Saturday, December 31, 2011



2011 was without a doubt the year of the diva. Adele snatched Taylor Swift’s wig to become the reigning queen of the charts. Katy Perry broke Billboard records by continuing to brainwash America to buy the cyclically re-packaged singles from her intolerable 2010 album, Teenage Dream. Britney kept on “dancing” until the world ended. Rihanna found love in many-a hopeless place, including guest spots on albums by Coldplay and Drake, while Beyonce learned the hard way that critical and commercial success are two very different things.

Kelly Clarkson decided to endorse both Ron Paul and the notion that she’ll never relive the success of “Since U Been Gone.” Lady GaGa struggled to separate church and pop. Melissa Gorga essentially remade Lindsay Lohan’s seminal classic, “Rumors.” And Jessie J. and Nicole Scherzinger continued their “survival of the fittest” flop-off to see who would be more irrelevant by the time the ball drops in Times Square to ring in the new year.

So what’s in store for 2012? It looks like the diva reign won’t be letting up anytime soon as new albums from Madonna and Cher are sure to usher in a new era of meno-pop. Christina Aguilera will be coming out with her first record since deciding to shop exclusively at Lane Bryant. And the impact of pre-release blogosphere hype will be tested with the release of Born To Die, the first album to come out of Lana Del Rey since her Taylor Armstrong-esque makeover and signing to a major label.
Below, check out my list of top 16 most anticipated releases coming in the new year and let us know in the comments section below whose upcoming albums you’re most looking forward to in 2012.


16. The Shins, Port of Morrow

In March, The Shins will release Port of Morrow, their first studio album since 2007’s Wincing The Night Away. The record, produced by industry superstar Greg Kurstin, also serves as the band’s first major label release. Frontman James Mercer (who last year released the eponymous debut album of his side project, Broken Bells) and the rest of the band plan to announce a supporting tour in the coming weeks.


15. Madonna, LUV

Already confirmed to perform at the Super Bowl, Madonna will also be releasing Luv, her twelfth studio album and first on Interscope Records. Confirmed tracks include the lead single, “Gimme All Your Lovin’” (feat. Nicki Minaj & M.I.A.), the Martin Solveig-produced “Turn Up The Radio,” and “Masterpiece,” the Golden Globe-nominated theme from her upcoming film, W.E.. Look for the album in stores this March.


14. Rufus Wainwright, Out of the Game

Produced by hitmaker Mark Ronson (Lily Allen/Amy Winehouse), Out of the Game is Rufus Wainwright’s seventh studio album. And it seems as though the Canadian singer/songwriter will be experimenting with a more radio-friendly sound. “The main objective … is to be danceable,” Wainwright revealed to Rolling Stone about the May release. “I just want to make something that you love, driving around in your car listening or losing your mind to on a dance floor.”


13. Phoenix, Title TBD

Following the incredible success of their 2009 album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (which picked up the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album), French rockers Phoenix will be returning to the music scene in 2012. “It’s very … nostalgic, futuristic. It’s very experimental,” band member Thomas Mars told MTV about their upcoming record.


12. Passion Pit, Title TBD

With their debut album, 2009’s Manners, Passion Pit blended electro pop and indie rock together in an unprecedented way. Their eagerly anticipated sophomore release promises to continue evolving their signature sound while simultaneously continuing to blur the boundaries between genres to create what promises to be another unique and convention-defying record.


11. Sara Bareilles, Title TBD

It’s no surprise that for her upcoming EP, Sara Bareilles is collaborating with the prolific Ben Folds. Not only do the two of them share a love of the keyboard but they also recently became co-judges on reality TV competition The Sing-Off (which Bareilles joined this past season). With Folds serving as the producer, Bareilles’ upcoming EP is sure to be the perfect melding of flawless vocals, songwriting and piano-infused pop hooks.


10. American Royalty, Title TBD

With El Ardemo, Los Angeles trio American Royalty came out with one of the most refreshingly original and grittiest music releases of 2010. Mixing the raw and bluesy aesthetics of Mumford & Sons with the pulsing and thrashing electronic beats of Skrillex, the EP was one of the most solid debuts in recent memory. In 2012, the band will be releasing their premiere full-length album and if it consists of tracks even half as brilliant as “Sun Day” or “Lately,” then American Royalty is a name you’ll certainly be hearing a lot more of in the coming months.


9. Various Artists, G.O.O.D. Music: The Album

Announced by Kanye West via Twitter this fall, G.O.O.D. Music: The Album is the first compilation record to come from the rapper’s self-founded record label and management firm. While specific details have yet to emerge, expect new tracks (and inevitable collaborations) from the label’s artists including Kid Cudi, Mr. Hudson, John Legend, Mos Def, Common, and of course, Kanye himself, to set the tone for the hip hop world in 2012.


8. Ben Folds Five, Title TBD

Ben Folds Five had so much fun recording new tracks for Ben Folds’ 2011 career retrospective, The Best Imitation of Myself (which I reviewed here), that the band decided to stay in the studio and churn out a full, brand new album. Based on the versatile sounds of the three songs they recorded for the retrospective (“House,” “Tell Me What I Did” and “Stumblin’ Home Winter Blues”), Ben Folds Five will be sticking true to form by releasing a collection of catchy Lite FM-ready songs that merge scattered musical influences with the band’s classic ironic tonic.


7. Mouth’s Cradle, Title TBD

To put it simply, there’s no other band that sounds like Mouth’s Cradle. They’re part indie rock, hip hop, trip hop, electro pop, folk and Nintendo theme music. In 2010, the Pennsylvania duo released their debut album, The Next Big Thing and followed it up with the mixtape, Mouth’s Cradle vs. The Hype. In 2012, expect more slick rhymes and sophisticatingly original beats from this yet-to-be-discovered goldmine with the release of a brand new mixtape.


6. Freelance Whales, Title TBD

Upon its release in 2010, Freelance Whales’ debut album, Weathervanes, immediately drew comparisons to The Postal Service’s Give Up (which many critics and fans alike cite as one of the most brilliant and influential albums to be released since 2000). “It’s the best electronic indie-pop debut since Ben Gibbard last tuned his laptop,” Entertainment Weekly wrote of the record. In 2012, the band (which features Glee heartthrob Darren Criss’ older brother) plan to challenge The Postal Service’s legacy by releasing a follow-up album. Will all the hype help the band strike lightning twice or will it be the catalyst for a sophomore slump? Either way, I’m making sure the “pre-order” option on my iTunes is ready to go.


5. The Veronicas, Title TBD

This past fall, Australian twin sisters The Veronicas performed new tracks from their upcoming third album at two separate showcases in Los Angeles. Songs like “Cold” and “Let Me Out” had fans fiending for new material from the duo, whose last album, Hook Me Up, was released in 2007. The record will feature production by various industry VIPs including Nellee Hooper (No Doubt/Gwen Stefani/Madonna), Fernando Garibay (Lady GaGa) and The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan (who Jess of The Veronicas also happens to be dating). On their website, the girls provided their fans with an update by saying that the album will be “citing influences from The Subways, The Dead Weather, Mazzy Star, Ladytron and Peaches.” With a single release date rumored to be on the horizon, it’ll only be a short matter of time before The Veronicas’ global pop domination commences.


