharing it with you.

Best Picture:

  • The Father
  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Mank
  • Minari
  • Nomadland
  • Promising Young Woman
  • Sound of Metal
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Director:

  • Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
  • Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
  • David Fincher, Mank
  • Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round
  • Chloé Zhao, Nomadland

Best Actor:

  • Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
  • Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Anthony Hopkins, The Father
  • Gary Oldman, Mank
  • Steven Yeun, Minari

Best Actress:

  • Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
  • Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
  • Frances McDormand, Nomadland
  • Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Best Supporting Actor:

  • Sasha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Leslie Odom, Jr., One Night in Miami…
  • Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
  • Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah

Best Supporting Actress:

  • Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
  • Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
  • Olivia Colman, The Father
  • Amanda Seyfried, Mank
  • Youn Yuh-jung, Minari

Best Original Screenplay:

  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Minari
  • Promising Young Woman
  • Sound of Metal
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Adapted Screenplay:

  • Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
  • The Father
  • Nomadland
  • One Night in Miami…
  • The White Tiger

Best Animated Feature:

  • Onward
  • Over the Moon
  • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
  • Soul
  • Wolfwalkers

Best International Feature Film:

  • Another Round (Denmark)
  • Better Days (Hong Kong)
  • Collective (Romania)
  • The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia)
  • Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Best Documentary Feature:

  • Collective
  • Crip Camp
  • The Mole Agent
  • My Octopus Teacher
  • Time

Best Documentary Short Subject:

  • Colette
  • A Concerto Is a Conversation
  • Do Not Split
  • Hunger Ward
  • A Love Song For Latasha

Best Live Action Short Film:

  • Feeling Through
  • The Letter Room
  • The Present
  • Two Distant Strangers
  • White Eye

Best Animated Short Film:

  • Burrow
  • Genius Loci
  • If Anything Happens I Love You
  • Opera
  • Yes-People

Best Original Score:

  • Da 5 Bloods
  • Mank
  • Minari
  • News of the World
  • Soul

Best Original Song:

  • “Fight For You” from Judas and the Black Messiah
  • “Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • “Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
  • “Io sì (Seen)” from The Life Ahead
  • “Speak Now” from One Night in Miami…

Best Sound:

Best Production Design:

  • The Father
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Mank
  • News of the World
  • Tenet

Best Cinematography:

  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Mank
  • News of the World
  • Nomadland
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

  • Emma.
  • Hillbilly Elegy
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Mank
  • Pinocchio

Best Costume Design:

  • Emma.
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Mank
  • Mulan
  • Pinocchio

Best Film Editing:

  • The Father
  • Nomadland
  • Promising Young Woman
  • Sound of Metal
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Visual Effects:

  • Love and Monsters
  • The Midnight Sky
  • Mulan
  • The One and Only Ivan
  • Tenet

So there you have it. These are the nominees for the the Oscars this year. Let the #2021oscardeathrace begin.

-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Land (2021)

Director: Robin Wright
Cast: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir
Screenplay: Jesse Chatham, Erin Dignam
89 mins. Rated PG-13.

The story behind Robin Wright’s directing of Land, her feature directorial debut, came about by a mere scheduling conflict. Wright, who had previously helmed several episodes of House of Cards as well as the short film The Dark of Night, was asked to direct the film when all the pieces had come into play but there was no director, and the film had to be completed with production in 29 days. The entirety of Land was shot in those 29 days with Wright, who appears in every scene, behind the camera as well as in front.

Land is the story of Edee (Wright), a grieving woman who has purchased a plot of land deep in the Wyoming forest. She doesn’t seem particularly skilled at living off the grid, minus a phone and any technology, and when she nearly dies in a snowstorm, she is luckily rescued and brought back to health by Miguel (Demián Bichir, The Hateful Eight, Chaos Walking), who also lives in the wilderness nearby and has passed her house several times. Edee would much rather be alone, but she’s in no condition to push Miguel away. Miguel instead offers to teach her to successfully hunt, fish, and care for herself in the wild. Edee takes him up on his offer, and she begins to see all the ways that they are more similar than she expected.

Land is a solid debut for Robin Wright as a feature director, but it is not without its faults. The pacing of the narrative holds mostly well for 89 minutes, but this is a case where even 89 minutes feels a little too long. I don’t think the extended periods of Wright all alone on screen consistently maintained my interest. I held this criticism for the Robert Redford film All is Lost, another movie with even less dialogue than Land, but both struggled to keep my focus on the narrative with the lack of visual action onscreen. I never had flat-out signs of boredom, but I found myself checking the time more than once.

The film’s cinematography makes up a lot of ground, though, thanks to some truly striking imagery of the beauty in Wyoming (well, the film was shot in Canada, but we are meant to see Wyoming). The shot composition did a lot to position me in the world with Edee. I felt cold watching the snowy environment and I could almost smell the morning dew on the blades of grass. It’s a wholly arresting bit of scenery that evokes every sense.

