"The Abolitionists" Review

Garnering an estimated $32 billion a year globally, human trafficking is the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprise.  With its high profit and low risk margins, it is an attractive industry for predators who prey on society’s more vulnerable population. But who are the victims? What’s being done to combat trafficking? In the film, The Abolitionists, former CIA and Homeland Security operative Tim Ballard takes viewers into the fight against child sex-trafficking using undercover footage from rescue operations around the world.

The film opens with a young girl named Luciana. She sits in silhouette talking about how she was told she would get help finding a job. After going to the “job site”, she said “they put something in the beverage, and I just started to sleep.” A title flashes on the screen: Every 30 seconds, a child is sold as a sex slave.  It’s this sobering sequence that sets a tone for the film. While you may need a Kleenex nearby at moments in the movie, directors Darrin Fletcher and Chet Thomas strike a balance between sobering truth and uplifting hope!

We’re then introduced to Timothy Ballard, the founder and CEO of Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.), as he explains how he started his company. After saving a little boy who had been trafficked back and forth to Mexico, he realized that he wanted to keep saving children for the rest of his life. Ballard is the real deal. He explains how he had to watch pornography of the boy in order to find clues for the case. So his union with the boy was a monumental moment in his life, and his decision to continue to subject himself to atrocities like that didn’t come lightly.

From there, we hit the ground in foreign countries, meeting some of Ballard’s team along the way. One member calls himself Batman. Batman goes into places and does things that the government can’t, infiltrating himself with traffickers. Batman had a literal come to Jesus moment after 15 years of laundering money for drug cartels all over Latin America. He realized that he was a part of the problem, and wanted to be a part of the solution. Turning his life around, he’s been fighting trafficking ever since.

The O.U.R. team takes us on a journey through a few of their harrowing missions during the film as they unfold. These undercover operations will have you run the gamut of emotions while holding your breath due to the stakes. The weight of saving the innocent lives that are on the line is felt by all involved. It’s guaranteed to have you on the edge of your seat!

Rated PG-13, I think it’s worth noting that while the documentary crime drama is based on a tough subject, Fletcher and Thomas don’t show us anything that is graphically disturbing. Victims are kept in silhouette or their faces are blurred out. Even when Ballard talks about the issues, it’s handled with care. His Christian values are displayed throughout the film. The team prays at points before difficult events, and yet the universal message about the danger and reality of this rapidly growing industry shines through.

The film is somewhat heavy handed at times with its epic, sweeping orchestral score and occasional dramatic narration from Ballard. The music surges periodically, almost forcing you to look at its characters as heroes. But the thing is, they are! The men and women involved should definitely be commended and viewed as heroes, making it easy to excuse the cinematic manipulation!

The Abolitionists manages to package the hard and sad facts about child sex-trafficking into a spoon full of sugar that's easier to swallow in the form of a ride along. You quickly invest in the film’s “characters” and stakes.  It’s a film that will stick with you after the credits roll and make you want to join the fight for freedom. In a situation that can be hopeless for its victims, its great to see that there are people willing to take a stand, risk their lives, and liberate these children! While a cure-all dose of medicine for this sick practice may not be on the horizon, this dose of medicine certainly gives hope!

Rating: A

**The Abolitionists is playing nationwide May 16, 2016 through Fathom Events. Click here for more info: http://www.fathomevents.com/event/the-abolitionist

Get involved: http://theabolitionistsmovie.com

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Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

"Noble" Review

There are plenty of unsung heroes who deserve to have their story receive the big screen treatment. The story of Christina Noble’s journey from poverty to helping hundreds of thousands of children in Vietnam and Mongolia is one of those stories. It’s invigorating to see a life’s course worth telling that can inspire the average person to take action no matter what’s happened in their past.

Too many biopics have a cookie cut formula that sensationalizes rather than presents a universal story. Writer/director Stephen Bradley skillfully jumps through time showing the young and present day (1989) Christina Noble (Deirdre O’Kane), weaving the two together in a way that allows the audience to draw parallels that resonate at a core level. In truth, perhaps Christina’s backstory is as compelling as her present day work in the film. She shares a similar upbringing as the children she is trying to help. 

Christina loses her mother at a young age, and her unreliable father, Thomas (Liam Cunningham), crumbles even more under the loss. This forces her to comb trash cans for food and sing on street corners for change in order to help provide for her siblings. Before she reaches adulthood, she becomes pregnant from a violent rape which results in her being housed in a convent. After her son’s birth, she is separated from him after the nuns give him up for adoption. Christina then flees to Ireland to live with her best friend Joan (Ruth Negga),  and eventually marries Mario (David Mumeni) who turns out to be abusive.