4. Jukebox The Ghost, Title TBD

“He’s been doing a killer job and we had a great batch of songs to pick from, so I really think this is going to be my favorite record we’ve made,” Jukebox The Ghost’s Tommy Siegel told me about producer Dan Romer’s work on the band’s upcoming third album. “I really couldn’t be more excited about this one.” And neither could i. The pop/rock trio’s new record is set to be released in late spring following their tour with Jack’s Mannequin.


3. Ingrid Michaelson, Human Again

It’s been two and a half years since Ingrid Michaelson’s last album, Everybody, was released. Hitting stores this January is the long awaited follow-up, Human Again. So far, we’ve heard two songs from the record: “Ghost” and “Blood Brothers.” These tracks act as indicators that the album will be a versatile range of acoustic singer/songwriter folk and rugged pop/rock. Bring it on, Ingrid.


2. Two Door Cinema Club, Title TBD

Although released in 2010, Two Door Cinema Club’s debut album, Tourist History, remained one of my top played albums of 2011. Their sleek blend of indie pop is infused with equal parts electronica and classic rock. From start to finish, Tourist History is a masterpiece – making its predecessor one of the most hotly anticipated records of the year.


1. Local Natives, Title TBD

Local Natives’ Gorilla Manor remains one of my top 5 albums of the millennium so far. Their majestic harmonies alone serve as prime examples of how the band is creating some of the most intelligent music this side of indie rock. With their long awaited sophomore album, Local Natives promise to deliver more grand tunes of sunshine and asphalt infused pop/rock that will be sure to once again leave their listeners completely breathless.

Originally published on PopBytes 

And a very special thank you to USA Today's Pop Candy blog, Ben Folds, The Veronicas, Rufus Wainwright, Mouth's Cradle and Yep Roc Records for linking to this article!


Monday, December 26, 2011



Lisbeth Salander
has multiple piercings across her face. Her eyebrows are bleached and her skin is whiter than Ramona Singer’s attempts at belly dancing. Like the majority of her wardrobe, her hair is jet black. It’s purposefully jagged and sharply frames her thin face. The makeup that circles her eyes is dark enough to make Taylor Momsen and Johnny Depp cry Lauren Conrad-esque mascara tears of jealousy. She wears ripped t-shirts that read “Fuck you, you fucking fuck” (a quote from David Lynch‘s 1986 classic Blue Velvet) and she literally kicks ass with the lace-up combat boots she tucks her baggy cargo pants into. She travels by motorcycle and, despite her gaunt figure, lives off a diet consisting primarily of McDonald’s Happy Meals. Her body is a canvas that she tattoos as a physical manifestation of the incredible amounts of pain she’s experienced. She is the girl with the dragon tattoo.

So how did such a seemingly anti-mainstream punk chick steal the interests and hearts of millions of readers and film audiences across the globe?

It’s quite simple, really. Because Lisbeth is not the ingénue of the stories she stars in. She’s the hero. The hero who is so ruthless in her actions that she makes a femme fatale like Lara Croft look more like the damsel-in-distress Princess Zelda.

In the American adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which hit theaters last week (there was a Swedish version back in 2009), Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) is an expert cyber-hacker who finds herself assisting Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), an investigative reporter hired as a personal detective by an elderly man (Christopher Plummer) looking to discover the truth behind his grand niece’s disappearance forty years earlier.

With this film, director David Fincher has crafted a piece of art that will play a central role in the continuing evolution of Hollywood’s portrayals of women. At the core of this movie’s significance is the character of Lisbeth, who propels The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to the forefront of feminist cinema. After all, this is a woman whose SIDEKICK is literally James Bond.

Much like a honey badger, Lisbeth is fearless. When she is brutally raped by her state appointed guardian, she has no problem tazering him, shoving a metal dildo in his ass and tattooing “I’m a rapist pig” on his chest. When she thinks she’s found a serial killer, she doesn’t blink twice before entering his home. In fact, she doesn’t even come armed and instead relies on finding a random object in his house to protect herself with. And when she wants to take down one of Sweden’s most powerful and corrupt businessmen, she has no trepidations about putting on a Lady Gaga-esque wig for the cameras while she drains all of his bank accounts.

In the bedroom, Lisbeth does not limit herself to the parameters set by a particular label. Instead, she makes emotional connections with people regardless of their sex. In one scene, she wakes up naked next to a woman named Miriam (who fans of the books know plays a much larger part in the next two installments of the story). In another, she strips for Blomkvist and proposes that they sleep together. And what middle-aged single, heterosexual man would turn down a sexy and dangerous 23-year-old woman already half way done unbuttoning his pants? Exactly. And obviously, Lisbeth is always on top.

Part of what makes Lisbeth so captivating is that she refuses to be a victim. When someone wrongs her, she doesn’t sulk. She takes matters into her own hands and regains the power that was stolen from her in the moments when she was wronged. For instance, she could have easily reported her guardian for raping her. But instead, the prey becomes the predator as Lisbeth exacts a degree of revenge and punishment that no amount of time behind bars could. Her actions ensure that not only will her guardian never rape someone again, but also that he’ll be forced to live for the rest of his life with a constant reminder of how disgusting a person he is.

It’s women like Lisbeth that Hollywood needs more of. Women who refuse to be subservient and are unafraid to be completely self-sufficient. Too often, movies employ Sex and the City-like clones that “just want to find Mr. Right.” And sadly, many of the films that pride themselves on their “progressive feminist stance” in fact still adhere to patriarchal values.

In 2010, the movie Salt was released and was marketed as a female counterpart to The Bourne Identity. Originally written as a starring vehicle for Tom Cruise, it was ultimately Angelina Jolie who stepped into the lead role. But as Scott Mendelson of pointed out, an Entertainment Weekly article by Chris Nashawaty about the film’s alleged “pro-feminism” actually confirmed how flawed it really was.
“‘In the original script, there was a huge sequence where Edwin Salt (the original male protagonist) saves his wife, who’s in danger,’ says Noyce. ‘And what we found in the new script, it seemed to castrate his character a little. So we had to change the nature of that relationship.’ In the end, Salt’s husband, played by German actor August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds), was made tough enough that he didn’t need saving, thank you much,” the article read.
In other words, if Tom Cruise is playing the main character, it’s okay for him to save his helpless wife. But if Angelina Jolie is playing that same character, the spouse no longer needs saving due to a fear of emasculation. Oh.

It’s comments like these that make it easy to picture industry people like Noyce and Nashawaty lighting up cigars with the boys as they congratulate themselves on their “liberalism.” It’s also comments like these that really hit home the idea that the art we subject ourselves to is still skewed towards preserving the idea that men are on a higher level than women.

Thus, films like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are far more necessary than one may even initially realize. We’re in dire need of female characters like Lisbeth Salander who are defined by their actions and not by their genitalia.

When the novel was first published in Sweden, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo had a different title – one that translates to Men Who Hate Women. While it’s actually quite infuriating that author Stieg Larsson’s original title wasn’t kept for the English translation (most likely due to a fear of a lack of commercial appeal), the film remains a powerful tale about that theme—and, of course, about the woman who retaliates against the men who hate women.

The success of the franchise proves that audiences want to read about and see women like Lisbeth. In fact, she’s become such a cultural icon that people are even willing to physically emulate her by purchasing the Lisbeth-inspired collection at H&M (which – as a side note – I find hysterical and completely ironic because the idea of a fashion line designed after her is something that Lisbeth would absolutely detest).

But the point is that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a story that is exposing a huge void in our pop culture psyche. And audiences are beginning to take notice.

