13 SINS / COLD IN JULY / THE SACRAMENT

By R. David

13 Sins

13 Sins (April 18, 2014) – Another entry in the ever-expanding genre of horror film as obstacle course/scavenger hunt/morality play.  Like last year’s “Would You Rather”, last month’s “Cheap Thrills” and the upcoming “Truth or Dare”; “13 Sins” asks the question, how far would you be willing to go to make some much-needed quick cash?  The film stars Mark Webb as Elliot Brindle, a nebbishy, recently unemployed insurance salesman with a pregnant girlfriend, invalid father and mentally handicapped brother.  Needless to say he is down on his luck and desperate.  Then the phone rings.  The mysterious caller challenges Elliot to complete 13 tasks.  With each task he completes, increasing sums of money will be directly deposited into his bank account.  If at any point he fails or chooses to not complete a task, Elliot loses everything.  Naturally, the challenges begin innocuously enough, but grow increasingly more vile, illegal and morally reprehensible.  “13 Sins” has shades of the “Saw” series, with the game show announcer-like voice on the other end of the phone targeting Elliot because he has been a push-over and afraid to take risks and make tough decisions his entire life.  The puppeteer’s ability to orchestrate all of these elaborate challenges and somehow constantly watch Elliot isn’t particularly convincing, but director Daniel Stamm (“The Last Exorcism”) gets great mileage out of the intriguing premise, and his script (co-written with David Burke) is most effective in how Elliot navigates the moral dilemmas of his choices, more so than the outlandish assignments themselves.  Webb succeeds in making Elliot a sympathetic character the audience can find a rooting interest in, as well as convincingly portraying a man who is by turns frightened and reluctant, determined and empowered. “13 Sins” isn’t as energetically hip as “Cheap Thrills”, but it paints its thrills on a larger canvas.  “Thrills” was essentially a four-character, single-location play; effective for the type of film it is.  “13 Sins” not only runs its protagonist from one location and endurance test to the next, but the central mystery of “who?” and “why?” wraps the viewer up in the film’s tense, icy grip.  We’re never quite sure where this story is headed or what will happen next – and that’s one of the best things that can be said about any thriller.  3 Stars (Out of 4)

Cold In July

Cold In July (May 23, 2014) – A Coen Brothers-esque slice of gritty, rural pulp fiction, “Cold In July” is a riveting Independent revenge thriller in a year that already counts two indie, rural America-set tales of vengeance among its best films (“Joe” and “Blue Ruin”).  What sets “July” apart is a mid-film twist that turns the concept on its ear.  I’m not sure how much of the plot “July’s” marketing materials disclose, but you’ll get no spoilers from me.  I’ll simply say the film chronicles the events that unfold in the wake of a family man (Michael C. Hall) shooting a burglar in his home and the intruder’s ex-con father (Sam Shepard) swearing vengeance and obsessively harassing the family.  Nothing that follows plays out in ways audiences will expect.  New mysteries reveal themselves, lies and liars are exposed, and unlikely relationships are forged.  Director Jim Mickle drops violence and humor in equal, surprising doses. Set in 1989 rural Texas, the film benefits a greatly from its technology and style deprived milieu, giving the film an isolated, nourish flavor.  But it’s the performances in “Cold In July” that really resonate.  Hall, as the sympathetic and vulnerable family man in over his head, and Shepard, as the obsessive, tightly-wound ball of vengeance, work in perfect contrast to each other.  But it’s Don Johnson as a cocky cowboy of a private investigator who steals his every scene; whether playing the macho badass he fancies himself or displaying surprising quiet empathy.  It’s another terrific performance from this under-appreciated and under-utilized actor.  “Cold In July” ultimately doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of “Joe” or “Blue Ruin”, and there are few scenes that only serve to slow the film’s pace.  But these minor quibbles aside, “Cold In July” is one of the more compelling and originally-plotted dramas you’re likely to see this year.  The performances alone earn it a blanket recommendation.  3½ Stars (Out of 4)

The Sacrament

The Sacrament (June 6, 2014) – Indie horror flavor of the day Ti West (“House of the Devil”) directs this well-intentioned, but ultimately rather unnecessary, fictional retelling of the 1978 events at Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana, better known as the Jonestown Massacre.  The film employs the found-footage aesthetic that is all the rage in horror films these days – especially low budget ones, which allows cash-strapped filmmakers the perfect guise to present their films to wide audiences they would otherwise not see bankrolled by risk-shy major studios – presenting itself as a documentary pieced together from footage shot by a video journalist (AJ Bowen) and his cameraman (Joe Swanberg) who follow a young man (Kentucker Audley) to a remote South American compound in hopes of convincing his sister to leave “Eden Parish”, a cultish religious society run by the quietly intimidating Father (Gene Jones). The names and places have changed from Jonestown, but the story remains the same.  If you are familiar with the particulars of the true story, “The Sacrament” follows suit.  Viewers uneducated on the events will do well to avoid spoilers, as that may provide a more compelling viewing experience.  But true story or not, “The Sacrament” plays out rather predictably.  This by itself isn’t so much a problem, but West can’t seem to find a new or interesting way to present the events, and the found footage thing by itself doesn’t count as inspired filmmaking anymore.  There is simply a disappointing lack of inventiveness and surprise to the proceedings.  A story like this by its very nature offers some unavoidable tension.  Viewers know things will inevitably go south; the question of when and how bad it will get is generally what keeps us engaged and in nervous suspense.  But as “The Sacrament” goes through its motions, we are let down again and again.  West seems content to do the bare minimum, offering sequences and resolutions we’ve simply seen too many times before; as opposed to playing on our anxiety and pushing the events in new, unpredictable directions.  The Jonestown events were not only the basis for “The Sacrament”, but also clearly as far as West was willing to take his film.  Still, “The Sacrament” is well filmed and performed, and West does manage some effective uncomfortable moments.  There is enough here to keep audiences interested.  The problem is the destination isn’t really worth the journey.  2½ Stars (Out of 4)

“Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple”: A Fascinating, Horrifying Trip

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(Photo: NPR.org; Jim Jones once sold monkeys door to door for extra income.)

