2014 - %3, August

Film Review: Life Itself

| Wed Oct. 29, 2014 5:31 PM EDT

Life Itself

KARTEMQUIN FILMS

There's a scene early in Life Itself when a hospitalized Roger Ebert, missing his lower jaw after multiple surgeries for thyroid cancer, needs his throat suctioned. The camera holds steady as Ebert winces through the procedure, but then an email box pops up on the screen. "great stuff!!!!!" types Ebert, no longer able to speak. "I'm happy we got a great thing that nobody ever sees: suction." Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) blends an intimate end-of-life story with Ebert's wide-ranging biography: precocious college newspaper editor, recovering drunk, screenwriter of the schlocky Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, friend and critic of Hollywood's biggest names. But for all of Ebert's exploits, it's the private moments James captures, like his increasingly brief email responses as cancer slowly wins out, that endure.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

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Film Review: "The Overnighters"

| Mon Oct. 27, 2014 1:57 PM EDT

The Overnighters

MILE END FILMS

This engrossing film is set in Williston, North Dakota, where locals are freaking out about the hordes of desperate men in need of cash and a fresh start who pour into their tiny town in search of fracking jobs. A local pastor takes pity on them, converting his Concordia Lutheran Church into an ad hoc shelter. He's resolute, even as his family reels from the criticism of angry neighbors and congregants who want him to be a little less Christian. But he risks losing everything when the local paper reports that sex offenders are among the visitors. Up through its devastating reveal, The Overnighters questions the motivations behind (and consequences of) our choices and convictions.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

Book Review: The Birth of the Pill

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 4:24 PM EDT
birth of the pill

The Birth of the Pill

By Jonathan Eig

NORTON

Seventy years ago, birth control—illegal, crude, and unreliable—was reserved for women with means whose men were willing to go along. Jonathan Eig's gripping history recounts how two men and two women fought science and society for a pill to enable smaller families (and low-risk recreational sex). Their campaign, which touted pragmatism (population control, economics) over pleasure, won some unlikely victories: the support of a devout Catholic OB-GYN, for instance, and the backing of a feisty heiress who once smuggled more than 1,000 diaphragms into the States, sewn into the folds of the latest European fashions. The pill is utterly ordinary today. The story of how we got here is anything but.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

Book Review: My Life As a Foreign Country

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 3:33 PM EDT
my life as a foreign country

My Life As a Foreign Country

By Brian Turner

NORTON

In this moving account of his time as a sergeant in Iraq, Brian Turner, whose poem "The Hurt Locker" was the namesake for the Oscar-winning film, delivers a succession of oddly beautiful, appropriately devastating reflections that drive home the realities of war. Turner takes us from training camp to war zone and home again, where, in bed with his wife, he dreams he's a drone, flying over countries of wars past.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

Book Review: The Human Age

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 2:32 PM EDT
the human age

The Human Age

By Diane Ackerman

NORTON

Is humankind so dominant that we deserve our very own geologic era? Naturalist Diane Ackerman answers an emphatic "yes" in this ambitious survey of our brief reign on Earth. Despite pockets of purplish prose, The Human Age is a well-crafted and often compelling book: Orangutans with iPads, self-aware robots, and visionary fishermen are characters in her expansive story of how human advancement affects our lives and our environment. Ackerman is neither overly optimistic nor alarmist as she explores the pros and cons of humanity, expressing wonder and concern at all the things we're capable of.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones.

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The NFL Finally Fixed Its Weak Domestic-Violence Penalties

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 10:12 AM EDT
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell

The National Football League has drastically toughened its punishments for domestic violence after weeks of uproar over its weak response to the case of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Rice received a two-game suspension after allegedly assaulting his fiancée, while players who tested positive for marijuana—some in states where weed is legal—were handed four-game and even season-long suspensions.

In a letter to NFL owners Thursday, commissioner Robert Goodell wrote that the league had fallen short in "a recent incident of domestic violence" and announced that a first-time domestic-violence offender would now receive a six-game suspension. Repeat offenders, he wrote, would face indefinite bans, with the possibility to apply for reinstatement after a year.

To be clear, there's no epidemic of domestic violence among NFL players; this graph from FiveThirtyEight shows that NFL players are generally less likely to be arrested than the rest of 25-to-29-year-old American men*:

 morris-datalab-nfl-vaw-1

Rather, this smells a lot like a PR-related move from the league, which has seen its reputation suffer in the wake of Rice's light penalty. After all, it's not like the NFL jumped to punish any of the following four players, all of whom were involved in domestic incidents during Goodell's tenure as commissioner:

  • AJ Jefferson: In February, Jefferson allegedly strangled his girlfriend and was arrested and charged with assault. The Minnesota Vikings released him hours later, but he was picked up by the Seattle Seahawks this spring.
  • Chad Johnson: In 2012, Johnson was arrested for head-butting his wife and charged with misdemeanor domestic battery. He pleaded no contest, was sentenced to probation and was cut by the Miami Dolphins.
  • Brandon Marshall: The Chicago Bears' star wide receiver has one of the lengthier rap sheets in the league. Since 2004, he has been arrested five times, twice on domestic-violence charges, and has been involved in 10 disputes—many involving violence against women—in which no charges were filed. Marshall was suspended one game in 2009 over charges he'd abused his girlfriend in 2008 (he was acquitted); in 2007, he was arrested after preventing his girlfriend's taxi from leaving his home, completed anger management, and did not receive punishment from the NFL.
  • Quinn Ojinnaka: The former Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman was suspended for one game in 2010 after a dispute in which he threw his wife down a flight of stairs and out of their home. (The dispute is said to have begun over Ojinnaka contacting a woman via Facebook.)

