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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly/Earl Sweatshirt: I Don't Like S***, I Don't Go Outside (Release Dates: 3-23-2015)

      Perhaps it was always meant to be this way. Back in August of 2013, Big Sean dropped Control, a 7+ minute track whose middle section almost tore the internet in half. Things got serious the moment the song's proper author passed the mic off to Kendrick Lamar, an MC less than a year removed from releasing the most widely hailed hip-hop debut in years, who wastes no time in literally name-checking all the up-and-coming rappers whom he plans on dispatching. His list, despite being 11 names long, neglected to include Earl Sweatshirt, whose terrific studio debut, Doris, was released only a week later. I wondered at the time if he had simply forgotten the still-teenaged wordsmith, both hailing from the same Los Angeles that Lamar seems almost obsessed with promoting. Their stars have crossed again in the last month or so; their sophomore studio efforts were slated for release on the very same day, both record labels managing to botch the launch, Earl's desired surprise arrival derailed by an unwanted announcement a week prior, while Kendrick's whole album slipped out ten days ahead of schedule. Perhaps it's irresponsible of me to review a pair of such highly-anticipated albums in tandem, but the similarities of these releases are almost as interesting as their wild differences. 

          While the success of Doris undoubtably had some anxiously awaiting Sweatshirt's follow up, Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was another thing entirely: a legend-on-arrival that stands next to The Strokes' Is This It?, The XX's XX, and Arcade Fire's Funeral as one of the most worshipped debuts in recent history. Folks have been scratching and prying for information on his follow-up for well over a year now, creating a level of anticipation and pressure reserved for only a sacred few, and if anyone knows this, it's Kendrick himself. Clocking in at just under an hour and 19 minutes, To Pimp A Butterfly sports a mind-numbing level of ambition, every second of the thing proving exhaustively measured, and fussed over to degrees that border on madness. Some will undoubtably be turned off be the stark change in sound since good kid, but it'd be downright disingenuous to suggest Lamar puts anything less than his all into this record. You can almost feel the bullets of sweat rolling down his temples.

        The guy is eager to please, but he'll do it on his own terms, thankyouverymuch. Perhaps to prove a point, Lamar opens Pimp with it's single strangest track, Wesley's Theory, a schizophrenic jazz spaz that starts, stops, and changes gears about 17 times within 5 minutes. The song is produced by Flying Lotus, and while the madcap electronic artist is only credited this once, his free-assosiation jazz stamp is littered through-out the album, perhaps most notably on follow-up cut For Free? Lasting all of 2 minutes, the track opens with a woman chastising Lamar for his lack of funds over the sound of pianist Robert Glasper and sax player Terrace Martin's breezy, fleet-of-foot interplay. When Kendrick finally responds, it's less rapping than some sort of spoken word exercise, syllables tumbling from his mouth with ever-increasing speed as the drum line heats up, snares popping with crispness and force. Through-out its lengthy runtime, Butterfly frequently opts for session musicians over sample-work, a choice that marks a fork in the road between this and M.A.A.D. City, as well as most of hip hop in general. There's a reason so few critics offered their immediate opinion upon the release of this LP; not only are Lamar's lyrics too knotty and dense to fully comprehend on the first go-around, but the album's production takes some getting used to.

          None of this could be said of I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, an album that, production-wise, is To Pimp a Butterfly's perfect foil. Where Kendrick's only gotten bigger and bolder since we last saw him, Earl has been busy paring things down, simplifying the already-basic aesthetic found on his last LP. Lamar desperately wants you to notice all of the individuals at play on his disc; Sweatshirt is just as eager to make you aware that everything here is laptop fodder, each note knowingly lo-fi and scuzzy. Doris was partially produced by Earl (under the self-assigned moniker randomblackdude), but also received outside help all over the place, from his buddy Tyler, the Creator, on down to soundboard kings Pharrell Williams and RZA: Outside features literally only two producers, randomblackdude taking the reigns on 9 of the disc's ten tracks, yielding only Off Top to his Odd Future buddy Left Brain, whose beat is perfectly at home with everything else here.