When Christina visits Vietnam in 1989 and sees “street kids” doing the same thing she used to do, she tries to help them. When she spots tourist David Somers (Mark Huberman) trying to intoxicate and sexually abuse a ten year old Vietnamese girl, she springs into action. These incidents relate so closely to Christina's past, and yet as an adult she can make some things right for the innocent lives who can't protect themselves. Ultimately, she sets out on a mission to bring housing, education,  and medicine to the youth of Vietnam.

Christina is comfortable in her skin, and it’s thick, built off of her life’s circumstances. She talks to God in a way that is rarely seen, with blunt honesty and openness. It’s a refreshing look at an average person who refuses to succumb to life’s challenges, but uses it as fuel to give others a chance at a better life. 

Deirdre O’Kane brings grace and strength to the role. Her performance makes you want to Google the real life Christina Noble! The supporting cast all turn in great performances that elevate the words on the page into something real. 

While the film gets off to a slow start, the set up makes for a triumphant ending. Perhaps more importantly, it makes you think about your own life, and how you’ve used it. It’s a great reminder, that you can start with something small and turn it into something bigger than you ever imagined! "Noble" hits select theaters May 8th.

Rating: B

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Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

Investigating the Interpretation of "Noah"

There has been a lot of backlash in regards to “Noah”. If you’re in the crowd who may enter “Noah” with your guard up because you heard it’s not Biblical, you may miss out on a great conversation starter and thought provoking film. No. The story does not stay true to the Biblical account. Director Darren Aronofsky, has called it the “least Biblical biblical film ever made.”  In fact, within the first two minutes of on screen opening text the film strays from the Bible in its’ tale of what happened to Cain. If you’re looking for the 100% pure biblical story you won’t find it. You will find the story you’ve read or heard visually come to life on the big screen, while investigating faith topics. 

The film starts with Noah (Russell Crowe) having dreams of a flood that will be the end of mankind. There is never a voice of God in the film, but rather “the creator” (as the movie calls Him) speaking to Noah through visions and dream. Noah moves throughout the rest of the film trying to interpret what God is saying to Him. 

The movie spends most of its time preparing for the great flood, a portion of it on the ark during the flood, and then ends with them on land. Yet it’s not that simple. We follow Noah as he searches for answers from his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Picking up Ila (Emma Watson), a girl left for dead by men, along the way. After receiving a seed from his grandfather, Noah enlists the help of the Watchers (fallen angels whose light has been encased by rock...aka rock angels...aka Rock Biter’s grandkids from “The Never Ending Story”) to help him build the ark with his family: wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), Ila, and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). Hearing of miracles, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), king of men, confronts Noah because he wants to be on the ark when the flood comes. 

As both sides gear up for the flood Noah seems to represent good and Tubal-Cain the wickedness of men. Yet, Noah comments to Naameh “we all have wickedness in us” and names the different sins he sees in his family who are all going to get on the ark. This is the idea that drives Noah to believe that his family will too succumb to God’s punishment even after the flood. It’s this seed in his mind that plagues him to a maddening obsession to please God through the ark and (SPOILER ALERT) kill his unborn grandchild(ren) if it comes down to it to ensure God’s will is done. It divides his family against him in their own ways. Shem feels he must protect his wife from his father, Naameh won’t forgive Noah if he crosses that line, and Ham is upset at his father for leaving him single by not letting him take a wife on the ark. Which is a setup for great cinematic storytelling with flawed characters, but Biblically inaccurate.

Although Aronofsky has put his own vision to the renown Biblical story, he draws out some of the complexities of Biblical characters’ lives that the Bible doesn’t specifically layout but we have to assume the men and women may have felt. Noah was tasked with building a large ark that would save his family and pairs of all animals. What a heavy task that is for anyone! People like Noah, Job, Esther, Mary, Jesus and the list goes on; they had such a heavy weight on them that must have been in their thoughts and effected the people around them. How do you have faith and come out on top on the other side? How do you silence the opposing voices and forces and keep on task? How do you love and support your husband, or father who is claiming God told him to build an ark? This complexity is an area the movie takes license in for Noah and his family. 

