This Week's New Releases
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
dir. Stanley Nelson
Maybe I've been reading too much Michael Pollan lately, but it's occurred to me that the idiom "to drink the Kool-Aid" might be one of the most perfect products of the 20th century. Of course it's reductive and insensitive to the families of the over 900 people who were coerced into committing suicide by their leader Jim Jones in 1978. Still, there's something fascinating—even repulsively representative—about a countercultural movement born of '60s idealism that ended in sadistic mind control and mass-produced sugar water. (Naysayers like to point out that the powdered drink used in Jonestown was technically Flavor Aid, but one of the great moments in this documentary is archival footage in which Jones shows off his colony's store of "Kool-Aid." Brand names cut both ways.)
The excellent Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple follows pastor Jim Jones from his Pentecostal roots in Indiana to a utopian commune in rural Northern California to a classically abusive cult in San Francisco and, finally, to the creepy eponymous settlement of Jonestown, Guyana, where his increasingly paranoid rants were broadcast over speakers 24 hours a day. What stays consistent throughout Jones's career, however, isn't manipulation or abuse. It's a progressive agenda few liberals in San Francisco felt comfortable denouncing—and Jones's absolute insistence that his church be racially integrated.
In emotional interviews, former adherents who escaped the suicide/massacre emphasize the novelty of a white pastor leading an essentially African-American church service. They describe their pride in a leader who practiced the anti-racism he preached, and the comfort they took in the extensive social services provided by the Peoples Temple. This documentary makes it easy to understand how Jones's revolutionary fervor might have looked reckless but noble in the '50s, attracted adherents in the cultural upheaval of the '60s, and derailed as Jones's barbiturate-aided paranoia slammed against the panic and decline of the '70s. Kool-Aid turns out to be an ideal delivery system for a cultural history of the United States. ANNIE WAGNER
God Grew Tired of Us
dir. Christopher Dillon Quinn
One of several documentaries about the relocation of Sudanese "Lost Boys" from African refugee camps to U.S. cities, God Grew Tired of Us covers a longer period of time than either Lost Boys of Sudan or A Great Wonder. Since it's reluctant to dwell on the glitches in the massive relocation program, however, God Grew Tired of Us ends up feeling less exhaustive than the earlier efforts.
The film starts in the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, where 25,000 starved, diseased, and presumably orphaned Dinka boys from southern Sudan had arrived en masse after walking for thousands of miles across the sub-Saharan desert. In order to survive, the boys had organized themselves into "families," putting older children in charge of younger ones. As one of the oldest children during the exodus, 13-year-old John Bul Dau was at the top of the chain, taking responsibility for 1,200 of his fellow orphans. To no one's surprise, he eventually establishes himself as a leader in Syracuse, too. The other subjects, friends Daniel Abol Pach and Panther Bior, had been leaders in the boys' refugee-camp "parliament"; they too meet with success in the United States.
Bankrolled by National Geographic and people like Brad Pitt, God Grew Tired of Us is irrepressibly hopeful. For every startling fact (the young men are required to repay the U.S. government for their initial airfare—remind anyone of indentured servitude?), there's a tearful reunion with a long-lost mother or a funny scene where a boy eats a pat of butter whole. To put it cynically: This optimistic approach is probably effective at loosening your pockets. But if the earlier documentaries are any indication, the stories recounted in God Grew Tired of Us are not necessarily representative of the 4,000 teenagers and young men who walked out of a brutal civil war and into minimum-wage jobs in isolated American suburbs. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer
They clash in the parks and wooded areas surrounding Baltimore. These men and women, mostly in their 30s, dress up in armor and various medieval garb. Some even speak invented languages. They are soldiers in the midst of an epic war between rival nations, scheming and negotiating, double-crossing and backstabbing, but ultimately, and routinely, meeting on the battlefields, where they hammer at each other with weapons made of cardboard and foam. It's Dungeons & Dragons come to frenzied, and completely serious, life; World of Warcraft let loose from the hard drive.
