Tag Archives: Kevin Macdonald

Rough Justice

The Mauritanian

by George Wolf

In the face of the highest of ideals, America is capable of horrible things. According to his own writings, Mohamedou Ould Salahi believed in those ideals, until he was held without charge in Guantanamo Bay for over 14 years.

Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald and a cast full of veteran talent tell the story of The Mauritanian with impressive craftsmanship, a proud conscience and a narrative cluttered with good intentions.

Not long after 9/11, Salahi (Tahar Rahim from A Prophet and The Past) was apprehended with suspicions of being a Bin Ladin confidant and the “Al-Qaeda Forrest Gump.” His was to be the first death penalty prosecution of The Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld response, until human rights attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) took up Salahi’s case pro bono.

The script, adapted from Salahi’s book by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, picks the emotional teams early. Salahi is a sympathetic character, and quickly charms Hollander’s assistant Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) while Hollander herself remains unmoved, committed only to the rule of law.

This commitment serves her well, especially against Marine lawyer Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has a personal and professional stake in seeing Salahi put to death.

Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play, One Day in September) breaks from the pack of similarly-themed films with a tone that shifts between self-congratulations and tearful apology. The “rough justice” abuse Salahi suffers is clearly barbaric but still feels sanitized, and part of a larger question the film eschews in favor of heavy hearted hindsight.

But there isn’t a false note in this cast. Even when their character arcs may feel predetermined, every player – from principals to supporting – delivers enough heart and humanity to keep the lessons of Salahi’s ordeal resonating.

Landing at a time when the conscience of the country is literally being voted on, The Mauritanian is a committed if somewhat unwieldy reminder of the stakes.



by Seth Troyer

In our current era of memes and wikipedia summaries, the true power of a figure like Bob Marley can become diminished. To many in the US, Marley is simply known as “that reggae guy, who smoked weed and thought peace was cool.” Dorm room posters, white kids with dreadlocks, and Marley related drug paraphernalia can sometimes threaten to make us forget what it was that made Marley a legend in the first place.

Kevin Macdonald’s in-depth documentary from 2012 seeks to jog the world’s memory about the revolutionary king of reggae. Marley is epic in scale and creates an experience that will be eye opening for long time fans and newcomers alike.

Re-released for what would have been Marley’s 75th birthday, the film has a two and a half hour runtime, but I can’t stress enough for audiences to not be daunted by the film’s length. The story here feels instantly essential and engrossing. It simply opts for a thoughtful, methodical pace that seems perfectly in sync with the reggae movement.

Even the editing of the film seems to be in reverence of its subject. For instance, a scene that introduces a popular song like “Natty Dread” in less mature hands may have been used as an excuse to showcase wild camera work and the ADD rapid cut editing. Instead we are given a slow motion aerial shot of Marley’s home country of Jamaica. We are granted a quiet moment where we listen to the music and gaze out at the beauty that helped inspire it.

The length also allows interviews with Marley’s band mates and family members to be more than just cut up sound bites. Macdonald is in no hurry and his patience elevates the film. The interviewees are given time to articulate their thoughts, and have genuine moments of joy and heartbreak as they offer their recollections.

The film is clearly a love letter to the man and his music, but unlike many celebrity documentaries, it does not shy away from some of the more difficult truths about its subject. Those who were closest to him are often painfully honest in the film when it comes to his egotistical tendencies and shortcomings as a family man.

Its comprehensive honesty makes Marley much more than a simple fan rock doc. It is an honest portrait, a celebration of a man who helped open the eyes of the world to a new era of music.

So Emotional


by George Wolf

Midway though Whitney, record business mogul “L.A.” Reid sternly tells the camera,”You laughing at Whitney Houston? Fuck you!”

An animated sitcom gag came just before that scolding, and I was laughing. The well-placed sequence gets to the heart of Kevin Macdonald’s emotional look at a troubled life. Behind every famous public image are truths untold, and Whitney becomes a bittersweet labor of love.

The persistent force behind the film is executive producer Nicole David. A longtime talent agent (and, interestingly enough, the original voice of Scooby Doo’s “Velma”) David represented Houston for almost three decades, and was committed to finding someone who would do justice to the Whitney she knew.

David’s sincerity convinced a skeptical Macdonald, the veteran director with sharp instincts for narrative features (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) and as well as docs (Touching the Void, Marley). He gets beneath this tabloid fodder with necessary determination.

Houston wasn’t a soul-baring songwriter like Amy Winehouse, and her recorded interviews were scarce and seldom revealing. Macdonald digs hard into interviews with family members and inner circle friends, layering them all with intimate home movie and archival footage to build a sad and sympathetic timeline.

The cycle of talent/fame/money/drugs may be cliched by now, but Whitney succeeds in making this rise and fall more personal. We see Houston’s two personas: The vulnerable “Nippy” to those close to her, and the confident “Whitney” to an obsessive public.

The whispers that come from her closeness to assistant Robyn Crawford, the trauma of sexual abuse from a family member, her volatile marriage to Bobby Brown, the Diane Sawyer “crack is wack” debacle and the tragic legacy passed down to daughter Bobbi Kristina are all addressed in necessary, but thoughtful ways.

Near the end, fan-made concert video shows a once powerful voice destroyed by drugs and demons. That downward spiral is indeed no laughing matter, and Whitney is an emotional ride, a thorough and respectful take on a mysterious, superstar life.



Growing Up Too Fast


by George Wolf


In her new film, gifted young actress Saoirse Ronan plays a teenager forced to fend for herself, fighting for survival in the wilderness.

Wait, is this a sequel to Hanna?

No, it’s How I Live Now, adapted from the young adult novel and sporting a storyline that actually follows eerily close to a recent foreign film not many here at home ever saw.

Ronan plays Daisy, an American brat sent to stay with her Aunt and cousins in the English countryside. Daisy’s mother has died, she “hates” her father, and in a very typical teenage fashion, is mad at the world.

It isn’t long before the world is mad right back.

War breaks out and martial law is declared, separating Daisy and her young cousin Piper from their family. The males and females are transported to different camps, though not before Daisy makes a promise to reunite.

In an opportune moment, Daisy and Piper break away, taking off on foot for a long and dangerous trek back home.

Two years ago, Lore covered very similar terrain, though in a World War II setting and with a much heavier historical context.

How I Live Now is more cavalier with the teen girl’s awakening to the ways of the adult world (yes, sexual included). Though Ronan is characteristically captivating, Daisy’s journey, both physical and spiritual, seems rushed and not quite sure-footed.

Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland/State of Play) attempts to channel the popular book by getting inside Daisy’s head, voices and all. That, plus the arresting landscape shots, handheld camera angles, and Ronan’s performance, is enough to keep your attention.

Ultimately, though, How I Live Now feels like a like a well-executed shot that falls a bit short of the mark.