⋆⋆½ out of four stars

Rated: Unrated. In English and subtitled French, German and Romany.

Theater: St. Anthony Main.

"Django," a significantly fictionalized portrait of pioneering jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, introduces its protagonist with a showman's flourish. The first time this Belgian-born Romany musician performs on-screen, the camera shows actor Reda Kateb from the back — creating a moment of suspense about whether he will be able to mimic Reinhardt's kinetic strumming. He does, though music is hardly the film's focus.

Directed by Étienne Comar (a screenwriter and producer on the acclaimed "Of Gods and Men"), the film confines itself to a narrow period during World War II, when Reinhardt enjoyed incongruous success. Reinhardt, as a Gypsy, offended Nazi ideas about racial purity, and Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, condemned jazz as a genre. Yet Germans in occupied Paris loved to hear Reinhardt play. In the film we see Nazis bark orders about the maximum length of solos and the appropriate percentage of syncopation. Reinhardt slyly flouts the rules.

Much of the movie deals with Reinhardt's life in France, from where he hoped to escape to Switzerland with his family. At an encampment in France, he plays music alongside fellow Romany people who regard him as a hero.

Taking great artistic license with Reinhardt's life story, Comar contrives a mistress with a heart of gold (Cécile de France) and a plan for Reinhardt to distract the swing-dancing Germans with a concert. The finale enlivens an otherwise staid biopic, but whether the film has earned a moment of uplift is unclear.


Bilal: A New Breed of Hero

⋆⋆ out of four stars

Rated: PG-13 for violence and thematic elements

Theaters: Arbor Lakes, Coon Rapids, Mounds View, White Bear.

The first animated feature film produced in Dubai, "Bilal: A New Breed of Hero," tells the story of Bilal ibn Rabah, a companion of the prophet Mohammed who called the Muslim faithful to prayer. It's an ambitious undertaking for co-director and producer Ayman Jamal, who established a studio for the primary purpose of producing the film.

The story, an epic tale of one man fighting for his freedom from slavery, looks and feels more like a sword-and-sandal adventure than a religious epic. There is some truly amazing animation, and the cinematography features long takes, slow motion and even handheld-style camera movements.

But the narrative is not particularly efficient. It drags through the first hour, spending too much time on setup and then rushing through the rest of the story.

Bilal is voiced at various ages by Andre Robinson, Jacob Latimore and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Supporting players include Ian McShane, Sage Ryan and Mick Wingert. (The film is in English.)

It's not aimed at children. It doesn't go for the cutesy humor that would appeal to youngsters, and there are scenes of punishment and torture that even some adults will find disturbing.

Religious epics featuring Muslim heroes are few and far between. And the message is an inspiring one of racial and class equality, spiritual freedom and discovering the power that lies within. Despite the storytelling hiccups, it deserves applause for introducing audiences to a figure little known outside of Islam.

Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service