Lisbeth Salander, I salute you.

Originally published on PopBytes

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


A review of Ingrid Michaelson's annual New York holiday concert

“I want to kill you in the backyard and bury you in snow,” Ingrid Michaelson sang over an upbeat piano freestyle on stage. “This is a holiday song, right?” she asked the audience at her fifth annual Christmas concert (or as she calls it, the “holiday hop”) in New York City last weekend. “It’s got the word ‘snow’ it is so … there you go! That’s all you need!” she rationalized.

“I like to think all these horrible songs are going to be on Grey’s Anatomy or something,” she continued when the freestyle was over, teasing the television show whose soundtrack has unofficially dubbed her its go-to featured musician.

The fact that she is featured on shows like Grey’s, however, has given Ingrid a visibility that many singer/songwriters can only dream of. Her music has been used to accompany various mediums – whether film, TV dramas, reality shows or commercials – and her star doesn’t seem to be dimming at all. Last year, she was even invited to perform her holiday duet with Sara Bareilles, “Winter Song,” at the White House’s National Christmas Tree lighting. Not bad for a ukulele-strumming girl from Staten Island, right?

Opening the Holiday Hop this year was … well, Ingrid Michaelson. Concealing her natural long and voluptuous auburn hair under a short silver wig, she came on stage with her equally disguised band and backup singers as part of an Italian Staten Island caroling choir. Together, they sang holiday standards with lyrics made over to be about food and gave holiday twists to some 2011 chart-toppers (i.e. the Maroon 5/Christina Aguilera parody, “Moves Like Santa”).

That’s one thing you can always expect from an Ingrid Michaelson concert: unabashed humor. For a lyricist whose songs are often rather melancholy in tone, Ingrid without fail manages to inject each of her shows with a degree of humor that few musicians are capable of doing – making her one of the most pleasurable, memorable and relatable artists to see live.

“We just got engaged at your show!” a couple screamed to the chanteuse from the back of the Music Hall of Williamsburg after the audience had just surprised Ingrid by singing her “Happy Birthday.”

“That’s great but I think we were talking about ME,” she joked back before congratulating them. “Anyone else have any big announcements while we’re at it? Next someone is going to be like ‘Oh, we left for a little because “The Chain” is boring and we had sex in the bathroom and now I’m pregnant.’”

On January 24th, Ingrid will be releasing her highly anticipated fourth album, Human Again. At the show, she gave fans a sneak peek by performing two tracks off of it: the gorgeous and haunting lead single, “Ghost,” and the catchy song that she debuted while performing at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this year, “Blood Brothers.”

If these songs are any indication of what Human Again will sound like, Ingrid may be following in the footsteps of friend Sara Bareilles and should prepare to be the Billboard chart’s favorite new “indie” girl. After all, her last album (2009’s Everybody) debuted at #18 on the U.S. charts – a testament to the power of her fans (especially considering that she hasn’t had a mainstream crossover radio hit – yet).

“You guys just screamed like Justin Bieber fans!” Ingrid laughed to the crowd, which was literally roaring with delight upon hearing the opening notes to her song, “Parachute.” She has such die-hard fans, in fact, that this year’s Holiday Hop sold out entirely from an exclusive presale provided to people on Ingrid’s virtual mailing list. Plans to release the tickets a few days later to the general public had to be scrapped because there were none left.

Embracing the quirky and festive nature of the evening, Ingrid alternated her set list between tracks from her previous releases and covers of songs that define the holiday season for her. In between fan-favorites like “You And I,” “Maybe,” “The Way I Am” and “Soldier,” she played “Sally’s Song” from The Nightmare Before Christmas and an upbeat rock medley of holiday tunes like “White Christmas,” “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer,” “The Dreidl Song” and “Jingle Bells.” She closed with a traditional hymn, “In The Bleak Mid-Winter” – which also happened to be written by Ingrid’s father and was performed as a surprise early Christmas gift to him (awww).

Then of course there was her cover of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” the song she sings every year before leaving the stage prior to her encore. Originated by Judy Garland in the film Meet Me In St. Louis, Ingrid has always called the song her favorite. “I have such a love for her,” Ingrid said to me of Garland when I interviewed her a couple of years back. Her cover of the song was just released for purchase on iTunes last week and as part of an exclusive digital holiday EP in her official web store.

For the last five years, I’ve attended each Holiday Hop that Ingrid has put on. There’s just something about seeing one of your favorite musicians decked out in green and red (and glittery golden stilettos that her “podiatrist would not be happy about”), tossing Christmas candy from the keys of her piano to her audience. It’s something that has become a quintessential part of my celebration of the holidays each year.

When I left the venue, I immediately craved hot apple cider. I wanted to watch Elf and write holiday cards and wrap gifts. I wanted to go ice-skating, take a stroll through the Union Square holiday market and go check out the window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue and the Rockefeller Christmas tree. I was so annoyingly festive that even I wanted to murder me in the backyard and bury me in snow.

So as it is every year, Ingrid Michaelson’s Holiday Hop was not just a terrific concert to attend. It was also the best possible way I could think of to kick off this holiday season. See you at the Holiday Hop in 2012!

“Human Again” is available for pre-order on iTunes and from Ingrid’s official web store now.

Originally published on PopBytes

Monday, December 12, 2011

CARNAGE (Film Review)

"Carnage" Goes For The Jugular … And The Funny Bone

Adapting theater to cinema is never an easy task.

With theater, there’s a degree of intimacy that film lacks. When the actors hit the stage, they don’t get to have multiple takes of a scene. When a scene is over, it’s really done. If they flub a line or trip over a prop, there is no re-shoot option. And the audience gets to experience the story simultaneously with the actors.

Film allows for a different type of intimacy – one that is often difficult for theater to provide. By placing cameras where theaters would have its audience, movies give their actors a free pass to act more naturally. They’re able to utilize their bodies more, trusting that the camera will pick up every little character tick or subtle facial expression. Their actions don’t need to be big enough to make sure someone in the last row of an amphitheater can see what they’re doing.

That’s why the transition from stage to screen is not a simple one. The source material needs to be modified to accommodate a medium that has very different strengths and requirements.

Based on Yasmina Reza‘s Tony Award-winning play God Of Carnage, director Roman Polanski’s new film Carnage is the latest Hollywood adaptation of a story that made its debut behind a Broadway curtain. And it’s the first one that I’ve seen that’s managed to integrate the fundamental qualities that make these two forms of art so individually captivating.

With an all-star cast that boasts three Academy Award-winners and one nominee, Carnage tells the story of two couples who meet to discuss a schoolyard spat between their sons. Set entirely in a Brooklyn apartment (although filmed in Paris due to Polanski’s … “issues”), the movie traces as the couples begin to argue and progressively unleash their inner beasts, resulting in a riot-filled and wildly entertaining dark comedy.

When the film opens, we are invited into the home of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (fantastic turns by both John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster). There, they are writing up a summary of their allegations against the child of Alan and Nancy Cowan (played unsurprisingly without flaw by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet). Allegedly, Zachary Cowan struck Ethan Longstreet in the face with a stick, temporarily “disfiguring him,” as Penelope likes to point out.

Each character is a completely exaggerated version of the “real life” counterpart they’re meant to represent, establishing the grounds for the ensuing absurdity in this masterful farce.

