REVIEW: USHER’S CLIMAX

In December of 2010, singer Usher chatted with StyleList to promote his new fragrance. While doing so, he teased his upcoming seventh studio album. “I’m working on a new genre of music,” he said. “Revolutionary pop – which combines several music genres to create a new sound experience.” Hmmm.

Over the past few years, songs like “Yeah,” “OMG,” “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love,” and the recent David Guetta collaboration, Without You,” have transformed the 33-year-old R&B artist into a dance machine that churns out club banger after club banger. In fact, hardly a Jersey Shore episode goes by without some Usher-inspired fist pumping. So is this the “revolutionary pop” in question?

Hardly. Premiering a few weeks early of its official release date (February 28), Usher’s new single Climax hit the web on Valentine’s Day last week. Finally, fans got a taste of the singer’s new sound. And if “Climax” truly is indicative of the musical direction of his upcoming album, be prepared for another year of boundary pushing Usher chart-toppers.

Taking to Twitter to describe “Climax” as “some next level electrosoul,” the song’s producer Diplo (M.I.A., Robyn) also wrote that the track was “seriously the best record I’ve been part of. Really proud of it.” And he may just be right.


Vocally, “Climax” is a return to form for Usher. His silky smooth voice transcends into a sensual falsetto as he sings despairingly about the end of a relationship. Guided by the gradual drip of the song’s trance-laced beat, Usher’s voice tantalizes the listener with the tender attentiveness of his high register and the desperate passion of his low one.

“I just need you one more time. I can’t get the one we had on my mind. Where are you now when I need you around? I’m on my knees but it seems we’re going nowhere fast, we’ve reached our climax,” he croons over the slow pulse of synthesizers and a grinding downbeat.

The double entendre found in the lyrics (which in case you haven’t figured out by now is about both the finishing points in relationships and in the bedroom) is masterfully complimented by the thrusting of Diplo’s crescendoing beat and Usher’s octave-scaling vocals.

As the song progresses, its ultimate climax is teased more and more. But Usher and Diplo smartly take their time to get there, aware that the ultimate payoff will be far more rewarding. Toss in additional orchestration by classical musician Nico Muhly (Björk, Antony & The Johnsons) on strings, and you’ll be clutching your pearls listening to the sexiest song of the year so far.

“Climax” pushes Usher into the forefront of some of the most interesting and seductive music this side of top forty. “I’m pretty sure in nine months there are gonna be a lot of new babies that this is responsible for,” Diplo tweeted.

So light some candles, pour yourself a big glass of red, get out those “massage oils” and treat yourself to “Climax.”

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEW: KATY PERRY’S “PART OF ME”


Last weekend at the 54th annual Grammy Awards, 27-year-old diva Katy Perry debuted her new single, “Part of Me.”

Continuing her Diet Lady Gaga wardrobe choices, Perry squeezed herself into a gold and silver spandex suit she received courtesy of a pile of rejected Power Rangers costume designs that her assistant had to sell his soul to acquire. And in case we forgot that she played a principal role in the cinematic train wreck that was The Smurfs, Perry kindly wore the blue wig that was distributed at the film’s wrap party as a reminder. And, thus, the world was introduced to “Part of Me.”

Although a demo version of the track has been floating around the blogosphere for over a year, the official release of “Part of Me” is timed to the upcoming re-release of Perry’s 2010 record-breaking album, Teenage Dream. And in a stroke of marketing genius, the release of this defiant breakup anthem is also timed perfectly to the very public divorce Perry is currently going through with British comedian Russell Brand. Think Nick Lachey’s “What’s Left of Me” but with bigger boobs and more cotton candy.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not Perry’s biggest fan. I find her music to be everything from incredibly irritating to unoriginal to perpetuating terrible stereotypes to horrendously insensitive. Let us not forget that this is a woman who while married to a recovering alcoholic, put out a single about how much fun it is to black out on weekends. And then continued to show her support by releasing a remix of the same song to try and make even more money off of this concept.

Admittedly, I longed for “Part of Me” to be a disaster. I wanted it to be so bad that people would stop buying Perry’s records and she would just vanish from the charts and go back to Candyland to retire already. So imagine my disappointment upon first hearing the song and realizing that it’s the best one Perry has ever released.

On “Part of Me,” Perry trades in her signature mindless and sugarcoated fluff in favor of attitude and grit. Simply put, it’s the best Ashlee Simpson song that Ashlee Simpson never recorded. Listening to it, one might even be tricked into believing that Perry actually has a personality.

