Bilal: A New Breed of Hero


A future warrior at play as a child.

(2015) Animated Feature (Vertical) Starring the voices of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, China Anne McClain, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Michael Gross, Cynthia K. McWilliams, Jacob Latimore, Fred Tatasciore, Jon Curry, Mick Wingert, Dave B. Mitchell, Al Rodrigo, Andre Robinson, Sage Ryan, Quinton Flynn, Mark Rolston, John Eric Bentley, Keythe Farley, Sherrie Jackson. Directed by Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal

 

Dubai’s first foray into animated feature films is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it boasts some truly glorious animation. On the other hand, the human characters are almost without expression throughout. It also focuses on a character from the very early days of the Islamic faith, of a figure who was part of the Prophet’s inner circle, although that is only tangentially referred to in the film and of course Muhammad isn’t depicted at all in keeping with their faith.

The movie is (very) loosely based on the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, a 7th century African man who in childhood was taken as a slave and became one of the first followers of the prophet Muhammad. He is in Islamic culture credited with being the first muezzin who calls the faithful to prayer reputedly because of his beautiful voice.

In the film, we see Bilal (Robinson) and his sister Shufaira (Robinson) watch horrified from a closet as their mother is murdered. The two children are taken as slaves and sold to the cruel idol-seller Umayya (McShane) whose son Safwan (Ryan) may be just a little bit crueler than his dad, although more cowardly.

Bilal grows into a man (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who is prized for his singing voice by his master. Run-ins with Safwan to protect his sister has left Bilal discouraged and essentially accepting his fate as a slave, flying in the face of the wisdom his mother taught him as a child. However, there are others in Mecca who disagree with the idol-worshiping money-grubbing slave-oriented economy and atmosphere of the city. Hamza (Mitchell), a noted warrior and the Master of the Market (Gross) both see greatness in Bilal and gradually win him over to monotheism and freedom. However, despite Bilal leaning towards pacifism, they will have to fight for that freedom – in a place called Badr.

This is a very different kettle of fish for animated features. For one thing, it is a story of a Muslim hero and portrays the religion in a very different light than it is generally portrayed in the West. Few will remember this from their history but at one time the Muslims accepted Jewish refugees driven out of Europe and under Arabic rule they thrived and often worked in the great centers of learning established in the Arabic world.

Sadly, a lot of American viewers won’t be able to look past the rhetoric and will see this as Muslim propaganda and while it certainly leans towards a positive vision of Islam, it is no more propaganda than Christian faith-based stories and animations. Americans are sadly notorious for turning away from the unfamiliar.

As mentioned earlier, the animation is a bit uneven but when it’s good, it’s really good. Strangely though, there is an awful lot of violence and cruelty depicted in the film, much more so than in the average children’s animated film which might give some parents pause. However, those parents who wish to teach tolerance as a lesson should certainly high-tail it to their local VOD site of choice or their local DVD/Blu-Ray dealer because that lesson is certainly honed in on. Sure, the dialogue is a bit clunky (the characters rarely use contractions and end up all sounding like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) and full of aphorisms which may drive the average adult batty but it is meant sincerely. I also question the title a little bit; how is a 7th century figure a “new” breed of hero?

The movie got a brief theatrical release in February, more than three years after it had been released elsewhere globally. Likewise, it is only now showing up on home video. This is a pretty solid animated feature which although flawed shows some potential for the studio that the directors established in order to make this film. Although perhaps Americans may continue to resist features that give the colorful and often brilliant history of the Islamic faith, I hope the studio continues to produce them. Learning more about the culture of Islam is the first step in learning not to fear it but rather coexist with it.

REASONS TO GO: The animation is occasionally breathtaking. The story is interesting.
REASONS TO STAY: This is much too long for younger kids. The English dialogue is a bit stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some surprisingly intense violence, child peril, some disturbing images as well as thematic issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the depiction of the Battle of Badr, animators brought to life 5,000 human characters and 1,000 horses – more than took place at the actual battle which involved 1,300 warriors and 270 horses.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up and Away
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Write When You Get Work

Advertisements

Air


No matter how much Djimon Hounsou tries to bluster, Norman Reedus just can't reveal any The Walking Dead spoilers for next season.

No matter how much Djimon Hounsou tries to bluster, Norman Reedus just can’t reveal any The Walking Dead spoilers for next season.

