Tuesday, November 5, 2013

2013 in Music: The Year in Review

As the sand runs out on 2013, it's time to take a look back at the soundtrack to the year. As is my annual tradition, I tried to put together a somewhat all-inclusive top 10 from pop to metal to rap. Of course there are a lot of smaller label releases that will slip through the cracks, but a lot of that is due to the fact that I don't collect vinyl and don't run in those circles anymore. And that's the point — everything I've listed here is easily accessible to the average music consumer and available on popular streaming services, such as Spotify. There's something here for everyone and I think that most open ears will even find redeeming traits about all 10.

Without further adieu....

10. True Romance — Charli XCX

There might not be a weirder, more eclectic pop record out this year than the one that has been delicately crafted with an eagle eye by Charli XCX. Famous for writing and giving away one of the biggest records of the year "I Love It" to Iconapop, she proves that she doesn't necessarily need it to make a stellar album. When her ambition extends beyond her talents, the production is still intriguing enough to keep you interested. And it doesn't hurt that "You (Ha Ha Ha)" is one of the best tracks of the year.

Key Tracks: "You (Ha Ha Ha)" & "What I Like"

9. Nothing Was the Same — Drake

Drake has redefined R&B and rap by melding the two into some unholy monster with his last album, "Take Care." On "Nothing Was the Same," he picks up where he left off and makes an even more challenging, but ultimately rewarding, record. Even when he is beating a hook mercilessly into your brain to the point of blackout, like on "Worst Behavior", he still pulls you back in with an unexpected rhyme. And that's why Drake is here, because no matter what he churns out at this point, you can't really expect what's coming.

Key Tracks: "Hold on, We're Going Home" & "Tuscan Leather"

8. Pure Heroine — Lorde

When "Royals", the hit lead single off "Pure Heroine", was first released on the radio, I was amazed we could hear something so sparse, soulful and honest on the mass airwaves. In the post-Adele world, songstresses have a viable career path and the teenage New Zealander has the voice and writing ability to bend the concept of popular music to her will. Evoking the writing and delivery of Lana del Rey mixed with the gusto and pipes of the aforementioned Brit, Lorde could be the real deal. And "Pure Heroin" is filled with dark, roomy production, allowing her voice to fill in the gaps so the wise-beyond-her-years lyrics build a world for the listener.

Key Tracks: "Royals" & "Team"

7. Save Rock and Roll — Fall Out Boy

My biggest surprises of the year were: A.) Fall Out Boy was releasing a new album. B.) That anyone should still care. And C.) It's actually pretty damn good. It comes down to their usual brattiness evolving from angst-fueled to being utilized as full-on swagger. Other than a misstep with rapper Big Sean, they effectively use cameos such as Courtney Love and Elton John to great effect. Singer Patrick Stump proves he is the MVP, elevating many average songs to be better than they really are. With "Save Rock and Roll", FOB is wearing its intentions on its sleeve and comes pretty close to achieving it.

Key Tracks: "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light 'Em Up)" & "Save Rock and Roll"

6. Hesitation Marks — Nine Inch Nails

After basically shelving his longstanding one-man band, Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor surprised everyone by announcing a new album and quickly dropping the longstanding industrial band's most accessible, urgent and refreshing entry in its catalogue. The fact that it was an outgrowth of his stepping away from his musical obsession for five years is undeniable. "Hesitation Marks" is a return to the basics of "Pretty Hate Machine" but with more danceable beats, layered melodies and blasts of rhythms to create a Depeche Mode power pop rush that is the highest in NIN's discography.

