The genres of horror and romance go hand in hand naturally in real life (see: Lorena Bobbitt). On screen, however, this blend has never really been attempted in a serious or successful way. Enter filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who collaborated previously on horror movie V/H/S: Viral, to achieve the impossible mélange with their feature, Spring.

Promotional poster

Promotional poster

 Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci, formerly Lou Pucci--of Thumbsucker fame), an L.A. denizen who has just lost his mother to cancer--which means both of his parents are now deceased--finds himself in an emotional tailspin that is further compounded by losing his job as a bartender. His best friend, Tommy (Jeremy Gardner), urges him to get away so that he can change his environment and possibly forget about some of his pain. Taking this advice to heart after he can't even get pity sex from a friend, Evan books a flight to Italy as an homage to his father, who was planning to go there with him after Evan graduated from college, but then ended up having a heart attack.

Finding strange romance in Italy

Finding strange romance in Italy

Upon arriving in Rome, Evan encounters two fellow travelers from England, who guide him further south toward Naples. While there, he has an encounter with a beautiful and very mysterious girl named Louise (Nadia Hilker). When the two have another run-in at a bar, Evan asks her to go out on a date. Louise, preferring spontaneity over plans tells him that she has to go with him now or not at all. Evan declines, but seems to have the sense that he'll see her again. Left to his own devices by the Brits, who move on to Amsterdam without him, Evan decides to reply to a flier he sees advertising free room and board in exchange for work. This leads him to an isolated farm run by an old man who agrees to teach him the ropes.

The horror element

The horror element

With his job situation secure, Evan now finds the time to focus more fully on alluring Louise with his charms. This leads him to follow her into a museum, where she points out a painting of a woman with two different colored eyes to him. The two begin to start seeing each other more regularly, though Evan is blissfully unaware of her bizarre and inexplicable physical transformations that happen without warning, and which she quells with injections.

As the truth is wont to do, it eventually comes out. Evan sees Louise in a violent and embryonic version of herself after going to her apartment to beg her to reconsider breaking up with him. But seeing this makes him nearly change his mind about making such a request. The fiendish Romeo and Juliet-like love that comes with Evan's eventual acceptance of Louise's flaw (she must shift out of her body every twenty years, this year being the twentieth in her current husk) is further intensified by the advent of the spring equinox, which will force her to depart from him physically.

Electric connections

Electric connections

In coalescing aspects of horror with all-consuming passion and love, Benson and Moorhead create an impactful and arresting film that isn't likely to be forgotten anytime soon--particularly if you yourself have had to overcome astounding obstacles in a relationship.

Hits is a momentous film for a number of reasons, two of which being the fact that it is David Cross' (of Tobias fame) directorial debut and that it is the first movie to attempt the pay-what-you-wish method via BitTorrent. This being said, the theme and plot of Hits is all too fitting considering the aforementioned circumstances.

Promotional story

Promotional story

Beginning with the cautionary caption, "Based on a true story... that hasn't happened yet," Hits is very much a commentary on the evermore prevalent obsession with being famous by any means necessary--usually via the viral method. With this in mind, everyman Dave (Matt Walsh) of Liberty, New York is the last person one would expect to attract the attention of a Greenpoint-based think tank run by Donovan (James Adomian), who makes a clip highlighting Dave's struggle with city councilwoman Christina Casserta (Amy Carlson) with regard to getting potholes on his street fixed and snow plowed during the winter.

Helping Dave go viral

Helping Dave go viral

Dave's rapid YouTube fame angers his celebrity-seeking daughter, Katelyn (Meredith Hagner), who spends most of her free time having fake interviews with Ellen DeGeneres while driving around or parked in her car. Her ambition? To be a singer. The problem? She is 1) blissfully unaware that she can't sing and 2) short the $200 she needs to record a demo for The Voice. The second problem is easily remedied by giving a hand job that leads to a blow job that leads to an unwitting sex tape with the guy who has all the recording equipment.

Dave, not your average famous man

Dave, not your average famous man

In spite of Katelyn's best efforts to attract attention during the media frenzy surrounding her father, who, as it later becomes clear, is a little unhinged himself, no one will give her the time of day except a prototypical white boy posing as a rapper named Cory (Jake Cherry). This drives her to the brink, prompting her to storm her father's televised town hall meeting in order to sing Sara Bareilles' "Brave" for a TV and internet audience, embarrassing herself completely with not just the sound of her voice, but also by getting beat down by a security officer--though, of course, it all ultimately serves to fulfill her greatest wish: fame and being on Ellen.

While Hits (called such in reference to the number of hits a video gets on YouTube, in case you couldn't figure it out) has been largely panned for being perhaps too cynical and grim a take on humanity, David Cross very much "hits" the mark on American society at the moment, and the dark place it continues to head. For an abridged version of this message, see Charli XCX's "Famous" video.

Aubrey Plaza, the ideal typecast for playing a female zombie, is, surprisingly the worst part about Jeff Baena's second film in ten years since writing I Heart Huckabees, Life After Beth. And yet, there is a slight glimpse of thematic brilliance regarding the subjects of regret and how it is affected by second chances and the notion that one was better off getting it right on their first chance.

Promotional poster for Life After Beth

Promotional poster for Life After Beth

As our momentarily alive and well protagonist, Beth Slocum (Plaza), is introduced in the first few moments of the film, she seems peaceful and calm while doing what we later learn is one of her favorite suburban pastimes: going on a hike. We then cut to an immediate mourning scene, barely getting a chance to know what the undead version of Beth was like. All we know now is that her boyfriend, Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan), and her parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), are in extreme pain over losing her--though the loss is very temporary.

Alternate promotional poster

Alternate promotional poster

After spending almost every waking moment with Beth's parents in order to feel mildly consoled not only by her death, but also by confessing to Maury that Beth said she wanted to see other people before she died, he is caught off guard when his contact with them is abruptly cut off. Investigating the situation, he goes over to their house only to catch an unexpected glimpse of Beth. Before he can do anything about it, however, he is caught by his brother, Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), a security officer who patrols the neighborhood. It isn't long before Zach manages to sneak back over there and confirm that Beth is, indeed, alive.

Beth is a lot angrier in her post-alive state

Beth is a lot angrier in her post-alive state

Relieved at being able to get another chance with her, Zach is just a little bit more perplexed than Beth's parents about why she's back from the dead. Her parents, on the other hand, prefer to not acknowledge that anything out of the ordinary has happened, least of all to Beth herself. In spite of Zach's hesitancy about not questioning why Beth is back, he ends up going along with her family's alternate reality in order to be with the version of her that seems blissfully unaware of all that's happened between them. And at first, this turn of events goes swimmingly--until Beth begins acting far crankier, quelled only by the sound of smooth jazz.

Her temper is further aggravated when she catches Zach in the parking lot of a restaurant where he was having lunch with a childhood friend named Erica (Anna Kendrick). Nearly ripping Erica's arm off in response to her presence, Zach leads her away to finally confess what's really been going on this whole time by taking her back to her gravestone. The revelation of her death further infuriates Beth, who, to add insult to injury, is then broken up with by Zach. This sets off an entire chain reaction of zombie emergences throughout the town. 