Penelope is the frigid, politically correct control-freak who you can tell forces her kids to stay at the dinner table until they’ve finished their brussel sprouts. Michael is the epitome of “Joe The Plumber.” He’s a decent, simple-minded man with a blue collar job, conservative views and his wife’s leash around his neck. Alan, on the other hand, is the businessman who can’t part ways with his Blackberry or designer suit. And Nancy is the passive one who’d rather smile and stay calm in the face of conflict than let it disrupt her daily routine.

Predictably, when four strangers with such diverging personalities come together to attempt to solve a problem, the tensions are immediately palpable. And as these tensions inch closer and closer to the surface, the characters begin to unravel and revert to their primal instincts.

To help convey this devolution, Polanski uses the metaphor of the fighting children to represent the chaos that occurs in the film. Upon first hearing the story of Zachary hitting Ethan, most people’s gut reaction is to assume that Zachary is the villain. Yet what prompted Zachary to behave this way? To what extent was he bullied that he felt it necessary to retaliate so brutally?

While the film does not provide a definitive answer to this (although we do learn that Ethan wouldn’t let Zachary be part of his “gang”), it certainly raises questions about what constitutes justified self-defense. To what limits can we be pushed until we start to fight back and protect ourselves? Our families? And to what degree can we expect those we love to side with us?

If you assume that the allegiances formed in Carnage put the Longstreets and Cowans in opposite ends of the rink, you’d be gravely mistaken. While the movie starts out that way, the bonds that hold the teams together begin to crumble until the brawl becomes an “every man for himself” power struggle. But not before there’s a dividing line drawn between the men and women when Penelope cheers on as Nancy drops Alan’s constantly ringing cell phone into a water-filled flower vase.

“Why don’t you ever stick up for me?” Nancy complains to Alan as she pours herself yet another glass of liquor – despite having previously projectile-vomited all over the Longstreets’ living room, the result of a combination of unsettled nerves and bad apple cobbler. A few drinks in and suddenly Nancy really feels completely exposed and abandoned.

When Penelope accuses Nancy of this transformation being a result of how “fake” she is, Nancy has no buttons left to push. “I am glad our son kicked the shit out of your son and I wipe my ass with your human rights!” she drunkenly shouts back at her condescending attacker.

Aside from its impeccable dark humor, what makes Carnage such a treat is that it really is the perfect marriage of Broadway and Hollywood. By having the screenplay remain faithful to the stage version and setting the whole film in one apartment, that level of intimacy you feel watching stories unfold in the theater is almost replicated for the movie-going audience.

Additionally, the film is shot in real time. Meaning that each of the film’s 79 minutes is accounted for as a minute of the conversation had between the four individuals, a rare tactic used in film-making. This also means no blackouts or fancy editing to guide the transition between scenes. And to maintain that feeling of intimacy, Polanski had the actors rehearse for two weeks prior to shooting. Another theater-standard not often adhered to in the film world.

“Some directors don’t like rehearsal,” Winslet explained in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal about the movie. “I don’t ordinarily like pre-planning things or blocking things. But sometimes things can really be revealed to you as an actor about your character that come out of an idea or a question that another actor has, and that’s fun. I would happily rehearse for three days and never stand up out of a chair, just to be in a room with everybody.”

Carnage is a film that delves into the psyches of four distinctly different people when placed in a situation that causes them to remove the masks that guide them through their daily lives. It’s a movie that shows that if provoked enough, the social etiquette we’re expected to follow as adults becomes irrelevant and we’re all capable of being savages.

As a result, the crimes committed among the four lead players are not only on par with the actions of their children, but on par with those of any animal attempting to survive in the wild. It’s just that in this case, the wild is Brooklyn and the animals we need to defeat are our fellow human beings.

Carnage opens in theaters on December 16th.

Originally published on PopBytes

Friday, December 9, 2011



If you’ve never seen it, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia follows the absurd and morally devoid adventures of a gang of five friends (played by Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Charlie Day and Prince Charming himself, Danny Devito) who own and work at a bar called Paddy’s Pub in Philly. And if you’ve never seen it, you should probably increase your therapy visits so you can figure out why you hate yourself so damn much.

Now in its seventh glorious season, Sunny is without a doubt the smartest and funniest show on television. And I don’t just mean out of shows currently on. Sunny is honestly the most well-written and brilliant show to ever grace sitcom history. Think that’s a bold claim? I challenge you to watch any two episodes. You’ll be struggling to find reasons to disagree.

With every episode of the show, the characters push the boundaries of their personalities to new extremes. Frank is always becoming increasingly more disgusting. Dennis becomes a little more obsessed with himself. Mac gets more desperate to prove his masculinity. Charlie transforms more into white trash and Dee tries harder to … well, matter.

On last night’s episode, "High School Reunion," the gang revisits their high school days, each with a different personal mission to accomplish. For instance, Charlie’s is (surprise surprise!) to win over the waitress. Then there’s Frank, decades older than the rest of them, who just wants to get into the reunion so he can have friends to hang out with.

The MVP Award of the episode, however, belongs to Dee. Free of the back brace that was once the catalyst of her relentless torture, Dee shows up to the reunion determined to seek vengeance on the “popular” kids. All of the jerks who made her teenage years a living hell by calling her “the aluminum monster.”

To do so, she decides to pull a Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls and pretend to make friends with them. She plans to gain their trust and seize the perfect moment to inflict the same degree of cruelty onto them that they bestowed onto her years earlier. But when she’s finally not rejected by (another) band of immature assholes, can she have the strength to forfeit being accepted for momentary payback?

While we’ll have to wait until part two of the episode (next week’s season finale) to find out the result, we witness in the meantime what happens when Dee gets to sit on the throne. “As far as I remember, all you really gotta do to get in with that crowd is be really cruel to people,” she says to Charlie. And cruel she becomes.

To gain cred with the “cool kids,” Dee begins throwing the rest of the gang under the bus. With the (epic) reveal of Mac’s full name being Ronald McDonald, Dee has a field day teasing him for his days as “Ronnie the Rat,” a nickname he acquired when he snitched on all the other drug dealers in the school.

In case that was too much information to sink in at once, let me spell it out again slowly. Mac’s real name is Ronald McDonald. In high school, he was a drug dealer who gained the nickname “Ronnie The Rat” after being a tattle-tail. Do you see what I mean about the show always managing to push itself to the next level?

Dee quickly realizes that amongst her new “friends,” homophobic jokes are particularly effective. “That’s what these gay guys do,” she laughs to her new buds Adriano and Brad when they find Mac and Frank standing above Charlie’s passed out body (from inhaling too much of his ammonia/bleach concoction) in the bathroom. “They just knock each other out with poppers and then find some kind of rabies infested rodent to tickle each other’s taints with.” The three of them then give Mac, Frank and Charlie wedgies. Naturally.

And then there’s Dennis. Anyone who watches Sunny can tell that Dennis is that type of douche who peaked in high school; so last night’s episode was a hilarious confirmation of what audience members have been thinking for seven seasons.

In the beginning of the episode, Dennis talks about revisiting the mid-90s when he was a “golden god.” He sits alone at a table expecting for people to flock to him. Or as he calls it, “to kiss my ring.” Yet when nobody approaches him except for the waitress (who has again fallen off the wagon), his ex-wife, Maureen Ponderosa (or as she is fondly referred to by the gang, “Dead Tooth”) and Frank (who managed to sneak past the security guard and steal the waitress' nametag), he realizes that his stock has plummeted and becomes desperate for attention.

