Review: The Highwaymen

I like gangster films, 1930’s period pieces, and buddy cop movies, so I was bound to love Netflix’s The Highwaymen, starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as two retired Texas Rangers brought back for one final job in the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a western set in the era of Ford cars and Tommy guns. It’s a cool premise with a solid execution.

I was actually startled by how desolate Harrelson was in this film. The trailer made Harrelson’s Maney Gault seem like a sort of whimsical partner to Costner, but he plays a truly broken, haunted man, someone with a history of alcoholism to escape the memories of self-inflicted traumas, someone who feels worthless to everyone, including his own family. He clings with almost dog-like loyalty to his former superior, desperate to do something right in his final days, even if he’s not sure he can live with the consequences of their ultimate martial task. In contrast, Costner’s former Ranger Captain Frank Hamer has found a loving wife and comfortable life, marrying into wealth. Yet while he is the more stoic of the two cowboy enforcers, Hamer is very obviously suppressing his own guilt and pain.

(By the way, does it seem like there are more and more movies about older, more vulnerable men confronting–or running from–their violent legacies? Logan and The Last Jedi certainly show the trend’s alive in recent pop blockbuster films, but they seem to be everywhere, and action movies and westerns are no exception. I found a 2013 essay musing on the old-man-action-hero subgenre, but I’d say that it’s continued to evolve, with more of an emphasis on the failing powers of an older generation, rather than simply the stories of older tough guys who can still take and throw a punch better than any of the younger whippersnappers.)

Writer John Fusco and director John Lee Hancock assembled a fantastic story here. I loved that the focus was almost entirely on the law enforcement pursuit, and the depiction of Bonnie and Clyde is largely via case files, news reports, and public adoration of the distorted, larger-than-life image that the couple held. While there are snippets of the criminal duo in tense scenes of highway murders, the most we see of a Parker or a Barrow is in one mesmerizing sequence shared between Hamer and Clyde’s mechanic father (played by William Sadler). That said, the film presents a curious mingling of fact and fiction that offers itself more as a thoughtful and melancholy story about two men who have lived on past their fading into myth, rather than as a literal representation of the principals involved.

While there is a lot of dramatic embellishment, the portrayal of “Ma” Ferguson was especially hard to reconcile with reality, despite the occasional allusions to corruption allegations in the film. Still, Kathy Bates is a delight as the Governor of Texas in every scene in which she appears.

Just a couple more notes, as usual focusing on what’s obvious to me (which of course means neglecting many of the creative and practical elements of the film that made it enjoyable to me as a whole). While this is a movie that often allows scenes to rest on ambient sound, the high-energy fiddling score by Thomas Newman feels perfect. Additionally, I enjoyed John Schwartzman’s cinematography; the scenery is at turns achingly beautiful and hauntingly desolate, as the lawmen pursue the outlaw lovers over sizzling roadways and through dust fields, lying in wait in Dallas exurb slums and along pine-forested Louisiana back country.

While this film isn’t covering revolutionary new ground, it tells a solid cops-and-robbers story that finds time to reflect on legacy and reputation. It’s worth your time.

Review: Amores Perros

Several months back, another blogger recommended the film Amores Perros to me. A few weeks back, I got around to watching it. It was compelling, gritty, disturbing, and layered. Finally, I’m getting around to writing up some of my impressions.

Amores Perros (2000) is a Mexican crime drama written by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. I didn’t recognize the name, but I really should have. Most critically for me, he directed The Revenant, which was a tremendously raw and powerful movie and contained perhaps my favorite performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. Looking over Iñárritu’s directorial filmography is a laundry list of films I’ve, well, been meaning to get around to seeing…movies like 21 GramsBabel, and Birdman. (And yet I’m spending my free time re-watching Bond films…)

While Iñárritu’s other movies must currently remain on my ever-growing pile of Things to Watch, I’m glad that I’ve finally viewed Amores Perros. The film fascinatingly weaves together three separate stories: an aimless young man gets involved in the dog-fighting scene in an attempt to earn enough money to run away with his abusive brother’s wife; a successful middle-aged man leaves his family for an attractive model who is subsequently in a crash that leaves her severely injured; and an ex-con, vagabond, former guerrilla and current assassin grows disillusioned with his contract killing. The crash that injures the model is a central event connecting all the stories, but characters and events overlap between all three. Time roughly moves forward between each story, but even here there is overlap between the partitions. The title makes further connective tissue apparent: dogs factor into all the stories in key ways, and all the stories involve complicated relationships and broken loves.

