2012 - %3, June

"To Rome With Love": Assembly-Line Woody Allen

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 6:31 AM EDT

To Rome With Love
Sony Pictures Classics
112 minutes

Woody Allen's new movie, quite frankly, sucks. As is true with too much of Allen's 21st century output, it trudges along as a mash-up of the director's less inspired flights of fancy. If you cobbled together various pieces of used scratch paper from the floor of Woody Allen's office, taped the scraps together with little-to-zero discipline, and tacked on an extra dose of tired surrealism, you'd get something along the lines of To Rome With Love—a sorry little movie that is at its very best playfully self-indulgent, and at its worst hellishly self-indulgent.

I could recap the synopsis for you now, but I'm instead outsourcing most of that work to this guy at LA Weekly. Suffice it to say that the movie takes place in (you guessed it) Rome. Through a ragbag of strained vignettes, the film weaves together disparate tales of infidelity, opera, fame, infidelity, love, more infidelity, disillusionment, and infidelity. The ensemble cast is top-notch, with a disarming blend of sex, smarts, and suave befitting a movie of far greater worth. But because of the overflow of competing plotlines, none of the star players (particularly Ellen Page as a seductive pseduo-intellectual who specializes in the "perversion of the dialectic") get the screen time they're due.

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"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter": Precursor to "Jimmy Carter: Space-Troll Grundle-Puncher"?

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Yes.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
20th Century Fox
105 minutes

If you don't appreciate Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter then you don't appreciate what makes America great.

It's exuberant and obscenely fun, plugging away at one big, fat, giddy premise. The vamp-loaded 3D action sequences (orchestrated with a honed shamelessness by director Timur Bekmambetov) are sublime, mainly due to the fact that you get to see the Great Emancipator balletically wreck legions of blood-suckers through the art of ax-twirling and kung fu. The movie also has the greatest stampede scene since Simba got his life ruined in The Gorge; one that involves the vampire who murdered Lincoln's mom throwing full-grown horses at a young and vengeful Abe.

But aside from being a wild kick of escapist, blood-mottled fun (tepid critical reception be damned), the film opens up a world of possibilities: A movie franchise in which Hollywood would honor every single American president with a gore-soaked retelling:

1. George Washington: Acid-Pterosaur Poacher. He resigns his commission in 1783...while fighting off flying reptiles that spew acid at the behest of a bitter British elite. 

2. John Adams: Mummy Shanker. Launches an undeclared naval war against the French Republic. Unbeknowst to his cabinet, Adams stabs mummified demons in his spare hours.

3. Thomas Jefferson: Big-Pimpin' Zombie Drop-Kicker. Completely dominates Islamist bandits centuries before it was cool. (Spoiler: The bandits all turn out to be zombies.)

Your Weekend Longreads List on Dark Money

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

401kcalculator.org/Flickr

longreadsAs election season heats up, I asked my Mother Jones colleagues to suggest their picks for the best recent long-form reportage on one of our favorite topics—the stories behind the money in American politics. For more MoJo staffers' long-form favorites, visit our longreads.com page. Take a look at some of our own reporters' longreads here, and be sure to follow @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter for the latest.



State for Sale | Jane Mayer | The New Yorker | October 2011

Just how much political influence can one wealthy individual wield? A whole lot, according to Mayer's profile of conservative North Carolina philanthropist and self-proclaimed defender of democracy Art Pope.

I met with Pope recently in a suburban office building that serves as the Raleigh headquarters of Variety Wholesalers. In a spare conference room overlooking a parking lot, he told me that he is indeed misunderstood. "If the left wing wants a whipping boy, a bogeyman, they throw out my name," he said. "Some things I hear about Art Pope—you know, I don't like this guy Art Pope that they're talking about. I don’t know him. If what they say were true, I wouldn’t like a lot of things about me. But they're just not true."

Recommended by editorial coordinator Hannah Levintova.


Bob Perry Needs a Hug | S. C. Gwynne | Texas Monthly | April 2007

Before the 2008 election, Gwynne got the reclusive Texan who was America's (then) top political donor to open up a bit.