These cameos from Dennis’ past are part of what makes “High School Reunion” such a fantastic episode. Particularly the appearance of Rickety Cricket, who we’ve watched give up his priesthood to be with Dee (who was faking interest to get him to do the gang a favor) and ultimately evolve into a homeless, ringworm covered crack head that Mac and Dennis teabag on a regular basis. In last night’s episode, he fakes joining the clergy again so he can “bless” everyone at the reunion by shaking their hands, only to really be pick-pocketing them.

Speaking of reoccurring characters, the inclusion of the waitress in this episode is another example of comedy gold struck by writers Howerton and McElehenny. As it was with Mac, the waitress’ real name had never been revealed on the show prior to last night. Mandated to wear nametags at the reunion, the waitress goes looking for hers only to discover that hers is missing (goddamnit Frank!). This leads her to believe that she was so irrelevant in high school that people forgot she existed. Genius.

The chaos that ensues in “High School Reunion” is just another example of how It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia explores territory and makes fun of things that no other shows (except maybe the animated South Park) have the nerve to even consider touching.

So like I do every week, I just want to extend a big “thank you” to the cast and crew of It’s Always Sunny in Philadephia for making a show actually worth my cable bill.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia airs on FX on Thursday at 10 PM (EST).

Originally published on PopBytes

Tuesday, December 6, 2011



CAUTION: Things are about to become very personal in here. In fact, if you have my phone number, you’ll probably delete it from your contacts list after reading this. Consider yourself warned.

For my fifteenth birthday, my mother bought me a karaoke machine. It was that kind that played any song by lowering the existing vocals and amplifying the instrumentals. You know. As karaoke machines do.

Naturally, I decided to use this opportunity to become the next Daniel Bedingfield (I’ve always been a dreamer) and record a home demo. On cassette tape. Using the golden microphone that came in a separate plastic sleeve in the box of the machine.

The four-song tracklisting of my debut covers (and concept) album, Haunting But True, consisted of an array of game-changing hits. These included Ashlee Simpson’s "Harder Everyday", Lisa Loeb’s "Stay (I Missed You)", Red Hot Chili Peppers’ "Otherside" and Kate Winslet’s "What If". To this day, I blame the postal service for losing my contract offer from Jive Records.

Now if the last song on that list seemed weird to you, then you should probably just go bake yourself a pie full of rat poison because you obviously know nothing about music.

Released in 2001, Grammy Award winning (for Best Spoken Word Album for Children in 2000) actress Kate Winslet recorded "What If" as the lead single to the soundtrack for the animated British film Christmas Carol: The Movie. And since you asked, it was indeed included on the 50th edition of NOW! That’s What I Call Music! in the UK alongside other seminal classics like Emma Bunton’s "Take My Breath Away" and Westlife’s cover of Billy Joel’s "Uptown Girl."

You may have noticed that in pretty much all of her movies, Kate takes off her bra. However, many of her films (even if briefly) showcase her singing voice just as much as they do her Oprah-approved breasts. Watch them again and you’ll see that movies like Sense and Sensibility, Titanic and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind all feature Kate singing at some point or another. And let us of course not forget the cinematic achievement that was Romance And Cigarettes, the musical that co-starred Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Steve Buscemi, Amy Sedaris, Mary Louise-Parker, Eddie Izzard and screen legend Mandy Moore.

But I digress.

"What If" is a beautiful ballad concocted from a recipe that calls for equal parts sorrow, nostalgia and regret.

“What if I had never let you go? Would you be the man I used to know? If I’d stayed, if you’d tried, if we could only turn back time,” Winslet gorgeously croons in her luscious mezzo-soprano voice. “But I guess we’ll never know.” Haunting but true.

While "What If" didn’t have much of an impact on American charts (#OccupyBillboard), the song did significantly well overseas. In the UK, it debuted at #6 and went on to top the charts in Austria, Belgium and Ireland (for four weeks in a row!). It also placed in the top 10 in countries like Germany, Switzerland and Holland, causing the song to peak at #3 on the overall European singles chart and win the 2002 OGAE Song Contest.

And just because it’s been a full decade since the song’s release doesn’t mean that it’s still not slaying your favorites today. Last year, it re-entered the UK singles chart following a performance of it on the TV show, The X Factor. It’s also been covered by club musician Ronny V and X Factor finalist Rhydian Roberts, who included it on his debut album as a duet with Broadway and Glee actress Idina Menzel.

The fact that Winslet teased us by releasing a single but never an album is really the single flaw that she has. When I first heard "What If", my mouth was salivating at the idea of a full record. And no, I didn’t create album covers in Microsoft Paint and post them to fan-forums online. And no, I didn’t use Dear Kate as the tentative album title. How dare you even ask me that?

And yet, Winslet has always been full of surprises. Whether it be donating all proceeds from "What If" to a charity for children with cancer or that time she rolled me a cigarette when we were hiding from the rain under an awning in the West Village, she’s never been one that can be called predictable. So is there any hope that she’ll release that album one day?

I’ll never let go, Kate. I’ll never let go.

Originally published on PopBytes

Monday, December 5, 2011

THE ARTIST (Film Review)


I’m going to be honest with you.

When I first saw the trailer for The Artist, I didn’t think it was a movie I’d want to pay to see. The concept of an entirely silent movie about the death of silent movies seemed a little too pretentiously cute for me, all the way to its title. “How very meta. We get it,” I thought to myself as I dismissed it from my “must-see” list. “This is obviously just trying to be different for the sake of being ‘artsy’ and drumming up awards-season hype.”

I remember reading an article prior to the film’s release that praised it for its originality due to its removal of dialogue. It discussed the challenges the movie presents for its actors by forcing them to understand and communicate with one another without having lines to memorize.

I was annoyed at the article because it made it seem like nobody has ever had the idea to write a script that placed an emphasis on the communicative tensions created between people when they don’t have the assistance of language. Obviously this journalist had never seen Love Actually, The Little Mermaid or the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode, “Hush,” to cite just a few examples where this idea had been explored on screen before. In my mind, The Artist was just another entry on an already long-running list.

But damn was I wrong.

The Artist doesn’t only challenge its actors. Part of what makes it so brilliant is the degree to which it challenges its audience. Can we as moviegoers, who are used to constant explosions of color and sound, sit through–let alone enjoy–a 100-minute black and white movie sans the cushions of our expected storytelling tools? After all, our basis for comparison has evolved quite a bit since the time of silent cinema. Mainly in that we now have one.

The answer is “Yes we can.” Just like Obama called it.

The Artist follows the story of the sinking career and life of George Valentin (a captivating Jean Dujardin), a megastar in the silent movie business whose star loses all its shine with the injection of sound into film. Starring in these “talkies,” as they are dubbed, is Peppy Miller (an engrossing Bérénice Bejo), an up-and-coming actress who gets her start as a dancer on the set of one of Valentin’s films.

Like a cause-and-effect reaction, Peppy’s name inches closer to the headlining marquee spot while George’s slips off the credits of anything Hollywood is churning out. Especially after the stock market crashes in 1929 and production on all silent films meets its abrupt end. So how do these two physical embodiments of the “old” vs. the “new” feel about one another? Romantically invested, of course.

Combining equal parts comedy, drama and romance, The Artist packs in a storyline so solid that the audience forgets that they usually rely on alternative methods of storytelling to remain engrossed. It’s a film that intrigues you with its novelty, hooks you with its honesty and turns unforgettable with its majesty.