This is where I can appreciate the film on a level outside of the cinematic. Visually seeing the the world flooded, pairs of animals filling the ark, and seeing the compartments and levels of the ark is incredible.  While philosophically, don’t we all in our quiet moments have plaguing questions about our world? Does God exist? Is God talking to me? Is this the right thing to do? Aronofsky’s take looks into those questions in his own way, but they’re valid questions to ask and try to find the answers to in our personal lives. 

In short, if you want a movie that sticks to scripture, don’t see “Noah”. The story of the fall of Cain, Noah’s sons not all having wives, men not carrying on with life as they knew it (Luke 17:26-27) in the time leading up to the flood, and the rock characters are just a few of the things way out of left field. If you are confident in your faith and open to seeing an interpretation that will have you thinking afterwards, then “Noah” is for you. You don’t lose/gain anything by not seeing it, but I do think you gain an appreciation for the task Noah and his family completed in seeing it. You will reflect on the film after the closing credits and perhaps have a great conversation starter at the water cooler tomorrow. When was the last time a Hollywood trailer encouraged people to read Genesis (though they were covering themselves)? Either way, the film is well acted, entertaining and visually stunning. 

Rating: B+

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Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.

I expected more from "Son of God"

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I never blend my personal faith with my film criticism. I try to keep the two separate unless needed even with Christian reviews. In the case of this film...I can't help but speak up. After the film ended and the credits rolled, I found myself the only one getting up and walking out of the theater as the rest of the audience stayed to watch the clips playing next to the text. I was heated. “Son of God” takes the most polarizing figure in history and molds him into a beautiful, smirky/smiley, monotoned, rockstar of a man. That’s not the Jesus I follow.

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The film stars Diogo Morgado as Jesus and takes us through his life from birth to resurrection. It’s hard to compact his story into two hours and fourteen minutes. I understand that. However, the man I read about is compelling and his life story is the stuff that films are made of, but that’s not what I saw in “Son of God”. The movie plays like a Greatest Hits CD, jumping around to some of his best miracles and “verses” you’ve always heard. Jesus is the beautiful rockstar, smiling and shaking hands, while his disciples literally look like entourage following him and helping keep fans at bay. Wasn’t Jesus a carpenter? That’s a rugged job. Didn’t he have “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him”? Wasn’t he “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain”? (Isaiah 53:2-3) Why didn’t they show the complex person that Jesus was? This image of Jesus is cinematically boring and factually incorrect.

Sure, Hollywood makes changes to certain biopic films to make it more interesting cinematically and to get people in seats. It’s not necessary in this case. Christians have proven that they will come out in droves for a film like this. So why is there so much out of order, or fabrication within the film? Nicodemus (Simon Kunz) visits Jesus at his camp during the day, while Judas (Joe Wredden) meets Caiaphas (Adrian Schiller) under the cloak of night multiple times. Was Mary one of the 12? I would have thought so from this movie because she’s with them in almost every scene. I’m not saying that liberties can’t be taken, but for those of us who actually read the Bible don’t insult our intelligence. 

While Hans Zimmer is my favorite movie composer, he did nothing to help the film. The sweeping musical numbers that occur just after a miracle, or a popular phrase Jesus said play into the caricature of Jesus that “Son of God” creates. Where his score has helped to supplement story before in films like “The Dark Knight”, “Man of Steel”, “12 Years A Slave” and more, he turns it into melodrama here. It feels like the music from a cliffhanger in a soap opera as Jesus delivers a miracle or dialogue.

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There are some nice touches to the film. The cool thing about putting Jesus’ life on the big screen is that you can see some of the things you’ve only imagined in your mind. Seeing Jesus feed 5,000 people was great. Seeing his hands with a hole in them after his resurrection was a touch I haven’t seen before. Watching Jesus pray in the garden at the same time as Caiaphas and Pilate (Greg Hicks) was compelling. It shines a light on how we all may think we’re doing the right thing sometimes. The film definitely touches on how interpretation of (in their case) the law can be misguided or blinds us for the sake of tradition and how things have always been done. Those are some of the complexities that I would have loved to see more of.

Cinematically this film is poor, leaning heavily on believers willingness to enjoy it simply because it’s about Jesus. Biblically the film is poorly written, taking highlights and constructing them into a sizzle reel. I totally understand why non-believers would not watch this film, and why believers may love it. I heard so many people in the audience reciting Jesus’ words (I did mentally as well), and saw many people crying. To not support the film would be telling Hollywood we don’t want to see films like this. There were four time slots sold out at the theater I went to this morning. So I think this film will do well financially. I do want to see more films like this, but I think it’s time we expect more and a better depiction from a film about Jesus!

Rating: D

Comment

Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.