As documentary subjects go, the game of Darkon is ripe for mockery. The game is geekery taken to its new and—if not for the relative normality of its players—troubling heights. It runs the risk of becoming all consuming. But Darkon's directors, Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer, haven't set out to present their subjects as an army of delusional dorks. We learn that for many it is no more than an escape from daily doldrums, for others a chance to earn a popularity that eluded them in high school, and, yes, for some who immerse themselves in the game's invented mythology, it's a means of avoiding their lives. But when Neel and Meyer show us the players in battle—complete with soaring cameras and thundering score—their obsession, no matter how minor or major, is both charming and, in a sense, understandable. After all, who hasn't dreamed of being a hero at some point in his life? And, for that matter, who wouldn't enjoy bashing his friends and enemies with cardboard swords every once in a while? BRADLEY STEINBACHER
dir. Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky
Half-Cocked is the story of the Truck Stops, a band of outsiders (led by musician and non-actor Tara Jane O'Neil) who steal a van and pretend to be a punk band to afford/justify living on the road. The black-and-white film—shot in 15 days in 1994—follows the Truck Stops' slow-moving, starkly beautiful tour through venues and houses in Louisville, Chattanooga, and Nashville.
The van in question belongs to Tara's brother Otis (Nation of Ulysses/Make Up frontman Ian Svenonius) and his "real" band, the Guillo-Teens. Ostensibly, Svenonius is the film's villain—brazenly ambitious, vain, socially adept, willing to rehearse, work, play covers—and Tara is its unambitious, disheveled, painfully soft-spoken heroine.
But Svenonius is of course wildly charismatic and funny, while O'Neil is inarticulate and blank, mumbling and hiding her bright eyes behind her bangs. Her band members make equally unlikely heroes—lying, stealing, whining, infighting, entitled, lazy, and musically retarded. Otis derides them as "bohemians" and sneers at their lack of drive. By the film's end, the Truck Stops have transformed—by necessity—into a decent band, but they become no more endearing. When their adventure abruptly ends, restoring the status quo, you're mostly just glad that the Guillo-Teens are getting their stuff back.
The cast is stacked with musicians (including James Murphy, members of the Grifters, and several Dischord artists), Tara's mom is played by O'Neil's real-life mother, and Svenonius does an exaggerated version of his already heavily mediated onstage persona. For indie rock obsessives, Half-Cocked's built-in appeal (Svenonius!) and kick-ass soundtrack (Smog!) will overcome its admittedly amateur acting and crawling plot. For others, it will be a very long music video for some bands they've never heard of. ERIC GRANDY
dir. Andrei Kravchuk
In the dark movie Blind Shaft (2003), a serial killer explains to his partner in crime that China's main natural resource is its people. The country has lots of them, and so humans are the raw material on which the economy is actually based. Contemporary Russia does not have nearly as many people as contemporary China, but in the post-Soviet, globalized economy, its people have become a major resource. And not as labor—a productive force generated by life force—but as human bodies, as blood, as organs, as desired flesh. Several films have addressed this grim economic reality, and the most recent is Andrei Kravchuk's The Italian.
The Italian is a 6-year-old Russian boy, Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), who lives in an orphanage and is tough, smart, and cute. His cuteness wins him the opportunity of a lifetime: An Italian couple falls in love with his looks and decides to adopt him. A fat woman—the symbol of raw Russian capitalism—brokers the deal, and all the boys in the orphanage congratulate Vanya's luck by naming him "The Italian." Now, those who are familiar with the short works of Isaac Babel will recall "The Sunshine of Italy," and recognize a corresponding theme between that old literary work and this new movie—Russia is cold, icy, and hopeless; Italy is hot, rich, and bright with hope. The boy is exposed to the sun of hope, but is this hope meaningful? Is it not an illusion? And what about mother Russia? Can we abandon our sad country for a dream of happiness? While waiting for his adoption papers to go through the courts, the boy deals with the dilemma.
His decision, however, turns out to be a disappointing one, and so the film as a whole turns out to be a disappointment. CHARLES MUDEDE