Each of the stories is rather bleak, and turning points where one might find hope often dead-end or switch back to further tragedy. To say that the film is morally ambiguous does not feel quite right. Perhaps more accurately, Amores Perros showcases how people can make bad choices out of a good motivation, or how people who have lived lives of evil can rationalize their decisions–or can finally seek some form of redemption. “Redemption” is more of a spiritual concept, finding the desire to do better, or to find some contentment in life; we don’t really get any happy reunions or neat resolutions.

Amores Perros also offers a grim, hard-edged look at poverty, inequality, and crime in Mexico City. The setting feels real and authentic. Suffering and despair are saturated into everything within frame.

It was a hard watch at times, but I am grateful for the viewing experience. If you haven’t seen it, I’d certainly recommend it. Amores Perros is currently available for free, with limited advertising interruptions, on Vudu.

Recommendation: The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers

The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern PapersThe Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers by Henry James

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The more I am exposed to the writings of Henry James, the more he rises in my favor. I can strongly recommend both “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Aspern Papers”–and while I started this volume specifically for the former, it was the latter tale that proved to be my favorite.

“The Aspern Papers” reads sort of like a crime thriller focused not on a violation of law but rather of manners, complicated by an unreliable narrator and turned almost baroque by the leisurely summer setting in expat Venice and by the lovely, elaborate language. (The dense prose, the examination of the affairs of well-to-do socialites, and the dialogue that can be naturalistic or elaborate as the situation demands all hint at James’s status as part of a bridge between literary movements.) I was eager to see just how far the narrator would go in his pursuit of the titular papers of his literary idol, Jeffrey Aspern, a (fictitious) early American poet. The narrator is a critic and historian who has learned that Aspern’s lover still lives with her niece in Italy, in seclusion; she apparently has kept letters and the like from the late writer, and while she would never part with them in life, the narrator contrives to stay on as a boarder in the hopes that he might nonetheless find an opportunity to gain access to those documents. In his telling of events, the nameless narrator often seems to minimize his behavior or to emphasize his embarrassment at what he said and did, but his obsessive greed, regardless of the justification, is apparent. While the narrator seeks understanding for his actions and perhaps shared interest in his quest, it was the niece who most earned my affection. Middle-aged, lacking in many lived experiences or much education, stuck with her aunt in a too-big house in isolation, too meek to change things, Miss Tina is initially pathetic and lacking in agency. But by the end of the story, she finally gains some shred of confidence and independence, though it can be hard to see this through the smoke-screen of alternating pity and disgust that the narrator throws up around her (she can be plain or almost attractive, middle-aged or elderly, overly trusting or plain stupid, depending on his mood and the events surrounding the situation). She’s trapped on both sides by predators–by her dominating aunt, and by the manipulative new tenant with his secret quest for spoils. Only by the end is she given the opportunity to define herself. It’s interesting that the strongest character growth can be observed in a character obscured and misunderstood by the narrator, and I can’t help but imagine how fascinating it would be to see a version of the story that was centered on Miss Tina. (And the relationship between aunt and niece, fallen from a sort of nobility and living on in the corpse of a once-great dwelling, reminded me of the much-later documentary Grey Gardens.)

“The Turn of the Screw,” on the other hand, is an excellent ghost story. Set within a frame narrative of a holiday gathering in which this tale is allegedly being recited from a manuscript drafted by the haunted protagonist, a young governess finds herself in over her head on a new assignment in caring for two young children when she begins to see the glaring figures of a strange man and woman about the house and grounds. It is soon confirmed that the visages she sees match the descriptions of a deceased servant and the deceased former governess. The protagonist fears that the two have begun to corrupt the children and plan to take them away. While there is much debate among academics over whether the ghosts should be interpreted as literal or psychological, I found the story to be agnostic on the point, yet another disturbing mystery to ponder. There are many mysteries in the story, including just what exactly former tenants Quint and Jessel actually did. Certainly it is suggested that they had an affair, that Quint may have violated or abused or degraded many women, and while the sexual implications are only ever suggested, never stated outright, they certainly suggest a sadist of a man. How they implicated the children, and what they want with the children in death, is even more troubling. I have my own interpretation, and I’m sure there are many others. So much of the story is about ambiguous, disturbing events that invite multiple interpretations and explanations. And the end is far from happy.

