[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

[#2020oscardeathrace] The Nominees for the 92nd Academy Awards

Nominations are officially out for the 92nd Academy Awards, and the #2020oscardeathrace has officially begun. The nominees are listed below, which some notable snubs and surprises throughout. Every year, I take part in a challenge called the Oscar Death Race, in which one attempts to see every nominated film by the night of the Academy Awards. It isn’t easy, and there’s usually a couple remaining films each year, but I love it. Take a look, and let’s get started.

 

Best Picture:

 

Best Director:

 

Best Actor:

 

Best Actress:

 

Best Supporting Actor:

 

Best Supporting Actress:

 

Best Original Screenplay:

 

Best Adapted Screenplay:

 

Best Animated Feature Film:

 

Best International Feature Film:

  • Corpus Christi (Poland)
  • Honeyland (North Macedonia)
  • Les Miserables (France)
  • Pain and Glory (Spain)
  • Parasite (South Korea)

 

Best Documentary Feature:

  • American Factory
  • The Cave
  • The Edge of Democracy
  • For Sama
  • Honeyland

 

Best Documentary Short:

  • In the Absence
  • Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
  • Life Overtakes Me
  • St. Louis Superman
  • Walk Run Cha-Cha

 

Best Live Action Short Film:

  • Brotherhood
  • Nefta Football Club
  • The Neighbors’ Window
  • Saria
  • A Sister

 

Best Animated Short Film:

  • Dcera (Daughter)
  • Hair Love
  • Kitbull
  • Memorable
  • Sister

 

Best Original Score:

 

Best Original Song:

  • “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from Toy Story 4
  • “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman
  • “I’m Standing With You” from Breakthrough
  • “Into the Unknown” from Frozen II
  • “Stand Up” from Harriet

 

Best Sound Editing:

 

Best Sound Mixing:

 

Best Production Design:

 

Best Cinematography:

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

 

Best Costume Design:

 

Best Film Editing:

 

Best Visual Effects:

 

So there you have it. Lots of nominees and lots of interesting discussion on the way. Let the #2020oscardeathrace begin!

 

-Kyle A. Goethe

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Director: Taika Waititi

Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson

Screenplay: Taika Waititi

108 mins. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language.

 

From the moment I first heard that Writer/Director/Actor Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok) was planning on writing, directing, and acting in a Nazi comedy about a boy with an imaginary friend who happens to be Adolf Hitler, and that Waititi would be playing Hitler, I was immediately concerned, confused, and a little unsure what to think. Then, the first still came out, and it didn’t really help. In my mind, I’ve never been let down by Waititi, but it’s a tall order to accomplish something like Jojo Rabbit. Thankfully, wonderfully, Waititi is able to do the impossible yet again, making a film about hate that becomes about so much more.

Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) doesn’t have many friends outside of his buddy Yorki and his imaginary friend, Adolf. When he attends a Hitler youth training camp, he hopes to impress Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, Moon, TV’s Fosse/Verdon) by showing off his fierceness and prowess, but things do not go the way he plans. His mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, Her, Sing) seems to have an alternative idea of the war and Nazism, but she hides it. Jojo learns that’s not all she hides when he comes across a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace, The King), in a hidden space in her room. As Jojo struggles with how to treat his treasonous mother and the girl in the crawl space, he is forced to make a choice that could alter everything he’s ever known.

It’s been stated a lot, but the first ten minutes of this movie made me pretty uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s the very way it sets up the world of wartime Germany near the end of WWII. It puts you right in Jojo’s world, and that world was not one I felt okay being in until the plot really started to move. Davis does good work in his first major role as Jojo. It’s a tough character because even though he’s a child and seemingly doesn’t know any better, he’s still a Nazi child. His worldview has been painted for him with signs of Jewish evil and demons and some truly disturbing things. It’s not an easy viewing and even though it has some really funny moments, it’s also a movie I felt strange for laughing during.