What makes “Part of Me” such an automatic smash for Perry is in large part due to the fact that much of the team behind it are people responsible for some of Britney Spears’ biggest hits. Produced by Dr. Luke (who not so subtly borrowed his own beats from Britney’s “Till The World Ends”), the song is co-written by Max Martin (Britney’s “Baby One More Time”) and Bonnie McKee (Britney’s “Hold It Against Me”), in addition to Katy herself. With a roster like that, it’s hard to imagine the track would be anything but guaranteed dynamite. And that’s precisely what it is.

“Part of Me” is also everything a successful contemporary breakup song should be. It’s layered with an unapologetic I’m-so-much-happier-without-you theme, an upbeat Kelly Clarkson-esque power pop/rock hook, and most importantly, self-empowerment.

“Now look at me I’m sparkling, a firework, a dancing flame. You won’t ever put me out again, I’m glowing. So you can keep the diamond ring, it don’t mean nothing anyway. In fact you can keep everything except for me,” Perry triumphantly declares in the song’s bridge before re-entering the fist-pumping chorus. “This is the part of me that you’re never gonna ever take away from me, no. Throw your sticks and stones, throw your bombs and your blows but you’re not going to break my soul.” Sounds like someone’s recently gotten their claws sharpened.

FUN FACT: The lyrics to the bridge originally read, “You can keep the dog, I never liked him anyway,” but were changed to “You can keep the diamond ring, it don’t mean nothing anyway” because …. well, you know. Sorry, Russell.

While “Part of Me” is by no means groundbreaking, it’s the perfect spice to add some much-needed substance and flavor to Perry’s repertoire. It’s almost hard to believe that a song as well constructed as this one comes to us from the same “artist” who gave the world “I Kissed A Girl,” “California Gurls” and “Peacock.”

A friend recently said to me, “it’s good to betray your principles from time to time. Doing that reminds you that you have them.” With that sentiment in mind, I put Katy Perry’s new single straight to the top of my cardio playlist – and immediately hated myself for having fueled the beast. But nothing burns more calories than self-loathing set to the beat of an excellent pop song.

Originally published on PopBytes

THE HUNGER WIVES

The Hunger Wives

It’s too bad, really, that they held the reaping in the parking lot in front of Chevy’s on Hylan Blvd. – one of the few places in Staten Island that can be pleasant.

The Capitol is what they called VH1. There were many different neighborhoods on the Island, each with its own strengths, but there were none that didn’t answer to the Capitol. One channel to rule them all. Any disobedience of their orders would result in possible cancellation or worse altogether … recasting.

As they stepped out of their cars, they slowly draped their shoulders with minks as their stilettos pressed down onto the asphalt. They strut through the crowd – a sea of clashing animal patterns and single feather earrings – to make their way near the stage. The stage where it would be announced that two peoples’ lives were about to drastically change.

The rules for the season one drawing were simple. Two tributes would be chosen at random by a proxy for the Capitol to represent neighborhood 12, also known as the area you’ll find on the last three stops on the X1 bus line. These two tributes would then face off against 22 other opponents, two each from the eleven other neighborhoods. The game? Outlive the other 23 players. The reward? Attention on a national platform.

“I love this part,” Wendy Williams chuckled as she reached her hand into the bowl that held all of the women’s names. “Our tribute representing those who were not born Italian and just married into Italian families is … Drita D’Avanzo!”

The crowd that had gathered for the drawing roared in equal parts terror and applause. People murmured about how Drita’s constant desire for bloodshed sparked rumors that she was actually a vampire in middle school. “Whoever faces her won’t even have a chance,” they all whispered to one another. The “housewives” phenomenon was about to literally get its ass kicked. And the crowd salivated for more.

“You wanna fuckin’ go to war wit me, mother fuckers? I’ll fuckin’ SKIN you douche bags,” a heated Drita yelled out to the crowd as she channeled her inner Fear-era Marky Mark and pounded her fist against her chest. Seeing this, Wendy rolled her eyes and stuck her hand back in the bowl.

“And the tribute representing our pure bread Italians will be …..”

The crowd stood frozen in anticipation as they waited to hear what name Wendy would read. “Girl, it’s Ramona Rizzo,” she declared.

Ramona shouted as loud as she could. If she was being given a chance at this kind of exposure, she would do everything possible she could think of to prove that, despite all the evidence pointing towards the contrary, she was in fact relevant.

“Stop!” screamed Karen Gravano. “I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!”

Karen shuffled her way up the stage, her balloon-sized breasts knocking aside the women between her and the Capitol’s camera crew. “If someone is gonna take this bitch down, it’s gonna be me,” she threatened as her and Drita locked stares.

Meanwhile, in a cell right off of Father Capodanno Boulevard, Lee D’Avanzo reached for what was left of his body lotion.

