Review: ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stühlbarg and Rachel McAdams

May 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Xochitl Gomez, Benedict Wong and Benedict Cumberbatch in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”

Directed by Sam Raimi

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and various parts of a multiverse, the superhero action film “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Superhero sorcerer Doctor Strange, also known as surgeon Stephen Strange, goes on a quest to save teenager America Chavez, who has a special superpower that a villain wants to steal. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of comic book movie fans, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen and the Disney+ superhero series “WandaVision.”

Elizabeth Olsen in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has now become the world’s first cinematic franchise where you need encyclopedia knowledge of certain comic books to know what’s going on and to fully enjoy the movies and TV shows in the franchise. There are many MCU fans who’ve invested years of watching every Marvel movie and every Marvel TV show that comes along. And that investment has its rewards in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”

But what about people who aren’t die-hard Marvel fans and just want to see a good superhero movie? Simply put: “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is a convoluted but entertaining experience that should not be a viewer’s first MCU movie. It’s a movie that can be considered the tipping point where at least one Marvel show on Disney+ is essential viewing to understand the entire film.

For “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” that essential Marvel show is “WandaVision.” It also helps, but it’s not crucial, to watch the Disney+ animated series “What If…?,” which explored alternate storylines for Marvel characters. If you don’t want to watch any of these Marvel shows, then “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” has this message for you: “Too bad, because you will be left behind, and you will feel ignorant about storylines and nuances in any upcoming MCU movies.”

Viewers also need to see (or at least know what happened in) the following movies to fully appreciate “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and its complex plot: 2016’s “Doctor Strange,” 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” If you don’t know about the supervillain Thanos or the five-year “disappearance” that he caused, some of the dialogue in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” will not make sense to you. Viewers who have no prior knowledge of any Marvel movie will just be hopelessly lost and will just have to try to enjoy “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” for the movie’s high-energy action scenes and compelling visual effects.

The movie’s screenplay, written by Michael Waldron, keeps transporting characters from Multiverse scene to Multiverse scene with such dizzying regularity, the best way to know these characters is by seeing them in previous MCU stories. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is just like very eye-catching and detailed icing on a cake. It will appeal to many people but be completely unnecessary to others.

Sam Raimi—a filmmaker known for helming the first three “Spider-Man” movies and horror classics such as the first two “Evil Dead” films—directed “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” as someone who is clearly an ardent fan of the MCU. But he also directed “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” as an ardent fan who expects everyone watching to be all caught up in almost everything related to Marvel on screen prior to the release of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” And that includes some of the Marvel movies released by the studio formerly known as 20th Century Fox, because some characters from those movies make cameos in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”

Here are the basic things that people need to know before watching “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”: New York City-based superhero sorcerer Doctor Strange, also known as brilliant surgeon Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), is going on another “good versus evil” quest. Fights and chase scenes ensue. And the “Multiverse” in the MCU is really just another word for “different versions of comic book characters existing in different universes.” After the blockbuster success of 2021’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which had three different versions of Spider-Man interacting with each other in the same movie, there’s no point in being coy about what “multiverse” means if it’s part of a Marvel story.

However, there’s a reason why spoiler-free descriptions of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” are so vague: The movie is filled with more spoilers than a typical superhero film. And those spoilers include describing which characters encounter different versions of themselves in the Multiverse. It should come as no surprise that viewers can expect to see more than one version of Doctor Strange, whose rescue mission in the movie is to save superhero newcomer America Chavez (played by Xochitl Gomez), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, from being robbed of her extremely rare superpower.

What is her superpower? She can travel through the Multiverse with ease. But in this movie, she doesn’t know how to control the power. All she knows is that she can exert this power in moments when she feels extreme fear. America doesn’t know yet that she’s a superhero, so “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” can be considered the introduction to her discovering her superhero identity. One of the things that America knows about herself is that she has not found other versions of herself in the Multiverse.

The movie also has a brief flashback to America, when she was about 7 or 8 years old (played by Aliyah Camacho), being separated from her two lesbian mothers—Elena Chavez (played by Ruth Livier) and Amalia Chavez (played by Chess Lopez)—who were involuntarily yanked into a portal that took the mothers into another universe. Ever since then, America has been looking for her mothers, and she fears that her mothers might be dead.

America feels a lot of guilt because she caused that portal to appear after she became frightened by a bee, not knowing that her parents would be taken away from her. In the Marvel comic books, America is openly a lesbian, but her sexuality is not mentioned in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” She’s too busy running around trying not to get killed to think about dating or having a love interest.

And who exactly is targeting America for her Multiverse superpower? It’s Wanda Maximoff, also known as Scarlet Witch (played by Elizabeth Olsen), a character who is a hero or a villain, depending on which version of this character is in the scene. And because this movie is all about the Multiverse, the Wanda/Scarlet Witch character can sometimes be a hero and a villain in the same scene.

In “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” Wanda is a single mother to fraternal twin boys Billy (played by Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (played by Jett Klyne), who are about 8 or 9 years old. Billy and Tommy have superpowers in “WandaVision” that might or might not be on display in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” Wanda’s motherhood is crucial to her motivations in almost everything she does in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” Her motherhood is used as a way for her to manipulate people and how she is manipulated herself.

Viewers who last saw Wanda in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” without knowing what happened in “WandaVision” might be utterly confused over when she became a mother. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” explains (in a “WandaVision” spoiler alert) that Wanda/Scarlet Witch used her magical powers to create these children. She quips in response: “That’s what every mother does.” Doctor Strange scolds Wanda/Scarlet Witch for using her magic to mess with reality, which is completely ironic and hypocritical considering what he does later in the movie.

What “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” doesn’t explain adequately is why Wanda created these children. The twins were raised by Wanda and her superhero love partner Vision (played by Paul Bettany) up until a certain point in “WandaVision.” People who know what happened in “WandaVision” also know what happened to Vision, which is not explained in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” What happened in “WandaVision” helps people understand why Wanda, as the Scarlet Witch, has turned to the “dark side,” which in this universe is called the Darkhold, an ancient book of spells.

Don’t expect this movie to have any meaningful “WandaVision” flashbacks to further reveal Wanda’s family situation in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” but her family motivations are supposed to make her look more sympathetic in doing the things that she does in the movie. It also gives her character more emotional depth to viewers who know her family history, compared to viewers who don’t know. It’s all part of a cross-marketing plan for Disney-owned Marvel Studios to get people to subscribe to Disney+ to watch the Marvel shows on Disney+ so that viewers can fully understand Marvel movies. It’s also called creating viewer FOMO (“fear of missing out”) to full effect.

Certain characters from 2016’s “Doctor Strange” make their return in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” Stephen’s ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (played by Rachel McAdams), a surgeon who worked with him at the same hospital, gets married to a man named Charlie (played by Ako Mitchell), who is a fan of Doctor Strange. Stephen is invited to the wedding, where he privately tells Christine that he regrets not trying harder for them to stay together. (They broke up because he’s a workaholic and because all those superhero duties got in the way.)

Christine responds, “Stephen, it was never going to work out between us. Because you were always going to be the one holding the knife. I could respect you for it, but I could never love you for it.” And there are more heartbroken and emotionally wounded moments for Stephen/Doctor Strange in the movie, with some of those moments involving Christine.

Doctor Strange’s loyal superhero colleague Wong (played by Benedict Wong) also makes his return. Wong is now the Sorcerer Supreme, who oversees sorcerer training in Kamar-Taj, which is located in another dimension. Doctor Strange and Wong fight side by side in some scenes, but there’s a stretch of the movie where Doctor Strange and Wong are not in the same universe and have to fight separate battles. There’s no story arc for steadfast and dependable Wong in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which is a missed opportunity, because Wong deserves to have more character development in the MCU.

Also returning is Karl Mordo (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), who became an enemy of Doctor Strange in the first “Doctor Strange” movie, but Mordo might or might not have the same type of personality or life story in other parts of the Multiverse. Dr. Nicodemus “Nic” West (played by Michael Stühlbarg), the surgeon who operated on Stephen’s hands after Stephen was in a near-fatal car accident in the first “Doctor Strange” movie, makes a brief appearance (less than five minutes) in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” where Dr. West is a guest at Christine’s wedding. In this scene, Dr. West sits next to Stephen and smugly tells Stephen that although Doctor Strange likes to think that he is the “best surgeon and the best superhero,” in the end, Stephen/Doctor Strange “didn’t get the girl.”

Other than America Chavez, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” doesn’t do much with new characters in the MCU. These new MCU characters include mystic artists Sara (played by Sheila Atim) and Rintrah (played by Adam Hugill), who are both disciples of Wong in Kamar-Taj. The purpose for Sara and Rintrah in the movie is exactly what you think it might be in forgettable roles. As far as introducing new characters, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse” is all about making America Chavez a newcomer star of the MCU.

Scarlet Witch is the movie’s main villain, but there are some monsters that also cause mayhem. One of them is a giant one-eyed octopus that appears during Christine’s wedding. It’s a somewhat awkwardly staged scene, where the octopus suddenly appears on the streets of New York City, and Doctor Strange quickly puts on his magical cloak (don’t call it a “cape,” according to him) and jumps off of a balcony to fight the monster. Some generic-looking demons also make appearances during the fight scenes.

