In Italian, A Five Star Life is called Viaggio Sola, meaning I Travel Alone. Perhaps that was too real of a translation to be palatable to American audiences, hence the more politically correct English title. After all, being discriminatory against middle-aged single women is decidedly twentieth century. Or is it?

Promo poster for A Five Star Life

Promo poster for A Five Star Life

Irene Lorenzi (Margherita Buy) is a mid-forties hotel inspector/"mystery guest" who makes her living by staying in luxury hotels around the world and rating the number of stars they have critically based on the minutiae, right down to how long it takes room service to deliver food. A five-star experience denotes the height of luxury, unlike any other experience a guest has ever had. Written and directed by Maria Sole Tognazzi, best known for the 2010 documentary, Ritratto di Mio Padre, the nature of the story is decidedly Italian in that Irene, in spite of the fantastic nature of her job, is looked down upon--particularly by her married sister, Silvia (Fabrizia Sacchi)--for choosing a life free of conventional responsibility. 

Living in the lap of luxury

Living in the lap of luxury

Although this sort of judgment exists in American culture as well, no one likes to keep it old school more than the Southern Italians. Even Irene's ex-boyfriend/best friend, Andrea (Stefano Accorsi), who initially comes off as a man unconcerned with the expected conventions of life, succumbs to fatherhood after getting one of his dalliances pregnant. Fearful that she'll lose the one other person she knew of who was living for himself, Irene is thrown further into an emotional free fall when a seemingly invincible powerhouse of a single woman she meets at the bar of the hotel she's staying at in Berlin passes away in the middle of the night. 

Italian promo poster

Italian promo poster

This prompts her to call Silvia, who she's just gotten into a fight with after telling her that a sexy dress she tried on didn't look good on her, and tell her to pick her up at the airport when she returns. Silvia refuses, still offended that Irene sees her as nothing more than a wife and mother, some sort of sexless slave to her domesticity. Eventually, the two reconcile after Irene mails her the dress as a peace offering, though, by this time, she's already on the way to her next destination. 

What A Five Star Life seeks to tell us--particularly those of us who are women--is that maybe "having it all" is overrated. As overrated as a luxury hotel. Maybe it's okay to focus on finely honing one element of our lives instead of trying to embody all the roles that are expected of us. In the end, we'll find, it may lead to greater happiness.   





Although certain non-trend forecasting types might have sooner thought Lady Gaga would have outlasted Nicki Minaj's brand of freaky deaky, the release of the Queensian/Trinidadian's third album, The Pinkprint (yes, an overt nod to Jay-Z), unquestionably outshines her prior works, and ensures her place in the annals of hip hop innovation. 

The new holy hip hop Bible

The new holy hip hop Bible

Opening with "All Things Go," this song sets a new and more recent precedent for Nicki Minaj: being freely emotional as she strays away from her MC-style voice. The subsequent "I Lied" continues to see Minaj on her personal tip, illuminating the way most women feel about opening their heart again after having it trampled upon as she sings, "I lied to keep you from breaking my heart." Protection through an air of impenetrability is the resonant theme throughout.

"The Crying Game" features a snake-charming sort of beat as Minaj alternates between her hard and soft personas, singing, "Welcome to the crying game where you lose your soul." Jessie Ware complements the song with her distinct brand of Britishness (possibly an influence suggested by Roman). Next up is "Get On Your Knees," which is just as empowering as you would expect it to be, with Ariana Grande backing Minaj on vocals as she sings, "Baby I'ma need you to beg for it/Get on your knees, get on your knees/Baby just get on your knees." Minaj chimes in with her usual sauciness, insisting, "I got a bow on my panties because my ass is a present."

"Feeling Myself," which already broke the internet a few days ago, combines the best of Minaj and Beyonce, a pairing you would think was too good to actually work. It's also bound to be the "getting ready" song of 2015. "Only" featuring the somewhat bizarre trifecta of Drake, Lil' Wayne and Chris Brown is the song that landed Minaj in anti-Semitic hot water earlier this year, prompting her to make an alternate video. Either one you watch, the song remains weirdly entrancing. 

"Want Some More" addresses Minaj's tumultuous relationship with the limelight, acknowledging that the more she's talked about, the more she knows they "want some more." She announces, "I'm in this bitch I'm gettin' money/One minute they hate me, then they love me." Clearly, she doesn't care either way. Following is "Four Door Aventador," one of the best songs on The Pinkprint, with its mid-tempo beat that reels you in and keeps you on the hook as Minaj finds a way to create a rhyme string that includes "Machiavelli" and "spaghetti."

"Favorite" featuring Jeremih has a certain lo-fi quality to it, in spite of it being obviously heavily produced. But it harkens back to the roots Minaj was aiming to re-create with this album as Jeremih croons, "I just wanna be your favorite." Simple vocals and beats make it one of the most organic tracks on the album. "Buy A Heart" featuring Meek Mill has a somewhat misleading title that might make one assume it's going to be a maudlin message, but this is quickly negated by Meek's query, "Anybody wanna buy a heart? 'Cause I don't use this shit anyway." Minaj adds, "Anybody, anybody, anybody wanna buy love?" It's all a reference to the interchangeability money has with these sentiments in the current epoch.

Showing love for her native Trinidad, "Trini Dem Girls" featuring Lunchmoney Lewis offers an South American-inspired beat as Minaj reverts to her "island voice," singing, "Dem island girls is da baddest/I know that you want it/I see that you watchin'/You know that I'm sexy/I hope that you're ready to come here and get it." The subsequent song is probably one you're already familiar with. And if you're a stranger to "Anaconda" at this point you either 1) never heard Sir Mix-a-Lot's version or 2) are living in among a cult that only permits the acknowledgement of flat asses. Culling the best aspects of what made Sir Mix-a-Lot's original gave us, Minaj infuses her own distinct brand into it (signature backside included). And then there's that "he toss my salad like his name was Romaine" line that changed mainstream sexuality forever.

