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The Mauritanian: Downer by the Bay

The film leaves one wondering how much stronger an impact it might have made had it been released a decade ago

The Mauritanian: taking a moratorium on irony.
The Mauritanian: taking a moratorium on irony.

‘This is a true story.” The presence of this disclaimer (or a reasonable variation thereof) at the outset of a picture suggests a license to speak truth to power. But a corking yarn without a storyteller to spin it is a recipe for a flat soufflé, On paper, The Mauritanian has both the story and the teller, yet it never rises to the occasion, despite its best efforts.

For those who didn’t know (my hand is raised), Mauritania is a country located on the northwest coast of Africa. It is here where the story opens, with our lead Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), a titular sub-Saharan native, returning home for a family wedding. A police escort arrives, and in no time, the guest of honor is a few steps away from taking a perp walk to Guantanamo Bay as Mauritania’s most wanted, framed as Al Qaeda’s head recruiter and one of the organizers of 9/11.

Enter Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), a civil rights defender looking to “pick a pro-bono fight,” who positions herself squarely in Slahi’s corner. Whether or not he is guilty of the charges is irrelevant to Hollander; her job is to prove whether the U.S. government has sufficient evidence to warrant a stay in the Bay. (Were it up to Uncle Sam. Slahi would spend his forever in Cuba’s Strawberry Fields, taking the rap for a crime for which he was never convicted.) Shailene Woodley co-stars as Teri Duncan, Hollander’s interpreter, who continues on the job long after it’s been determined that Slahi is fluent in English. But as good as Foster is, she gives her co-players little in the way of spontaneous behavior off of which to bounce.

Military prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) has a personal stake in taking the case; a friend was on board the second plane that hit the World Trade Center. When asked if he’d like to lead the prosecution, his reply isn’t a question of if, but rather, “When do we start?” At least the courtroom confrontations are mercifully brief.

It could very well be an example of too much, too late — the film leaves one wondering how much stronger an impact it might have made had it been released a decade ago, when the mere thought of Donald Rumsfeld caused gag reflexes across America to kick in. This is not the first time audiences have been allowed access to what’s come to be known as our modern day equivalent to a medieval chamber of horrors. And with his experience working in both documentary realism (One Day in September, Touching the Void) and confined space (the gripping submarine thriller Black Sea), Kevin Macdonald seemed the perfect director to act as our guide. His documentarian’s eye guides us through the film’s intricate, flashback-within-flashback structure without breaking a sweat, but too often, screenwriters Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani’s nesting doll structure comes up hollow. There is one uniquely horrifying form of torture to which the film introduces audiences: forget waterboarding or the non-stop blare of death metal; here, guards in the market for sadistic kicks visit the prison library and relieve novels of their closing chapters. ★★

—Scott Marks

Video on Demand New Release Roundup

Coming 2 America — Much of the original has long faded from memory; the one moment still buzzing in my grey cells is the location of Zamunda, somewhere beyond the Paramount mountain. True to form for a sequel that is ostensibly a remake, the camera once again draws us past the logo into a world that’s more sitcom than extension, with characters returning each week to pretty much do the same thing as the week before. Only this time, it’s been over three decades since their last visit. It was a kick to see everyone reassemble, but in the service of what? Cameo performances by En Vogue, Salt-N-Pepa, and Gladys Knight and the Pips tende to push things closer in the direction of American Idol finale than laughter, something this comedy sorely lacks. Akeem’s (Eddie Murphy) stateside return now entails a search for a son the monarch didn’t know existed. Father to three daughters, Akeem follows the old dictum, “A man’s not a man unless he’s produced a son,” and the women of Zamunda are not allowed to ascend the throne. Rather than let “his balls go to waste,” as a friend of mine so aptly put it, there is one new wrinkle that this PG-13 followup has on its predecessor: the film’s plot is prevaricated on sexual assault. Heir to the throne Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler) is the product of date rape. (His mother, played with neither shame nor subtlety by Leslie Jones, drugged Akeem.) At one point, a character expresses great self-reflexive insight on the subject of sequels: “If it’s good, why ruin it?” The four screenwriters — five if you count Murphy — should have heeded the advice of their own character. Quite the comedown from Dolemite Is My Name, the last pairing of Murphy and director Craig Brewer. 2021 — S.M.