Visually, the movie has its dazzling moments. In terms of its story, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is a mixed bag. At times, it gets repetitive and jumbled as you think it can be when people jump through portals and enter different universes during chase scenes. And that’s not the only repetition: “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” repeats the MCU formula of superheroes making wisecracking jokes during action scenes. There are also parts of the movie that repeat a scenario where someone has to “prove” their identity and show evidence that what they’re saying is the truth, because the Multiverse is supposed to make people feel disoriented about what’s real and what isn’t real.

The movie also repeats a theme of the main characters looking for their definition of happiness. More than once in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” someone is asked, “Are you happy?” And then it’s followed up with some version of saying, “Are you really happy? Don’t lie to me because I can tell you’re not really happy.” Is this a superhero movie or a therapy session?

Other times, the movie works very well when it comes to laying the groundwork for developing the story of America Chavez and how she became an ally of Doctor Strange and Wong. Some horror movie elements kick into high gear in the last third of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which handles horror better than 2022’s “Morbius” movie, the origin story of Marvel’s vampire anti-hero Morbius. Raimi’s experience as a horror filmmaker greatly benefits “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”

There’s nothing really spectacular about any of the acting in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” but the acting isn’t terrible either. Stephen Strange/Doctor Strange is known for his arrogance and impatience, but in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” he shows more humility and emotional vulnerability than in previous Marvel movies, and Cumberbatch plays the part accordingly. McAdams doesn’t have a lot to work with for her Christine character, who has a stereotypical action movie role of an ex-girlfriend thrown back into an ex-boyfriend’s life so she can be in the action scenes too.

Olsen is very good in her role as Wanda Romanoff/Scarlet Witch, but she was better in “WandaVision,” which required her to show a wider range of personalities in vastly different scenarios. Viewers’ reactions will largely depend on how emotionally connected they feel to Wanda Romanoff/Scarlet Witch, considering she has presented many different sides of herself in the MCU. Gomez portrays America with credibility as someone who is an awkward, slightly rebellious teenager who feels like a lost soul. She and Doctor Strange eventually learn to trust and respect each other, but their clashes just retread the “smart-alecky kid paired with a reluctant adult mentor” formula that’s been in many other movies.

The most emotional moments in”Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” will have the greatest resonance with people who’ve seen “WandaVision” and the aforementioned MCU movies. Everything that has to do with Wanda/Scarlet Witch can best be understood by people who know what happened in “WandaVision.” And when you need to watch a TV series first to understand a movie’s chief villain, that could be a problem for “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” also has the expected mid-credits/end-credits scenes that tease what will happen in other movies or TV shows that are part of the MCU franchise. Charlize Theron is in the mid-credits scene as a character who becomes a very important part of Doctor Strange’s life, based on this character’s Marvel Comics storyline. The movie’s end-credits scene is a throwaway joke that has no bearing on subsequent storylines, but it’s a reference to a spell that was cast on someone in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” Some of the “surprise” cameos just further establish that certain franchise characters that were kept separate from the MCU have now become a part of the MCU.

If you yearn for a time when watching a new superhero movie sequel didn’t have to entail seeing at least three other movies in the franchise and possibly a TV series related to the franchise, in order to understand what happens in the sequel you’re watching, then get used to this MCU reality, because that simpler time is over. Also long gone are the days when having a maximum of five superheroes in a movie sequel was considered too much. Nowadays, not only has the MCU raised expectations for each MCU movie sequel to have numerous superheroes (as main characters and as cameos), but “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” has also ensured that viewers can expect different versions of these superheroes to pop up at any time. It’s a superhero party for superfans, but regular fans or casual fans will feel like they’re at a party where only certain people understand the inside jokes.

Disney’s Marvel Studios will release “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” in U.S. cinemas on May 6, 2022.

Review: ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home,’ starring Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Jamie Foxx, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina and Marisa Tomei

December 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Holland in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

“Spider-Man: No Way Home”

Directed by Jon Watts

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the superhero action film “Spider-Man: No Way Home” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After 17-year-old Peter Parker has been exposed as the alter ego of Spider-Man, he enlists the help of mystical superhero Doctor Strange to make people forget this secret identity, but Doctor Strange’s spell brings several allies and enemies back from various dimensions of the Spider-Verse. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of comic book movie fans, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” will appeal primarily to people who like nostalgia-filled superhero movies and who are fans of this movie’s star-studded cast.

Tom Holland and Alfred Molina) in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Just like an artist’s greatest-hits box set offered to fans who already own every album by the artist, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is best appreciated by people who’ve already seen all the previous “Spider-Man” movies. It’s filled with insider jokes that will either delight or annoy viewers, depending on how familiar they are with the cinematic Spider-Verse. Simply put: “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is an epic superhero feast for fans, but it should not be the first “Spider-Man” movie that people should see. There are too many references to other Spider-Man movies that came before “Spider-Man: No Way Home” that just won’t connect very well with people who have not seen enough of the previous “Spider-Man” movies.

Fortunately for the blockbuster “Spider-Man” movie franchise (which launched with 2002’s “Spider-Man,” starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man), most people who watch “Spider-Man: No Way Home” will have already seen at least one previous “Spider-Man” movie. Maguire also starred in 2004’s “Spider-Man 2” and 2007’s “Spider-Man 3.” Andrew Garfield starred as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in two of the reboot movies: 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” and 2014’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Another “Spider-Man” movie reboot series began with Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, starting with 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and continuing with 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home” and 2021’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is the third “Spider-Man” movie directed by Jon Watts and co-written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, the same writer/director team behind 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” There were six screenwriters (including Watts, McKenna and Sommers) for 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which was also directed by Watts. The trio of Watts, McKenna and Sommers for three consecutive “Spider-Man” movies has been beneficial to the quality of the filmmaking.

Each “Spider-Man” film that this trio has worked on truly does feel connected to each other, compared to other franchise films where different directors and writers often change the tone of the sequels, and therefore the sequels feel disconnected. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” also makes several references to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which Spider-Man/Peter Parker (as portrayed by Holland) was a big part of, in his alliance with the Avengers. It’s another reason why it’s better to see previous Marvel-related movies with Spider-Man in it before seeing “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

Because Spider-Man is Marvel Comics’ most popular character, you’d have to be completely shut off from pop culture to not at least know a few things about Spider-Man, such as he got his agility superpowers by accidentally being bit by a radioactive spider. Just like many superheroes, Peter is an orphan: His parents died in a plane crash, so he was raised by an aunt and an uncle. Even with knowledge of these basic facts about Peter Parker/Spider-Man, it really is best to see all or most of the previous “Spider-Man” films, because the jokes will be funnier, and the surprises will be sweeter.

Speaking of surprises, the vast majority of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” has spoiler information. However, it’s enough to give a summary of what to expect in the first 30 minutes of this 148-minute film without revealing any surprises. The beginning of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” picks up right where “Spider-Man: Far From Home” left off: Peter Parker—an intelligent and compassionate 17-year-old student who lives in New York City’s Queens borough—has been exposed as the secret alter ego of superhero Spider-Man. The culprit who exposed him was the villain Mysterio (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s seen briefly in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in the opening scene that shows the aftermath of this exposé.

All hell breaks loose, because Mysterio has twisted things to make it look like Spider-Man is a villain, not a hero. Peter and his girlfriend MJ (played by Zendaya) are caught in the middle of a crowded New York City street when Peter’s Spider-Man identity is exposed. And the backlash is immediate. Before getting into any harmful physical danger, Spider-Man puts his superhero skills to good use by whisking himself and MJ to safety.

However, the Department of Damage Control quickly detains Peter, MJ, Peter’s best friend Ned Leeds (played by Jacob Batalon) and Peter’s aunt May Parker (played by Marisa Tomei) for questioning. And who shows up to give some legal advice? Attorney/blind superhero Matt Murdock, also known as Daredevil (played by Charlie Cox), who makes a very brief cameo. Matt says, “I don’t think any of the charges will stick. Things will get even worse. There’s still the court of public opinion.”

There’s not enough evidence to hold Peter and his loved ones in the interrogation rooms, so they go back home and ponder their next move. But how long can they stay safe, when people know where Peter lives and where he goes to school? Spider-Man has been branded as a troublemaker by certain people, such as fear-mongering journalist-turned-conspiracy theorist J. Jonah Jameson (played by J.K. Simmons), who no longer works as the editor of the Daily Planet newspaper. Jameson is now anchoring TheDailyPlanet.net, a 24-hour news streaming service.

However, Spider-Man is still a hero or an anti-hero to many more people. When Peter goes back to school the next day, he’s treated like a celebrity. Students surround him to take photos and videos with their phones. Faculty members fawn over him. Conceited and bullying student Flash Thompson (played by Tony Revolori), one of Peter’s nuisances at school, tries to latch on to Peter’s newfound fame by now claiming to be Peter’s best friend. Flash has already written a tell-all memoir to cash in on Peter’s celebrity status.

Peter, MJ (whose real name is Michelle Jones) and Ned are in their last year at Midtown School of Science and Technology. They have plans to go to the prestigious Massachusetts Institution of Technology (MIT) together after they graduate from high school. But due to their high-profile brush with the law, the three pals are worried about their chances of getting into MIT.