(2015) Science Fiction (Vertical/Stage 6) Djimon Hounsou, Norman Reedus, Sandrine Holt, David Nykl, Michael Hogan, Peter Benson, Steve Burgess, Paula Lindberg. Directed by Christian Cantamessa

The Hollies famously did a song called “All I Need is the Air That I Breathe” that in a just world, would have been part of the soundtrack to this movie. Indeed, air is a requisite of life. What happens when there isn’t enough to go around?

That’s just what the situation is after chemical warfare rendered the atmosphere unfit to breathe. With the human race in mortal peril, the powers that be hastily converted old nuclear missile silos into makeshift shelters, in which suspended animation chambers were installed. Into these chambers went the best and the brightest, scientists of all disciplines, medical professionals, agriculturalists, philosophers, maybe an artist or two – everyone you would need to re-establish civilization once the air was breathable again. Movie reviewers need not apply.

There are also a pair of maintenance men making sure that everything works. The trouble is, there isn’t enough breathable air to allow them full-time coverage, so the two men also sleep in their suspended animation chambers, awakened only once every six months and then only for two hours at a time before heading back into their sleep chambers.

The technology is decidedly low tech – the silo had been abandoned since the 80s and there are things like dot matrix printers and DOS-like screens of green scrolling text. Evidently there wasn’t enough time to drop by Best Buy and pick up a couple of laptops. Pretty much what you’d expect from government work.

The two techs, Bauer (Reedus) and Cartwright (Hounsou) are beginning to get a little buggy; Cartwright is having conversations with his wife Abby (Holt) who is one of the sleepers in the chambers that he is protecting, while Bauer is watching re-runs of athletic events long in the past. However, the unexpected occurs; an earthquake triggers a fire in Bauer’s suspended animation chamber, rendering it unusable. Attempts to rig up a spare chamber end up nearly killing Bauer until Cartwright belatedly rescues him. Spare parts will have to be found and the only way to find them is to check a neighboring silo, which will require Cartwright to get into an environmental suit, traverse a labyrinth of tunnels until reaching the other facility.

However, both men have begun to become suspicious of one another as well as whether the mission they are charged with is even possible – or worth the cost. Suspicion breeds fear which in turn breeds paranoia; not something healthy when you have only one other human on the entire planet to communicate with.

I like the premise a lot, although there have been similar stories with different twists (disease, radioactive fallout etc.) in the concept. While some critics have been getting their panties in a bunch over the obsolete tech, it does make perfect sense up to a point. One huffy writer took umbrage that there wasn’t even a smart phone to be seen, which you would assume just about everyone had but one brief scene near the end indicates that the war was a lot more than chemical.

Reedus has become something of a cultural icon as Daryl from The Walking Dead and while this is a much different role than Daryl, some of the basic characteristics are there; Bauer has a kind of homespun outlook on life and he’s a bit easily hot under the collar although I suspect that if I was a technician fixing obsolete machinery so that hundreds of others could survive when the atmosphere became breathable again I would probably be a bit crabby my own self.

Hounsou is one of those actors who lends credibility and gravitas to every movie he participates in; here, his character is a bit more vulnerable than the ones he usually plays. Often Hounsou plays physically intimidating characters but not so much here; he’s a big man but he badly misses his wife and is lonely as can be as a result. While this isn’t Oscar bait by any stretch of the imagination, it does remind us that Hounsou has a depth and range greater than the roles he’s usually asked to take.

The set design is industrial, with pipes and knobs and wheels and metal tables and chairs. Everything looks like it came out of a manufacturing facility circa 1988 which is what I think the producers were going for. This is low tech sci-fi and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all.

That said, there are plenty of movies with post-apocalyptic settings and there are a few cliches about them that are repeated here, from the failing machinery to the paranoia among survivors. The pace is pretty slow, particularly early on and the action never really generates a lot of tension. Plus there are a few logical holes that don’t make sense; there is a medical bay full of medications that, given that the process apparently is expected to take decades, would certainly expire long before they are needed. Also, how do the crew members eat? Won’t the food have spoiled before long?

Of course, questions like that aren’t meant to be answered or, I suppose, even asked. Game performances by two likable actors are the centerpiece of this science fiction thriller, and if you don’t mind sci-fi that has no gleaming machinery, super high-tech gadgets, monsters or alien vistas, you certainly might enjoy this. Although there are monsters – the kind we keep inside us, and the alien vista is of a world that in our folly we destroyed ourselves. Caveat Emptor.

REASONS TO GO: Really cool premise. Reedus and Hounsou are both fun to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit. Doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a few disturbing images, some sexual references and a bit of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first theatrical feature to be produced by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Infini
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Band’s Visit

Robot Overlords


Robot riding: the next Olympic sport.

