THE MAURITANIAN – movie review

STX Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writers: Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s memoir “Guantánamo Diary”
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jody Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, Langley Kirkwood, Corey Johnson, Matthew Marsh
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/12/21
Opens: February 19, 2021

Andrew - The mauritanian poster

If you are following the events of the days just preceding the inauguration of Joseph Biden as President, you will see a division into two camps. One group, believing that the election was rigged, might well say that the violence of the far-right extremists who took over the Capitol was justified, given their disgust with what they consider fraud. The other folks, hopefully the greater number, were horrified watching the only attempted coup of the citadel of democracy since the British set fire to the building in 1814. This latter group, the more educated Americans, might well think: “With enemies like these domestic terrorists, who needs enemies?”

And when you consider the way that the American armed forces have acted for years in our country’s prison at Guantánamo, Cuba (itself an example of U.S. imperialism), torturing prisoners by blasting them with music, waterboarding (which gives the hapless victims the feeling of drowning), humiliating them in at least one case by dragging a man around on a leash, putting them into stress positions, i.e. bent over, for hours, you may say as well: If this is American democracy, who needs enemies from authoritarian regimes abroad?

As pointed out in the epilogue of “The Mauritanian,” Kevin Macdonald’s new, exciting, bold and horrifying film, one prisoner, Mohamedou Ould Slahi had been held for seven years without evidence and with just one hearing in a D.C. federal court where he was judged not guilty. And would you believe that the Obama administration appealed, leading the poor man to be kept a total of 14 years before being released to his home in Nouakchott, Mauritania? Filming in Mauritania and South Africa among other locations, Glaswegian director Macdonald, known mostly for his “The Last King of Scotland” about events surrounding the Uganda administration of Idi Amin, offers us an indictment of an infuriated America uninterested in due process. On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, New York’s World Trade Center was attacked by two planes leading to 3,000 deaths. As a result, those charged with terrorism and held at our facility in Cuba would be denied a hearing, much less a fair trial. Seven hundred seventy-nine prisoners had been guests of the facility since 9/11. A mere handful were found not guilty and released.

The most interesting detainee would be Mohamedou Ould Slahi, principally because he wrote a book, actually four books, about his experiences there, adapted for Macdonald’s pulsating drama. The plot is unfolded with its center, Tahar Rahim, a gifted French performer of Algerian descent adept in French, Arabic, English, Scottish Gaelic and Corsican (he used his skills in the dynamic movie “The Prophet” about a prison holding people Corsicans mobsters and Muslims).

It doubtless took a man of exceptional intelligence to compose these tell-all books, and Slahi was exceptional enough to have received a scholarship in 1988 to study in Germany for a degree in electrical engineering. He joined the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, fighting against the Soviet occupation, a war in which the mujaheddin was backed by the U.S. So far so good. He trained with al Qaeda, one of the mujaheddin groups fighting a civil war, but instead of joining the fight he returned to Germany. His cousin al-Walid and other Qaeda members wrote to bin Laden opposing the planned 9/11 attacks. Slahi allegedly lodged three suspects for one night at his home in Germany in 1999. Not so good.

From what we gather in this film, the government had virtually no case, no evidence that Slahi was the prime mover of the 9/11 attacks or took part at all. Habeas corpus, the concept by which an arrested person must be advised of the evidence that causes him to be charged? Forget about it. The fury of President Bush from the first enemy attack in America since Pearl Harbor was joined by the American people, who seemed in no mood for giving those held at Gitmo the time of day. Hence the many years served in that prison camp by people held without charges.