        "I’m starting to sound like myself again," the MC recently told Clash magazine, perhaps alluding to discomfort with Doris' plethora of cooks in the kitchen. It mirrors the sentiment that Kanye West floated when he claimed his much-beloved My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy wasn't the the purest possible Yeezy, and that certain aspects of himself were sidelined in favor of mass appeal (one listen to the atom-bomb that is Yeezus, and this notion makes a whole lot more sense). Even if, when it's all said and done, Doris turns out to be the best album of Earl's career, it's already not the most Earl record in his canon. The triumphalism of tracks like Burgundy and Whoa is no where to be found here, just as absent as guest spots for known quantities. Don't Like Shit only has time for folks like Da$h, Wiki, and Vince Staples, who are referenced through-out the disc in a way that makes them sound less like true artistic collaborators than a few buddies who came over to smoke a joint, and ended up on the album. Suffice to say, Earl's got some trust issues, and would just as soon go it alone.

         This sense of isolation is the single strongest thread between these two albums, but where Earl's studio incarceration seems to derive from a lack of interest in the world around him, Kendrick's is the product of wanting so badly to not let said world down, beating his head against the wall until a cold, hard classic falls right out. Lamar has always been a storyteller, ready to jump at any opportunity to put himself in someone else's shoes, literally tabling himself for verses at a time to channel the thoughts of others. Butterfly takes this tendency to a whole new level, as the MC's flows from the perspective of a metaphorical, predatory Uncle Sam (Wesley's Theory), a romantic slave boy (Complexion (A Zulu Love)), and even his no-bull mother (You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)), changing both his cadence and tone with each new embodiment. Lamar himself even becomes a character, as the album reveals lead single i as a self-promotional counter-part to the bitter anger found on u, wherein Kendrick furiously ridicules himself for his many shortcomings, even playing drunk on the song's second half as he continues his tirade. Despite being one of the most exactingly executed musical offerings in recent history, you fear that Lamar might lose control and drive off into a ditch at any moment. One would be forgiven for worrying that Kendrick is fraying at the seams, but it's exhilarating to experience.

        Earl is already in that ditch, and, quite frankly, was probably there before we even met. He seems content to stay put, carefully balancing his intoxicants while neglecting to open his door to the light of day (AM//Radio), wallowing in a sense of depression that boarders on malaise. While the rat-a-tat-tat linguistic virtuoso that aided the MC in his rise to fame is still in fine form (the menacing Mantra, hopscotch closer Wool), it's the moments when he fully gives into emotional numbness when Outside feels most fully realized. Faucet's nocturnal, leering beat provides an ideal backdrop for Sweatshirt's thoughts to slowly drift down into a deep melancholy, admitting in a drug-addled haze, "I don't know hows to call home lately/I hope my phone break, and let it ring." Single Grief does it one better, Earl rapping forcefully from the shadows of a beat that's so drowned in molasses that it can barely move. As much a horror story as a proper song, it's a track that takes on a whole new life when given the headphones treatment, a malevolent world-conquerer aware of nothing beyond gloom and doom. It's inverted hip hop from a guy who might just be pushing out of the genre's established boundaries. That, "sounding like myself again," quote was no joke: Outside's paradigm skews closer to that of a Nine Inch Nails record than an album by a L.A. rap prodigy.

        But for every opportunity Sweatshirt passes on to align himself with the legends of the golden coast, Kendrick utilizes two. He receives a phone call from mentor/occasional producer Dr. Dre, invites Snoop Dogg to breeze through a couple of bars on Institutionalized, and, in a much-discussed post-album surprise, resurrects Tupac Shakur from the grave for an in-depth conversation about politics, violence, wealth distribution, race, and fame. Shakur's voice and thoughts come curtesy of a 1994 interview with Swedish radio host Mats Nileskår, whom Kendrick steps in for during a surreal six minutes that would probably feel a bit much if not proceeded by an album whose defining characteristic is its muchness. This is, of course, a guy who refers to himself as King Kendrick Lamar, though you'll never hear the rhymesmith describe himself as the greatest of all time; he's merely assumed the throne from the greats of the past, most specifically those from the West Coast, and especially his native Compton. So when the conversation with the thug Machiavelli finally hits, it embodies not only Lamar's confidence in his superiority over his peers, but also the weight he places on himself as a mouth piece for disenfranchised African Americans throughout the nation.

