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Snap Judgments

| October 19, 2011 | Story Reviews

(Sub Pop)

If the Dum Dum Girls’ first release, I Will Be, fit nicely with the gritty, feedback-drenched tunes of lo-fi girl group–style bands like Best Coast, the quartet’s sophomore effort makes torment downright appealing. Leader and former Berkeley resident Dee Dee (aka Kirstin Gundred) opted for a big, clear sound, recording with legendary Blondie producer Richard Gottehrer. The band’s guitars still grind, but the hooks are more warm hug than brutal pummel. Dee Dee smooths out her reverb-heavy vocals for a classic Chrissie Hynde sound, and her lyrics move beyond tales of wayward teenage antics into adult territory, such as her grief over her mother’s death. “In My Head” and “Caught in One” turn hard times into sweet couplets, and “Coming Down” is the kind of gorgeously miserable ballad that Mazzy Star used to deliver. What a smart step forward. A - DAN STRACHOTA


“It’s dirty chic… . You don’t have to worry about messing it up yourself—I mess it up for you. All this wonderful cashmere is already fucked up on your behalf.” This is how self-described antifashion designer Rick Owens, in his first coffee-table tome, defines his aesthetic. For the past 20 years, the San Joaquin Valley native has perfected distressed T-shirts, ripped sweaters, washed leather jackets, and fitted jersey fishtail skirts, inspiring countless knockoff artists as well as his obsessive, pay-any-price devotees. The book is loaded with the expected grainy black-and-white shots of his sculptural silhouettes worn by drag queens and other provocative characters he’s befriended, including Kembra Pfahler from the band the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. It’s a great reminder that Owens, who launched his collection while living near gritty (pre-facelift) Hollywood Boulevard, before decamping to Paris, has jump-started almost every recent subversive trend: androgyny, shaved eyebrows, nuns’ habits, combat boots, cocoon jackets, high-top sneakers (again), and pale waifs with red lips. Yet he remains an enigma, so this
volume’s transcribed conversations, including a debate with Karl Lagerfeld about the merits of Birkenstocks, ultimately make this a must-read. A - ELIZABETH VARNELL

(IFC Films)

Slated for Shattuck Cinemas and the Lumiere, director Göran Hugo Olsson’s vigorous documentary (coproduced by Danny Glover) goes to show that neither historical nor geographical distance can cool a hot topic. The film begins with the peculiar disclaimer that it “does not presume to tell the whole story of the Black Power movement, but to show how it was perceived by some Swedish filmmakers.” Talk about a niche. Yet by rooting around in Swedish TV archives for a “mixtape” of clips from the era, which he then shows to contemporary African American cultural figures while interviewing them (think DVD commentary), Olsson depicts not only how much Swedes identified with the black American experience but also why their acutely perceptive stance earned the nation a diplomatic cold shoulder from the United States. The archival footage is often extraordinary: Here’s Stokely Carmichael in his mother’s living room; there’s Angela Davis in jail. And the commentary has its whoa moments, too. “In this period,” says Erykah Badu, “the pain to remain the same outweighed the pain to change.” A - JONATHAN KIEFER


(Free Press)

Last year, when the FBI finally released its trove of documents and recordings concerning Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, Berkeley author Julia Scheeres (of the bestselling memoir Jesus Land) saw an opportunity. Focusing on several of Jones’s followers—913 of whom died drinking cyanide-dosed Flavor-Aide at Jonestown, his militarized commune in Guyana, in 1978—she has assembled the first solid history of the Temple, beginning with Jones’s teenage days as a Pentecostal street preacher in Indiana. The tales of his posts as reverend at a church at 1859 Geary and as head of the San Francisco Housing Authority hit close to home: As his congregants are undergoing humiliating abuses, the man in charge of city housing believes he is God. After Jones moves the group to Guyana, where he preaches socialism and civil rights to his mostly African American acolytes, one moment portrayed by Scheeres relays a kind of success: “It took Jonestown for Edith to surmount her classism and reach out to an unschooled black senior like Eddie.” But her next sentence returns to the foreshadowing of tragedy: “Jonestown was the great equalizer.” Her book is less a warning about the dangers of religiosity than a clearheaded chronology. “The word cult only discourages intellectual curiosity and empathy,” Scheeres writes. “As one survivor told me, nobody joins a cult.” A - TAYLOR WILES

(Sacha Pictures)

This debut feature from writer-directors Annie Howell and UC Berkeley alum Lisa Robinson, among the offerings at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival (October 6–16), has breakout potential, albeit in a mild-little-indie-comedy way. Expanding on the filmmakers’ web series, Sparks, the plot involves an ambivalently pregnant, technology-benumbed woman (Anna Margaret Hollyman) who takes a road trip off the grid to reconnect with her estranged, desert-dwelling mother (Mary Beth Peil). With airy, ambling warmth and a wry eye on how tech trends complicate and erode human contact, Howell and Robinson venture ambitiously into Miranda July territory, although (so far, at least) without the master’s edgy finesse. Some bits seem inspired; others, undercooked or redundant. A loping pace is hobbled occasionally by awkward coverage and cuts, and while Hollyman remains ever fetching, she isn’t wholly convincing as a practiced tech geek. Enough humane good instincts abound, though, for the film to transcend its slightly amateurish aura. B- - JONATHAN KIEFER


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