"Raw Wood"

From John Vanderslice's Dagger Beach


Liner notes: "One day the pain will pass on from me to you," sighs John Vanderslice, as disjointed drums and ghostly backing vocals boost the unease on this post-breakup ballad.

Behind the music: The founder of San Francisco's Tiny Telephone studio, Vanderslice has produced for the Mountain Goats, Samantha Crain, and Spoon. He worked on the album's lyrics while hiking in California's Point Reyes National Seashore.

Check it out if you like: Anxious but articulate types, such as Thom Yorke, David Byrne, and Joanna Newsom.

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

Gideon's Army


Dawn Porter practiced law for 15-plus years, mostly for TV studios—before our justice system's iniquities inspired her to get behind the camera. Gideon's Army follows public defenders as they struggle with absurd caseloads and fret over clients' fates. One resorts to pocket change to buy gas. "This is all the money I have in the world right now," she explains. The occasion for the film is the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, which compels states to provide an attorney to criminal defendants who can't afford one. And that's something. But as Porter sums up today's situation, "You have the right to a lawyer. You don't necessarily have the right to a good one."

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

Anti-imperialist politics at its finest.

White House Down
Columbia Pictures
129 minutes

"Ever heard of the military-industrial complex???" President James Sawyer (played by Jamie Foxx) asks his gun-toting protector John Cale (Channing Tatum), as the two hide in a White House elevator shaft. President Sawyer is explaining to Cale why he believes armed right-wingers have invaded and occupied the White House and begun frightening tourists and shooting government officials.

In the past few months, there's been an emerging cinematic trend of destroying the White House. Just as 1998 saw the wide release of both Armageddon and Deep Impact, this year features the release of not one but two Hollywood action movies about terrorists miraculously overrunning the White House. In Olympus Has Fallen, starring Gerard Butler (released in March), a band of North Korean fanatics take over the West Wing—with the help of a Secret Service agent who betrays America because he's fed up with globalization and Wall Street. In White House Down (released on Friday), it's white, American-born, ultra-conservative lunatics—who do so with the help of a Secret Service agent who betrays America because President Sawyer isn't being militaristic enough.

The script, penned by James Vanderbilt, is one enormous pander to the most naïve impulses of your average dime-store liberal.

The film is directed by Roland Emmerich, whose sole purpose as a filmmaker is demolishing the White House, whenever he isn't spreading scandalously awful lies about William Shakespeare. WHD is a mixed bag of B-movie pluses and minuses. There are moments when the dialogue is so laughably terrible and the bullet-riddled situations so wildly absurd that the scenes succeed on the merits of "so-bad-it's-good." But those moments are too often negated by tedious, sloppily choreographed action, and generic plot points designed to be taken way more seriously than they have any right to be. Emmerich's unwillingness to commit to a delightfully trashy tone makes for an uneven action-comedy experience at best.

And the script, penned by James Vanderbilt, is one enormous pander to the most naïve impulses of your average dime-store liberal. The president's agenda is defined by making peace with all the Arab, Muslim, and Persian world. After forging friendly relations with Iran's new reformist leader, President Sawyer (most definitely a Democrat) announces in a legacy-defining speech the Sawyer Doctrine—which includes the withdrawal of every single American soldier stationed in the Middle East. He sets out to convince practically every country on the planet to sign a new peace treaty, and vows to take on the US' out-of-control, conflict-hungry defense industry and its lapdogs in Congress.

War veteran and wannabe Secret Service agent Cale admires the president's vision. But far-right gunmen who want to wage nuclear war against Iran do not, so they conquer the White House and start killing scores of innocents. Audiences might also notice that one of the deranged right-wing insurgents is a huge fan of a cable news network that's clearly a stand-in for Fox News. As the henchmen round up the hostages, the American terrorist spots the network's White House correspondent, played by an actor who physically resembles Fox's Ed Henry. The terrorist proceeds to gush about how much he loves their Sawyer-bashing coverage, and how Ed-Henry-look-alike is basically the only truth-teller in the media.