I also found Wright’s performance to be quite strong as Edee. I would have liked to peel back the layers of her character earlier on in the narrative. We get a big emotional information dump at the end of the film that would have been more interesting had it shown up earlier than the final ten minutes. We get bits and pieces of her backstory as the film moves along, but we never really get the ability to reconcile with her past and her pain because the movie ends as soon as we get the story that Edee’s been struggling to bury at the very end and therefore the reckoning that we’ve been waiting on never really occurs, though we are meant to believe it has.

Wright plays off of Bichir very well. In fact, so often, Demián Bichir is the secret weapon of any film, as he can do so much with so little. He’s easily the best part of the underwhelming The Grudge from last year, and he even stand out among The Hateful Eight with limited dialogue and screen time. Bichir and Wright have such solid chemistry and they each come at their roles differently, Wright with stoic sadness and Bichir with a limited sense of hope and happiness. The scenes with the two of them onscreen are electrifying.

The only element of the film that flat-out doesn’t work is the invasive and, dare I say, annoying score that invades every scene like an unwelcome intruder. It grates on the ear drums and, though I can sense what it’s trying to do, it never seems to add anything to the film but irritation.

Land has more strengths than weaknesses, and the strong acting from Wright and Bichir as well as an arresting bit of visual delight save an otherwise more forgettable movie. There’s just a lot here that has been done before, and better, but I wouldn’t say that Wright’s feature directorial debut is a bust. It’s a solid little movie for an afternoon matinee, and I would still give it a slight recommendation, if you can handle the score.

3/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] The Mauritanian (2021)

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch
Screenplay: Michael Bronner, Sohrab Noshirvani
129 mins. Rated R.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that most people haven’t heard about Guantanamo Diary or Mohamedou Ould Slahi. I had only heard bits and pieces in passing and had never taken the chance to look into the story of Slahi and his incarceration at Guantanamo Bay, but that’s where film can help to cohesively relate the story of a man without freedom in the aftermath of 9/11. Of course, we can’t always rely on film to “teach” us anything; that’s not its most important purpose. We are merely here to be taken away, to experience the world in a different light, and through that lens, The Mauritanian has a lot to show us.

After an opening sequence just months after the terror attacks of 2001, we jump to 2005 and meet Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs, Contact), a defense attorney who is brought in to help with Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet, The Kindness of Strangers) and his case, or non-case really. Slahi has been held at Guantanamo Bay for years. He hasn’t been charged with a crime, and yet, he is interrogated for 18 hours a day and treated like a prisoner. He is not allowed contact with his family, and he’s run out of ways to say that he doesn’t have any credible answers to the questions he’s being asked. Now, Hollander has to prove that the United States has no legal rights to hold him, but her quest becomes more complicated as various agencies are unwilling to part with, what they call, classified evidence.

I’m not alone amongst viewers of this film that recognize The Mauritanian’s problematic pacing issue. I don’t think it ruins the film by any stretch, but the film flip-flops between a fast and pulse-pounding movement and an agonizingly slow plotting that damages the second act. In a way, this pacing helps to underline the frustration that Nancy feels in trying to peel back the layers of this mystery, but after a time, it just started losing me. If not for the captivating finale, I don’t know if I would have been as engaged with the film to the extent that I was.

And make no mistake, I think The Mauritanian is quite good. It’s cast is captained by the always-excellent Jodie Foster, a uniquely-talented performer who turns in another impressive role in a way that only she can. There’s a subtlety and nuance to the way Foster acts; she isn’t bombastic or explosive, but there’s a simmering to the way she acts that showcases a lot of storm beneath the calm that she exudes, and her take on Nancy is no exception. The scenes she shares with Rahim are layered and powerful.

Rahim is also getting a lot of attention as Slahi, and though I can’t really recall being aware of him before, he definitely leaves his mark on the character and the film. Rahim has the toughest role in the film. To those of us who don’t know how this story played out in real life, we can’t be honestly certain of his guilt; perhaps he has a dark secret, perhaps he is truly innocent, and a good amount of tension is mined from that question throughout the narrative. Rahim has to play Slahi with a level of humanity that makes us uncertain to trust him as much as he has uncertainty to trust Nancy, and then his performance must make the audience question why they do or do not trust him, and he capably holds his own with a powerhouse like Foster.

Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, 1917) appears in the film as Stuart Couch, the military prosecutor for Slahi’s eventual trial, and yet again, he confirms that he can do just about any role. His screen time is short, but he provides an interesting antagonistic approach to essentially the same task as Hollander. He’s looking through mountains of evidence, trying to find something that can be linked to Slahi, and he’s doing it with a timer ticking down to a forced trial date.

