The Mauritanian (15) ***
Minari (12) ****
Antebellum (15) ***
Godzilla vs Kong (12) **
Kevin Macdonald’s new 9/11 legal drama The Mauritanian tells the sprawling story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), an electrical engineer who was swept up by American authorities in the aftermath the World Trade Centre attacks and incarcerated without trial in Guantanamo Bay for 14 years. Variously described in the film as the “Al-Qaeda Forrest Gump” (“Everywhere you look, he’s there”) and a “witness” to the CIA’s Bush/Chaney-sanctioned use of torture, Slahi’s story is at first used as an ideological proving ground for the rival lawyers involved in defending and prosecuting him.
On the defence side is criminal attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her idealistic young associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley, doing her best with an underwritten role) who take the very unpopular position that Slahi’s case is an important test of the rule of law whether he’s innocent or not (though the film, via Woodley, does push us towards accepting his innocence early on). On the prosecution side is military lawyer Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who lost a friend on one of the planes that hit the Twin Towers and wants to convict the man he’s been told was “the head recruiter for 9/11”.
All of which makes the film sound like its setting up some kind of John Grisham-esque courtroom showdown. But Macdonald gradually subverts those conventions by shifting focus to Slahi himself and reminding us that it takes more than an administration change to reverse policies that have indelibly stained America’s standing in the world. Of course there are surface similarities here to Scott Z Burns’s 2019 film The Report, but the space the film gives to Rahim to build a rounded, complex portrait of someone who became the most high profile victim of the US desire for “rough justice” adds to our understanding of the Kafka-esque nightmare America’s War on Terror has wrought.
Garlanded with Oscar and BAFTA nominations, Minari has become the little film that could. Revolving around a Korean-American family trying to make a new life for themselves on an Arkansas farm in the 1980s, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s gentle, semi-autobiographical drama is a low-key yet poignant study of the immigrant struggle to assimilate into a new culture without losing one’s own identity.
Steven Yeun leads a terrific cast as Jacob, a Korean immigrant who has moved his wife Monica (Yeri Han) and American-born children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) from Los Angeles to the rural South with a dream of growing Korean vegetables that he can sell to America’s expanding immigrant population. It’s a move that immediately exacerbates deep-rooted marital tensions and the film carefully chips away at this theme, but does so with great humour and pathos, particularly after Jacob’s mischievous mother-in-law Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) arrives from Korea and gradually bonds with young David.
In a way its too bad that Antebellum shares some producers with Get Out and Us: as a racially charged horror movie – the title is a reference to the pre-Civil War American South – its tangential association with Jordan Peele’s films (even though Peele has no involvement) brings with it the burden of expectation, specifically the expectation of a jaw-dropping twist with a trenchant socio-political message.
Starring Janelle Monáe as, respectively, an enslaved woman trying to escape a cotton plantation and a successful author and academic attending a contemporary conference on Black female empowerment, the film tries to keep us guessing about what the connection between these two narrative strands may be. Unfortunately writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz get too caught up in making the tricky plot mechanics work to really furnish Monáe with the sort of thoroughly fleshed-out character that might have made the twist more involving when it comes (it doesn’t help either that said twist resembles one from an early M Night Shyamalan film or that they rather give the game away themselves with the William Faulkner quote they use as an epigraph).
But if the writing lacks the requisite sophistication, their visual storytelling is top drawer, starting with their flashy opening tracking shot, which out of context plays like a queasily exploitative greatest hits package of every recent slavery-themed awards-grabber, but in light of where the film eventually goes, smartly sets up its take-down of the dangerous nostalgia inherent in Make America Great Again-style thinking.
It’s probably best not to overthink a movie billed as a title fight between two of cinema’s most iconic monsters, but as Godzilla vs. Kong pits these titans against each other amid the crumbling evirons of a presumably heavily populated Tokyo, the results are surprisingly dull. Blame not just the cumulative fatigue that comes from watching city-levelling chaos in blockbuster after blockbuster, but also the film’s own need to conclude a half-baked Marvel-inspired “MonsterVerse” franchise incorporating callbacks to Gareth Edwards’ decent, if barely remembered, Godzilla reboot (2014) as well as the woefully inept Kong: Skull Island (2017) and the equally dismal Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). Bar lowered, this instalment does count as a marginal improvement thanks to indie horror director Adam Wingard, who at least understands his two stars’ b-movie appeal. Alas, the need to engineer a big dumb plot to facilitate the monster smack-down (especially when the reason for their rivalry is dispensed with in the opening minutes) also ends up taking its toll.
The Mauritanian is available on Amazon Prime from 1 April; Minari streams on demand and in virtual cinemas from 2 April and will be released in UK cinemas from 15 May; Antebellum screens on Sky Cinema from 2 April; Godzilla vs Kong is available on demand from 1 April
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