"The Night Is Still Young" takes the musical pace up a notch, serving as something of a nod to the Black Eyed Peas' terrible "I Gotta Feeling." Declaring, "the night is still young/so are we," Minaj conjures lyrical comparison to Kesha, though the rapper makes the vibe less pop, and more dance--a genre she tends to be underrated in. Giving us more of her introspective side, "Pills n Potions" laments how easy it is to dose oneself with meds in order to numb the pain, while still stressing the importance of forgiveness toward those who are fair-weather. Minaj asserts, "they could never make me hate you" and defiantly chants, "I still love, I still love, I still love, I still love."

"Bed of Lies" further enhances Minaj's feminine aura with vocal contributions from Skylar Grey, who sings the accusatory chorus, "Do you ever think of me when you lie/Lie down in your bed of lies?" Minaj raps about being done wrong, verging on the precipice of overdosing (there's that "Pills n Potions" element again). For all its seriousness, Minaj still throws in a worthwhile pop culture reference as she notes, "This ain't how to be a player/You ain't Bill Bellamy." "Grand Piano" is a grand way to close the album (though, of course, it's not ever really the end in these bonus track-laden times). Obviously fresh from sort of heartbreak, Minaj wails, "The people are talkin'/The people are sayin' you're playing my heart like a grand piano/So play on, play on, play on." Yeah, you know it's intense when there's a violin playing Paula Abdul's "Rush" in the background. So listen with caution.

The first in the series of bonus tracks that wind down the album is "Big Daddy" featuring Meek Mill. It finds Minaj back in her true MC form, as she allows Meek Mill to go way back to demanding to be called an old term of endearment as he raps, "Yo bitch call me big daddy." "Shanghai" brings out Minaj's ball-busting persona again as she screams, "ain't fuckin' witchu bitch niggas/I'm not a regular bitch/so when they see me they jump on my dick." The self-confidence doesn't stop there as "Win Again" elucidates all the ways in which Minaj keeps winning (not to evoke images of Charlie Sheen) and that she's the "Muhammed Ali" of the rap world. Cockily stating, "I don't got good vision, but I don't see no competition," Minaj still finds time to make an insulting pop culture reference with, "I'm Meryl Streep to all these bitches/They can't do what I do."

The final bonus track is "Truffle Butter," another song featuring Drake and Lil' Wayne (guess Chris Brown couldn't make the cut twice), which offers a vivrant (to use a Q-Tip non-word) beat to conclude the album with (you may also recognize it from Cassie's "Me & U"). Proving that fame hasn't made her go soft, lyrics like, "Truffle butter on your pussy, you ain't gotta tell yo friend that eat I it in the morning," pepper the song with Minaj-grade perversity.  

Like Charles Bukowski or Bret Easton Ellis (though some might find these comparisons egregious), Thomas Pynchon knows how to wield L.A. to its optimum sinister level. So, too, does director Paul Thomas Anderson, officially anointed into a new class of filmmaker after being the first person to be permitted to adapt a Pynchon novel. 

Promotional poster for Inherent Vice

Promotional poster for Inherent Vice

Anderson, whose last film was the fairly straightforward The Master, undoubtedly helps ease Pynchon's style into the masses. Set in 1970 Los Angeles, a town still reeling from the Manson murders and subsequent trial, Inherent Vice gives us a glimpse into the shift that occurred in terms of hippie perception at the dawn of this decade. Once seen as a harmless stoner, free love-loving sect, they suddenly became an entity to fear--a faction whose drug consumption could taint them at any minute, prompting them to start cults and kill people.

Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello

Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello

At the center of it all is private detective Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), attempting to be a good man in spite of the many drug and sexual temptations at his unwashed fingertips, hence the frequent need for critics to allude to The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski when discussing this film. Portrayed as possibly the last person with a moral compass in L.A. (which is saying a lot considering his profession and psychedelic preferences), Doc is confronted by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), in a scene that blurs the line between fantasy and reality (in fact, we are often left to wonder how much of the story is Doc's hallucination). She tells him that she's worried about her boyfriend, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts--who would have thought he would ever get another movie role?). Subsequently, Wolfmann and Shasta disappear, leaving Doc to put together the pieces.

With Shasta toward the end of their relationship

With Shasta toward the end of their relationship

Another puzzler in terms of the moral ambiguity of the time is Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a man who is--much to the Bluths' delight--always sucking on frozen bananas. It is, indeed, these nuances that make the film version of this novel so enjoyable to watch. Bigfoot waffles between the classification of good and evil as well, with his approach to law enforcement being more than a bit gruff, and yet, having an undeniable soft spot for Doc even though he's a hippie, and therefore stands for everything Bigfoot hates. 

Psychedelia city

Psychedelia city

Though there are many seemingly intricate plot points (ones that also involve Sasha Pieterse, a.k.a. Alison "A" DiLaurentis on Pretty Little Liars, as Japonica Fenway) that lead to other more seemingly intricate sub-plot points, Inherent Vice is really about the struggle to be good in times that openly espouse the benefits of being bad. Other than that, if you try to make any true sense of something derived from a Pynchon novel, you'll end up in the Chryskylodon Institute like Japonica or Mickey. The best thing to do is let Paul Thomas Anderson be your non-partisan guide through the world created by Pynchon. You'll feel so much safer when you do. 

As a prolific writer of short features, Anna Martemucci's first full-length feature, Hollidaysburg, tells the common story of college students returning home for Thanksgiving--their first break of freshman year--and coming to find that nothing is quite the way it used to be. The very summary of the narrative conjures instant comparisons to Less Than Zero or even that less lauded gem, Son-In-Law. But what gives Hollidaysburg an edge over the others is a nouveau homage to the 80s movie style.

Promotional poster for Hollidaysburg

Promotional poster for Hollidaysburg

As the requisite wallflower in high school, Tori (Rachel Keller), stayed close to home after high school, attending nearby UCM. Most of the other students from her school opted for Penn State, including Heather (Claire Chapelli) the popular girlfriend of popular Scott (Tobin Mitnick), who seems to be having an existential meltdown in the wake of going to college and realizing that it's largely a scam--an expensive waiting room for unemployment. Perhaps this is what leads her to break up with Scott while having disinterested sex with him.

