Bilal: A New Breed of Hero

Posted on February 1, 2018 at 12:46 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence/warfare and some thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and sometimes graphic peril and violence, torture, whipping a child, sad loss of parent, war scenes, many characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 2, 2018

Copyright 2017 Vertical Entertainment
For as long as there have been humans, there have been efforts to divide into groups ranked on any available distinctions: race, religion, property. Stories about those who were willing to fight for equality and justice go back almost as far, and this film begins by telling us it is “one of the oldest accounts of humanity’s struggle for equality and freedom.”

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero” is the ambitious first animated feature directed by Ayman Jamal and Khurram H. Alavi, from Dubai’s new animation studio. The English language cast includes Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, China Anne McClain, Jacob Latimore and Ian McShane. Bilal, born in 540 AD, was a slave who became one of the most trusted companions of Muhammad, and the first muezzin, using his beautiful voice to call worshippers to prayer.

As a young boy, Bilal dreams of being a warrior. “A sword and a horse cannot make you a great man,” his mother gently advises him. What she wants is for him to “live without chains.” The chains she means are spiritual. She does not want him or his sister to be “chained to anger, vengeance, superstition, or fear.”

But soon he and his sister have physical chains, as their community is attacked, their mother is killed, and they are forced into slavery by the idol-worshippers led by Umayya (McShane), who is more interested in selling idols than being faithful to them. The idol worship is based on superstition and fear, not morality. The lord of merchants who befriends Bilal echoes what his mother told him. “Your master is a slave himself.” He is a slave to his greed, admitting, “I worship whatever empowers me.”

He is also a slave to his fear of Bilal and his knowledge that a society built on injustice cannot last. He beats, starves, and tortures Bilal but the lord of merchants buys his freedom, and makes it possible for him to lead a rebellion.

It is a stirring story, respectfully told. The action scenes are intense and well-staged, but the non-action scenes are ponderous and static. Much of the dialogue is the standard sword-and-sandal faux classical (“Great men are those who have the will to choose their own destiny”), but every so often there’s a line like, “Show me what you got, rookie,” that seems like it came from another movie. The Dubai animation rookies are showing us what they’ve got, and it is an auspicious beginning.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence, torture of a child and an adult, sad death of parent, and issues of bigotry, tyranny, and oppression.

Family discussion: What would Bilal’s mother see as today’s chains of slavery? Why did the lord of merchants befriend Bilal? What do you want to be when you grow up and why?

If you like this, try: “The Prince of Egypt,” “Spartacus,” and “The Ten Commandments”

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Animation Epic/Historical Inspired by a true story movie review Movies Movies Spiritual films

The Promise

Posted on April 20, 2017 at 5:45 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and some sexuality
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and prolonged peril and violence including war and genocide, some graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, suicide, execution
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 21, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 17, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B0719XBL75
Copyright Open Road Films 2017
Copyright Open Road Films 2017

The massacre was so monumental, the attempt to wipe out an entire culture and ethnicity so savage, that a new word had to be invented to describe it. The word was “genocide,” and while it would be applied many times over the course of the 20th century, it was created to describe the murder of 1.6 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) during the first World War. It is difficult to acknowledge that “The Promise,” a love story set during this period is particularly timely, released the week of the annual observance of the annual day of remembrence and the week of a troubling referendum extending the powers of the current leader.

Writer/director Terry George, served time in prison during the time of The Troubles in Northern Ireland and has devoted his life to telling stories of courage in times of the direst periods of unrest and slaughter, including the Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda” and “In the Name of the Father.” With “The Promise,” he tells an epic story of love and loss in wartime, with Oscar Isaac, channelling Yuri Azhivago as soulful Mikael Pogosian, a young Armenian medical student, Christian Bale as determined American journalist Chris Myers, and Charlotte LeBon (“The Walk”), lovely and stirring as Ana, an Armenian artist and governess and the woman they both love.

As it begins, Mikael has agreed to marry a girl in his village in exchange for a dowry that will pay for medical school in Constantinople (Istanbul), where he stays with his uncle’s family, including Ana, governance to his young cousins. In these early scenes, both in the village and the city, George immerses us in an ambiance of sophistication, culture, tolerance, and prosperity. Christians and Muslims, Turks and Armenians, mostly treat each other with respect and easy comfort, even affection.

But that changes quickly as World War I begins. The Ottoman Empire joins the Germans and begins ethnic cleansing, arresting and deporting the intellectuals, forcing able-bodied men into military service or slave labor, throwing everyone else out of their homes and sometimes outright murder. Mikael’s medical exemption from military service is revoked. He is sent to a labor camp but escapes and returns home to find everyone he knows in danger. Although he is by now very much in love with Ana, he goes through with the promised marriage. Meanwhile, Chris is trying to get the story out to the rest of the world and Ana is trying to protect and help her people. All three are swept up in the tumultuous events as people around them show cruelty they could never have imagined possible.