Full-fledged zombie bitch

Full-fledged zombie bitch

It is at this juncture in the film that things start to jump the shark a bit and Jeff Baena seems to lose sight of what his original message really was. Unlike other recent zombie movies, such as Warm Bodies or Jennifer's Body, Life After Beth lacks the same camp cachet that tends to bolster this genre. Instead, it comes off as flaccid and missing the mark on what it wanted to say, which seems to be, as one of the tag lines clichely puts it: be careful what you wish for.  

When one hears a title like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, the automatic assumption is that the story is going to somehow end in rape. Conversely, this movie, described as an Iranian vampire spaghetti Western by director Ana Lily Amirpour, lends a sense of female empowerment to its audience. 

The girl

The girl

Centered around the lives of a handful of lonely souls inhabiting a town called Bad City, Amirpour first introduces us to Arash (Arash Marandi), an attractive James Dean type who drives an expensive car and has to deal with the harassment of a drug dealer named Saeed (Dominic Rains), who takes possession of Arash's car as collateral for the debt owed by his father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh), as a result of his heroin addiction.

Meanwhile, an ominous hijab-garbed woman known only as "The Girl" is stalking the streets of Bad City, following the likes of Saeed in order to protect others from his harmful ways. After watching his behavior for a time, she decides to kill him one evening when he spots her walking home and asks her back to his house. What he sees as her coy seduction suddenly transmutes into the baring of her fangs and her final death bite. It is at this point that Arash, who has stolen a pair of expensive earrings from his employer in order to bargain with to get his car back, decides to visit Saeed. He sees The Girl leaving the house and immediately goes inside to find Saeed, along with his father's debt, is finished.

He steals Saeed's suitcase full of drugs and money, and fulfills his new role as a replacement local dealer. One night, while doling out X at a costume party dressed as Dracula, Arash is offered a drug by his now ex-employer and ultimately finds himself serenely wandering the streets of Bad City, whereupon he encounters The Girl. Their connection to one another is instant, and she takes him back to her Madonna memorabilia decorated apartment (perhaps some sort of subconscious symbolism about vampiric immortality) where they listen to music and engage in one of the most drawn out buildups to a kiss in cinema history. 

Reinvigorated by finding one another, it seems as though both of them might change their ways, or at least merge their habits into one formless collective of neuroses. The Girl's latest kill, however, threatens the balance of their newfound relationship. The noirish feel (which in part stems from the fact that it was filmed in Southern California in spite of being in Persian), combined with the vampire genre--which has been twisted and turned a lot lately--is enough to make this film, surprisingly made by VICE, an instant classic.

Considering that movie musicals have had zero audience since the 1960s, it's always incredible that the film industry remains so whole-heartedly committed to honoring this genre. While it is one thing to bring a movie to the Broadway stage, it is quite another to bring a Broadway musical to the screen. And yet, this is exactly what Richard LaGravenese (best known for writing such films as A Little Princess, The Mirror Has Two Faces and Living Out Loud) decided to do with beloved playwright Jason Robert Brown's 2001 musical, The Last Five Years.

Promo poster for The Last Five Years

Promo poster for The Last Five Years

In the role of Cathy Hiatt, Anna Kendrick, no stranger to the Broadway musical scene, is even more annoying than she was in Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2. Her voice, while technically "good," is like, yes, nails on a chalkboard after having to listen to it endlessly. And she is, of course, the one doing most of the so-called talking. 

The early stages of l'amour

The early stages of l'amour

Her appeal to Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan), an author who is about to sell his first manuscript, is her shiksa goddess status to him. Unlike anyone else Jamie has ever dated, Cathy is plucky, energetic and determined. Her ambition to become a theater actress, however, is ultimately part of what "rents" their relationship (get it, Rent?).  

With Jamie's meteoric success as a bestselling writer, Cathy suddenly finds herself on the outer corners of the spotlight, "the little wife" who, at best, is given some credit for being Jamie's muse. In spite of this intense source of contention, Cathy still wants to make her marriage work. Alas, the attempt at trying is, inevitably, one-sided. In this regard, The Last Five Years redeems itself for being a musical because of the powerfully emotional way in which it addresses the complications of modern monogamy. 

The collaborations of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have never been flawed, Flight of the Conchords being the most shining example. However, their newest masterpiece together, What We Do In The Shadows, may be the best of their career--no matter what else they put out after this. Taking the concept of the mockumentary to the next level with a spoof on the world of vampires, the brilliant humor of their script leads us on a, to borrow a 90s film critic phrase, "laugh-a-minute" journey through the supernatural underbelly of Wellington, New Zealand.

Promo poster for What We Do In The Shadows

Promo poster for What We Do In The Shadows

From the moment of our introduction, the tone of satire is set by lead vampire Viago (Taika Waititi), age 317, turning his alarm clock off with his outstretched arm from within the bowels of his coffin. He then slowly and coyly elevates himself out of the coffin and welcomes us into his apartment, which he shares with three other flatmates/vampires. From oldest to youngest, they are: Petyr (Ben Fransham), age 8,000, Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), age 862, and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), age 183. Being that Deacon is the younger, and therefore more rebellious vampire, he is less enthusiastic about performing house chores like washing "bloody" dishes.

Swag

Swag

As we're given an all-access glimpse into their lives by documentarians wearing crucifixes and promised immunity from their necks being sucked on, it's clear that their carefree existence is about to be changed forever by a victim named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), brought to them by Deacon's familiar, Jackie (Jackie Van Beek), who has been his slave for the past four years in the hopes that he will bite her and give her immortality.

Family portrait

Family portrait

Instead of simply killing Deacon after performing the spaghetti/worms Lost Boys trick on him, they actually end up turning him. Nick's naivete about how to act in his new role within the household leads him to copy Deacon's style, declare to everyone in the Wellington club scene that he is a vampire (which backfires when he tells this to a vampire hunter) and subsequently get Petyr killed thanks to a "fatal sunlight accident," thus he is banished indefinitely from the flat--though his best human friend, Stu (Stu Rutherford), is given no hard feelings.

With all these events leading up to the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball, where zombies, vampires and other such creatures gather to celebrate themselves, tensions are running high among the flatmates, compounded by their frequent run-ins with a pack of werewolves helmed by alpha male Anton (Rhys Darby, another Flight of the Conchords staple). Vladislav further adds to the drama with his anger and sadness over "the beast" (his ex-girlfriend) being the guest of honor at the party. Meanwhile, Viago has been dealing with his own romantic longings, and finally decides to do something about it. What it all leads up to is a film that will forever change the way you view vampires and their day to day lives.

Writer-director Marc Lawrence has collaborated with Hugh Grant many times in the past, including Two Weeks Notice, Music and Lyrics and, unfortunately, Did You Hear About the Morgans? Their fourth project together, however, is their best. The Rewrite is the answer to a genre that must be fulfilled at least every five years: the washed up Hollywood persona.

Promo poster for The Rewrite

Promo poster for The Rewrite

In this case, that Hollywood persona is Academy Award-winning screenwriter Keith Michaels (Grant), whose only successful film, Paradise Misplaced, is all he has left to coast on. This is, in fact, the very credential that gets him the only offer he's had in years, a job teaching at a screenwriting course at Binghamton. 