This hoped-for MIT enrollment becomes the motivation for Peter to go to fellow New York City-based superhero Doctor Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to ask for his help. Peter wants Doctor Strange to cast a spell so that people will forget that Peter is really Spider-Man. Doctor Strange is reluctant, but he gives in to Peter’s pleading. As Doctor Strange is casting his Spell of Forgetting, Peter interrupts several times to tell Doctor Strange to exempt some of Peter’s loved ones (such as MJ, Ned and May) from the spell.

Doctor Strange is extremely annoyed, so he cuts the spell short and is able to contain the spell’s powers in a cube-sized box. But some damage has already been done: The spell has opened the multi-verse where anyone who knows who Peter Parker can be summoned and go to the dimension where Peter is. And some of these individuals are villains from past “Spider-Man” movies. Doctor Strange gives Peter/Spider-Man the task of capturing these villains to imprison them in Doctor Strange’s dungeon that looks like a combination of a high-tech jail and a mystical crypt.

The return of some of these villains has already been announced through official publicity and marketing materials released for “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” so it’s not spoiler information. These villains are:

  • Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (played by Willem Dafoe), from 2002’s “Spider-Man”
  • Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus, also known as Doc Ock (played by Alfred Molina), from 2004’s “Spider-Man 2”
  • Flint Marko/Sandman (played by Thomas Haden Church), from 2007’s “Spider-Man 3”
  • Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard (played by Rhys Ifans), from 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man”
  • Max Dillon/Electro (played by Jamie Foxx), from 2014’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” has some other surprises, some of which have already been leaked to the public, but won’t be revealed in this review. A few other non-surprise characters in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” include Doctor Strange’s portal-traveling sidekick Wong (played by Benedict Wong), as well as Harold “Happy” Hogan (played by Jon Favreau), Tony Stark/Iron Man’s loyal driver who is now taken on minder duties for Peter. In “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” Happy and May had a fling that ended. Happy fell in love with May and wanted a more serious romance with her, so he is still nursing a broken heart about it in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

The movie’s action sequences are among the most memorable in “Spider-Man” movie history, in large part because of the return of so many characters from the past. A lengthy part of the movie that takes place on the Statue of Liberty will be talked about by fans for years. Because so much of “Spider-Man” relies heavily on people knowing the history of this movie franchise to fully understand the plot developments and a lot of the dialogue, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” will probably be a “love it or hate it” film.

The movie’s mid-credits scene directly correlates to the mid-credits scene for 2021’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage.” And the end-credits scene for “Spider-Man: No Way Home” features a glimpse into the world of Doctor Strange. People should know by now that movies with Marvel characters have mid-credits scenes and/or end-credits scenes that are essentially teasers for an upcoming Marvel superhero movie or TV series.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” has some wisecracking that seems a little too self-congratulatory, but those smug moments are balanced out with some heartfelt emotional scenes. And all the jumping around from one universe dimension to the next might be a little too confusing to viewers who are new to the Spider-Verse. Some people might accuse “Spider-Man: No Way Home” of overstuffing the movie with too much nostalgic stunt casting as gimmicks. However, die-hard fans of the franchise will be utterly thrilled by seeing these familiar characters and will be fully engaged in finding out what happens to them in this very entertaining superhero adventure.

Columbia Pictures will release “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in U.S. cinemas on December 17, 2021.

Review: ‘The Power of the Dog,’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee

December 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)

“The Power of the Dog”

Directed by Jane Campion

Culture Representation: Taking place in Montana in 1925, the dramatic film “The Power of the Dog” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A bullying rancher, who is secretly gay and who comes from a wealthy family, tries to make life miserable for his younger brother’s new wife and her young adult son from a previous marriage. 

Culture Audience: “The Power of the Dog” will appeal primarily to fans of star Benedict Cumberbatch, filmmaker Jane Campion and well-made Westerns where the challenges are more psychological than physical.

Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst in “The Power of the Dog” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)

“The Power of the Dog” gives an unflinching and riveting portrait of toxic masculinity, homophobia and family tensions. Even though the movie is set in 1925 Montana, the themes are universal and timeless. Written and directed by Jane Campion (who adapted the movie from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name), “The Power of the Dog” is a masterfully made film on every level. Many parts of the movie are not easy to watch, but unless you have a heart of stone or only want to watch mindless junk movies, it’s nearly impossible not to be affected in some way after seeing “The Power of the Dog.”

The story of “The Power of the Dog” essentially centers on four people, who end up being caught up in a maelstrom of mistrust and hard feelings. There are varying degrees of love and fear that drive the motives behind these characters’ actions and words. The four characters who are the focus of the story are:

  • Phil Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the aggressive alpha male rancher, who seems ultra-skilled at almost everything except staying in a healthy and loving relationship.
  • George Burbank (played by Jesse Plemons), Phil’s mild-mannered younger brother, who is the opposite of Phil in almost every way.
  • Rose Gordon (played by Kirsten Dunst), the widow restaurateur who becomes of one the targets of Phil’s scorn, especially after Rose marries George.
  • Peter Gordon (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee), the sensitive, young adult son from Rose’s first marriage, who also gets Phil’s wrath because Peter is unapologetically effeminate.

Many other characters come and go in “The Power of the Dog,” but the most interesting and best parts of the movie are about the four main characters. Campion (who is also one of the movie’s producers) wisely pared down the “Power of the Dog” novel by choosing the parts that have the most cinematic impact. If everything in the book had been adapted to the screen, the “The Power of the Dog” would’ve been a miniseries, not a feature-length movie.

Still, the deliberately slow pacing in the beginning of the movie might be a bit of a turnoff to people with short attention spans. The first third of the movie takes place before Rose and George get married. She’s the sole owner/manager of a small eatery called the Red Mill restaurant, which is her only source of income since her first husband, Dr. John Gordon, passed away. Dr. Gordon was a loving husband and father, by all accounts. Peter helps out at the restaurant as a waiter/busboy.

Phil (who is in his mid-40s) and George (who’s in his early-to-mid 30s) come from a wealthy rancher family and live together on the family’s expansive ranch property in Montana. (“The Power of the Dog” was actually filmed in New Zealand.) Their parents are both deceased. Phil (a never-married bachelor) is in charge of the ranch, where he shows off his cowboy skills to his underlings. Phil oversees the ranch’s day-to-day manual operations, while the better-educated George handles the ranch’s business affairs. But if push came to shove, everyone knows that Phil is really the boss of the ranch.

Phil isn’t just talented at ranch responsibilities. He also plays the banjo, which he learned how to play with ease and speed beyond what the average person would be able to do. Later in the movie, Phil uses his banjo playing as a weapon to emotionally torment Rose. Because Phil is so multi-talented and has a charismatic side (he’s well-known for enrapturing people with his storytelling), he gets away with a lot of appalling things with people who seem to both admire and fear him.

Rose and Peter (who’s in his early 20s) are still grieving over the loss of Dr. Gordon, but they do what they can to survive in an often-harsh world. They experience some of this harshness when Phil and his rancher cronies come into the restaurant and put their toxic masculinity on full display. Phil is a bully who likes to taunt and insult people he thinks are vulnerable, just so he can feel superior to them.

Phil makes obnoxious and cruel comments to Rose and Peter while he’s a customer at the restaurant. Phil’s rancher buddies just laugh and do nothing to stop Phil. These weak-willed enablers often join in on Phil’s bullying. One day, at the restaurant, Phil’s bad behavior becomes potentially dangerous, when he deliberately sets fire to a bouquet of paper flowers that’s on display on the restaurant table. The fire doesn’t spread to cause any significant damage. However, this arson is the first sign that Phil has destructive tendencies.

During this restaurant meal, Phil leads a group toast to his deceased best friend Bronco Henry, who died in 1904 at the age of 50. Bronco Henry (who is not seen in flashbacks) is described as a mentor to Phil. As time goes on, there’s a pivotal scene in the movie that reveals that Bronco Henry was more than a best friend/mentor to Phil. It’s the scene that reveals that Phil is gay and in the closet about his true sexuality. It’s left open to intepretation if Phil and Bronco Henry had a sexual relationship, but it’s clear from this scene that Phil was in love with Bronco Henry.

Until that scene happens, the movie drops big hints that Phil’s homophobia is masking his own self-hatred about being gay. The biggest indication is in how Phil zeroes in on Peter for Phil’s worst bullying. Peter, who is shy and very intelligent, is contemplating going to medical school. He has no interest in a job that would require athletic prowess. Therefore, Phil delights in calling Peter a “sissy” and other derogatory names so that Phil can let it be known to everyone that he thinks Peter is probably gay.

Peter’s sexuality is not identified or defined in “The Power of the Dog,” because Peter doesn’t state what his sexuality is, and he doesn’t show interest in dating anyone at this point in his life. Peter is definitely a “mama’s boy” though, and his mother is very protective of him. Having an annoying and homophobic customer who comes into the restaurant is one thing. Having him become part of Peter’s family is another.

And so, it’s with growing dread that Peter (who does voiceover narration in the movie) notices that Phil’s younger brother George has taken a romantic interest in Peter’s lonely mother Rose. George is very smitten with Rose. The feeling isn’t mutual, but she likes George enough to entertain his amorous attention.

There’s an ulterior motive for Rose to consider marrying George: She needs money to pay for Peter’s medical school fees. Her restaurant is also struggling, and she wouldn’t have to work outside the home anymore if she married this wealthy rancher. Rose appreciates that George is kind to her, but she doesn’t have the same romantic passion for him that he does for her. She’s also living in an era when a woman’s financial stability depends largely on what kind of man she marries.