Robot riding: the next Olympic sport.

(2015) Science Fiction (Vertical) Ben Kingsley, Gillian Anderson, Milo Parker, Callan McAuliffe, Geraldine James, Steven Mackintosh, Tamer Hassan, Ella Hunt, Justin Salinger, Craig Garner, Roy Hudd, David McSavage, Michael Stuart, Jimmy Johnston, Laurence Doherty, James Tarpey, Sonny Green, Ciaran Flynn, Edna Caskey, Neil Brownlee, Abigail Castleton . Directed by Jon Wright

So, let’s say that a race of giant robots have occupied the planet. We’ve all been essentially grounded, informed in no uncertain terms that we are to remain in our homes at all times or be vaporized (which must absolutely suck for the homeless). What’s a teenager to do?

That’s what’s happened to Sean Flynn (McAuliffe), whose RAF dad (Mackintosh) has been missing for two years. He’s living with single mum teacher Kate (Anderson), her comely daughter Alexandra (Hunt) and her jokester brother Nathan (Tarpey). Added to the mix is Conor (Parker) whose dad just lost it and ran outside, which led to him being disintegrated in front of his own son and now has joined Kate’s sorta happy family. Her ex-colleague, Smythe (Kingsley) is a collaborator with the robots and quite sweet on her, although the feeling isn’t reciprocated. The kids despise him, rightfully believing him to be a traitor to his own species.

Whilst fooling around in the basement, Conor discovers that electrocuting himself with a car battery can short out the tracking devices installed on every human’s neck, which allows them to go outside without being detected by the robots. At first it’s a lark until it gets curmudgeonly grandpa Morse Code Martin (Hudd) captured and essentially lobotomized, all his thoughts stolen from his head by something called a Deep Scanner. The robots are apparently studying humans and intend to take their ideas from them and use them for their own. Let’s hope they didn’t scan the humans who created this film.

While out they make the amazing discovery that Sean has the ability to control the robots through telepathy, albeit only one at a time. Still, this could be the turning point in getting the robots off our planet and allowing humans to take back their homes after all, although not if Smythe and the robotic Mediator (Garner) have anything to say about it.

This is a family-oriented sci-fi action film which should appeal to Anglophiles and Giant Robot enthusiasts alike. The story is a bit disjointed and the ending a bit anti-climactic but there’s nothing here that is likely to offend anyone, unless they have an unreasonable hatred of all things British. Although filmed in Northern Ireland and on the Isle of Man, the story is set in what appears to be either a Northern English or Scottish town – the accents run along those lines and they can be thick at times.

Kingsley has made a career of being a smarmy villain and while I’d prefer to see some different roles for him because he is such a talented actor, he does make a superior bad guy and he is one of the highlights here. Anderson is a fine actress but doesn’t get a lot to do here. Most of the focus is on Sean, Conor, Alexandra and Nathan and quite frankly they’re okay but little more. McAuliffe is an Australian actor who has received rave notices in his homeland for other roles and some say is likely to become a big star worldwide eventually, which can only help this film that has bombed at the box office both in its native land and here.

There are a few other interesting performances besides Kingsley’s; Hudd does a fine job as the defiant pensioner, while Tamer Hassan is excellent as Wayne, a criminal sort with a heart of gold who assists the kids. He is a right proper villain, you might say, although he feels like he comes from an English gangster flick and was deposited somewhat unceremoniously into this Transformers-like affair.

The story tends to be a bit on the kid-friendly side; teens and kids save the world, which might not appeal so much to adults. What really doesn’t appeal to adults is thinking about the mechanics of the story; if people are confined to their homes and are never allowed out, how do they get groceries, clothes and other necessities? What do people do when they get sick? Who ya gonna call?

The special effects range from awful to not bad, although they’ve been savaged pretty thoroughly in the British press. While the explosions looked cheesy, the robots were effective enough although not as detailed as others in bigger budgeted films. Still, I found the entire movie to be entertaining overall in a Saturday morning cartoon kind of way. And we all know you never outgrow those.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent special effects. Kingsley is always swell.
REASONS TO STAY: Story is disjointed and ending anti-climactic. Most of the rest of the cast is merely adequate.
FAMILY VALUES: Robot violence and some human-on-human violence, a rude gesture and a few sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Deep Scanner resembles the main monsters from the film Grabbers which Wright also directed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: V
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Men in Black II

Into the Grizzly Maze (Red Machine)


There's nothing worse than bear breath.

There’s nothing worse than bear breath.

