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

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The Tenth Man (El Rey del Once)


The King of Buenos Aires!

The King of Buenos Aires!

(2016) Drama (Kino Lorber) Alan Sabbagh, Julieta Zyllerberg, Usher Barilka (voice), Elvira Onetto, Adrian Stoppelman, Daniel Droblas, Elisa Carricajo (voice), Dan Breitman, Uriel Rubin, Dalmiro Burman. Directed by Daniel Burman

 

There are those of us who embrace our roots. Then, there are others of us who want to disconnect ourselves from our roots entirely. Much of that has to do with our childhood and how we feel about it. The traditions of our upbringing can be a prison – or set us free entirely.

Ariel (Sabbagh) is an economist currently living in New York but who grew up in El Once, the Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires. He is dating a ballerina (Carricajo) and things are getting serious between them. He is returning home to Buenos Aires to introduce his girl to his father Usher (Barilka) who runs a charitable foundation in El Once, serving the poor of that area and providing them with prescription medicine, clothes, food and even arranging for shelter.

Things start going wrong before he even leaves for the airport. His girlfriend has to stay behind because she’s wangled an audition for a major ballet company, so she will be arriving a few days late. Usher asks Ariel to find a size 46 shoe with Velcro instead of laces for a bed-ridden client of the foundation, and although Ariel searches everywhere, he can’t find shoes with Velcro in the short amount of time that he was allotted by his father, who sprung that on him just hours before he had to board his plane.

Once he gets to town, Usher is nowhere to be found although his Aunt Susy (Onetto) shepherds him inside the foundation which is surrounded by angry clients, looking to get meat for the upcoming Purim celebration; the Foundation has none due to a payment dispute between Usher and Mamuñe, a local butcher. Finally Usher calls and has Ariel deliver the shoes, then go to the apartment of a deceased client to find unused prescriptions to take back to the Foundation to redistribute. He is accompanied by Eva (Zylberberg), an attractive but mute Orthodox Jew whose hand he cannot even shake due to the proscriptions of their brand of the faith. It’s this kind of thing that drove a wedge between Ariel and Usher to begin with.

As the week progresses, things begin to fall apart for Ariel who continues to be avoided by his father and who gets roped into performing errands for the Foundation. However, Ariel begins to be inspired by Eva’s spirit and sweetness, and slowly he begins to succumb to the charm of his old neighborhood. What will this mean for the fractured relationship between father and son, and more to the point, between the son and his faith?

Burman has a history of films that deal with the Jewish faith in Latin America that explore similar subjects as he does here, although not quite in the same way. The early part of the movie is a little bit off-center, even a bit surreal as the two most important people in Ariel’s life – his father and his girlfriend – are nothing more than voices on a cellular phone and he wanders about El Once, a bit lost and befuddled. Gradually, though through the rhythms of the neighborhood and its rituals and particularly through the sweet and gentle Eva (who actually does have a voice), he finds a sense of purpose and connection and that journey is at the heart of the movie.

Sabbagh spends most of the movie on the phone, and that can be fairly boring cinematically speaking but the actor, who resembles Jason Alexander a bit to my mind, pulls it off. He plays Ariel as a fairly low-key individual; there are no histrionics, only a sense of frustration that grows as the movie begins, but the more he becomes involved in the neighborhood and with Eva, the more he changes and finds himself. It’s a stellar performance and one you may not want to miss.

I have to admit I was squirming a bit through the first half of the film but the longer it went on, the more it appealed to me. Burman clearly feels a connection with El Once (he is also a resident of the area) and just as clearly a real affection for it. The movie was filmed in the neighborhood and many of the people who live there show up as extras or in small roles.

Most of the time when we see movies about the Jewish experience, we are seeing it either in New York, Eastern Europe or Israel. Burman’s films provide us a look at what Judaism means in Latin America, a predominantly Catholic region but certainly with a fairly large Jewish population. The movie isn’t necessarily a love letter to El Once, but it certainly plays a role in the film and is a large part of why I liked it so much.

Given the charm of the neighborhood and Ariel’s evolution (or de-evolution from a certain standpoint) this is the kind of movie that generally appeals to me. It’s low-key, charming and provides a look at life somewhere that I probably will never see. Movies like this give us perspective into our own daily lives and even if you’re not Jewish, you will likely find this as heartfelt and warm as I did.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of movie that grows on you as it plays. Sabbagh plays it low-key and gives a tremendous performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find this a bit overly out there, particularly at the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene filmed in the Mad About Fabrics store was filmed in the actual store with the owner of the store playing himself. Usher Barilka, who runs the charitable foundation in the area that the one in the film is based on, provides his voice as Ariel’s father.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Putzel
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Secret Life of Pets

Bridgend


Deceptive beauty.

