“Burning Sands”: a drama about hazing in a black college fraternity, with catastrophic consequences on Hell Night

Burning Sands”, directed by Gerald McMurray and written with Christine Berg, dramatizes hazing in American college fraternities, and tries to look for a balance between group loyalty and safety for the pledges – when does one tell or snitch?

The film, shot near Petersburg VA (there is one shot of downtown Richmond) seems to take place at a black college.  I would expected the film to show a reasonable racial mix at a modern college, including white, black, native and Asian.  I personally don’t know whether the Greek system still has a lot of racial segregation in southern states.

The film takes place over six labeled days, leading to a Hell Night on a Saturday.

Much of the film is seen through Zurich (Trevor Jackson) who starts out dealing with the 6 AM military-like drills and pushups, and attends class during the week.  English professor Hughes (Alfre Woodard) assigns a paper and at one point says, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”. Zurich is quite troubled and late with his term paper and consults with an alumnus and Sean Richardson (Steve Harris) who still consuls loyalty to the Greek system.

The hazing gets more brutal, with some blindfolded water torture in a swimming pool.  Finally, one of the pledges gets boxed on the ears.  I’m surprised this would create a serious head injury, but soon the pledge is frothing the mouth. The upperclassmen take the boy to an emergency room in Richmond and run.  Zurich, at the end, calls his father.  One is left with the impression that the boy dies.  Zurich says something like “Now I decipher who my tribe is and live a life to know what the other side is”.

There is another film on Youtube about ragging in a college in India, called “The Punishment” (legacy review), and it is somewhat homoerotic and homophobic at the same time, legacy review.   This short seems to build on the idea of physical body shame and comparison to other men in a group.

During my last first fall freshmen semester at William and Mary in 1961, the freshmen boys (all of them, not just fraternity pledges) were supposed to go to a “tribunal” the last Friday in September, where some of the boys would have their legs shaved.  I skipped out on this, and I wonder if that contributed to my eventual confrontation with the Dean and my expulsion.  I cover all that in my DADT-1 book.

There was an incident at Louisiana State University where a student died, apparently of alcohol poisoning, in a hazing incident, covered on CNN here.

Name:  “Burning Sands”
Director, writer:  Gerald McMurray
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix Instant, 2017/12/28
Length:  102
Rating:  R
Companies: Mandelay, Kino, Netflix
Link:  Kino

(Posted: Friday, December 29, 2017 at 11 AM EST)

“Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin”: 2003 biographical documentary covers activist who connected many issues

A few years ago, Human Rights Campaign (HTC) gave away copies of a DVD for the 2003 PBS POV film “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin”, a biography   I overlooked it, and discovered it while packing to move from house to condo this fall in my own personal “downsizing”.

The 84 minute documentary is directed by Bennett Singer and Nancy Kates. It features a lot of black and white newsreel footage in small aspect, as well as interviews with two of Rustin’s male partners and also Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Rustin is perhaps best known for working with Dr. Martin Luther King on various events including the 1963 March on Washington, as a covert gay man.  But his life spanned many issues, moving from communism to anti-communism, working with labor unions to get them up to speed on civil rights, draft resistance, and only later in life openness about homosexuality. The film ends with some coverage of the 1987 LGB march on Washington;  the 1993 LGB march was larger and better known (I attended it) and covered heavily by writers like Andrew Sullivan.

Throughout his life, the FBI closely monitored him.  He served prison time for resisting the WWII draft, and wrote to his male partner from prison as if his partner was a woman. He had at one time joined the Young Communist League (in 1936) but after the US entered WWII the communists dropped their interest in race relations.  Ironically, later, he would push for racial integration of the military, which Truman achieved in 1948.

Later in life, he would be busted for public sex in Pasadena CA in 1953, and the history of a “morals charge” would be used in rhetoric against him, as by Senator Strom Thurmond (whom we know emphatically opposed lifting the ban on gays in the military in 1993, with his “it isn’t normal” rant in a public assembly in Norfolk right in front of Tracey Thorne.)

