2013 - %3, July

Here's Why Some People Think the Smurfs Are Jew-Hating Communists

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 12:58 PM PDT

Smurfette Katy Perry invades Czechoslovakia.

The Smurfs 2
Columbia Pictures
105 minutes

Ever since The Smurfs—the Belgian TV and cartoon franchise—kicked off in 1958, the little blue creatures have gained an enviable international presence. The Smurfs have been on money. They've been featured in a UNICEF ad campaign in which the peaceful Smurf village is indiscriminately carpet bombed. And in summer 2011, the big-screen Smurfs adaptation, starring Neil Patrick Harris and Sofía Vergara, was a box-office hit; the Smurfs even got to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

And with The Smurfs 2 hitting theaters this week, it's a good time to revisit another important piece of the Smurf legacy: The lovable blue-skinned animals might also be rabid totalitarians and raging anti-Semites.

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The #RoyalBaby Is Born. Here's a Playlist For #RoyalBaby

| Mon Jul. 22, 2013 2:31 PM PDT

#RoyalBaby was born today. The famous spawn of the United Kingdom's Prince William and Duchess Kate Middleton, #RoyalBaby is a bundle of joy who is supposedly worth roughly $380 million in stimulus to the British economy. There has been much international anticipation over the birthing of #RoyalBaby. For instance, here is the Google Trends graph of "Royal Baby" searches over the past 90 days:

Royal Baby google trends

"Given the special relationship between us, the American people are pleased to join with the people of the United Kingdom as they celebrate the birth of the young prince," Barack and Michelle Obama said in a statement. "Barring revolution in Britain," the BBC wrote, "the shape and trajectory of [this baby's] life is, in every real sense, inescapable. This is a child whose destiny is to inherit one of the oldest hereditary thrones in the world."

Hereditary throne, indeed. So in honor of the latest addition to the British royal family—a bloodline marked by tabloid fame, generations of autocracy, and Nazi sympathies—here is Mother Jones' #RoyalBaby Playlist.

1. Pavement

2. The Smiths

3. The Sex Pistols

4. Schoolhouse Rock!

5. Aerosmith

America.

The Song Cycles of (Possible Genius) Van Dyke Parks

| Mon Jul. 22, 2013 2:30 AM PDT
Van Dyke Parks, rendered.

Van Dyke Parks
Songs Cycled

Bella Union

Boasting a lengthy résumé spanning nearly a half-century, Van Dyke Parks has written and recorded with Brian Wilson; played, produced, or arranged for everyone from The Byrds and Harry Nilsson to Rufus Wainwright and Joanna Newsom; and written music for film and TV. But his greatest achievement may be his determinedly noncommercial solo albums.

Even in the anything-goes 1960s, when he released his first LP, Song Cycle, the Mississippi-born Parks was too out-there to command a large following, thanks to his eccentric stew of old-timey parlor music, classical strains (Aaron Copland et al.), Caribbean spice and all-around genial oddness.

Songs Cycled, his first solo release in 15 years, finds Parks' magic undimmed. His sprightly voice suggesting a loopy Southern aristocrat, Parks ponders injustice ("Money Is King"), revisits a shimmering gem from his debut ("The All Golden") and offers a hallucinatory steel drum interlude that could be "The Nutcracker" by way of Trinidad. However strange he may seem at first, Parks' uniquely offbeat sounds quickly cast their own satisfying spell. Don't miss out on this true original, who may just be a genius.

An Essential New Otis Redding Collection

| Mon Jul. 22, 2013 2:30 AM PDT

Otis Redding
The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection

Shout! Factory

Is Otis Redding the greatest soul singer of all time? Fans of James Brown or Solomon Burke, among others, might disagree, but the Big O certainly delivered the goods. There's no better place to explore the legacy of the Georgia great than this irresistible three-disc, 70-track set, which includes every original A- and B-side in its original mono mix (a recent trend in reissues that makes sense, since '60s singles were targeted to AM radio).

While casual fans may already know "Respect" (which predates Aretha's cover), Redding's rowdy version of the Stones' "Satisfaction" or "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," his biggest hit, released shortly after his death in 1967, there's a wealth of other down-home R&Br to discover here.