If there’s a weak link in the main cast, it’s Shailene Woodley (Divergent, Endings, Beginnings), who plays Teri Duncan, associate of Hollander’s who finds that her connection to the case is creating more problems at home. I can’t fault Woodley for her performance, but more because she really isn’t given anything to do that allows her to actually perform, and the one interesting facet about her character is given surface-level screen time and nothing really gets fleshed out. It’s not that her performance, it’s merely that doesn’t need to be there.

The Mauritanian also struggles with its narrative timeline. Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Life in a Day 2020) plays with some aspect ratios to highlight the jumping-around-in-time narrative structure, but each time we flashed back, it took me a minute to ascertain where I was in the timeline. This is far too dense a story to make this leaping from time period to time period really work the way Macdonald envisioned it. It also underplayed Rahim’s impressive work by jarring me out of the film for every flashback, most of them surrounding Slahi’s incarceration.

The Mauritanian doesn’t get everything right, but its shining performances make up for a plodding execution and a screenplay that seems, at times, unfocused. With Foster and Rahim at the head, though, we get some truly memorable work from a giant of the business and a rising star. It also has a third act that left me emotionally drained. It’s not the feel-good movie of the year (in fact, its at-times bleak outlook may prove too much for 2021 audiences), but I still think it’s well-worth your time.

4/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

Kyle’s Most Anticipated Films of 2021

2020 has come to an end, thankfully. Now, we must reckon with the rubble of 2020’s unreleased films and the evolving film landscape that we will be living in through at least the end of the year. Now, we don’t really know what movies are officially coming out this year. Many of the films on this list were supposed to come out last year, and they simply…didn’t. No matter. We will still get excited for what is on the way and celebrate the (possible) films of 2021 that I am clamoring to see. It’s the next best thing to actually seeing them.

Just a couple notes:

-This is my most anticipated, not what I think will be the best films of the year by any stretch. Most of the films that end up on my Top Ten at the end of the year are ones I might not even have heard of at this time.

-There are always a lot of blockbusters on these lists, because these are the films that are most often discussed in the months and sometimes years leading to their release. That’s just the way it works.

NOTE: THIS IS NOT A COUNTDOWN. IT’S JUST A LIST AND THE FILMS ARE LISTED BY THEIR (TENTATIVE) RELEASE DATE.

Well, we’ve waited a year to see some of these. Let’s not wait any further…

Godzilla vs. Kong

-Ugh, I’m so sad that this is coming out before I’ll be vaccinated. I would really rather see this thing on the big screen, but I’ll have to settle for HBO Max. The wacky release off this and other WB films have taken a bit of the wind out of my sails, but these movies will need releases and the studios need to start making money to survive at this point. All the same, I’ve enjoyed all three entries in the MonsterVerse to varying degrees, and the choice to bring in Adam Wingard to direct this cinematic beatdown is a rather interesting one. There is so much setup, specifically from Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters that I can’t wait to see how it all comes together. Here’s hoping that Wingard and WB can pull this off as the MonsterVerse has seen diminishing returns on their cinematic universe and they need a win to keep this thing going.

No Time to Die

-I’m not entirely convinced that this will make the release date, but that doesn’t change my excitement. I don’t think many film fans are really remembering the caliber of talent to this next installment of the James Bond franchise. It’s expected to be the final outing of Daniel Craig, an actor considered in the upper echelon of Bond performers, and it also happens to have the stamp of a director like Cary Fukunaga, director of the entire first season of True Detective. This installment further builds on Spectre (a film I liked while acknowledging its faults) and where this Craig storyline has been building, and that trailer was excellent. I see nothing about this film that makes me nervous, and seeing that the studio has pushed it enough times for a stronger release window tells me that they think it’s pretty special too.

A Quiet Place Part II

-It’s frustrating that there are reviewers and general audience film-goers that have already seen A Quiet Place Part II. I believe I was even invited to a screening of it last March alongside Mulan, and I elected not to go because I was tired and it would be out in a week or to anyway. I have regrets. Still, I’m very excited to eventually see this movie, and this is another that I would rather see on the big screen because I still remember the experience of seeing the original film in a packed theater opening weekend. That extremely quiet theatrical experience was so strange and intense that I want that feeling back, and the idea that the sequel will address events both before and after the original, like a sci-fi/horror Godfather II, is very interesting.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw

-This is where I show my serious bias for horror. The Saw franchise has been incredibly near and dear to my heart since the first film came out, and I’m overjoyed that the franchise is getting started again with Spiral: From the Book of Saw, releasing (as of now) in May. The ninth film in this franchise shouldn’t be getting me as hyped as it is, but with the return of director Darren Lynn Bousman (who helmed 3 of the franchise’s sequels) and Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson leading the cast, how could I not be excited? Rock even helped to develop the story for the new film, being a big Saw fan, and the trailer was very interesting and unusual. There’s just so much mystery for me, a die-hard Saw fan, that I cannot wait to get back in a theater to see this one.

