Friday, May 2, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Cult Mentality

I was the impressionable age of 11 in 1978 when the shocking mass suicide of more than 900 people occurred in a religious commune known as Jonestown. Named for its leader, American expatriate Jim Jones, the self-described communist outpost in Guyana on the northern coast of South America was increasingly under US scrutiny due to abuse allegations by some former members. When a fact-finding delegation led by Congressman Leo Ryan arrived that November, Jones had Ryan and several of the other visitors killed and then ordered his obedient followers to drink cyanide-laced fruit punch in an act of “revolution.” There were only a handful of survivors. Jones shot himself in the head.

Many have pondered in the 35 years since what kind of power, manipulation and/or displaced loyalty could lead so many people to take their own lives at once. There have been other, similar but smaller-scale events post-Jonestown as well. Filmmakers have also grappled from time to time with Jonestown’s legacy and the continuing lure of religious cults. Writer-director Ti West is the latest, with his appropriately disturbing The Sacrament now available on VOD and scheduled to open in theaters on June 6th.

West updates the Jonestown scenario to a modern-day locale dubbed “Eden Parish.” About 200 people reside on the Christian, self-sustaining farm, including the long-lost sister of Patrick (Kentucker Audley). Sensing a story, Patrick’s friends at real-life Vice Media ask to tail him on his sibling reunion trip to Eden Parish. Writer Sam (AJ Bowen) and photojournalist Jake (indie filmmaker and actor Joe Swanberg, who receives top billing but remains behind the camera most of the time) begin to realize soon after their arrival that things aren’t quite right in the utopian community lorded over by the mysterious, Scripture-quoting Father (an excellent Gene Jones, who is presumably no relation to Jim). It isn’t long before the men are racing to escape and trying to take as many defecting commune members with them as they can.

Those who watch The Sacrament expecting a supernatural element in keeping with West’s previous films The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers will be disappointed, but the movie is no less chilling since it is thoroughly grounded in reality and history. The parallels are so strong between Jonestown and Eden Parish, however, that I ultimately question why West didn’t add some more original elements. I agree with philosopher George Santayana’s assertion that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and The Sacrament could potentially be educational for younger viewers who haven’t learned about the Jonestown tragedy. Those of us who lived through it, though, could find the movie a queasily unnecessary reminder.

While it isn’t religious in nature, one can argue that a cult has developed around the philosophical musings, films, theme parks, Broadway shows and all things related to the great Walt Disney. Heck, I’m a Disney devotee myself but strive to maintain at least a modicum of critical perspective. That high end D23 fan club hasn’t gotten me yet!

Over the last week, however, I have subjected myself to a couple of the Walt Disney Company’s new offerings. First was the latest touring Disney on Ice extravaganza, 100 Years of Magic. I hadn’t seen any of the prior ice shows, even though there have been four or five productions touring simultaneously across the country at any given time for the last 30 years. The celebratory subtitle of this one caught my attention, even if 80% of it is devoted to Disney-Pixar’s animated features of the last 25 years. A Pinocchio segment, the appearance of several “vintage” Disney princesses and a 50th anniversary tribute to It’s a Small World are the main exceptions. The skating and choreography are only so-so (although the female, Asian skater who appears as both Mulan and Pocahontas is a standout), but the set and costume designs are dazzling and occasionally ingenious. A 2-year old boy in the row in front of me was on the edge of his seat in wide-eyed wonder throughout the show’s family-friendly 120 minutes (including an intermission), while older kids and kids at heart (including more than a few gay adults) were loving it too.

More specifically geared toward adult (and gay) Disney fans is Dconstructed, a just-released compilation CDof classic Disney songs given the electronic dance music (EMD) treatment. Worry not: Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” from Frozen is included. While that tune, The Lion King’s “Circle of Life” and two selections from TRON: Legacy may seem obvious choices, some of the other ten tracks are less so. These would be “The Muppet Show Theme,” a very modern spin on the very retro “Hey Pluto!,” Dumbo’s ordinarily lullaby-paced “Baby Mine” and “Pineapple Princess,” sung by late former Mousketeer Annette Funicello. The best of the lot is probably Trion’s remix of “Once Upon a Dream” from Sleeping Beauty. The altogether hip and hoppin’ Dconstructed is available now from (what else?) Walt Disney Records.

Reverend’s Ratings:
The Sacrament - B
Disney on Ice: 100 Years of Magic - B-
Dconstructed - B+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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