As with a film like 1917, which I recently reviewed here, Davis is surrounded by an incredible supporting cast, ranging from Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect, Isn’t It Romantic) as Fräulein Rahm, an instructor at the youth camp (the best she’s ever been), to Alfie Allen (John Wick, TV’s Game of Thrones) as Finkel, the second-in-command to Rockwell’s Klenzendorf, who finally gets to stretch some comedic muscles and does a very fine job. Rockwell is awesome in this movie, and he yet again excels at playing those fringe characters who are really bad guys but he puts an emotional spin on them to really connect with the audience.

It is Waititi’s Adolf that is most interesting in that he’s playing an imaginary friend who looks like Hitler but is very much just a visage of Jojo’s interpretation of how Hitler would be to him, a child. Waititi’s portrayal of this imaginary friend rides the line very nicely between silliness and seriousness, and he’s essentially just Jojo, so it never felt like an out-of-place idea to have Hitler appearing in the film.

I can’t think of anyone else that can make a movie quite like Taika Waititi. His eye is unique and his style works well with certain stories. With Jojo Rabbit, he mines real-world events and circumstances for comedy, pointing out the ridiculousness of the beliefs that Jojo has, and he pushes them into the audience consciousness. He views wartime Germany as a bustling and more happy place that most films have chosen to, but it makes sense. To Jojo and the other townspeople, they are really winning, whether they really believe it or not, their wanting to believe it is too strong for most. There is a bubbling-under-the-surface fear that is present and permeating, and that foreboding feeling like things will not turn out that way, but it’s covered in a layer of liveliness, something that we don’t usually get in these types of films.

Jojo Rabbit is surprisingly good, but after this any hits, it’s tough to doubt Taika Waititi’s abilities in any way. He has consistently made great films across his career, and Jojo Rabbit is no exception. This isn’t always the happiest viewing experience (Waititi mixes tones elegantly enough to hit hard when the film requires it), and I found myself more nervous-laughing than downright bellying over with giggles, but that’s not what this film requires. What it does require is your attention, though. Go see Jojo Rabbit as soon as you can.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, click here.

For my review of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, click here.

Kyle’s Top Ten Films of 2019

Hello once again!

2019 was crazy. The end of another decade! Another year where everything in my personal and professional life. Now, as we awkwardly segue into a new decade, let’s take a look back at the year that was in film. If you enjoy reading my list, give a listen to St. Paul Filmcast, where Nick Palodichuk counted down the best of 2019, the best of the decade, and more!

Now for our obligatory stipulations and notes:

-I did not see every film that was released in 2019. That would be an impossibility, but I did see quite a few. Of course, as always, life happens and some films were missed. So if you don’t see something on this list, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong. It just means I may have missed something it…or it doesn’t belong.

-These are my personal selections of films from the year. These are not predictions for Best Picture at the Oscars or films that are undeniably the 10 best films of the year, hands down, full stop. Some films have different placements at the end of the year than they would have based on their initial scoring, and even though some of them had major flaws, enjoyment can go a long way.

 

Alright, no more fluff. Let’s just do this thing…

 

Honorable Mentions:

Alita: Battle Angel, Ready or Not, Knives Out, Shazam!, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

 

10. Us

I said in my initial review for Us that, while I think Get Out is an overall better film for Jordan Peele, Us is the one I find myself going back to more often. Peele takes a classic story of doppelgangers and turns it into a story of classes and the versions of ourselves that we hide away. Us is a great example that it’s not the story you tell but how you tell it that creates a truly great film. It’s the best horror film of 2019, a year where the gems were tougher to find. It’s genuinely one of the more enjoyable experiences of the year as well, mining everything from its premise.

 

9. Jojo Rabbit

Director Taika Waititi had a nearly impossible task of creating a film about Nazi Germany starring a Nazi child who has an imaginary friend who happens to be Adolf Hitler that pokes fun and also creates a worthy narrative. He succeeded in ways I never would have thought with Jojo Rabbit. It isn’t as funny as other Waititi films but it certainly has heart in all the right places. The film takes a story that starts celebrating hate and turns it into a story that celebrates love. It’s truly a cinematic achievement that proves Waititi can do just about anything.