In spite of such a massive political presence, Perry is as mysterious as some of the groups he funds. He never talks to the press, rarely appears in public, and remains an inscrutable figure even to people to whom he has given hundreds of thousands of dollars. He might have maintained this relatively low profile indefinitely, except that in 2004 he was the largest funder of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the controversial 527 that many people credit with derailing John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Almost overnight, Perry became a poster boy for the notion that a cabal of wealthy donors, shady consultants, and unaccountable 527’s was taking over American politics.

Recommended by reporter Tim Murphy.


Follow the Dark Money | Andy Kroll | Mother Jones | July 2012

In this epic tale, Kroll details the four-decade battle over campaign finance starting with Watergate money laundering and culminating in the current super-PAC free-for-all.

"We're back to the Nixon era," says Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, "the era of undisclosed money, of big cash amounts and huge interests that are small in number dominating American politics." This is the story of how we got here.

Recommended by multiple MoJoers.

The Man Behind Citizens United is Just Getting Started | Stephanie Mencimer | Mother Jones | May/June 2011

The dawn of the super-PAC era caught a lot of people by surprise. Mencimer profiles James Bopp, the legal mastermind who made it possible.

Clad in a brown sweater and sitting awkwardly with a cane at his side, Bopp looked far more mortal than you might expect for "the man behind our secret elections," as Common Cause recently dubbed him (PDF). When I asked him about the allegation that he uses his small, nonprofit clients as cover for a big-business agenda, a frustrated look crossed his face. He'd happily represent corporate clients, he said, "if they'd hire me." The problem, he said, was that those clients want their lawyers in DC, not Indiana.

Recommended by senior editor Dave Gilson.


Money Unlimited | Jeffrey Toobin | The New Yorker | May 2012

Toobin documents how one of the defining decisions of the Roberts Supreme Court arose from a case of seemingly "modest importance."

In a different way, though, Citizens United is a distinctive product of the Roberts Court. The decision followed a lengthy and bitter behind-the-scenes struggle among the Justices that produced both secret unpublished opinions and a rare reargument of a case. The case, too, reflects the aggressive conservative judicial activism of the Roberts Court. It was once liberals who were associated with using the courts to overturn the work of the democratically elected branches of government, but the current Court has matched contempt for Congress with a disdain for many of the Court’s own precedents. When the Court announced its final ruling on Citizens United, on January 21, 2010, the vote was five to four and the majority opinion was written by Anthony Kennedy. Above all, though, the result represented a triumph for Chief Justice Roberts. Even without writing the opinion, Roberts, more than anyone, shaped what the Court did. As American politics assumes its new form in the post-Citizens United era, the credit or the blame goes mostly to him.

Recommended by multiple MoJoers.

"It's a rich man's world: How billionaire backers pick America's candidates" | Thomas Frank | Harper's | April 2012

With his signature prose, the author of Pity the Billionaire investigates the deep-pocketed players paying for the 2012 election.

It dawned on the world that we had reached a new level of campaign savagery during the weeks before the Iowa caucuses. For a brief moment, you will recall, Newt Gingrich, who had foresworn negative advertising and was behaving in an uncharacteristically congenial manner, took the lead in public-opinion polls. Almost immediately, Mitt Romney—which is to say, Mitt Romney's studiously non-aligned corporate doppelgänger, the Restore Our Future Super PAC—blitzed his slow-moving opponent with a storm of derisive TV commercials. The spots ran day and night, and utterly destroyed Gingrich’s standing in the polls.

Among people who follow campaign spending closely, this seems to have been a sort of Hiroshima moment: the vast power of a new weapon was finally unveiled. Candidates like Romney could appear to be models of civic virtue, without an unkind or even combative thought in their heads, while their wealthy patrons came together to heap ridicule on their rivals, in unprecedented quantities of advertising and degrees of viciousness. All of the hand-shaking and diner-visiting and carefully drawn position papers were swept into irrelevance.

Recommended by reporter Andy Kroll.


And finally: They're not long and you can't read 'em, but while we're on the subject, have you seen our Game of Thrones attack ads?

"Brave" Will Leave You Bored

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Look at those long red locks.