Peter isn’t the only one who doesn’t really want Rose to marry George. Phil tries to discourage George from marrying Rose. During a private conversation between the two brothers, Phil reminds George that they’ve had fun together when they visit prostitutes. Phil also warns George about not being seduced into paying the “nancy boy’s” medical school fees. George is undeterred in his pursuit of Rose because he’s truly in love with her.

Under these circumstances, it doesn’t take Rose long to decide she’s going to marry George. Rose and George have a whirlwind courtship, they get married, and she and Peter move to the Burbank family ranch. It’s during this life transition that things start to get ugly for Rose and Peter. George is often away on business, so he’s at first oblivious to what goes on at the ranch when he’s not there. And he’s sometimes clueless about the trouble that’s brewing, even when he’s at the ranch.

Because of George’s trusting nature, he lives life in an open and transparent way. By contrast, Phil is very secretive and highly manipulative. Phil sees life almost like a chess game where he always has to end up as the winner. George tends to dismiss the bad things that he hears about Phil, partly because Phil is his only sibling (and closest living relative) and partly because George likes to think that all people are essentially good.

Rose is a talented piano player, but Phil is the type of egomaniac who can’t stand the thought of anyone outshining him in any talent, especially in his own home. And so, one of the more fascinating aspects of the movie plays out, when Phil engages in psychological warfare with Rose, by using the music he plays on the banjo, how he plays it, and when he plays it. The marriage of Rose and George also threatens the closeness that Phil and George once had but is now changed because most of George’s attention is now on Rose, not Phil.

You also don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see that Phil is also jealous of George because George has found love and is with a spouse who makes him happy. It’s something that Phil knows he can never experience as a gay man, when homosexuality is forbidden in every way in this 1925 society. Over time, Rose starts to care deeply for George, and that makes Phil even more jealous.

A warning to viewers who are sensitive about seeing animal abuse depicted in movies: There’s a shocking and disturbing scene where Phil takes out his anger by brutally and repeatedly punching a horse. This act of animal cruelty is not entirely shown on camera, but the sound effects are sickening. And there are other scenes of horses being mistreated when Phil and his ranch workers use rough methods to “break” a horse in training. (There’s a disclaimer in the movie’s end credits that confirms that no animals were harmed in the making of this movie.)

People who abuse animals usually abuse other people too. Needless to say, Phil tries to make Peter’s life a living hell at the ranch. And when Peter temporarily goes away to attend medical school, Rose gets the brunt of Phil’s animosity. While on a break from medical school, Peter comes back to the ranch to visit. Rose is shocked and fearful when Phil suddenly starts treating Peter like a protégé.

Even though Phil has stopped overtly bullying Peter, Rose is suspicious that Phil’s sudden transformation into being a “nice mentor” is all an act, and that Phil is setting up Peter for something sinister. Rose confides in George about her suspicions, but George doesn’t really know what to think. Peter seems happy and grateful that Phil is no longer bullying him. The movie delivers a knockout punch to audiences in showing how all of this turmoil is resolved.

All of the cast members give terrific performances, but the biggest standouts are Cumberbatch, Dunst and Smit-McPhee. Dunst and Plemons are a couple in real life, and they have an easy chemistry together. Where things really get really shaken with unease is in how Phil, Rose and Peter navigate their relationships with each other in this very uncomfortable blended family situation.

Rose and Phil predictably don’t get along with each other. But what Dunst portrays so well is being emtionally knocked-off balance when she sees that Phil and Peter, who could easily be enemies, are now starting to become close to each other and could possibly become friends. Phil knows that Peter is the person whom Rose loves the most, so what better way to disturb Rose than to gain the loyalty and trust of Peter?

It’s easy to see why Rose would feel emotionally betrayed by Peter too. Peter is starting to assert his independence, so he seems to want to ignore his mother’s increasing apprehension that Phil does not have good intentions for Peter. The tension is ramped up even more in scenes where Peter and Phil spend time alone together. As the hard-to-read Peter, Smit-McPhee probably has the most diffcult character to play because Peter doesn’t express his emotions as easily as the other main characters.

Cumberbatch gives one of the best performances of his career as the ruthless and complicated Phil. This character is by no means an “anti-hero”—he’s a villain, through and through. But the movie can inspire thoughtful discussions over how much homophobia plays a role in Phil’s deep-seated hatred and bitterness. If Phil had been able to live his life openly as a gay man, would he still be a jerk? That question is definitely open to debate.

It’s one of the many aspects of Campion’s version of “The Power of the Dog” that make it intriguing cinematic art. The movie does not offer easy answers and weaves a rich-enough tapestry in the story that’s open to interpretation. The movie’s cinematography, production design and musical score enhance the film’s ability to be both hypnotic and suspenseful. It’s easy to see why Campion won the Best Director prize at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival, where “The Power of the Dog” had its world premiere. The movie also screened at other prestigious film festivals in 2021, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival.

“The Power of the Dog” gets its title from Psalm 22:20 in the Bible: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” In the movie, a mountain range can be seen from the ranch, and the characters talk about how the mountain has a specific rock formation that resembles a dog, if looked at in a certain way. Phil represents any toxic force that threatens to ruin someone’s life. And the powerful message of the movie is that you can either fear this toxicity and look away, or you can look at it directly and confront it head-on.

Netflix released “The Power of the Dog” in select U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2021, and on Netflix on December 1, 2021.

2021 Toronto International Film Festival: winners announced

September 18, 2021

 

TIFF logo

Pictured in front row: Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Jude Hill and Lewis McAskie in “Belfast” (Photo by Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

 

The following is a press release from the Toronto International Film Festival:

The Toronto International Film Festival® has announced its award recipients for the 46th edition of the Festival, which concluded tonight with screenings of Zhang Yimou’s One Second at the Visa Screening Room at the Princess of Wales Theatre and Roy Thomson Hall.

“2021 brought an exceptional selection of films that excited Festival audiences around the world,” said Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey, TIFF Co-Heads. “Our lineup showcased beloved auteurs alongside fresh voices in filmmaking, including numerous women powerhouses. TIFF welcomed guest press, industry, international stars, and directors back to the city and into cinemas. The sweeping range in cinematic storytelling from around the world is a testament to the uniqueness of the films that are being made. We’re so grateful and proud of this year’s Festival.”

Thanks to the hybrid nature of the Festival, TIFF’s Industry platform welcomed close to 4,000 industry and press professionals from around the world, both digitally and in-person. TIFF remains a site of industry activity and a key marketplace for film title sales, hosting 105 market screenings and facilitating the sales of “France,” “Silent Night,” “A Banquet,” and “Huda’s Salon,” as well as Industry Selects title “The Pink Cloud.” TIFF’s Industry Conference presented 37 digital sessions for industry and press delegates from filmmakers to advocates and funders. The Dialogues stream featured conversations with creators E. Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Sterlin Harjo, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and Rebeca Huntt; Visionaries welcomed Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Sahraa Karimi, Greig Fraser, Nancy Utley, and Steve Gilula; Perspectives explored narrative sovereignty with Indigenous industry leaders and hosted a discussion on dismantling toxic industry culture; and Connections highlighted conversations on funding diverse films with ARRAY and talent to watch with Telefilm. TIFF also welcomed 20 new Filmmaker Lab participants, and eight new Rising Stars, who participated in intimate development labs with programme governors and special guest speakers.

TIFF’s Satellite Screenings wrapped Monday, September 13 in the evening. TIFF’s Film Circuit partners Bell and Cineplex worked with TIFF to bring screenings to audiences across Canada, in seven cities and six provinces (Collingwood, ON; Markham, ON; Montreal, QC; Moose Jaw, SK; Prince Rupert, BC; Saint John, NB; and Summerside, PE).

Honouring the film industry’s outstanding contributors and their achievements, and serving as TIFF’s largest annual fundraiser, the TIFF Tribute Awards was broadcast this evening across Canada on CTV, CTV.ca and the CTV app and streamed internationally to the rest of the world by Variety for the second straight year. The 2021 event raised funds for TIFF’s diversity, equity, and inclusion fund, Every Story, and championed a safe, community-focused, and inspiring return to cinemas. During the one-hour broadcast, two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain at the Festival with “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and “The Forgiven,” who will receive the TIFF Tribute Actor Award supported by the Tory Family; and Academy Award–nominated Benedict Cumberbatch who was also at TIFF with “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” and “The Power of the Dog,” who will receive the TIFF Tribute Actor Award; Academy Award–nominated French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who will receive the TIFF Ebert Director Award and brought the epic and breathtaking “Dune” to TIFF on the big screen; award-winning documentary filmmaker, writer, singer, and activist Alanis Obomsawin, who will be honoured with the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media supported by Participant Media, also celebrated with a retrospective and premiere of her new powerful short film “Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair”; cinematographer Ari Wegner, whose stunning work was featured in “The Power of the Dog,” who will receive the TIFF Variety Artisan Award; “Cree/Métis Night Raiders” filmmaker Danis Goulet who will receive the TIFF Emerging Talent Award, presented by L’Oréal Paris and supported by MGM; and six-time Grammy Award-winning, music legend Dionne Warwick whose documentary “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” had a World Premiere at the Festival, will be honoured with the Special Tribute Award.