        And he has more than a little to say on the subject. The album's title, which is styled after Harper Lee's immortal novel To Kill a Mockingbird, refers to how America, from its modern state on down to the institution of slavery, has callously used black men and women for the good of the rest of its citizens. It's a sin that comes in many shapes and sizes, from the literal broken backs of the antebellum south, to modern talent agencies' abusive slight of hand toward undereducated industry up-and-comers. Butterfly addresses it all, and while some of the notions prove too intricate and difficult to ultimately solve, racism is an unwieldy beast of an epidemic, one for which no man in history has properly provided a lasting answer. It's so knotty in fact that Lamar finds nothing wrong with playing Complexion (A Zulu Love) directly in front of The Blacker the Berry, the former a seeming condemnation of any color-based bias, the later an exploration of black-against-white racism that's so scorchingly hot that even the song's producer thought it wise to end the track with a delicate, lilting instrumental. 

        Of course Berry isn't only about black-against-white racism, because hardly anything on Pimp is only about one thing. "Generational hatred," rules the day, the ebb and flow of race relations crassly charted before the track eventually shifts to black-on-black violence, concluding on this breath-takingly conflicted note: "Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/When gangbanging make me kill a n**** blacker than me?" The song as a whole borders on victim-blaming, but that doesn't mean Kendrick utters every line as a literal truth; as previously stated, the guy likes to play characters, and just about every idea about being black in modern America is presented here, each contradicting the next. The thoughts that Kendrick puts forth on the matter are not meant to be answers or solutions to xenophobia; they are conversation pieces, meant to inspire, disgust, and illuminate pockets of discrimination that are often ignored. There's perhaps only one constant notion, first posited by the slave  he plays on Complexion, who concludes his last verse by informing his lover, "I came to where you reside/Looked around, and seen more sights for sore eyes/Let then Willie Lynch theory reverse a million times."

          The William Lynch Speech was delivered in 1712 to an audience of Virginians who had become distressed when the horrific ways they had punished and controlled their slaves (lynchings, beatings, and other atrocities) started yielding diminished effects. The solution given by the speaker was to utilize differences among slaves, such as skin-tone, gender, or age, to create contained strife within their community, shifting the focus of their anger away from those who caused it. The counter-argument that Lamar proposes in the poem he keeps returning to throughout the album, takes that idea head-on: "Forgetting all the hurt and pain we caused each other in these streets, if I respect you, we unify, and stop the enemy from killing us." To Pimp a Butterfly is a pained, exuberant, conflicted, challenging, and triumphant piece of art, too bold and grand to be as perfect as Good Kid, but perhaps better for it. Besides its obvious musical brilliance, Kendrick's desire for inter-community harmony is as beautiful as it is pressingly important, never more so than on the album version of i. This pseudo-live incarnation of last summer's self-love anthem is stuffed to the brim with energy and bliss as Lamar feverishly tares through his lines until a fight breaks out in the crowd, enticing the rapper to kill the music, and give him a piece of his mind. What he says is downright inspiring, a rallying cry that's too powerful to be simply copy and pasted from a lyrics sheet. I've already said enough about Kendrick Lamar; I'll let him do the rest.

Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly Grade: A
Earl Sweatshirt's I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside Grade: B


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Oscar Predictions 2015 (Round One)

        The following post will likely make you wonder how many friends I have.

        Each year, right after the Academy Awards, I attempt to pick next year's contestants for Best Picture... a whole year before the fact. The practice has thus far transpired with mixed results; here's the breakdown of the 3 years I've given it a shot:

2014: 2-8 (Boyhood and The Imitation Game)
2013: 5-9 (The Wolf of Wall Street, Gravity, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, and American Hustle)
2012: 5-9 (Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, Django Unchained, and Argo)

        Rough 2014 for me, huh? In fairness to myself (because really, who else is going to stick up for me on something so openly arbitrary?), I had Birdman at #10 and Whiplash at #11, and the predictions took place before either American Sniper or Selma were even announced. It would also mean a lot to me if you kindly ignored that I had The Grand Budapest Hotel at #33, The Theory of Everything at #28 (specifically because I thought Redmayne couldn't pull it off... opps), and ignored Sniper altogether until the guilds forced me to take notice. How have I done relatively well in previous years, you're probably not asking? I largely ignore stories, bypass actors, and dismiss familiar titles; I look for directors in whom I have faith, and in the years previous to this one, that's worked fairly well. I'm staying the course, primarily looking at helmers, and offering you this, an exactly-one-month-after-the-2014-Oscars look at 2015's potential Best Picture nominees:

        You know how long it's been since Spielberg was in 'serious filmmaker' mode, and didn't land in the Best Picture line-up? The answer depends on how seriously you take The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can, but if we're being extremely literal here, it's Amistad... which was almost 20 years ago. Since then, the maestro has appeared with a slew of films that would have been ignored had they been created by less note-worthy helmers (MunichWar Horse, and Lincoln). Simply put, he has their number, and we should all freely anticipate this making the final cut.