Key Tracks: "Everything" & "All Time Low"

5. Random Access Memories — Daft Punk

After an eight year hiatus, Daft Punk fans were waiting for the book to be rewritten on all the dubstep, house/techno artists who had capitalized in their wake. Instead, the French duo turned back the clock to create something akin to a 70s rave with "Random Access Memories". A much more organic record, genre defying guest spots — from super producer Pharrell Williams, The Strokes' Julian Casablancas, alternative hero Panda Bear, and funk legend Nile Rodgers — fans got what they expected, just not what they wanted. It's hard to review RAM and not talk about one of the biggest songs of the year — "Get Lucky." The highest compliment I can pay the track is that upon stumbling upon the song on the radio, I wondered why funk was on the pop station and why Pharrell was singing it. Leave it to Daft Punk to make a record that sounds nothing like what is going on right now, even though everything sounds just like they used to.

Key Tracks: "Instant Crush" & "Lose Yourself to Dance"

4. Modern Vampires of the City — Vampire Weekend

For such a critically beloved band, Vampire Weekend never connected with me. Too bright, needlessly quirky, and wordy for the sake of showing off their knowledge of the Thesaurus, they were the perfect musical embodiment of a Wes Anderson film. With "Modern Vampires of the City", the band has turned inward and embraced more musical elements to showcase their maturity and confidence. Trading upper class angst for psychoses and quirks for flaws in characters, the album opens quietly, crescendoes, and then exits as it begun. So instead of the usual Ivy League house party experience of "Vampire Weekend" and "Contra", in "Modern Vampires of the City" we get the late 20-something schlepping at a bar for the night.

Key Tracks: "Ya Hey" & "Don't Lie"

3. ...Like Clockwork — Queens of the Stone Age

The six studio album from Josh Homme's revolving door collaboration that is Queens of the Stone Age, "...Like Clockwork", sounds like every other QOTSA record while managing to be something entirely different. Sexy, dark, menacing, heavy, melodic, it's all there and it's rearranged to create a sonic experience unlike anything in their catalogue. It's doesn't explode out of your speakers the way "Songs for the Deaf" did, or hypnotize you like "Era Vulgaris", this is a much deeper, dense record that is still concise and just flat out cool.

Key Tracks: "I Sat by the Ocean" & "My God Is the Sun"

2. The Bronx — The Bronx

The Bronx has been churning out riotous rock for years, but they slightly dialed back the abrasiveness and turned up the craftsmanship to make an album that goes off like a pop bomb with every track. If you ask me why I love this album, I can't give you a definitive answer. Maybe it's just refreshing to hear something that honest to God rocks. From the throwback rage of "Under the Rabbit" to rewriting the rules of modern day punk of "The Unholy Land", "The Bronx" melodies are finally as incendiary as their riffs.

Key Tracks: "The Unholy Land" & "Under the Rabbit"

1. Heartthrob — Tegan & Sara

For an album to be the best of the year and be released in January, it has to cast a long shadow. Heartthrob manages to do this with its simplicity. It's not the most personal, artistic or even interesting album Tegan and Sara have ever released, but it's the most immediate, accessible and memorable. The melodies and production transport you back to the 80s and feel like they've been a part of you for every decade since. It's the purest slice of popular music you'll hear all year.

Key Tracks: "Closer" & "Now I'm All Messed Up"

Best Top 40 Singles of 2013 
10. Rap God — Eminem
9. You (Ha Ha Ha) — Charli XCX
8. My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light 'Em Up) — Fall Out Boy
7. Radioactive — Imagine Dragons
6. Suit and Tie — Justin Timberlake feat. Jay-Z
5. Hold on We're Going Home — Drake
4. Closer — Tegan and Sara
3. Royals — Lorde
2. Get Lucky — Daft Punk feat. Pharrell
1. Blurred Lines — Robin Thicke feat. T.I. and Pharrell

Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel is strong, but not strong enough

It's an age-old story — a child with a destiny bigger than he can comprehend grows up and has to fulfill that destiny. It's messianic, it's historical retrospective, it's Greek mythology, and — as with “Man of Steel” — it's the crux of many comic books.

Superman has been a part of the human zeitgeist for eight decades and his origin is well known, the last living member of his home world, sent to Earth so his race could live on. It's the emotional heft and how that shapes this Man of Steel that sets Director Zach Snyder's film apart from all the previous film incarnations, comic reboots, video games, and other media.