Anna Martemucci, who also has a role in the film, at work in the director's chair

Anna Martemucci, who also has a role in the film, at work in the director's chair

Scott, who used his student loan funds to fly back to Hollidaysburg from UCLA--even though his parents recently moved out of town--is flummoxed by Heather's brashness. Now it seems the only people who care that he's home are his brother, Phil (Philip Quinaz), and best friend, Petroff (Tristan Erwin), a drug-loving slacker with ties to Heather as well. Those ties prove stronger than he thought when Heather texts him for weed and they start hanging out for the rest of the break. 

But Scott, too, has a new flame after Tori accidentally runs him over with her car and offers to take him to the hospital--rescinding that offer after explaining that since she had a few drinks, she might get a DUI. Charmed by her quirkiness (and possibly the fact that she bears a very similar aesthetic to Heather), Scott takes a shine to her. Although he knew her in high school, she appears different to him now, more at peace with herself.

The film's tag line

The film's tag line

The realization that fulfilling their dreams of getting away from home and starting the next phase of their lives wasn't all it was cracked up to be lend the main characters of Hollidaysburg a relatability on par with John Cusack's lovelorn Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything... Because, yes, college is just the beginning of disappointment, and this is the usual moment in a white person's life that can be pinpointed to their gradual but steady mental spiral. Indeed, the film concludes with Tori quoting John Updike (who hailed from a town nearby Hollidaysburg): Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” This apropos assessment of humans in general and college students in particular is indicative of the unavoidable ebb and flow of life--no matter how addicted some of us become to stagnation. Tori consoles herself with Updike's thought, putting a positive spin on it by noting, "There's something nice about dying every day. And being born and born and born."

 

 

 

Charli XCX gets straight to the point of her third album, Sucker, with the opening song of the same name by breaking down her bottom line, which is fun, liberation and vindication. The lyrics, "Head bang/Pink rocks/Gold fangs/I'm a killer now/I'm a killer now/Oh dear god, do you get me now?/Do you get me now?" make all of this abundantly clear.

Too cool for school

Too cool for school

This motif is continued with "Break the Rules," an ardent expression of wanting to rebel as she insists, "I don't wanna go to school/I just wanna break the rules/Putting on our dancing shoes/Going to the discotheque/Getting high and getting wrecked." It's yet another indication of her youthful exuberance that one can find contagious even when they're too old to be listening to this album. 

Looking more approachable than usual

Looking more approachable than usual

The bouncy, feel good-ness of "London Queen" features an 80s tinge with its Ramones-inspired "oy, oy" shouting mixed with the outsider perspective of: "I never thought I'd be livin' in the USA/Doin' things the American way/Livin' the dream like a London queen." Considering Ariel Pink contributed to some of the lyrics, it's no wonder there's a backbeat that pays homage to the surreal. 

Album cover for Sucker

Album cover for Sucker

Joining the ranks of the great breakup anthems, "Breaking Up" is an empowering track that insists, "Everything was wrong with you/Breaking up was easy to do/Hate your friends and your family too." The accompanying video for "Breaking Up" shows Charli XCX moving onto the reckless phase of her post-breakup life with ease and carefreeness. 

"Gold Coins" is another anthemic track, albeit for the Paris Hilton set. Touting, "My platinum troubles are drownin' in pink champagne/Gold coins out the window/I'm spendin' like I don't care," Charli XCX lives out every poor girl's fantasy by adhering to the recently revised adage, "Girls just want to have funds."

"Boom Clap," which you may recognize as the only remotely edgy aspect of The Fault in Our Stars as it appeared on the soundtrack, features jubilant beats and vibrant vocals as Charli XCX compares the sound of her heart to the words "boom clap," not to be confused with the clap. The suggestively titled "Doing It" bears no resemblance to the LL Cool J song of the same name. Instead, it has musical overtones of late 80s Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey with its fanciful keyboard sounds in the background as Charli XCX sings, "We stayin' all night/Never so down/I think we better do it like we're doin' it now."

Single cover for "Break the Rules"

Single cover for "Break the Rules"

"Body Of My Own" is an independent declaration of how "I don't need you/I touch myself better." Yes, it's been a long time since there was a decent song championing masturbation--it certainly wasn't Britney Spears' "Touch of My Hand." Complaining that, "You're so damn cold, you got no feelin'/I want my man hotter," Charli XCX looks to herself for sexual gratification. "Famous" opens with an addictive riff that reels you in right away. Espousing the desire to be among the crowds and the blinding lights, Charli XCX announces, "Need some neon lights/Wanna feel like I'm electrified" and then makes the somewhat cheeky analogy, "We're so shameless/Just like we're famous."

"Hanging Around" is the perfect song for anyone who has ever felt the ennui of being trapped in one place for too long, particularly adolescents feeling trapped in their sequestered bubble. Charli XCX opens the track with, "Help me out/I need escape/It's the truth I need to go." The pain and agony of being "too bored hanging around" is something that resonates across the ages.

"So Over You" only appears on the European version of the album, so why bother tormenting American listeners with a description of it? But at least you can console yourself over not being European with "Die Tonight," which has echoes of Ke$ha's "Die Young," both in theme and tone. Shouting, "Oh, I could die tonight 'cause I got the magic in my blood and I'm stayin' till the sun comes," Charli XCX owns the confidence of her youth with ease and empowerment. 

No fucks given

No fucks given

"Caught in the Middle" tells the tale of two hearts getting "caught in the middle of love" and the desire to "press rewind" to the part where the heartbreak element wasn't a part of the fallout of love. But the ease with which we give in to the initial pleasure of love is too great to ignore, elucidated by the lyric, "We tried to turn around, but we can't stop it now."

"Need Ur Love" possesses the vibe of a 60s doo-wop song with its sugary sweet tone in spite of singing lovelorn lyrics like, "I need your love/I need it even when it hurts me." By far the greatest departure from the content of the rest of the album, this concluding track makes one hope Charli XCX will take an Amy Winehouse Back to Black approach on her next record. Though it wouldn't be the worst thing if she stuck to her current nouveau riot grrl meets pop diva style.