        As if a new Coen brothers' flick wouldn't rank highly on this list anyway, the cast looks both deep and fantastic (Johansson, Tatum, Fiennes, Swinton, Hill, Brolin... and Clooney as a bonus?), and Hollywood-centric narratives have taken the lion's share of Best Picture trophies in recent years (ArgoThe ArtistBirdman). Should this film meet the world in 2015, a nomination feels assured.

        Revenge epics don't usually walk away with Oscars, but the Leonardo DiCaprio/Tom Hardy top billing looks awfully nice, and after last month's Academy Awards, I feel safe telling you that Oscar kiiiiiinda likes Alejandro González Iñárritu (even is Sean Penn doesn't).

4. Joy
        This story of a single mother rising to entrepreneurial success might not scream 'Best Picture,' but you know what does? Director David O. Russell (Silver Linings PlaybookAmerican Hustle) leading a cast featuring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, headlined by Jennifer Lawrence.

        The Best Picture category has been nominating more than five films for a solid half-century now, and has invited exactly one big, buzzy effects picture every time out, save 2014. The Walk is perhaps a bit less grand than the likes of Avatar, I
nception, Hugo, Life of Pi, and Gravity, but I love the Robert Zemeckis comeback angle, and the film's impending IMAX release only makes me more bullish.

        With both Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallée has managed to make himself a perennial Oscar favorite. This doesn't sound like a runaway awards-season success, but with Jake Gyllenhaal making more of a name for himself with each passing day, this stays high on the list.

7. Silence
        My brain tells me this film won't be done in time for a 2015 release, but my heart kindly reminds me that Scorsese never, everevereverEVER, misses out on the big ticket. Seriously; discounting Shutter Island, the last film he made to miss out on a Best Picture nomination was 1999's Bringing out the Dead. For those counting at home, that makes the guy 5-for-6 since the turn of the century. That's RIDICULOUS, and whenever Silence comes out, be it this year or next, it will almost assuredly secure a spot at the big kid's table. If I knew this was coming out in 2015, I'd have it ranked #1.

8. Icon
        The tale of Lance Armstrong's rise and subsequent fall is sure to attract some attention, and it's about damn time someone gave Ben Foster a role this juicy. Director Stephen Frears has helmed major Oscar players in the past (The Queen, Philomena); he just might do it again.

        After two straight invites, it's easy to see Quentin Tarantino as an Oscar favorite, but I have more than a little pause. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, despite their overt salaciousness, were both historical dramas, which gives them an inherent Oscar advantage over Hateful's undoubtably-bloody revenge drama. I don't love its odds, but Tarantino is surely a force to be reckoned with.

        A story centered around children at war in an unnamed African country, your faith in Beasts' Oscar prospects depends almost entirely on how much potential you see in pairing writer/director Cary Fukunaga (Sin NombreTrue Detective) with star Idris Elba. I see a lot.

11. Carol
        This 1950's relationship drama has plenty of attention thanks to director Todd Haynes' previous success with similar material (Far From Heaven). I'm not as bullish as many, a starring tandem of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara is certainly nothing to scoff at.

        Even after about half of Hollywood signed on and subsequently dropped out, we're still looking at an awfully impressive collection of talent, and a subject that's sure to attract attention. From director Danny Boyle down to stars Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet, everything here feels like an odd fit; we'll see if Aaron Sorkin's screenplay can hold it all together.

13. Genius 
        Colin Firth as a book editor who effected the work of Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald? Who cares if this is Michael Grandage's directorial debut; Genius would have to be downright stupid to not generate at least a little Oscar buzz.

        Crazy Heart's Scott Cooper helms this tale of infamous gangster Whitey Bulger. The subject is juicy and the cast is stacked; this is a perfect comeback vehicle for star Johnny Depp, but does he still have it in him?

