‘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

‘1917’s’ Gimmick is a Technical Feat, But It Gets in the Way of Some Potential Storytelling Resonance

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

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

Director: Sam Mendes

Running Time: 119 Minutes

Rating: R for Explosives and Gunfire Flying Through the Air

Release Date: December 25, 2019 (Limited)/Expands January 10, 2020

The World War I men-on-a-mission-to-stop-a-mission film 1917 is one of those flicks, like Birdman or Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, that is shot and edited in such a way as to make it appear like one long continuous take. It also has a race-against-the-clock premise, as British Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are sent to deliver a message to another British battalion to call off an attack and thus prevent them from walking into a German trap. Chapman and MacKay display the right sort of nervous energy for a seemingly impossible, deadly task, but honestly, I wish there had been more bells and whistles on their journey. Specifically, it would have been a big help if there had been a clock in the corner of the screen letting us know how much time they had left to successfully deliver the message. That might seem out of place for a film that gets much of its power from disorientation and uncertainty, but when the premise is clear and simple, it helps to have the stakes be clear and simple as well.

Overally, 1917 is impressive and accomplished, but in a manner that often gets in the way of itself. The “almost” nature of the one-shot gimmick is not hard to suss out, as there are plenty of moments when someone turns towards a wall, or the picture becomes total darkness, and it’s clear that a cut would be very easy to do at this moment. Still, a series of several long continuous takes is tough to pull off, and the urgency that technique conveys fits with the subject matter. But … why not cut? Why not let us see the doomed battalion before they realize how doomed they are? The power of this story is in the dramatic irony of fate’s fickleness, and we get only a small portion of that by sticking on one path. Ultimately then, 1917 is a long fancy showcase to show off some filmmaking skillz instead of a fully realized narrative vision.

1917 is Recommended If You Like: The Revenant, Dunkirk, Video game cut scenes

Grade: 3 out of 5 Orders

‘The Current War’ Offers a Few Sparks of Electricity Here and There

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CREDIT: 101 Studios

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, Nicholas Hoult, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton, Matthew Macfadyen

Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Big Egos Occasionally Misbehaving

Release Date: October 25, 2019

Note: This release of The Current War includes the subtitle “The Director’s Cut,” which is a rare thing for a movie in its original commercial theatrical release. But it’s arriving under unusual circumstances, as it was originally supposed to come out two years ago, but then it was one of the movies orphaned by the dissolution of The Weinstein Company. Since then, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon assembled a cut that is ten minutes shorter than the version that premiered at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival. (He spoke about the experience with Deadline.) I have not seen that cut, so this review is based solely on “The Director’s Cut.”

I’m by no means a huge history buff, but that doesn’t mean an anti-history buff. So I’m at least open to the possibility of being entranced by stories from the past, and cinemas certainly has the power to do that entrancing. The war of the currents would seem like an ideal subject to be powerful in just that way – it is about electricity after all! In the late nineteenth century, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were jockeying for position to be the providers of electric energy to the burgeoning United States power grid, with Nikola Tesla popping in to alternately work for both of them. There is plenty of energy and spirit to these characters, but overall The Current War is a little more subdued than might be expected.

CREDIT: Dean Rogers/101 Studios

Much of The Current War follows this formula: the principal players head to meetings, buoyed along by the invigorating score by Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka. Then they sit down … and the music peters out. That sense of the oomph escaping is a major issue. You get the feeling that Edison and Westinghouse don’t really want to be enemies. True, they have a major fundamental disagreement: Edison advocates for direct current, believing that alternating current is way too potentially lethal, while Westinghouse thinks that alternating is the only option powerful enough to get this project on a country-wide scale. But by the end, you get to a sense of “what was all that fuss about?”

As individuals, these men are fascinating to witness. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Edison is given to bombastic statements like making this counteroffer during a negotiation: “I give you nothing you want, and you give me everything I want,” while Michael Shannon’s Westinghouse is certainly hungry for victory, but he is also mellowed by an anti-materialist streak, noting of his company’s AC, “It’s not my electricity. It’s electricity.” That offers plenty to chew over, and there’s also a fantastic bit of filmmaking set at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago that achieves a bit of transcendence. Maybe if we could have literally spent some time in the heads of Edison, Westinghouse, or Nicholas Hoult’s Tesla instead of the snatches of subjectivity that we do get, then we could have truly been electrocuted.

The Current War is Recommended If You Like: Watching clashing egos duke it out

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Horses

This Is a Movie Review: llumination Entertainment Brings ‘The Grinch’ Into a Post-‘Despicable Me’ World

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CREDIT: Illumination and Universal

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Cameron Seely, Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson, Angela Lansbury, Pharrell Williams

Directors: Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney

Running Time: 86 Minutes

Rating: PG for The Cartoonish Dangers of Snowy Cliffs

Release Date: November 9, 2018

Illumination Entertainment’s first and by far most influential release is Despicable Me. It may be the Minions who are inescapable in certain segments of our culture, but it is really the story of Gru and his girls that has provided Illumination with its template for success. That formula is now being applied to an even more established classic, as Dr. Seuss’ Christmas thief makes his CG animated big-screen debut. As voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, this Grinch still follows the arc of grumbling about the holiday, stealing presents, and then finally seeing the light. But he is very much in the mold of Gru insofar as he makes himself out to be a big villian but it is clear that he is actually a big softie the whole time. I don’t really buy that his heart grows three sizes, since I believe that it was actually always that big. Despicable Me works because of the tension of Gru hiding a fundamental side of himself, whereas previous versions of The Grinch have succeeded because the green fellow has been a genuine cold-hearted villain. But this time, there is no dramatically satisfying transformation.

