2013 - %3, February

The Art and Enigma of Vivian Maier Come to the Screen

| Sat Feb. 16, 2013 8:06 AM EST

Vivian Maier's massive collection of street photography remained hidden from the public eye until a Chicago realtor named John Maloof stumbled across boxes of her negatives at an auction house in 2007. After amassing more negatives and finally googling her, he learned that she had made her living as a nanny and had died a few days earlier at age 83. She left an oeuvre of intimate glimpses of people caught in everyday moments, as seen in this 2011 Mother Jones collection of her work.

Now, Maloof has joined with Charles Siskel and Submarine Entertainment to produce Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary due out later this year. The film draws on Super-8 footage shot by Maier as well as interviews with friends, family, and neighbors that expose more details of Maier's life and work. Discovering the real Maier is a challenge; as one of her friends put it, "she was a closed person" and also because most people she knew "had no idea she took photographs." About the film, one friend insists Maier "would've hated every minute of it. She would never have let this happen." Yet, says Siskel, "Vivian's story is as powerful as her art" and he hopes the documentary "will bring her the recognition she deserves."

Read more about Maier in Alex Kotlowitz's essay "The Best Street Photographer You've Never Heard Of."

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For Valentine's Day Weekend 2013: Witches, Zombies, Nicholas Sparks, and "Die Hard"

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 6:42 PM EST
Love Free or Die Hard.

It's Valentine's/Presidents Day Weekend 2013, and your lover or spouse wants you to spend money on a night on the town. For some, that might involve a couple of hours together in a crowded air-conditioned chain movie theater, gorging yourself on pails of butter-slathered junk food.

If that's your reality, here are the options, three of which were released on Valentine's Day.

The first is Beautiful Creatures (Warner Brothers, 124 min.), a new romantic fantasy about a young human boy falling head over heels for a young female witch in rural South Carolina. (In the Beautiful Creatures universe, good witches prefer the more politically correct term "caster.") The film is a irreverent and genuinely interesting entry into the ever-bloated "Teen-Human-Falls-In-Forbidden-Love-With-Teen-Supernatural-Being" subgenre, so comparisons to the über-profitable Twilight franchise are inevitable, and the studio's ad campaign predictably tries to make Beautiful Creatures look like as much like Twilight as possible.

Such comparisons are bunk. Unlike any of the five movies in the Twilight saga, Beautiful Creatures is funny, sexy, and not a heaving pile of savage unbearability. And unlike any of the various Twilights, the cast here is uniformly excellent (Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Emma Thompson, Jeremy Irons, Zoey Deutch, and the two romantic leads Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert).

It's more fitting to compare Beautiful Creatures to two other films also now in theaters. The newly released (and quite lovely) Warm Bodies—a romantic zombie comedy that includes the best use of Bruce Springsteen music in recent cinema—is essentially the same movie as Beautiful Creatures, if you swap the latter's witches for zombies. Both films are human/non-human teen romances, are based on a novel, are helmed by a talented writer/director, have an Australian actress in the lead female role, and were released within a few weeks of each other. You could also appropriately compare Beautiful Creatures to the new 3D action flick Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, seeing as how both films prominently feature a Bloodlusting Witch Hitler -type character (Emma Thompson plays the genocidal witch character in the former, Famke Janssen in the latter).

Laugh Your Shorts off With Buster Keaton in San Francisco

| Thu Feb. 14, 2013 8:07 PM EST
Buster Keaton and Sybil Seely in 1920's "One Week."

Silence. Silence? From a roomful of six young children? And then, without warning, peals of laughter and exclamations and a frenzy of competing comments. Repeat.

Across the room, I was trying to socialize with the grown-ups and not be rude, but my attention kept straying over to the TV, where we were previewing a series of rare and hilarious Buster Keaton shorts that Bay Area residents can catch on Saturday at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's "Silent Winter"—a one-day program at the Castro Theatre.

The coolest thing is that the whole program will be scored live—no tUne-yArds, alas, but still you get to hear Donald Sosin on grand piano, Chris Elliot on the Mighty Wurlitzer, and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

We loved all the Keaton shorts, including One Week, from 1920, where a jilted suitor sets out to foil the construction of a newlywed couple's new home. The Play House, from 1921, includes various theater foibles and fiascos. One self-referential gag that reminded me of Being John Malkovich involves a theater program where Buster Keaton appears on screen as more than one character simultaneously—a visual trick that was a lot harder to pull off in those days. But our favorite was 1920's The Scarecrow, which had everybody in hysterics. Housemate buddies compete for the same girl, while a stern father and a mad dog do their best to thwart the transaction.

