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Pixel-Perfect BILAL Screened at Cannes 69th & Took a Few Years, 22 Countries to Create

SCREENMANCER ANIMATION ALERT: Recently Dubai’s first-ever CGI animation, BILAL, screened at the 69th Cannes International Film Festival, which featured an Animation Night on May 18. But the story behind BILAL, a 1400-year-old animated saga, is even more notable. The cast includes excellent actors Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (who played the yacht assassination target for Matt Damon in BOURNE IDENTITY), and Ian McShane from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” TV series, also PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEANBilalActor2BILAL had a sneak preview five months ago at the 3rd Ajyal Youth Festival, presented by the Doha Film Institute, in Doha, Qatar. This pixel-perfect, Disney-quality animation is said to have culled resources from 22 countries, tapping 327 creatives, in collaboration to complete on a budget of $30 M USD. Eponymous main character Bilal is actually based on a historic figure, a revered warrior, named Bilal bin Rabah. And who was he? “One of the most trusted companions of the Prophet Mohammed,” according to exhaustive research done by the film’s makers via Saudi-informed “forensic historians.”

What makes this film interesting is that you don’t necessarily have to know the backstory to appreciate the master-level craftsmanship on the CGI in BILAL. In fact, this project pays off the promise that ‘reality begins at 80 million polygons’ as coined by animation forefather Alvy Ray Smith, and really brings home the notion that this technology now has a life of its own as this fantastic tool available all over the world for people to tell make epic explorations.

When you watch this film, you see top drawer animation with a sincere message of “faith, hope and self-discovery inspired by the real life story,” as described by the filmmakers.

To quote them directly, “Director/producer Ayman Jamal said when casting the voice talent for the main characters they targeted the US because they wanted the actor playing Bilal ‘to be able to give an English and African accent and to convey the epic sense of the story inspired by real events that happened 1400 years ago.’” bilalarrow2American actor Jacob Latimore is teenage BILAL. According to Kidzworld, a portal for young actors, this Milwaukee native grew up with a love of Motown and singular gifts as a musician early on with a hit called “Superstar.” Which means he has the perfect voice control as a voice actor, not to mention his credits include roles in 2014’s RIDE ALONG (Kevin Hart, Ice Cube) and THE MAZE RUNNER, as well as a 2010 credit for VANISHING ON 7TH STREET. Over the course of this spirited and engaging film, Bilal’s character will age from 6 to 60 years old, and the intricate animation’s high-dollar production values make it a pleasure to sit through.

This is a multi-talent collaboration, as mentioned, with clever choices such as Atil Örvarsson, a composer from Iceland, to do the music. Örvarsson said he tried to “combine the archaelogical, historical nature of the story and make it accessible for an international audience. We used old instruments from the region and combined it with modern electronically synthesised music, we created themes for some of the characters and created a unique, other worldly sound for the witch doctor.”

Project point-person Jamal nailed the complexity of producing a movie of this scope in CGI, especially when the Dubai creative climate is more familiar with shorter projects. “The industry here is based on short movies and originally we wanted to work with an animation studio but we found there was no animation or CGI studio in the MENA region so we had to start the studio ourselves to make BILAL and that’s how we established Dubai-based Barajoun Studios.” BilalHugThe film itself was funded by individual investors from the Gulf Region, including Saudi Arabia with the Doha Film Institute. Expect BILAL to be on the radar this year, as Variety, Indiewire, Cartoon Brew, and Animation News have all tracked its progress thus far. Let’s hope this film has the harmonizing effect as intended, because the animation is truly pixel-perfect. Find out more about BILAL here, and watch for it to screen near you soon.

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Spotlight

Why SPOTLIGHT Is Front Runner, #OscarsSoWhite, The Big Five & A Contentious Award Season

by Quendrith Johnson, Awards Intelligencer, 1/19/2016 (pick-up)

If Oscar-winner Sean Penn can go interview El Chapo, then the state of journalism really is in trouble — oh, never mind, this is just indicative of how movie people perceive and interpret the craft of journalistic writing and reporting. A cocky Penn goes on Charlie Rose to call out those who ‘don’t think I’m a real journalist,’ while having committed a de facto ethical violation of the profession by grandstanding for Rolling Stone with a fugitive, mass-murdering, drug Lord.
SpotlightBut, if turnabout is fair play, most journalists would happily take a shot at starring in his next straight-to-video motion picture. But what are we really discussing here, writing, reporting, The Death of The Media, The Rise of The Internet? Nope. This inelegant segue leads directly to our Oscar front runner for Best Picture, SPOTLIGHT. This movie is about a crack team of Boston Globe reporters who, in 2001, finally broke the priest sex-scandal story that dethroned Cardinal Law. And it will be winning a lot of awards this season. But, Dear Reader, please be advised it has very little to do with journalism. It has to do with Hollywood’s payback for all those religious types pointing a moralizing finger at the movie business for decades, when behind closed doors these same ultra-pious folks were involved in covering up a scandal of worldwide proportions that has damaged the lives of countless families and their small children via sex abuse by the clergy, resulting in about a billion dollars in payout settlements.

