Lady Gaga is Back; “Joanne” Review

Say what you want about Lady Gaga, but she’s never boring. It’s almost impossible to look at her today and see the same pop culture obsessed songstress that sang about disco sticks and paparazzi. Even 2011’s Born This Way, which its truly laughable cover art, seems like it happened a lifetime ago, and hopefully we’ve all forgotten about ARTPOP by now.

More recently, Gaga has ditched the antics (somewhat) and tried to move away from the niche in pop music she carved out for herself with her debut The Fame and its excellent follow up The Fame Monster. One could argue this ‘transition’ began with Born This Way, an album that tackled many different genres, but that album still felt rooted in pop despite its eclectic track listing. When she released Cheek To Cheek, her jazz duet album with legend Tony Bennett, and sang the Sound of Music tribute at the Oscars a few years ago it was clear she was aiming for something different altogether. Since then, she has won a Golden Globe, been nominated for an Oscar, starred on two seasons of American Horror Story, been cast in the remake of A Star Is Born, performed a tribute to the late David Bowie and sang the National Anthem. Now, her fifth studio album, her first solo offering in three years, Joanne, is out, and next year she will headline the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Joanne, named for Gaga’s late aunt, continues the singer’s move away from songs like “Just Dance” and “Bad Romance.” Sonically, it’s rooted in folk-rock with a country tinge; if you’re looking for a close relative within Gaga’s discography, it has more in common with Yoü and I than anything else. But even that song seems more obviously catchy than most of what makes up Joanne‘s track list. And while the razor sharp hooks that made “Poker Face” and “Telephone” such indelible hits are gone, the guitar in “Diamond Heart” and “Sinner’s Prayer” prove she still knows how to lodge her music in your ear.

After my first couple of listens, I was truly puzzled by the inclusion of lead single “Perfect Illusion.” Coming in as the sixth track, it’s bookended by the sinister, reggae-esque ode to masturbation “Dancin’ In Circles” and the quieter ballad “Million Reasons.” Its disco-rock production, which has Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker’s fingerprints all over the final third of the song, doesn’t resemble anything else on the album. The chorus sees Gaga yelling “It wasn’t laaahve! It wasn’t laaahve!/It was a Perfect Illusion!/Perfect Illusion/Mistaken for laaahve!”as if she was performing in a stadium, and comes off as jarring when juxtaposed with the rest of the album. But after a few more listens, I began to get it.

The live performances of songs like “A-YO” made it clear though, that Gaga was working this character of a chick with a guitar pretty hard, and then “Perfect Illusion,” made sense; suddenly the album began to feel undeniably Gaga. For all of its stripped down raw sound, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, Joanne still feels really theatrical in the same way Gaga’s Sound of Music tribute did, or her live rendition of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” And while the image of Gaga as a Nashville dive-bar country star evokes on this album may feel a bit insincere (in a way her fame obsessed alter-ego from The Fame could never) it’s clear she really loves this music; she sounds better, and more animated than anything on the EDM hodge-podge that was ARTPOP.

Joanne does sag a bit; the title track, though heartfelt, features lyrics that make song feel like filler rather than a necessary addition. “Come to Mama” feels like a half-baked country jingle, and though it has grown on me, “Million Reasons” still feels hollow. But when she hits her mark, she really hits it. “Diamond Heart” is an excellent album opener, with an energy that’s continued in “AYO.” “John Wayne” is a lot of fun, while “Dancin’ In Circles” brings the album to a high it inched towards in the beginning. The closer, “Angel Down,” is downright gorgeous, but if there’s a standout though it’s the “Hey Girl.” Featuring the angelic vocals of Florence Welch, the song is steeped in funk; it sounds like it’s the love child of Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” and Electric Light Orchestra’s “Telephone Line.”

In a sense, Joanne feels like the album that should have come after Born This Way. And while it doesn’t reach the highs of The Fame Monster, it’s far more cohesive, consistent and sharp than anything on ARTPOP including the self-aware “Applause” and synth-pop R&B tinged “Do What U Want.” But that it’s come at all is a reason to celebrate. As “Perfect Illusion” slips farther and farther down the charts, many  predicted this would be a failure for Gaga. While the jury is still out on how well this album will fare commercially, Joanne sees a newly rejuvenated and impassioned Gaga not totally straying away from her theatrical roots while managing to do something she’s never done before. She manages to stick the landing.

Grade: B

*** Essential Tracks: “Diamond Heart,” “A-YO,” “Dancin’ In Circles,” “Hey Girl,” “Angel Down”***



Emily Blunt is Fantastic in the Otherwise Average “The Girl On the Train”

Ever since The Girl On the Train was released last year, it was hailed as “the next Gone Girl.” Such a comparison was probably a little unfair, despite both novels’ reliance on the untrustworthy narrator device, the switching between POV’s throughout the story and the fact they were shocking thrillers.

And so when it was announced that the film adaption of The Girl On the Train would be announced in October, just days shy of Gone Girl’s (the film) two year anniversary, the comparisons grew. Many wondered if Emily Blunt, starring as the main character Rachel, would secure the first Oscar nomination that has (unfairly) eluded her throughout her career like Rosamund Pike did for Gone Girl. The film would no doubt be a smashing success (it’s already being projected to be the #1 film this weekend with close to $30 million. Not Gone Girl level numbers, but pretty respectable nonetheless). It just needed to be good enough for Oscar consideration, right?