F9: The Fast Saga

-Justice for Han! This is another franchise that’s so stupid, and yet, I’m always looking to see what they do next. Each sequel seems to heighten the silliness while maintaining that cheesy emotional beat: FAMILY. Here’s the thing: what these films do, they do well. The entire franchise has become Grindhouse B-movies with a budget, and I continue to consume. The trailer for F9 did exactly what I wanted, psyching me up for a return to this weird group of characters, and this being one of the first pushes of 2020 means that I’ve been waiting extra long for the next installment. Bring it to me!

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

-This sequel has a lot to live up to. The first two Conjuring films are almost certified classics of the horror genre at this point, and while James Wan is no longer directing the third installment (this one is helmed by Michael Chaves of The Curse of La Llorona), I’m still excited to see Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson returning as Lorraine and Ed Warren. Beyond the changes behind the camera, we’re also seeing a very different story in front of it. The first time demonic possession was used as a criminal defense in a court of law. To me, I’m feeling Exorcism of Emily Rose vibes from this one, and I’m hoping for a unique blend of courtroom drama and horror film, something that could prove to be difficult to pull off. I’m praying for this one, and I’m hoping to be able to catch it in a theater.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

-The world deserves more Ghostbusters films. I grew up terrified of the ghosts and completely bought into the mythology and the fun characters that brought this franchise to life. I even enjoyed the most recent reboot, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, with the exception that the film completely mishandled its marketing and misused these really stupid cameos from the original stars instead of just being a follow-up sequel. Well, that’s what we are getting with Afterlife. The film is being helmed by Jason Reitman, son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, and the trailer has its own unique tone while seemingly paying homage to what came before. I like the serious take on the action and I like the Stand by Me/Goonies take that is seemingly being placed on our new characters. I think it could be incredible, and I’m very excited to see what we have in store for us here.

Dune

Dune has always been the tough nut to crack for Hollywood. The Jodorowsky version never came to fruition, the Lynch version is strongly considered poor and difficult to access for casual viewers, and the miniseries just hasn’t aged well enough to see now. Here’s the difference between all those previous attempts and the current iteration: Denis Villeneuve has seemingly cracked a few tough nuts in his limited time in Hollywood. He’s successfully directed a sci-fi film that was nominated for Best Picture (Arrival) and he’s crafted a long-gestating sequel to success with a film that rivals the original (Blade Runner 2049). So far, he has a track record for difficult projects, and I have faith that he has crafted yet another interesting new vision. This is, yet again, another film I’m so excited to see but I really don’t want to watch this one at home. Dune, more than any other film this year, feels like a theatrical experience. I know, broken record here, but that’s how I feel and it hasn’t changed since I started writing this. Looking at this whole list, Dune is probably the most exciting film of the year.

Halloween Kills

-Rounding out this list is the sequel to the reboot of the original 1978 film Halloween. As much as I loathe the naming scheme of this new iteration of the Halloween franchise, I cannot deny that I am very excited to see where David Gordon Green and Danny McBride are taking the story in this two-part finale to the franchise (it’ll be back, but I feel like their notion is true to sticking to a finale). Now that the 2018 film has been done (basically a greatest hits of the various sequels with a much better handle behind the camera), we can move into uncharted territory, and that’s an exciting thing for a horror fan like myself who is unsure of the next time I’ll be seeing Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger on the big screen. Halloween has had so many timelines and permutations, but the original film is still my favorite horror movie of all time, so I’m in this to the end, and then long after.

The Matrix 4

-Wait, there’s one more, and I’m probably more excited for this one than you are! Back in 1999, I was not initially big on The Matrix. In fact, it wasn’t until I revisited the film in 2003 in preparation for the two sequels coming that year that I realized how terrific that original film is. Then, I saw the sequels, and I kid you not, I loved them both more than the original! From there, I became a huge fan of the Wachowskis. Speed Racer is one of my all-time favorite movies. Cloud Atlas is an astoundingly ambitious film that topped my “Best of” list for 2013 films. I even liked Jupiter Ascending (though I will admit that one is a bit of a mess). For me, the Wachowskis are some of my favorite filmmakers currently working, and I’m so excited to see this return to a familiar world that will hopefully have some more surprises in store.

So there you have it. 2021 is a long year, and we can only hope that we see half of these released, but maybe we’ll get more. For now, stay safe, sit back, and enjoy the year in film (in whatever form that takes).

-Kyle A. Goethe

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