You could not likely pick a better actor for the Slahi role than Rahim, who, judging by his multi-lingual skills comes across believable in his knowledge of English, learned largely from the guards, able to project his case to the movie audience. Serving as defense counsel, Jodie Foster takes the role of Nancy Hollander, determined to force the United States to live by the Constitution. She, together with an associate, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) who would serve as a translator from French (not needed given the prisoner’s fluency in English), take their time gaining the man’s trust, persuading him to sign documents that would give her the rights of counsel, insisting that there is an attorney-client privilege. Only later did it come out that Slahi confessed, insisting to his counsel that the confession was beaten out of him, to which Hollander replies that the confession could therefore be thrown out. Opposing them for prosecution is Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch)—a British actor who does quite a job with a southern American accent. He seems less than convinced at any point that the defendant is guilty, and will ultimately do the right thing. When he demonstrates his uneasiness, he gets the same kind of hell from the military that Hollander receives from the USA-USA crowd, which cannot believe that an American can plead a case for a man who obviously (they think) had a big role in 9/11.

Director Macdonald occasionally breaks chronology, going back to the accused man’s happy life in Mauritania, the praise he receives from others for getting that scholarship to Germany, the plan opposed by his mother who believes she will lose him. A dramatic scene during the opening shows a cultural festival in a country that most Americans probably never realized could house some of the bad guys, terrorists found largely in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Surreal tension break out during the final one-third of the film as we watch close-ups of the brutality of the military, sometimes playing good cop but in the end hitting Slahi with the most diabolical series of brutalities—the stress postures, the loud music, the sleep deprivation, even an episode with an army woman costumed in a cat mask humiliating him by sitting astride the man and “talking dirty.”

Jodie Foster may be the name that brings an audience to the theaters, but this is Tahar Rahmin’s movie. He is superb whether showing an ironic sense of humor, straining against his captors’ brutality, serving to convince us if we are not already believing, that some, and probably most of the current detainees in our wretched prison camp abroad are not guilty of the crimes with which they are…not even charged!

129 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – A-


7500 – movie review

Amazon Studios
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Patrick Vollrath
Screenwriter: Patrick Vollrath, Senad Halibasic
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Omid Memar, Ayilin Tezel, Carlo Kitzlinger, Murathan Muslu, Paul Wollin
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/8/20
Opens: June 18, 2020

7500 Poster

Movies that respect the 3 Greek unities, taking place within a day in the same place with a single action are rare, something you will find in some Greek tragedies but considered too theatrical for the big screen. “7500” is this year’s Aristotelian drama, all photographed not only in the same plane but in the cockpit, with some screen time given to the havoc in the passenger seats. This is the kind of nail-biter that will have the audience yelling “No, no, no, that’s your girlfriend and mother of your child being threatened with death unless you open the door, but don’t do it!” “7500” exploits the danger that some of feel every time we fly that the aircraft will be highjacked, a feeling more likely after 9/11 when movies like “Gaganam” (2011), “Snakes on a Plane” (2006), “Kandahar” (2010) and “Nonstop” (2014) came out. To stand out from the others, new movies on that theme try to be different in some way. “7500” does this by taking place in a claustrophobic place that has room under normal conditions for just a pilot and first officer.

The opening scene is strictly preparation for a flight from Berlin to Paris, just 530 air miles, seemingly too short for would-be terrorists to do what they have to do, though that may depend on just what the bad guys want. Do they want to hijack the aircraft to Kabul? To Teheran? To Sanaa? At first we don’t know, but as things turn out neither does one of the three extremist Islamic, at least one and probably all of Turkish ethnicity living in Germany.

A number of air criminals who commandeered planes on that dark day in 9/11 may not have realized that the plan of the leaders was to crash and die. Similarly Vedat (Omid Memar), one of the three desperadoes, has no idea that taking the plane down and killing the crew and all passengers is the motive for avenging the deaths of Muslims in the hands of Westerners. The Captain, Michael (Carlo Kitzlingler) and his first officer Tobias Ellis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) run through the usual flight prep just after Tobias gets to kiss his flight attendant girlfriend Gökce (Ayilin Tezel). No sooner does the German plane reach cruising altitude then Kinan (Murathan Muslu), taking advantage of the momentary opening of the cockpit door, lands inside brandishing a knife made of glass.