(2014) Action (Vertical) James Marsden, Thomas Jane, Piper Perabo, Billy Bob Thornton, Scott Glenn, Michaela McManus, Adam Beach, Sarah Desjardins, Luisa D’Oliveira, Bart the Bear, Patrick Sabongui, Kelly Curran, Seth Isaac Johnson, Sean O. Roberts, Reese Alexander, Carson Reaume, Michael Jonsson, Mariel Belanger. Directed by David Hackl

Recently, I did a review of a 1981 movie called Roar in which live actors and crew mingled with untamed wild lions and tigers which led to somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 injuries to cast and crew. This movie would be the anti-Roar.

After seven years in prison, Rowan (Marsden) returns home to a small Alaskan town (actually British Columbia) on a mysterious mission which involves a map. Treasure, maybe? When he gets into an altercation with a pimp (Jonsson) who was in the process of beating up a hooker (Curran), he is arrested – by none other than his own brother Beckett (Jane) who turned his back on him after Rowan was convicted of shooting a guy. The two brothers obviously have little love for each other and so when Rowan heads off into the wilderness, Beckett isn’t particularly sorry to see him go.

But what Rowan is really up to is a rescue mission; a friend with the unlikely name of Johnny Cadillac (Beach) is missing after having guided a pair of poachers into the woods (no singing though) and his wife (Belanger) is concerned enough to ask Rowan to go find him. The three of them, however, have met up with a rogue rampaging grizzly (Bart) who with his food supplies dwindling is turning to a human protein supplement to his diet.

Once Beckett and his boss, Sheriff Sullivan (Glenn) realize what’s happening Beckett decides to head into the woods to find the bear and tranquilize it. Sullivan would rather hire bear whisperer Douglass (Thornton) to track down the mutha and kill it, but Beckett puts up a stink so Sullivan caves. Or at least appears to; once Beckett is gone, he sends Douglass out anyway.

Beckett has another reason to head out into the woods – his deaf conservationist wife Michelle (Perabo) is out there and with a crazed killer bear stalking anything on two legs, the town medical examiner Kaley (McManus) tags along just in case someone needs medical attention or an autopsy. And of course all of them meet up and the Grizzly comes after them. Getting back to civilization is going to be no easy task, even with a pair of experienced woodsmen and crack shots in the group.

This is a throwback to deranged animal movies from the ’70s like Jaws and Day of the Animals which generally took an all-star cast of the level that you’d find on a typical episode of The Love Boat and put them squarely in the path of an animal (or animals) that had gone loco and were hungry for the taste of human flesh. This one relies on CGI a great deal as we rarely see humans in the same frame as the evil bear here and quite frankly, the CGI work is sloppy and weak. There is a sequence where the grizzly is surrounded by CGI flames that are so fake as to be almost laughable and then breaks through the ring of fire with a mighty roar and scarcely a single hair singed. There is another scene where the grizzly looks up from his lunch of a hapless human with blood on his mouth and snout that is so patently CGI (the color is bright cherry lipstick red rather than the typical crimson of actual blood) as to look more like the bear had gotten into a strumpet’s lipstick. Godawful.

The cast here is pretty decent and to their credit none of them phone it in although Perabo, who really has nothing much to do, might as well have. Jane is actually a pretty decent action hero who did some good work in Deep Blue Sea and The Punisher but is generally relegated to supporting roles these days and leads in Direct-to-VOD films like this one. Marsden is versatile, doing comedy and action equally well but he’s all business here. Thornton, who always seems to enjoy himself no matter what level of film he’s doing, from excellent (the Fargo series) to sheer paycheck (this).

The British Columbia forests, substituting for Alaska, are unutterably beautiful and while I wouldn’t say they’re a piece of cake to photograph, it’s hard to go wrong with that kind of backdrop  One of the big problems with the film is that it’s completely non-credible. Bears don’t act like this, not even rogues and for the most part people don’t either. While Hackl does a good job building suspense, there are too many instances of a gigantic bear sneaking up on hapless humans which is damn near impossible; bears are not stealth creatures. They’re far too massive. At the end of the day this is a subpar potboiler with a good cast and bad CGI that might be worth a rainy day or evening’s rental on VOD if your standards aren’t particularly high.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful setting. Good cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Unrealistic. Terrible CGI. Throwback to films that weren’t very good in the first place.
FAMILY VALUES: There are animal attack images as well as disturbing gore images, violence, some brief sexuality and a little bit of foul language
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title of the film was Red Machine which is the name given the bear in the credits. This is in reference to the late Timothy Treadwell of the film Grizzly Man who said that one bear, which he had named The Big Red Machine, was the only one that actually terrified him. It is reputed that this was the bear that actually killed him and his girlfriend, although that is unconfirmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grizzly
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Magic Mike XXL

Infini


Not the peep show Daniel MacPherson was looking for.