Later in his life, Rustin became anti-communist and supported US involvement in Vietnam but criticized many of the specific actions taken by the military. The film does cover the issue of identity politics and intersectionality as Rustin experienced it in earlier generations.  He created controversy as to whether is involvement with labor issues and later Vietnam represented the best interest of “his own people”, African-Americans.  He believed that African-Americans (called “negroes” in the 1960s when I was coming of age) needed to accept that technology would affect the labor market for everyone.  Heliked to use the phrase “angelic troublemakers”.

Name:  “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin
Director, writer:  Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer
Released:  2003
Format:  1.85:1  (often 1:37:1), often BW
When and how viewed:  DVD giveaway from HRC, 2017/12/27
Length:  84
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Question Why, PBS POV
Link:  PBS

(Posted: Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017 at

“God’s Own Country” does seem like a “Brokeback Mountain II”

God’s Own Country”, directed by Francis Lee, may come across as a “Brokeback Mountain II” from Ang Lee a dozen years ago.

This time, the setting is in Yorkshire in northern England, apparently in the 1960s or so, before modern technology. Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) seems a little squeamish over his farming duties – in the opening scene is vomits when getting up on a day he has to help a sheep deliver a baby.  His parents, especially mom, seem concerned about his manliness.  In a nearby town, he finds nelly boys who make him feel a little manlier by comparison. Gay life went on in rural England, even only a couple decades after Alan Turing’s tragedy (Britain decriminalized sodomy in 1967). When a roughshod immigrant, Georghe (Alex Secareanu) arrives from communist Romania, the new guy first intimidates Johnny because the comrade really is very good at doing everything on a farm.  The time of this movie may have actually been intended to coincide with the fall of the Soviet bloc and Ceausescu.  But soom Georghe’s dominating (very cis-male) behavior entices Johnny and they fall in love, with some passionate scenes when out on the range with bedrolls.

A family crisis ensues when dad has a stroke, and Johnny has to really take care of dad personally.  That leads to a whirlwind plot climax in the men’s relationship.

The film has graphic cinematography of the live animal birth scenes, with how farm boys really do this.  The animals “know” and “trust” them (“it’s only me”). I’m reminded of a live birth scene in Walt Disney’s “The Vanishing Prairie” (1954), a bit of a sensation at the time.

The film was preceded by a 10-minute short “Breakfast” by Tyler Byrnes. A young man David (Altan Alburo) invites a boyfriend Alex (Tommy Bernadi) (quite handsome but apparently with dysmorphia) with an eating disorder to share a fattening breakfast. The film contains David Lynch-like scenes with chest tunes invading.

The show, sponsored by Reel Affirmations of the DC Center at the Gala Hispania theater in the Columbia Heights area of Washington DC,  was preceded by a stand-up by Rayceen Pendarvis, advertising himself as 68, who got everyone one into a brief hug-fest.  That isn’t my own personal message, but that’s for another time.

Link for Yorkshire picture (wiki).

Name:  “Gods Own Country”
Director, writer:  Francis Lee
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Reel Affirmations, 2017/10/19 opening night, Gala Hispania, Washington DC, sold out
Length:  104
Rating:  NA (explicit enough for NC-17, artistic and dramatic film for adults, not considered pornographic)
Companies:  Samuel Goldwyn, Orion Pictures
Link:  official

(Posted: Friday, October 20, 2017 at 7:45 PM EDT)

“Legion of Brothers”: CNN airs Sundance documentary of the early days of Bush’s war in Afghanistan using the Green Berets

Legion of Brothers”, directed by Greg Barker, aired on CNN Sept. 24, focuses on the very beginning of the “War on Terror” announced by President George W. Bush after 9/11.

I remember a Sunday afternoon, around Oct. 6, 2001, when Bush announced from the White House his first major steps to the American public in a televised address. The major networks allowed an airing if a very personalized address from Osama Bin Laden to follow.  There would be another such video screed on December 13, the day of my layoff.