Produced by Bell Media Studios, with etalk’s Tyrone Edwards and Chloe Wilde returning as hosts, the third annual awards show opened with an introduction from Sigourney Weaver and special tributes were presented by Shamier Anderson, Kirsten Dunst, Rebecca Ferguson, Emma Ferreira, Gladys Knight, Phillip Lewitski, L’Oréal Paris brand ambassador Eva Longoria, David Oyelowo, Michael Showalter, and Kiefer Sutherland. Starting on Sunday, September 19, the TIFF Tribute Awards will be available to view on Crave.

New this year, the highly anticipated winners of the TIFF People’s Choice Award and Platform Jury Prize were announced live during the awards broadcast, just moments ago. Academy Award–nominated actor Riz Ahmed, head of the jury for the 2021 Platform Prize, announced the prize winner for that competition, and the 2021 People’s Choice Award winner was announced by TIFF Co-Heads Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente.

PLATFORM PRIZE

Arawinda Kirana and Asmara Abigail in “Yuni” (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

Named after Jia Zhang-ke’s trailblazing second feature, Platform is the Toronto International Film Festival’s competitive programme championing bold directorial visions. Now in its sixth year, Platform is curated by TIFF Artistic Director and Co-Head Cameron Bailey. The Platform Prize Jury members for 2021 are Riz Ahmed (Jury President), Clio Barnard, Anthony Chen, Kazik Radwanski, and Valerie Complex.

The Platform jury provided this statement: “The jury was moved by a film that brings a fresh, intimate perspective to a coming-of-age story, marked by a subtle structure, delicate framing, and lush cinematography. For drawing us into a unique inner world too rarely seen on screen, the 2021 Platform Prize goes to Yuni, directed by Kamila Andini.”

An honourable mention from the Platform Prize Jury goes to Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), dir. Jenna Cato Bass.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARD

Judi Dench, Jude Hill and Ciarán Hinds in “Belfast” (Photo by Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

For the 44th year, the People’s Choice Awards distinguish the audience’s top title at the Festival as voted by the viewing public. Audiences watching films at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Roy Thomson Hall, the Visa Screening Room at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Scotiabank Theatre, the Ontario Place Cinesphere IMAX Theatre, the Visa Skyline Drive-In, the RBC Lakeside Drive-In, the West Island Open Air Cinema, and at home via digital screenings on the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox platform voted online. All films in TIFF’s Official Selection that screened both in-person and on digital TIFF Bell Lightbox were eligible.

The TIFF 2021 People’s Choice Award winner is: “Belfast,” dir. Kenneth Branagh. The first runner-up is “Scarborough,” dirs. Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson. The second runner-up is “The Power of the Dog,” dir. Jane Campion.

A scene from “The Rescue” (Photo courtesy of National Geographic Films)

The TIFF 2021 People’s Choice Documentary Award winner is “The Rescue,” dirs. E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. The first runner-up is Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, dirs. Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner. The second runner-up is Flee, dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen.

Agathe Rousselle in “Titane” (Photo by Carole Bethuel/Neon)

The TIFF 2021 People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award winner is “Titane,” dir. Julia Ducournau. The first runner-up is “You Are Not My Mother,” dir. Kate Dolan. The second runner-up is “DASHCAM,” dir. Rob Savage.

SHAWN MENDES FOUNDATION CHANGEMAKER AWARD

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: Anna Claire Beitel, Essence Fox and Liam Diaz in “Scarborough” (Photo courtesy of Telefilm Canada and the Talent Fund)

Presented by the Shawn Mendes Foundation, the 2021 Changemaker Award is awarded to a Festival film that tackles issues of social change, and comes with a $10,000 cash prize. The winning film was selected by TIFF’s Next Wave Committee, a group of young film lovers who recognize cinema’s power to transform the world. The Shawn Mendes Foundation will also be making an annual contribution in support of TIFF Next Wave, helping TIFF deliver key initiatives to elevate young voices. The jurors for the Changemaker Award are members of TIFF’s Next Wave Committee: Norah Daudi, Sia Mehta, Saharla Ugas, Julia Yoo, Lina Zhang, Charles Liu, Naiya Forrester, Honora Murphy, Dev Desai, Elli Tripp, Michelle Kofia, and David Rhomberg.

The 2021 Changemaker Award is presented to “Scarborough,” dirs. Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson. Shasha Nakhai developed Scarborough at TIFF Industry in 2019 as an inaugural TIFF Talent Accelerator filmmaker.

TIFF’s Next Wave Committee provided this statement: “This film is etched on my heart. Scarborough is an utterly captivating and earth-shattering story of three intertwined families who are no strangers to hardship. Through the charms of misfits and unlikely heroes, directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson pose big social questions while framing them in a real and affirming story of resilience, community, and love. Written and directed with power and grace, this film truly feels like home.”

Directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson offered this statement: “Thank you to TIFF for giving this film a platform. It has been a really long and challenging road to get here, and we are so grateful to the TIFF Next Wave Committee and the Shawn Mendes Foundation for this award. We’re happy folks are coming away from the film feeling moved, seen, and affirmed, with a renewed commitment to community — and what we hope is a renewed commitment to resisting the forces that seek to erase, fracture, and monetize community. We are excited to bring this film to wider audiences after the Festival, and especially looking forward to using it as a tool to support the front-line work already being done on the myriad issues that it tackles.”

AMPLIFY VOICES AWARDS PRESENTED BY CANADA GOOSE

Canada Goose embraces diversity in all its forms and definitions, including technique and passion that transports storytelling to the screen. This year, Canada Goose presents the Amplify Voices Awards to the three best feature films by under-represented filmmakers. All feature films in Official Selection by emerging BIPOC filmmakers and Canadian filmmakers were eligible for these awards, and the three winners will receive a cash prize of $10,000 each, made possible by Canada Goose.

The three Amplify Voices Awards presented by Canada Goose winners are:

A scene from “Ste. Anne” (Photo courtesy of Exovedate Productions)

Amplify Voices Award for Best Canadian Feature Film: “Ste. Anne,” dir. Rhayne Vermette
Jury’s statement: “Rhayne Vermette’s debut feature shows us a unique vision that makes full use of all the tools of filmmaking to lure us into its emotional topography. Deeply personal yet inviting, Ste. Anne is true cinematic art made in a setting that’s often missing from the landscape of Canadian film.”

Special Mention: “Scarborough,” dirs. Shasha Nakhai, Rich Williamson
Jury’s statement: “With a strong sense of place, Scarborough tells a heartfelt story about community that charms with great performances from its actors, both young and old.”

Yasmin Warsame and Omar Abdi in “The Grave Digger’s Wife” (Photo courtesy of Orange Studio)

Amplify Voices Award: “The Gravedigger’s Wife,” dir. Khadar Ayderus Ahmed
Jury’s statement: “At once specific to Somali culture and universally recognizable, The Gravedigger’s Wife tells a deeply romantic tale that’s both emotionally and visually textured. With Omar Abdi as its magnetic lead, Guled’s journey captivates from the first scene to the final frame.”

A scene from “A Night of Knowing Nothing” (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

Amplify Voices Award: “A Night of Knowing Nothing,” dir. Payal Kapadia
Jury’s statement: “Payal Kapadia’s unique documentary balances the personal and political with a surprising snapshot of her home country. Shocking at times, but also sweeping in its beauty, A Night of Knowing Nothing is a first feature that already demonstrates her strong voice as a filmmaker.”

The 2021 jurors for the Amplify Voices Awards presented by Canada Goose are Yung Chang, Calvin Thomas, Kaniehtiio Horn, Hugh Gibson, and Aisha Jamal.

IMDbPro SHORT CUTS AWARDS

A scene from “Displaced” (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

The 2021 IMDbPro Short Cuts Awards are for Best Film, Best Canadian Film, and the Share Her Journey Award for best film by a woman. Each winning film will receive a bursary of $10,000 CAD and a one-year membership to IMDbPro, the essential resource for entertainment industry professionals, to help them continue achieving success in their careers. These awards build on IMDbPro’s nearly 20-year history of empowering entertainment professionals to discover new talent and projects, and on its ongoing commitment to supporting and collaboratively working with organizations that create greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in the entertainment industry, including TIFF’s Share Her Journey campaign.

The winners of the three awards are:

IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Film: “Displaced,” dir. Samir Karahoda
Jury’s statement: “Standing out in a strong selection of films, Samir Karahoda’s Displaced captivated us with its unique look, locations, and characters that all brought to life the quixotic yet enduring dedication to a sport — and a country — that is hard to articulate, even to one’s self.”

Honourable Mention: “Trumpets in the Sky,” dir. Rakan Mayasi

IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Canadian Film: “Angakusajaujuq – The Shaman’s Apprentice,” dir. Zacharias Kunuk

Jury’s statement: “’Zacharias Kunuk’s Angakusajaujuq – The Shaman’s Apprentice’ is an enthralling stop-motion that encapsulates an array of textures, sound, and nuanced expressions that collectively invite you into the apprentice’s journey in learning traditional knowledge and caring for community while confronting your own fears. You can’t help but feel the questions asked of the apprentice are for us all to consider: Who are you? What have you learned?”

