2013 - %3, January

Quick Reads: Dan Fagin's "Toms River"

| Mon Apr. 1, 2013 5:01 PM PDT
book cover 

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation

By Dan Fagin

BANTAM

As a native of southern New Jersey, I vaguely remember the news stories about mysterious cancers plaguing the children of Toms River, but until now I never had a clear understanding of what happened there. In an account equal parts sociology, epidemiology, and detective novel, veteran environmental journalist Dan Fagin chronicles the ordeal of this quiet coastal town, which for decades was a dumping ground for chemical manufacturers. Fagin's compelling book raises broader questions about what communities are willing to sacrifice in the name of economic development.

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"30 Rock": A Political History

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 4:48 PM PST
Liz Lemon.

Thursday night, 30 Rock takes its curtain call.

After six years on the air, Tina Fey's beloved NBC comedy is ending its run with an hourlong series finale. The series, which is set behind the scenes at an Saturday Night Live-like sketch comedy show, earned a devoted fanbase with its cultural satire and rapid-fire wit. 30 Rock premiered on NBC in 2006, just as the network was launching Aaron Sorkin's highly anticipated drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Stripanother series revolving around a fictional sketch comedy program. Strangely enough, it was Sorkin's hugely political Studio 60 that tanked, while Fey's goofier series became the award-winning critical hit. (As a sidenote, it's worth remembering that when Tina Fey first pitched the show, her original idea was basically the same premise behind Sorkin's latest series, The Newsroom.)

"The Americans": Lovable Soviet Spies Who Smack-Talk Reagan and Do Kung-Fu Are Finally on Cable TV

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 12:20 PM PST

Matthew Rhys, left, and Keri Russell.

"The American people have elected a madman as their president," a softly bearded Russian general says to KGB officer "Elizabeth Jennings" (played by a terrific Keri Russell), in obvious reference to The Gipper. The general continues: "He makes no secret of his desire to destroy us. Our war is not so cold anymore...Our enemy is strong and capable. We must meet the challenge." The year is 1981, the Reagan era has dawned, and communist sleeper agents are apparently running around Washington, raising their families and seducing Justice Department officials.

The Americans, a new series premiering tonight at 10 p.m. ET on FX, focuses on Elizabeth and her husband and partner-in-counterintelligence-crime Phillip (Matthew Rhys, the "Welshman who plays a Russian playing an American"). Their marriage was arranged by the KGB during the Khrushchev era. The two live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood with a young daughter and son, both of whom are blissfully ignorant to mommy and daddy's real allegiances. For years, the duo has hidden in plain sight, running a small travel agency, while fulfilling their mission to subvert the United States government and funnel valuable information back to the Kremlin. Elizabeth is the true believer of the household: "I would go to jail, I would die, I would give up everything before I would betray my country," she shouts. Phillip is the non-ideologue who is far more interested in his family than in ensuring Soviet global domination: "America's not so bad. We've been here a long time; what's so bad about it, you know? The electricity works all the time, the food's pretty great, the closet space..."

A Fascinating Look at the Life of Ed Koch

| Tue Jan. 29, 2013 4:11 AM PST
Ed Koch, left, with President Jimmy Carter in 1978

Koch
Zeitgeist Films
95 minutes

This fiercely honest tribute to Ed Koch, the hard-nosed and exuberant figure who ruled New York City from 1978 to 1989, briskly strings together interviews with the late former mayor, grainy archival footage, harshly critical testimony from Koch's contemporaries, and a rollicking classic-rock soundtrack. The result is a documentary that intrigues and intoxicates like a David Mamet stage play.

The finest moments in the film, which premieres Friday in New York City, focus on Koch's rise to power in the late '70s, when the Big Apple was a powder-keg metropolis engulfed in financial disarray and a crime wave. Koch—a closeted homosexual and iconoclastic liberal—is depicted as the consummate political shark, siphoning off key constituencies during a gang-fight-like mayoral election in 1977. Neil Barsky, a former hedge fund manager and economic reporter for the Wall Street Journal, directs with a gritty cinematic zeal.

Ed Koch spent his final days as he always was: charmingly megalomaniacal. "This belongs to me…Thank you, God," Koch, 88, says as he reminisces about his tenure as chief of the Empire City—where he pissed off scores of feminists, Jews, African Americans, and hardened lefties alike. Overall, Koch is a riveting portrait of a towering and polarizing man.

It's also great fun, so watch it with plenty of buttered popcorn. Trailer here:

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At 40, Kronos Quartet Is Still Pushing Boundaries

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 4:01 AM PST
Kronos Quartet with David Harrington at left.

The Kronos Quartet recently played its first concert of 2013, a year that marks the group's 40th anniversary, at the Napa Valley Opera House. The night's program by this famously genre-stretching, culture-swapping string quartet pushed the boundaries of traditional and experimental music and so blew me away that I was compelled to reach out to founder David Harrington to chat about the group's origins, cross-cultural mashups, and music as activism.

Mother Jones: With the work that you do, playing new music from some unheard composers and others that are constantly innovating, I've sort of come to think of Kronos Quartet as musical activists. What do you think about that?

David Harrington: I feel honored to be called an activist. It stems from the work that I want to do and the function of being a group in our time and in our culture. To me the two violins, a viola, and a cello create an almost infinitely moldable sound. As a force in society it can tackle all sorts of issues. The other night you heard music from Syria, India, Serbia, and a lot of places that you wouldn't normally think of string quartet music necessarily coming from. I've spent my entire 39-plus years at Kronos trying to extend the reach of music and bring elements into the work that maybe hadn't been considered before.