Ultimately, the NFL is deeply invested in maintaining a clean, family-friendly image, and Goodell is clearly responding to claims that the league takes smoking pot more seriously than it does violence against women. While it's good that future domestic-violence offenders will receive more appropriate punishment, the timing of his letter—just a day after a vocal outcry about Rice's punishment—makes it seem like the move of an embarrassed league looking to crack down on players who embarrass it.

Goodell is burnishing his reputation as an authoritarian who's concerned with appearances, rather than a commissioner who leverages the league's reach and resources to actually address issues like domestic violence.

*Note: As commenter Bumpasaurus pointed out, the data from the FiveThirtyEight chart is "adjusted for poverty status." NFL players are wealthy, and compared to other, wealthy individuals in the same age group, "the domestic violence arrest rate is downright extraordinary."

"The Troll Slayer": Don't Miss This Fascinating Profile of Mary Beard

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 2:40 PM EDT
Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard

Here is a partial list of things for which the British historian Mary Beard has gained reverence and notoriety:

  • Positing that Pompeiians had bad breath, based on tartar levels on their fossilized teeth.
  • Theorizing that Romans didn't smile, since Latin lacks words for anything resembling one.
  • Being the world's foremost scholar on how Romans pooped.
  • Going on television without wearing makeup or dying her gray hair.
  • Retweeting a message she got from a 20-year-old calling her a "filthy old slut."
  • On 9/11: suggesting that on some level, the United States "had it coming."
  • Disclosing that she was raped when she was 20 in an essay on rape in ancient Rome.

You can read all about it in Rebecca Mead's excellent new New Yorker profile on the endlessly fascinating Cambridge don. It opens on a lecture that Beard gave earlier this year at the British Museum, titled "Oh Do Shut Up, Dear!," on the long literary history of men keeping women quiet, from the Odyssey's Penelope ordered upstairs to her weaving by her son—"Speech will be the business of men," he says—to the death threats, rape threats, and general nastiness that Beard and other outspoken women get online. ("I'm going to cut off your head and rape it," read one of her tweet mentions.) For her part, Beard does not subscribe to the "don't feed the trolls" school of thought when it comes to dealing with online assailants. She engages, both publicly and privately, often with surprising results:

She has discovered that, quite often, she receives not only an apology from them but also a poignant explanation…After a "Question Time" viewer wrote to her that she was "evil," further correspondence revealed that he was mostly upset because he wanted to move to Spain and didn't understand the bureaucracy. "It took two minutes on Google to discover the reciprocal health-care agreement, so I sent it to him," she says. "Now when I have a bit of Internet trouble, I get an e-mail from him saying, 'Mary, are you all right? I was worried about you.'"

Fun stuff. And when you're done with Mead's piece, check out Beard's latest book, Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up.

Music Review: "To Turn You On" by Robyn Hitchcock

| Mon Aug. 25, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
robyn hitchcock

TRACK 3

"To Turn You On"

From Robyn Hitchcock's The Man Upstairs

YEP ROC

Liner notes: Hitchcock gives Bryan Ferry's morose love song a charming, irony-free makeover, setting his surprisingly tender vocal to a delicate chamber-folk arrangement.

Behind the music: The former Soft Boys leader teamed with producer Joe Boyd (Fairport Convention, Anna and Kate McGarrigle) for this vibrant mix of originals and covers (Doors, Psychedelic Furs).

Check it out if you like: Vital vets like Richard Thompson and Marshall Crenshaw.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

Liam Bailey's "Definitely Now" is Sneakily Addictive

| Mon Aug. 25, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

Liam Bailey
Definitely NOW
Flying Buddha/Sony Music

Liam Bailey

Liam Bailey's smoky rasp of a voice would enhance any setting. On this sneakily addictive debut, the UK singer skillfully mixes slick modern pop, old-school soul, torch ballads, and a dash of reggae, creating a familiar yet fresh brew reminiscent of the great Amy Winehouse, an early champion of his. Where some young vocalists tend to emote excessively in an attempt to show off their skills, Bailey makes a virtue of understatement. He's thoroughly engaging on uptempo numbers like "Villain" and "Fool Boy," but especially effective on slower late-night tunes such as "Autumn Leaves" (not the pop standard) and "So, Down Cold." Make it mellow, Liam.

Also read: Bailey spoke to photographer Jacob Blickenstaff about making the album and his split with Jimi Hendrix's old label, Polydor.