The students of Keith Michaels' class

The students of Keith Michaels' class

Before Keith even makes it to his class, however, he ends up offending one of the most influential professors at the school, Mary Weldon, a foremost scholar in the field of Jane Austen. So obviously Keith is fucked in terms of winning her over. The president at Binghamton, Dr. Lerner (J.K. Simmons), is, luckily, on Keith's side. And yet, this doesn't prevent Keith from engaging in a cliche affair with one of his students, Karen (Bella Heathcote), before the class starts to make matters much worse for himself. To add to his pile of distractions, Keith is hounded by an older female student (you know the types who decide to go back to school later on in life) named Holly (Marisa Tomei, who has made a vengeful comeback after an absence in film from 2008-2010). Eventually, she convinces him to actually read her screenplay and admit her into the class--his previous method of selection was by looking at the female applicants' online profile pictures. 

Karen, the female student Keith is boning

Karen, the female student Keith is boning

As Keith is pushed to the limits of teaching thanks to Weldon's vigilance and judgmental nature, he finds himself actually enjoying his students' screenplays, even going so far as to recommend one of them to his agent. Keith, on the other hand, seems to have no luck at finding a job in Hollywood again, especially after being embarrassingly ousted from writing the sequel to Paradise Misplaced

The real apple of Keith's eye

The real apple of Keith's eye

Nonetheless, his unexpected attachment to Binghamton leads him to have surprising revelations about his own issues with respect to both his career and his personal life. While all of the expected developments and perfectly timed plot points are there (what else would one expect from a movie about screenwriting?), it's still just jadedly heartwarming enough to redeem Hugh Grant after his last two films, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists and Cloud Atlas.

What would a Kat Dennings movie be without a soundtrack that acts as an additional character (see: Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist)? With a drug-heavy theme, music is key to bringing the story of To Write Love on Her Arms to life. The pop punk/dance-heavy soundtrack, featuring songs you can't get out of your head, like "Billy the Kid" by Flint Eastwood and "Lose Your Soul" by Dead Man's Bones, is part of what allows you into the mind of Renee Yohe (Dennings).

The soundtrack is part of what makes To Write Love on Her Arms so real

The soundtrack is part of what makes To Write Love on Her Arms so real

Based on the real life organization of the same name, the film was inspired by Yohe's struggle to enter rehab after dealing with non-stop addiction and depression for two years before seeking help from the friends she had left behind for her drug habit. One of those friends, Jamie Tworkowski (Chad Michael Murray), who she meets after coming out of the woodwork, is the person who felt compelled to start the website, twloha.com (then in MySpace form), detailing the travails of Yohe as she fought the temptation to relapse before getting clean enough to enter rehab (which sounds ironical, yes).

Yohe's first experience with drugs came one Halloween night at a rave, where she was allured by a boy (a wolf in sheep's clothing) to stay longer and let her friends leave without her. We later learn that her once ironclad belief in fairy tales, which she quickly lost as a little girl, is further shattered by being taken advantage of when the boy takes her home. 

By the time Yohe hits nineteen years old, her penchant for self-mutilation and predilection for manic depression has reached a crescendo--all as a result of this night that crushed her psyche and emotional wherewithal into oblivion. Her love of cocaine, ecstasy, heroin and everything in between, however, isn't enough to block out the lack of any real love in her life.

Promo poster for To Write Love on Her Arms

Promo poster for To Write Love on Her Arms

David McKenna (Rupert Friend), the musician/producer who ends up becoming her sponsor, is part of Yohe's first step in the direction toward recovery. Because McKenna himself suffered through addiction, Yohe is able to look to him as a source of comfort and inspiration. She keeps track of the days she's remained sober by writing "Day 1" and so forth in lipstick on the mirror of her bedroom. Incidentally, the film was originally titled Day One until it was changed for re-release after premiering in 2012, and now, is once again being distributed in theaters and online under the To Write Love On Her Arms moniker. 

Music brings happiness

Music brings happiness

While teetering ever so slightly on cheesiness at the end of the second act, To Write Love On Her Arms accomplishes that rare feat: not making a movie about addiction come across as overly maudlin. And so, there is a new contender for film most likely to be shown in health class or D.A.R.E.

David Cronenberg isn't typically one to disappoint (see: A History of Violence and A Dangerous Method for recent examples), and yet, Maps to the Stars, is, to be honest, Cronenberg at his worst. While attempting to combine what he's best at--psychological examination--with an overload of "subtlety," the film comes across as a hot tranny mess.

Screaming for sanity

Screaming for sanity

Centered around Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) and her journey to Los Angeles from Jupiter (Florida), we soon realize that everything is connected to her, including washed up actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) and child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), who we learn is her brother. Their parents, Cristina (Olivia Williams) and Stafford (John Cusack), add to the incest motif of the film in that they're brother and sister (though apparently they didn't know this before they were married). 

Agatha's quick attachment to the limo driver she hires, Jerome (Robert Pattinson, in a typically frivolous role), is one of the early indications of her mental state--that, and her burn scars, which require her to wear elbow-length gloves at all times. Apparently on friendly terms with Carrie Fisher after conversing with her via the internet, Fisher recommends Agatha to Havana as an assistant. Havana, whose own sexually abusive actress of a mother died in a fire, is allured by Agatha for her "defects" and hires her on the spot.

Hiring her precious

Hiring her precious

The web of figurative incestuousness continues with Havana going to Stafford for psychological help with coming to terms with the visions she's been having of her mother. Visions are, indeed, a large aspect of Maps to the Stars--perhaps all relating back to the fact that you either have to be crazy to live in Los Angeles or you will become crazy as a result of living there. Benjie and Agatha, too, have visions of others, though, in Agatha's case, it's because she's a full-fledged schizophrenic.

You know you're desperate when you let a limo driver rail you

You know you're desperate when you let a limo driver rail you

As the plot goes on, the derangement of each character intensifies, with Agatha setting off the inner freak within everyone--even Havana, who was already slightly over the edge, yet somehow comes off as the most normal person in the film. Her tragic demise, in fact, is one of the most disappointing (though poetical) moments of the movie, as her fate was more interesting than anyone else's.

French promo poster for Maps to the Stars

French promo poster for Maps to the Stars

While Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner offer certain kernels of wisdom and philosophy regarding the surreality of Hollywood, the story is ultimately a glorified Lifetime movie--and Cronenberg's talents deserve better than that. Julianne Moore on the other hand, well, let's not forget that she was in Body of Evidence before she won an Oscar. 

It seems as though with each passing year, the obligatory movie about twenty to thirty somethings trying to figure love out in the big city only gets worse. Earlier this year, we were already given the stock Brooklyn-based film about this very subject, Appropriate Behavior. And so, it seems that X/Y, directed and written by Ryan Piers Williams (whose first feature, The Dry Land, also starred America Ferrera--possibly because they're married), is an unnecessary addition to this already annoying genre. 