Make Way for Princess, Maya Rudolph's Prince Tribute Band

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 7:02 AM EST
Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum performing as their Prince cover band Princess on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

The enigmatic artist formerly and currently known as Prince is almost too easy to parody. Saturday Night Live played the joke for years in a recurring sketch that paired a whispering and mysteriously teleporting Prince with Maya Rudolph's divalicious Beyoncé. (Remember the 2004 Grammys?) But last Saturday night, Rudolph and Prince reunited on stage in San Francisco—well, sort of. The Artist himself wasn't present, but Rudolph and musician Gretchen Lieberum paid spirited tribute to him with their cover band, Princess.

If you've seen Rudolph as Beyoncé—or J. Lo or Whitney Houston or any other diva she's impersonated—you'll know there's no question the woman can sing. And she's mad funny. But Princess isn't playing just for laughs; it's an honest-to-god tribute to a musician Rudolph and Lieberum have adored for years. The pair hatched the idea for Princess in college, but the band didn't made its TV debut until last September, when they played Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

"I'm wearing my sensible shoes!" Rudolph announced at the beginning of Saturday's show. That was a good decision, because Princess  proceeded to kick and writhe through classics from the funky "Controversy" to the sensual "Darling Nikki" (including the backwards vocals). They closed out the night, of course, with a much-demanded encore of "Purple Rain." Rudolph and Lieberum adopted Prince's lusty dance moves and sported glittery patches on their right shoulders as homage to Prince's costume in his most famous album.

Rudolph honed her impersonation chops at SNL, but Princess isn't about spoofing Prince's mannerisms. (Leave that to Fred Armisen.) Like all tribute bands from Hayseed Dixie to Mandonna, Princess walks the line between being the inherently ridiculous conceit of mooching off someone else's fame and earnestly paying tribute to the original music. Rudolph and Lieberum manage that balance, but the performance itself was less funny than the simple idea of two women covering Prince.

Girls talking dirty—think Sarah Silverman or Lizzy Caplan—is a trope of the post-feminist, post-Apatow comedy world. So when a band whose name invokes Disney and the color pink sings about a sex fiend "in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine," they're on to something. "There's a comedic element to it, of course, it's two women singing these raunchy songs and it's definitely funny," Lieberum told NPR. "But our love of the music is not funny, it's very dead serious."

Princess' take on Prince's music is, no surprise, pretty darn good. A particularly enthusiastic couple nearly torpedoed us off the dance floor in Yoshi's, a music club attached to a fancy Japanese restaurant that has surely seen quieter nights.

Princess was appearing as part of SF Sketchfest, an annual two-week comedy festival now in its twelfth year. From humble origins—​the original festival featured six homegrown actsSketchfest has becomea gathering of comedy's glitteriest stars. It now encompasses events from live tapings of popular podcasts to cast reunions of dearly departed TV shows like Starz' Party DownAre we having fun yet? We'd say so.

Foals' "Holy Fire" a Soundtrack for Squandered Potential

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 7:02 AM EST
Foals

Foals
Holy Fire
Transgressive Records

The British indie quintet Foals plays what's commonly referred to as math rock: experimental, technically dazzling, rhythmically complex. The band made a name for itself in the UK with a couple of dazzling singles, and unlike most British buzzbands, successfully made the crossover to the US with Antidotes in 2008, followed by 2010's Total Life Forever. (The title refers to Ray Kurzweil's singularity concept; frontman Yannis Phillippakis is allegedly a futurist.) but Foals' new album, Holy Fire, ​produced by Smashing Pumpkins producers Flood and Alan Moulder and out this week, suggests that the band has lost none of the taste for grandiosity that featured heavily on—and often detracted from—its previous albums.

"Prelude," the opener, is classic Foals: crisp, moderately catchy, slightly cold, privileging instrumentals over vocals. "Inhaler" takes that vibe and makes it heavier, adding full-throated wailing and an aggressively bombastic guitar riff. Much of the album follows in the same vein: echoing vocals, clean and distinct guitar lines, tightly complicated drumbeats, and expansively grand backdrops.