 

Damien Chazelle's second film, Whiplash, builds somewhat on his debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, with the themes of sacrificing love and a personal life in order to pursue one's talents. In his finely tuned, often unexpectedly suspenseful sophomore effort, we find ourselves in the jazz musicians' world (just as we did in Guy and Madeline), amid a Julliard-esque music school called the Shaffer Conservatory, where the mildly talented are quickly separated from the extremely gifted. 

Pressure's on

Pressure's on

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) falls perhaps somewhere in between the two categories, wanting desperately to join the ranks of drummer legends like Buddy Rich. Eyeing the coveted jazz band class taught by famed conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Neiman is both nervous and excited when Fletcher walks in on him practicing alone--only to become immediately disheartened when Fletcher leaves the room seemingly unimpressed.

Promotional poster for Whiplash

Promotional poster for Whiplash

Neiman gets his second chance when Fletcher comes in to his class to hear him and his fellow classmates play, unexpectedly (though not that unexpectedly) choosing Neiman to join his own band as the alternate drummer. At first, Fletcher appears perfectly approachable to Neiman, who clearly looks to him as the source of inspiration missing from his personal life. Though telltale signs like Fletcher telling him to show up for practice at 6 a.m. when it actually begins at 9 a.m. lead him to wonder at the nature of his beloved instructor. And, of course, the second Neiman reveals information about his life--that his mother left him and his father (played by Paul Reiser) when he was young and that his father is a high school English teacher--Fletcher uses it to throw back in his face, making him feel like the worthless descendant of a mediocre family. 

Working for insults

Working for insults

And this all adheres to Fletcher's larger philosophy, which is, "The two most harmful words in the English language are 'good job.'" Pushing Neiman to the physical and emotional brink (bloody hands and tears are frequently involved), Fletcher shows no regard for anything but the musical excellence of his band. Just when you're convinced he's a total automaton, the news of a former student's death (supposedly by car accident) drives Fletcher to actually cry in front of his class, lamenting the demise of a great musician.

Blood on the drums

Blood on the drums

What makes Whiplash so engaging is its complex exploration of character: Fletcher, who you feel like you should hate, but can't help respecting for his commitment to superior music, and Neiman, who possesses such an earnestness and desire to be great, that you feel each of his failures as intensely as he does. Not only that, but it is a film that addresses a question Americans have long sought to avoid: Is being "good" what's made this country so artistically mediocre in the past decade?

For a film as overtly commercial as Horrible Bosses 2, one might not expect such controversial issues as nymphomania and homophobia to be addressed, and yet, they are--albeit in a manner displayed with concerning levity and non-existent profundity. The follow up to Seth Gordon's 2011 movie (now directed by Sean Anders, the man who has also brought you Dumb and Dumber To in the same year--he's a sequels lover apparently) manages to prove that American audiences have no idea how to deal with serious subject matters unless they're transformed into farce. 

A light-hearted look at nymphomania

A light-hearted look at nymphomania

With the precedent set by the "faux" gaydom of Seth Rogen and James Franco, it seems the only way mainstream audiences can handle homosexuality is if two or more straight men are parodying it in an over the top way. From the very beginning of the film, we're given laughs via the old pantomimed hand job bit as Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) demonstrate how their invention, the "Shower Buddy," works on a morning television show.

Somewhat gay

Somewhat gay

And then there is the fact that Kurt's ring tone is "Roar" by Katy Perry, a running joke throughout the movie. Scratching the surface of Americans' uncomfortableness with homosexuality if it's taken seriously, Horrible Bosses 2 will undoubtedly be looked back upon as a relic of how gay people were handled in pop culture decades from now.

Promotional poster for Horrible Bosses 2

Promotional poster for Horrible Bosses 2

As for the nymphomaniacal aspect of the story, covered with caricature-like grace by Jennifer Aniston as Julia Harris, we're given a snapshot of a woman whose hypersexuality is demonized in a way that's really saying: "If you're a slut (a.k.a. overly enjoy sex as a woman), no one is going to take you seriously." Considering this movie was designed for the Midwestern demographic, these archetypes are not surprising, though they are somewhat played at this point in the twenty-first century.

Just when you thought Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club had the monopoly on poignant portrayals of wrestlers, Channing Tatum comes along with his role as Olympic gold medalist Mark Shultz. Directed by Bennett Miller (of The CruiseCapote and Moneyball fame), Foxcatcher is not just a re-telling of one of the most neurotic millionaires's downfall in recent memory, but a psychological study of the effects of isolation for the majority of one's life.

As the younger brother to fellow gold medal winner Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo, who, in addition to Steve Carrell, underwent a grotesque physical change for the part), Mark has subconsciously felt cast aside and lesser than for most of his life. In spite of being raised by Dave, his only true friend to speak of, his resentment toward Dave's skills as a wrestler intensifies when he's invited by John du Pont (Carrell), heir to the du Pont fortune, to train for the 1988 Olympics on his property, Foxcatcher Farm in Pennsylvania.

Though the real turn of events took place in the 90s, it seems an apropos choice for co-screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman (who also adapted Capote) to have set the story in the 80s. As a decade when wealth was revered and lusted after, John du Pont is a character that seems to fit right in with the morals and "ideals" of this time. Suffering from more than your standard breed of mommy issues, du Pont was sequestered from the outside world as a child, with his only friend being their chauffeur's son, who he later finds out his mother paid to hang out with him.

Touched by Mark's genuine appreciation of his friendship, the two become inseparable for a time until du Pont's concerns about winning at the Olympics are intensified by his mother's disapproval over how much money he's putting into a sport that she deems "low" (her own preference, of course, is horse-related sports). This leads him to call Mark an "ungrateful ape" and subsequently pay a handsome sum for Dave to come live on Foxcatcher and help coach his team.

For those unfamiliar with the story (and even those who are), the conclusion of the film is not only shocking, but also completely gut-wrenching. The question of whether or not money and privilege leads to far more depravity and psychological damage than being a "normal" person is raised with stunning clarity, and proves the old Smiths adage, "Money changes everything" (especially your mind). 