Promotional poster for X/Y

Promotional poster for X/Y

Following the intertwined stories/romantic entanglements of four friends, Silvia (Ferrera), Jen (Melonie Diaz), Mark (Ryan Piers Williams) and Jake (Jon Paul Phillips), Williams makes the unfortunate mistake of lending the tone of the film a whiny, directionless feel. Rather than engaging the viewer in giving a shit about why these characters are so lost and irrevocably fucked up (because they're caught in between the X and Y generations, obviously), Williams only makes their personalities as one-dimensionally vexatious as possible.

Cast of X/Y

Cast of X/Y

Incidentally, the most interesting character, Jen, is the one that Williams focuses the least on. Her confusion about love, work and purpose is actually incredibly resonant. Perhaps this is the danger of directing yourself and your wife in a movie--you end up taking a more narcissistic approach rather than doing what's best for the film. 

Ferrera: gets plenty of screen time

Ferrera: gets plenty of screen time

While X/Y has plenty of "interesting" moments (like when Mark has a homosexual tryst with Jake for no apparent reason other than boredom), it is ultimately a self-indulgent hour and twenty-three minutes on par with a mid-budget student film. 

Madonna's last album, MDNA, released in 2012, continued the pop chanteuse's penchant for dance-friendly anthems, with successful singles that included "Girl Gone Wild" and "Turn Up the Radio." Nonetheless, many fans and critics argued that the album lacked "heart." With Madonna's latest record, Rebel Heart, out March 10th (officially, though anyone who has wanted to hear it has already done so thanks to the numerous leaks), no one can accuse her of not putting Like A Prayer/Ray of Light level emotion into it.

Channeling the Truth or Dare era in this promo photo for the album

Channeling the Truth or Dare era in this promo photo for the album

Beginning with "Living for Love," a song that's been compared to "Express Yourself" in terms of its anthemic nature, Madonna solidified her place on the dance charts with a first single that would go on to become her 44th number one on the dance floor. Being an unusual pop song for the fact that it addresses the topic of moving on after losing love as opposed to simply waxing melancholy about it (see: "I Will Always Love You," etc.), the song is a unique addition to the canon of pop staples.

"Devil Pray" follows "Living for Love" and echoes the folksy sound of "Don't Tell Me." While certain ageist parties might have trouble swallowing Madonna singing, "And we can do drugs and we can smoke weed and we can drink whiskey/Yeah we can get high and we can get stoned/And we can sniff glue and we can do E and we can drop acid/Forever be lost with no way home," the natural twang of her vocals can't help but win you over.

Performing at the 2015 Grammys

Performing at the 2015 Grammys

The mid-pace tempo of "Ghosttown," one of the only ballad-y songs on Rebel Heart (undoubtedly to further prove that the Queen of Pop hasn't gone soft), showcases Madonna at her most supportive as she croons, "When it all falls, when it all falls down/I'll be your fire when the light goes out/When there's no one, no one else around/We'll be two souls in a ghost town." This is the most obvious choice for her "rest" song while on tour, as evidenced by her performance on the French talk show Le Grand Journal.

Not giving a fuck, 2015

Not giving a fuck, 2015

The Rasta-infused, blatantly Diplo-produced "Unapologetic Bitch" is arguably the sassiest track on Rebel Heart, and quite possibly Madonna's entire career. While speculation continues over who M is referring to when she seethes, "I'm poppin' bottles that you can't even afford/I'm throwin' parties and you won't get in the door," one can take his pick of the youthful litter of men Madonna has dated that fit this description, including Jesus Luz, Brahim Zaibat and Timor Steffens. Whoever the vitriol is directed at, it makes for one of the best songs to dance to from the record.

An irrepressible ferocity

An irrepressible ferocity

Kanye West continues the roster of noteworthy producers on Rebel Heart with the gritty, visceral beats of "Illuminati." Both embracing and putting the kibosh on rumors of being a member of the illuminati, Madonna sings, "The all-seeing eye is watching tonight/That's what it is, the truth and the light." Flipping the script on the perceived definition of illuminati, Madonna, in an interview with Rolling Stone, stated, "The real Illuminati were a group of scientists, artists, philosophers and writers who came about in what is referred to as the Age of Enlightenment, after the Dark Ages, when there was no writing and no art and no creativity and no spirituality, and life was really at a standstill. And right after that, everything flourished. So we had people like Shakespeare and Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo and Isaac Newton, and all these great minds and great thinkers, and they were called Illuminati." 

Briefly coy in the Spring 2015 ad campaign for Versace

Briefly coy in the Spring 2015 ad campaign for Versace

The declarative "Bitch I'm Madonna" rivals "Unapologetic Bitch" for best dance track off Rebel Heart, with a SOPHIE-produced bassline that's perfected by backing vocals from Nicki Minaj (joining forces with Madonna again after their collaboration with M.I.A. on MDNA's "Give Me All Your Luvin'"). "Hold Tight" slows down the pace ever so slightly, with uplifting lyrics in a similar vein as "Ghosttown." Urging, "Hold tight, as long as you're by my side/Hold tight, everything's gonna be all right/I know we'll find a way, push to the limit with no end in sight," Madonna makes you feel as though you might just be able to get through your ordeal.

Album cover for Rebel Heart

Album cover for Rebel Heart

The most quintessential ballad, "Joan of Arc," succeeds "Hold Tight" and displays the "heart" side of Madonna as the "rebel" takes a backseat. Expressing her lament over the judgment and ire constantly thrown her way, she mourns, "Each time they write a hateful word, draggin' my soul into the dirt/I wanna die/Never admit it, but it hurts." The previously unadmitted admission gives us a glimpse into what Madonna has been dealing with for most of her career, especially what critics mockingly call her golden years.

In Paris to promote the album

In Paris to promote the album

Madonna persists in the easy creation of anthems with "Iconic" featuring the somewhat odd and unexpected pairing of Mike Tyson and Chance the Rapper. Madonna had probably been wanting to collaborate with Tyson ever since they went on a double date with their then respective significant others to see Big Top Pee-Wee and Tyson fell asleep. Making the distinction, "I can, icon/Two letters apart," Madonna succinctly elucidates what separates those who are weak from those who are strong.

Joan of Arc action

Joan of Arc action

The "heart" side of Madonna shines through again on another dramatic slow jam, "HeartBreakCity," in which she bears a husky voice that bemoans, "You said I was your queen/I tried to give your everything/And now you want your freedom/Now I'm in the middle of heartbreak city/'Cause I'm in the middle of a world not pretty." Again, it seems as though Madonna is addressing one of her many youthful lovers of the recent past. And, in a way, also her fans, who have abandoned her more willingly as she "grows older," though really, it's they who have become old in the worst sense of the word for being too expectant of Madonna to fit into a certain musical mold.

"Body Shop" is one of the most unanticipated offerings among the eclectic styles. As only Madonna could do, she uses the allegory of her own body as something that can be dropped off at a "mechanic's" where he "can keep it overnight." In terms of sexual metaphor, it's very well-done. And for those who are uncomfortable with 56-year-old Madonna continuing to talk about sex, well, there's another song serving as a bonus track later on that's liable to make them cringe even more. 

On the cover of a magazine

On the cover of a magazine

Persisting in her commitment to the exploration of Catholicism on "Holy Water," Madonna, in true form, combines the sacred with the profane by assuring, "There's somethin' you gotta hit/It's sacred and immaculate/I can let you in heaven's door/I promise you it's not a sin/Find salvation deep within/We can do it here on the floor." Luckily, she's already been excommunicated. And the clincher of sinful lyrics? "Yeezus loves my pussy best."

