Burning Sands


Here’s a different kind of human centipede

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Trevor Jackson, Alfre Woodward, DeRon Horton, Octavius J. Johnson, Trevante Rhodes, Malik Bazille, Mitchell Edwards, Racquel Bianca John, Steve Harris, Adriyan Rae, Quentin Plair, Christian Robinson, Nafessa Williams, Davyon St. Usaire, Rotimi, Serayah, Daimion Johnson, Tosin Cole, Imami Hakim, Segun Akande, Sidney Freeman. Directed by Gerard McMurray

 

Fraternities and sororities have a time-honored place in the environment of higher education. They are brotherhoods (and sisterhoods) that develop outstanding young men and women, developing them for leadership positions in the future. Unsurprisingly, it takes a great deal of self-discipline and inner fortitude to gain admittance to these institutions.

Zurich (Jackson) is trying to do just that. Pledging the prestigious Lambda Phi fraternity at historically black Frederick Douglass University which claims Dean Richardson (Harris) as an alumnus, he and his four fellow pledges including Square (Horton) and Frank (Cole) undergo ferocious beatings and ritual humiliations that push their endurance beyond their limits. All of them endure these things with near-animal grimaces, telling one another that the rewards will be worth it. Dean Richardson tells Zurich that he is one in a long line of fine gentlemen to survive these rituals and that they serve to toughen them and give them the resilience he needs to be successful in life.

Zurich is not so sure. He suffers a broken rib during one of the beatings and is having increasing trouble with his breathing. His steady girlfriend Rochon (Hakim) is having problems with the amount of time he is devoting to his pledge brothers and is suspicious that he is cheating on her, although Zurich has not been. Keeping up his studies has also been difficult during Hell Week, a fact not unnoticed by his English professor (Woodward).

Each of the pledges has their reasons why becoming accepted by the fraternity is important to them. Zurich just wants to make it through Hell Night, which will end their pledge status and make them full-fledged Lambda Phi brothers but the Hell Night ritual is the most dangerous of all and the five young men will end up risking much more than their dignity to make it through.

While hazing has been outlawed by most colleges and universities, it still exists and there have been instances where students have died as a direct result of hazing rituals. These types of films are an opportunity to examine the mob mentality of human beings and how the desire to fit in sometimes overrules even the most basic of common sense. Sadly, Burning Sands doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity as much as it might.

That isn’t to say that the movie is a failure – far from it, in fact. There are some really outstanding performances here, particularly from Jackson and Horton who not uncoincidentally have the most well-written characters. The movie is mostly Zurich’s point of view as a matter of fact and this is his story much more than it is the other young men. Woodward, one of the best actresses of her generation doesn’t get a lot of screen time but utilizes every moment to weave a most satisfactory appearance in the film.

The women here are essentially ornaments which has been a disturbing trend lately; their characters are given little to do but kvetch at their boyfriends or screw whoever happens to be handy; harridans or whores is what they boil down to here and neither characteristic is particularly flattering. The not-so-subtle sexism dilutes the message somewhat.

Despite these glaring issues I still recommend the movie highly. There is an emotional payoff that ends up being earned – more than that I will not say so as to allow the movie to have maximum impact upon its viewer. While it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out well ahead of time that the pledges of Lambda Phi are headed down a road that leads to nothing good, how that plays out grips the viewer tightly even though it isn’t especially groundbreaking in terms of plot.

Sometimes a movie is greater than the sum of its parts and this is one of those occasions. The movie is flawed, certainly but strong performances can overcome a lot of sins. McMurray, one of the producers on Ryan Coogler’s brilliant Fruitvale Station, doesn’t reinvent the wheel here but tells the story well and show’s not a little potential in the process. While some of the violence may make those sensitive to such things a little faint, the rest of us will be left to wonder why such promising young men are willing to endure so much. There is a fine line between sadism and character-building and established ritual doesn’t excuse crossing that line. This isn’t always easy to watch but it is worth watching all the same.

REASONS TO GO: Jackson, Woodward and Horton all deliver fine performances. The movie takes on a very real issue of fraternity hazing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the things the pledges go through are sadistic and disgusting; the sensitive viewer may have trouble watching these.
FAMILY VALUES: There are all sorts of violence, sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goat
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan

Mustang


"Break out up the middle on three. Ready? Break!"

“Break out up the middle on three. Ready? Break!”