Backed by his ferocious Stax colleagues, including Booker T and the MGs and the horns of the Mar-Keys, Redding always went full-force, whether revamping the Sinatra standard "Try a Little Tenderness," shouting "Look at the Girl" or sparring playfully with frequent duet partner Carla Thomas on "Tramp." A compilation of his lesser-known flip-sides alone would have been a godsend. The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection is essential.

For a different take on Redding, check out Lonely and Blue: The Deepest Soul of Otis Redding (Stax/Volt), a new compilation intended to look like an old album, that emphasizes his knack for gritty ballads.

Iranian Government Has No Comment On John Malkovich Invading Their Embassy, Killing Revolutionary Guards

| Fri Jul. 19, 2013 2:25 PM PDT

In the just released action-comedy RED 2, the main characters—an offbeat band of retired Western intelligence operatives and assassins—invade the Iranian embassy in London, take part in a large-scale firefight and car chase, and end up killing probably dozens of Revolutionary Guard troops who happen to be stationed at the embassy.

Assuming RED 2 takes place in present day, the scene takes place at a fictional embassy. In November 2011, the British ordered the immediate closure of the Iranian embassy in London after the British embassy in Tehran was stormed by demonstrators. (The embassy sequence was shot at Fishmongers' Hall in London.)

So, what does the Iranian government have to say about Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, and Mary-Louise Parker starting a fictional bloodbath on Iranian soil? It may seem petty and beneath the dignity of a foreign government to address something like this, but keep in mind that last year, Iranian officials plotted to sue Hollywood because they thought Best Picture winner Argo was an "unrealistic portrayal" of their country. Years before that, Zack Snyder's hit action film 300 elicited similar emotions from state authorities.

For the time being, it looks like they might let this one slide. Officials at Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the office of the president had no comment on John Malkovich invading their fictional embassy (although one did say that he would look into it).

The RED 2 publicity team for Summit Entertainment, the studio distributing the film, could not be reached for comment.

RED 2 gets a wide release on Friday, July 19. The film is rated PG-13 for pervasive action and violence including frenetic gunplay, and for some language and drug material. 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.

9 Songs for Nelson Mandela

| Thu Jul. 18, 2013 12:05 AM PDT

Before Nelson Mandela celebrated his birthdays with UN declarations and millions of singing children, he spent 27 years in prison, 18 of them on South Africa's infamous Robben Island. In spite of his confinement and disappearance from the world stage (the apartheid government even banned his image), Mandela inspired a generation of activists and artists inside and outside of South Africa.

On the former South African president and anti-apartheid leader's 95th birthday, let's revisit some of the songs that helped put—and keep—Mandela in the minds of millions.

1. The Special AKA: "Nelson Mandela"
This super-popular and catchy protest song was released in 1984, when Mandela was nearly 20 years into his life sentence. Here it's performed with a little backup from Elvis Costello and the English Beat's Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling.

2. Hugh Masekela, "Mandela (Bring Him Back Home)"
Masekela's wish to see the imprisoned Mandela "walking down the street" was all the more poignant considering that the South African trumpeter had been living in exile in the United States since the early '60s.

3. Brenda Fassie, "Black President"
Fassie, a South African pop sensation who died in 2004, sang this tribute in 1990, four years before Mandela was elected South Africa's first black (and democratically elected) president.

4. Johnny Clegg & Savuka, "Asimbonanga"
Mandela's absence was also lamented in the South African singer's 1986 hit, whose title and chorus means "we have not seen him" in Zulu.

5. Salif Keita, "Mandela"
"You shed tears for others," sings the Malian star in this 1995 tribute.

6. Vusi Mahlasela, "When You Come Back"
Before it was used to promote the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Mahlasela's 1994 song alluded both to Mandela and Vuyisile Mini, an African National Congress activist and songwriter who was executed in 1964.

7. Miriam Makeba, "Ndodemnyama (Beware, Verwoerd)"
This 1950s song written by Mini doesn't mention Mandela, but it warns Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, of the struggle to come.

8. Artists United Against Apartheid, "Sun City"
Mandela gets a quick visual shout-out in this '80s-tastic video. (And see if you can spot Run D.M.C., Lou Reed, and Keith Richards among the many musical celebrities crammed into this single penned by Little Steven Van Zandt.)

9. Dishonorable mention: Nickelback, "If Everyone Cared"
There have been some crummy songs about Mandela, too. This one has nothing to say about Mandela (or anything for that matter), but it does shamelessly include him in its video.