The female best friend relationship is always a complex one. Factor in one of them being a lesbian and you've got the dynamic that comprises Susanna Fogel's debut film Life Partners. Sasha (Leighton Meester, frumping it up a bit in a post-Blair Waldorf role) and Paige (Gillian Jacobs) could not be more opposed in terms of their personality types. Paige is high-strung and determined to always get what she wants, whereas Sasha is laidback and prone to having casual relationships that never lead anywhere. Yet somehow, their friendship works based on a shared love of trash TV and essentially because they're both single 29-year-olds.

This isn't to say that their friendship lacks substance, but it is very clearly based on familiarity and convenience. Often joking about the dates they go on and the people they have sex with, never imagining anything will progress beyond one encounter, Sasha is blindsided when Paige actually likes someone she goes on an internet date with. Tim (Adam Brody, in his usual "likable guy" role), a dermatologist, is surprisingly charming and intelligent, barring his graphic tees and tendency to say "Gotcha."

Tim quickly ingratiates himself into Paige's life, leaving little room where there was once a gulf for Sasha. Although Paige still "makes time" for Sasha, the distance between them is undeniable. This sends Sasha on her own emotional bender, as she continues to ask her parents for money to supplement her receptionist job income. They happily do so under the pretense that Sasha is interested in making an album using her previously proven talent. However, as the film progresses, it's easy to see she couldn't be less into music.

It's only after her friendship with Paige deteriorates that Sasha discovers that, all this time, she's failed to "get a life" of her own. And this is one of the most salient/alarming messages of Life Partners: that no matter how close you think you are with someone or how much you rely on them, there's nothing stopping them from letting you fall flat on your ass in the end. Though, of course, because it's a Hollywood movie, it isn't quite so bleak as that. But perhaps if Leighton Meester weren't in the role (Kristen Bell a.k.a. the voice of Gossip Girl was originally going to be cast in her part) and the film had just a bit more courage in its convictions, we would see that Paige would not have forced herself to be there for Sasha in the end. That a sense of duty would not have ultimately prevailed in the end, as Paige had gotten "her own life" separate from Sasha. Because, in spite of it being the twenty-first century, the only movie to have ever championed the benefits of platonic love over romantic love is pretty much just Frances Ha.

Starting out rivetingly enough with "Idle Delilah," Azealia Banks re-introduces herself to the world with the intro track on Broke With Expensive Taste, an album she's been attempting to release since fall of 2012. After getting dropped by her label, Interscope, the opportunity to get the album out into the universe finally came on November 6, with the help of entertainment production company Prospect Park.

"Gimme A Chance," the second track already finds Banks veering toward the experimental side, with musical homages to a decidedly 80s style. Alternating between an 80s and bachata vibe, it is one of the most daring songs on the record.

"Desperado" slows down the tempo a bit, with sultry saxophones to match Banks' deep, rich vocals. Though not lyrically complex, the backbeat of "Desperado" sustains it enough to make it a worthwhile addition to the album. Following is "JFK," featuring an ambient opening that lures you in right away. Likening the assassination of JFK to the assassination of "the look/Murderin' the gown/Fashion killer, the body on the ground," Banks is given a hand on this song from Theophilus London.

"212," which has obviously been well played by now, serves as the fifth track on Broke With Expensive Taste, giving Banks something of a freebie in terms of additional content. "Wallace" is Banks at her most classicist in terms of delivering pure, straight up vocals. Showcasing her trademark brand of confidence, Banks sings, "I suppose I been hot in Europe, yep/Tel Aviv, Istanbul, Seoul, London, Tokyo/Dawn is dusk to me, yep." 

Frantic and sweltering, "Heavy Metal and Reflective" is the type of fare you would expect to hear in some dark, seedy underground club in Berlin. As the second single from the album, Banks channels Nicki Minaj with lyrics like, "I'm in every city/They say hello to the head bitch." Next up is "BBD," not to be confused as the abbreviation for Bel Biv Devoe (rather, it stands for Bad Bitches Do-it), yet another song we've already heard before, circa early 2013--which is the major flaw with the entire album: we've heard it all before.

"Ice Princess" opens with a blustering wind sound effect and a sleigh bell-like musical intro, setting the tone for the dual meaning of the song, applying to Banks' icy demeanor and her icy jewelry collection--elucidated by the statement, "I'm so cold, I'm dripping icicles/I go and take your man, that nigga might miss you/Spent his whole commission on my neck and ear." "Yung Rapunxel" (another track we've heard already) offers frantic beats in the vein of Zebra Katz's "Ima Read" as Banks repeats "I wanna be free." It's easily one of the best songs on Broke With Expensive Taste, with its combination of witch hop and rock, at times sounding faintly like Lady Gaga if she wasn't so overly processed.

"Soda" features more controlled vocals from Banks, set against danceable music you would undoubtedly hear in any gay bar worth its liquor selection. Picking up where the single "1991" left off, "Chasing Time" is perhaps Banks at her most self-assured and courageous, as she makes overt reference to her former record label and the associated contention of their relationship. Keeping in stride with the theme of the record's title, "Luxury" is a lush offering that details the conflict of wanting all that's luxe and not quite being able to attain it.

"Nude Beach A Go-Go" starts to see Banks go off the rails a little bit as she attempts to sing in a genre that's out of her wheelhouse. Luckily, it's the shortest song on the album, so that you don't have to feel uncomfortable for an inordinate amount of time. The second to last track, "Miss Amor," finds Banks back in top form with a range of musical instruments that the likes of Crystal Waters would most definitely approve of. "Miss Camaraderie," the conclusion to the long-awaited debut from Banks, continues the auditory motif of "Miss Amor," though with Banks showcasing the deeper side of her voice as she paints the picture of "A night, a scene, a town, a ride with Miss Camaraderie." Does the culmination of this collection of songs prove Banks is rich in talent even if somewhat broke in bank account? Yes. But it does leave one to wonder if she can handle herself a bit more business savvily on her sophomore effort--which will hopefully contain nothing but new material instead of recycled songs from her various EPs.


Bill Murray may be in a film a year, but he hasn't truly starred in anything since 2005's Broken Flowers, directed by Jim Jarmusch. His constant role as someone supporting or on the periphery (see: The Darjeeling Limited or Moonrise Kingdom) had perhaps almost left audiences thinking that Murray had surrendered the leading man role for good. But with Theodore Melfi's writing and directing debut, Murray has risen from the ashes of marginal characters to give us the force of nature that is Vincent MacKenna.

