2013 - %3, July

"Fruitvale Station" and the Weinstein Company's Push for Social Justice

| Sat Jul. 13, 2013 12:33 PM EDT

The tears had not yet dried, but immediately upon exiting Theater 15 at San Francisco's AMC Metreon for a screening of Fruitvale Station, each of us was handed a business card. On one side: an image of Michael B. Jordan (playing Oscar Grant) embraced by Ariana Neal (playing Grant's daughter Tatiana). On the other side: a message encouraging us to channel our newfound rage, confusion, and sadness to fix the injustice we just witnessed on screen.

Call it insensitive, or call it smart marketing, but the Weinstein Company is hard at work making Fruitvale Station more than just something to watch while munching on popcorn. They're engaged in a campaign to raise awareness about social injustice.

Fruitvale Station card
Photos by Brett Brownell

Just after midnight on January 1, 2009, Oakland resident Oscar Grant was riding home from San Francisco on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), when he became involved in an altercation. The train stopped at Fruitvale Station and transit officers responded to the scene. While attempting to restrain Grant, officer Johannes Mehserle shot him in the back. A few hours later, Grant, the 22-year-old father of a 4-year-old girl, died at Highland Hospital.

Numerous cellphone users captured the scene and uploaded their videos. Bay Area residents were incensed and protests erupted. Officer Mehserle later testified that instead of grabbing a Taser, he mistakenly grabbed his gun. Mehserle was charged with murder, but a jury only found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He was released after 11 months in prison.

The story of Oscar Grant left a painful scar on the Bay Area, and a literal one on the floor tile where he was killed. During filming of Fruitvale Station, Jordan found a bullet hole where Grant was shot. "I remember putting my chest to the hole and being scared while I was shooting that scene," he told the Los Angeles Times. The hole was later filled by BART officials, but Jordan told the paper, "There's energy at that spot—people know it and what happened there. And oftentimes, people won't stand at that end of the platform."

Director Ryan Coogler helms this story of Grant's final day, and included in his retelling is a brutally visceral recreation of what happened that New Year's morning on the platform.

Coogler grew up near Oakland, and at the time of the shooting he was home on break from film school. He recently told the New York Times, "When we saw that happen to Oscar, and we saw it on video, it was like the wind getting knocked out of us. I was questioning who we were as a community." Soon after the shooting, Coogler decided to make the film.

It's beautifully and subtly acted by Jordon, Melonie Diaz (playing Grant's girlfriend and mother of his daughter), and Octavia Spencer (playing Grant's mother). Meanwhile, the other cast members come across so natural and real it's as if we're peeping through a key hole at an real-life family in the kitchen. This level of comfort makes Grant's death feel personal, leaving you rooting for his survival in the midst of a painful awareness that history had other plans.

But after years of anger and tension in the Bay Area, the Weinstein Company, which purchased Fruitvale Station for $2.5 million at Sundance earlier this year, is using it as an opportunity.

As stated in big bold letters at the top of the post-screening business cards, they're inviting everyone to "Commit to end social injustice in the name of Oscar Grant." (A fitting sentiment, although the enticement of winning a gift card is jarring in this context.) The film's website encourages visitors to share stories of overcoming prejudice, bullying, social injustice or mistreatment with their "I AM __" campaign. And of course they're taking to social networking, such as this recent Instagram photo. Wish them luck. They'll need it.

Fruitvale Station opened in limited release Friday, July 12, and wide release on July 19.

Here's the trailer:

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"Pacific Rim": The Most Exciting, Monster-Filled Anti-Pollution PSA Ever

| Fri Jul. 12, 2013 7:28 PM EDT

Pacific Rim
Warner Bros. Pictures
131 minutes

"Today we are canceling the apocalypse!" commanding officer Stacker Pentecost (played by the mega-talented Idris Elba) screams, rallying his troops as they prepare for the climactic battle in the war against alien aggressors.

The aliens in Pacific Rim are Kaiju, skyscraper-crushing colonizers from another dimension. The amphibious monsters emerge from a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, start flattening cities, kill tens of thousands of civilians, and kick off a world war. Nations set aside their differences in order to fight the new enemy as trusting allies (a common geopolitical theme in alien-invasion flicks) build gargantuan robots called Jaegers to defend humanity against its Godzilla-sized foes. The humanoid robots—whose appearances provoked the inevitable slew of Transformers comparisons—are each operated by two pilots in a cockpit inside their heads. The international Jaeger program trains an elite, ethnically diverse crew of scientists, technicians, and "rock star" fighters.