15. Spotlight
        Before The Cobbler took an absolute BEATDOWN from critics, Thomas McCarthy was behind the wheel on three straight beloved indies (The Station AgentThe VisitorWin Win). He'll be back later this year with Spotlight, a potboiler that follows the Boston Globe's uncovering of a molestation scandal within a local Catholic church. With a stacked cast in tow (including a maybe-we-should-make-it-up-to-him Michael Keaton), I like McCarthy's odds to finally make a splash.

16. Miles Ahead 
        Did someone say passion project? Don Cheadle writes, directs, produces and stars in this Miles Davis biopic. The fact that such an ambitious project marks Cheadle's feature film directing debut is problematic, but if this works, Oscar almost won't even have a choice.

17. Concussion
        A drama about the health risks of football set for a Christmas day release (in the heart of both Oscar and NFL seasons), and starring Will Smith? I'd have this way higher is writer/director Peter Landesman had ANY previously established clout with the Academy.

        A sad white guy contemplating suicide before he meets a man who changes his paradigm doesn't really sound large or lofty enough for Oscar's standards, but then you see that Gus Van Sant is in the director's chair, and Matthew McConaughey is in front of the camera, and all bets are off.

19. Truth
       As insane as this might sound, screenwriter James Vanderbilt has essentially been coasting on the goodwill of his Zodiac screenplay for the better part of a decade. His directorial debut stars Robert Redford as Dan Rather, a casting that undoubtably had a Best Actor nomination in mind, but is Vanderbilt truly up to the task?

        A historical drama about the early days of the feminist movement, Suffragette doesn't have a whole lot of Oscar-proven talent to hang its hat on, but it does have Meryl Streep. Need I say more?

21. Triple 9
        Gangster movies almost always have an immediate leg-up on the competition, and director John Hillcoat should fit the material nicely. The embarrassment of acting wealth doesn't hurt either.

22. Snowden
        The name Oliver Stone doesn't mean much to Oscar anymore, but as Citizenfour's Best Documentary win will tell you, he's still mightily interested in Edward Snowden. The prospect of handing young, buzzy stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley such meaty roles is quite enticing.

23. Everest
        A two-and-a-half epic whose subject requires no explanation. While director Baltasar Kormákur's relatively unknown status gives me pause, the potential for spectacle, as well as a star-studded cast, keep it in the race for now. 

        A war-time romance set in the early years of Germany's occupation of France, Suite certainly appears to have Oscar written all over it, especially with Michelle Williams in the lead. It was supposed to come out last year; why the wait?

25. Trumbo
        Bryan Cranston playing blackballed writer Dalton Trumbo!?! I want so badly to be all in on this, but when your director's most recent films are The CampaignDinner for Schmucks, and Meet the Fockers, caution is in order.

        After Unbroken was nearly a no-show at this year's Oscars, it's probably time to give up (oscar-wise) on Angelina Jolie as a director, but starring with husband Brad Pitt in a period romance keeps Angie in the mix.

27. Brooklyn
        A darling of the Sundance film festival, you have to like Brooklyn's chances more than some by simple virtue of the fact that it already exists, and folks are already drawn to it. Don't sleep on screenwriter Nick Hornby either, who's been at least faintly involved in the Oscar race just about every time he's written something. All that said, there's virtually no star power here.

        Derek Cianfrance (Blue ValentineThe Place Beyond the Pines) has proven an effective craftsman of melodrama, one of Oscar's favorite genres. He's pulled strong performances out of Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and even led Michelle Williams to a Best Actress nomination; will the lead pair Academy favorites Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz finally take him there?

        Screenwriter Diablo Cody's win for Juno feels like it happened a million years ago, but if you want to make a comeback, riding with director Jonathan Demme and star Meryl Streep is the way to go.

        Jodie Foster has yet to gain any traction with the Academy as a director, but their adoration for her work as a thespian keeps this one on the radar, as does its smarmy Wall Street subject, and pairing of George Clooney with up-and-comer Jack O'Connell.

31. In the Heart of the Sea
        Man oh man oh man oh man, am I dubious on this film's prospects, but as I explained in my commentary on The Walk, the expanded Best Picture field has (until this last year) always made space for a big effects movie. And we know they love Ron Howard, so let's wait to cross this Moby Dick redux off the list.