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How Obama and The NSA Are Being Used To Promote Bruce Willis' New Movie

| Wed Jul. 17, 2013 12:46 PM PDT

Barack Obama has been in a bunch of Hollywood movies. Granted, it's generally in the form of archival footage, often played out of context. In Zero Dark Thirty, you can see him talking about torture. In Pacific Rim, he's at a White House press conference taking questions on the alien invaders. In Battleship, the president is visible on a jumbotron telling America to calm down (again, on the subject of alien invasion). In last year's Total Recall remake, his face is on the dollar bills of the future. And now, he's also being used to promote Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren's latest action movie.

The ad campaign for RED 2the sequel to 2010's darkly humorous surprise hit RED—is mostly what you'd expect for a mid-summer release: the standard social-media push and loud commercials emphasizing the explosions, the guns, the globetrotting CIA mayhem, and the all-star cast that includes John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Hopkins, and Lee Byung-hun. (The film is directed by Galaxy Quest helmer Dean Parisot and written by the Hoeber brothers.)

But on July 10 (just nine days before the film's wide release), American TV stations began airing a new ad titled "Barack Obama: NSA Code RED," set to the hard-rock edge of AC/DC's 1980 song "Shoot to Thrill":

The description on the YouTube version, which currently has over 26,000 views, begins by paraphrasing President Obama: "'These folks keep America safe.' Watch this video to meet the real heroes protecting us." Here's the trailer promoted on RED 2's official Twitter account:

The TV spot splices together sound bites from Obama's June 7 remarks on the National Security Agency/Edward Snowden controversy with a few bullet-riddled and goofy clips from the new film. For instance, the part when Obama says, "the people...involved in America's national security...take this work very seriously," is paired with the image of Helen Mirren firing two handguns out of both sides of a very expensive sports car.

Olivier Libaux Uncovers Queens of the Stone Age

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

Olivier Libaux
Uncovered Queens of the Stone Age
Music for Music Lovers

France's Olivier Libaux is one of the leaders of the group Nouvelle Vague, which specializes in lounge-tinged covers of such New Wave oldies as "I Melt with You" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart." Here he trains his revisionist eye on a current artist, turning down the heat in similar fashion on a dozen Queens of the Stone Age originals with the approval of Queens mastermind Josh Homme (who is not otherwise involved).

Nouvelle Vague albums sometimes seem like high-concept (albeit amusing) gimmickry, but Uncovered works nicely. In contrast to the Queens' hard-rock stomp, the understated arrangements underscore the dramatic melodies, while the 11 women enlisted to sing mostly evoke a sense of alluring retro cool, even if Libaux's mellow settings tend to blur the chanteuses' differences.

In any case, standouts include Guatemala's Gaby Moreno, Ambrosia Parsley of Shivaree, Iceland's Emiliana Torrini (sounding less Bjork-like than she often does on her own albums), and especially Inara George (The Bird and the Bee). George is the only vocalist who performs on two tracks, and her studied detachment on "No One Knows" and "Hangin' Tree" might induce chills.

Libaux could probably have a field day with other unlikely source material. What's next? A Hank Williams tribute maybe?

"The Newsroom," Season 2: Not an Unpardonable Train Wreck Like Season 1

| Sun Jul. 14, 2013 6:15 PM PDT

A little over a year ago, the first season of The Newsroom premiered on HBO. Here are the 21 adjectives and four adverbs I used to describe it:

Whiny, sententious, stale, tedious, rambling, unamusing, flat, ho-hum, childish, embarrassing, jejune, twitchy-eyed, daffy, obvious, frustrating, self-congratulatory, left-leaning, emotionally manipulative, alarmingly candy-ass, maddeningly idealistic, and arduously quirky.

Having had nearly 13 months to reflect on season one, I stand by all 25 words. But here are two words to describe the second season of writer Aaron Sorkin's HBO series: Markedly improved.

To everyone else who devoutly hate-watched the 10-episode first season (including those who don't work in news and media), I am just as surprised as you are. It appears that Sorkin wasn't lying when he indicated he had taken note of last year's tidal wave of criticism and made tweaks to the show.

A Two-Word Review of "Grown Ups 2"

| Sat Jul. 13, 2013 5:44 PM PDT

Just don't.

(The film opened yesterday, but I'm not counting this as part of the review, okay?)