Director Patrick Vollrath, veteran of eight shorts including “Ketchup Kid” (an eleven-year-old outsider makes a friend), takes off with his first narrative feature film, one which shows that the German born fellow is destined to be in the director’s chair for a number of thrillers to come. He makes the smart move of eschewing music in the soundtrack, preventing us from being distracted by anything but the noise of the bad guys outside the cockpit pounding on the door, making us in the audience wonder whether this is the way they will get inside.

What happens during Tobias’s tête-à-tête with eighteen-year-old Vedat (Omid Memar) need not be revealed here, but suffice it to say that Tobias, without agreeing in the slightest with the Islamist argument that revenge is necessary because the West has made war on Islamic radicals, develops Stockholm Syndrome. He hopes first to get out alive, then to make sure that his new “buddy” will be treated well if he decides to surrender to the German police.

At just 39, Gordon-Levitt has been busy, with 84 acting credits. He can do what he does in “7500” in his sleep. To see what the actor can really do, you’ll want to take in his role as the title character in Oliver Stone’s “Snowden.” Because of the fierce acting by Memar and Gordon-Levitt, the latter fluctuating between grabbing a glass knife to kill or injure Memar and making sure that Memar is treated fairly, “7500” (the code name for a hijacked flight) is better than the typical B movie. But it is still a B movie.

92 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C+
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

HOTEL MUMBAI – movie review

Bleecker Street/ Shiv Hans Pictures
Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Anthony Maras
Screenwriter: John Colee & Anthony Mars
Cast: Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 3/6/19
Opens: March 22, 2019

If you don’t fancy biting your nails down to your cuticles, you may not want to venture forth to “Hotel Mumbai.” While there are no back-stories to speak of in this dramatic treatment of a terrible, mindless attack in 2008, the action scenes look authentic, the entire cast are game, the faces exude fear, and best of all the archival films from 2008 that editor Peter McNulty snap in at key points in the narrative look at though they are a seamless part of the action. While the Muslim jihadists from Pakistan, some of whom sneaked into Mumbai by small boat, coordinated an attack on several points in India’s largest city, Anthony Maras centered the action on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a world famous spot of pure luxury in a mostly poverty-stricken country.

Director Maras, whose 2011 short “The Palace” covered military action by Turkish forces in Cyprus in 1974, and whose “Azadi” in 2005 follows the plight of an Afghan schoolteacher and his asthmatic son who escape their oppressive Taliban homeland in search of a new life in Australia, is obviously in his métier with “Hotel Mumbai.” Outdoor scenes on the sidewalk around the Taj Hotel are filmed on location, though the action taking place inside the hotel is filmed on a set in South Australia. (The team stayed at the International Hotel in Adelaide.)

Perhaps what Maras and co-writer John Colee want to emphasize thematically is the way that the heroes among the hotel staff—people who have been trained to consider all guests as gods—mostly stayed put to help those on the premises to avoid being shot by the young Pakistan men who carry their destructive automatic weapons. By contrast, the local police force despite their bravery in confronting the thugs are sporting nothing more potent than simple pistols, yet they rise to the occasion, entering the premises in search of the mass murderers. During a considerable part of the story, Maras’s cinematographer, Nick Remy Matthews turns the screen into a shooting gallery, as the jihadists hunt down every guest, even spending considerable time to target specific people, namely high profile Americans. Of course some in the cast are elevated by their individual heroism, including chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher), Arjun (Dev Patel), a Sikh whose turban freaks out one of the guests, David (handsome Armie Hammer) and his wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) whose principal aim is to protect their new baby. Jason Isaacs as Vasili is with the Russian special forces, turning in a dramatic move near the conclusion when he is tied up, refusing to show the slightest cowardice by spitting on the jihadist who has the power to maim and kill him on the spot.

