“Bilal: A New Breed of Hero” stars Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, China Anne McClain, Jacob Latimore, and Thomas Ian Nicholas. Released on December 9, 2015, the film chronicles Bilal Ibn Rabah and his attempt to lead his people to freedom.
The film is directed by Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal. You probably haven’t heard of this one yet, so I’m going to give this to you briefly. The film made its first appearance at the 12th Annual International Dubai Film Festival back in 2015 before its official release in Dubai theaters a year later. Despite receiving some positive reviews from critics, the film failed to recover its $30 million budget during its theatrical run. Two years later, it finally made its way to the rest of the world, including the United States. When I found out that it’s playing at my closest cinema, I wound up having to choose between seeing this or Winchester. Seeing that I have a busy schedule ahead of me, including my job, I decided to go with the former. Fortunately, I had made the right choice.
The story depicts the life of Bilal Ibn Rabah (voiced by Akinnuoye-Agbaje), from growing up as a slave to becoming an inspiration to his people. The film takes place during the time where the rich people proclaim themselves as gods and overpower the lower-class people. The specific themes that are shown here still remain as the most important messages that people should remember for many generations, especially equality, and the story behind these themes surprisingly has enough quality to fully compensate with them. While the third act had a few rushed parts that almost derailed its consistency, the story was able to pay full respect to Bilal’s journey while providing a few emotional scenes to boot. This is one of those times where an animated film doesn’t always have to be made for kids. There were plenty of scenes that can be quite disturbing for the younger viewers, especially the conversations about slavery and equality and the violence, so I would suggest you talk to your children about this type of stuff before you show them this. The cast behind these characters did a very nice job with their performances, with Akinnuoye-Agbaje and McShane as Bilal and Umayyah, respectively, being the main highlights. I was used to Akinnuoye-Agbaje playing supporting roles in his other movies, so it was nice to see a change of pace by having him take on a leading role, especially in an animated movie. Speaking of animated, I do feel that the animation team behind this film were attempting to provide a highly-detailed and realistic world that took place more than a thousand years ago in terms of the character and set designs. If that was the case, I would say that they did an impressive job with it. Although there were a couple of sequences that left me feeling either unconvinced or disturbed, especially some of the people’s facial expressions, the film is another fine example of using animation as a storytelling tool rather than as a source to entertain children with its cartoonish shenanigans.
Overall, with its decent voice performances from the cast, some solid use of animation, and a story that’s respectable and quite emotional, “Bilal” is a surprising treat that was unfairly left out in the shadows. I wouldn’t say that it’s a perfect representation of Bilal’s journey, however, due to its rushed third act and some slight issues with the characters’ facial expressions. Despite these flaws, the film was able to impress me well enough to warrant a recommendation to those who are familiar with the legend of Bilal.
"Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials" stars Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Ki Hong Lee, Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor, and Patricia Clarkson. Released on September 18, 2015, the film has Thomas and the Gladers trekking through a dangerous landscape known as the Scorch in order to escape from the clutches of W.C.K.D.
The film is directed by Wes Ball, who is known for directing its predecessor, The Maze Runner. It is the second installment in the Maze Runner film series, which is based on a series of books by James Dashner. The first film, in my opinion, was really decent, although it wasn't as deep as The Hunger Games. Now we have the second chapter of the saga, which appears to be raising the stakes in terms of its location and its "obstacles". Once again, I haven't read any of the Maze Runner books, but I was interested in checking the films out anyway, including this one. Was the film able to survive the Scorch?
For trilogies like this, filmmakers tend to make second chapters that take place after the events of their predecessors and let them end on a cliffhanger to get people excited for the final chapters. This film is no different. What I liked about The Maze Runner was its blend of action, characters, and mystery and how that blend made the story intriguing as well as thrilling. “The Scorch Trials”, on the other hand, does seem to rely more on the action and thrills rather than the characters and the mystery. This type of issue may disappoint some people who enjoyed the first film, but it still offers some enjoyable thrills for those looking for some heart-pounding action. Most of the main cast from the first film made a return and they delivered some decent performances. O'Brien did a nice job portraying Thomas, one of the survivors of the Maze. I just liked the fact that Thomas never gave up on his friends during this type of situation despite the fact that he worked for W.C.K.D. once. However, the rest of the characters showed little to no character development throughout the journey, so that needs to be fixed for The Death Cure. I really enjoyed the design of the Scorch, a desolate city that is caused by the Flare virus, even though it wasn't as immersive or memorable as the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max. My only other flaw with the background design is that it felt similar to the other post-apocalyptic survival films, such as the Resident Evil film series (mostly the third film, Extinction). In fact, just looking at the zombie-like creatures (Cranks) made me think about Resident Evil. The way they shot the action sequences were a bit better compared to its predecessor. The shaky camera work in this film wasn’t that much of an issue, and Wes Ball offers plenty of action that’s intense and full of danger. The film showed some themes about sticking together and redemption in the form of Thomas, but due to its average script, it wasn’t enough to fully develop those themes on a more personal or emotional level. The pacing can be a bit slow during a couple of scenes (the film runs at around two hours and 10 minutes), but the story was able to hold on to my interest.
Overall, despite the film’s thrilling moments, “The Scorch Trials” wasn’t able to survive the devastating Scorch due to its lack of character development and emotional depth. It’s enjoyable for what it is, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a small step down from its predecessor. Fans of the book series might enjoy this installment. The ones outside of that fan base are better off getting left behind in the heat.