Brave
Walt Disney Pictures
93 minutes

Beautiful yet unfulfilling, Brave will leave you wanting to grow long red hair and visit Scotland, but not much else. Pixar's first feature with a female lead lacks the depth and originality we've come to expect from the animation studio (I'm thinking of you, Up). Instead, the story falls in line with those of the other Disney princesses—a bland cautionary tale filled with just enough action and suspense to keep you awake. La Luna, the excellent short that's shown before the feature film, is much more entertaining than the main event.

Brave's opening scenes hold promise—especially when our heroine, a Scottish princess named Merida, rides her horse through the countryside, firing off arrows and nailing targets set up around the forest. But the next 40 minutes are slapstick humor mixed with pathetic attempts at character and narrative development. When Merida turns to magic in an attempt to change her fate and avoid marriage, her plan backfires. Unfortunately, the filmmakers focus on a ridiculous chase scene rather than the consequences of their main character's brush with magic. Later, as Merida searches for a way to undo the spell, what could be a moment of emotional development turns into a silly fishing contest. Pixar turned us all to mush at the end of Toy Story 3 (admit it, you cried), but Brave's 'emotional' scenes aren't nearly as satisfying.

When the slapstick is stripped away, you're left with a lead whose most notable traits are her (albeit beautifully animated) hair and her archery skills, and a mother-daughter relationship that lacks any real depth despite being the focus of the film. There are animals, magic, fun accents and bare behinds (in 3D no less) to keep the PG audience entertained. But for anyone over the age of 12, all the film offers is lovely scenery and a few giggles.

Brave, a Disney Pixar release, is rated PG for some action and rude humor. It gets a wide release Friday, June 22. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

Click here for more movie and TV features from Mother Jones.

Film Review: The Invisible War

| Thu Jun. 21, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The Invisible War

CHAIN CAMERA PICTURES

98 minutes

Near the end of this film, former Coast Guardswoman Kori Cioca stands at the women's war memorial in DC wondering why she and others who have been raped by their comrades in arms—half a million since the 1950s, estimates one expert—don't deserve a Purple Heart. By this time, Kirby Dick, the film's Oscar-nominated director, has already introduced us to the Kafkaesque system of military justice that's helped keep an epidemic of sexual assault under wraps. The Invisible War is riddled with jaw-dropping stats, humanized by haunting survivor stories. Dick does interview Pentagon officials, but the stark contrast between their spin and painful reality is impossible to miss.

The Sketch-y Dude on Our Latest Cover

| Wed Jun. 20, 2012 5:20 PM EDT

The July-August cover for Mother Jones

This could have been titled "Never Say Die". Last year I did a job for the inimitable Tim Luddy at Mother Jones that turned out to be popular with some of the more esteemed art competition juries. In the batch of sketches for that job were a couple of candidates that were close, but not quite right at that moment. Usually when that happens it's lights out for those sketches and they go to the Landfill Museum. As it turns out, when Tim called a little while back for a cover he requested a few sketches and mentioned that a runner up from our previous encounter would be in the running. I thought the ideas for all the sketches were strong. After a weekend of what I imagined to be a barstool throwing, plate glass shattering discussion of just which doodle was the most brilliant, word came from Tim (did he sound a little weary?) that the white smoke had risen and the decision was to go with this sketch. It's a bit of a shame that all those sketches I did about our country's political process being sold to the highest bidder are evergreens.

Dale StephanosDale StephanosI needed to redraw and reshoot reference since the first guy wasn't available. So, making a huge sacrifice I decided I'd be the cover model for this. This guy is much more type A than I, he has more hard miles on his face, and hopefully he comes off as sleazier too. I imagine he's probably a better conversationalist, knows his mixed drinks, and is familiar with blackjack dealers at all the fancy casinos. The trick with this was to make sure he didn't look like a flasher. Me, I'm happy to draw my little pictures, skateboard with my daughter, throw baseballs at my son, and try to make my wife laugh.