 

8. Toy Story 4

I can’t believe how much I loved Toy Story 4. I’ve never been a giant Toy Story fan but I found myself being won over by Toy Story 3, and while I felt it was a great film with a serviceable ending to the series, I now realize how much better Toy Story 4 is at ending the story. What Toy Story 4 does better is that it understands that Andy’s never been the character we’ve been following. It’s always been Woody. The focus of this fourth installment is paying off the character beats that the first three films set up for Woody. It’s a heartfelt, emotional, and very funny new film in a franchise that has continued to impress audiences.

 

7. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Can You Ever Forgive Me? surprised the hell out of me when it came out last year. Not only was it the best performance of Melissa McCarthy’s career, but it was also a great showcase for director Marielle Heller, who crafted a film that, on the outset, sounds kind of boring. When she decided to tackle a Mr. Rogers biopic, I was unsure, but the inspired choice to cast Tom Hanks as the legendary television personality worked incredibly well. Hanks elected to play the essence of Mr. Rogers and not do an impression, and that decision also paid off nicely. There’s one specific scene in the film that pushed it past mere biographical film and into a life-changing experience, and if you’ve seen it, I think you’ll know which one: the diner scene. I won’t get any further into it so you can enjoy it for yourself, but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, like the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, was a life-changing experience.

 

6. Rocketman

Rocketman was the first film this year that I felt could have been my favorite of the year, and it outlasted quite a few as the year went on. This Elton John biopic is really more a musical based on John’s work than a 100% true-to-life biopic. Again, it gets more of the essence of Elton than a certifiable account, and for that, it’s all the more magical. Dexter Fletcher showcases his unique voice once again with his second collaboration with Taron Egerton, who may miss out on the awards love this year, but he’s on the path to being a true superstar performer. If the film has any one problem, it’s that its framing device, a very Dewey Cox-inspired look back at his whole life, is a bit simple, but it works. Check out Rocketman. Absolutely.

 

5. Parasite

Just like a parasite itself, this movie stayed with me, feeding off me. I simply cannot stop thinking about it. Bong Joon Ho creates a strange amalgam of comedy, horror, suspense, and drama in this unique and singular experience that needs to be seen to be believed. Parasite is better when you don’t know as much, so I’ll leave the details out of it, but this movie, like Us, is a film about many things, most notably and powerfully class, the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-notes, and its title is evocative of so many element in the film. Parasite deserves to be on everyone’s Top Ten of the year.

 

null

4. Avengers: Endgame

I mean, c’mon! Avengers: Endgame is absolutely incredible. Sure, you can make the argument that it only works as well as it does because of the previous twenty-some films that came before, but it’s an accomplishment that Kevin Feige and the Russo brothers stuck the landing. It’s a big-budget television series and this is the series finale that works especially well. The snappy and quick editing help to gloss over some of the sillier and nonsensical things in the films, and it’s just damn fun. That means a lot. It’s a three-hour movie that rushes by, and even though it’s the twenty-second film, it never feels like a slog or a rehash. A pitch-perfect ending that makes me only more curious for what’s next.

 

3. 1917

I was blessed to see 1917 in 2019 (the film doesn’t open wide until later this month), and it’s a powerhouse World War I film, and one of the best war films ever made. Director Sam Mendes clearly learned a lot from his time with the James Bond franchise, and working with Director of Photography Roger Deakins, he was able to plan out a war epic that’s made to look like a single shot. The amount of work that goes into a movie like 1917 is staggering. I couldn’t make a movie like this. There are few who can. It’s a surprisingly-touching film about wartime brothers and the cost of something as simple as delivering a message. 1917 is an epic experience.

 

2. The Farewell

The Farewell is quite different from 1917 in terms of its overall style, choosing to go small instead of big, but that doesn’t change its overall impact. Lulu Wang takes an interesting story and populates it with layered and warm characters who deal with a problem that there really is no right solution to. The film follows Awkwafina’s Billi as she learns that her grandmother is dying and her family has chosen not to tell her, instead fabricating a family wedding in order to see her one last time. It’s a film about culture clash and ethical questions that is surprisingly funny at the same time, and the ending absolutely broke me. Seriously, Kleenex should have invested in this film. The Farewell flew under some radars in 2019, but it shouldn’t fly under yours. Seek it out immediately.