But this film follows what is rather little known, about the efforts of a group of about ten Green Berets to start the overflow of the Taliban, as a “Direct Action Team” (and phrase “Smoke ‘em”), which this film tracks for its 79 minutes. The battle scenes are quite graphic – it’s hard to believe that combat journalists could get such footage. The narrative intersperses with scenes back home, especially in Texas.  The two main soldiers are Jason Armine and Mark Nutsch.  Some men are badly ounded, as one loses an arm.

Sebastian Junger would interview Northern Alliance leader Massoud himself before the latter’s death.  Junger would later help produce “Restrepo” and “Korengal” and write the Vanity Fair “Hive” article “Into the Valley of Death”.

What would follow, of course, was Bush’s own war in Iraq, with over 7000 deaths (combined with Afghanistan), and the whole “Stop-Loss” issue (actually a 2008 film from Paramount) with what amounted to a backdoor draft.

It’s ironic that on Sept. 9, 2001, HBO premiered “Bands of Brothers”, set in World War II, both Europe and the Pacific.

Name:  “Legion of Brothers”
Director, writer:  Greg Barker
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  CNN, 2017/9/24
Length:  79
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  CNN Films, Gravitas, Sundance Selects
Link:  CNN

(Posted: Monday, September 25, 2017, at 9:30 PM EDT)

“Icarus”: an amateur cyclist and filmmaker exposes Russia’s Olympic doping scandals, and gives “asylum” to a doctor running from Putin

A documentary purporting to expose cheating in sports turns out to be an international thriller. So it is with “Icarus” (2017), the film named after a Greek mythological character who failed because of his own virtues (the Icarus Paradox).

Bryan Fogel, who wrote and directed the film, is an energetic amateur cyclist looking in his early 40s perhaps. Most of the time, his bod is shaved, and he lives in a world where masculinity is more a matter of performance than trappings (I’ll get ahead of myself and add that the Russian sports circle insists its athletes be married).

He decides to do a citizen investigation of doping as he plans to ride the Haute Route in France and Switzerland. The film introduces the topic with a couple clips of Lance Armstrong, before getting to Fogel’s own story. First Fogel contacts Don Catlin about his experiment, who backs out due to the obvious risks. Fogel then makes the fateful turn to the Russians, contacting the doping doctor Grigory Rodchenkov.

The result is a huge expose of the entire Russian staging of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. I’ll add that the politics of the 2013 anti-gay propaganda law fed into this (not mentioned in the film), as did Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and Crimea (covered). Putin starts appearing more often in the film, which turns into a stinging indictment of Russian kleptocracy, obviously politically important now given all the investigations of Putin’s alleged collusion with Donald Trump. We get to see a lot of Moscow in some episodes. This turns out to be compelling “conservative film” that the mainstream GOP would like but that The Donald would not.

As Grigory gets in trouble, he calls Fogel back home in Utah. Fogel arranges Grigory’s trip to the United States, apparently for the sake of Grigory’s security from the Russians, a kind of unofficial asylum seeking. But then the FBI and US attorney in New York City get involved. Grigory winds up living incognito in a secret location (which the film implies is on the California coast in the last scene).  The film manages to show in detail how the Russians covered up their falsification of urine tests.  It’s pretty elaborate but all real-world spy stuff.

What seems intriguing is that a filmmaker and “amateur” sports enthusiast (reminding me of Minnesota filmmaker Shane Nelson and his “A Film in Three Parts” (2002) about amateur extreme sports) puts his own skin in the game of international political activism. He could have filmed a similar native about Central American or perhaps LGBT asylum seekers if he wanted to.

The film ends as Grigory admits “Slavery was my freedom”. We do get a glimpse of Rio in 2016, as a kind of redemption. The film’s tagline is “Truth is a banned substance”.

The music score contains excerpts from Alexandrov’s Russian National Anthem, as well as from Shostakovich Symphony #8.

The film was revised (from Sundance) somewhat when Netlfix acquired it, but the online version looks like a full director’s cut at 121 minutes.

Picture from Haute Route, France (wiki).

Picture from Moscow (wiki).