Both stories are excellent. I don’t particularly care if you read this volume (although I appreciated the introduction by Anthony Curtis), but I do strongly recommend that you read these stories in whatever format you can.

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3 Reviews: Heneral Luna, Kita Kita, & BuyBust

Back at the start of January, just over a month ago, my wife and I watched three Filipino films on Netflix: Heneral LunaKita Kita, and BuyBust. As I write this, the three are still on Netflix, included in the paltry “Filipino Movies & TV” category along with AmoBirdshot, and recent additions All of You (a romance/drama) and Goyo: The Boy General (a sequel to Heneral Luna).

Heneral LunaKita Kita, and BuyBust share the simple similarity of being Filipino films in the same way that GloryMy Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Dirty Harry all share the similarity of being American films. In other words, there’s nothing uniting them. And if I were writing these reflections closer to viewing, or if this blog were focused on film, then I would definitely give each film its own separate post with completely separate reviews.

As it is, I’ve been wanting to write up my thoughts on these films for a while, but I’ve put it off so long that I’m relying on faulty memory and my own brief notes, and this blog is far from a review site or film discussion platform. So here they are, all together, united only by national origin.

Kita Kita

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I’ll start with Kita Kita, as this was my favorite of the three, and I’d recommend it to just about anyone who loves fun or, well, love. Kita Kita, written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo, is a 2017 romantic comedy starring Alessandra de Rossi and Empoy Marquez. De Rossi’s character is a Filipina tour guide living in Sapporo, Japan, who develops temporary blindness after discovering that her boyfriend was cheating on her. Marquez is a dorky young man who moves in across the street, attempting to befriend her as she adjusts to her new life without vision. If that sounds ridiculous, it is, and the film just has a lot of fun without ever really laughing at itself. Marquez and De Rossi have excellent chemistry and are frequently funny. Absurd elements pile up in the background and foreground, including a silent banana sidekick, a subversion of the expected feeling-of-loved-one’s-face-to-see, a shockingly blunt third-act shift in plot and tone that revisits much of the film’s events, and a major plot thread hung on the fact that the Sapporo brewing company originated in and was named for the city of the same name. Yet the sillier it gets, the sweeter it gets, and I was touched both by the central relationship and the final moments of the film. I’ll admit that I read some moments of heightened sentimentality in an ironic way and enjoyed the movie for it; some might read it straight and find those same moments cloying (or at least cute rather than painfully, awkwardly funny). Kita Kita invites you to give in to fun and romance for an hour and a half, and whether you decide that it’s subversive and clever or absurd and stupid, you’ll probably at least laugh a few times. Oh, also, KZ Tandingan performs a version of “Two Less Lonely People in the World,” which is just great; she’s worth listening to even if you plan to skip the movie.

Heneral Luna

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In contrast, Heneral Luna (directed by Jerrold Tarog, who shares writing credit with Henry Francia and E.A. Rocha) is a 2015 Filipino war epic and biopic of the titular general, Antonio Luna (portrayed by John Arcilla). I thought the movie was campy and nationalist, heavy in symbolism but at best a modest success as a historical fiction or biographical production. I was only vaguely familiar with Luna’s life and only somewhat more familiar with his death, but my knowledge was enough to guide me through the dizzying whirlwind of factual and fictitious events depicted. I don’t think it’s meant to be read as pure history, either, as there are some surreal sequences that attempt to plumb his psyche and early years, and battles are played up for gallant heroism with the occasional grotesque carnage of war thrown in for emphasis. Seriousness is lost especially in every scene portraying the Americans, as the “American” actors dressed up cliche-filled dialogue in hammy performances and cheesy accents. General Arthur MacArthur is portrayed as such a goddamn cowboy general despite his pompous demeanor and portly body that it was tempting to cheer for the comic figure. The film teeters between cavalier depictions of violence and sentimental hero-worship, and Luna is presented as not just a hero but a doomed savior and martyr. I’d say that Luna was depicted as downright messianic, and there’s a strong argument to be made that Heneral Luna functions as a contemporary, nationalistic pasyon (while I don’t feel qualified to develop the argument much further than that, I’d be very interested to read any academic or film critic essays that explore that avenue).