Unfortunately, critics have not been kind to The Girl On the Train. Metacritic has it at a middling 48, with many mentioning or flat out comparing it to Gone Girl.


And while the film does have its issues, one of them shouldn’t be that it’s not the next Gone GirlContinue reading


Natalie Portman is Front and Center in New “Jackie” Trailer

The Best Actress race refuses to slow down.

Just last week, we got a glimpse of Viola Davis in Fences and Annette Bening in 20th Century Women. Emma Stone won Best Actress at Venice and has been topping a lot of Oscar pundits lists for the final five, but one contender that has managed to astound everyone is Natalie Portman. The actress’ buzzy Jackie Kennedy biopic has been the talk of the town since it premiered to critical acclaim at Venice and Toronto last month.

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Annette Bening and Viola Davis Officially Enter The Best Actress Race

For the last few weeks, Natalie Portman and Emma Stone have asserted themselves as the frontrunners in the Best Actress race after splashy debuts at both the Venice and Toronto film festivals. Though many people have been quick to make this a two way race, I’ve quietly maintained that the unseen contenders, Viola Davis (especially) and Annette Bening, were waiting in the wings. Today these two ladies have officially joined the conversation, and if I were Stone and Portman, I wouldn’t get too comfortable with being in the lead.

I’ve already talked at length at how both Davis’ and Bening’s status as “also rans” in previous races benefit their chances this year. That being said, both of their projects look like slam dunks and shouldn’t find difficulty finding awards consideration when its time to cast ballots.

Let’s take a look.

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Lupita Nyong'o and Madina Nalwanga star in the triumphant true story QUEEN OF KATWE, directed by Mira Nair.

Lupita Nyong’o is transcendent in the outstanding “Queen of Katwe”

Inspirational, “feel good” movies oftentimes break a sweat trying to earn the audience’s emotions. Through the use of saccharine music, stereotypical character troupes and cliché dialogue, not to mention formulaic plot points. Queen of Katwe, a film that very easily could have fallen into those trap holes manages to avoid all of them while holding onto its uplifting message, hitting you like a shot in the heart.

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“Blair Witch” Review

When The Blair Witch Project was released in theaters back in 1999 it became a phenomenon. There was nothing else quite like it; a scrappy little film made for next to nothing, featuring no big name stars or a high-profile director attached to it. And yet it went on to gross over $240 million, and inspired a long line of films trying to recreate its magic (the Paranormal Activity films).

Enter the sequel, aptly named Blair Witch. Originally disguised as a film called The Woods featuring a cryptic teaser trailer, the film comes over a decade after the first film (and a much maligned sequel that’s generally ignored here). It seems a little weird that this sequel would come so far after the first film, especially given the original being a product of its time. Much of The Blair Witch Project‘s success is attributed to its marketing campaign, which was revolutionary at the time. An online website was created specifically for the movie, with false “legends” and stories about the fictional Blair Witch being spread far across the internet.

In today’s world, online marketing campaigns are seen as a necessity for a lot of films, especially a film like The Blair Witch; a lot of that magic has disappeared due to to the rise of the internet and social media. Even  watching the original film isn’t as magical as it was back in the pre-internet age. Blair Witch doesn’t just set out to continue the legacy of the first film, but recreate some of that magic for a new generation.

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Breaking Down The Best Actress Race

It’s that time of the year; Sundance, Cannes, Telluride and Venice are behind us while the Toronto Film Festival has just begun, and so has Oscar season. The contenders are beginning to emerge and narratives are starting to take shape. There are some films that have gotten a head start thanks to some critical raves (JackieLa La Land, MoonlightLovingSully) and some that are playing catch up (The Birth of A Nation) while others are giant question marks in the race right now (Arrival,

One race that’s particularly interesting, as it stands right now, is Best Actress. With so much left of the race left to go there are a number of exciting possibilities that, if played right, could make this one of the best years for Best Actress in awhile. Continue reading


The Beauty of Sia’s New Music Video: “The Greatest” Is Just That

In case you haven’t heard, Sia has a new song and a new music video.

“The Greatest,” written by Sia and longtime collaborator/producer Greg Kurstin doesn’t stray too far from the typical Sia formula. It’s simple in its composition; “Running out of breath, but I/Oh I, I got stamina” and “Don’t give up, I won’t give up”repeat throughout the song, featuring Sia’s crackling, but powerfully emotive vocals. The uplifting and empowering lyrics are also pretty familiar territory; the hook sees the singer/songwriter insisting “I’m free to be the greatest, I’m alive.” Even the subtle, island-tinged influences alongside the massive pop beat recalls her most recent hit “Cheap Thrills. Even the music video features Maddie Ziegler (making this her fourth collaboration with Sia), with some specific shots and choreography recalling the singer’s past videos.

And yet, for all of its simplicity and familiarity, “The Greatest” is not only Sia’s best music video, but one of the best and most powerful of the year. Continue reading