[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

Money Monster (2016)

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Director: Jodie Foster

Cast: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitrona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito

Screenplay: Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf

98 mins. Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality and brief violence.

 

I actually thought Jodie Foster (The Beaver, Home for the Holidays) had directed more films. Just putting that out there.

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Money Monster, a popular finance and investment TV show, is currently airing their latest episode, starring financial expert Lee Gates (George Clooney, Gravity, Hail, Caesar!). As the show is airing, a deliveryman arrives and holds the building hostage, aiming his gun right at Lee. The man who holds Gates hostage is Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell, Unbroken, ’71), who lost every penny he had from his mother’s inheritance by investing in IBIS after it was endorsed on Money Monster. As the building becomes a media circus, Lee has to use the aid of longtime director and colleague Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts, Notting Hill, Mother’s Day) to talk Kyle down and keep himself out of the grave.

Money Monster is an interesting idea in itself, an angry investor takes a financial expert hostage on his own show, but the fire quickly burns out on this premise. As Lee and Patty work to keep Kyle from pushing a detonator, I slowly found myself uninterested in any of the characters, a shocking notion given the chemistry between Clooney and Roberts. Then, about halfway through the film, the implausibility meters breaks off on a strange tangent that seemingly makes no sense. That’s right, the ending of this film goes right off the rails and becomes rather silly.

Director Jodie Foster builds tension at the beginning of the film, but Lee Gates isn’t likable enough a character to inspire sympathy, nor really is Patty Fenn. Kyle is a rather stupid individual as well, and I don’t find myself on his side either. Really, I had a lot of difficulty deciding if who I’m supposed to root for.

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All in all, Money Monster really falls flat very quickly on its intriguing premise and the movie never really gets back up. This was downright disappointing in every way.

 

2/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

31 Days of Horror Part II: Day 5 [Oscar Madness Monday] – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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Director: Jonathan Demme

Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine

Screenplay: Ted Tally

118 mins. Rated R.

  • Academy Award Winner: Best Picture
  • Academy Award Winner: Best Actor in a Leading Role [Anthony Hopkins]
  • Academy Award Winner: Best Actress in a Leading Role [Jodie Foster]
  • Academy Award Winner: Best Director
  • Academy Award Winner: Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Published or Produced

iMDB Top 250: #23 (as of 10/5/2015)

 

This year, I wanted to ensure that I presented you with top-tier fear and what better way to do that than merge Oscar Madness Monday with the 31 Days of Horror and present Jonathan Demme’s 1991 masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs.

Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter in the 1991 film “Silence of the Lambs.” Photo Courtesy: MGM Home Entertainment

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, Elysium, Carnage) has been tasked with completing a psychological profile on the infamous serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, Thor, Noah) and, without her knowledge, discover his possible connection to the new killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” in the process. Clarice is naïve and accepts the responsibility, unwittingly placing herself within a game of wits and murders with the two serial killers. Dr. Lecter develops a wanting to help Starling, and Clarice as well as Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn, The Bourne Ultimatum, Sucker Punch) take the opportunity to hunt the elusive Buffalo Bill before he claims his newest victim.

The Silence of the Lambs is one of three films in the history of the Oscars to win the Big Five, and deservedly so. This film is staggering and cold. When my girlfriend and I were revisiting it, we couldn’t stop developing shivers and chills before the most disturbed sequences occurred, as though we were prepping for them. It didn’t help, as large sections of the plot are unnerving and difficult to view. In that, however, we get some excellent performances from a seasoned and respectable cast including Jodie Foster, a cold and untrusting Clarice who wishes to further her career by proving her worth, and Anthony Hopkins owns the role originally performed by Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s Manhunter. Lastly, the work by Ted Levine (Shutter Island, Little Boy) as the unhinged killer is absolutely unsettling in all its madness.

The film is a slow burn, but at no point was I bored. The pacing set up by director Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia, Ricki and the Flash) and screenwriter Ted Tally (All the Pretty Horses, The Juror) slithers through this dark and sad landscape of disorder, landing on a finale that is pulse-pounding to the very core.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Blu-ray Screenshot

The Silence of the Lambs is one of those films that lands on many lists of Best Films Ever Made, and it should be. Just about every aspect of the production was critiqued and perfected by the veteran cast and crew, resulting in one of the most unforgettable movie experiences you will ever have. See it.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For more 31 Days of Horror, click here.

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