Tom and Jerry — As a little person, I was always on Jerry’s side. His playful, circle-upon-circle Mickey Mouse design and diminutive size made him a little guy worth championing. Once I ran from Tom. Now, while I don’t exactly run to him, I do find myself repulsed by Jerry’s bland antagonism. Once the pieces were set in place, it became a one-joke role reversal, with the mouse always outwitting the cat. Not much has changed in this, their first big screen outing in almost 30 years. Chloë Grace Moretz stars as Kayla, an out of work con artist who lands feet first in a temp position at a ritzy New York hotel with a mouse problem. One might expect that two Fantastic Four titles under his belt would have made director Tim Story a master of CGI, and to his credit, the character movement and integration earned points. As did tributes to Golden Era holdovers Spike, Butch, Lightning, Topsy, and Meathead, all given their anthropomorphic due. And humans walking cartoon dogs lend vitality to the background detail. Gone, however, are series favorites Nibbles aka Tuffy, the adorable white mouse who on occasion spoke with a French accent, and jabbering annoyance Yakky Doodle. (To no one’s surprise, broom-wielding “Mammy Two Shoes,” the stereotypical African-American cleaning woman shown only from the waist down, didn’t make the cut. One hoped that Story might have found a way of smuggling her in, much in the manner Joe Dante did when wondering what to do with a certain politically incorrect stuttering pig and his speedy, but merrily immelodious Mexican co-star in Looney Tunes Back In Action.) Unable to carry a feature, the cartoon duo are frequently asked to take a back seat to Moretz and her boss (Michael Peña). Why do the equally sado-masochistic team of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote provide an endless fountain of variation, while Tom and Jerry are content in their inertness, opting as always to place absolute sadism over slapstick style? Like I said, not much has changed. 2021 — S.M.

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Gopher snakes, garter snakes, king snakes, rosy boas and three varieties of rattlesnakes
The Mauritanian: taking a moratorium on irony.
The Mauritanian: taking a moratorium on irony.

‘This is a true story.” The presence of this disclaimer (or a reasonable variation thereof) at the outset of a picture suggests a license to speak truth to power. But a corking yarn without a storyteller to spin it is a recipe for a flat soufflé, On paper, The Mauritanian has both the story and the teller, yet it never rises to the occasion, despite its best efforts.

For those who didn’t know (my hand is raised), Mauritania is a country located on the northwest coast of Africa. It is here where the story opens, with our lead Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), a titular sub-Saharan native, returning home for a family wedding. A police escort arrives, and in no time, the guest of honor is a few steps away from taking a perp walk to Guantanamo Bay as Mauritania’s most wanted, framed as Al Qaeda’s head recruiter and one of the organizers of 9/11.

Enter Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), a civil rights defender looking to “pick a pro-bono fight,” who positions herself squarely in Slahi’s corner. Whether or not he is guilty of the charges is irrelevant to Hollander; her job is to prove whether the U.S. government has sufficient evidence to warrant a stay in the Bay. (Were it up to Uncle Sam. Slahi would spend his forever in Cuba’s Strawberry Fields, taking the rap for a crime for which he was never convicted.) Shailene Woodley co-stars as Teri Duncan, Hollander’s interpreter, who continues on the job long after it’s been determined that Slahi is fluent in English. But as good as Foster is, she gives her co-players little in the way of spontaneous behavior off of which to bounce.

Military prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) has a personal stake in taking the case; a friend was on board the second plane that hit the World Trade Center. When asked if he’d like to lead the prosecution, his reply isn’t a question of if, but rather, “When do we start?” At least the courtroom confrontations are mercifully brief.