As devastating as the historic events of the film are, the most powerful moments for today’s audiences are the ones that evoke our current conflicts. The treatment of refugees, including an extraordinary rescue effort from France, is in sharp contrast to news footage of today’s refugees, stuck for years, even decades, in perilous limbo before they can find new home, underscored by a reference to the temporary destination for the Armenians evicted from their villages — Aleppo.

Parents should know that this film concerns war and genocide, with extended peril and violence and some graphic and disturbing images. Characters are injured and killed, including an execution, and there are very sad deaths. There is some strong language.

Family discussion: What does this story tell us about today’s treatment of refugees? About how quickly a country can shift its policies on diversity and inclusion? Is survival a form of revenge?

If you like this, try: “Nahapet,” “Ararat,” and “Map of Salvation”

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical Inspired by a true story Journalism Romance War

Coming Through the Rye

Posted on October 13, 2016 at 5:24 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some drug material, sexuality and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Sad offscreen death,
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 14, 2016

Copyright Red Hat Films 2016
Copyright Red Hat Films 2016
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

That, of course, is Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s classic of adolescent anguish, Catcher in the Rye. Even more than the parts about “phonies” and the simultaneous wish to avoid entanglements to protect all that is innocent and vulnerable in oneself and somehow protect the innocent and vulnerable in others, that line packing so much understanding and such a powerful invitation has made generations of teenagers feel understood and validated. (See “Six Degrees of Separation” for Will Smith’s fascinating and disturbing speech on the book’s meaning.) More, it has made them feel invited. If Holden thinks that connecting to a work of fiction can make you feel like the author’s friend, then perhaps, despite his being the most well-known recluse of 20th Century America, Salinger might welcome a visit.

That is the basis for this film about a very Holden-esque adventure undertaken by a prep school senior who wants J.D. Salinger to approve his theatrical adaptation of Catcher in the Rye. Like Catcher, it takes its title from the folk lyric by Robert Burns. Holden imagines himself saving children who are playing in a field of rye, catching them before they go off a cliff.

Alex Wolff plays Jamie Schwartz, a sensitive theater kid (we see him exclaim “A plague o’ both your houses” as Mercutio in a school production of “Romeo and Juliet.” He has a bit of a crush on the girl who plays Juliet and does not notice that there is less flashy but far more substantial girl named Deedee (Stefania LaVie Owen) who has a bit of a crush on him. When he is the target of a bullying prank at school, Jamie and Deedee decide to take a car trip and go visit J.D. Salinger. (What is it with these Wolff boys? Alex’s brother Nat appeared in “Paper Towns,” another movie about a teen car trip.)

We know where this is going. It’s the kind of journey where a lot of growing up will happen. There are not many surprises (except for the way Jamie and Deedee finally learn Salinger’s address from the only locals not committed to protecting his privacy). Owen does more than should be possible with an underwritten character who is essentially a fantasy figure, endlessly understanding and devoted (and on the Pill but not for sex!) But she and Wolff, and Chris Cooper in a brief but telling role, make it a worthwhile trip.

Parents should know that this film includes strong language, a dangerous prank, and teen drug use. There is a sad offscreen death.

Family discussion: What author would you like to visit? Was Salinger right about not allowing Catcher to be adapted for theater or film?

If you like this, try: “HairBrained” and “A Birder’s Guide to Everything”

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Inspired by a true story Movies Romance Stories about Teens

Mr. Church

Posted on September 15, 2016 at 5:01 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and alcohol abuse, smoking, prescription drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Illness and very sad deaths
Diversity Issues: A theme of the film
Date Released to Theaters: September 16, 2016
Date Released to DVD: October 24, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01JTQ3QTC

Copyright 2016 Envision Media Arts
Copyright 2016 Envision Media Arts
Eddie Murphy gives a thoughtful, nuanced, sensitive performance in a film that suffers from a too-predictable script and suffers even more from very bad timing.

Director Bruce Beresford picked the right time for the similarly themed “Driving Miss Daisy,” released in 1989, the story of a friendship between an illiterate black chauffeur and a cranky Jewish widow in the Civil Rights era South. It was a prestige and popular success, with Best Picture and Best Actress Oscars. But 27 years later, audiences are more sophisticated or less tolerant or both, and the idea of a devoted domestic who sacrifices a great deal from a combination of limited options and loyalty is not a reassuring fable of racial harmony but a grating reminder of white privilege and the prevalence of the narrative of the Magical Negro. No matter how based (as “Miss Daisy” was, as well as films like “The Help”) on real-life experiences and no matter how well-intentioned and affectionate the portrait, no matter how hard Beresford and Murphy try, it is hard to see the portrait at anything but condescending.