Coming off as your average curmudgeon, Vincent, a longtime resident of Sheepshead Bay, takes assholery to artistic heights. When new neighbors move in next door, a single mother, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), and her son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), Vincent shows off his talents for apathy quite well. Their initial introduction gets off to a rocky start after the movers Maggie hired back into the tree on Vincent's lawn, causing a branch to fall and hit his car. This quickly invokes his ire, and prompts Maggie to assume that they'll probably have minimal dealings with one another after she pays him off for the damages.

Much to her surprise, however, her hours at work (as a CAT Scan technician) turn out to be more grueling than she thought, leaving her no choice but to leave Oliver in the so-called care of Vincent. Already a social pariah at his Catholic school, Oliver takes comfort in the strange companionship of Vincent, who takes him to his favorite local bar, in addition to the race track. Oliver's "practical" education is further improved by being introduced to a prostitute Vincent occasionally pays named Daka (Naomi Watts, who has a surprisingly effective Russian accent).

Vincent unwittingly finds himself treating Oliver like a grandson, teaching him how to fight his bully at school, which results in bloodshed on both sides, though Oliver comes out the victor. Growing ever more attached to Vincent in spite of knowing so little about him, Oliver is flummoxed to find him sprawled out on the floor of his house after not picking Oliver up from school. After suffering a stroke from the stress of losing his Alzheimer's-ridden wife, who he's been going broke to keep in an affluent retirement community, and the pressure of the various gambling debts he owes to a loan shark named Zucko (Terrence Howard), Vincent becomes an even surlier version of his former self.

Regardless of his rudeness, Oliver, Daka and Maggie work together to reinvigorate his health and take care of his home while he's in the hospital. Meanwhile, Oliver's teacher at school, Mr. Geraghty (Chris O'Dowd, the most successful graduate of The IT Crowd), has assigned a project that requires each of his students to write a report on someone they know who they think qualifies as a person with saintly qualities (ah, the benefits of Catholic school). Carefully considering Vincent's behavior, Oliver chooses him, much to everyone's simultaneous surprise and understanding.

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AuthorGenna Rivieccio
CategoriesMovie Reviews

Apart from addressing that Raymond Carver continues to be an unparalleled source of inspiration/proof that no other alcoholic will ever be able to write as clearly as he, Birdman is thus far the ultimate commentary on the twenty-first century--while still possessing an air of timelessness. Acknowledging themes that have stretched across every era of humanity, Alejandro González Iñárritu's, dare one say, masterpiece examines the struggle to be noticed and feel loved, often confusing admiration for the latter.

Our introduction to washed up actor Riggan Thomson

Our introduction to washed up actor Riggan Thomson

The star of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, in an all too appropriate role) faded long ago in the early 90s after he decided not to make a fourth installment of a comic book franchise called Birdman. Ever since, he's been atrophying away, both in terms of talent and celebrity. His only daughter, Sam (Emma Stone, carrying off ripped tights as no one else can), serves as his personal assistant, just one example of the many damaged relationships in his life. In order to pull himself up by the proverbial bootstraps and regain a modicum of respect in the "acting world," Riggan decides to adapt Raymond Carver's short story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," for the Broadway stage. 

The story, about different kinds of love and where each of these kinds of love go when they seem to disappear, is all too poignant when held up against Riggan's own life, like some sort of cruel funhouse mirror. Playing multiple roles within the play, Riggan's portrayal of Ed, a jilted lover of one of the other characters, Terri (played by Naomi Watts), is the one most eerily similar to his own persona--with quotes like, "Why doesn't anyone love me? I tried so hard to be who you wanted and now I don't even know who I am anymore." This reference to not being loved by any sort of public is also especially salient due to the other lead actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton, amazing as usual), stealing the front page of the New York Times Arts and Culture section with his interview about the play.

Sam, Riggan's daughter/assistant

Sam, Riggan's daughter/assistant

All the while, Riggan has the interior voice of Birdman telling him what a fuck-up and failure he is for having ever abandoned the character. In typical Iñárritu fashion, the film often borders on the surreal, or, what theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), might call "Super-Realism," but it never strays from its most overt theme: Does cultural relevancy equate to love, and vice versa? Perhaps no other writer-director has explored this concept with as much depth in a time increasingly punctuated by a lust for fame--at any cost--that people confuse with love. 

David Fincher has always been very meticulous with his film choices,  which is why each one tends to be gripping and/or stays with you long after you've seen it. From his earlier, less commercial work, like 1997's The Game, to his more well-known epic, sweeping biopics, like Zodiac and The Social Network, Fincher has established a long-standing reputation for creating films with an air of mystery and intrigue about them. With Gone Girl, based on Gillian Flynn's third novel of the same name, Fincher has, once again, chosen a script tailor-made for his style.

Still from Gone Girl

Still from Gone Girl

Not being familiar with the plot of Gone Girl already is the best way to see the film, as it leaves greater potential for you to actually be surprised by what happens. That being said, Amy Elliott (Rosamund Pike, who is something of a Julia Styles 2.0) is a seemingly laidback woman who meets Missourian Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) in her native New York City while at a party. Impressed by his game, Amy, always "the cool girl" (as she later refers to herself), falls quickly for Nick. Being the inspiration for a children's book series called The Amazing Amy, which her parents peddle in spite of her aversion to it, Nick comes to Amy's rescue while being interviewed at a book release party about how she feels regarding Amy the character getting married when Amy isn't married in real life. It is at this point that Nick chooses to propose. The first two years of their marriage, as told through Amy's journals, are punctuated by romance and ease of communication. But things take a sour turn in year three as Amy describes Nick's increasingly abusive behavior.

On the day of their fifth anniversary, things have practically unraveled, or so Nick describes to his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), while sitting at the bar (called The Bar) that they own together (paid for by Amy's trust fund). When he returns to their home to find that there's been a scuffle and Amy's nowhere to be find, Nick is more than a bit mystified over her disappearance. The lead detective on the investigation, Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), is the only one who seems not to think Nick is the one responsible for Amy's absence.