The underground sound of the backbeat on "Inside Out" complements the earnestness of Madonna's insistence, "I wanna know what you're all about/You're beautiful when you're broken down/Let your walls crumble to the ground/Let me love you from the inside out." The theme of this song is in stark contrast to her rebellion against love on previous songs on Rebel Heart, including "Unapologetic Bitch" and "HeartBreakCity."

No other kind of heart

No other kind of heart

The technical closer of the album (there are plenty more bonus tracks to conclude it), "Wash All Over Me," is Madonna at her most Ray of Light-era etherealness. As though acknowledging how out of touch she feels with the current musical landscape, M sings, "In a world that's changing, I'm a stranger in a strange land." Reaching the height of her poetical lyricism, she adds, "You can thread a needle with the teardrop from my eyes/It's a pure injustice to be witness to the things I see."

Another interview in promotion of the album

Another interview in promotion of the album

Surprisingly, the first bonus track to round out Rebel Heart, "Auto-Tune Baby," has nothing to do with every pop star's favorite voice-manipulating tool, but instead being lulled to sleep by a lover, with Madonna urging, "You can rock me, rock me now/Put my head on your shoulder." Bonus track number two, "Best Night," brings out Madonna's playful, taunting side again as she references the lyrics to "Justify My Love" by inviting, "Surrender to the pleasure (wanting)/When we breathe together (waiting)/It's either now or never (for you)/This feeling will take over."

Inhaling greatness

Inhaling greatness

The impish tone of "Veni Vidi Vici" is Madonna at her most self-referential and self-deferential. With most of the lyrics containing song titles from her prior albums, she confidently asserts (with Nas to back her up), "I came, I saw, I conquered." As mentioned earlier, Madonna gets especially raunchy on "S.E.X." Considering she literally wrote the book on it, it's no shock that she would write a song about a matter that's long been dear to her heart (and vag).

On the red carpet at the 2015 Grammys

On the red carpet at the 2015 Grammys

In keeping with the title motifs of "Joan of Arc" and "Holy Water," "Messiah" further solidifies Madonna's devotion to the art of religion. With faint similarities to the spiritual vibe of "Spanish Eyes" from the Like A Prayer album, the sonically hypnotizing music is set against vocals that yearn, "I'll light a candle here in the dark/Making my way to your heart/I'll cast a spell that you can't undo/Till you wake up and find that you love me too." "Rebel Heart" proves Madonna will never fully recover from her repressive childhood as she sings, "I've lived my life like a masochist/Hearing my father say, 'Told you so, told you so! Why can't you be like other girls?' I said, 'Oh no, that's not me and I don't think it'll ever be.'" And to Tony Ciccone's chagrin/delight, it never was.

Still from Interview

Still from Interview

The emotional "Beautiful Scars" finds Madonna imploring, "Just take me with all my stupid flaws/Changing me's like shooting in the dark." Her impassioned strain on this song is on the same level as other classic ballads like "Live to Tell." "Borrowed Time" is a hair on the maudlin side (think the oft forgotten "Hey You" that was released in 2007) with anti-war, pro-unity lyrics that are, if nothing else, a notch above 1986's "Love Makes the World Go Round." The second to last bonus track (mind you, there's a fuck ton of bonus tracks because this was originally slated to be a double album), "Addicted"--not to be confused with "I'm Addicted" off MDNA--could have easily passed as regular album material with its ardent exploration of being "addicted to the one that got away."

Spent

Spent

Finally, there is "Graffiti Heart," a song title that's redundant, but it's fine. Referencing her former lover, Jean-Michel Basquiat, to make the point that graffiti artists are capable of signaling change, Madonna asks, "What do you got? Show me your Basquiat. He didn't keep it all to himself/Even with Keith out on the street/He died fighting, so you can do it as well." Apart from the grab bag of "Living for Love" remixes that also cap off the album, "Graffiti Heart" is an appropriate way to end it, as its message promotes the notion that a rebellious heart and spirit can never die, living on through art.


 




To be a woman essentially any time before 1970 was particularly arduous due to certain impossible expectations put upon them, however, being a bourgeois in 1920s France was a particular drag. Or at least that's what comes across in Claude Miller's final film, Thérèse.

Promotional poster for Thérèse

Promotional poster for Thérèse

The heroine of the story, Thérèse Desqueyroux (Audrey Tautou)--which, incidentally was the original title of the movie, understandably shortened--finds herself bored and confused about her place in life after marrying her best friend's brother, Bernard. After spending so much of her youth carefree and full of rebellious potential running through fields and forests with Anne (Anaïs Demoustier), Thérèse is somewhat culture shocked by her banal existence. Anne, meanwhile, engages in a torrid affair with the hired help, Jean Azevedo (Stanley Weber).

Among the fields

Among the fields

Dismayed by Anne's happiness, which puts a glaring light on her own malcontentness (not to mention Bernard's robotic, lackluster moves in their perfectly decorated bedroom), Thérèse, under the guise of doing it at the family's direction, goes behind Anne's back to tell Jean to end it, even though he says he was already planning to anyway. The only thing that pleases Thérèse more than hearing this is him telling her that she must feel so imprisoned being married to Bernard and trapped somewhere as provincial as Landes. Surely, after this encounter, there's a deleted scene in which she masturbates.

In spite of her brief close proximity to a "real man," Thérèse can't stop feeling the fire of dissatisfaction within her belly as she chain smokes and sets the pine forest owned by Bernard's family ablaze. Bernard, who takes four drops of Fowler's Solution (which, fun medical fact, contains arsenic) a day--a prescription for his "condition"--easily loses track of if he took it or not in the wake of the stress of having to put out the fire. Thérèse, naturally, sees this as an opportunity to clandestinely poison him.

Developing a bright idea

Developing a bright idea

True to the novel by François Mauriac, Thérèse is caught for her indiscretion, and punished severely for it. Though, it's not by the courts, which dismiss the case with Bernard's testimony, but Bernard himself, who now derives a vindictive pleasure out of personally giving Thérèse her comeuppance, since he is forced to pretend to remain happily married to her in order to avoid a family scandal. So what does Thérèse teach us that Madame Bovary doesn't? Boredom is a killer, obviously, in both tales, but in Thérèse the way to take vengeance is through attempted murder and subsequent skulking/anorexia as protest. With Madame Bovary, old-fashioned adultery was all you needed to get to your husband's jugular.  

 

 

 

There are so many wonderful ways for a girl to go wrong in the modern era. Katie Kampenfelt (Britt Robertson) is a prime example of this. With confusion and uncertainty pervading her spirit, Katie opts to defer college for a year in order to "explore other options," which, of course, really just means exploring her sexuality.

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 1.41.54 PM.png

In between having sex with her "steady" boyfriend and having a dalliance with a college professor named Dan Gallo (Justin Long), Katie has a very busy schedule. As Allison Burnett's (a man, in case you were wondering) first directorial effort, adapted from his own novel, Undiscovered Gyrl (incidentally, the name of Katie's blog), Ask Me Anything puts a lot of pressure on itself to be taken seriously. As a result, it often comes across as just the opposite, though there are memorable moments of poignancy.