Mob Wives

A few weeks later, after a series of promotional photo shoots and manufactured viral campaigns, it was time for the season to begin. The women opened the doors to their homes for the Capitol’s camera crews and just like that, the gun went off signifying the beginning of season one.

Drita stepped outside and looked around her. She saw Carla, the tribute from neighborhood 6, guarding the stoop of Planet Fitness. “If she thinks the sanctuary plea will work just because she’s standing in front of my gym, bitch is dead wrong,” Drita said in her confessional. “You could go to the Coney Island Aquarium and even the penguins would know this cunt is a bigger piece of toast than the one Lee ate for breakfast.”

Just as she was getting ready to take down Carla with a metaphor, the most lethal weapon in her arsenal, Drita realized that she might need an ally in order to survive the hunt. An ally who she could mold into thinking they were on the same side. An ally who she could use and dispose of at her free will. Yes, Carla was weak and easily influenced. She would do.

But the moment Drita decided to propose this alliance to Carla, she heard the wild cry of what could only be a boar. Suddenly, Carla’s body twitched as the tribute from neighborhood 9, Renee Graziano, sunk her teeth into her neck. “This is for that thing that happened between our fathers twenty years ago and doesn’t impact our lives today whatsoever,” Renee screamed as she swallowed Carla’s raw flesh. “HOW COULD YOU?” she bellowed as tears streamed down her bloodstained face. And just like that, all that was left of Carla was the character description on The Capitol’s new casting notice.

The cameras cut to the crowd’s reaction. On the big screens, the tributes watched as civilians reacted to Renee’s brutal attack. “Oh god, it doesn’t end,” a civilian known only as Big Ang from neighborhood 7, the collagen supplier, commented. “It was such a scene. Black eye. There wasn’t no doctors. Punched in the face. BLOOD. Skin dangling from her lips. Horrible.”

Hearing this, a lightbulb went off in Drita’s mind. “Renee’s been turning all these tributes into tombstones,” she confided in her audience. “If we work together, there’s no way that bitch Karen could beat us. Renee is such a loose cannon they could put her on top of like a castle.” She knew that until the Capitol inevitably forced them into a situation that would guarantee they turn their backs on one another, her and Renee would be invincible.

Yet seemingly out of nowhere, Drita spotted a figure in the distance. She couldn’t make out the face and the long dark hair was too dime-a-dozen to differentiate. The figure was wearing a sequined halter top with some sort of phrase on it. “In case you forgot, my father was Sammy the Bull,” Drita read as the shirt came into clearer focus. The time had come her to take down her arch-nemesis once and for all.

But just as Drita climbed her way up a tree to hide from Karen’s wonky-eyed gaze, she heard the shriek of the boar again. But this time, Renee was crying out in pain instead of triumph.

On the giant screens, Drita could see that in a twist nobody saw coming, Karen had managed to take down the mighty Renee. Her method was as simple as it was deviously brilliant. All she had to do was tell Renee that her ex-husband, Julian, had died. Immediately upon hearing this, Renee let out a howl so unnecessarily loud, that nobody could even hear her last words as she slit her own throat. Later in the editing booth, the Capitol would enhance the audio track for sweeps season. “I’ll see you soon, Julian,” Renee gasped. “I’ll see you soon, you little jerk-off!’

With Renee’s passing, only two tributes were left, both from neighborhood 12. Both from the land inside the last three stops on the X1 bus line. And there was only one thing left to do: Kill.

“Ladies, stop!” the voice of a strange man commanded from the speakers. They looked up at the screen and saw Bravo’s very own Andy Cohen, staring intently into the camera and giving it his smoldering signature you-know-you-want-to-sit-on-my-face look.

“Please, hear me out,” he said. “In order to keep these franchises healthy, we’re going to need to extend this fight into season two. We’ll cut right here and leave it as a cliffhanger. Trust me! I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been slowly accumulating millions by bossing around basic bitches just like you for years now. You don’t have to kill one another. You’re both winners.”

“NO!” Drita screamed as she reached for a jar of Ragu. “I would rather digest this factory-made poison and die a thousand deaths than live in the same world as this psycho whore.” Karen, upon hearing this, ran to Drita’s side. “Here, it’ll be faster if I help you,” she said as the two women unscrewed the top off the jar.

“You don’t get it yet,” Andy remarked as he looked down at the women from the giant screen. “These battles will make you famous. You can come out with your own line of perfume, your own cookbooks, dance singles, liquor brands and more! Don’t you see? Going to war with one another will give you all the fame and money you could have ever possibly hoped for. And then a little more.”