Not the peep show Daniel MacPherson was looking for.

(2015) Science Fiction (Vertical) Daniel MacPherson, Grace Huang, Luke Hemsworth, Bren Foster, Luke Ford, Dwaine Stevenson, Louisa Mignone, Tess Haubrich, Harry Pavildis, Kevin Copeland, Andy Rodoreda, Paul Winchester, Brendan Clearkin, Matt Minto, Belinda Gosbee, Goran D. Kleut, Aileen Beale, Laura Beverley, Louise Dodge. Directed by Shane Abbess

In space, no-one can hear you scream. On a mining station in deep space, everybody can hear you scream. Sometimes, the vacuum of space is preferable to the atmosphere of a mining installation.

By the turn of the 23rd century, Earth’s resources are pretty much gone. Unemployment is rampant and most of the jobs available are service jobs that pay very little. What does pay are the highly dangerous off-planet jobs. Fortunately, a technology has been developed called the Slipstream in which human beings are essentially digitized and sent instantaneously through space to locations all over the galaxy (the science here is a little bit wonky as even if the digital stream traveled at the speed of light, it would still take years and even centuries for the data to arrive). Unfortunately, the fatality rate by using this method of travel is high as the data stream can easily be corrupted.

Whit Carmichael (MacPherson) wants very much to support his wife Lisa (Haubrich) and the child that she is pregnant with. His first day on the job though goes horribly wrong; an infected subject comes through the Slipstream in the West Coast Command Center. In order to escape, Whit is forced to go to Infini, the location of an abandoned mining company which remains the worst deep space disaster in history where over 1,600 miners died while mining a volatile substance.

An elite rescue team is sent to retrieve him (there’s another subplot here but it’s baffling and not really germane and doesn’t get explored much so I’ll abstain from describing it). What they find on Infini is terrible, much worse than they could have ever expected. It appears that the miners all went berserk and killed each other off, brutally and sadistically. Worse yet, there may be an alien presence involved.

This is Aussie director Abbess’ second feature film. He’s been on Hollywood’s radar for seven years and has been attached to some fairly high profile projects in one form or another, few of which actually came to pass (and none with Abbess on board). He proves adept at doing a lot with a little, creating an industrial-looking aesthetic that reminds strongly of the Nostromo from Alien – lots of ducts, pipes and vents. Like that ill-fated vessel, this future looks lived-in.

Although the plot sounds like a standard “bug hunt” sci-fi action feature, there is a little bit more thought put behind it, musing about the human survival instinct and what elements of human behavior would make an impression on alien beings. Whit Carmichael is also not the action hero you might expect; he chooses flight over fight and while discretion is generally the better part of valor, Whit spends a lot of this movie hiding from everyone else.

There is a flood of testosterone coloring this movie; most of the dialogue is shouted or yelled, and often it is some cast member yelling “WHITTTTT!!!!” into the empty hallways of the mining facility. This is a noisy, often abrasive film. Abbess also uses quick cuts to distraction; we are constantly jumping around in point of view. This is the kind of camera move that is best used sparingly and it gets mighty annoying after awhile.

More importantly, Abbess is all over the place with his story. Much of what happens early in the movie (which starts out as a flash forward and then without any sort of explanation the movie shifts to a flash back) is without explanation of any sort until later on in the film and quite frankly you’re often left scratching your head as a viewer and wondering what the heck is going on. You don’t always get answers on that score, either.

Despite all that, the movie has some strong points. It is a good-looking movie and well-lit; often movies of this sort go the underlit route in order to increase the suspense of things jumping out of shadows. Most of the time, we see whatever is attacking coming. That’s actually kind of refreshing.

So what we have here is a movie that has good intentions but not quite the execution. It starts out as thoughtful science fiction but eventually degenerates into horror action sci-fi that blends Aliens with The Thing – not too shabby to be compared to those movies I grant you, but it fails to live up to either of them…or its own promise.

REASONS TO GO: Thoughtful premise. Nice cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Often confusing and incomprehensible story. Way too much shouting and testosterone.
FAMILY VALUES: Extreme, bloody violence and plenty of rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: MacPherson is the host of Australia’s version of Dancing With the Stars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pandorum
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Lambert and Stamp