Much of the action is handed to those playing the jihadists, who to a man are willing to die and become martyred for Allah. None expect to get away alive from the action, particularly when the Indian special forces, the only unit capable of ending the war, had to transport themselves from New Delhi, eight hundred miles from the action. The assailants—young men who could not be more than twenty-five years of age and played by Amandeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, Yash Trivedi and Gaurav Paswala, casually make the rounds shooting straight ahead, hitting people in the back as they try to flee, even firing straight down to kill those on a floor below. One act of heroism aside from the general help given to the guests by members of the hotel staff finds two receiptionists from the Taj asked at gunpoint to call one of the rooms to get guests to open the doors. When they refuse, they are summarily executed.

More sophisticated moviegoers will want more than a re-creation of the events, however artistically executed. Are the principal characters merely of two dimensions, set up to represent in turn a father eager to save his wife and child, a degraded Russian opting to ask two young women to be sent to his room, a head chef serving as the chief of the rescue team? Perhaps there was little time for this since much action has to be covered, giving the movie audience the real feeling of what it means to be literally afraid for your life when you figure that the chances are that this is your last day on earth.

123 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – A
Overall – B+

PATH OF BLOOD – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jonathan Hacker
Screenwriter: Jonathan Hacker adapted from the book by Hacker and Thomas Small
Cast: Samuel West, narrator. Tom Hollander as voices of the Jihad. Various members of Al-Qaeda plus government and security forces in Riyadh and environs
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/16/18
Opens: July 13, 2018


Image result for path of blood poster

This documentary is so real, its dialogue so tense, its speeches by leaders and member of Al-Qaeda so emotional, that you’d swear that “Path of Blood” is either a work of dramatic fiction or a mockumentary. But it is neither. This doc carries some of the most authentic information about the work of security forces in oil-rich Saudi Arabia against what they must consider the forces of darkness that it rivals even the excitement of fictional narratives like “The Hurt Locker.” The only distraction is a constant interruption of blank, black screens with “snow” to separate the chapters or even to show that Hacker is switching from the Al-Qaeda people to those in the Saudi government.

This is Jonathan Hacker’s first full-length feature, his other work dealing with TV shorts such as “Blackboards and Bullies,” which explores the roots of violent incidents in America’s school systems and tangible ways for communities to improve child safety. Recent school shootings make this sort of filmmaking essential, though with “Path of Blood,” Hacker investigates ideologically-driven madmen who have inflicted far worse punishments on their enemies than anyone has done so far in American schools.

“Path of Blood” consists of three categories of films, edited by Peter Haddon, Kirsi Pyy and Bob H. Woodward, all known mostly for their work on TV documentaries. One set consists of home movies taken by operatives in Al-Qaeda documenting the planning and training–meant only for their own people but captured by government forces after successful raids on what are called the organization’s safe houses. The second set is also filmed by Al-Qaeda, but these are fairly professional propaganda pieces meant to be seen by the “Crusaders,” who are their mortal enemies; the Crusaders being now only westerners but Saudi government forces who, the spokesmen say, should be fighting the Americans and not the terrorists. The third films were taken by Saudi officials to document their actions, showing the bodies of the fallen, catching the shooting even during the height of the battles. Most impressive.

There is, of course, some repetition as Hacker transcribes one action after another by security and the same by the terrorists. But we come away ultimately with these words of wisdom:

First, as admitted by Al-Qaeda reps themselves, a huge percentage of recruits are young, ignorant people, easy to motivate, especially when each has 72 virgins awaiting him after martyrdom. They are not only ignorant: they are stupid. In the opening scene, one that should grab the audience immediately, one “Ali,” almost clean shaven, his face unmasked, is getting intellectual training. Not an exact quote, but: “Ali, What do you say if you hear that what we are doing is a sin against Islam?” Answer: “I don’t understand the question. Keep it simple.” We never do find out whether he considers killing fellow Muslim is a sin, or even if the fellow knows the meaning of the word “sin.” In the same video, the men are horsing around, laughing it up, perhaps telling crude jokes, just like American adolescents. Recruits are assured that when they blow themselves, they will not feel a thing. Take it from someone who knows.