SPOTLIGHT LACKS RUFFALO’S “POLAR BEAR”

And, the movie is deserving, although Mark Ruffalo’s brooding thumbs-in-the-belt-loops portrayal of hunching amped journalist Michael Rezendes is not his finest work. (See: Infinitely Polar Bear for what should have been his nominated actor turn.) In SPOTLIGHT, Michael Keaton does a low-key (Oscar-spurned from last year) version of Michael Keaton as team editor Walter “Robby” Robinson of an investigative team that includes a fantastic Rachel McAdams’ performance as real-life reporter Sacha Pfeiffer. Liev Schreiber plays the incoming managing editor Marty Baron who kicks over this hornet’s nest. Baron assigns the story to Spotlight for investigation, and delivers one of the X-Men alum’s best career performances as an understated powerhouse. Schreiber and staff answer to another amped hyper-real impression of a journalist, that of Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). Wardrobe is a big winner here as the khaki’s and blue oxford shirts are true to the breed of these New England journalists, played spot on by Brian d’Arcy James as reporter Matty Carroll. And for full disclosure, having written for The Boston Globe in 2001 myself, let me state for the record this is a winning portrayal of their newsroom, accurate down to the cubicle configuration at the time.

AND NOW A MOMENT FOR SPIKE LEE & AMPAS

In the final analysis, perhaps the real winners for SPOTLIGHT this season will be the real-life survivors, who are vindicated as adults with regard to what happened to them as children. But this movie is headed into a very contentious award season.CherylSpikeOscarYesterday Spike Lee issued an Open Letter to AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Issacs, via the media, that pretty much said (in his initial caps here): “How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Categories Are White?” Spike Lee ranted after he thanked The Academy for his Honorary Oscar from May of 2015, of course. The email from his camp hit inboxes early in the morning, and when you saw the Subject Line, as a journalist, you instantly realized the biggest impact this would have would be in quite possibly forcing Chris Rock (who’d already called the Oscars “the white BET” awards) to quit his contract as Show Host for The Academy. (Imagine the hashtag BlackJobsMatter… sigh.)

For Chris Rock, a poignant stand-up comedian, there can be nothing worse than hosting hypocrisy on the scale of 1 Billion-plus viewers. Adding to his discomfort, Jada Pinkett Smith, also a seat filler no-show with Spike Lee, called for an Oscars Boycott. While David Oyelowo, and many others have cited the lack of diversity, next thing you know, AMPAS leader Cheryl Boone Isaacs was pressured into releasing a statement in response to Spike Lee’s letter. Isaacs basically puts a lot of rhetoric around the stark fact that most of the nominees are white males this year. The Best Director nominees are all white men, for example. There’s a very cringe-worthy aspect to AMPAS jumping into the fray in a tit-for-tat Open Letter war, when the facts speak for themselves in terms of the demographics of nominees — and you don’t have to be a journalist to do the math on the multi-cultural or gender percentages. Here’s just a cringe-inducing excerpt: “I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s tie for big changes.” Which haven’t happened yet, apparently, but “The Academy is taking dramatic steps…” (read: “fart in a stiff wind” as the Coen Bros would say.) to add insult to injury, The Academy posted this to Twitter, which just looks bad, because Spike Lee is right, 20 categories, all white (mostly male).

Speaking of women, minorities and diversity, Suffragette (women’s rights), Grandma (about abortion), Chi-raq (anti-gun violence), Straight Outta Compton (anti-thug life), and other important “message” pictures besides SPOTLIGHT got side-lined this year. Lily Tomlin starring in Grandma and Jane Fonda starring in Youth were two American grand dames with pictures for consideration, but mighty Charlotte Rampling with her quiet and elegant performance in 45 Years trampled both of them for an elder-nod nomination. In case you’ve forgotten what a very fine actress Rampling is, her filmography beckons. Meanwhile, another quiet performance in this contentious year made it forward: Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn is a remarkable coming of age portrait that (don’t place any bets, please) will likely win Best Actress over Brie Larson in Room and the Great Cate Blanchett in Carol. Brooklyn is one of those solidly made features that The Academy loves because it portrays a real role model of emotional maturity in its subject (read; in contrast to our grasping consumerist American vanity-chasing youth culture).

LEO, YOUR OSCAR MIGHT GO TO FASSBENDER? NEVERMIND!

And what about Leonardo Di Caprio in his 12-times nominated The Revenant, the alleged front-runner? In keeping with our journalist theme, Dear Reader, the front-loading of nominations is one of the oldest Award Show tricks in the book. In most cases, the ruse works because it is an implied winner — yet the most nominated is very rarely (check the stats) the most winning, unless it is a sweep like Silence of the Lambs (1991). LeoAcademyMemeThe insider term is The Big Five. In a sweep, the awards are 1) Best Picture; 2); Best Director; 3) Best Actor; 4) Best Actress; 5) Best Screenplay. Only two other films besides Silence of the Lambs have made it, 1934’s It Happened One Night, and 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. So, while everyone is buzzing about The Revenant and Will Leo Finally Get an Oscar, the diversion works to have SPOTLIGHT comes from shadows as Best Picture. (Don’t place any bets, just keep it in mind.) Note that The Revenant can’t sweep because it has so few women in it, that Best Actress is off the table from the get-go. That’s all for now on Oscars 2016, but stay tuned for more coverage here at Awards Intelligencer (www.awfj.org) as this controversial year continues…

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