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

22 Jump Street


The ladies are all smiles but for Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum it's strictly business.

The ladies are all smiles but for Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum it’s strictly business.

(2014) Crime Comedy (Columbia) Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Peter Stormare, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Ice Cube, The Lucas Brothers, Nick Offerman, Jimmy Tatro, Caroline Aaron, Craig Roberts, Mark Evan Jackson, Joe Chrest, Eddie J. Fernandez, Rye Rye, Johnny Pemberton, Stanley Wong, Dax Flame, Diplo, Richard Grieco, Dustin Nguyen, Kate Adair. Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

The thing about sequels is that they tend to be bigger, more expensive and more over the top of the original. The trick about them is that the filmmakers need to retain as much of the original film that audiences connected with without remaking the film verbatim, which is a certain kiss of death and franchise killer.

After their successful bust in 21 Jump Street, detectives Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) have moved on to other undercover operations with less success. After a botched operation causes a drug smuggler known only as The Ghost (Stormare) to escape, harried Deputy Chief Hardy (Offerman) busts them back to the Jump Street team. Except that now the Jump Street crew has moved across the street to 22 Jump Street where their success has bought them a near unlimited budget and an impressive headquarters where Captain Dickson (Cube) has an office in the center of the former Vietnamese church in a clear plastic office (which prompts Schmidt to say “His office looks like a cube…of ice!” in one of many, many instances of self-aware gags).

This time, the two detectives are sent to investigate Metro City State University – yes, the cops are going to college even though they look old enough to be professors. They are sent in as freshmen however and while their age is a source of constant japes, they nonetheless infiltrate the school with Jenko getting into a jock fraternity and becoming a football star, developing a bromance with Zook (Russell), the quarterback. This makes Schmidt a little bit jealous.

However Schmidt has made some inroads of his own, hooking up with Maya (Stevens), an art student who was close to a student who had died in a suicide after taking WhyFhy, a new party drug and the reason that Schmidt and Jenko are there. Surveillance footage implicates Zook as the supplier, which Jenko has a hard time believing. The friction between Schmidt and Jenko threatens to split up the two former BFFs, which would be disastrous considering that the unit is counting on them to solve the case (which might mean their careers if they don’t) and the real supplier behind WhyFhy is looking to take these two pesky cops out…permanently.

 

I will give the filmmakers props for making a much different movie than 21 Jump Street. This one is a bit self-referential, constantly referring to the increased budget and how important it is to follow up success by doing the exact same thing. The self-aware stuff is a hoot, but this feels more of a lark than a film. There is a parade of celebrity cameos, including Queen Latifah as Captain Dickson’s wife (who proclaims that she’s “Straight Outta Compton” while her husband is from Northridge, a reference to Ice Cube’s time in NWA) and appearances by Rob Riggle and Dave Franco from the first film although the best parts of that scene are in the trailer.

The chemistry between Hill and Tatum remains stellar; one of the best scenes of the movie has a school counselor mistaking them for a gay couple in his office for a therapy session, to which they are forced to play along to mask the fact that they were searching his office for evidence. However, there is a feeling that the writers have already kind of worn out their welcome. The end credits sequence, in which the trailers of future sequels are shown is maybe worth the price of admission all by itself.

The plot is way too cliche, the gags too hit and miss and the action too underwhelming to recommend this. I know a lot of critics have been kind to this movie but I just don’t see it; I left the theater feeling curiously unfulfilled, like eating a meal and walking away hungry. This movie may be less filling, but it sure doesn’t taste great.

 

REASONS TO GO: There are some funny moments (detailed above). Hill and Tatum have great chemistry. In-jokes up the wazoo.

REASONS TO STAY: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Lots of gags fall flat. Too many cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  You can expect a goodly amount of foul language, some drug content, bit of sexuality and brief nudity and finally some (mostly) comedic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Original Jump Street television actors Richard Grieco and Dustin Nguyen make cameo appearances.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starsky and Hutch

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Purge: Anarchy

Neighbors


Are you talking to Zac Efron?

Are you talking to Zac Efron?