"Making Pacific Rim was a lot like what you imagined making movies would be like when you were 12," screenwriter Travis Beacham said. And that it is. Director Guillermo del Toro makes the large-scale battle sequences thunderously exciting, and drenches them in neon and an urban visual poetry. The sci-fi epic is visually stunning in a manner practically made for IMAX 3D consumption. On top of that, it has heart and charm to spare, and it's populated by likable and funny characters that audiences can genuinely care about (with fine performances all around, particularly from Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Hunnam, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia funnyman Charlie Day).

But here's the kicker: In the same way that the real enemy in Michael Bay's action film The Rock is the US government and not the renegade general, the true culprit in Pacific Rim isn't actually a sea monster from another dimension. It's pollution. That's the root cause of the apocalypse that the Jaeger pilots are charged with canceling.

In a short, yawn-and-you'll-miss-it monologue toward the beginning of the film, Dr. Newton Geiszler (Day) explains why the Kaiju suddenly began cropping up. Geiszler has found definitive proof that during prehistoric times, the world-conquering creatures avoided our planet because they couldn't stand the earth's oceanic conditions or atmosphere. But as modern civilization pumped more and more pollutants into the Pacific and shredded the ozone layer, the human race made the world a hospitable environment for Kaiju to roam.

So there's the moral of the story for you: Quit ruining the planet, or else malicious aliens the size of the Vatican will come and eat your hometown.

It's a decent enough message. But since the film's release comes in the same week we learned that pollution causes sharknados, I'm starting to sense some potential overkill coming from the entertainment-environmentalist complex. Or I suppose you could just enjoy the damn thing as—in the words of one American entertainer—a dazzling "Robots Punch Monsters" summer blockbuster.

And on that note, here's a trailer for Pacific Rim:

Pacific Rim gets a wide release on Friday, July 12. The film is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief language. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

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

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

Can a "Sharknado" Really Happen?

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 3:53 PM EDT
Sharknado
Courtesy of Syfy

"Global warming IS the reason…"

So exclaims a local TV news reporter as a sharknado—a climate-change-abetted windstorm that sucks in an armada of malevolent sharks—approaches the heart of Los Angeles. As the sharknado descends, the cyclone starts flinging horrifying sharks at an innocent public and Tara Reid. The only logical way to defeat a sharknado is with chainsaws, shotguns, handguns, helicopters, crudely made bombs, and selfless acts of brawny heroism.

Sharknado, which premieres Thursday, July 11 at 9 p.m. Easter/Pacific on Syfy, is a movie for our times. Not only does it address the hotly political issue of climate change, it also features a store owner who claims that the National Security Agency—the gigantic entity that Edward Snowden pissed off—is responsible for generating and unleashing sharknados on the American people. (The female journalist, not the small businessman, is right, though this doesn't turn out to be much comfort to her, since she gets devoured by a shark during a live broadcast.)

"The Bridge": A Serial Killer Drama That's Also About Immigration Politics, Corruption, and Human Trafficking

| Wed Jul. 10, 2013 9:46 PM EDT

If you've heard of The Bridge, chances are good that you've heard it favorably compared to two cable-TV powerhouses: The Wire and Homeland. Given the fact that both are critical darlings—and that the former is frequently heralded as the greatest thing to ever happen on TV—this likely puts a hunk of pressure on creators Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid. (Stiehm is herself an alumnus of the Homeland writers' room.) But if The Bridge's first three episodes are any indication, it might just have a shot at measuring up.

The new series (premiering Wednesday, July 10 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX) is a loose adaptation of the eponymous Danish/Swedish cop drama, which revolves around the murders of a Swedish politician and a Danish prostitute, and the subsequent murders. The cross-border premise was intriguing enough to warrant an upcoming British/French version, as well. The American incarnation kicks off at the Bridge of the Americas, a border crossing between Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, where the remains of a controversial, anti-immigration American judge and a Mexican prostitute have been dumped. El Paso detective Sonya Cross (the reliably awesome Diane Kruger) and Chihuahua state police officer Marco Ruiz (the Oscar-nominated Demián Bichir) arrive on the scene to find the body parts literally straddling the painted border line. As the body count rises, and a mysterious man takes responsibility for the slayings, the detectives find themselves working closely together, in both jurisdictions. Ruiz is the troubled family man resisting the temptations of drug-cartel bribery, and Cross is the by-the-book hard case with Asperger's. She is attentively watched over by her boss, Lt. Hank Wade (Ted Levine, who has a fair share of experience with detective shows and serial killers).

What may at first sound like another tired, gritty, and gimmicky police procedural briskly evolves into something sprawling and timely. The series examines the real-world problems of Juárez—an area where the drug war and killing is so bad that local businesses demand UN peacekeeping forces. The show offers a panorama of law enforcement officers, journalists, immigrants, drug lords, and ordinary citizens whose lives collide during the murder spree. And the butcher at the center of all this is a (supposedly) high-minded serial killer who uses slaughter to make social and political points: Will well-off American society pay more attention to the daily horrors south of the border if he brings that reality to the nation's doorstep? 