After a heavy three seconds of consideration, the women looked at one another and laughed. “We was always friends, you and me,” Drita said to Karen as they embraced. “Like family,” Karen agreed.

“Hey Andy,” Karen continued as she turned towards the giant screen hovering above them. “Just for the record, we’re on different channels. You didn’t have to get involved just because you saw a group of dangerous women on TV breaking jaws and ratings. But thank you anyway.”

The screens faded to black as Renee and Drita walked with interlocked arms into Applebees. But right before the credits began to roll, the cameras zoomed in on Ramona, seething with anger as she watched from her living room.

“If these sluts want to extend this bullshit into another year,” she said as she pointed to the freeze frame of Drita and Karen on her screen, “then by all means, be my guests. Because this time, none-a yous is getting out alive.”

… Maybe next season, we’ll find out what the conflict is.

Originally published on PopBytes

IN DARKNESS: AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR AGNIESZKA HOLLAND

Agnieszka Holland

Polish film director Agnieszka Holland is no stranger to the Academy Awards.

In 1985, her film Angry Harvest received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Since then, she’s directed such acclaimed movies as The Secret Garden, Total Eclipse and Europa, Europa.

Her latest film, In Darkness, hit theaters this weekend. Set in the Polish town of Lvov in 1943, the film tells the true story of Leopold Socha, a Polish sewer inspector who risks his life to help Jewish people hide in the sewers from the atrocities of the world above.

As riveting as it is unique, the movie has garnered a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at this year’s Oscars, now only a few weeks away. I caught up with Holland about the movie, the Academy Awards, what’s next on her plate and more.

AN: I read that upon first reading the script for In Darkness, you were not too keen about making this film. What were your initial trepidations about the movie and what changed your mind?

AH: There were many reasons. I liked the script but didn’t like the idea of spending the next two to three years of my life in the ghettos and sewers. I did two “Holocaust” movies before and knew how hard and painful it is for the director. You need to live though this experience in some sort of way. I also felt that for most critics, Holocaust films are not “sexy” anymore, so I knew that it would be difficult (especially after all the suffering of making the film) to sell and promote a movie with this subject. And, most importantly, I didn’t want to make another English language Holocaust movie, which was what the producers had planned. But David Shamoon, the writer who found the story and wrote the script, was stubborn and perseverant. He kept sending me the newest versions of the script until I started dreaming images from the story. Then the producers agreed to shoot the film in its original languages.

AN: Why do you think this is such an important story to tell?

AH: Situation, characters, choices, the development of the human relationships, challenges, the absurdity of those horrors and the irrational hate that was sometimes overcome by glimpses of responsibility and some kind of love. What is important to us? What the human being is capable of? How could things like that happen? And what do we do when faced with this kind of situation? The mystery of this experience was not resolved yet and probably never will be. But those situations are so extremely dramatic that we can see the human soul totally naked in them.

AN: Can you talk to me a little bit about nationalism vs. morality in In Darkness? Did you find these two things to be mutually exclusive in the context of the film?

AH: No, it is not such a clear division for me. The human attitude is dynamic: you can be a nationalistic pig and still find in yourself some kind of the moral imperative to help people you theoretically despise. You can be the man with the highest morality and never find the courage to do the good deed. For me, the evil is easy to understand. It’s the good that is completely mysterious. Why do some people overcome the hate and fear and risk their lives to help others? Socha is an interesting example, because he even doesn’t want to do so. It is not part of his map of values. But at some point, he just has to do it, against his will and convictions.

AN: How has the film been received in Poland?

AH: Fantastically, to my surprise. It’s had great success at the box office and in its reception by very different people: young and old, educated and non-educated, left and right. Even some people on the extra right are sometimes deeply moved. The people there are very focused when watching this film. They don’t move for over 2 hours. They even are unable to eat their popcorn. They often cry and afterwards, they feel the need to share, discuss and talk about their experience. It really is an experience – not just a movie.

AN: In Darkness is the ninth Polish movie to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. If it wins, it’ll mark the first time that Poland has ever received this honor. Does this put you under a lot of pressure?

AH: Oh, yes. In a country like Poland, this kind of competition becomes the national issue and it doesn’t matter that I have Jewish roots; I am a Polish national hero for one moment and I have to keep the flame burning high. It is very touching but I feel the pressure. When I was nominated before, it was just my private issue and I was really cool about it. Here, if I don’t win (which doesn’t depend on me anymore), I will be deceiving my people. But you know, by the end it is just a game. What’s important is that the movie did reach the heart of Polish audiences and in some small way, it will change the way they see themselves and other people.