Contemplating

Contemplating

Katie's desperate desire for male attention, naturally, stems from her father issues. As a former sports writer and constant alcoholic, Doug (Robert Patrick) has very little interest in life other than the bottle. Thus, to Katie, who visits him on a regular basis in spite of living with her mother, it feels as though she's constantly being ignored and neglected. As a part of her quest for both mental well-being and a bit more attention, Katie starts a blog detailing all of her sexual escapades. The result? An adoring and hateful fan base.

Glenn Warburg (Martin Sheen) as one of the many men in Katie's life

Glenn Warburg (Martin Sheen) as one of the many men in Katie's life

One of the few men in Katie's life who doesn't judge her is her boss, a bookstore owner named Glenn (Martin Sheen). Unfortunately, after Katie's mother's boyfriend does a background check on Glenn, he discovers that he's a sex offender and demands that Katie quit. There's only a brief period of unemployment, however, until Katie is asked by Paul Spooner (Christian Slater), a man she met during one of her college interviews, to take on a job as a nanny to his newborn son. It is at this point that Katie goes off the rails in terms of sound judgment by engaging in an affair with him even though she's actually rather friendly with his wife.

Flaunting it

Flaunting it

It's almost as though Katie's sexual prowess is her true art form--the one thing she's really good at. In fact, she even confesses to Glen regarding herself and her generation, “It’s like we all wanna be famous even though we’re not good at anything.” This self-deprecating, yet unapologetic admission is the crux of why Katie is so miserable and dissatisfied. The twist at the end is, indeed, her best and only attempt at living on her own terms in a way that will allow her to be happy. Not so surprisingly, this involves getting off the internet.

Writer-director J.C. Chandor is no stranger to the drama genre. With his prior two films, Margin Call and All Is Lost, A Most Violent Year seems merely a natural progression of his ever-expanding dramatic canon. Set in 1981, retrospectively discovered to be one of the most statistically violent years (hence the obvious title) in New York City, the narrative focuses on Abel Morales, the head of Standard Oil, and his travails as he attempts to remain honest in a corrupt industry and time period. 

Promotional poster for A Most Violent Year

Promotional poster for A Most Violent Year

Barring the fact that Standard Oil was dissolved and re-appropriated in 1911 under the Sherman Antitrust Act, it makes sense that Chandor would choose this particular company to act as Morales' empire, being that Standard was considered one of the most corrupt in existence before its demise. Capturing the essence of New York's gritty nature during its transition out of the even rougher 1970s, Chandor shows us a world of nefariousness and violence that makes it impossible for Morales to remain completely honest without sacrificing a profit for his business.

With a series of attacks occurring on his drivers in order to steal Morales' oil, including one of his more beloved proteges, Julian (Elyes Gabel), Abel feels the pressure from all parties involved--from his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain, who puts Amy Adams in American Hustle to shame with her decade-appropriate style) to the head of the teamsters to his lawyer, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks). Though Abel is convinced the people responsible for the hijackings have to be one of his competitors, no one will come forward with any information regarding who is responsible--a resounding silence coming from all ends. With the demand to arm his drivers with handguns, Abel puts his foot down, asserting that such an action will only lead to further trouble, particularly since he's already under investigation for sketchy business practices ranging from under-reporting earnings to overcharging customers. 

Cooking the books

Cooking the books

Anna, the embodiment of the sentiment "Behind every great man, there's a great woman," is particularly harsh in her dealings with Abel after discovering her daughter playing with a loaded gun in their yard. This incites her to buy a gun herself, which she soon uses to finish off a deer (in one of the most badass scenes displaying female power in recent memory) Abel accidentally runs over. Abel's fury at her decision to buy a gun without a permit leads Anna to call him out on not taking action and "being a pussy." Resisting every urge to hit her across the face after she says this, Abel takes the firearm from her and says that the only person who would use the type of gun she purchased is a whore. 

Intense discussions

Intense discussions

Regardless of the disagreements Anna and Abel have over the business, they remain loyal and united with one another during the threat of losing a valuable property they're trying to close on, but can't after the bank backs out in the wake of Julian's shooting of the thieves. The controversy surrounding his business only seems to mount the more Abel tries to resolve it, culminating in an all too symbolic scene where blood and oil commingle on a reserve tank. While A Most Violent Year leaves much up in the air, its succinct portrayal of early 80s New York contributes greatly to the believability of Standard Oil's (and the oil industry in general) corruption, almost leading one to question if the story is, indeed, based on something--or someone--real. As for "taking the path that is most right," well, that's a judgment entirely up to the viewer in terms of how Abel has conducted himself. 

There are few LGBT filmmakers who have gotten "gay" cinema right. Usually the plot is overly dramatic and tends to treat the protagonist as a social cause rather than a person. But perhaps now that the twenty-first century is getting better acquainted with the notion that gay people aren't two-dimensional caricatures, Ira Sachs (best known for directing Married Life and Keep the Lights On, the latter of which was also centered around a gay couple) was able to better represent them (via two straight men, of course) in his latest feature, Love Is Strange.

Going to the chapel

Going to the chapel

After thirty-nine years of being together, New York City-based couple Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), finally decide to get married in 2013 (though, why they waited so long--since same-sex marriage was legalized in 2011) is unclear. But, in the wake of their marriage, Ben and George find that a happily ever after doesn't seem to be in the cards for them. Due to George's position as a music teacher at a Catholic school, his recent marriage forces the school to terminate him (even though they were already well-aware of Ben's presence in George's life). The sudden financial blow is too much to bear as Ben is already in retirement and subsists solely on a pension.

Kate (Marisa Tomei) and Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), Ben's niece-in-law

Kate (Marisa Tomei) and Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), Ben's niece-in-law

In spite of selling their apartment, which they only recently purchased to own, Ben and George must also ask for assistance from their family and friends in order to secure a place to say during the interim period of George looking for a job. Though Ben's sister, Mindy (Christina Kirk), has enough space for both of them in Poughkeepsie, the thought of moving there is abhorrent to both. Thus, they both agree to stay in the city--albeit separate from one another, with Ben staying at his nephew Elliot's (Darren E. Burrows) and George staying at their friend's, a police officer named Ted (Cheyenne Jackson, of 30 Rock fame).

Struggling with financial realities

Struggling with financial realities

After a few days at their respective new residences, Ben comes to the conclusion for both of them that, "Sometimes, when you live with people, you know them better than you care to." It isn't just Ben and George who are vexed, either. Kate, Elliot's writer wife, has her entire writing schedule upset by Ben's constant chattering while she's at her computer. Their son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), too, takes extreme issue with Ben invading his privacy by staying on the bottom bunk of his bed. 

Joey, meanwhile, has his own homosexual intimation surrounding him, as he gets closer and closer to a friend of his from school, Vlad (Eric Tabach), who ultimately involves him in the theft of several French literature books. While this element of the story--and why exactly Joey is so "into" Vlad--is never really resolved, which is one of the more irksome aspects of the narrative. This, in addition to the facile way that Ben and George are suddenly able to solve their apartment woes, are what detract from Love Is Strange overall. However, what makes the film viable is its testament to the notion that all love worth having requires struggle, often the kind that comes in unexpected forms.