Review: Toro y Moi's "Anything in Return"

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 4:01 AM PST
Chaz Bundick.

Toro y Moi
Anything in Return
Carpark Records

Chaz Bundick, the improbably named 26-year-old behind the impeccably titled project Toro y Moi (Spanish and French for "Bull and Me"), built his reputation on his contributions to the genre known, unfortunately but evocatively, as chillwave: slow, gauzy music anchored by simple beats and looped samples. Yet he's always leaned towards more straightforward funk and pop in songs such as "New Beat," from his second album, Underneath the Pine. On his new release, Toro y Moi takes those once-peripheral elements and puts them front and center.

"Harm In Change," the opening track from Anything in Return, is at once catchy and seductive: "Don't let me hold you down/We could be there now," Bundick sings, in what seems like a reference to his recent move from his native South Carolina to California, where his girlfriend goes to grad school. "So Many Details" is a beautifully downtempo, sensuously melancholy song with shades of the Weeknd—though Bundick's voice is a bit too thin to pull it off, and the instrumentals get overproduced and murky towards the end.

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Music Review: "Blood Side Out" By Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 4:01 AM PST
album art

TRACK 7

"Blood Side Out"

From Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite's Get Up!

STAX/CONCORD MUSIC GROUP

Liner notes: All hell breaks loose on this raucous track as crashing drums, Musselwhite's blistering harmonica, and Harper's furious vocals forecast impending disaster.

Behind the music: Versatile California singer-songwriter Harper won a Grammy for his 2004 collaboration with the gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama. Born in Mississippi, Musselwhite has long been a leading exponent of the driving blues style pioneered by Little Walter, the only harmonica player ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Check it out if you like: Bands such as the Black Keys, North Mississippi Allstars, and Alabama Shakes—all experts at updating primal sounds.

This review originally appeared in our January/February issue of Mother Jones.

Music Review: "General Dome" By Buke & Gase

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 4:01 AM PST
album art

TRACK 4

"General Dome"

From Buke & Gase's General Dome

BRASSLAND

Liner notes: Is it old-school progressive rock or newfangled art-pop? This head-spinning epic neatly splits the difference, wrapping a cool female voice in fractured noise to riveting effect.

Behind the music: The Brooklyn-based Aron Sanchez and Arone Dyer often play musical instruments of their own devising, among them a modified buke (baritone ukulele) and the gase (a hybrid of guitar and bass).

Check it out if you like: Engaging musical innovators such as tUnE-yArDs, Dirty Projectors, and St. Vincent.

This review originally appeared in our January/February issue of Mother Jones.

Quick Reads: Nathanael Johnson's "All Natural"

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 3:56 AM PST
book cover

All Natural: A Skeptic's Quest for Health and Happiness in an Age of Ecological Anxiety
By Nathanael Johnson
RODALE

In this thought-provoking read, Harper's contributor Nathanael Johnson weaves stories of his patchouli upbringing with trenchant interrogations of both "natural" and "technological" solutions to everything from pig farming to child rearing. For example, he cites studies showing that laboring mothers died at a higher rate in the mid-aughts than they did in the late 1990s as a symptom of how hospitals overtreat us—in this case with unnecessary C-sections that raise women's mortality risk. On the flip side, Johnson recounts his own home birth in Berkeley, where his hippie mother was bleeding uncontrollably by the time her midwife called in a doctor.

This review originally appeared in the January/February issue of Mother Jones.

"Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" in 3D: Diabetes, Witches, Kung-Fu Witches, and Sex With Witches

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 12:54 PM PST

#YOLO.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Paramount Pictures
88 minutes

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters—a new action film presented in IMAX 3D that is very loosely based on the famous German fairy tale—delivers surprisingly profound commentary on the epidemic of diabetes.

Hansel, played by Oscar-nominated actor Jeremy Renner, is now a full-grown adult who tortures and mass-murders sadistic Wiccans for money and justice in the 19th century. At one point early in the movie, he sits down to chat with an attractive young village woman. Suddenly, he rips a stout syringe out of his pocket and plunges it into his skin. The witch-killing protagonist informs the villager that when he was a child a witch force-fed him vast quantities of evil candy. Because of this, he has to take these injections every day, or he will die on the spot.

The word "diabetes" isn't ever mentioned. But it's still a helpful reminder from Hansel and Gretel about the dangers of consuming too much sugar.

Anyway, the rest of the film (directed by Nazi zombies auteur Tommy Wirkola and co-produced by Will Ferrell) involves a lot of witches doing kung fu and eating small children from the village. If you enjoy watching witches doing kung fu in 3D, then this movie is for you. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to see Hansel have sex with a blonde witch in a tranquil meadow, then this movie is for you. If you've ever longed to see a grown-up Gretel (played by Gemma Arterton, a.k.a. the Bolivia-dwelling MI6 agent "Strawberry Fields" in the James Bond series) karate chop witches, wield a crossbow, and threaten to blow a corrupt sheriff's brains out "all over these hillbillies," then this movie is for you. If you have ever desired to watch Famke Janssen portray Bloodlusting Witch Hitler, then this movie is for you. And if you have ever yearned to watch a mass of ugly witches get mowed down with a Gatling gun and a shovel, then, by god, this movie is for you.

Here's the trailer, in the language the story was meant to be told:

ALSO: This is a good time to remind you that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is also a thing. It too was in 3D.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters gets a wide release on Friday, January 25. The film is rated R for being so powerfully awesome that the human mind almost reels. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

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To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.

To listen to the weekly movie and pop-culture podcast that Asawin co-hosts with ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg, click here.