Second: Throughout, the men are told about the bad guys, the pro-West Crusaders: “Expel them! Rip them apart! Destroy them until they either die or convert to the true religion!” At least one of the Al-Qaeda people has been on missions in Bosnia, Yemen, and Afghanistan as well as in Saudi Arabia. In one instance they capture a western man, Paul Johnson, question him about his work, tell him that he is lying, wrap a gag around his mouth to accompany the blindfold, and presumably behead him. Instead of seeing the execution, Hacker provides us once again with that distracting, snow-covered black screen.

And so it goes: the terrorists plan attacks by car bombs. Some succeed, others do not. In the end, the Al-Qaeda reps who are captured, many actually turning themselves in because they are the few who do not “love death,” are sorted into the extremists and the moderate ideologues. The latter group are given re-education, not North Korean style, but a real re-education program in classrooms to bring them back into society. We don’t see what happens to the extremists. Cue the black screen.

Saudi Arabia is not known as a state with Swedish-style human rights, but there are good reasons for our alliance with them. They have money up the wazoo and buy things from us. They are fighting terrorists just as we are, and here in the U.S. we don’t yet have a Swedish-style government either—or at least the public’s stereotypical view of what goes on in Sweden, the rest of Scandinavia, and other Shangri-las. The film is adapted from Jonathan Hacker and Thomas Small’s 480-page book which sells for over $30 at Amazon—which despite the upcoming movie has only one copy on hand right now. The film is in Arabic with English subtitles except for the English narration.

Unrated. 91 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

BEIRUT – movie review


Bleecker Street
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Brad Anderson
Screenwriter:  Tony Gilroy
Cast:  Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris, Larry Pine, Shea Whigham
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/13/18
Opens: April 11, 2018
Beirut Movie Poster
Jon Hamm is a painfully handsome middle-aged actor who was perfectly cast in “Mad Men.”  He fits in handily as a Madison Avenue executive and was born to smoke and drink while selling expensive advertising to major clients. He should be considered to be the next 007 provided that he can imitate the king’s English.  He is well cast in “Beirut.”  He still drinks and smokes, occasionally raises his voice.  He is a negotiator as he was in the brilliant TV episodes, so adept that even the bad guys in the Middle East insisted that they would talk only to him to arrange an exchange of prisoners.  Tony Gilroy’s story for this new release is as confusing as Brad Anderson’s direction.  From time to time a bomb goes off in Lebanon’s capital, and occasionally there is the rapid fire of AK-47 as bad guys in the usual headgear and mouth coverings do what they do for reasons that are not always clear to Americans—who think that the only reason that people take risks is for money.

As Mason Skiles, Jon Hamm is shown in Beirut in 1982 with flashbacks to his time in Lebanon’s capital ten years earlier.   In 1972 things were looking up for Skiles, then a diplomat.  He enjoys the company of his lovely wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti).  The couple even adopted Karim (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg), a Palestinian refugee who is now a cute kid of 13.  But Karim has a secret: his brother Abu (Hicham Ouraqa) was a bad guy responsible for the murder of Jews during the Munich Olympics. Just as Karim and Skiles are having a nice chat, a deadly terrorist attack during a diplomatic party leaves Nadia dead.  Skiles, now in no mood ever to return to the middle east, takes on a job at home as a labor negotiator but is called back in 1982 because Cal Riley (MarkPellegrino), a good friend, is being held prisioner.  The terrorists want to trade him for Abu Rajal.

It’s no wonder that they want only Skiles.  His adopted son Karim (Idir Chender) is now grown up, a fighter for the Palestinian cause, and feels certain he can trust his stepdad to pull of the trade, but the sinister U.S. diplomats are divided in motives leaving only Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike) to support the negotiations.