(2014) Comedy (Universal) Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael, Brian Huskey, Carla Gallo, Halston Sage, Craig Roberts, Ali Cobrin, Kira Sternbach, Steven Michael Eich, Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Mantzoukas, Liz Cackowski, Randall Park, Natasha Leggero. Directed by Nicholas Stoller

Before the Second World War, the desirable places to live were in the cities. After all, they were close to jobs and all the cities had to offer in terms of entertainment and culture. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Postwar era – people began to move out of cities and into the suburbs. They wanted yards. They wanted families. They wanted space.

Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne) Radner want all that. And, at last, they have it. With a beautiful baby daughter named Stella, a gorgeous house in the ‘burbs of a small college town and a bright future ahead, they have everything they’ve always wanted and more.

Then their new neighbors move in and it turns out to be a fraternity house. Gamely, they decide to meet their new neighbors and show how “cool” and “down with it” they are which is the reality of a 30-something trying to impress a 20-something with how knowledgeable they are about current trends, slang and culture which, as everyone who’s ever been a 30-something knows, is doomed to fail miserably. The president of the frat, Teddy (Efron) is amiable enough and advised by his best bro and right-hand vice-president Pete (Franco) decides to make nice with the neighbors, inviting them to a blow-out party. They leave the next morning, promising to call Teddy first if they get too loud.

Of course, the next time they get too loud Mac and Kelly’s repeated phone calls go unanswered and they are forced to call the cops in the form of perhaps the most incompetent policeman ever, Officer Watkins (Buress) who rats out the chagrined couple to the frat. From then on, it’s war.

It becomes an endless barrage of escalating pranks. It gets to the point that the couple desperately attempt to sell their house but as the supercilious real estate agent (Cackowski) informs them, nobody will buy a house next to a frat. They even go to the university for relief, but the snooty dean (Kudrow) is more concerned with headlines than actual issues and the headline “Frat keeps couple and baby awake” isn’t likely to cause problems for the University. Finally, Mac and Kelly decide to go on the offensive with the emphasis on “offense.” They become aware that the frat has two strikes against them and should there be another incident, they’ll be dissolved. It’s time to pull out all the stops.

Seth Rogen has been making a career out of playing the amiable, good-hearted stoner and there’s no reason for him to deviate from that course here. What’s different is that he’s a little older now and that guys of his generation are becoming husbands and fathers and are having to forego the life of partying that is part of being young and without responsibility.

And that is the crux of the matter here. Both Mac and Kelly are facing a turning point in their lives; they have a life and a responsibility to provide for someone completely dependent on them. They are moving kicking and screaming into adulthood and they are taking one last wistful look at the life they once had. It is to their credit (and the filmmakers) that they end up embracing their responsibilities rather than running away as is often the case in Hollywood (and in life as well). The frat represents freedom to a certain extent and who wouldn’t be tempted?

The lion’s share of the funny stuff go to Rogen, Efron (who shows surprisingly deft comic touch here) and Byrne. Franco and Teddy’s inner circle – Scoonie (Mintz-Plasse) and Garf (Carmichael) – have little to do except look…er, stoned. And therein lies some of the movie’s great failings.

The movie can be funny and some of the pranks, although not always realistic as in the case of the funniest one involving an automotive safety feature. The problem here is that it’s a bit of a one-trick pony – Rogen consumes enough weed to make Bill O’Reilly’s intake look like both Cheech and Chong. I’m okay with stoner humor but one of the issues I have with it is that there is such an overreliance on repetition. It’s a whole lot funnier when you’re baked.

Some critics have been giving this a pass and far be it for me to dispute matters of personal taste but I don’t see anything really innovative here. I’m one of those killjoys who think that a good comedy shouldn’t only be funny when you’re stoned. Call me a philistine if you like.

REASONS TO GO: Some really funny moments. Captures the moment of maturity nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: Overkill on weed humor. One-trick pony. Adds nothing new.

FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of crude content, foul language, sexual content, drug use and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Real life couple Megan Mullaly and Nick Offerman filmed a cameo as Scoonie’s parents but it was left on the cutting room floor.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The ‘Burbs

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Dom Hemingway