Deceptive beauty.

(2015) Drama (Kimstim) Hannah Murray, Josh O’Connor, Adrian Rawlins, Patricia Potter, Nia Roberts, Steven Washington, Scott Arthur, Aled Llyr Thomas, Elinor Cawley, Jamie Burch, Mark Charles Williams, Adam Byard, Natasha Denby, Leona Vaughan, Liam Dascombe, Josh Green, Rachel Isaac, Phil Howe, Martin Troakes, Jane Davies, Rob Page, Judith Lewis. Directed by Jeppe Rønde

Florida Film Festival 2016

When a teenager dies, it’s a tragedy. With their whole life ahead of them cut short, it’s devastating to their family and their friends. When a teen takes their own life, it can feel even more tragic. Those left behind can feel like they’ve failed somehow. But what happens when teens kill themselves in droves?

That’s what really happened in Bridgend County in Wales. Starting in 2009 and through 2013, more than 75 teens took their own lives – most by hanging – without leaving a suicide note. To this day, what prompted these mass suicides remains a mystery. There was an excellent documentary in 2013 about the case but this is a fictionalized look at the affair.

Sara (Murray – fans might recognize her from Game of Thrones) and her policeman dad Dave (Washington) who is widowed have moved from Bristol to Bridgend to start a new life. As a policeman, Dave is investigating a rash of teen suicides. At first, Sara doesn’t really feel like she fits in with the working class kids in town but her beauty and compassion catch the eye of Laurel (Cawley) who invites her to the local reservoir to hang out with a group of kids, led by co-alphas Jamie (O’Connor) and Thomas (Arthur).

As Sara gets more involved with the group, her father begins to get terrified. Sara is already at that age where she’s distancing herself from her dad, and drifts closer to the disaffected teens and further from her father. And as her friends begin to die off one by one, her romance with Jamie takes on a more intense tone.

Speaking of tone, that’s one thing this movie has plenty of. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck films things through a blue filter, underlighting interior shots to give things a more menacing and darker look. The blue serves to give the movie an overall depressing feel. That’s sight; as for sound, Mondkopf, an artist specializing in electronic trance, gives the score a dreary electro feel, instilling a sense of foreboding throughout.

There are two ways a movie like this can be made palatable; one is to give insight as to why a group of teenagers would all fall into lockstep and kill themselves. To be honest, Rønde doesn’t really address this. There are all sorts of theories as to why the real kids did this and to be fair, I can imagine that the filmmaker didn’t want to tread on the graves of the dead by putting motivations that weren’t necessarily there. You don’t get a sense that there was any peer pressure going on, only that these kids were essentially unhappy.

Secondly, the characters could be interesting people that you care about what happens to them, but again, that proves not to be the case here. These are kids who most adults wouldn’t want to spend even five minutes with. They come off as spoiled, whiny and full of angst and ennui. There is a melancholia sure, but with the rituals that these kids use to honor their dead it begins to come off as creepy posturing. The kids don’t come off as anything other than people who simply fell into line like sheep and gave up far too soon.

Rønde is a little self-indulgent with his direction, doing so many cutsie things that the audience is drawn out of the movie and paying more attention to the moviemaker. I call this “Look, Ma, I’m Directing syndrome” and Rønde has a nasty case of it. And the ending. Oy vey, the ending. I won’t go into details here, but it’s a colossal cop-out.

The events in Bridgend are apparently still taking place to this day, and quite frankly I think there is an important movie that could be made here. Certainly this is in many ways a cautionary tale for parents that their teens are at risk, but the filmmakers don’t say anything much beyond that. I found this to be a frustrating movie that at the end of the day, was enormously unsatisfying when it didn’t have to be.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautiful cinematography and along with the electronic score creates a foreboding mood.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much self-indulgence and spoiled behavior. Never really gets into the psyche of the “gang.” Too many scenes in which you’re conscious that the director is “directing.”
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some violence, sexual content, nudity and profanity, all involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed entirely in Bridgend County, Wales where the events that inspired the film actually took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Towns
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Family Fang

The Maze Runner


There's no David Bowie at the center of this labyrinth.