32. Me and Earl and the Dying
        The Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize winner is always on my radar, but Earl feels a bit less enticing that Beasts of the Southern Wild or Whiplash (not to mention Fruitvale Station). It's undoubtably beloved at this point, but 2016's Oscar ceremony is a LONG ways away.

        David Gordon Green, now four years removed from his ill-fated sojourn into studio comedy (I'll stick up for Pineapple Express, but Your Highness was awful, and The Sitter was roundly reviled), adapts a documentary (that's a thing?) about the use of American political campaign strategies in South America. Casting Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton probably won't hurt it's chances either.

        There are no stars, and no plot summary beyond the fact that it has something to do with baseball players. Why have this anywhere on the map, you ask? Because it's a Richard Linklater flick, which gives me faith in its quality, and MUCH more importantly, the potential that Oscar feels bad for doing Boyhood one dirty.

        Gotta love the David Foster Wallace angle, but a Best Picture nominee with two comedic actors at its center? After The Spectacular Now, I'm ready to go to bat for director James Ponsoldt; I'm just not sure this is the project to conjure such certitude.

36. Freeheld
        A based-on-a-true-story weepy starring recent nominees Steve Carell and Ellen Page, with this year's Actress winner Julianne Moore in the lead. Does Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist director Peter Sollett have the goods?

37. The Martian
        In my heart of hearts, I still think the Academy wants Ridley Scott to have a Best Director Oscar. They've just been waiting for him to get back on his feet; the second he makes something pretty good, watch out.

38. MacBeth
        "I know I usually bet on directors, but Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in a Shakespeare tragedy CANNOT be ranked lower than this." That's what I wrote last year, when this was scheduled for a 2014 release, and nothing has changed.

39. Southpaw 
        Director Antoine Fuqua hasn't made real noise at the Oscars since 2001's Training Day, but I'm personally predicting a BIG year for (2014 Collin winner) Jake Gyllenhaal, and boxing has long been one of the Academy's favorite subjects.

40. Aloha
        Another director who will be there at the end the moment he makes another solid film, Cameron Crowe tells another Crowe-y tale about love... and preventing a satellite launch (?!?). Doesn't scream Oscars, but you know what does? Emma Stone and Oscar's new favorite, Bradley Cooper.

41. The Last Face
        Fresh off his embarrassing Oscar appearance, Sean Penn directs his first film since 2007's Into the Wild, a political fabe starring Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem. That all reads nicely on paper, but Director Sean Penn has yet to make a real splash at the Oscars; maybe it's his time.

42. The Danish Girl
        This tale of high-art and gender-bending wouldn't be within a mile's distance if it weren't for its pair of buzzy british talents. Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hooper have both won oscars within the last half decade; who's to say pairing them won't yield more?

43. The Good Dinosaur
          It's Pixar, which should be enough in and of itself to explain why I've got this one on the radar. Their early-year release, Inside Out, doesn't appear to have much interest in Oscar glory, which makes Dinosaur the pick. Pixar is certainly diminished, but let's not count them out just yet.

44. Knight of Cups
        The film's of Terrence Malick are always divisive, often racking up Oscar nominations, or being ignored full-sale. Early word on Cups hasn't exactly been outstanding, but when you've got a director who always moves the needle paired with four Oscar winning actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, and Ben Kingsley), there's always a chance.

45. Queen of the Desert
        Legendary director Werner Herzog has never made too big of a mark on the Oscar ceremony, but the Academy loves biopics almost as much as they dig period pieces... and this is both. Having a past winner like Nicole Kidman on hand also aids its chances, though it's tough to know wether James Franco and (2014 Elwyn nominee) Robert Pattinson affect the project positively or negatively.

46. Slow West
        I'm fairly religious about my Michael Fassbender fandom, and have been dying to see more of Kodi Smit-McPhee ever since Let Me In. A western epic would rank higher on the list if this wasn't director John Maclean's feature-film debut after years as a member of The Beta Band (?!?).

        As reported above, this is the fourth year that I've made impossibly premature Oscar predictions. Woody Allen comes out with a new movie every year, and each and every time, I include it somewhere in my Oscar predictions. Irrational doesn't really read like one that'll make noise on paper, but did Midnight in Paris?