But energy and distinctive melodies are in short supply. On "Bad Habit," Foals sentimental grandeur tips from stirring to smothering. The lethargic "Stepson," aims for poignant, but lands on dull. The stripped down "Moon" works better, as far as the slow stuff goes, focusing simply on Philippakis' plaintive voice against a chiming background. It all makes for an album that sounds good, but doesn't particularly stick with you—potential glimmers consistently, but only occasionally shines through.

Music Review: "No Destruction" By Foxygen

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 7:01 AM EST
album art

TRACK 2

"No Destruction"

From Foxygen's We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace

JAGJAGUWAR

Liner notes: "There's no need to be an asshole/You're not in Brooklyn anymore," singer Sam France sneers softly, evoking electric Bob Dylan at his most relaxed and Lou Reed at his least scary.

Behind the music: Southern California natives France and Jonathan Rado were just high school freshmen in 2005 when they bonded over their mutual love of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. A dozen self-recorded albums later, they enlisted star indie producer (the Mynabirds, Damien Jurado) and Shins keyboardist Richard Swift for this playful romp.

Check it out if you like: Hipsters such as Wilco, Paul Westerberg, and Arctic Monkeys.

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

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Music Review: "Giving Up" By Holly Williams

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 7:01 AM EST
album art

"Giving Up"

From Holly Williams' The Highway

GEORGIANA

Liner notes: Supported by mournful steel guitar and fiddle, Williams angrily challenges an alcoholic friend: "The doctor said you'd die/If you had another drink/I wonder if this scares you."

Behind the music: The granddaughter of country icon Hank Williams owns a clothing boutique in Nashville. Her third album, The Highway guest-stars Dierks Bentley and Jakob Dylan.

Check it out if you like: Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams, Iris DeMent, and other strong sisters.

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

"Movie & An Argument" Podcast: Musicals, Soviets, and Kevin Spacey

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 6:25 PM EST

On this week's episode of A Movie & An Argument, With Alyssa Rosenberg & Asawin Suebsaeng, we discuss (scroll down for audio):

  • House of Cards, a new political drama released on Netflix, starring Kevin Spacey as a power-hungry US congressman.
  • The second season of NBC's Broadway-based drama Smash.
  • The Americans, a new dramatic series on FX that follows a married pair of Soviet spies in Washington, DC at the dawn of the Reagan era.

Listen:

Each week, I'll be sitting down to chat with ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg (who also does killer work at The Atlantic and Slate's "Double X"). We'll talk, argue, and laugh about the latest movies, television shows, and pop-cultural nonsense—with some politics thrown in just for the hell of it.

Alyssa describes herself as being "equally devoted to the Star Wars expanded universe and Barbara Stanwyck, to Better Off Ted and Deadwood." I (everyone calls me Swin) am a devoted lover of low-brow dark humor, Yuengling, and movies with high body counts. I hope you enjoyed this episode, and tune in during the weeks to come.

We'll be featuring guests on the program, and also taking listeners' questions, so feel free to Tweet them at me here, and we'll see if we can get to them during a show.

Thank you for listening!

Click here for more movie and TV features from Mother Jones. To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.

To find more episodes of this podcast, click here.

To check out Alyssa's Bloggingheads show, click here.

"Side Effects": Totally Depressing, but Not for the Reason You Think

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 7:11 AM EST

Side Effects
Di Bonaventura Pictures
106 minutes

If you walk into "Side Effects" looking for a gritty, realistic treatment of what it's like to go on and off of psychiatric meds, you're walking into the wrong theater. If you come looking for a critique of Big Pharma's marketing practices, you'll leave perplexed. But if you see "Side Effects" to get lost in Jude Law's baby blue "trust-me" eyes and to indulge in Catherine Zeta-Jones' skillful portrayal of a hyper-sexual psychiatrist in silky business casual, you're definitely in the right place. Indeed, the film makes it easy enough to OD on psycho-thriller kitsch.