Accompanied by Michel Hazanavicius’ masterful direction and Ludovic Bource’s beautiful score, The Artist is not just a uniquely crafted commentary on the anxieties that loom with the emergence of new technology. Sculpted from a nostalgic lens, it’s a gorgeous and intricately layered homage to cinema. I’d try to describe for you the feeling of warmth seeing this movie produced in me, but alas, I have no words.

The Artist is playing in select theaters now.

Originally published on PopBytes

Wednesday, November 30, 2011



Attention New Yorkers! I know you all have very busy weekends ahead of you crying over not winning the Book of Mormon lotto or waiting in line to check out Lady GaGa’s self-indulgent “workshop” at Barney’s. But if you’re in the mood to do something different, how about grabbing some beers, going bowling and checking out some awesome live music? And yes, I do mean all at the same time.

This Friday, Philadelphia-bred indie pop/rock trio Jukebox The Ghost will be playing the legendary Brooklyn Bowl as part of their current headlining tour.

Following their debut record in 2008, Let Live And Let Ghosts (which was recorded in only nine days!), Jukebox The Ghost released their critically acclaimed sophomore album, Everything Under The Sun, last fall. The record’s release spawned an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman and found the band touring with acts such as Guster and Barenaked Ladies.

In anticipation of Friday’s show, I chatted with guitarist and vocalist Tommy Siegel, who told me all about Jukebox’s creative process, shared some fond touring memories and spilled some details about their highly-anticipated upcoming third album.

ALEX: I read that you originally called yourselves The Sunday Mail but then decided to change the band’s name to Jukebox The Ghost. Can you tell me a little bit about where the name Jukebox The Ghost comes from and what it signifies to you?

TOMMY: Honestly, ‘Jukebox the Ghost’ was just a combination of words we thought would make a good band name. I wanted ‘Jukebox’, Ben wanted ‘Ghost’, and Jesse wanted us to be a ‘the’ band a la ‘The Smiths’ or ‘The Cure’. We put the words together, and voila. We’ve made a habit out of putting darker lyrical material into light-hearted-sounding pop songs, so I like to think that we’re somehow Jukebox-ing the Ghost. If that makes sense. ’Jukebox’ also could just be the name of that ghost drawing on everything we do.

Your music is such a distinct blend of indie pop and piano rock. I’d even argue that there are some significant classical influences in there. Given that your sound doesn’t fit the label of one specific genre, how would you best describe it?

The classical influence you’re hearing is very real on Ben’s part. He was a music major in college, and a serious classical player long before that. As far as our overall genre name … asking someone in a band to describe their genre is sorta like asking a person to sum their life up in a word or two. That being said … Pop-rock? Indie-pop? Pop-pop? Pop-rock-pop?

Pop-rock-pop definitely wins. Being a trio, how do you divide songwriting duties? Do you all sit together and try to write as a unit or do you find you work better writing individually and then bringing songs to the rest of the group?

We generally write songs independently and then bring them to the band to get arranged. Sometimes a song will arrive for rehearsal completely finished in the head of the person who wrote it, and sometimes it’ll be totally primordial.

With song titles like “Summer Sun,” “The Sun,” “The Sun (Interlude)” and “The Stars”, there’s an obvious reoccurring theme on Everything Under The Sun. Would you say there’s a specific narrative you’re trying to employ to string all of your music together (like a concept album)?

Just a happy accident, to be honest. ”The Sun/The Sun Interlude/The Stars” was a long piece I was working on (we ended it up splitting it on the album) and Ben happened to have a song called “Summer Sun” around the same time. We’re big album-structure geeks, so we put a lot of effort into making a tracklist feel like a narrative.

Everything Under The Sun had a significantly more synth-enhanced and polished feel than Let Live and Let Ghosts did. In what direction do you feel your sound has been evolving since this record’s release?

It’s difficult to pinpoint what defines our current state of evolution because our band’s music has always been all over the place stylistically. I can’t really say we’ve gone in one particular direction. In some ways I feel like we’re the same band, just making smarter decisions and learning to calm down and leave some space.

What can you tell me about your upcoming third album? How far into the writing process are you? Any ideas of when it might be released?

We’re about 75% done with our new album. Hoping to completely finish in the next few weeks! We’ve been working in Brooklyn with a producer named Dan Romer, who also happens to be a great friend of ours. He’s been doing a killer job and we had a great batch of songs to pick from, so I really think this is going to be my favorite record we’ve made. I really couldn’t be more excited about this one. Hopefully it’ll see the light of day in the late spring.

In 2009, you toured with Ben Folds on what I like to think of as the “piano rock dream tour.” What were the scariest and most rewarding things about sharing the stage with such a contemporary musical legend?

That was a great tour! It was the first large-club/theater tour we had ever done, so it was a surreal learning experience. His fans have been amazing to us.

I can imagine. So if you could embark on a tour with any 2-3 musicians around today, who would they be?

One of our collective favorite bands, the Dismemberment Plan, recently reunited for the tenth anniversary of Emergency and I (brilliant album). If they released a new album and asked us to go on a national tour, my brain would melt. Should I daydream another act on the bill? I think a resurrected Harry Nilsson would fit nicely.

You guys really seem to tour non-stop. What’s the best prank you’ve each pulled on one another while on the road?

We had Jesse convinced on a long drive that the earth only has one pole. Eventually, he figured it out. As a science major in college and an incredibly smart guy, he should have known better. But I guess we were pretty convincing (“think about the Mercator projection, Jesse!”).

Speaking of touring, you’re about to hit the road with Jack’s Mannequin for their winter tour. Anything especially exciting in store for the fans attending these shows?

If I told you they wouldn’t be surprises, now would they?

Very valid point. What were some of your favorite albums of 2011?

I’ve been floored by a lot of albums this year. Off the top of my head, some of my favorites (in no particular order) are Deerhoof’s Deerhoof vs. Evil (my favorite currently-active band), Ahleuchatistas’ Location, Location (angular and dissonant instrumental rock), They Might Be Giants’ Join Us, St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy, Delicate Steve’s Wondervisions (perfect, uplifting guitar-led instrumentals), Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues, Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 Vol. 2 (I know, I know), Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr’s It’s a Corporate World, TV On The Radio’s Nine Types of Light and White Denim’s D.

And finally, what are you looking forward to most about 2012?

Putting out a new record!

Thanks, Tommy! Can’t wait to see the show on Friday!

See ya there! Thanks!

Everything Under The Sun is available now via Yep Roc Records. Check out Jukebox The Ghost’s tour page to see when they’ll be playing at a venue near you.

Originally published on PopBytes

(Jukebox The Ghost's music video for "Schizophrenia")

Tuesday, November 29, 2011



Every so often, a movie comes along that completely crushes you. It’s the type of movie that hits every mark on the emotional spectrum. You know what type of film I’m talking about. The movie that leaves you staring at the screen long after the credits have stopped rolling, challenging someone to be the brave audience member to stand first. The movie that makes your soul feel totally drained when you step out of the theater. The movie that triggers a four-hour heart-to-heart with your best friend. The movie that reminds you of the impact cinema can have.

Written and directed by 26-year-old Sam Levinson, Another Happy Day is one of these movies. The plot of the film is one we’re all familiar with: a dysfunctional family reunites at a wedding and all hell breaks loose. Secrets start to come out. Grudges are resurrected. Claws are sharpened. Total chaos and misery ensues for all. You get it.

