Sunday, September 12, 2010

9/12 Die: Guyana- Crime of the Century

Last year on 9/12, a man went to Washington to hold a rally.  That man was Glenn Beck.  Besides being loud and abrasive, the man is also a dangerous idiot.  Three times now, he's made statements along the lines of 'Group A is going to to get you & only you can protect yourselves.'  Three times, some listener of his has shot up a police station/military base/political building following those remarks.  You do the math.  In honor of the anniversary of his "million-strong" rally, I want to review the tale of a similar man- Jim Jones.  Mind you, in this bio-pic film, he's actually Jim Johnson.  It's funny because they make a note to say that 'the names of the innocent have been changed'...and so has his.  Coincidence?  They also change the name of famous Senator 'Leo Ryan' to 'Lee O'Brien.'  Oh good, because I wouldn't remember the only Senator ever killed in the line of duty...a year after it happened.  This film was made the year after the tragic events in Guyana and comes to us from 'acclaimed' director Rene Cardona Jr, the man behind Cyclone (the one with the plane crash, not the bike) and Tintorera.  For those who don't know, he was following in the footsteps of Rene Cardona Sr, his father and fellow director of genre films.  I tell you this so that your standards are properly gauged for the film to come.  Get out your delicious Flavor Aid for my review of...
The film begins with some long, lingering shots of the San Francisco era.  Cliched establishing footage or the darkest Full House episode ever- you decide!  After that, we get a man shooting himself in the head.  Who is this?  What context is there?  'I don't know' and 'none' would be the answers.  Seriously, this scene apparently takes place in March 1979, while all of the Jonestown/Johnsontown deaths took place in 1978.  Explain, movie!  Instead of doing this, they give us nearly ten minutes straight of Johnson/Jones (Stuart Whitman) giving a speech to his flock about how they have to move.  Cutting right to the chase, huh?  While Whitman does play the character well, this is way too long to hold the scene.  After that, we get another several minutes of Congressman Lee O'Brien (no relation to Conan) talking about Jim Johnson/Jones.  Way to grab them early, Rene!  After all of that, the flock moves out of the city and out of the country, where nothing bad would ever happen...ever.
In Johnsontown/Jonestown, things seem perfect.  The people are happy, James Johnson/Jim is free to engage in rampant sex (not shown, but implied) and Joseph Cotton is in town.  Unfortunately, some kids steal supplies and totally kill the town's buzz.  This leads to some graphic and brutal punishment.  As my brother said at the time 'fortunately, the print is so washed out that you can't see anything.'  This leads to some dissent in the town, while the Elders insist that what was done had to be done.  In America, we get more talk about O'Brien being concerned about Johnsontown/Jonestown.  Finally, he heads over there by plane.  Actually, to be fair, he heads to a nearby village by plane and then heads to Johnsontown/Jonestown by way of a different plane.  I appreciate the authenticity of that, I really do, but you could have simplified that.  If you aren't going to give people the same names, why keep this aspect intact?  Everything seems fine in the cult town, leading O'Brien to state that 'all of the people I've talked to have shown that they are happy to be here.'  That's Senatorial slang for 'people are slipping me notes about how they want to escape, but I won't say anything.'  O'Brien eventually comes clean to Johnson/Jones about the fact that he's there on a Congressional Inquiry.  He takes it well.
Of course, you know that things don't end well.  If you don't, you really went to a shoddy, second-rate School.  Seriously, get a refund!  Johnson/Jones has a bit of a freak-out when he finds out that some of his people are leaving, but manages to control himself.  As the group prepares to board their tiny plane, a group of men from the cult arrive alongside the airstrip and start firing.  To the film's credit, they match their footage to the real event pretty well, even nailing the frantic tone as well.  That night, Johnson/Jones gives a big speech about how they can't get amnesty anywhere else due to the killings, so death is the only answer.  This is the film's big moment, so they play it for all it's worth!  In contrast to the believed-reality of the situation, the film shows many people trying to escape and/or drinking the Flavor Aid at gunpoint.  What's the point of a Cult if they won't follow you in a Suicide Pact?  We get some trippy footage of Johnson/Jones talking to a drugged-out, dying cult member that's right out of a music video.  In the end, they're all dead.  So, again, who was the guy committing suicide in the beginning again?  Got me.  The End.
This movie shouldn't suck, but it kind of does.  This is a subject rife for a teleplay/screenplay, but this one just falters.  They somehow make a lot of this stuff just seem dull by drawing it out or playing it too subtle.  It's a crazy cult that practically worships a man- make it interesting!  Hell, because they skip out on a lot of material, they ruin it.  Jones apparently discouraged sex between unmarried cult members, but engaged in sex with both the female and male members!  I know it's a touchy subject, but you really missed out on an opportunity.  In fact, a little film called Eaten Alive made better use out of this material!  It's not a good movie, but it makes it more interesting at least.  There's also a film called Guyana Tragedy from 1980 (see Amazon link below) which stars Powers Boothe as Jones.  Is that film better?  Maybe we'll find out next 9/12...or whenever I decide to see it.  As far as this film is concerned, it's exploitation that does a bad job of making the exploitation interesting.  Much like some of the more dull Blaxploitation or Jungle Peril films, I have to ask: what's the point?
Next up, we step away from political territory and into a Giallo film.  It's also the beginning of 'Sounds Like' Week- bonus!  Stay tuned...

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