In Darkness

AN: Aside from In Darkness, what was your favorite movie out of the other nominees for Best Foreign Language Film?
AH: I haven’t seen all of them. But I have a very high opinion about A Separation. It is a difficult category and has more good movies then in the English speaking lot (in my opinion), and already some very strong movies have been left behind. So the nomination is already a big victory and I certainly have good opponents to lose with.

AN: There are two different worlds in In Darkness – there’s the world above ground and the world within the sewers. What were some of the key tactics you employed to show the distinctions between the two?

AH: The way of lighting, of course: real darkness in the underground and much brighter and warmer up ground. The camera is more hectic down. I showed the people in the film mostly by close-ups. The action is often fragmentary, partly hidden.

AN: Protagonist Leopold Socha is a fascinating character because he’s not a typical hero. In fact, he is shown as being influenced by the anti-Semitic agenda and only beginning to help Jews in exchange for money. Yet ultimately, he decides to do the right thing and dedicate his life to saving Jews. What were the biggest challenges that you and actor Robert Wieckiewicz faced in bringing this complex man back to life?

AH: The movie would be not what it is without Robert. He’s able to show all this ambiguous quality: to be sensitive and primitive at the same time, clever and stupid, brutal and gentle. We see the man who is street smart and selfish, full of stereotypes but gradually feeling real responsibility for those he called “lice.” The key was not to show one moment of change. This change is not linear. It is like walking on the wire: two steps forward, one step back and you can slip down at any moment. On the side of good or on the side of betrayal.

AN: It wasn’t until after you had finished shooting In Darkness that you learned that there was still a remaining survivor who emerged from the sewers of Lvov. Tell me about the first time you met Krystyna Chiger (who is portrayed as an 8-year-old girl in your film). What was her reaction to the way you depicted her story?

AH:It was very touching. We met with her and her husband Marian in one Soho restaurant in New York. I was excited and afraid. Afraid she will be angry that I didn’t contact her before (I was told that no one from the sewer was alive anymore); afraid she would not accept the movie. But she’s a very open, generous and wise person. She embraced the film, was touched by it, found it deeply true and is doing everything possible to support it all over the world. Afterwards, I met many other people: the children and grand children of my characters. Even one man, who was watching them come out from the sewers, the real and unique witness of those events. This movie brought all of them together.

AN: You’ve made a number of films about World War II in the past, including Europa, Europa and The Angry Harvest. What is it about this period of time that has you continuing to explore more about it in your art?

AH: It was the most extreme experience in the history of humanity. It is not over. It can happen again in any moment and in any place. I don’t believe we can ever fully understand the nature of this virus. But we can try to explore it, actualize it and bring it to life for new generations.

AN: I read that up next for you is Christine: War My Love, a biopic of Polish Special Operations Executive agent Krystyna Skarbek. What can you tell me about this project? What drew you to Krystyna’s story?

AH: I don’t think it will be my next or even the one after next. It is a complex, expensive project and far away from being financed. The character of this woman and her destiny fascinated me. But right now I am starting a 3-part miniseries for Czech HBO about the situation in Czechoslovakia in 1969 – after the Prague Spring and Soviet intervention. The story starts with the young student, Jan Palach, who died via self-immolation to protest the lack of freedom in his country and the resignation of his people. I was there, a student at the Prague Film School myself at time, so the story is very close to me.

AN: In addition to film, you’ve also forayed into the world of television by directing episodes of shows such as The Wire, Treme and The Killing. From a director’s perspective, what do you think are the fundamental differences between these two mediums?

AH: Time to shoot (shorter). Length of the form (you have several episodes to tell the story and develop the characters, not 2 hours like in a movie). The best television fiction allows the complexity and depth. Also, the director – if he or she’s not one of the creators of the series, it is the medium where he or she is less independent. It is very much the writer’s medium. But I like doing it sometimes. It’s quick, intense and often brilliant.

AN: Can you tell me what and who you will be wearing to the Academy Awards?

AH: I don’t know yet. Some friends – costume designers – are preparing some outfit for me. I will be going with my closest collaborators and with Kristina Chiger. Unfortunately, the Academy doesn’t give us enough places to take everybody who deserves to be there.

AN: And for my final question: You started out your career as an assistant director to the Academy Award-winning and prolific filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. What is the best advice he gave you that has stuck with you ever since?

AH: So many that I cannot remember just one. Mostly it was about doing what you believe in and not to forget about the audience.

AN: Thank you so much, Agnieszka! I really appreciate your time and wish you the best of luck at the Academy Awards in a few weeks.

Originally published on PopBytes
Translat
ed to Polish and published in print and online in Nowy Dziennik