 

1. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Here we are. My favorite film of the year. I cannot deny how many times I have watched Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. It keeps drawing me back in, and each time I see it, I discover something else I like about it. Quentin Tarantino has crafted the ultimate hangout film that feels like it was pulled right out of the 60s, and some of my earlier criticisms have softened each time I’ve watched it. I get why some out there won’t like this movie. My wife wasn’t big on it, but for me, this movie is built on a central relationship between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, a relationship stronger than just about any other in 2019. It’s an awesomely fun time at the movies, and it’s my favorite film of 2019.

 

So there you have it. These are my favorite films of the year. I’m looking forward to the #2020oscardeathrace to begin, and the list may change a bit once that happens. No one sees everything. So what is your Top Ten Films of 2019? I’d love to hear it. Thanks again for a great 2019 and we will see you in 2020 (which is, of course, right now).

 

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

[Early Review] 1917 (2019)

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Dubercq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch

Screenplay: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns

119 mins. Rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and language.

 

I knew very little of 1917 until I caught it at an early screening. The single trailer I had seen looked impressive, but I didn’t know about the task of creating the film that led to its most incredible and jaw-dropping feat, the fact that it was filmed and styled to look as though it were shot in a single take. At first thought, this film seemed like one that’s narrative may not allow for something as difficult as that to actually successfully happen, so how did it all turn out?

Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Before I Go to Sleep, Blinded by the Light) has been tasked with delivering an urgent message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game, Avengers: Endgame), and he has less than 24 hours to do it, as Mackenzie and his men are about to walk into an ambush that could lead to the deaths of 1,600 soldiers, including Blake’s older brother. Now, Blake and his fellow soldier and friend, Schofield (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic, Been So Long), have precious hours to complete their mission, and time is their greatest enemy in the journey.

Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, Away We Go) always has a unique vision to his projects, and 1917 is no exception. It would seem that his time with the James Bond films has upped his ambition, and 1917 proves to be his most challenging visual film. As I stated earlier, he and cinematographer Roger Deakins (the greatest DP is history, just saying) have crafted their film to look as though it was shot in one long-continuous take. This requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief, as obviously their mission took longer than 120 minutes, but it’s more about the journey it puts the audience in than the realistic time-frame of the mission. For the most part, too, it’s an incredible feat of filmmaking. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the expertly-planned shots, and it did trick some people into thinking the film was done in a single-take.

Care should also be given to the editing. A film like 1917 wouldn’t work without someone able to stitch the whole thing together and create the illusion of a single-shot, single-take. The pacing of the overall film as sequences flow from one to another is only able to keep interest if the editing works, and it does.

Our two leads in Chapman and MacKay do some pretty good work together. Neither of them are the best of the year performers, but given minimal dialogue and a mostly physical performance from both, there’s a level of strained-friendship and brotherhood between the two of them, something that war and battle have the ability to create in its soldiers.

The screenplay, Mendes’s first, co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairnes, is mostly incredible, but I feel like it didn’t service the two leads with enough character development to really flesh them out for the audience. There’s some emotional beats in the film that would have been better served if the characters were more-layered early on in the film. Blake and Schofield are developed through their actions quite nicely, but I just needed more character.

The rest of the supporting cast is exemplary in the film. In order to elevate the two relative newcomers in the lead roles, Mendes and the casting director placed as many upper-talent supporting roles in place to help, and it’s great to see so many fine actors supporting the journey, and it works to elevate MacKay and Chapman through interaction.

1917 is an excellent war film, one of the best ever put to film. This is an instant classic in so many ways as it illustrates the unrelenting nature of battle and war and the toll it takes on those involved. It’s also a story of brotherhood among soldiers and a promise made, and I was absolutely enthralled in it from start to finish. For a film done seemingly in one shot, there are countless sequences that are seared into my brain and I can’t stop thinking about it. This will stay with you long after leaving the theater.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Sam Mendes’s Spectre, click here.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