BuyBust

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I did not like BuyBust. I hated BuyBust. BuyBust (written by Anton C. Santamaria and Erik Matti, with Matti directing) is the story of a militarized squad of law enforcement officers fighting the war on drugs, trapped in the labyrinthine slums of one neighborhood and killed off one by one as they mow down waves of drug dealers, enforcers, and virtually rabid slum-dwellers. Matti co-wrote and directed On the Job, and I loved On the Job. Matti is actually a critic of the drug war and of Duterte and speaks quite intelligently about what exactly he was doing with this film (“Usually, with these adrenaline-pumping action movies, there are lulls in the middle to give the audience a break, but for this one we wanted to try something where it just doesn’t let up. It just goes on and on — even to the point of people getting tired,” he told the Hollywood Reporter.)

Still, whatever the filmmaker’s intentions (and regardless of the general critical response, which seems to be mostly favorable), I personally read much of the film as disgustingly classist and authoritarian. There are corrupt cops, and it slowly dawns on some of the surviving civilians that law enforcement and drug dealers are dragging them into a never-ending cycle of violence and vendettas that do not serve the common folk that both sides claim to protect, and there are some last-minute reveals about higher-level corruption and a cover-up of the violence, but I don’t think it would be too hard for a film-goer to interpret the film as pro-establishment. (Matti adds in that Reporter interview, “I wanted it to be as clear-minded and as neutral as possible . . . . I don’t really want to take sides and be pro-government or anti-government.”) After all, the cops, weighed down in body armor and piles of guns and ammo, are treated as the victims for much of the film, unfairly assaulted by the impoverished denizens of this back-alley realm.

The indigent population of Manila’s slums is treated as a horde of savage, mindless, and brutish animals. They are easily persuaded to blame law enforcement first for the deaths caused by the drug lords and then for the deaths caused by the police killing in self-defense against the early attacks by other homicidal slum-dwellers. The “heroes” are generic soldier types, a couple given exhausted tropes in place of actual personalities, most with no personality at all. Most of the film is spent in dark, drawn-out action sequences, and grotesque violence is apparently relished, especially when targeted against the poor. These exceedingly long, exceedingly brutal, exceedingly pointless fights pad out the run time to just over two hours, but with the plot of an hour-long TV special. In many ways, the experience was like that of watching a zombie horror film, or perhaps playing a segment of a zombie horror game, set in genuinely claustrophobic, winding, gritty urban slums (this is hardly a unique observation; while I felt clever in drawing the connection, apparently just about everyone else did as well, and Matti himself talks about “the zombie film without zombies idea” in that Reporter interview–and honestly, the interview is rather fascinating, and I’d encourage you to skip the movie and read that instead, or at least to read it first before going into the film).

There are two “twists” at the end of the film that are both pedestrian and unsurprising. First, the surviving slum-dwellers reject both sides and demand that what’s left of law enforcement and criminals leave. Second, we learn–gasp!–that there were higher-level corrupt police officers who use the cycle of raids as a way to profit off the drug lords.

I will say that I would have been more interested in the civilians’ final decision of non-interference and independence if we hadn’t had to watch them be butchered by the dozens, often in horrifying ways, up to that point. While Matti apparently tried to avoid an anti-poor take, the film still reeks of it to me.

The most powerful moment of the film is the closing sequence, in which a news report says that a drug lord was captured with thirteen dead, while we know that the crime boss had in fact been killed, and the camera pans across the slums in the daylight, covered in the bodies of dozens of the fallen. That moment is dramatic and ironic and poignant, but it’s too late to course-correct for the brutal two-hour drag leading up to it.