The Bridge unfolds as an intense, thoughtful look at human trafficking, drug cartels, police corruption, immigration, poverty, and border tensions—all wrapped up nicely in the form of a buddy-cop show.

Check out this TV spot for the new series:

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

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

Speedy Ortiz's Major Opus

| Mon Jul. 8, 2013 5:30 AM EDT
Speedy Ortiz

Speedy Ortiz
Major Arcana
Carpark

Jagged, unpredictable, and often inscrutable, the intriguing songs of the Northampton, Massachusetts, quartet Speedy Ortiz seem to deconstruct before your very ears. Grungy guitars emit massive chords, while the thudding rhythm section embodies brutal grace as tempos lurch and surge. In the center of the storm, charismatic Sadie Dupuis—a star in the making—spews knotty lyrics with tense insistence, suggesting Bettie Serveert's Carol van Dijk on a cranky day.

While earlier efforts (including the thrashing non-album song "Taylor Swift") inspired comparisons to such indie-rock institutions as Pavement and the Pixies, this fierce and addictive debut is its own memorable experience. From "No Below," where Dupuis sighs, "I didn't know you when I was a kid / But swimming with you it sure feels like I did," to the window-rattling "Plough," in which she exclaims, "I was never the witch that you made me to be / Still, you picked a virgin over me," Dupuis deftly sketches vivid scenes with a few well-chosen words, even when the literal meaning is elusive. When she's swamped by a wave of noise, the thrilling raw power of Major Arcana is pleasure enough.

Your Weekend Longreads List on America's Pastime

| Sat Jul. 6, 2013 4:39 PM EDT

longreadsWith the NBA and NHL seasons coming to their respective conclusions last month, and football still months away, baseball is the lone remaining major sport as America celebrates Independence Day. In its century and a half of existence, baseball has provided the country with a never-ending stream of heroes, villains, and plenty of folks who sit squarely in between. Below, we've rounded up some of our favorite pieces of long-form journalism about America's complicated relationship with the national pastime.

For more long stories from Mother Jones, check out our longreads archive. And, of course, if you're not following @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter yet, get on that.
 


Baseball Without Metaphor | David Grann | New York Times Magazine | September 2002 

Barry Bonds may have been baseball's most feared hitter—as well as its most hated. The reigning home run king was denied entry to the Hall of Fame this year thanks to his role as the central figure in the sport's massive steroid scandal, raising questions about what we value in athletes and their on-field accomplishments.

Perhaps no one has been more ravaged by this new machine than Barry Bonds, the most dominant player of the modern era. At the very moment when Bonds is edging closer to the all-time home-run record, when in another age he would be lionized for his grace and strength, he has become a new kind of archetype—''The poster boy for the modern spoiled athlete'' and ''a symbol of baseball's creeping greed and selfishness, complete with diamond earring.''

Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu | John Updike | The New Yorker | October 1960

Another icon who had a love/hate relationship with his hometown fans, Ted Williams is considered one of the greatest hitters in Major League history even considering the seasons he missed while serving as a fighter pilot in the Korean War. His hatred for the Boston media and refusal to doff his cap to the fans became just as much a part of his legend as his batting crowns and All-Star Game appearances.

The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories. It falls into three stages, which may be termed Youth, Maturity, and Age; or Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis; or Jason, Achilles, and Nestor.

Mourning Glory | Chris Ballard | Sports Illustrated | October 2012

Here, Ballard explores the small town of Williamsport, Maryland, where the deaths of two ballplayers three years apart loom large over high school baseball coach David Warrenfeltz and the rest of the local sports community.

In the months that followed, Warrenfeltz was haunted by his friend's death. He wrestled with why this happened to Adenhart, not to him—why he was allowed to keep playing baseball when Nick couldn't. Even years later Warrenfeltz would be driving and suddenly have to pull over, tears blurring his vision. Maybe that helps explain why he returned home after finishing college, to make a life in the place his friends once dreamed of leaving. Why he became a coach.

What's It Like To Sing The Anthem At A Baseball Game? The Story Of One Man's Perilous Fight | Drew Magary | Deadspin | July 2012

What could be more American than belting out the national anthem before a baseball game? It may be a minor league game, but Magary still makes it his patriotic mission to not screw up too badly.

AND THE ROCKETS' RED GLAAAAARE…

Singing this part feels like jumping a motorcycle off a rising drawbridge. It's just a straight crescendo, going up and up and up. If you trip anytime before "glare," you're fucking dead. You won't make it.