Not to spoil the entire movie, but (spoiler alert) Jamie Foxx, Channing Tatum, and the liberals win the day, and the hawkish, Fox News-adoring, reactionary killers wind up either in jail or ripped to shreds by explosives and ammunition. It's typical Hollywood liberalism with gigantic firearms.

Now here's one of WHD's trailers, which makes the movie look far better—and much more dramatic—than it is:

White House Down gets a wide release on Friday, June 28. The film is rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

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

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

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



Linda Williams-Miller is sick and doesn't want to burden her children, so she decides to plan her own funeral. She meets with Isaiah Owens, a slow-talking mortician who eases the tension by noting the exact red of her hair dye, saying he knows she wouldn't be caught dead with the wrong color. In Homegoings, director Christine Turner offers an exquisitely composed and intimate view of African American death traditions. Shot in funeral homes in Harlem and South Carolina, the film focuses on Owens, a calming, even charming presence who brings humor in times of grief. As he describes funerals, this documentary is "a sad, good time."

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


Humboldt cover

Humboldt: Life on America's Marijuana Frontier

By Emily Brady


Pot-growing hippies who fled San Francisco for Northern California's rural Humboldt County are victims of their own success in this multigenerational epic about the pathologies and paradoxes of the nation's biggest weed-based economy, and how a growers' utopia devolved into paranoia and violence. It's an empathetic but unflinching portrait of a community caught in the legalization movement's crosswinds.

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

High Tech, Low Life


"I live in an environment where most of the news is good news," writes Zhou "Zola" Shuguang, a gangly 27-year-old blogger from the Hunan province. "In my opinion, this news is crap." High Tech, Low Life filmmaker Stephen Maing tails two of China's best-known citizen reporters, weaving a restrained and quietly compelling narrative about getting scoops under the threat of brutal state reprisal. Zola alternates between his mundane day job and traveling in rural areas to expose shady land developers. "I used to be a nobody...until I discovered the internet," he says. The other rebel, Zhang "Tiger Temple" Shihe, is a 57-year-old Monet-loving, harmonica-playing, cat-owning retired ad man. "Just remember," he reminds a pal, "this old geezer's going to tell the truth until he dies."

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


The Skies Belong To Us cover

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking

By Brendan I. Koerner


Forty years ago, during a more innocent age of air travel, skyjackers were motley idealists who just wanted a one-way trip out of the country—typically to Havana. In 1972, Willie Roger Holder and Catherine Marie Kerkow pulled off the longest-distance hijacking in US history, armed with discontent against the Vietnam War and a dozen joints—which Holder smoked in first class. Brendan Koerner tracks the duo's adventures, from their mingling with Black Panthers in Algeria to schmoozing with celebs in Paris. Predictably, their sojourn soured—and so did hijacking's golden age, as more-frequent and violent in-flight incidents brought about the metal detectors and security lines we know and love today.

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

Alela Diane in Amsterdam, April 2009.

Alela Diane
About Farewell
Rusted Blue Records

It's amazing how many artists on today's indie scene are old-fashioned folk musicians passing for someone trendier. California's Alela Diane has been making haunting, out-of-time albums (sometimes self-released) for a decade, and About Farewell is one of her most powerful. After enlisting producer Scott Litt of R.E.M. fame to provide a poppier veneer on her last outing, Alela Diane and Wild Divine, she's back to minimal frills with this brooding collection devoted to rejection, regret, and misguided desire.

Despite occasional sweetening from strings or piano, these eloquently downhearted ballads, perhaps inspired by her real-life divorce, would be equally potent with just guitar. Diane has "one foot out the door" on the eerie title track, while, on the elegant "I Thought I Was Wrong," she observes, "I'd only just arrived and I foresaw the end." The spare "Hazel Street" finds her confessing: "I woke up drunk on that basement floor," implying a far seedier reality than her restrained performance would suggest.

About Farewell might be mopey solipsism coming from a lesser singer, but the grave beauty of Diane's voice transcends self-indulgence. Like the great Sandy Denny, she conveys a stoic intensity that's consistently spellbinding.


HR of the Bad Brains at Hard Art Gallery, September 15, 1979 (Akashic Books, 2013).