After being interrogated

After being interrogated

The dark secrets of Amy's past and the truth behind the nature of their marriage is unraveled with delicate precision by Fincher, who keeps his viewer guessing for the first half of the film before unveiling the extent of Amy's psycho bitchery. With Nick's life on the line (Missouri still has the death penalty), his desperate dependence on Amy's return is only matched by his desperate desire to be free of her. The film, thus, serves not only as a fascinating individual character study, but a study of what the modern perspective on marriage is (chiefly, a prison). 

As we all know, narcissism is a key trait in any artistic endeavor, particularly writing. Following up his acclaimed 2011 film, The Color Wheel, Alex Ross Perry chooses the most interesting of all neurotic subject matters: the writer--with specific regard to Philip Roth. Though, of course, a "fictionalized" account, we are given Roth as the re-imagined Philip Lewis Friedman--an appropriately douche bag name--played by Jason Schwartzman, in arguably his most meaningful performance to date (which isn't to say that his acting is necessarily amazing so much that he falls very neatly into the role of someone detached and depressed).

Promotional, Philip Roth-esque promotional poset for Listen Up Philip

Promotional, Philip Roth-esque promotional poset for Listen Up Philip

After the successful publication of his first novel, Friedman quickly rises to meteoric heights in the New York literary world, taking the opportunity to tell former girlfriends and college friends who he believed never supported him exactly what he thinks about them. Imbued with a natural air of self-righteousness and superiority, Friedman is the gross archetypal cliche of a narcissist at his worse: delusions of grandeur, an inability to see outside his own consciousness and the unwavering belief that he is better and more worthwhile than any other human being. His rocky relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss, continuing to hedge her bets for a post-Mad Men career), seems unfathomable considering how little he actually cares for her, and yet still needs to harbor the illusion of being humanly connected. Upon publishing his second novel, Obidant, Friedman is invited to reputed, well-respected author Ike Zimmerman's (Jonathan Pryce, in the Saul Bellow role) Upstate New York home.

One of the many brilliant fake covers of Ike Zimmerman's novels

One of the many brilliant fake covers of Ike Zimmerman's novels

Zimmerman and Friedman (the Jewish connection undeniable with their names placed next to one another) immediately hit it off, both feeding off one another's self-involvement and detachment from women as anything other than folly-laden distractions. The discovery that the "caretaker" of Zimmerman's home, Melanie (Krysten Ritter), is actually Zimmerman's daughter simultaneously leaves Friedman with greater admiration for how removed Zimmerman is from personal emotions and somewhat terrified that he could cause the same level of psychological damage to another human being. As Melanie points out one day while sitting on the couch with Friedman, "No one likes to made to feel as meaningless as they are." But this is exactly what Philip does, and feels must be done in order to be a "great writer."

The film is, in fact, at its best when it tapers off to show us Ashley's emotional roller coaster in the wake of finally deciding to ban Philip from her life for good. At first averse to the notion of being actually alone as opposed to figuratively alone, Ashley experiences depression and disinterest in her work. Luckily, there are cats that can be adopted. When she finally comes out of the other side of their break-up, which Philip deems merely a temporary separation while he accepts a teaching job at a college upstate, she is stronger than ever. Indeed, this is the most redeeming aspect of the film--the fact that at least one person experiences a metamorphosis. 

More Philip Roth book fonts

More Philip Roth book fonts

And then there is the aloof, nonpartisan narration of Eric Bogosian, as he describes everything the characters are thinking and feeling (but in a manner that manages to not come across as annoying). This adds to the sense that nothing in this life is significant, no matter how much our two giant narcissists believe they (and their work) is.

 

 

 

Begin Again , the sixth feature film from John Carney, shows the writer-director's seamless evolution from 2007's seminal Once, a more low-budget movie demonstrating the process behind creating an album, to a mature, fully-formed examination of the blood, sweat and tears that go into creating a piece of music. Not to say that Once isn't still one of his best works--it probably always will be--but there's something so much more confident about the way in which Carney executes the story of a songwriter and her fortuitous encounter with a failed music producer.

Promotional poster for Begin Again

Promotional poster for Begin Again

After coming to New York City with her semi-famous boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine, who plays into his douche bag role quite nicely), fresh off recording several songs for a movie soundtrack, Gretta (Knightley) feels somewhat out-of-place as he is given the royal treatment and taken to L.A., leaving her to her own devices for a spell. Luckily, one of her old friends, Steve (James Corden), from England is also a struggling musician who helps keep her entertained while Dave is away. Her friendship with him proves useful after Dave returns from L.A. and informs her that he's taken a shine to one of his record producers. 

Instead of letting her book a ticket back to England like she wants to, Steve insists that Gretta come with him to his open mic night on the Lower East Side, whereupon he forces her to sing one of the songs she's written. Recently fired from his own label, Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), a Grammy-award winning producer/alcoholic, just so happens to be in the audience. Hearing something magical in Gretta's rough-hewn performance, Mulligan offers to "sign" her even though he has no label to sign her with. Nonetheless, Gretta seems to have more faith in him than in herself, prompting her to agree to his half-baked idea to record her entire album throughout New York City in an extremely DIY manner.

Appreciating the music together

Appreciating the music together

As Dan and Gretta record the album together, they each begin to have revelations about their personal lives that the other is able to help them through. Unlike the characters in Once, Carney opts ultimately not to give their relationship a romantic slant--which makes it all the more meaningful when we arrive to the conclusion. 

 

 

Caribou goes by many names, the other most famous being Daphni, but it is under this moniker that Canadian-born Daniel Snaith is always at his best. His eighth studio album, Our Love, is a dynamic addition to his already impressive canon.

Album cover for Our Love

Album cover for Our Love

Opening with the atmospheric "Can't Do Without You," Caribou repeats, "I can't do without you," throughout the duration, which certainly does plenty to welcome the listener. "Silver" is an ambient track with soft vocals crooning inaudibly, "I guess I don't need her/It doesn't mean I can't get over her." Following is "All I Ever Need," which features a frenetic, soulful beat that overpowers Caribou's lyrics as he laments, "I can't take it/The way you treat me wrong/It's not right girl/People treat me bad/But my next love will be the best I ever had." Clearly, Caribou is exorcising some demons with this album.