So how did such a seemingly cliché story win the “Best Screenwriting” award at the Sundance Film Festival this year? The key reason is that, unlike similar movies such as Rachel Getting Married, Another Happy Day is an intricate character study of not just an entire family, but of depression as a whole.

At the core of the film is Lynn Hellman, played immaculately by Bill O’Reilly’s favorite actress, Ellen Barkin, as she travels to her parents’ small-town Maryland estate for her estranged son’s wedding. There, she must deal with not only demons from her own past, but also from the pasts of her four children.

Despite his many trips to rehab, Lynn’s teenage son Elliot (played fantastically by We Need To Talk About Kevin’s Ezra Miller) still can’t resist the desire to use anything he can to get high – including the prescription medication of Lynn’s dying father. And where most movies would cast a drug addict like Elliot as the black sheep of the family, Another Happy Day defies convention by making him the wise character. Besides, there can’t really be a black sheep in a family without any sense of unity to begin with.

“So basically, the only things connecting us are these fucked-up moments that all of us would rather forget?” he asks his mother. And with this question, Elliot sums up the basic plot structure of the film.

Later on in the movie, Elliot questions why people seem to only be able to come together during tragedy. “Maybe we’d all get along if we were here for a funeral instead of a wedding,” he astutely points out to his grandmother (a marvelous Ellen Burstyn). Heavy, right?

But what Elliot truly embodies is the degree of self-sacrifice Lynn must make to keep the shards of what’s left of her family intact. In a particularly poignant scene, Elliot calls his mother a “cunt” before pushing her to the ground. Seconds later, the two of them are sitting together on the floor, consoling one another as they dissect their conditions. It’s little moments like this that make Another Happy Day such a brutally honest film. It’s little moments like this that demonstrate what a martyr Lynn has to be. After all, her children are the only members of her family that haven’t completely rejected her. Yet.

Levinson’s script also expertly showcases the generational pass-down of depression, all the way from Lynn’s mother to the youngest member of the family, her son Ben, who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s the various types of depression and the coping mechanisms each member of the Hellman clan have that draw the dividing lines among them.

In some way or another, all of the characters have been the catalysts of one another’s broken lives, triggering chain effects of regret and severed ties. For instance, there’s a reason Lynn’s daughter, Alice (Kate Bosworth at her finest), hasn’t seen her father, Paul (Thomas Hayden Church), since her parents’ divorce nearly a decade earlier. And it’s no mistake that she has sleeves specially sewn onto her maid of honor dress so as not to reveal her bare arms.

By the actual day of the wedding, the audience is already queasy from their ride on an emotional rollercoaster. After watching the days leading up to the event, they have cranked up their anxiety dials to their maximum levels. Just as Elliot wonders the night before, the audience contemplates whether the Hellmans will be able to put aside their issues long enough to celebrate one happy day. Or are everyone’s wounds too raw and deep to be ignored?

With the spotlight on them, the Hellmans must be on their best behavior. But that doesn’t negate the fact that you can still stab someone with a smile on your face. Take Paul’s second wife (a freshly scorned Demi Moore). Although she may not be the groom’s biological mother, she was the one who raised him. After giving a toast full of childhood memories, she challenges Lynn to come to the stage to give a toast about her son. The son who picked Lynn to fill the role of the groom’s mother in his wedding ceremony (#REVENGEALERT!).

Without giving too much away, I can tell you that when Another Happy Day was over, I did not for a moment get the sense that the problems in the family had been patched up. I didn’t think that Lynn would stop crying or that Elliot would stop doing drugs or that Alice would stop mutilating herself. But I appreciated that. Too few films are willing to cut that close to the truth we seem to be culturally afraid of. And in life, we don’t always get that “everything is going to be fine” moment that we count on in the movies.

That being said, a lot of mainstream audiences are uncomfortable with films that end without any happy–or at least just–resolutions. In The Basketball Diaries, for instance, Leonardo DiCaprio’s former drug addict character is redeemed by becoming an anti-drug motivational speaker. In Requiem For A Dream, the characters are punished for their illegal habits. But too rarely do films choose not to resolve the conflicts at hand. Too seldom are the questions asked throughout a movie not answered.

Little wonder that Another Happy Day has received a rather lukewarm critical reception thus far. Hearing audience member’s inappropriate bursts of laughter throughout the movie and reading other reactions to it online, I felt that many viewers weren’t prepared for the detailed and often grim accounts of mental illness depicted here. But the sad reality is that a lot of the problems we have in life can’t be wrapped up simply because we crave closure. So why should film representations of these situations imply otherwise?

Yet at the end of the day, Another Happy Day is not a movie that will make you relinquish your sense of hope. In fact, despite the enormity of their problems, the Hellmans are there for one another. They take care of one another in their own unconventional and dark ways. And there’s certainly something extraordinary to say about that.

Another Happy Day is now playing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

Originally published on PopBytes 

And a very special thank you to Another Happy Day's Facebook and Twitter accounts for the social media love of this review!

Friday, November 25, 2011


A review of My Week With Marilyn

It’s no wonder that Marilyn Monroe is one of the most famous women of all time. She wasn’t just the star of such classics as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. Monroe was an international symbol of femininity, sexuality and the American dream.

But as is the case with so many stars, the public Marilyn Monroe was very different from her tortured, fragile private persona. Her life followed the classic script about the Hollywood starlet whose life becomes overrun by fame, substance dependency and loneliness.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t skeptical when I first heard that a film about Monroe’s life was in the works. We’ve all seen Valley of the Dolls. We all watched as Britney Spears was forcibly removed from her home as a result of her mental instability. By now, we all understand that Hollywood has a reputation for building up its key players only to smirk as they crash and burn. So how was Monroe’s story going to be told without torturing a cliché or exploiting her legacy?

Simple. Instead of crafting a full biopic of the tragic star, My Week With Marilyn paints an honest portrait of Monroe by focusing (as the title states) on merely one week of her short life. By honing in on her daily struggles, the film provides the audience with pieces of a puzzle which, when put together, helps them understand this deeply troubled woman as a whole.

While Monroe is obviously the focal point of the film, My Week With Marilyn is equally the story of Colin Clark (played with fervor by Eddie Redmayne), an assistant on the 1956 British set of Monroe and Laurence Olivier’s co-starring vehicle, The Prince and the Showgirl. During the shooting of this film, Monroe’s then husband, Arthur Miller, left England to go work in America, resulting in her very brief affair with Clark.

To Monroe, Clark represents a type of innocence. He’s a boy who idolizes her for her celebrity status yet is also able to protect her from it by seeing past her façade. He hasn’t been corrupted by the pressures and politics of Hollywood and provides an alternate reality: one in which she can be free from the “Marilyn Monroe” mask she’s burdened with wearing. It’s a fantasy to which Monroe, self-aware as she is insecure, can briefly escape. Yet, despite Clark’s best efforts, she knows that it’s not one where she can stay.

As a result, Clark becomes Monroe’s puppet of sorts. He attempts to soothe her insecurities by providing her a level of attention that he witnessed Miller failing to give her. When she’s lonely, Clark is at her beck and call. He tells her that she’s the world’s greatest actress. He confesses how much he loves her. He tells her the truth about The Prince and the Showgirl, explaining that it isn’t the movie that’s going to launch her as the serious actress she so longs to be. He convinces her that he understands who she really is at the core. But to Monroe, Clark is nothing more than a hologram – a pretty illusion that acts as a projection of what she desires. Someone to fill the void until her real savior shows up.