There’s no David Bowie at the center of this labyrinth.

(2014) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Kara Scodelario, Aml Ameen, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Dexter Darden, Chris Sheffield, Joe Adler, Alexander Flores, Jacob Latimore, Randall D. Cunningham, Don McManus, Michael Bow, Jerry Clark, Gary Hood, Nick Killebrew. Directed by Wes Ball

We generally have a good sense of where we are and who we are. When we wake up in the morning, we know we are in familiar territory, where we’re supposed to be. But what if you woke up one morning and didn’t have a clue where you were – or even your own name?

But that’s what happens to each and every boy in the strange place they call the Glade. A grassy knoll with a small forest surrounded by huge walls, every month without fail an elevator brings up a new arrival and supplies. What doesn’t come up the elevator they grow. It’s a fairly pastoral life. When the boys – and they’re all boys – wake up, they have no memory of who they are, where they are or where they came from. They’re just there. After a day or two, they remember their first name, but that’s all.

This month’s new arrival is Thomas (O’Brien). He is given the lay of the land by Alby (Ameen), the charismatic leader of the boys. Thomas is a curious sort. What’s beyond the walls? The maze. Why don’t you just leave? We can’t. Why not? There are monsters. They’re called Grievers. Nobody who spends the night in the maze survives. Is there a way out? We’re looking for it. We send runners into the maze every day to map it out. We haven’t found the exit yet but we will. How long have you been looking? Three years.

Thomas is befriended by Chuck (Cooper), a younger heavyset boy, and Newt (Brodie-Sangster), a quiet British chap. There’s also Gally (Poulter), a by-the-book sort who detests change and lives in justified fear of what’s out there, and Minho (Lee), the leader of the runners who comes to a grudging respect for Thomas who seems to be a born leader. But who put them there and why?

This is based on the classic James Dashner young adult sci-fi epic, the first of several books in a series. It’s one of those books that, like the TV series Lost always winds up generating a lot of questions and for every question it answers raises two or more new ones in its place.

Definitely meant to appeal to young adolescent boys in the same way Twilight and The Hunger Games appeals to young adolescent girls, in Thomas we have a taciturn, curious and brave young man. Teen Wolf star O’Brien plays him with a kind of blank expression most of the time, pulling out grief and rage when the occasion calls for it. I don’t know if it’s a sign of limited range or that range wasn’t called for here; it left me a little bit cold for the character.

Most of the support is all right, particularly Poulter playing a very different character than his geeky kid in We’re the Millers. Patricia Clarkson stops by for a cup of coffee near the end and Brodie-Sangster is effective as Newt. Scodelario who is the only female with any appreciable screen time seems to have been cast mainly for her resemblance to Kristen Stewart and Lee is actually pretty good as a kind of junior John Cho.

Cooper comes off with the most promise as a more likable version of Chunk from The Goonies. Chuck has a certain hero-worship for Thomas but is capable of standing on his own two feet. Chuck is loyal to a fault and may not have the physical presence of Thomas but has his back unconditionally. Miller captured all of that and in many ways was much more interesting than O’Brien. I’d much rather have spent more time with Chuck than with the more conventional hero Thomas.

The Grievers are nightmarish, a kind of biotech weapon that is part machine and part creature, spiders with silver legs and many, many teeth. They also have stingers that inject a venom into their victims that drives them violently made, wreaking further havoc. The easily impressionable who are prone to nightmares should think twice about seeing this one.

I left characterizing this as a kind of Lord of the Flies with hints of Lost and Divergent thrown in for good measure and that’s as much hint about the rest of the story as I’m willing to give. There is plenty of CGI, most of it okay but none of it really awe-inspiring.

The ending is pretty much there to set up a sequel (which has already been greenlit based on this film’s successful first weekend). There really isn’t any feeling of a conclusion and so I left the theater curiously unsatisfied. I would need another movie to allow me feel like I’d actually seen a complete movie beginning to end.

REASONS TO GO: Genuinely scary monsters. Some good supporting performances. Definitely for those who wanted to see Lord of the Flies done by the Lost creative team.
REASONS TO STAY: O’Brien is a bit wooden. Unsatisfying ending.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence and some foul language. The Grievers are pretty nightmare-inducing as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth movie in which Judd and Freeman have appeared together in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Divergent
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Definitely Maybe!