In conclusion, I’d recommend Kita Kita, I thought that Heneral Luna was fine but not vital viewing, and I hated BuyBust.

Pseudo-Review: The Ted Bundy Tapes

I watched Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes over this weekend. As if anyone needed a reminder, it established how evil a man Ted Bundy was. There weren’t any jaw-dropping revelations, and if there were any new insights into the man, I didn’t register them.

I don’t really want to write a full review for this. I’d rather just leave today with the pretty pictures from my other post. But I just wanted to share that I saw the documentary, and while it was morbidly fascinating, it was not really must-watch television.

I don’t think this documentary will really challenge your views or present you with much new information. I don’t think that we as an audience, as a society, benefit from the rehashing of murders committed by a very disturbing, yet very small, fraction of our society. But I recognize that the grotesque nature of the crimes and the alien psychology of the killers is…mesmerizing? Haunting?

Bundy’s kind of confusing because he doesn’t seem to have the same sort of triggers or childhood behaviors that are typically associated with serial killers. He’s frightening because he seems almost like he was just born evil, though I imagine it’s not as simple as that. But my opposition to the death penalty remained untested. I imagine that if you support the death penalty, your views will similarly be untested. I hope that if you disagree with me about capital punishment, you will at least agree that the people who celebrated his impending death with partying, drinking, and cheering are reprehensible and represent a deplorable facet of human psychology.

I actually have more thoughts–as usual, a lot more thoughts. But I don’t have the same desire to write them out. It can be depressing to dwell on these real-world monsters.

Review: Birdshot

Birdshot (directed by Mikhail Red, and written by Mikhail and Rae Red) is a fusion of magic realism and film noir. It’s a dark, tragic coming of age story. It’s a tale of innocence lost in the face of violence, corruption, and abusive authority–innocence of not only Maya (Mary Joy Apostol), the farm-girl protagonist, but also Domingo (Arnold Reyes), a young police officer who is a major viewpoint character.

Maya and Domingo are both paired with gruff older men who expect them to learn about and adapt to the harsh realities of the world to survive. Maya’s mentor is her father, Diego (Ku Aquino), caretaker of agrarian land adjoining a national wildlife refuge. Domingo’s mentor is the thoroughly corrupt and violent partner he’s paired with, Mendoza (John Arcilla), who’s more concerned about pleasing their commanding officer than delivering justice.

Maya is trained by her father to use an old rifle to hunt birds. She’s initially reluctant, but she wanders into the sanctuary to follow a strange call. When she sees a Philippine eagle, she shoots and kills it, inadvertently committing a crime. Meanwhile, Domingo is eager to find out what happened to an abandoned bus and its missing passengers, while his mentor is insistent that he drop the case and focus on the seemingly trivial matter of the missing eagle.

Police corruption is demonstrated on two levels. On the intimate scale of the film’s main events, the officers are called off a major missing persons case and both eventually become comfortable with violence, maiming, torture, killing. On a broader level, higher-level law enforcement and operators of sprawling haciendas are implicated in the exploitation of tenant farm workers and the suppression of protest.

The film hints at magic realism, though it doesn’t go all-in. There is a figure that follows Maya when she is alone; one is left to interpret that figure in a variety of ways. Her grandmother tells her stories about the spirits speaking to the living during the full moon, which frames how much of the film’s events are viewed. In contrast, Domingo seems to encounter a ghost who turns out to be the family member of a missing worker.

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The framing of that moment is great. The police station shuts off power after-hours. Domingo sits at his desk, exhausted, out of leads. He lights a cigarette and sees a ghostly apparition down the hall. We see his surprised face, illuminated by the cigarette. Then we cut to a perspective behind him, looking over his shoulder, framing him faintly in the foreground, with the stark, mysterious figure down the hall; with the cigarette blocked by his body, we only see its smoke, wrapping around the hall like tendrils of mist, or like spectral apparitions of their own. Even once we have a human face for the woman, the lamp Domingo uses gives her a ghastly pallor. She is a ghost, of sorts, a ghost of loss and grief, a voice of the dead.