Midway through finishing this piece someone who is smarter than I realized that I was trampling all over proper flag etiquette by hanging it in the reverse of what you see here. That is, with the star field on the right as you view it. Well, it's okay to show a guy selling the flag like it's a fake Rolex or a ten dollar bag of "Oregano", but we certainly weren't going to go down the rabbit hole of improper flag hangery. Really though, I appreciate it when I learn little things (NOT THAT FLAG ETIQUETTE IS A LITTLE THING) during the course of a job. After I finish writing this I'm going to spot check my neighbors to make sure they're in compliance. If not, I'll report them to Sean Hannity.I look like Bela Lugosi's grownup kid. I could do worse. Dale StephanosI look like Bela Lugosi's grownup kid. I could do worse. Dale Stephanos

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Review: "Natural Life" by Hacienda

| Mon Jun. 18, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

TRACK 7

"Natural Life"

From Hacienda's Shake Down

COLLECTIVE SOUNDS

Liner notes: This breezy nugget suggests a hybrid of garage rock and Motown, as played by the Doobie Brothers.

Behind the music: Four rootsy San Antonio dudes—three Villanueva brothers plus a cousin—are protégés of Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, who's produced all three of their albums and tapped them as his own backing band.

Check it out if you like: Eclectic modern groups with a sense of history, such as Dr. Dog, My Morning Jacket, and Delta Spirit.

 

Click here for more music features from Mother Jones.

Japandroids' Celebration Rock

| Mon Jun. 18, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Brian King and Dave Prowse, the longtime friends who make up the Vancouver duo Japandroids, have never been shy about declaring their intentions. With Celebration Rock, the new follow-up to 2009's surprise hit Post-Nothing, they're wearing their hearts on the album sleeve. If the title wasn’t enough to clue you in to their subject matter, you need only skim the track listings—"Adrenaline Nightshift," "Continuous Thunder," "Fire’s Highway"—to get the gist.

The beautiful-desperate-youth theme is a rock-and-roll tradition, albeit one that’s hard to pull off without seeming melodramatic or clichéd. And this album's got plenty of drama in many of the standard forms—doomed love affairs, insomniac nights, youthful bodies, highways of fire, heaven and hell, dreams lost and found, all bookended by crackling fireworks. It sort of seems like it should be too much. But Japandroids make the bold imagery and persistent drum fills work, partly because they manage to simultaneously seem incredibly sincere and wryly self-aware without being self-conscious, and partly because they put so much heart into it that you can't help but go along for the ride. But the band's accomplishments are more than a trick of attitude—Celebration Rock is 35 minutes of intensely potent, no-holds-barred rock-and-roll glory, each song an expertly executed rush of endorphins and electricity.

Songs for "the People You Wanna Drag Behind Your Car"

| Mon Jun. 18, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Deborah Feingold

"I love my big sister so much. She's also the most nerve-wracking bitch on the planet." The writer and poet Mary Karr—known for her bestselling memoir, The Liar's Club—gazes out at the audience without so much as blinking as she flays her relatives live onstage at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse.

Most of her revelations will be like this one—at the same time caring and raw, usually darkly funny. She shares the stage with Grammy-winning country singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, her cowriter on the new album Kin, which also features music heavyweights Lucinda Williams, Lee Ann Womack, Norah Jones, and Rosanne Cash, Crowell's ex-wife.

Crowell teamed up with Karr after reading The Liar's Club and name-checking her in his 2003 song, "Earthbound." "We realized there was a little thread," Karr explained of the collaboration."Songs that mostly involve the people you wanna drag behind your car—your family."

Both artists had written previously about their upbringings; Crowell reflects on his alcoholic dad and zealously religious mother both in his songs and in a memoir titled Chinaberry Sidewalks. Karr wrote about her psychotic mother and her family's troubles with liquor in her acclaimed books, which also include Cherry and Lit. Stringing together their bony memories, the pair created songs that are tender, bluesy, and full of phrases and fragments from East Texas, where both were raised.

Book Review: Journalism

| Sun Jun. 17, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Unlike most comic artists, Joe Sacco reports from hot spots like Malta, Gaza, Chechnya, and Iraq, finding characters like Zara, a Chechen living in an abandoned dairy, and a nameless Iraqi soldier who weeps as his US trainer bullies him with calisthenics. Journalism, Sacco's new greatest-hits collection, includes his personal take on each assignment and whether it succeeded. The book has all the heft of a historical document that lays out the horrors of war in black and white.

This review originally appeared in our July/August issue of Mother Jones.