What could have been a film to break new ground as did the filmmakers for the superb “Mad Men” series instead create a same ol’ retread of spy stories, which in itself would not be so bad if the story did not plod along with boatloads of banter which do nothing more than confuse the viewer further.  This is a surprise coming from the screenwriter, Gilroy, whose “Argo” in 2012 presented an ingenious ruse to get six people who had escaped from Iranian clutches out of the country by setting up a fake Canadian film company. “Argo” was not confusing, was full of original ideas, and with excitement that flowed organically from the plot.  This one’s a dud.

Rated R.  109 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – D
Acting – B
Technical –  B
Overall – C

IN THE FADE – movie review


    Magnolia Pictures
    Director:  Fatih Akin
    Written by: Fatih Akin, Hark Boh,
    Cast:  Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto, Johannes Krisch, Samia Chancrin, Numan Acar
    Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 11/18/17
    Opens: December 27, 2017

    In the Fade

    Now that right-wing parties are arising, the stage is set for the movie industry to capitalize on the dangers we face from people who are out to harm us.  Countries in Europe with sizable minorities targeted by violent fascist groups, disgusted with the presence of people practicing different cultures from the majority. With “In the Fade,” Fatih Akin, born in Hamburg of Turkish roots, deals with the storm already in play, covering what he knows– having contributed films like “Goodbye Berlin.” This time Akin is on the money with a political thriller which could thrust Diane Kruger to the top of the heap during awards season when “Best Actress” need not be one performing in an American movie.

    In a film that accepts some of the tropes of American thrillers but gives a more nuanced portrayal here, we see that Katja (Diane Kruger) is not the “good guy” determined to avenge a killing by the “bad guys.” She herself lives outside the norms of femininity.  Her body is increasingly submerged in tattoos.  She does recreational drugs.  She smokes fiercely and without apology.  She marries an outsider, a Kurdish man who is even more flawed in that he deals drugs in the university where Katja meets him.  Katja, a full-bloodied German marries a man who is not only from Turkey but a prisoner “hosted” by the German government. When her husband Nuri (Numan Acar) is released from jail to the cheers of his fellows, he opens a travel agency/tax advice office and, when he becomes a father to Rocco (Rafael Santana), he gives up drugs completely and becomes a terrific husband.

    As though good things can’t last, he and his son are murdered by a bomb left on a bicycle outside the shop in the Turkish section of Hamburg.  A police investigation seems to be more interested in probing Katja’s character, particularly since she has been devastated so greatly by the murders that she indulges in hard drugs supplied to her by her lawyer, Danilo Fava (Denis Moschitto).

    A large segment of the movie takes place in a Hamburg courtroom, in which we Americans will note the differences we have with German law. Edda Möller (Hanna Hilsdorf), a suspect has been arrested, leading to a trial with a verdict to be determined by five judges, no jury.  There are no lawyers bouncing up and down with objections.  The procedure is more informal. Katja is called not simply a victim but a co-plaintiff, determined along with her friendly lawyer Danilo to convict the Nazi woman suspected of leaving her bicycle outside the travel agency.

    Not only does this film proceed at a breakneck pace: Diane Kruger, who in the past has shown complete proficiency with the English language, is now free to spew her righteous venom at the accused with such determination that we wonder whether the suspect would ever be free even if found not guilty.  Rainer Klausmann films in Hamburg and Greece, the latter country used because, we learn, that the German Nazis (they’re not called neo-Nazis as they are called here) are in cahoots with the Nazi ideologues in Greece.  Kruger’s acting is so convincing that we barely need Joshua Homme’s dazzling score to up the ante.  This is a film torn from today’s headlines and executed with such fervor that we in our seats may well feel light jumping through the screen to strangle the killer.

    Unrated.  115 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

    Story – A-
    Acting – A-
    Technical – A-
    Overall A-