Name:  “Icarus”
Director, writer:  Bryan Fogel
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length:  121
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Diamond, Sundance Selects, Netflix
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, August 30, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT)

“Wind River”: intense “modern western” crime drama about native American politics

Back in 1997, a jogger “went up” near Lander, Wyoming and disappeared without tracks.  Some people think that’s evidence of UFO’s.  But the current “modern western” directed and written by Taylor Sheridan “Wind River” starts with a disappearance and then the discovery of the body of a teenage native American woman (Kelsey Asbille) deep on the reservation, and the uncovering of the dirty behavior behind it. The film reminds me of Coen Brothers material, with less dark humor,, and a  plot that reminds you of Cormac McCarthy.

FBI agent Jane Banner (Elisabeth Olsen) arrives and find she is in over her head, both with dealing with the oncoming early mountain winter (no global warming here) and the legal maze of tribal, state and federal law.  (I remember a little of this from living in Minnesota and visiting Red Lake once.)  Cory (Jeremy Renner), a US game tracker, will help her with the snowplow journeys into the wilderness, where they encounter some very bad behavior indeed by both natives and white oil field workers.  There is an impressive sequence filmed around a worker’s “dormitory” trailer complex (that’s how movie stars live for months on wilderness sets), that gets violent indeed.  There’s one particularly captivating shot of a mountain lion family in a den; the cats are left alone.

The film was actually shot in the Wasatch Range of Utah.  I did travel through the Lander and Wind River area in August 1994.

But I think I saw Square Top Mountain in the film.

Hollywood Reporter has a curious story about the distribution of the film.

Recently, NBC Dateline did a story about a good Samaritan rescue of a teenager who crashed a plane in the Big Horn Mountains, to the Northeast.

The end credit roll of the film points out that disappearances of young native-American women are all too common.

Name: Wind River
Director, writer:  Taylor Sheridan
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  R
Length:  Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax VA, large audience, 2017/8/12, afternoon
Rating:  R
Companies:  The Weinstein Company TWC
Link:  official

(Posted: Saturday, August 12, 2017, at 7:30 PM EDT)

 

“A Ghost Story”: what to expect during your own “life review” when you pass away

Richard Lowery’s new little “horror” film and Sundance hit, “A Ghost Story”, does indeed provide an interesting theory about the afterlife.  In a sense, heaven is for real, and not just in the Christian sense.

The basic idea here is that C (Casey Affleck, covered in an inexpensive bedsheet as a prop, right out of the morgue) goes through a “life review” (the Monroe Institute talks about this) first, experiencing his widow’s (Rooney Mara) grief as he mopes in their rented house in exurban Dallas.  But, since they weren’t together long enough to have kids, he has to find some other chains of “space-time boxes” to connect his own lifeline to.  These tesseracts are connected to the rural house itself, it’s history (back to the days of the pioneers and Indian attack) to the future, when the house is torn down and replaced by commercial real estate as the Dallas area keeps expanding.  The same fate as the gay club Town DC a year from now.

The film has a bare-bones look in the beginning, shot 1.37:1, to create the feel of old movies (though in color) and enable closeups, At a critical point in the screenplay, twenty minutes into the film, we see the aftermath of C’s fatal car wreck in front of his house (he was T-boned getting out of his driveway, but we don’t see the accident in motion).   But toward the end, as M does his time travel, the visuals get quite impressive.

There are some other social gatherings, as the Hispanic family that rents the house after M leaves, and the kids play with Brio toys – and people try the out-of-tune piano that never leaves the house (right out of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck”).  Then there is a pot party with some other people, where Prognosticator (Will Oldham) gives a monologue on whether consciousness lives forever through music – using Beethoven’s Ninth as an example.  I thought he could try the completed Bruckner Ninth as an example (Dec 3 posting).

I thought particularly about Casey Affleck’s earlier tragic film “Gerry” (2002) , Gus Van Sant’s film where he and a friend played by Matt Damon face loss in the Mojave Desert.