Honourable Mention: “Nuisance Bear,” dirs. Jack Weisman, Gabriela Osio Vanden

IMDbPro Short Cuts Share Her Journey Award: “ASTEL,” dir. Ramata-Toulaye Sy
Jury’s statement: “Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s ASTEL moved us with its powerful storytelling, beautiful shots, and a captivating lead performance that explores the complex nuances of womanhood, patriarchy, and coming of age when you least expect it.”

Honourable mention: “Love, Dad,” dir. Diana Cam Van Nguyen

The 2021 jurors for the IMDbPro Short Cuts Awards are filmmakers Sudeep Sharma, Tiffany Hsiung, and Nicole Delaney.

Today the Toronto International Film Festival, alongside the International Federation of Film
Critics (FIPRESCI) and the Network for the Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema (NETPAC), announced award winners for work screened at TIFF 2021.

FIPRESCI PRIZE

“We are thrilled to announce that ‘Anatolian Leopard’ has received the 2021 FIPRESCI Jury Award,” said Diana Sanchez, Senior Director, Film, TIFF. “Every year we are amazed at the creativity and audaciousness of the filmmakers in our line-up. ‘Anatolian Leopard,’ directed by Emre Kayiş, is no exception.”

Hatice Aslan in “Anatolian Leopard” (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

This year’s FIPRESCI jury members include: Andrew Kendall, Esin Kücüktepepinar, Caspar Salmon, Gilbert Seah, and Teresa Vena.

The 2021 FIPRESCI jury released the following statement: “In a perfectly controlled comedy of manners, ‘Anatolian Leopard’ takes the temperature of a country torn between the old ways and modernity – not to say between honour and corruption – while offering up a melancholy portrait of a man at odds with his surroundings. Emre Kayiş shows great formal accomplishment in this measured and thoughtful film, which stood out from the competition for its singular tone and worldview.”

NETPAC AWARD

Saleh Bakri and Nadine Labaki in “Costa Brava, Lebanon” (Photo courtesy of MK2 Films)

The 2021 NETPAC jury members include: Gemma Cubero del Barrio, Isabelle Glachant and Elhum Shakerifar. TIFF is delighted to announce that the 2021 NETPAC Jury has selected “Costa Brava, Lebanon,” directed by Mounia Aklas this year’s NETPAC winner. The jury released this statement, “’Costa Brava, Lebanon’ – an exquisite intergenerational family story – is an ode to sustainable futures by visionary new talent, Mounia Akl from her precious and troubled country.”

Please visit tiff.net for more information.

AFTER THE FESTIVAL

This fall, TIFF Bell Lightbox reopens its doors to audiences for year-round programming with a full roster of new titles, Festival hits, and beloved favourites. TIFF programming will restart with the Festival Midnight Madness body-horror smash hit “Titane,” from director Julia Ducournau (“Raw”). “Titane” begins screening October 1 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Starting October 14, TIFF also invites audiences to enjoy Welcome Back, TIFF Cinematheque’s lineup of big-screen favourites — including Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy,” Jane Campion’s “The Portrait of a Lady,” Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich,” and Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail.”

Following a highly anticipated Special Event Festival screening of “Dune,” TIFF Cinematheque presents The Uncanny Vision of Denis Villeneuve, an in-cinema programme of the filmmaker’s earlier works (Arrival, Enemy, August 32nd on Earth), as well as films selected by Villeneuve that have inspired him throughout his career (David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Le Mystère Picasso”). The Uncanny Vision of Denis Villeneuve begins October 15.

Rounding out the Fall Season in-cinema lineup is In Case You Missed It, a selection of acclaimed titles from recent Festivals, starting on October 6. Audiences who may have missed their chance the first time around will now have the opportunity to have the full theatrical experience for titles like Kazik Radwanski’s “Anne at 13,000 ft,” Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” and Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” winner of TIFF 2020’s People’s Choice Award. Additional programming will be announced in the coming weeks.

TIFF is also pleased to announce that digital offerings will continue for film lovers across the country. TIFF patrons across Canada can experience Ann Shin’s A.rtificial I.mmortality, David Lowery’s The Green Knight and Heidi Ewing’s I Carry You With Me, among other titles, from the comfort of their homes via digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

COVID-19 health and safety measures will continue as TIFF Bell Lightbox reopens for year-round operation. As of September 22, audience members and visitors entering TIFF Bell Lightbox will be required to show proof they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Masks remain mandatory throughout the building, including in cinema. Additional details are available at tiff.net/covid-19.

Learn more about the Every Story fund at tiff.net/everystory

The 46th Toronto International Film Festival ran September 9–18, 2021.

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Review: ‘The Courier’ (2021), starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan and Jessie Buckley

March 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Merab Ninidze and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Courier” (Photo by Liam Daniel/Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

“The Courier” (2021) 

Directed by Dominic Cooke

Some language in Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1960s in Moscow, London and briefly in Langley, Virginia, the spy drama “The Courier” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class, primarily those who work for the government.

Culture Clash: A British businessman becomes a spy for MI6, as the Cold War between the Soviet Union and Western countries begins to escalate under the possibility of nuclear weapon attacks.

Culture Audience: “The Courier” will appeal primarily to people who like espionage movies that go beyond the political intrigue and examine the toll that spying can take on family life.

Benedict Cumberbatch, Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan in “The Courier” (Photo by Liam Daniel/Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

“The Courier,” which is inspired by true events, aims to put a spotlight on people who have been historically underrated in preventing a nuclear war between the then-Soviet Union and countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States. The main characters of this movie just happen to be spies. Elevated by above-average acting, “The Courier” is not an essential spy movie, but it’s good enough for people who enjoy this genre.

Politicians tend to get the most credit for de-escalating international tensions that could turn into war. However, “The Courier” (directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Tom O’Connor) makes a case that spies have also been instrumental in preventing wars. It’s pretty obvious why spies don’t get as much credit as politicians do: Because spies’ work is secretive and undercover, their identities as spies cannot be revealed, unless their cover is blown in some way.

That’s what happened to the two spies who are at the center of this story: Greville Wynne (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) from the United Kingdom and Oleg Penkovsky (played by Merab Ninidze) from the Soviet Union. Their paths collided in 1960, when Oleg, a longtime bureaucrat, became increasingly alarmed over then-Soviet Union premier Nikita Khrushchev’s nuclear threats against Western countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. (The partnership between these two spies was also portrayed in the 1985 BBC miniseries “Wynne and Penkovsky,” which A&E televised in the U.S. under the name “The Man From Moscow.”)

“The Courier” opens with a scene in Moscow on August 12, 1960, showing Premier Khrushchev giving an inflammatory speech in a closed-door meeting with other Russian bureaucrats. What’s said in that meeting is enough for Oleg to do what he had probably been contemplating for quite some time: He becomes a whistleblower who warns the United States about these imminent nuclear weapons threats. Oleg meets with two unidentified American men at night, gives them some paperwork, and urges them to take this paperwork to the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

Four months later at MI6 headquarters in London, a briskly confident and young CIA operative named Emily Donovan has a meeting with two MI6 operatives: Arthur Temple “Dickie” Franks (played by Angus Wright) and Bertrand (played by Anton Lesser), whose last name is not mentioned in the movie. (In real life, Franks would later become the head of MI6 from 1979 to 1982.) Emily walks into the meeting and tells these older men, “I’ve brought you boys a present.”

The “present” is information that’s a dream come true for any intelligence agency that wants to spy on the Soviet Union: A Soviet spy has offered to become a double agent for the CIA because of his concerns over Khrushchev’s erratic personality and increasing possibilities that Khrushchev will start a nuclear war against the nations that are the Soviet Union’s enemies. This Soviet spy is Oleg, who wants to smuggle out information by a courier.

The CIA can’t send an American courier to be Oleg’s contact in the Soviet Union, because it would be too obvious. And so, the CIA has sent Emily to enlist the help of MI6 to send a Brit to Moscow to become Oleg’s courier. In the meeting with the MI6 officials, Emily says that the selected courier should be someone whom the Russians would least expect: a person with no history of working for a government agency.

Greville’s name comes up in the meeting because he’s a businessman who frequently travels outside of the United Kingdom. In real life, he had already visited Moscow several times by the time he became a spy. In the movie, Greville is portrayed as someone who is so unfamiliar with Moscow, that Oleg is the first person to introduce Greville to the city. And in the movie, Greville doesn’t know any Russian when he first arrives in Moscow, so Oleg is often his translator.

In the meeting between the CIA and MI6 operatives, Emily gives Dickie and Bertrand a brief background on Oleg so that they know that he’s a government insider who can be trusted. Oleg is a former military colonel and artillery officer who was decorated 13 times during World War II. He lives in Moscow and works for the GRU, the Soviet Union/Russia’s military intelligence agency. But since Oleg is a spy, his cover is overseeing the state committee on scientific research.

“The Courier” was originally titled “Ironbark,” which is Oleg’s code name as a spy. The title change was no doubt to shift the focus more on the Greville Wynne character, who gets more screen time and who is portrayed by a better-known actor. The movie is a story about two very different spies who become unlikely partners with a common goal: to protect their respective countries from engaging in a nuclear war. However, “The Courier” shows more of Greville’s personality and home life than it does for Oleg.