There are so many moments in this film with beautiful, powerful images. Maya is typically clad in white and red, a none-too-subtle reminder of the violence that stains her innocence (and that is echoed by her own bleeding when she starts menstruating in the middle of the film). Red by blood or cloth or firelight, corpses of birds and people, deep darkness especially in scenes with the police, and the digging of graves (or symbolic graves, as when Diego and Maya attempt to hide the gun) are just some of the symbolic visuals incorporated into the film. So many scenes are loaded with powerful imagery and unearthly sounds breaking silence. So many shots would work just as well as still photography (the cinematographer is Mycko David, but in reviewing the film’s credits I’m reminded that so many people play a role in the creation of a scene and a movie that I feel a little guilty not simply listing everyone here).

The plot is also twisty, winding back on itself in subtle and obvious references to earlier events and dialogue. It slowly builds layers over a straightforward police investigation. It’s simple to follow, but it rewards reflection. My wife and I are still drawing connections and having light-bulb moments days after the film.

Like most great noir, the film ends in tragedy and loss, the protagonists futile against institutional power. Perhaps most shocking to me was the moral collapse of one character only midway through the film. But having not expected a noir film when I began, I was not expecting the conventions of the genre, which were in some ways adhered to and in other ways subverted.

This was powerful, thought-provoking cinema, and I’d highly recommend it. And for now, it’s readily available for streaming via Netflix.

Review: The Road to Jonestown

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples TempleThe Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Road to Jonestown is a compelling portrait of Jim Jones. He’s a fascinating human, and his combination of socialism and an increasingly spiritualist interpretation of the Gospel seems very enticing (though obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Jones was not a man worthy of following). Typically I don’t see the appeal in cults, but that ideology and service-driven focus could have easily snagged 19-year-old me if I’d been around at the time. Just as interesting, Jones was able to gain legitimacy by obtaining membership within a nationally recognized church and by integrating himself into civil rights campaigning in Indianapolis and San Francisco. For all the abuse, control, and killing that would come down the line, he started off doing a lot of good. Yet that doesn’t make up for the evil that was ultimately unleashed by his increasingly twisted, controlling psyche.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Jim Jones, Peoples Temple and Jonestown, cults in general, or even local histories of Indianapolis or San Francisco. Just a fascinating read, and quite well-researched too.

I had two complaints with the book that were perpetual minor irritants.

For one thing, Guinn repeatedly refers to “Indiana University” as “the University of Indiana.” There are a lot of universities in Indiana, but the University of Indiana ain’t one of them. No one I know who is an alumnus or fan of IU calls it that, and as far as I can tell, it never had that name in its history (certainly not in the mid-twentieth century). Despite this, it’s a misnomer that Guinn uses frequently in the first third of the book, and he even indexes the university under this incorrect name. While it seems like he did his research about Indiana and appears to have visited at least Richmond and Lynn, this nonetheless made me repeatedly question his rigor of research and understanding of the state that, after all, formed Jim Jones into the adult and pastor who would form a church and campaign for civil rights reforms all before moving on to California.

The other complaint is that Guinn freely mixes the use of the terms “socialism” and “communism.” This would be a minor irritant, but it made it difficult to understand what, exactly, Jim Jones was advocating for. It may be that Jim Jones left plenty of confusion on that point–his organization seemed socialist, but he was prepared to move to communist Cuba or Russia by the time of the Jonestown days. Nonetheless, if Jones’s basic ideology was really so muddled as to be unable to distinguish between these systems of governance, it would have been nice to make that clearer in the text (or to make it clear that the confusion lay in communist countries referring to themselves as socialist). Especially in today’s politically divided America of hyperbolic rhetorical extremes, where even commonly accepted government entitlements are derided as “socialist” and treated as equivalent to communism by an ever-growing subset of conservatism, I think it’s important to use these terms as carefully as possible.

Those were the only things that bothered me while reading. It was a fast-paced, informative, and disturbing read. Guinn appeared to approach the matter with honesty and good faith. While in retrospect I would have preferred to learn more about the specifics of Jones’s increasingly bizarre beliefs that appeared to combine government conspiracy theories with spiritualism, a belief in reincarnation, and socialism, Guinn still does an admirable job of tracing the public and private arc of one rather charismatic cult leader’s life and self-serving death.

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