To release a movie about the theater/acting in the wake of Birdman is enough of a challenge in and of itself in terms of being even remotely comparable to a film that's been hailed as "a thought-provoking and inventive exploration of artistry, family and the difference between popularity, power and prestige." To release a movie adapted from a Philip Roth novel adds to the kiss of death factor, indeed. But such is the nature of Barry Levinson's The Humbling.

In the spotlight

In the spotlight

After Simon Axler (Al Pacino) decides to face plant onstage (a tamer version of what Michael Keaton's Riggan Thomson decides to do) in the middle of a performance of As You Like It, his stock as an actor severely declines. Beforehand, Axler ominously repeats the classic line, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts." Before he can take the stage, however, he gets locked out the venue (again, channeling a scene from Birdman).

With younger love interest, Pegeen (Greta Gerwig)

With younger love interest, Pegeen (Greta Gerwig)

To cope with his humiliating performance, Simon is prompted to check into a mental facility for a month where he meets another slew of crazy people, including Sybil Van Buren (Nina Arianda), a traumatized mother who witnessed her husband sexually abusing their daughter. Remembering that Simon had once appeared in a film as a hitman, she asks him to kill her husband for her. He declines.

Cuckoo

Cuckoo

In spite of serving his time at the facility, Simon continues to have Skype therapy sessions (the wave of the future) with his psychiatrist, Dr. Farr (Dylan Baker), who notices discrepancies in Simon's stories as time goes on. Dr. Farr is particularly skeptical over Simon's relationship with Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), a mid-20s college teacher (though in the novel she's the a much more age-appropriate 40-years-old), the daughter of a couple Simon acted with in the theater way back when. The moment Pegeen shows up into his life, so too, do many others, including two of her ex-lovers, Priscilla, an F to M trans who now goes by Prince (Billy Porter), and Louise (Kyra Sedgwick), the professor responsible for getting Pegeen her teaching job.

Promotional poster for The Humbling

Promotional poster for The Humbling

To add to the unexpected revolving door of people invading his property, Sybil tracks him down in order to, once again, ask if he can kill her husband for her. Disturbed and generally irritated by his life at the moment, Simon begins to wonder if maybe he should have gone through with his Hemingway-inspired shotgun plans after all. Unlike the novel (and very much like Birdman), it's hard to tell exactly when Simon is having a fantasy--or perhaps if it's all fantasy to begin with. 

The blinding narcissism pervading Simon's mind is very much in keeping with your standard Roth character (you may, in fact, want to check out the character inspired by Roth himself in Listen Up Philip). It's also interesting to note that The Humbling, Roth's thirtieth novel, was universally panned by book critics as, among other things, "an embarrassing failure," and so it's somewhat odd that Al Pacino would want to buy the rights to the novel and try, in his own self-involved way, to transform it into something it could never be: amazing. Then again, it can be said that maybe Birdman borrowed from The Humbling since the latter was released in 2009 in literary form. And, in turn, the film version has now unsuccessfully borrowed from Birdman. In any case, they both conclude with largely similar denouements, begging the question: does theater drive every actor to madness? 

In Los Angeles, it has always been about the image you project in order to achieve "success." Whether this involves switching a facade here or telling a lie there is of no consequence. Los Angeles has never made any bones about what it is in this regard: the non-reality. This is, of course, just one of the many ways in which it is the polar opposite of New York City, which is, incidentally where the director and screenwriter of Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy, spent much of the early 80s while hanging out in an abandoned synagogue with Madonna.

Gilroy's youth in Santa Monica is undoubtedly where his comfortableness with the character and geography of the L.A. stemmed, a city capable of spawning the likes of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a part-time thief/part-time internet knowledge troller. After beating up (and perhaps killing) a private security guard one night, Bloom happens upon a car accident where he sees Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a "freelance" videographer for the local news, preying on the scene like a vulture with his camera. Intrigued by what Loder does, Bloom asks him a few questions about what it takes, to which Loder can barely muster a guffaw. 

The epitome of a facade

The epitome of a facade

Capable enough to teach himself the ropes, Bloom steals a bike and pawns it for "store credit" so as to buy a camcorder and a police scanner. Soon after, he hires an employee, Rick (Riz Ahmed), desperate enough for money to take him up on his offer of thirty dollars a night. Together, the two actually prove to be quite the competition for Loder, who offers Bloom a job for his expanding outfit after Bloom catches footage of a crime scene (during which he positions the body himself in order to lend a more "artistic effect" to the video) before the police or anyone else gets there. Convinced of his own superiority, Bloom not so politely rejects Loder and goes about his usual business of what the Manson Family would call "creepy crawling." 

Creepy crawler

Creepy crawler

More concerned with winning the affections of the station's news director, Nina Romina (Rene Russo, Gilroy's wife), Bloom continues to show off his creepy(er) side with the threat of pulling his steady stream of morally bankrupt footage from her channel unless she agrees to see him romantically. Not wanting to risk losing her position as director with the renewal of her contract and sweeps coming up (all of which Bloom has none too gently reminded her of), Nina ultimately caters to his every whim in order to secure her livelihood. 

Unfortunately, she begins to expect too much of Bloom, who now has to contend with Loder's slew of manpower during sweeps week. As a subtext for the fact that Bloom is constantly striving to break into a new stratum, one that he was never designed to belong to, his partner says something particularly (and uncharacteristically) salient as they're stopped at a light near Bed, Bath & Beyond. He muses, "Bed, Bath & Beyond. Oh that's a good store." Thinking twice about the money it requires to shop there and what you must possess in order to require shopping there in the first place, Rick adds, "Making peace with what you don't have. That's what it's all about. Livin' with what you ain't got, right?" Bloom makes no response.

Grappling with issues

Grappling with issues

In order to sustain the quality of work he has provided thus far, Bloom goes past the brink of insanity to secure the ultimate in high-octane, macabre footage for the concluding segment of the story he has built around a murder in Granada Hills, resulting in bloodshed, legal quarrels and, obviously, high ratings. The nature of Los Angeles--cold, unforgiving, but with a welcoming exterior--takes over Bloom entirely. But how can you hold a man accountable to morality when he makes statements like, "I would never ask you to do anything that I wouldn't do myself."? To be sure, Nightcrawler has proven itself worthy of the robust arsenal of noirish films centered around L.A., Drive included. 

Desiree Akhavan was quickly dubbed the next Lena Dunham (a terrible insult that no one should be on the other side of) after appearing on Girls as one of Hannah's fellow students at the Iowa Writers Workshop. This was further solidified by the release of Appropriate Behavior, Akhavan's debut feature as both writer, director and actress. 

"I'm dead inside."

"I'm dead inside."

And yes, while there are certain parables between Appropriate Behavior and Girls (chiefly the whole emphasis on North Brooklyn life and the failed relationships associated with it), it is very distinctly Akhavan's own, and, moreover, a far better effort than Dunham's first feature film, Tiny Furniture. Unlike the anti-heroine in the latter, Shirin (Akhavan) is someone whose sense of purposelessness stems from her recent heartbreak after being dumped by her girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), as opposed to the ennui of white privilege. As a bisexual Iranian, Akhavan's post-breakup situation is compounded by her parents, who not so secretly wish she could be as put-together as her older brother, Ali (Arian Moayed).