"Anomalisa" stars David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan. Released on December 30, 2015, the film is about an author who perceives everyone as identical until he meets a unique woman at the hotel.
The film is directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, who also directed Synecdoche, New York. It is based on the 2005 play of the same name by Kaufman. Animation can be used in different ways. It can be used as a source of entertainment to delight little kids and their families or as an art form to express the film's storytelling, characters, and themes. That's where this unique film comes into play. Rarely we've seen animated films that are aimed towards adults, like 'South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut' for example, but we haven't seen an animated film that's filled with human drama. This film is one of the nominees for Best Animated Feature at this year's Oscars, competing with other films like Boy & the World, When Marnie Was There, and, my personal favorite to win, Inside Out. But the question is, does it really stand a chance against them?
The film offers only three actors to voice the characters. One of the characters is Michael Stone (voiced by Thewlis), a self-help author who travels to Cincinnati, Ohio to promote his new book about costumer service. The problem with him is that he's socially awkward and he always distances himself away from everyone, including his wife and son. The reason is that they all look and sound identical. That is until he meets a young woman named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). At first, having one actor (Noonan) voice everyone in the movie besides Michael and Lisa does seem a bit…off-putting, especially for other female characters. But as the film goes on, I can fully understand why. I think it's a way of showing that Michael sees everyone as the same person. With Lisa, he sees her as a person who is different than everyone else. That's basically what I thought based on what I saw. The animation was absolutely incredible from start to finish. Like I said before, animation can be used to express the film's storytelling, characters, and its themes. It brilliantly captures the emotion and the reality of these characters. It's pretty rare to see an animated film that acts and feels like a live-action independent film.
Of course, it's not a perfect animated film. The story was pretty simple and quite short, like 90 minutes. The first act does seem to drag a little bit, but the rest of the film does seem to pick up a little bit afterwards.
Overall, with its brilliantly crafted animation, great voice work, and its use of adult themes, "Anomalisa" is an animated gem that works as an art form and as a piece of independent cinema. I would love to see more animated films like this, but as of now, this will have to do. If you're a fan of indie films or a fan of animation in general, I would highly recommend it to you if it's playing at a theatre near you.
"The Lady in the Van" stars Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, and Jim Broadbent. Released in the United Kingdom on November 13, 2015, the film is based on a true story about the relationship between Alan Bennett and Miss Mary Shepherd, who lives in her van on Bennett's driveway for 15 years.
The film is directed by Nicholas Hytner, who also directed films such as The Crucible, Center Stage, and The History Boys. While it's not considered an Oscar contender, it did receive a Golden Globe nomination for Smith's performance as Shepherd. Since I'm going to be busy reviewing the new releases and watching the Oscars this weekend, I thought I would give this unique film a watch and, to no surprise, it was actually quite good.
The performances were remarkable. Maggie Smith was wonderful as Miss Shepherd.
Some of the comedic moments were spot on without being forced.
The screenplay was witty and charming.
A couple of scenes felt a bit slow.
Final thoughts: It does have its slow moments, but "The Lady in the Van" makes up for it with Smith's lovable performance and its charming, yet sometimes bizarre, storytelling. If you're looking for a film that doesn't involve any violence, superheroes, or demonic creatures that kill people, I would say give this one a shot.
"Spotlight" stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, and Stanley Tucci. Released on November 6, 2015, the film follows a team of newspaper investigators and their investigations towards several cases of child sex abuse by numerous Roman Catholic priests.
The film is directed by Tom McCarthy, who also directed films such as The Station Agent, Win Win, and The Cobbler. It is based on actual stories about The Boston Globe's 'Spotlight' team. I've been waiting to watch this film ever since I heard such great things about it. It even got six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director for McCarthy. Before this film, I have no idea that this type of situation has been happening for a long time, mostly because I haven't been watching the news on television. I would have seen it sooner, but I didn't feel like traveling more than 20 miles to a different theater. Now that I finally got a chance to see it for myself, does it live up to its hype?
The film has plenty of noticeable actors such as Keaton and Ruffalo, and they delivered some really strong performances. Keaton was marvelous as Walter Robinson and Ruffalo delivered one of his best performances in his career as Michael Rezendes. Rachel McAdams definitely deserved an Oscar nomination for her realistic portrayal as Sacha Pfeiffer, one of the members of the Spotlight team. She looks, feels, and acts like a professional interviewer with flawless results. The direction in the film was very well-handled as it never lost track of its concept. McCarthy knows about the situation that has been happening for years and the way he tells it through the eyes of The Boston Globe was spot on. Another big highlight of the film was its screenplay. Out of all of the films I've seen that are nominated for Best Original Screenplay, this film's screenplay tops the others by a mile. Not only was it compelling and insightful, but also descriptive. The majority of the film consists of a lot of discussions from the Spotlight team and some interviews of the victims who had been sexually abused when they were children. It may seem boring to those who aren't into journalism, but to me, it's interesting. Their stories of what happened translates descriptively and mentally into my brain, and it made me feel bad for them. The film does feel a bit slow in the beginning, but as the film goes on, it started to get more and more engaging.
Overall, "Spotlight" not only offers a spectacular example of journalism, but also a rich and compelling story about the shocking discovery through the eyes of the Boston Globe. With its strong performances, great sense of direction, and its descriptive screenplay that contains realism and depth, this film is one heck of a page-turner despite a couple of slow moments in the first act. It's worth recommending to those who are into journalism and to those who are familiar with its real life concept.