The title track, "Our Love," features a tone and beat that continues to build as the song progresses, as though wanting desperately to break out if its own shell--which it eventually does, crescendoing to an energetic melange of sounds that dares you not to get your ass on the dance floor. "Dive" echoes the trip hop genre that fell out of fashion so long ago, but is somehow effortlessly resuscitated by Caribou. Making unintelligible sounds throughout, Caribou lulls you into his submission like some sort of snake charmer.

Caribou

Caribou

"Second Chance" features exuberant female vocals that insist, "I really wanna show you now/Nothing you could say I don't already know/I don't get the second chance, baby/Yeah, you know I'll just keep on waiting." The notion of waiting and disappointment is a prevalent one throughout Our Love, themes that are somewhat contrasted by Caribou's musical stylings. Case in point is, "Julia Brightly," which continues the tone of jubilance that pervaded "Second Chance" with more unintelligible noises against a beat that can't be ignored.

The appropriately titled "Mars" includes a flute that punctuates the entire song. Indeed, it is exactly what one would picture to be playing if you landed there. "Back Home" segues seamlessly from "Mars," building slowly with a faint volume that allows Caribou's vocals to really shine through more than they have at any other point on this album.

Bursting with vibrancy

Bursting with vibrancy

"Love Will Set You Free" concludes Our Love with Caribou's most assured musical arrangements. It's a methodical collection of sonic bursts punctuated by the simple message: "your love will set you free." Apparently, Caribou's has, and in turn, we've all benefited.

Donald Glover a.k.a. Childish Gambino when referring to his music career, has always remained consistent with his release of surprising and unexpected albums. Although generally labeled as a writer (he got his start writing for 30 Rock) or actor (on Community and, tragically, Girls), it is Glover's musical stylings that set him apart more than any of his other talents. His new mixtape/EP, STN MTN / Kauai, proves that he's capable of even more than we thought.

Album cover for Kauai

Album cover for Kauai

Opening with the instantly catchy "Sober," Childish Gambino lures us in with his sultry vocals and resonant lyrics, asserting, "And now that it's over, I'll never be sober." "Pop Thieves (Make It Feel Good)" acts as some sort of bizarre song lovechild of Kevin Lyttle and Rihanna with its romantic, fanciful vibe. Plus, it features Jaden Smith. The third track, "Retro (Rough)" alternates between pure hip hop and semi-ballad with its lascivious confidence as Gambino croons, "We can get there, we can do it if we try."

"The Palisades" is one of the richest songs on the EP, complemented by the vocals of Christian Rich, an N.E.R.D. protege. Expressing a somewhat cynical/aloof sentiment toward relationships, Gambino sings, "If we could be together would that make you happy? And if it wouldn't tell your girlfriend to get at me/Love don't really happen." Following is "Poke," an appropriate song for an October release when considering the lament, "Those summer days never fade away, they just stay the same in my mind."

Performing bombastically

Performing bombastically

"Late Night in Kauai" also features Jaden Smith (clearly Gambino's new favorite). Evoking the beat poetry style, the song is nothing but bongo drums and bizarre reminiscences like, "I remember that first night you were wearing a Power Ranger t-shirt. So was I." The concluding track is also the best one. "3005 (Beach Picnic Version)" includes Minnie Mouse-pitch vocals that assure, "No matter what you say or what you do, I'll be right by your side till three thousand and five." It's the perfect way to end an EP that you didn't think could possibly get any more endearing.

Gregg Araki has always been known for making avant-garde or at least mildly offensive films (see: The Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face). His latest offering, White Bird in a Blizzard, however, is somewhat on the tamer side by Araki standards. Adapted from Laura Kasischke's 1999 novel of the same name, Araki shows us the bland, desolate life of San Bernardino housewife Eve Connor (Eva Green, always great for playing non-maternal roles). Though she's always displayed signs of dissatisfaction, her behavior of late has seemed particularly neurotic to her 17-year-old daughter, Kat (Shailene Woodley, revealing a surprising comfortableness with nudity throughout the film).

Over the housewife scene

Over the housewife scene

Regardless of how outlandish her mother acts, Kat is immune to her tantrums, more concerned with her boyfriend/next door neighbor, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez), and their waning sex life. It's around the time that Kat becomes more focused on her libido that her mother starts lashing out at her in a way that indicates jealousy over Kat's youth and general desirability. Lamenting the loss of her own life and the living out of days making dinner and washing dishes, Eve grows more contemptuous by the day.

Kat and her boyfriend, Phil

Kat and her boyfriend, Phil

Right around the time Eve's fury reaches some sort of plateau/zenith/crescendo, she simply disappears. The cop in charge of the case, Detective Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane), serves not only as the man trying to find Kat's mother, but also as the man who ends up fucking her pain away, much to the delighted startlement of her best friends, Beth (Gabourey Sidibe a.k.a. Precious) and Mickey (Mark Indelicato a.k.a. Betty's little brother on Ugly Betty). Although Kat appears nonchalant about her mother's vanishing, especially to her therapist, Dr. Thaler (Angela Bassett, proving Araki loves to dig up those we thought we had lost), her series of dreams/nightmares about being caught in a blizzard and searching for Eve indicate an undeniable trauma. 

Determined to move on with her life, Kat suppresses the memories of 1988 (this is the year her mother leaves them) and carries on in a totally well-adjusted manner by the time 1991 rolls around and she's attending UC Berkeley. Unfortunately for Kat, a trip back home for a break leads her to uncover revelations she wasn't prepared for (plus, Sheryl Lee enters into the mix, giving us a slight preview of Twin Peaks). Although the story contains plenty of intrigue and a plotline that always holds your interest, there is something about the disinterested way in which Araki reveals the final twist that makes White Bird in a Blizzard somehow lesser when compared to his other works. Nonetheless, as can always be counted on with an Araki film, the soundtrack is primo (even though he features the requisite playing of New Order because part of the movie takes place in the 80s).