THE MAURITANIAN (2021)

February 13, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. September 11, 2001 will be always remembered in history books, and seared into the memories of those who were there or watched the horrifying events unfold on television. As Americans, we were stunned and felt vulnerability for the first time in years. Also as Americans, we demanded justice for those responsible (or at least closure). Oscar winning director Kevin Macdonald (ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER, 1999) working from a script by co-writers Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, brings us the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, based on his best-selling 2015 memoir, “Guantanamo Diary”.

Tahar Rahim (so good in A PROPHET, 2009) stars as Slahi, and we first see him in November 2001 (2 months after the attack) as he’s returned from Germany to Mauritania, West Africa for a family wedding. He’s told, “The Americans want to talk to you”, as he’s taken into custody. The movie skips to 2005 where we find Defense Attorney Nancy Hollander (2 time Oscar winner Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) in the courtroom. These two are crusaders for the law, and take on the case of Slahi, who has bounced first from a prison in Jordan and now to Guantanamo. Four years with no hearing, no trial, and no charges brought against him.

The film jumps around from Slahi in Gitmo, to the two sides prepping their cases: Hollander for the defense, and Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) for the military. Couch had a friend on one of the 9/11 planes, and he’s instructed that this is a death penalty case – the only outcome that will deliver justice to the American people. Director Macdonald includes flashbacks to Slahi’s arrival at Gitmo, and even further back (1988) to his earning a scholarship to Germany. We also see the reenactment of the documented torture and “enhanced interrogation” procedures used against Slahi. It’s difficult to watch even these snippets of what he endured.

It’s 2009 before a judge even hears Slahi’s case, and 7 more years before he’s released. A total of 14 years captive with no charges, on top of the well-documented torture. Was Mohamedou Ould Slahi in some way responsible for the terrorist act of September 11, 2001?  Did he recruit others to join the cause? The fact that we don’t really know the answers goes to the heart of what went wrong at Gitmo, and how the American need for justice caused a horrific detour in the legal process.

Unlike some, I have no issues with “agenda movies”, and it seems as though director Macdonald set out to make this one. The problem is that the multiple pieces and characters are just too much to juggle for one film. At times, it seems to highlight Hollander as a crusader. Other times it wants us to understand the struggles of Couch. And then there are times when the attention is on Slahi. The fragmented approach leaves us lacking in all aspects, especially for teasing a courtroom drama that never occurs. The actual footage included at the conclusion leaves us wondering whether the intention all along was to tug on our heartstrings, rather than expose the wrongs that transpired.

In theaters February 12, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


BLACK SEA (2015)

January 21, 2015

black sea Greetings again from the darkness. One of my first favorite TV shows as a little kid was “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”. Each week I sat wide-eyed in front of the tube (yes, it was actually a cathode ray tube back then) anxiously awaiting underwater adventure. It wasn’t until later that I discovered Irwin Allen’s 1961 movie of the same name, and more importantly, Jules Verne’s novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, which featured the wild exploits of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus.  Since then, count me in for just about any movie based aboard a submarine (Down Periscope being a rare exception).

Director Kevin MacDonald is best known for his excellent 2006 film The Last King of Scotland (with Forest Whitaker’s Oscar winning performance as Idi Amin). This time he works with a script from playwright Dennis Kelly to deliver a gritty, tense thriller that is lacking any traditional Hollywood fluff … it’s a down and dirty look at greed, desperation and the survival instinct.

Inherent to a story based aboard a submarine is the immediate and constant threat of claustrophobia and death. This one adds another element of danger by blending a crew of Russians and Brits with the goal of bringing back millions of dollars in gold locked away on a sunken German U-Boat in the Black Sea waters. Lest you think the Russians are just another group of southern California actors faking the accent, director MacDonald confirmed that he cast actual Russian actors – including Grigoriy Dobrygin (A Most Wanted Man), Konstantin Khabenskiy (one of the most popular actors in Russia), and three others named Sergey, which MacDonald acknowledged contributed to on-set confusion. This decision elevates the onboard tension between adversarial characters to an armrest-gripping level. Yet another slightly psychotic Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) role doesn’t hurt, either.

Jude Law continues the second phase of his career – far removed from his pretty boy early films – as a tough, revenge-seeking sub captain fired by his long-time employer. Should you doubt Law’s acting range, I would recommend not just this film, but also last year’s Dom Hemingway (a raucous ride). Law’s performance here is very strong as he transforms from a p.o.’d former employee to an eye-on-the-prize, win-at-all-cost treasure seeker. The onboard tension mounts every time there is interaction between the Russians and Brits, and Law’s character attempts to mediate. The progression of this three-way dynamic is fascinating to watch as it unfolds.

To provide that true underwater feeling, MacDonald filmed some scenes onboard an old Soviet submarine that is moored in the River Medway in Kent (UK). We never have that feeling of Hollywood soundstage; instead we as viewers share in the tight space and constant dread. This combination of characters, setting and mission deliver an intense thriller that is sure to please, and feels uncommonly welcome this early in the year.

The pinnacle of submarine movies is Das Boot (1981), a must-see for any movie lover. Other popular sub films include Crimson Tide (1995), The Hunt for Red October (1990), and K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and for those of us who are fascinated by life (and possible death) under the sea, we gladly welcome a new entry to the sub-genre, especially one as well made and tension-packed as Black Sea.

watch the trailer:

 


MARLEY (2012)

April 22, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Kevin Macdonald is one of those rare directors who has had commercial success with both documentary and mainstream films. His The Last King of Scotland featured a powerful performance from Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin, and in Touching the Void, he chronicled a perilous mountain climbing trip in the Andes. Here, he takes on the fascinating life of reggae musician and humanitarian, Bob Marley.

This extraordinary film features some wonderful, never before seen home video, concert footage, and still photography.  We also get some very insightful and forthcoming interviews from friends, family, bandmates, and others who were present during that time. We see the poverty stricken area of Jamaica where Marley was born to his mother (a local teenager) and his father, a 60-something white man who evidently worked for the forest department.

It’s truly fascinating to watch Marley’s development as a musician and human being. With little formal education, he relied on stunning life instincts and rose to become the most important Jamaican figure in a time of intense and violent discourse. His personality was one that brought people together, and his music complimented his beliefs and encouraged a unified country and world.

 While he survived an assassination attempt, he was unable to beat cancer. His death at the young age of 36, leaves us asking … what could have been? Watching his Wailers begin by playing for free in small clubs and building to worldwide tours in huge stadiums shows just how much influence he had with his words, music and actions. He was admired globally and revered in Jamaica. So often biographies and documentaries treat their subject as either a saint or villain. Here, we get the descriptions from Marley’s own voice, as well as the voices of his wife Rita (pictured left), his children (including Ziggy), and his girlfriends (including Cindy Breakspeare who was Miss World). We learn he had 11 kids with multiple women. We learn he wasn’t the warmest father to his kids. We learn he was courageous and insightful, and always willing to listen to both sides of an argument.

For most, being an influential musician would be enough. For Bob Marley, it was just the key to the door … his vision was for a peaceful world where we could all “get together and feel alright”. You will notice I have yet to mention marijuana. Marley’s face has become a symbol for Jamaica’s key export, and that’s a shame … more people need to know what this man was all about.  This is an excellent vehicle for that opportunity.

watch the trailer: