‘The Mauritanian’ Gives Guantánamo Bay Detainee Mohamedou Ould Salahi the Legal Thriller Treatment

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The Mauritanian (CREDIT: STX Films)

Starring: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, Saamer Usmani

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: R, Mainly for a Scene of Intense Torture

Release Date: February 12, 2021

In the 2000s and early 2010s, films that grappled with 9/11 and its aftermath tended to be combat thrillers, reaching an apotheosis in terms of cultural impact with 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. Now the focus has turned toward the War on Terror’s legal repercussions. 2019’s The Report took a deep dive into the massive amount of paperwork detailing the CIA’s use of post-9/11 torture, and now The Mauritanian comes along to narrow its attention on the particular case of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was detained at Guantánamo Bay withou charge for more than a decade. His story has been told before via the likes of 60 Minutes and Salahi’s own memoir, but even if you come in to this movie completely cold (as I more or less did), it’s immediately obvious that we are witnessing a miscarriage of justice.

There’s essentially zero doubt at any point in The Mauritanian about Salahi’s innocence. We’re not exactly told this outright, but we might as well be. With the guarded way that Tahar Rahim plays Salahi, there is a sense that he might be susceptible to being tricked into thinking that he has abetted terrorist activity. But these are merely survival tactics, as he mostly keeps his head down and says what is demanded of him when he absolutely has to so as to stay alive and sane enough to get by. The main source of the movie’s tension then is how much our patience is tested: just how long – in real time and movie time – will Salahi be detained? Because if you know anything about Guantánamo Bay, you know it’s probably going to take a while. Luckily, he has a couple of competent lawyers on his case in the form of Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), and with Foster giving off Hall of Fame-level tenacity vibes, we can feel confident that there will be a happy ending eventually.

Salahi’s story is undoubtedly compelling, but in terms of how it works as cinema, it’s not an automatic slam dunk. It mostly avoids indulging in the shoutiest excesses of miscarriage-of-justice legal procedurals, but it perhaps swings too far in the opposite direction, opting for a low-key approach that’s content to mostly just hum along. Then there are the torture scenes, which is something I would happily never see re-created on screen ever again. That’s not to say that it’s always absolutely wrong to portray torture; the ethics of doing so are certainly debatable. But aesthetically, it tends to be jarring and unnecessary, very much so in this case. Still, despite my misgivings, I’m glad that movies like The Mauritanian exist. The value they offer by getting these stories out to a wide audience generally outweigh my trepidations.

The Mauritanian is Recommended If You Like: The due process of law, Un-redacting the redactions

Grade: 3 out of 5 Forced Confessions

‘The Map of Tiny Perfect Things’ is Here to Fulfill the Time Loop Movie Quota

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The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (CREDIT: Dan Anderson/Amazon Studios)

Starring: Kyle Allen, Kathryn Newton, Jermaine Harris, Josh Hamilton, Jorja Fox, Cleo Fraser, Anna Mikami, Al Madrigal

Director: Ian Samuels

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Random, Mostly Harmless Teenage Shenanigans

Release Date: February 12, 2021 (Amazon Prime Video)

Oh wow, another time loop movie already? Is Hollyweird required to release at least one of these per year? (Or does it just feel that way because it seems like all the days in the real world are just reruns?) This time around, the romantic story takes special prominence, as was also the case in the loopy likes of Groundhog Day, Palm Springs, and even Happy Death Day. As with Palm Springs, the main guy and gal in The Map of Tiny Perfect Things are both re-doing the same day, and it’s that commonality from whence their sparks fly (at least initially). And I mean, hey, why not! That’s a pretty significant similarity. If you’re living through a time loop, it’s hard to fully relate to anyone else unless they’re also living through that loop.

When we first meet Mark (Kyle Allen) and Margaret (Kathryn Newton), they appear to be at least dozens – if not hundreds (or thousands) – of loops deep. And quite frankly, they’re totally OVER it all. That’s not to say they’re in Despair Mode, but rather that they have a roll-with-the-punches attitude of teenagers privileged enough to not yet be crushed by the weight of adult responsibilities. In a typical time loop movie, breaking out of the loop requires (or is at least accompanied by) discovering how to be a better person. As for Mark and Margaret, sure, they learn some lessons, but that aspect feels more or less beside the point. Instead, they spend their time experiencing all the titular “tiny perfect things” (like the sunset or a cute lost dog reappearing) that occur in their town on this particular day, because what the heck else are they going to do with all this infinity?

Eventually, we do get an explanation about why this loop started and how it shall end, and your chances of finding it emotionally satisfying will probably depend on whether or not you’re a teenager or if you can at least tap into your inner teen. But before we get there, Tiny Perfect Things is more interested in the minutiae of making the most minute changes while repeating a process over and over. There’s a runner in which Mark explains everything that’s going on to his friend Henry (Jermaine Harris) while Henry plays video games. It’s in these moments when the movie is at its most comfortable, as it posits: what if life were like a video game in which you keep making it to the same point and try something different each time to survive or successfully complete a task? Depending on your inclination, the result would either be mind-numbing or endlessly fascinating (or perhaps both).

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is Recommended If You Like: Twitch video game streaming, AB testing, Discovering postmodernism for the first time

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Lost Dogs

‘Minari’ Features One of the Greatest Cinematic Grandmother-Grandson Stories of All Time

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Minari (CREDIT: Josh Ethan Johnson/A24)

Starring: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Hilariously Surprising Potty Humor

Release Date: February 12, 2021 (Theaters)/February 26, 2021 (On Demand)

Minari is the heartwarming tale of a boy and his kooky grandma, who at first don’t get along very well. She’s not your typical grandma, and he only wants her around if she’ll bake cookies and offer hugs freely. But alas, she has zero culinary skills and would much rather dish out zingers than physical affection. I suppose I should also mention the tension between the boys’ parents, but I’d really prefer to focus my review pretty much exclusively on the grandma stuff. The title “Minari” refers to a wort plant native to East Asia, but if I had been in charge of naming this movie, I would have christened it “Mountain Water,” which is what the soda-guzzling grandma calls her beloved Mountain Dew. And that’s very important information, because the most memorable scene involves a new way of, shall we say, “doing the Dew.”

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I Liked These 5 Super Bowl LV Commercials

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People who are known for making me laugh made me laugh in these ads. Makes sense.

5. Bud Light Legends: I appreciate a sense of history.

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Jeff’s Wacky SNL Review: Dan Levy/Phoebe Bridgers

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SNL: Phoebe Bridgers, Dan Levy, Aidy Bryant (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

When I woke up on the morning of Sunday, February 7, 2021, I was expecting there to be some fresh snow on the ground. Instead it didn’t start falling until a couple of hours later. So my viewing of the Dan Levy/Phoebe Bridgers SNL was a mix of overcast and wet and white. Both of these people are making their Studio 8H debuts with this episode, which makes sense, as they achieved their fame relatively recently. By the way, Phoebe’s a pretty cool name, innit? It sounds like you could just sing it over and over throughout the day. No wonder she’s a musician!

Okay, I declare that it’s now time to review the sketches, the first of which was the cold opening, having to do with the Super Bowl Pre-Game (Grade: 2/5 Q-Pons), in which some SNL cast members pretended to be NFL broadcasters saying this and that, and that and this.

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That’s Auntertainment! Episode 26: Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and TV Musicals (w/ Nath and Carolyn Pizzolatto)

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CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot

Jeff and Aunt Beth were in the mood for an extraordinary episode, so they welcomed Nath (@RuckCohlchez) and Carolyn (@perma_lurker) of the Dude & Broad cast (@DudeBroad) to discuss Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and how it fits within the rhythm of other TV musicals.

Watch And/Or Listen to This: Aly & AJ’s “Listen!!!”

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“Listen!!!” (CREDIT: Aly & AJ/YouTube Screenshot)

I know Aly & AJ from their (separate) acting work, but I never really knew their music … until now.

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 2/5/21

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Malcolm & Marie (CREDIT: Netflix)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Bliss (February 5 on Amazon) – Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek are living in a simulation
A Glitch in the Matrix (Theaters and On Demand) – The latest documentary from Rodney Ascher is living in a simulation.
Malcolm & Marie (Streaming on Netflix) – As played by John David and Zendaya.

TV
The Snoopy Show (February 5 on Apple TV+)
-Puppy Bowl XVII (February 7 on Animal Planet)
-Super Bowl LV (February 7 on CBS)

Music
-John Carpenter, Lost Themes III: Alive After Death
-Foo Fighters, Medicine at Midnight
-Hayley Williams, FLOWERS for VASES / descansos

Viggo Mortensen Confronts Abusive Parenting in His Directorial Debut ‘Falling’

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Falling (CREDIT: Brendan Adam-Zwelling/Quiver Distribution)

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen, Sverrir Gudnason, Laura Linney, Terry Chen, Hannah Gross, Gabby Velis

Director: Viggo Mortensen

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Rating: R for Just About Every Ethnic and Gendered Slur You Can Think Of (and Brief Nudity)

Release Date: February 5, 2021 (Theaters and On Demand)

I’m generally not terribly excited to watch movies about emotionally abusive parents, whereas I am generally excited to watch the directorial debuts of actors whose work I consistently enjoy. So I find myself internally conflicted at the prospect of Falling, in which Viggo Mortensen directs himself as John Peterson, a family man attempting to deal with his profoundly irascible father Willis (Lance Henriksen). Surprisingly enough, while watching I didn’t find myself entirely anxiety-ridden by all the familial strife on display. Perhaps my mood just happened to be in enough of a state of equilibrium to handle it, and quite possibly I wouldn’t have reacted as keenly on a more stressful day. Or maybe it had something to do with the variety of ways (frustration, gritted teeth, amusement, insults, etc.) that Willis’ kids and grandkids employ to respond to his provocations and declining mental health.

