Friday, December 9, 2011

'IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA: HIGH SCHOOL REUNION, PART 1

by ALEX NAGORSKI


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

HEY, YOU KNOW WHAT WAS AN AMAZING SONG? KATE WINSLET'S "WHAT IF"

by ALEX NAGORSKI


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)

by ALEX NAGORSKI


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