Luckily, there are some details here and there that make for some cheery viewing pleasures. This version of Cindy Lou Who (voiced by Cameron Seely) is a formidable, strong-willed one. Honestly, I would happily watch a movie that is just about her trying to contact Santa or even one that is just about her preparing Christmas festivities. The animals are also satisfactory, with the Grinch’s canine companion Max serving as the long-suffering partner and a loyal reindeer named Fred showing up at just the right times to be the ideal scene-stealer. And then there’s Kenan Thompson as Bricklebaum, the jolliest citizen in Whoville and perhaps the jolliest character in Christmas movie history. And if you can’t accept Thompson as our resident Deliverer of Joy in 2018, well, then, you might be the one whose heart is three sizes too small.

Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch is Recommended If You Like: Despicable Me‘s sweetness, Resourceful young girls, Kenan Thompson at his most buoyant

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Grinch Orphanages

SNL Review November 5, 2016: Benedict Cumberbatch/Solange

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koohl-toilet

My letter grades for each sketch and segment is below. My in-depth review is on NewsCult: http://newscult.com/snl-love-itkeep-itleave-it-benedict-cumberbatchsolange/

Erin Burnett OutFront – B-

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Monologue – C+

The Koohl Toilet (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – A-

Why Is Benedict Cumberbatch Hot? – B+

Office Hours – B

Surprise Bachelorette Party – C

Solange performs “Cranes in the Sky” – A-

Weekend Update
The Jokes – B
Church Lady – C-
Winners of Weekend Update’s The Voice Contest – B-

Bobby Flay’s Steakhouse – B-

Criminal Mastermind – B

Solange performs “Don’t Touch My Hair” – B+

Mr. Shaw – B+

What Won TV? – October 30-November 5, 2016

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In this feature, I look back at each day of the past week and determine what shows “won TV” for the night. That is, I consider every episode of television I watched that aired on a particular day and declare which was the best.

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Sunday – Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Monday – People of Earth
Tuesday – Atlanta checked its pockets.
Wednesday – You’re the Worst
Thursday – The Good Place
Friday – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Saturday – Benedict Cumberbatch made the toilet Koohl again.

This Is a Movie Review: Doctor Strange

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doctor-strange-close-up-with-buildings-in-background

This review was originally published on News Cult in October 2016.

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams

Directors: Scott Derrickson

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for fantastical bumps and bruises and a gruesome accident

Release Date: November 4, 2016

Now at 14 films strong, the Marvel Cinematic Universe shows no signs of abandoning its (consistently profitable) template: initial humbling, transformative origin, world-threatening climax. Doctor Strange is not interested in (or prohibited from) straying from that template, but it does mess with the rules in ways that do right by its protagonist.

That transgressive attitude is there right from the start. Stephen Strange is a highly respected and highly arrogant neurosurgeon whose superheroic path is catalyzed by a car wreck that is as horrific and as indulgent as a PG-13 rating allows. The comic book model often begins with these intense powder kegs, but they are rarely this visceral, unless they are making a show of being “adult,” which is not what this entry is all about.

With his hands left stubbornly tremorous, Strange is enticed by the promise of an alternative treatment in the mountains of Nepal. While initially prone to skepticism about the sorcery he encounters, he hears out the pitch, perhaps because all characters played by Chiwetel Ejiofor or Tilda Swinton exude confidence. Convincing Strange could have been drawn out, but that likely would have been tiresome, so instead he is soundly convinced by a cosmic trip that achieves cinematic psychedelia unheard of for decades.

Of course, this all leads to a grand climactic battle – this time, a traitorous rebellion led by a former pupil (Mads Mikkelsen). As usual, the entire planet is at threat, but Dr. Strange is sly about how this comes to pass. With much of the action taking place in the “Mirror Dimension” or “astral planes,” the world at large generally has no idea what is going on.

Basically, while Doctor Strange must work within constraints, it has no intention of dialing back the pizzazz. And why should it, considering that so many of its characters can bend the very nature of reality? The film’s most striking visuals – rolling skyscrapers, warped cityscapes – are obviously reminiscent of Inception. That earlier dreamscape flick famously utilized primarily practical effects, while Strange quite obviously employs CGI. That is not a knock – this is perhaps the most artful use of impractical effects of all time. As Stephen Strange learns in his hero’s journey, it’s all about playing to your strengths.

Doctor Strange is Recommended If You Like: Inception But Wish It Had Been More Maniacal, 2001, a Healthy Helping of Looney Tunes

Grade: 4 out of 5 Astral Bodies