In addition to moving out of Maxine's apartment and into a proverbial overpriced shit hole in Bushwick (another thing in common with Girls is putting a false spin on the "roughness" of the area), Shirin tries to distract herself with a new job teaching film to what she presumes will be high school students, but actually turns out to be a group of Park Slope five-year-olds. In between this and stalking Maxine at lesbian-related events, Shirin also tries to go back to the straight route by meeting up with a guy from OKCupid who tells her: "I do a stand-up/folk music hybrid act." This is just one in a series of "job"-related comments that are too absurd to take seriously, as with Shirin's roommate remarking on her boyfriend, "He's working with sandcastles and incorporating found objects into them."

Not quite as into the straight life

Not quite as into the straight life

It seems Akhavan is even open to parodying her own character with statement's like, "The other day while I was smoking weed I had a really good idea for a children's book" and "Jon's known throughout Bushwick for his vogueing." Her quest to find some sort of fulfillment and happiness to substitute her longing for Maxine lands Shirin in the apartment of a bizarre couple that has one of the most awkward attempts at a threesome with her, maybe ever. As Shirin has previously noted earlier in the movie, she has a gift for boner-killing, and uses her judgmental stare on the male in the couple to make him as uncomfortable with performing as possible.

Although, like Dunham's Aura in Tiny Furniture, Shirin never quite "figures it out," there is a sudden contentment or, rather, complacency with not knowing if she's going to be okay or not. For the moment, the ability to see Maxine across a subway platform and not want to vomit or cry is sufficient enough for her. 

Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek, known for his lush music video style (see: Madonna's "Bedtime Story" and Fiona Apple's "Criminal"), is not the sort of film you can go into and not come out of the other side somewhat changed--specifically, a greater number of tears streaming down your visage where once there were none. Based on Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel, Alex Garland (who wrote 1996's The Beach) adapted the script into a sweeping emotional vista of longing, regret and helplessness.

Promotional poster for Never Let Me Go

Promotional poster for Never Let Me Go

Like so many other tragic tales, Never Let Me Go centers around a love triangle. Three friends relegated to an isolated boarding school called Hailsham in 1978, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), are blissfully unaware of their sole purpose in life: to be donors for others. Set in an English dystopia (as I've always said, Britain is the go-to for dystopias--likely thanks to George Orwell), the average human lifespan has been expanded to at least one hundred years, in part due to the sect of the human race responsible for donating their organs. 

Tommy, on the chopping block

Tommy, on the chopping block

It isn't until a new teacher at Hailsham, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), informs them that their sole purpose is to give extended life to others that the dynamic of the trio starts to shift. After that day, Ruth, who is well aware of Tommy and Kathy's unfulfilled love for one another, makes a move on Tommy. Echoing tones of Sandra Goldbacher's Me Without You, the film then shifts to 1985, when the trio is transferred from Hailsham to The Cottages. By now, Tommy and Ruth have been together for years, though it's clear Tommy's interest in Kathy hasn't waned. Ruth's jealousy over this makes her hostile toward Kathy, who begins distancing herself from both Tommy and Ruth at this time. With the option to become what is called a "carer," Kathy is able to delay her first donation by several years. It's another ten before she sees Tommy and Ruth again after they depart from The Cottages.

Bizarre love triangle

Bizarre love triangle

The next time Kathy sees her female rival, Ruth has completed two donations and is going on to her third. When a donor has "completed," this is a polite way of saying he or she has kicked the bucket. Ruth, overtly humbled and wizened by her experiences in the operating room, requests that she and Kathy go on a trip together--with Tommy. Because Ruth has had time to reflect on the turn of events at Hailsham and The Cottages, she confesses to Kathy and Tommy that she knows keeping them apart was the worst thing she ever did, but it was her way of feeling like she wouldn't be the one to end up alone. To remedy her mistake, she gives them the address of one of the headmistresses of Hailsham, Madame Mary Claude (Natalie Richard), who is rumored to give couples "truly in love" a deferral on their donations. 

The bittersweet conclusion finds Kathy alone after experiencing the brief bliss of finally being with Tommy as they were intended to be. The disappointment of Madame Mary Claude's rejection is compounded by her telling them that they're, in essence, lesser than human. But Kathy knows better, remarking, "In the end, we all 'complete'" and "None of us understand what we've gone through, or feel that we've had enough time." The differences between "donors" and "normal humans" are, thus, not that vast. 

"I'm a snake that's been carrying around my old skin for too long." This line, delivered by Keira Knightley (in an American accent that's rather good, actually) as Megan Burch is the summation of what Lynn Shelton's Laggies (alternately known as Say When in Britain) represents, particularly for what will later be known as Millennial Syndrome. 

Confusion is easier when you have someone else to be confused with

Confusion is easier when you have someone else to be confused with

Considering the intense subject matters of Lynn Shelton's prior films, including Your Sister's Sister and Touchy Feely, it comes as no surprise that Laggies wouldn't hold back in its exploration of the utter stagnation that transpires in the ten years you spend recovering from the ease and promise of graduating from high school. Megan only begins to realize in her late twenties that she's been in a state of atrophy ever since prom night when she and her other three best friends broke into the school pool and jumped in together. 

To her latent dismay, she is currently serving as a bridesmaid for one of her "best friends," Allison (Ellie Kemper), who treats her like a crazy person for her irreverent jocularity (e.g. titty twisting a Buddha statue's nipples). Feeling imprisoned by her group of friends, it seems that the one person Megan can be herself around is her boyfriend, Anthony (Mark Webber), who is also in his own unspoken state of degeneration. In spite of working as a sign holder for her father's (played by Jeff Garlin of Curb Your Enthusiasm) tax company, Megan manages to hold her emotions in check until she sees her father getting a hand job from Allison's mother in the courtyard area at the wedding.

Promo poster for Laggies

Promo poster for Laggies

It is at this point that she flees the scene all too readily (especially since her boyfriend just attempted to propose to her at someone else's wedding, which is essentially the lamest thing ever), finding herself at a grocery store where high schooler Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her friends ask Megan if she can buy them some alcohol. Sharing some sort of instant "laggies" affinity, Megan ends up hanging out after giving them the goods, joining them in toilet papering Junior's (Daniel Zovatto)--Annika's best friend and love interest--dad's house. 

Trying to evade marriage

Trying to evade marriage

The simple pleasures of enjoying the same things she used to as a youth make Megan hesitant to return to reality, where she must deal with answering Anthony's question about marriage. Although she agrees to elope with him in Vegas, Megan stalls by saying she's going to a career counseling seminar on Orcas Island for the week. And while she did originally intend to go, a call from Annika begging her to come to the school to pretend to be her mother for a parent/teacher conference changes her plans for the rest of the week, and, ultimately for the rest of her life.

Fast friends

Fast friends

Through seeing the same mistakes and insecurities that Annika has when Megan was once her age, she is able to gain the courage to finally have some inkling of what she wants from life--tracing back to the more recent adage: I don't know what I want, but I know it's not this.