Also, I remember Peter Straub’s mammoth 70s novel “Ghost Story”, with its long middle section about Anna Mobley, and the character Stringer Dedham, who didn’t die when the “life ran out of him”.  The movie (1981, John Irwin) was underwhelming.

Name: A Ghost Story
Director, writer:  Richard Lowery
Released:  2017
Format:  1.37:1 (old-time aspect for close-ups)
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic Fairfax VA 2017/7/14 late night small audience
Length:  91
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  A24
Link:  official

(Posted: Saturday, July 15, 2017 at 2:30 PM EDT)

“Heli”: a young factory worker in Mexico protects his sister after she accidentally draw him into a drug ring

Heli” is a gut-punching dramatic film about involuntary family responsibility in the third world, specifically rural Mexico in an area overrun by drug cartels. The film (in Spanish with subtitles) is directed and written by Amat Escalante, with other writers Gabriel Reyes, Zumurt Cavusgolu, and Ayhan Ergusel. The film was shot in 2013 and has shown in Cannes and Sundance and is now becoming available on DVD from Strand Releasing (June 27).

Heli (Armando Espitia) is a an slender, appealing young man, about 20 with wife Sabrina (like the 1955 film name, Linda Gonzalez), 12 year old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara), and father (Ramon Alvarez). Dad works at the local auto assembly plant, which looks very modern (and perhaps tried to take American jobs – to Donald Trump’s consternation) and Heli has been working the night shift for some time. Estetla has a boy friend Belo (Juan Eduardo Palacios) who seems to be going through paramilitary training (maybe from a drug cartel) where he is forced to roll in his own chunky vomit.

Belo stores drugs in the family’s house, and when Heli finds them, he destroys them by throwing them into a well. But soon the house is raided, we think by police but they may be drug dealers disguised as troops. Dad is shot, and the rest of the family, as well as Belo, are captured.

The film’s middle section has one of the most graphic torture scenes ever filmed I’m recalling New Line’s “Rendition”, where Jake Gyllenhaal’s character witnesses “my first torture”) in which Belo’s private parts are set on fire, as if to imply permanent castration and epilation, and affront to “the virtue of maleness”. But soon Belo dies and his corpse is hung from a bridge in a public lynching.

The film had opened with a shot of Belo and Estela in the back of a pickup truck, leading to the lynching, as a prologue before the opening titles, a story preview familiar from the films of Jorge Ameer.

Heli is spared with worst but still injured. He eventually talks to police and is in the position of being the sole protector of his younger sister as well as wife and baby. The sister has become pregnant. Heli’s injuries cause him to be inefficient working on the factory assembly line, and soon he gets fired. But, as in typical screenwriting, he must prevail.

A reasonable comparison could be made to Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film “Traffic“.

Guanajuato archeological site, near where film was shot (Wiki).

Name:  “Heli
Director, writer:  Amat Escanante
Released:  2013, 2017
Format: 1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Strand private screener on Vimeo, 2017/6/22, DVD BluRay available 2017/6/27
Length:  105
Rating:  R
Companies:  Strand Releasing
Link:  BluRay

Picture: Big Bend, mine (Thanksgiving 1979 Sierra Club camping trip, looking into Mexico).

(Posted: Friday, June 23, 2017 at 10:300 AM EDT)

“The Discovery”: a mad scientist develops TV to look at the afterlife and finds it a strange loop

The Discovery”, directed by Charlie McDowell, and produced by Endgame and Protagonist,  is Netflix’s proudest release for this spring, a science fiction film about layers of reality that seems inspired a bit by Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”, and some ideas (for the straight world) borrowed from the gay time paradox film “Judas Kiss”.  But it doesn’t have the visual sweep of either of these films.

The Discovery of the mad scientist Thomas Harbor, played by Robert Redford with all of his conservative charisma, is that the Afterlife of people after brain death has been recorded.  (There is some record of this sort of thing like in Eben Alexander’s book “Proof of Heaven”).  In a guarded mansion on Newport Beach, Rhode Island, Harbor carries out his work, with a machine than can render paranormal experiences on a 50s-like black and white TV, shaking, and no Philco Halo Light.