Inside Major League Baseball's Dominican Sweatshop System | Ian Gordon | Mother Jones | March/April 2013

Prospect Yewri Guillén died of a preventable bacterial infection at a Washington Nationals training academy in the Dominican Republic. It turns out the Nationals, along with many other MLB teams, have no certified trainers or doctors at their camps, where they risk the health of their Dominican ballplayers to bring cheap talent back to the United States.

Guillén's death is the worst-case scenario in a recruiting system that treats young Dominicans as second-class prospects, paying them far less than young Americans and sometimes denying them benefits that are standard in the US minor leagues, such as health insurance and professionally trained medical staff. MLB regulations allow teams to troll for talent on the cheap in the Dominican Republic: Unlike American kids, who must have completed high school to sign, Dominicans can be signed as young as 16, when their bodies and their skills are far less developed.

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How Disney and Johnny Depp Dealt With "The Lone Ranger" Racism Problem

| Sat Jul. 6, 2013 1:23 PM EDT

"[The] Native American community…is so behind this movie, it's fantastic," producer Jerry Bruckheimer said in a recent interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News.

Bruckheimer was there promoting The Lone Ranger (Walt Disney Pictures, 149 minutes), a film released on Wednesday that he made with Gore Verbinski, a director who previously worked with Bruckheimer on the Pirates of the Caribbean films. The Lone Ranger, starring Armie Hammer as the title character and Johnny Depp as his Comanche partner Tonto, is a $250 million big-screen adaptation of the famous American western franchise of the same name. (Click here to listen to the classic Lone Ranger theme song, which you've probably had committed to memory since you were a kid.) The new film, and past incarnations, show the Lone Ranger and Tonto combating injustice in the Wild West. The movie has an exciting, perfectly worthwhile start and finale (each showcasing a prolonged action sequence with fast trains), but it's ultimately dragged down by a two-hour stretch of soporific, mismanaged middle. So the film was critically panned, but it has received some surprisingly positive press coverage for something many assumed would be its primary hurdle.

A Musical Tribute to Kate McGarrigle

| Mon Jul. 1, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Kate McGarrigle

Various Artists
Sing Me the Songs: Celebrating the Works of Kate McGarrigle
Nonesuch

Drawn from concerts in New York, London, and Toronto, and produced by Joe Boyd (also recently responsible for a terrific Nick Drake tribute), this exhilarating two-disc set commemorates the beloved Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010. Participants include her longtime musical partner, sister Anna McGarrigle, plus kids Rufus and Martha Wainwright and a gaggle of friends and fans, among them Norah Jones, Jimmy Fallon, Emmylou Harris, Linda Thompson, Richard Thompson, and Broken Social Scene.

But McGarrigle’s compositions are the main reason to listen. Tender, funny and reliably clear-eyed in her portrayal of grown-up relationships, she never let heartache get in the way of a great melody or compelling narrative. If "Kiss and Say Goodbye" or "I Cried for Us" doesn’t strike a nerve, then "Tell My Sister" or "Go Leave" surely will. While the final track, Kate's home demo of "I Just Want to Make It Last," provides a suitably poignant coda, don't stop there: If you're unfamiliar with the McGarrigle sisters' albums, there's a host of fine songs waiting to be discovered.

3 Modern Sirens Tackle the Greek Myths

| Mon Jul. 1, 2013 5:46 AM EDT

Hip-hop artist Dessa's new album "Parts of Speech" hit shelves on June 25.

The word "music" traces back to Greek's mousike, or "art of the Muses," those seven goddesses presiding over song, literature, and dance. The muse Euterpe, "giver of delight," embodied music and lyric poetry; she'd have approved of the following contemporary songbirds, for whom timeless Greek tales inspire and enrich songs about modern life and love.

Dessa
Minneapolis-based Dessa might not fit your stereotype of a rapper: Poised and contemplative, you might find her lecturing on creative writing or feminism in a college classroom, cozying up to a David Foster Wallace novel, or jotting down lyrics in the tattered Moleskine she keeps in her backpack. But that doesn't mean her latest album, Parts of Speech, is tame. Released June 25, the album offers a potent blend of pop, R&B, and hip-hop strung together by Dessa's sultry voice and explosive songwriting. ("Call Off Your Ghost," which you can listen to below, is a case in point.)

Dessa is a poet and former philosophy major, so it's no wonder Greek characters pop up in some of her songs, such as the the haunting "Beekeeper," where she sings: "Sweet Prometheus come home / they took away our fire / and all that this scarcity promotes / is desperate men and tyrants." (In Greek mythology, the cunning Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humans). "I think I go to myths because you get to import a tiny piece of the poetic tradition that you reference," Dessa says.