But I did my best to try, and watched it as writer Susan McMartin wanted it to be watched, as her sincere tribute to what she calls “a real friendship in my life.” With that context, I was able to appreciate the film’s evocative sense of time and place and Murphy’s understated performance.

Marie (Natascha McElhone) is a single mother of 10-year-old Charlotte (Natalie Coughlin). Marie is very ill, much worse than Charlotte knows. One day, Mr. Church (Murphy) shows up to cook for them. His salary is being paid by Marie’s former lover, a married man who still cares for her. Charlotte is resistant, even hostile, perhaps projecting some of her anger at her mother’s illness onto the man who seems like an intruder. She’d rather just have cereal. But she is quickly won over by his endlessly marvelous food, masterfully prepared, always while listening jazz on the radio. The economy and precision of his hands as he prepares the food is his own kind of jazz. Soon, he introduces her to something even more nourishing: his well-worn library of books, which he allows her to borrow only after filling out a check-out card.

Mr. Church’s care and her own fierce determination keep Marie going long past the predictions of her doctor, and she is able to see Charlotte (now Britt Robinson of “Tomorrowland”) go to the senior prom. But then Marie is gone, and Mr. Church saves the day by making it possible for Charlotte to go to college, until she becomes pregnant and has to drop out. With nowhere else to go, she finds herself back with Mr. Church, who takes her in and cares for her as he always has.

Even after all that, he is still “Mr. Church.” His private life is still private. And when Charlotte tries to find out more, he is furious. But they are family, and that means they find a way to go on together, until it is her turn to take care of him. (We’ve segued from “Driving Miss Daisy” to “Arthur”)

We spend too much time with Charlotte and not enough with Mr. Church. He is a far more interesting and significant character.

Parents should know that this film includes illness and very sad deaths, and smoking and alcohol abuse, and references to adultery and out of wedlock pregnancy. Her story is one we’ve seen many times before. His is one we want to know more about, and this film should have understood that he was its focus.

Family discussion: How did Mr. Church win Charlotte’s trust? Why didn’t he want her to know more about his life?

If you like this, try: “Clara’s Heart”

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Coming of age Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues Inspired by a true story

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Posted on July 7, 2016 at 5:45 pm

mike and dave2So, two bros — literal, biological bros and bros in the bro-iest of spirits — advertised on Craigslist for wedding dates. This being America, that got them on talk shows, which led to a book deal, which led to a movie starring four of of Hollywood’s funniest young stars. Your ability to appreciate the result of this unstoppably bro-tastic marketing juggernaut will depend entirely on your tolerance for bro humor. Be warned; mine is pretty low. Your mileage may vary.

Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) love each other and their family. They love their life of awesome parties and wild hijinks. But their parents and sister Jeannie (Sugar Lyn Beard) stage an intervention. Jeannie is getting married in Hawaii and she would like them to tone it down, so she can have an elegant, civilized celebration, nothing requiring ambulances, fire engines, or lawyers.

They come up with an idea. The worst problems seem to occur when Mike and Dave are trying to impress or party with girls. If they can find some “nice, respectable, smart girls” to accompany them to the wedding as their dates, it will have a calming effect. So, committed to #doingitforjeannie but with no idea of where to find such nice stable ponies, they of course turn to the place one goes to find used furniture, Craigslist, leading to the Wendy Williams Show, where they are spotted by Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick), two girls who are as irresponsible and wild as the brothers. But of course they have to hide that to appear suitable for this occasion and thus get two free tickets to a lavish party in Hawaii. “We’re going to flip the script and Bachelorette that s***.”

Okay, we all know where this is going. Lots of mayhem. Lots of substance abuse and outrageous behavior. An ATV stunt that leaves the bride looking like “burn victim Barbie.” An intimate massage. Many inappropriate comments to various wedding attendees.

But “oh, no, they didn’t” comedy about irresponsible and grossly inconsiderate behavior only gets you so far, even in a gorgeous setting. Four of the most talented, appealing, and very funny performers anyone could hope for cannot make what is essentially a 10-minute sketch into a movie.

Parents should know that this film has extremely graphic adult material with very crude sexual references and explicit situations, comic peril and violence with some injuries, drinking, drugs, and very strong and crude language.

Family discussion: What makes someone a good wedding date?  Why was it so hard for Mike and Dave to behave themselves?

If you like this, try: “Wedding Crashers,” “American Pie,” and “Saving Silverman”

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Comedy Gross-out Inspired by a true story
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