Oleg lives a quiet and unassuming life with his wife Vera (played by Maria Mironova) and their daughter Nina (played by Emma Penzina), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. By all appearances Oleg and Vera have a happy marriage and are loving parents to Nina. Oleg and Vera are both even-tempered and have mutual respect for each other. Later in the story, it’s revealed that Vera knows that Oleg is a spy.

Greville has a very different personality and marriage. A hard-drinking businessman, Greville is sometimes quick to lose his temper. And his marriage to his wife Sheila (played by Jessie Buckley) has become troubled due to Greville past infidelity. At the beginning of the story, Sheila and Greville have become distant from each other. It’s mentioned several times throughout the movie that Greville’s infidelity has broken Sheila’s trust in Greville, but she’s slowly trying to trust him again.

Sheila and Greville have a 10-year-old son named Andrew (played by Keir Hills), who sometimes becomes the target of Greville’s verbal tirades if Andrew does something harmless to set off Greville’s temper. For example, a scene in the movie shows Sheila, Greville and Andrew spending some family time together on a camping trip. Because the weather forecast predicted possible rain, Andrew was put in charge of bringing the family’s raincoats on the trip, but Andrew forgot to bring these items. When Greville finds out, he berates Andrew until Sheila tells him to stop, and she comforts Andrew by saying that Greville didn’t really mean his insulting remarks.

These glimpses into Greville’s home life show that he wasn’t the type of ideal hero that he could have been portrayed as in this movie. Rather, he was a very flawed human being who found himself caught up in a situation that ended up spiraling out of his control. When Greville is first approached by MI6 and the CIA to become a spy, these intelligence agencies already know that he’s a heavy drinker, but they want to take a chance on him because he can have a very charming personality and because he adapts quickly to foreign environments.

In the movie, it’s portrayed that MI6’s plan to lure Greville into becoming a spy starts with a phone call from Dickie, using the alias James Dobby and pretending to be an official from the U.K.’s board of trade. Greville had met “James” the previous year at some type of business conference. In the phone call, Dickie/James asks to meet with Greville for lunch to discuss a possible business opportunity.

When Greville arrives for the lunch, he’s surprised to see someone else is with Dickie: a young American woman, who introduces herself as Helena Talbot. Of course, that’s not her real name. Helena Talbot is really CIA operative Emily Donovan.

During this lunch conversation, “James” and “Helena” ask Greville how he would feel about doing business in the Soviet Union and what he would do to ingratiate himself with the government officials in Moscow. It doesn’t take long for Greville to figure out that “James” and “Helena” are really spies, but they won’t tell Greville their real names when he asks. And he wants no part of what they seem to be proposing.

Dickie tries to persuade Greville by saying that Greville’s spy work would be “nothing dodgy, nothing illegal. It would be a real service to Great Britain.” Emily adds, “And to the world.” Greville is told repeatedly that all he has to do is conduct business in Moscow as a salesman and bring back some paperwork that will be given to him by a contact person.

Greville still isn’t convinced because he thinks his life might be in danger if he becomes a spy. Dickie/”James” tells Greville that Greville being a middle-aged, non-athletic man who has a drinking problem doesn’t make him a spy stereotype of a dashing, physically fit hero with combat skills. Dickie adds, “My point is if this mission were the least bit dangerous, you really are the last man we’d send.” Greville replies with a sarcastic tone, “Thank you for putting it so delicately.”

Of course, Greville ultimately agrees to the mission. It’s implied that he said yes out of a sense of patriotism but also out of a sense of curiosity and probably to boost his ego. In that fateful first meeting, Dickie mentioned that he knows Greville spent time in the military doing office work only and not being in combat. Agreeing to this spy mission was probably Greville’s way of proving to himself that he really could be useful to the U.K. government.

“The Courier” tends to drag a little when it shows the actual back-and-forth of Oleg and Greville doing their spy transactions. After all, there’s not much excitement to be had when all Greville has to do is bring some paperwork back with him to the United Kingdom and hand off the documents to MI6. Oleg and Greville grow to like and respect each other, and they eventually meet each other’s wives and kids.

The real tension in the movie begins when Oleg and Greville are in danger of being exposed and punished by the Russian government. People who already know what happened in real life won’t be surprised by how it’s portrayed in the movie. (This part of the movie won’t be described in this review, since it’s considered spoiler information.) But it’s enough to say that the greatest strength of “The Courier” is in how it skillfully portrays the often-complex layers of loyalties that spies often have and how they have to choose between betraying a government or betraying an individual.

Greville keeps his spying activities a secret from Sheila for as long as possible. He tells her that his frequent trips to Moscow are because he wants to “open a door to the West” for Russians to do more business with Western companies such as his. Greville is described as working in sales, but the movie never really makes clear what he’s selling. (In real life, he was electrical engineer who became a business salesperson.)

At first, Greville’s trips to Moscow seem to boost his confidence. When he gets home, he’s much more amorous with Sheila, who is pleasantly surprised that their sex life has markedly improved. But as time wears on, the stress of his spy work starts to get to him, and he becomes more short-tempered. And because he is so vague with Sheila about what he does while he’s in Moscow, it isn’t long before Sheila starts to suspect that Greville is cheating on her.

“The Courier” also covers how the 1962 Bay of Pigs crisis in Cuba had a drastic effect on this spy mission. This political development ramps up the urgency, as well as the life-threatening risks, in what Oleg and Greville are doing. The last third of “The Courier” is the best part of the movie, as Cumberbatch in particular shows a range of emotions under extreme circumstances that make “The Courier” a compelling story to watch.

Under the solid direction of Cooke, “The Courier” isn’t a groundbreaking movie and follows a lot of conventions that are often seen in spy films. For example, there are the inevitable scenes of a spy making copies of important files and furtively looking around out of fear of being caught. The movie might be considered a bit dull in some areas for anyone who won’t have the patience to see the whole film.

What’s not conventional about “The Courier” and is actually quite refreshing is that it doesn’t have the tired cliché of the primary female spy character using her sexuality to get what she wants. The character of Emily is both intelligent and charismatic, but she’s not perfect, as she makes a critical error in judgment during one part of the story. There are some veiled references to the sexism that Emily no doubt experienced as a woman in the male-dominated CIA. But since she’s not the center of the story, the movie doesn’t expound on any gender discrimination within these types of government agencies in the U.S., the U.K. or in the former Soviet Union.

Through the Emily character, “The Courier” shows that even though the U.S.’s CIA and the U.K.’s MI6 teamed up for this mission, there was still some rivalry between these two allied countries. In a meeting at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, she is seen giving a briefing to one of her supervisors. Emily tells him that she’s good at fooling the Brits by making the Brits think they’re in charge, because she often plays the part of someone who’s a naïve agent who’s eager to learn from her more experienced counterparts. The point of this scene is to demonstrate that Emily’s loyalty will be to the U.S., first and foremost.

All of the cast members play their roles well, but since Greville’s perspective is the one that gets the most importance, Cumberbatch’s performance is at the heart of the film, and he admirably rises to the challenge. The movie could have used more insight into Oleg’s character to show how being a double agent affected his state of mind. For example, the scene with the Wynne family on a camping trip wasn’t essential and could have been substituted with a more relevant scene showing Oleg’s personal trials and tribulations. As it stands, “The Courier” has a few areas that needed improving, but the overall end result is a worthwhile option if people are in the mood to watch a retro spy movie.

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions released “The Courier” in U.S. cinemas on March 19, 2021. The movie’s VOD release date is April 16, 2021. “The Courier” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on June 1, 2021.

Review: ‘The Mauritanian,’ starring Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Benedict Cumberbatch and Shailene Woodley

February 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster in “The Mauritanian” (Photo courtesy of STX)

“The Mauritanian”

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Some language in Arabic, French and German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Mauritania, Cuba, the United States, Germany and Afghanistan, the dramatic film “The Mauritanian” features a cast of white, North African, Middle Eastern and a few black characters representing people who are connected in some way to the case of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian citizen who was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for being a suspected terrorist.

Culture Clash: Slahi’s legal team argued that he was being wrongly imprisoned by the U.S. government, because he wasn’t given the proper due process in the court system and he wasn’t charged with a crime.

Culture Audience: “The Mauritanian” will appeal primarily to people in interested in social justice issues, especially in how Muslims were treated after the 9/11 attacks.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Zachary Levi in “The Mauritanian” (Photo courtesy of STX)

Movies like “The Mauritanian” usually don’t get made unless there’s a message of hope and inspiration at the very end. But this dramatic interpretation of a real-life story of legal injustice also exists to show the horrors of being caught in a system of imprisonment without being charged with a crime. That’s what happened to Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian citizen who was held captive at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for being a suspected terrorist.

In many ways, “The Mauritanian” (directed by Kevin Macdonald) follows a typical formula of a movies about a wrongfully imprisoned person who’s fighting for legal justice and release from prison. There are crusading defense attorneys, corrupt government officials and brutal scenes of prison life. There’s also some hokey dialogue that lowers the quality of the movie.

However, the “The Mauritanian” is not a typical movie of this ilk because it tells a very specific story about someone who was imprisoned for years by the U.S. government without even being charged with a crime. And that’s highly unusual in any legal case in the United States. The other way that “The Mauritanian” is not a typical movie about a legal case is that the two defense attorneys who do the most work on the case are both women, and the defense team is led by a woman.