The film opens with a broadcast interview (with Mary Steenburgen), where a production assistant commits suicide on camera.  Pretty soon Thomas’s son Will (Jason Segel) and a soutmate Isla (Rooney Mara, of course) take a ferry to the place, where they are escorted by Will’s long-haired, chain-smoking brother Toby (Jesse Plemons).

In the mansion there is a whole “family” of subjects, in orange uniforms, rather like a cult in a horror film. As the film progresses (the details of the plot, in Wikipedia, are lengthy and somewhat convoluted, as in a Nolan film) bad family secrets crawl out of the metalwork like blobs.  The equipment is 50s stuff, with electrodes and mesh that would threaten a male subject’s chest hair (and there’s plenty of the stringy stuff attached to pates, too).  In time, the controversy seems to be, are the visions just dreams (like “Inception”) or are they really alternative reality paths in parallel universes that your consciousness jumps into when you die.  “The end is only the beginning” and maybe everyone really is a strange loop.

Indeed, the film will take some twists as Will and Isla fall in love, that only quantum paradox keeps from becoming tragic.

I think there are more interesting ideas to try, like merging together into group consciousness, for future redistribution (like in my “Angel’s Brother”).

It’s interesting that Netflix picked this up, because the Sundance film would seem to be capable of attracting a theatrical audience in chains like Landmark or Angelika.

Name:  “The Discovery”
Director, writer:  Charlie McDowell
Released:  2017/3/31
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix Instant Play
Length:  102
Rating:  NA (PG-13)
Companies:  Endgame, Protagonist, Netflix
Link:  Facebook, Netflix (requires logon and subscription)

Picture: Bridge near Newport, my visit, Aug. 2015

(Posted: Saturday, May 13, 2017 at 10:30 PM EDT)

“Beach Rats”: working class gay teen boy comes of age in Brooklyn, but may stumble into creating a tragedy

Beach Rats” (2017), directed by Eliza Hittman, makes the case that some young cis-male men are indeed bisexual, or at least ambiguous.

The protagonist is the rather smooth Frankie (Harris Dickinson), who lives near the beach apparently in Coney Island (Brooklyn) and helps take care of a father dying of cancer. He has a girl  friend Simone (Madeleine Weinstein) and gets intimate with her, but has some trouble performing.  In the mean time, he sneaks down to the basement and connects with older gay men on a webcam.

In time he meets peers (the “rats”) closer to his own age, who want to meet up on the beach, maybe for sex, maybe to trade and smoke weed.  Frankie demonstrates his street smarts in various ways, like the way he uses pawn shops to get cash. He does demonstrate some sense, as I recall, in asking about condoms.  As the film progresses, one of the other men only slightly older than him becomes a target.  A robbery on the beach may leave the other young man drowned, and the movie ends with Frankie not knowing if he has been party to murder.

The story reminds me of the real life case of Justin Berry, whom Kurt Eichenwald wrote about in the New York Times in 2005. The real story did not end so tragically, as far as I know.  Older men who contact underage teens through webcams may be breaking the law (depending on age of consent) or may run afoul of federal child pornography laws.

The film has a handball sports scene near a boardwalk.  I remember a place called Seaside Courts on the Coney Island boardwalk, with paddleball courts, which created a small personal sequence for me in 1989-1990.  It is north of the aquarium.  I don’t know if it is still there, as I was last in the area in 2004.

The film won best director at Sundance. Apparently it was shot in super 16, but looks quite crisp.

I saw the film at the Maryland Film Festival in the third floor auditorium of the newly renovated Parkway Theater in Baltimore, on North Ave. and Charles Street.

Name:  “Beach Rats
Director, writer:  Eliza Hittman
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1 (16 mm)
When and how viewed:  2017/5/7, Parkway Theater, Baltimore, Maryland Film Festival, sold out
Length:  98
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Neon
Link:  Lincoln Center

(Published: Wednesday, May 10, 2107 at 6:15 PM EDT)