(2015) Drama (Cohen) Gűnes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal G. Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan, Bahar Kerimoglu, Burak Yigit, Erol Afsin, Suzanne Marrot, Serife Kara, Aynur Komecoglu, Serpil Reis, Rukiye Sariahmet, Kadir Celebi, Muzeyyen Celebi. Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergűven

In a patriarchal society, women are often seen as little more than brood mares and chattel, auctioned off to the highest bidder and made as marriageable as possible in order to take them off the hands of their poor parents who must pay for their care and feeding, the sooner the better. While the world is evolving in general from such beliefs, in more rural areas of certain parts of the world, these attitudes persist.

Lale (Sensoy) is the youngest of five orphaned sisters living with their grandmother (Koldas) in a compound-like home in a small seaside town in Northern Turkey. Walking home from school, they encounter some boys who are friends (not boyfriends) by the beach and decide to go swimming, still in their school clothes. Their innocent childish games catch the attention of an elderly woman who reports their behavior as obscene and libidinous to their grandmother, who proceeds to initiate beatings for all five sisters.

Their brute of an Uncle Erol (Pekcan) proceeds to put the house on lockdown, turning a beautiful home into a virtual prison – a wife-making factory in fact in which the five sisters are removed from school, taught classes in sewing, tea-making and essentially home economics. Uncle Erol and grandmother move quickly to arrange marriages for the eldest, then the others in turn.

In the meantime the high-spirited girls have trouble adjusting to their newfound confinement, growing bold and concerned about the future they have in store that is being made for them without any input from the girls themselves. In heartbreaking fashion, they slowly break as their world shrinks to the confines of their barred and gated home and their purpose in life to please husbands they haven’t even met. Only Lale, the youngest and the most outspoken of the bunch, seems to have any spirit left.

This is an impressive film that was France’s official submission for the Foreign Language Film category, making the Oscar shortlist (as of this writing the Awards haven’t been presented yet) and being nominated for the same award in the Golden Globes as well. The nomination is well-deserved. Ergűven weaves a spell-binding tale that not only exposes the archaic attitudes towards women that exists in certain Muslim-dominated countries but also our own, lest we forget the attitudes of the Christian right having to do with abortion and female sexuality.

Ergűven cast the film wisely, particularly with Sensoy whose jaw-jutting petulance mark her Lale as an utter handful. She’s demanding and opinionated, something not tolerated well in traditional Muslim households when regarding women. In fact, that’s where the film title comes from; Lale is untamed and unbroken, although the same doesn’t remain true for all of her sisters as the marriage train comes to pluck them one-by-one, Ten Little Indians-fashion.

The five actresses with their long flowing brunette locks look like sisters and act like them too. Few films I’ve seen really capture the dynamic of sisters as well, from the bawdy teasing to the occasional rivalry and bitter fights. All five of the sisters are beautiful and not just physically; they have an inner beauty that radiates from them like an angelic glow.

Frequent Nick Cave collaborator Warren Ellis contributes the synth-heavy score, and it is very effective, never intruding on the viewer but always beautiful and haunting. Cinematographers David Chizallet and Ersin Gok take advantage of the bucolic Turkish village, making it seem almost idyllic until we see the ugliness beneath.

If I have one criticism of the movie, it’s that the editing is a bit choppy, going from scene to scene in abrupt cuts that wrench the viewer from one scene to the next. It makes the film a little bit like an old car with a bad engine and a flat tire, lurching from scene to scene. A little defter hand on the editing  bay might have made for a smoother viewing experience but at the same time, that does feel a little bit like the kind of vehicle you’d find in a town like this; well past its prime, beaten up but getting you where you need to go despite the problems.

I won’t say this is a beautiful movie, even though it looks beautiful; some of the scenes are very ugly indeed, with young girls being examined for their virginity, an indignity that American girls don’t have to tolerate. However, this is an incredibly moving and thought-provoking movie that will stay with you long after the movie is over. All five of the sisters – yes, albeit that not all of them are as well-drawn as Lale – are still with me even though I saw the movie days ago. And I’m not in a terrible hurry to ask them to leave, either.

REASONS TO GO: A look at a rarely-glimpsed culture. Forces you to examine attitudes towards women in general. Breaks your heart as the movie goes on.
REASONS TO STAY: The editing is a little choppy.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are quite adult; there’s also some mild sexuality and a rude gesture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut of director Deniz Gamze Ergűven.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fiddler on the Roof
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Forest