It’s impossible, however, to continue writing about this cinematic achievement without discussing its extraordinary lead actress, Michelle Williams. The amount of rawness and passion that Williams brings to the role provides for such a razor-sharp foray into Monroe’s psyche that it’s hard to watch her and not feel intrusive. To not feel like you’re trespassing on a stranger’s innermost private moments.

As she did last year in the devastatingly gorgeous Blue Valentine, Williams demonstrates a firm grasp of her character, conveying an unsurpassed degree of truth. Even in a year of exceptionally strong female performances--Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia and Ellen Barkin in Another Happy Day--Williams soars above her awards season competition. She does so by channeling this real-life woman with such authenticity that even Monroe’s friends and companions are singing her praises.

Williams doesn’t even appear on screen until well into the film. Instead, director Simon Curtis brilliantly sets up Monroe’s arrival in England by showing the hype surrounding it, paving the path for the events to come. And it’s not until nearly half of the movie has gone by that Williams explicitly struggles with over-medicating or feelings of solitude.

Yet, even when she is first presented as the bubbly Marilyn we all know, Williams masterfully displays a subtle vulnerability that suggests we’re only seeing the surface of this incredibly complex character. She masters Monroe to such a degree that even her smallest facial expressions reveal to the audience that this was a woman in the midst of unraveling.

It’s interesting to think of Williams playing this despondent role. After all, Marilyn Monroe was a much deeper and more elaborate character than any part Monroe herself ever played. And where Williams shines brightest is by showing the juxtaposition of the real-life woman and the hollow character she tries to make into a believable person.

Another reason why My Week With Marilyn succeeds so well is that it is an actor’s movie. And I don’t just mean because of the phenomenal performances from Williams, Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench and Emma Watson. Similar to The Artist, one aspect of My Week with Marilyn I found to be especially fascinating was the narrative it employed about the tensions between “old” and “new” Hollywood – or rather classical vs. modern methods of acting.

In the movie, Olivier is portrayed as a classically trained actor struggling to adjust to a post-Stanislavski climate. Monroe, on the other hand, is the quintessential manifestation of the contemporary actress. She even has an acting coach on set to walk her through her beats and objectives as she attempts to understand Elsie, her seemingly one-dimensional The Prince and the Showgirl character.

During a particularly memorable moment of the film, Olivier becomes increasingly frustrated with Monroe with each failed take of a scene. Monroe is not able to understand her character’s motives, let alone agree with them. Therefore, she can’t bring herself to shoot the scene because it defies the idea of truth she believes acting is all about.

“Can’t you just be sexy? Isn’t that what you do?” Olivier barks at her in a fury. It is clear that Olivier, as both the director and co-star of The Prince and the Showgirl, is far less concerned with Monroe’s craft than he is with her spectacle.

To a woman who wishes nothing more than to be taken seriously, this is the cruelest directive to be given. It is made obvious that, even among her peers, Monroe was seen as nothing more than a toy to be objectified at the public’s disposal. Her happiness and health were irrelevant as long as she could remain the blonde bombshell who seductively pouted her lips and winked at the screen.

What makes the movie even sadder is that every viewer knows about Monroe’s eventual lethal overdose. A standard biopic would have documented all the specifics of Monroe’s downward spiral. My Week With Marilyn takes a different approach—and packs a more concentrated punch. Williams’ stellar performance, Curtis’ direction and Adrian Hodge’s script showcase just how depressed, misunderstood and frail a person Monroe really was. The result is a truly heartbreaking, beautiful, original piece of art that should be on every Academy voter’s radar this season.

My Week With Marilyn is playing in select cities now.

Originally published on PopBytes


Monday, November 7, 2011



So here’s the thing.

Christmas is easily my favorite holiday. There’s nothing that gives me a greater sense of warmth and joy than walking along Fifth Avenue and being mesmerized by the stories the window displays at Saks and Bergdorf. When I was little, I always insisted on trying to count the lights on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and taking pictures with the FAO Schwarz employees dressed as Nutcrackers. Trust me, they loved it.

However, when it comes to holiday music, I usually want to Van Gogh my ears off. There’s really only so much “cheer” you can get from Julie Andrews narrating the birth of Jesus before you want to burn down the manger, you know?

Then came along Zooey Deschanel. Cute, quirky, perfect little Zooey Deschanel. Just cozily sitting there on the cover of her band She & Him’s new Christmas album, gazing somewhere to the left with her Powerpuff Girls eyes open wide enough to seem like she was watching old Claus make his way down her chimney. “Goddamnit,” I thought to myself the moment I saw the image. “She’s going to exorcise the Grinch right out of me.”

And I was right. You literally need to be the world’s most soulless human being to put on A Very She & Him Christmas and not have it immediately melt your heart. I guarantee that if someone had just played one track off the record for Ebenezer Scrooge, he could have bypassed that whole time-traveling ghost fiasco.

From the moment the album kicks off with Zooey’s illustrious vocals singing about “frosted window panes” in “The Christmas Waltz,” a glow is ignited warm enough to feel like you’re sipping hot chocolate by a burning Yule log in a Zales commercial.

A Very She & Him Christmas is comprised of 12 Christmas standards. And while most Christmas albums are filled with songs with countless references to religion, this record is (thank god!) made up entirely of holiday songs sans any shout outs to Bethlehem or the big J.

Instrumentally, the album uses little more than a ukulele. The result is a refreshingly organic take on music that has been recorded and re-recorded by countless artists for decades. Yet somehow, Deschanel and Ward have crafted a unique spin on these classic songs while simultaneously injecting them with that vintage flair that makes them so familiar.

Not since Judy Garland debuted it in Meet Me In St. Louis has “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” sounded so sweet and honest. Deschanel proves that the song doesn’t need to be “decorated” with riffs every two seconds to showcase the singer’s vocal strength (sit down, Christina Aguilera). By stripping it back to basics, She & Him have returned the tenderness that has been lacking from contemporary interpretations of the song.

Most people discovered Zooey’s enchanting voice when she crooned “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in the film Elf. On A Very She & Him Christmas, she revisits the song – except she switches verses and takes over the male part while Ward sings the female’s. The most up-tempo track on the album, this twist on the classic song had me hankering for Zooey to drug my eggnog and take advantage of me so badly.

The tranquil quality of tracks like “Silver Bells,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” provide for a soothing soundtrack to enjoy while quietly cuddled up under a warm blanket. But if that’s not really your thing and you’d rather try to score under the mistletoe at your neighbor’s ugly Christmas sweater themed party, crank up the more upbeat cuts like “Sleigh Ride,” “Little Saint Nick” and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and your bells will be jinglin’ in no time.

There’s really no word that describes A Very She & Him Christmas better than “snuggly.” Listening to the record is like being given a Golden Labrador puppy on Christmas morning that you name Kisses because he can’t stop crawling all over and licking you. It releases the same endorphins you would get as a kid when you realized that the cookies you left out for Santa on Christmas Eve were gone in the morning. It’s just the perfect holiday treat from start to finish.

While it may only be the beginning of November, Deschanel and Ward have released an instant classic that has me counting down until Christmas with the same giddy gingerbread glee I haven’t felt since I was a child.

A Very She & Him Christmas was released on October 24. (iTunes)

Originally published on MuuMuse