Photographer Lucian Perkins earned two Pulitzer prizes during his 27 years working for the Washington Post, shooting nearly every major historical event of the past two decades. (More recently he cofounded Facing Change, a group that documents rural America in the spirit of the Farm Security Administration.) In his archives, among shots of the Berlin wall coming down, war in the former Yugoslavia, and Palestinian uprisings in the West Bank, Perkins' assistant Lely Constantinople discovered that her boss also happened to have some amazing, rarely seen photos of the early DC punk scene, shot early in Perkins' Post career.

One night in 1979, while interning in the photo department, Perkins found himself at the Hard Art gallery in DC. The young crowd's attention was fixated on an all-black punk band called the Bad Brains, who belted out tight, fast, short songs. Sensing a story, Perkins spent the following four months photographing the nascent scene.


Blang Rang.

The Bling Ring
87 minutes

Emma Watson is developing a habit of robbing the homes of Hollywood celebrities. Earlier this month, ensemble comedy This Is the End (sort of a Left Behind for potheads) hit theaters. That film, set in Los Angeles during the Rapture, features Watson brandishing a gigantic ax and angrily stealing food from James Franco's house. In The Bling Ring, Watson assumes a similar role, burglarizing the homes of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Megan Fox, Rachel Bilson, and Audrina Patridge.

Watson plays Nicki, one-fifth of the "Bling Ring," a group of disaffected, bored, fashionista teenagers who decide to rob the houses of famous people. (The rest of the crew is played—with commendable Valspeak dedication—by Katie ChangClaire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, and Israel Broussard.) Their months-long crime spree snags them a small fortune in jewels, clothing, booze, and designer bags.

As you might have heard, this film is based on actual events. Writer/director Sofia Coppola adapted journalist Nancy Jo Sales' amazing 2010 Vanity Fair article (now a 268-page book) profiling the Bling Ring, a.k.a. the "Hollywood Hills Burglar Bunch." And Coppola did so in a way that emphasizes blunt sentiment and sly commentary over exploitative cinematic impulses. "Sofia and I met several times over the year she was writing the script," Sales writes in an email. "I was a fan of the director's and knowing her work there's no way it could have turned into an exploitation flick...It's a dark story, a cautionary tale."

A predictable avalanche of infamy and giddy public fascination followed the arrests of the real-life Bling Ringers. "Think of a major news organization and they were [at the Bling Ring hearings]," Sales says. "The New York Times put it on the cover of the Sunday Styles section." What followed the requisite press coverage was a cyclone of ill-gotten, reality-TV-abetted fame that wasn't so much a train wreck as it was a heaving paroxysm of America's worst voyeuristic and material tendencies. (To understand exactly what I mean, watch this psychotic slice of television.)

Sofia Coppola wanted to do everything she could to avoid further fueling the stardom of the real-life Bling Ring—hence her script's heavy fictionalization and the name changes. For the same reason, I'm declining to print the Bling Ring members' real names, and will not delve into their post-arraignment exploits. Instead, I will direct you to Sales' riveting Vanity Fair story and encourage you to watch the film's insane trailer here:

The movie is artful and wickedly fun, and pulled off with a welcome maturity. To get her cast in character, Coppola had them stage a mock home invasion. "I believe it was her sister-in-law's house," The Bling Ring star Israel Broussard tells me. "She gave us a detailed list, by brand name, color, designer of the cloths we needed to get in the closet, shoes, handbags...[Sofia] gave us an address, the list, and told us to hop in the minivan and go!" The scene in which the Bling Ring raids Paris Hilton's house was filmed on-site—the socialite opened up her Beverly Hills mansion for the cast and crew to recreate the robbery. Hilton's home is located in a mega-wealthy gated community where film crews aren't permitted. So Coppola and company had to sneak in, shoot the sequences, and get the hell out of Dodge. "[Paris] was very gracious," Broussard says. They then made their swift getaway—an exit befitting the story of the adolescent gang they unlovingly portray.

The Bling Ring gets released on Friday, June 21. The film is rated R for teen drug and alcohol use, and for language including some brief sexual references. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

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

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

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