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.

By now, Alan Turing's reputation precedes him. As the pioneer of the "Turing machine," what would later be known as the progenitor of modern computers, Turing was enlisted by the British government at the onset of World War II to help decode the German cipher machine that deployed strategic information on the German military's next moves. In Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game, an adaptation of the novel, Alan Turing: The Enigma, we're given a succinct glimpse into the psychosis and emotional complexity of Turing through the lens of Benedict Cumberbatch's in touch-ness with the man who would eventually be eviscerated by the very government he helped save millions of lives.

A man and his computer

A man and his computer

Aloof and annoyingly confident in his interview with Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), Turing nonetheless manages to finagle his way into the job by mentioning the word "Enigma," the name of the machine the Germans use for all communications that are indecipherable by anyone else. Intrigued by Turing's potential, Denniston hires him, though Turing is markedly disappointed when he learns he has to work with the likes of cryptanalyst and famed chess player, Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode). This prompts Major General Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong, who is always delightfully deadpan) of MI6 to sarcastically note, "Popular in school, were you?" The query segues nicely into Turing's past at an all boys boarding school where he was teased mercilessly and only had one friend (read: love interest) named Christopher (Jack Bannon), after whom Turing eventually names the prototype for his decoding computer.

Like most brilliant people, Turing has difficulty relating to others, particularly those he's forced to work with. Thankfully, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), one of the only female cryptanalysts in the field, comes to Bletchley Park after Turing gets a promotion from Winston Churchill himself. Unlike most people, Turing is not offput by her sex and sees the potential of her skill as a merit to the team. The two, both something of an anomaly, take an immediate liking to one another, though Clarke initially misinterprets his emotional affection for romantic interest.

Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke

Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke

With the pressure on for Turing to make Christopher work the way he insists it will, Denniston is increasingly eager to fire him. Major General Menzies, on the other hand, can see that Turing's ability to live with lies and secrets will be a great asset to winning the war. Thus, the two collaborate together seamlessly after Turing cracks Enigma without letting on to the Germans that the British are aware of every exchange--much to the ire of Turing's fellow team members, especially one who has a brother riding in a U-2 boat that's about to be blown to pieces. 

Turing and his crew

Turing and his crew

As Cumberbatch portrays Turing in all his phases of struggle and deterioration--particularly at the end of his life after being forced by the government to take hormones to "quell" his homosexuality--we're given a snapshot of a lonely man who turned to computer science not merely because of his brilliance, but because, it seemed, a machine would never judge him with the harshness of a human. Furthermore, Cumberbatch has come a long way in the realm of biopics since his last horrendous performance as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.



With all the fanfare that's surrounded The Interview, it was obviously never going to be a film that had any chance of actually being good. This is the unfortunate truth about most movies that receive a large amount of publicity before being released. And yet, this is the most assured, time-honored way to generate revenue at what is left of "the box office."

Opening with a North Korean girl who seems to be singing angelically, we are then given the vitriolic translation of such lyrics as, "May they be forced to starve and beg and be ravaged by disease/May they be helpless and poor and cold/They are arrogant and fat/They are stupid and they're evil," with regard to the North Korean outlook on the United States. Already, this gives us an instant snapshot of how offensively over the top the film is going to be to both cultures involved. And, of course, rather than putting any sort of favorable light on how the "average American" is perceived, it uses a non-exaggerated version of James Franco as an interviewer for a trashy entertainment show to reveal some less than faint insight about the nature of American taste. 

Dave Skylark (Franco) himself states that Americans just want shit to be shoveled into their mouths (noting, "mangia, mangia, mangia" as he makes this statement) and is, indeed, a caricature of the type of host Americans are drawn to. And yet, the satirical element is utterly lacking, instead comprised of stupidity rather than biting political commentary. 

Lizzie Caplan as Agent Lacey

Lizzie Caplan as Agent Lacey

In spite of being a highly ranked TV show, Skylark Tonight is collectively balked at by “serious” news shows like 60 Minutes. This irks longtime producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) to no end, as he originally went to the Columbia School of Journalism in order to document the more meaningful news of the world. After reaching the one thousandth episode and being mocked by one of his former college classmates, Aaron is all too sobered by the permanent turn his career has taken. This, in fact, is the most interesting facet of the film in that it’s the only element even remotely resembling character complexity. 

Wanting to appease Aaron, Dave agrees to make strides to change the direction of the show (away from such subjects as Eminem confessing he’s gay and Rob Lowe confessing he’s bald). And because The Interview adheres as clichely as possible to three-act structure, the opportunity to interview Kim Jong-un immediately arises. After Jong-un confesses to Skylark Tonight being one of his only American indulgences, Aaron contacts one of Jong-un’s associates by the only means he knows how: through the Olympics headquarters office (real roundabout).