If there is one major takeaway above all others to Falling, it is the Power of Patience. John appears to be genuinely happy that his dad is spending the weekend at his house with his husband Eric (Terry Chen) and daughter Monica (Gabby Velis), but we know that his feelings can’t possibly be all (or even mostly) positive, as childhood flashbacks present a father-son relationship in which Willis browbeats his son over every single major or minor decision that he makes. And yet for all the decades of turmoil he’s endured, John is still conscientious enough to honor his own internal sense of familial loyalty. I wouldn’t judge him if he were to instead decide that the healthiest choice would be to cut his father off, but I’m glad that he tries to keep the peace with him long enough so that we have a family dinner scene in which John’s sister (Laura Linney) and her kids show up so that everyone can have a chance to declare what they really think about Grandpa.

The final act of Falling is a little more slow going, as it departs from John’s place on the West Coast back to Willis’ farm in Upstate New York. John is helping to put the property on the market, but Willis is deeply connected to his horses and intent on spending more time with them. At least that’s what I think is going on. Frankly, the story becomes significantly less dynamic when John and Willis are away from the rest of the extended Peterson clan, and I must admit that my sense of connection to what I was watching started to drift during the farm scenes. But overall, this is still a fairly compelling piece about how intergenerational trauma has a long tail but also about how it can be digested and rejected for a different approach.

Falling is Recommended If You Like: Angsty family dinner scenes, White horses

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Pathological Insults

The Hysterical ‘Bliss’ is Here to Warn Us That Reality Isn’t Real, and I Cannot Look Away

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Bliss (CREDIT: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Amazon Studios)

Starring: Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Bill Nye

Director: Mike Cahill

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Very Kooky Violence, Profanity, and Sexuality

Release Date: February 5, 2021 (Amazon Prime Video)

Man, how are we so lucky as to get a movie like Bliss? It stars a totally wigged-out Salma Hayek trying to convince Owen Wilson that they’re living in a simulation. And quite frankly, the evidence is immediately pretty convincing, as they seem to be the only people in the world with telekinetic powers, which manifests by them popping their hands out with authority, Bruce Almighty-style. Seriously, there’s an entire scene in which they go to a roller rink and make everyone fall on their asses just for the hell of it. And on top of all that, Bill Nye has a pretty significant part, not as himself, but as a very Bill Nye-type who keeps strong-arming Wilson with some important information. And for all you hardcore perverted philosophy geeks, Slavoj Žižek shows up just long enough for anyone who recognizes him to go, “Oh snap! Slavoj’s in this, too?!”

The only other film directed by Mike Cahill that I’ve seen besides Bliss was 2011’s similarly mindbendy-wendy Another Earth, which I found infuriatingly pretentious. Honestly, Bliss isn’t necessarily any less pretentious in its eagerness to dive into a trendy sci-fi premise in its own vaguely intellectual way. So what’s the difference? Has my cinematic tolerance level just increased significantly in the past ten years? Perhaps, but there’s also the fact that Hayek and Wilson are such inspired left-field casting choices. She is always indefatigably dynamic; give her something to rant about, and you’re not going to be able to keep your eyes off her. As for Wilson, I don’t think he ever utters his signature “Wow,” but that low-key sense of being perpetually stunned is indeed the vibe he gives off the whole time. This is a “two-very-different-tastes-that-go-great-together” situation that we never could have expected would work out as beautifully as it did.

Overall, though, I’m not sure if the ideas of Bliss really come together into anything substantial, and that’s partly because I’m not entirely sure what Cahill is trying to say.  But – and this is important – I don’t particularly care. This is an incorrigible movie, and I’m such a sucker for that sort of energy. While watching, I said to myself, “What is going on?!” a healthy number of times, and I must admit that is a feeling I enjoy experiencing. It’s too often in short supply, but it most certainly is not when Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson are questioning reality, creating their own realities, buying into fake realities, and just generally enjoying free rein to do whatever the hell they want to do.

Bliss is Recommended If You Like: The Matrix but wish it had less kung fu and more makeshift homes on the side of a highway, The “Downtime” episode of the recent Twilight Zone revival, The parts of the X-Men movies where they wave their hands around

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Blue Crystals

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