It could very well be an example of too much, too late — the film leaves one wondering how much stronger an impact it might have made had it been released a decade ago, when the mere thought of Donald Rumsfeld caused gag reflexes across America to kick in. This is not the first time audiences have been allowed access to what’s come to be known as our modern day equivalent to a medieval chamber of horrors. And with his experience working in both documentary realism (One Day in September, Touching the Void) and confined space (the gripping submarine thriller Black Sea), Kevin Macdonald seemed the perfect director to act as our guide. His documentarian’s eye guides us through the film’s intricate, flashback-within-flashback structure without breaking a sweat, but too often, screenwriters Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani’s nesting doll structure comes up hollow. There is one uniquely horrifying form of torture to which the film introduces audiences: forget waterboarding or the non-stop blare of death metal; here, guards in the market for sadistic kicks visit the prison library and relieve novels of their closing chapters. ★★

—Scott Marks

Video on Demand New Release Roundup

Coming 2 America — Much of the original has long faded from memory; the one moment still buzzing in my grey cells is the location of Zamunda, somewhere beyond the Paramount mountain. True to form for a sequel that is ostensibly a remake, the camera once again draws us past the logo into a world that’s more sitcom than extension, with characters returning each week to pretty much do the same thing as the week before. Only this time, it’s been over three decades since their last visit. It was a kick to see everyone reassemble, but in the service of what? Cameo performances by En Vogue, Salt-N-Pepa, and Gladys Knight and the Pips tende to push things closer in the direction of American Idol finale than laughter, something this comedy sorely lacks. Akeem’s (Eddie Murphy) stateside return now entails a search for a son the monarch didn’t know existed. Father to three daughters, Akeem follows the old dictum, “A man’s not a man unless he’s produced a son,” and the women of Zamunda are not allowed to ascend the throne. Rather than let “his balls go to waste,” as a friend of mine so aptly put it, there is one new wrinkle that this PG-13 followup has on its predecessor: the film’s plot is prevaricated on sexual assault. Heir to the throne Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler) is the product of date rape. (His mother, played with neither shame nor subtlety by Leslie Jones, drugged Akeem.) At one point, a character expresses great self-reflexive insight on the subject of sequels: “If it’s good, why ruin it?” The four screenwriters — five if you count Murphy — should have heeded the advice of their own character. Quite the comedown from Dolemite Is My Name, the last pairing of Murphy and director Craig Brewer. 2021 — S.M.

Tom and Jerry — As a little person, I was always on Jerry’s side. His playful, circle-upon-circle Mickey Mouse design and diminutive size made him a little guy worth championing. Once I ran from Tom. Now, while I don’t exactly run to him, I do find myself repulsed by Jerry’s bland antagonism. Once the pieces were set in place, it became a one-joke role reversal, with the mouse always outwitting the cat. Not much has changed in this, their first big screen outing in almost 30 years. Chloë Grace Moretz stars as Kayla, an out of work con artist who lands feet first in a temp position at a ritzy New York hotel with a mouse problem. One might expect that two Fantastic Four titles under his belt would have made director Tim Story a master of CGI, and to his credit, the character movement and integration earned points. As did tributes to Golden Era holdovers Spike, Butch, Lightning, Topsy, and Meathead, all given their anthropomorphic due. And humans walking cartoon dogs lend vitality to the background detail. Gone, however, are series favorites Nibbles aka Tuffy, the adorable white mouse who on occasion spoke with a French accent, and jabbering annoyance Yakky Doodle. (To no one’s surprise, broom-wielding “Mammy Two Shoes,” the stereotypical African-American cleaning woman shown only from the waist down, didn’t make the cut. One hoped that Story might have found a way of smuggling her in, much in the manner Joe Dante did when wondering what to do with a certain politically incorrect stuttering pig and his speedy, but merrily immelodious Mexican co-star in Looney Tunes Back In Action.) Unable to carry a feature, the cartoon duo are frequently asked to take a back seat to Moretz and her boss (Michael Peña). Why do the equally sado-masochistic team of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote provide an endless fountain of variation, while Tom and Jerry are content in their inertness, opting as always to place absolute sadism over slapstick style? Like I said, not much has changed. 2021 — S.M.

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