When Sook (Diana Bang--no comment on last name) calls him back and tells him to meet in China to talk further, Aaron makes your standard Asian accent jokes (adding to the extreme tact of the movie) and then realizes the call is actually real. After schlepping to China and being given the terms of the interview, Aaron and Dave are approached by Agent Lacey (Lizzie Caplan) the morning after taking ecstasy in semi-celebration of the interview’s acceptance and subsequent publicity/backlash. 

Proposing to "take him out"

Proposing to "take him out"

As Agent Lacey and her associate wait in the doorway, Dave screams continuously about having “stink dick” and how he has no idea who he boned last night. The joke goes on for about five minutes, as though to somehow brainwash one into thinking that this is the height of comedic genius. At last the joke ends and Agent Blank can finally get to the point and ask them to “take him out” when they go to North Korea. And how are they to do so? With the rip-off method from Breaking Bad known as ricin.

Promotional poster

Promotional poster

Briefed and trained as well as can be expected, Dave and Aaron are sent off to execute the plan, only to instantly fuck it up by not putting the ricin in the specified bag and having it mistaken for gum by one of the guards, who then promptly chews it and tells Dave and Aaron that American gum is shit. The loss of the ricin is one of the quintessential second act obstacles necessary to keep the plot going, as made obvious by Aaron being required to go outside to collect a new batch from a missile launched nearby, battling a Siberian tiger and then having to shove the missile up his rectum (real classy) in order to hide it from the approaching guards.

And yet, after all of this work, Aaron is foiled by Kim Jong-un’s “honeydicking” of Dave, whom he takes for a ride in his armored tank (a gift from Stalin to his grandfather) while listening to Katy Perry (another played pop culture element in the wake of Horrible Bosses 2). After their magical day together, Dave can’t help but have feelings of remorse for wanting to kill him, causing him to deviate from the plan by stomping on the poison to keep Aaron from hurting his new friend. It is at around this juncture in the movie that summarization becomes utterly useless as the course of events not only becomes so difficult/predictable watch, but also becomes over the top in a manner more reminiscent of a low-budget cartoon as opposed to a satire. But hey, at least Rogen and Franco proved that America isn’t at risk for censorship of total tripe. So if you want to see something called The Interview, you might be better off investing your time in Interview with Sienna Miller and Steve Buscemi.





Woody Allen's experience dabbling in the exploration of the world of magic and the occult is nothing new. His 2001 film, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, which is also set in the earlier part of the twentieth century, focuses on a shysty hypnotist who gets C.W. Briggs (Allen) and Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt) to act as jewel thieves. And then came Scoop in 2006, which follows Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), an aspiring journalist, as she is haunted by the ghost of another reporter who appears to her in a magic show put on by illusionist Sid Waterman (Allen). Thus, Magic in the Moonlight seems a fine-tuning of the previous times Allen has dabbled with magic-themed plotlines.

Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), a medium getting "a vibration"

Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), a medium getting "a vibration"

This time around, Allen combines magicians and mediums in the year 1928 (he's always fond of the past, after all). Channeling a stodgier version of Allen's most famous character, Alvy Singer of Annie Hall, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) a.k.a. Wei Ling Soo is a cynical and staunchly anti-phenomena illusionist who also prides himself on being able to debunk frauds and swindlers. When a fellow illusionist and friend, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), comes to Crawford to ask for his help in demystifying a medium named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), he is immediately game to do so. Convinced that exposing her phoniness will be easy, Crawford accompanies Burkan to the Azure Coast to see her in action. 

Upon seeing Sophie "read thoughts," Stanley remains vehemently skeptical in spite of not being exactly sure how she could know so much about him (she mentions she's getting an "Orient vibe," in reference to Stanley's stage name). Although Sophie has won the affections of wealthy Brice Catledge (Hamish Linklater)--and has convinced the matriarch of the family of her talent--she seems far more intrigued by Stanley, allowing herself to be charmed by his brand of biting humor. She even cancels plans with Brice to go meet Stanley's Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) instead.

Driving to Provence

Driving to Provence

Regardless of how old Woody Allen gets--and regardless of the lingering taint of his child molestation accusation--he never ceases to include an inappropriate age difference between his leading man and woman. In this case, Firth is 54 and Stone is 26, making for a quintessentially Allen creep factor. But at least Firth has the dreamy charisma to pull it off, whereas Stone is still a bit too gawky to seem at ease with an older man. 

As Stanley succumbs to believing in Sophie's magic, Sophie, in turn, starts to fall in love with him. However, just as Stanley thought, he should have known better than to believe in a world where miracles are possible. With Stanley's character a mirror of Allen's own (the usual case with every main male character in an Allen film, including the need to tell his love interest that she could be smarter, e.g. Annie Hall), it only makes sense that his cynicism would intensify after the disappointment of briefly believing in magic, only to have it be a ruse. However, it is in this form of Allen consistency that he has managed to sustain interest in his career all these many decades later. And arguably, it's better than the often overrated Midnight in Paris.

 

 

 

 

 

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.