These legal dramas often take the perspective of the privileged lawyers involved in the case, but “The Mauritanian” never loses the perspective of the person who is suffering the most in this case: Slahi (played by Tahar Rahim), whose story is told from the moment he was questioned and detained, as well as through flashbacks. However, the movie gives a lot of screen time to the legal finagling that went on outside of Guantanamo Bay, in order to give scenes to the better-known actors in this cast who portray the lawyers and government officials who are in a power struggle over this case.

“The Mauritanian” opens with a scene of 30-year-old Slahi at a wedding reception in Mauritania in November 2001. Outside, he apprehensively meets with two plainclothes Mauritanian police officers who have shown up to question Slahi about where his cousin Khalid al-Shanqiti is. Slahi replies, “I have no idea where [he] is. I doubt even Bin Laden knows.” Viewers who don’t know the story will later find out in the movie that al-Shanqiti is a personal poet and spiritual adviser to Osama Bin Laden, who was widely identified as the leader of the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks.

One of the cops tells Slahi: “After the New York attacks, Americans are going crazy. They want to talk to you.” A nervous Slahi goes inside the building and erases all of the contacts from his phone. Slahi then goes back outside and agrees to go for questioning, but he insists on taking his own car. What happened during that interrogation session, which is shown later in the movie as flashbacks, resulted in Slahi being imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay.

The movie then shows how lead defense attorney Nancy Hollander (played by Jodie Foster) got involved in the case. Hollander is portrayed as a no-nonsense, politically liberal lawyer who believes in the same ideals as the American Civil Liberties Union. She’s also a partner in the law firm Friedman, Boyd & Hollander, which is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“The Mauritanian” presents a scenario of Hollander first becoming aware of Slahi’s case in 2005, when she has a lunch meeting with a colleague named Kent (played by David Flynn) from another firm. Kent tells her that a Mauritanian lawyer approached his firm to take Slahi’s case, but Kent’s firm declined the request. It’s mentioned during this lunch meeting that the German news publication Der Spiegel has reported that Slahi is suspected of helping plan the 9/11 attacks.

What lawyer wants to defend a suspected 9/11 terrorist and accuse the U.S. government of wrongful imprisonment of said terrorist? Hollander does. Her partners at the law firm discourage her from what they think will be a losing case, given the political climate at the time. They also don’t like that this would be a pro bono case for Hollander. In other words, she wouldn’t be getting a fee that would bring income to the firm.

Early on in the movie, it ‘s shown that Hollander is someone who likes to fight for underdogs, so she remains undeterred in wanting to taking the case. Because she’s a partner in the firm, Hollander has more clout than a junior lawyer or non-partner would have, so she ends up getting her way in the firm representing Slahi, with Hollander as his lead attorney. Hollander also has the advantage of having national security clearance, so she has access to certain information and people that a regular attorney would not have.

The first person she recruits to be her second-in-command attorney and researcher is Teri Duncan (played by Shailene Woodley), a junior attorney who shares Hollander’s enthusiasm for taking on the case. However, Duncan’s loyalties will be tested later on when things don’t go smoothly. Duncan is friendlier and more easygoing than Hollander, but Duncan is also someone who is more likely to be intimidated or discouraged by setbacks than Hollander is.

This contrast in Hollander’s and Duncan’s personalities affects the case in different ways. The first meeting that Hollander and Duncan have with Slahi at Guantanamo Bay (after they go through high-level clearances and briefings) is so they can convince Slahi to hire them as his attorneys. Hollander is noticeably stiff and uncomfortable in interacting Slahi, while Duncan is better at being more approachable in the conversation. Slahi can speak English, Arabic, French and German, although he sometimes needs a translator when he needs to speak to someone in English.

Duncan makes eye contact with Slahi in a way that makes him feel that he can trust them, so he agrees to let them be his attorneys. He also makes a remark that at this point in his dismal situation, he doesn’t have better options. These qualified attorneys, who wholeheartedly believe that Slahi is not guilty of being a terrorist, are offering their services for free, so it would also be foolish for him to turn down their offer.

While Hollander and Duncan are are on the case, the movie shows hints that Duncan is somewhat attracted to Slahi and might have a personal interest in him outside of their attorney/client relationship. (Duncan and Slahi were both single at the time this story took place.) It’s mentioned early on in the movie that Hollander was separated from her husband Bill and living alone during this time in her life. In other words, don’t expect to see scenes of Hollander with a family, like other characters have in the movie.

Slahi’s life before prison is shown in flashback scenes of him with his family members, including his controversial cousin al-Shanqiti, a known terrorist associate who used the aliases Abu Has al-Mauritani and Mafouz Walad al-Walid. Slahi was especially close to his mother, who expressed concerns abut him living in another country when Slahi was in his 20s and got an electrical engineering scholarship at a university in Germany.

After getting his college education, Slahi moved to Afghanistan in 1990. It was this period of time in his life that put him on the radar of being a suspected terrorist. As portrayed in the movie, Slahi and his cousin al-Shanqiti attended radical Islamic training groups. The U.S. government suspected that Slahi and his cousin al-Shanqiti joined the Al Qaeda terrorist movement that had Bin Laden as its leader at the time.

One of the main reasons for Slahi’s imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay was that the U.S. government accused him of recruiting to Al Qaeda one of the men who years later was identified as one of the 9/11 terrorists: Ramzi bin al-Shibh, also know as the 20th hijacker in the 9/11 attacks. Slahi vehemently denied that accusation, although he didn’t deny that he was taught Al Qaeda training in Afghanistan. In a flashback, it’s shown that Slahi believed the training he was undergoing in the 1990s was for Muslims to fight against Communism, and that Al Qaeda was on the same side as Americans.

However deeply involved in terrorism Slahi might or might not have been, or how credible he might or might not be, that wasn’t the key legal issue for Hollander and the defense team. As Hollander declares: “We have to prove that the U.S. government lacks sufficient evidence to detain him.” The defense team soon finds out that it will be an uphill battle.

On the opposite side of the case is Stuart Couch (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a U.S. Marines veteran who was assigned as the lead prosecutor in Slahi’s case in September 2003, just one month after he joined the Office of Military Commissions. A graduate of the U.S. Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training program, Couch has a personal reason for going after 9/11 terrorists: His close friend Bruce Taylor was on the plane that crashed into the Twin Towers’ South Tower in the 9/11 attacks. At a 9/11 anniversary memorial service, Couch comforts Bruce’s widow Cathy (played by Justine Mitchell) and tells her how proud he is to be prosecuting the case so he can help get justice for Bruce.

However, during Couch’s investigation to prepare for the prosecution, he begins to question how committed he’ll be to the case when he uncovers disturbing incidents of Guantanamo Bay prisoners (including Slahi) being illegally tortured during their interrogations. These torture scenes are shown in graphic detail in the movie, including horrific beatings and waterboarding. Couch’s investigation is further complicated because of his personal connection to one of the government officials whom Couch suspects is covering up incriminating information.

That person is Neil Buckland (played by Zachary Levi), who was a former classmate of Couch’s when they were stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. Buckland is portrayed as a manipulative villain who uses his past personal connection to Couch to try to cloud Couch’s judgment in the investigation. Couch considers himself to be a highly ethical person, but even he begins to wonder how much of the government’s violations he should expose when Buckland and some other government officials question Couch’s patriotism and competence.

Meanwhile, there’s a subplot of Slahi befriending a fellow Guantanamo Bay inmate known only as Inmate #241, who is originally from Marseilles, France. They never see each other because they are separated by walls. But they end up confiding in each other about their lives and what they hope to do if they’re ever released from prison. The movie portrays Inmate #241, who gives Slahi the nickname The Mauritanian, as the closest that Slahi came to having a true friend inside the prison.

At 129 minutes, “The Mauritanian” could have felt less bloated if about 15 minutes had been trimmed from the total running time. “The Mauritanian” director Macdonald keeps an even keel throughout the movie, which is part legal thriller, part prison drama. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s not an outstanding movie that will get the industry’s most prestigious awards.

All of the actors do well in their performances, particularly Rahim, who gives an authentic portrayal of the range of emotions that his character goes through in the movie. It’s a very human depiction that shows Slahi’s strengths, weaknesses and occasional flashes of humor in grim situations. Foster, Woodley, Cumberbatch and Levi are solid, but their roles are written in a fairly predictable way.

The movie falters the most in the screenplay, which was written by M.B. Traven (also known as Michael Bronner), Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani. They adapted the screenplay from Slahi’s best-selling 2015 memoir “Guantanamo Diary.” There are many times in the movie that might remind viewers of how a formulaic legal procedural series is written for television, especially during the courtroom scenes.

And the dialogue can be a bit corny at times. During a government meeting for the prosecution, one of the officials says of one of the suspected terrorists: “This dude is like the Al Qaeda Forrest Gump. Everywhere you look, here’s there.”

These flaws don’t ruin the movie, because they are outweighed by how compelling the story is and by how well this talented cast portrays it. The approach of the movie isn’t so much from a political perspective but from a human rights perspective. It’s clear that the filmmakers want “The Mauritanian” to serve as a statement that no government should act as if it’s above the law when it comes to violating human rights.

STX released “The Mauritanian” in select U.S. cinemas on February 12, 2021. The movie’s VOD release date is March 2, 2021. Universal Pictures Home Entertainment will release “The Mauritanian” on digital on April 20, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on May 11, 2021.

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