Steven Soderbergh's latest (and possibly last) film in fact begins with a keen picture of deep-seated modern malaise. Emily Taylor, played by Rooney Mara, is a graphic designer in her late 20s—an artist with dreams deferred by her marriage to Martin (Channing Tatum), who's just been let out of prison after serving time for insider trading. Emily finds herself overcome by crushing depression upon reuniting with Martin in the real world, and after a suicide attempt she finds herself in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a warm, sentimental psychiatrist who consults Emily's former shrink, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, about treatment. Eventually, as recommended by Zeta-Jones' character, Dr. Banks prescribes his patient Ablixa, a fictional SSRI with some very disturbing side effects. Or that's what viewers are led to believe, until the second half of the film gets sucked into a senseless plot wormhole and implodes.

"Variety" Gazes at Hollywood's History of Violence

| Thu Feb. 7, 2013 7:06 AM EST
Flick slick looks at sick pics Variety

In June 1968, Bill Bell, a writer for Days of Our Lives, penned a short open letter to the TV and film industry and printed it in Variety. Spurred by the "insane, violent" deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, Bell called upon his colleagues to "recognize our responsibilities and take decisive steps to temper and hopefully eliminate violence from our programming." Bell argued that much onscreen violence was not simply gratuitous, but artistically bankrupt. "As a writer, I know that…you can have conflict without violence," he wrote (emphasis his). "And that invariably it is finer drama."

The letter is reprinted in a new, glossy issue (digital version here) of the venerable showbiz rag that explores the claims, expressed most recently by the NRA's Wayne LaPierre, that the entertainment industry deserves some of the blame for mayhem like the Sandy Hook massacre. Instead of shrugging off the criticism, Variety editor-in-chief Timothy M. Gray embraces it and even echoes Bell's message in his opening note: "Don't underestimate your power or responsibility…When asked about violent or demeaning content, some in Hollywood shrug, 'It's what the public wants.' But there is a fine line between catering to the public and pandering to their basest instincts."

Variety asked nearly 50 "thought leaders" in the biz and on both sides of the gun debate to weigh in on the topic. Predictably, their perspectives vary widely. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan defends violence as an essential part of his creative palette, a means for developing rich characterization or doing something "funny or simply cool." Retired Army Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman insists that "very, very sick" video games and movies are driving "sick, sick kids" to commit mass murder. Variety contributor Chris Morris recommends that video game makers impose a temporary ban on releasing violent games immediately after mass shootings. Patti Davis recalls how her dad, Ronald Reagan, responded to sanitized TV bloodshed: "My father used to interrupt my viewing of TV shows like 'Gunsmoke' and 'Wyatt Earp' to tell me what would really happen if a bullet hit that cowboy in the shoulder or the leg. As I watched the wounded man grip his shoulder, my father would make sure I knew that in real life, his shoulder would have been blown off."

A recurring question is why "liberal Hollywood" churns out so much violent content. "Hypocrisy," snaps Mike Hammond of Gun Owners of America. Money is the most common answer. "I think that more than being liberal, Hollywood is capitalist," says Tim League, owner of the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain and an NRA member. Peter Debruge, Variety's senior film critic, offers a critical look at the movie rating system, which has been handing out PG-13s to intense flicks like The Dark Knight Rises, ensuring that they will become blockbusters. No one mentions Hollywood's long history of teaming up with the gun industry to make their wares seem simply cool. But Los Angeles Undersheriff Paul K. Tanaka offers reassurance that Hollywood executives "are responsible human beings. Does anyone really think they're interested in creating more violence?"   

These responses are accompanied by images from more than a century of virtual mayhem, from The Great Train Robbery to The Walking Dead. There are also plenty of graphics on media and violence—including some of Mother Jones' data on mass shootings, which is provided without a credit. (C'mon, isn't Hollywood obsessed with intellectual property rights?) There's no clear takeaway from all this except that Hollywood, or at least Variety, is taking violence Very Seriously. (A full-page photo of MLK flanking Gray's introduction brings the point home.) Yet the entertainment industry ass-covering is outweighed by an honest discussion of the tension between creative freedom, social obligations, and business models.

Gray exhorts his friends in Hollywood to "take action now," even if it takes a generation. It's not exactly clear if he's talking about pushing for more gun laws or producing more of the "finer drama" Bell called for nearly 45 years ago. Yet his sense of the pace of cultural change suggests that in a few decades, this issue of Variety may not be a relic.