November 18, 1978: Over 900 Peoples Temple members, including hundreds of children, die in what Jim Jones termed a “revolutionary suicide” event in and around Jonestown, Guyana.  The tragedy of that day lives in infamy, especially for those who remember its occurrence, and of course, it is a date marking enormous and lasting suffering for survivors and family members of those who perished.  The story of Jones and the Peoples Temple leading up to that fateful November day is well chronicled in a 2006 documentary: “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple”, directed by Stanley Nelson.  Jim Jones, the founder of the Peoples Temple and its charismatic leader, also died that day (by gunshot to the head) after instructing Temple members to kill their children and themselves.

Peoples Temple was founded in Indianapolis in 1955 by Jim Jones as a conduit through which to espouse his social and ideological views and a place to create the kind of community he envisioned: altruistic, racially integrated, spiritual though not necessarily traditionally religious, and devoted (though not publicly) to the ideals of communism.  People were drawn to his powerful speeches and the energetic ideas he brought forth.  In the early 1960s, Jones worked admirably for racial integration in Indiana even though it made him many enemies.  The film traces Peoples Temple’s evolution from the early days with amazing film footage, including some never before seen.  Commentary is provided by former Temple members, people who knew Jones or had dealings with the Temple, and survivors of Jonestown.  For viewers who have some familiarity with the story of Jonestown, the documentary will likely illuminate areas a little better.  For those who have only a cursory understanding or no knowledge of the Peoples Temple or the events at Jonestown, it will likely be a shocking but intriguing tale of an appealing, bewitching man who had a profound and deadly impact on many lives.  It’s one thing to read about Jones; to see the images that accompany the story and the accounts in this film really bring it to life.    

Peoples Temple moved its headquarters to California in the late 60s, and became less like a church and more like a radical social organization (or possibly a ‘new religious movement’) that viewed the United States and its political and social structure as unfit and tainted.  The Temple became increasingly hostile to members who wished to escape its grasp.  Nevertheless, the Temple expanded exponentially while in California and even toured the United States by bus convoy, raising funds for its various locations and operations. 

By the late 70s, though, media scrutiny of Jones and the Temple was becoming heavier.  Even though Peoples Temple had some serious political support on its side in California and elsewhere in the country, Jones eventually decided that the Temple needed to be free of the restraints placed on it in the United States, and moved the Temple headquarters to what was called the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project” in Guyana, in an isolated settlement that became commonly known as Jonestown.  At Jonestown, the viewer is treated to ramshackle images at first but eventually it’s clear that a lot of work was put in to create a home for the group in Guyana.  The communal music performances and laughter of happy people ring in a contentment and joy that is rarely associated with Jonestown at a glance.             

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However, Jones ran Jonestown like a communist state, paranoid, with Jones-controlled media and information channels, forbidding members to leave.  When ‘Concerned Relatives’ groups were organized in the U.S. by family members concerned about their loved ones in Guyana, the result was the eventual visit to Jonestown in November 1978 by Congressman Leo Ryan of California and others, including reporters.  The film relays important scenes of Ryan speaking in Jonestown to Temple members.  He visited Jonestown on a fact-finding and observational mission, to be sure, and to investigate allegations of abuses.  But what we see is that Ryan also praised the community at Jonestown for the bliss via sacrifice they all seemed to enjoy there, growing their own food, running their own schools and relying on each other for basic necessities. 

Only days later, Ryan was reportedly attacked by a Temple member.  His crew abruptly left Jonestown for the airfield at Port Kaituma.  As they were boarding their small plane, a group of Jonestown guards opened fire on them, killing Congressman Ryan and four others.  “The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” shows this horror vividly, including the brief footage of the actual shooting.  Striking accounts are provided by people who were there, frantically trying to avoid being shot. 

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(Photo: channel.nationalgeographic.com)

After the shooting at the airfield, Jones began advising Temple members that same day to participate in an act of “revolutionary suicide”, a concept he had been thinking about for some time, and drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid.  Jones’ voice can be heard over a speaker system saying: “We didn’t commit suicide.  We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world”.  Temple members were told to give the “potion” drink to their children first and then die together.  Some of the most heart-breaking moments in the film occur here as former members recount the dismay and jarring trauma they experienced as they realized what those around them were doing or had already done before they could even react: drinking poison and dying at a word’s notice.  Before they could process what was going on, their families lay dead on the ground.   

Jones was found dead, and the autopsy on his body revealed levels of barbiturates.  He apparently used other drugs as well.  Jones’ wife and several of his children died at Jonestown, along with many of his children’s children.  “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” exhibits a terrifying tale of the entrapment of ego, the seduction of ideas and the corruption of power.  Of course, this story also deals in wrenching human loss and suffering.  The Jonestown massacre is something people should know about.  Its place in history is unique, thankfully, but within this complex and sprawling story are some amazing events.  The story, in the end, however, is about incredible human beings, only a tiny fraction of whom survived their failed quest to change the world for the better.