        6 Years removed from a surprise Best Foreign Language Feature win, Argentina's Secret is being remade by the serviceable Billy Ray. Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts will inspire attention, but is the Academy really ready to see this story again so soon?

49. Last Days in the Desert
        Ewan McGregor stars as Jesus Christ in an imagined chapter from the forty days that the son of God spent praying in the desert. A film that so brazenly courts this much controversy would have to be awfully damn good to be invited to sit at the big kid's table, but this concept is way to juicy to leave unlisted.

50. Star Wars: Episode VII---The Force Awakens
        Why not take a flyer on potentially the most anticipated movie of the year? The trailer looks great, the cast is unbelievable, and director J.J. Abrams has already steered this sort of vehicle mightily close to the Best Picture race with Star Trek. All that said, if The Empire Strikes Back couldn't muster an invite...

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Modest Mouse: Strangers to Ourselves (Release Date: 3-17-2015)

        "We're getting old, Collin."

        These were the words that came out of my friend's mouth when I hazily recalled that Modest Mouse's break-through single Float On met the world in the year 2004 (February 14th, for the record). It's not uncommon to hear people say things like, "I love Modest Mouse, but not their new stuff," the kind of sentiment that ignores just how long it's been since said heyday existed. The gentle, nihilistic, indier-than-indie version of the band has been gone for at least a decade now, ushered out on the coat-tails of that aforementioned shooting star, if not a touch sooner. Strangers to Ourselves, the outfit's first LP in eight years, does everything it can to double-down on what's essentially the six-piece's second act; those with no use for the power chords and crisp production that define the last decade of MM will have nothing to latch on to here, and might as well stop reading, and chalk this one up as a loss. If your faith has remained unwavering, I'd stick around.

        Strangers opens with a one-two punch that perhaps knowingly harkens back to the pair of tracks that greeted us on their mainstream breakthrough Good News For People Who Love Bad News; The title track floats about weightlessly in a manner that recalls The World At Large, while the jaunty, radio-ready Lampshades on Fire is clearly gunning for Float On, if not their subsequent album's lead single Dashboard. In other words, we're about six and a half minutes into the band's new release before the parameters are all but set. Strangers is by no means a bad album, but it is one rife with limitations and predictability, a curious result given the LP's near-decade gestation period. As an admitted fan, there are far worse things to listen to than a new Modest Mouse record, but everything here files neatly into three categories: Enjoyable Retreads of Past Favorites (Sugar Boats/Dance Hall) (The Best Room/Bury Me With It), Less Enjoyable Retreads of Past Favorites (Coyotes/Blame it on the Tetons) (The Tortoise and the Tourist/March Into the Sea), and finally Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996), a miss-fire so wrong-headed and obnoxious that true analysis would be a waste of time. You know those check marks on your itunes that allow you to automatically skip a song each time if simply unchecked? That feature was designed for Pistol.

        As strange as this might sound, one of my favorite aspects of the album is vocalist Issac Brock's relentless pessimism in the face of his mounting years. Most artists who knowingly slip into the second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) stage of their careers make some sort of semi-believable stab at hard-earned optimism, but Brock, now over two decades into his stint as Modest Mouse's leading man, simply can't find any room to let the sun shine in. The 39-year-old responsible for lines like, "I'm trying to drink away the part of the day that I cannot sleep away," and recording songs entitled Talking Shit About a Pretty SunsetDark Center of the Universe, and Alone Down There, is still alive and well, as witnessed on scummy Shit in Your Cut, nihilistic Pups to Dust, and album standout Ansel. The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box might not reach such heights of negativity, but its surreal lyrics make it a standout in Brock's longwinded lyrical canon.

        The difficulty behind writing this particular album review derives not from the indescribable, but from the readily described. Some folks never want to see shade thrown on Modest Mouse, no matter the circumstance; others find it near impossible to give their post-The Lonesome Crowded West career even the slightest of passes. Both sides will find ample fodder within Strangers. It'd be remiss of me to place this album on even keel with past MM triumphs, but that's the fan in me talking, and the aforementioned Lampshades, Ansel, Ground Walks, Sugar Boats, and Best Room show the collective in fine form. If you're waiting around for another The Moon Over Antarctica, there's not much to see here, but if you've loved this band for as long as you remember, and never jumped ship when Johnny Marr boarded, Strangers to Ourselves deserves a listen.

Grade: B