The film opens with a living, breathing Krypton complete with its own values, norms and society. We see Superman's real dad Jor-El be a real character (by Russell Crowe) instead of a plot device. Crowe does a serviceable job, but he's never really given much to say other than platitudes for his son. Even in death, he's a literal walking exposition, especially for Kal-El.

Jor-El, knowing the disaster that awaits Krypton and unable to convince anyone other than the pious military commander General Zod (Michael Shannon), sends the planet's first naturally born being in ages to another world. He promptly lands in Kansas where he is raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) being told to hide who he really is. Costner does a fantastic job being the cautious voice and level headed father to a boy who could destroy the world if he wanted to. Costner brings his down-to-earth nature and light emotional touch we saw in “Field of Dreams” to Pa Kent. It makes sense that Clark grew up wanting to help Earth, not rule it.

Being instilled with a fear that the world would seek to kill or exile him for his young life, Clark (Henry Cavill) fears his powers, at best, and loses his mind over their realization, at worst. As a result of his strange behavior, he is an outcast and has to endure taunts and intimidation, knowing that fighting back would show his other half and make him a target. Thus, this Clark is a weary outsider who is stuck in young adulthood, searching for who he is and what he is meant to do in life. This dreary, serious Clark is a change of pace from the usual, but a laugh or two wouldn't have hurt the film.

But his random exploits in saving lives has left a trail. Enter tough, enterprising reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Not a damsel in distress, this Lois is out to get her story and do whatever it takes to find out who is behind all these strange happenings. When she finally meets Clark, he shows her heroism and relates the sacrifice he's made to keep his presence benign. Adams is a great choice for this Lane playing her normal tough girl with a heart of gold routine. But it never really grows beyond that.

It's into this fray that Zod, who escapted Krypton's destruction, tells the world about Supes and tells him to come forward. Of course, it's not so they can start their own world somewhere else, it's so Kal can tell him about the Codex, the key to reestablishing a genetically engineered population of Krypton, and then Zod will use it to turn Earth into Krypton 2.0.

This leads Superman to decide if he's Kal or Clark, or both. And he realizes the full burden of who he has to become to truly be what he is destined to be.

Which leads us back to the messianic themes. It's been a regular criticism of the film, but those have always been a part of Superman's make up. It's just the first time we've seen it fully embraced. And while it's a little heavy handed at times (the framing of Clark with Christ in a stained glass and his crucifix pose), it's not dwelled upon. It's the embracing and flashbacks to a young Clark that grounds Superman in the real world and makes us care and believe in him.

The problem is, he's not really given much to say. Sure, Cavill is handsome, ripped, and charismatic, but he rarely has anything of gravity to tell or show us. As does anyone in all 143 minutes, really.
Zod is military to the bone, which is accurate, but we never feel anything other than hate from him. He isn't threatening and is not given a single iconic line (really? No “Kneel before Zod!”?) or a simple monologue, which is what we've come to expect from writer David Goyer and producer Christoper Nolan after the pair's stellar “Dark Knight” trilogy (say what you will, but the villains' monologues in each of the films were arguably the most quotable and enthralling scenes).

When we see Daily Planet Editor Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne) and Reporter Jenny [(Olsen?) Rebecca Buller] facing certain death, we're expected to care about them because of the Superman mythology, even though they're static characters in Man of Steel.

I can't tell if the script was sacrificed for the frenetic, thrill-a-minute fight scenes befitting superhumans and the superbly varying breathtaking-intimate cinematography, or because Goyer thought the new concept around Superman would get the audience through the film.

Snyder brings his vision of Clark struggling to understand himself as Kal-El and realizing his potential as Superman well enough, and the set pieces are what Superman fans hoped to see from updated CGI and effects, but while Clark's shoulders are big enough to carry the world, he can't quite carry the entire film by himself.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Beckham and Ferguson: Two soccer icons forever linked

(Note: Originally published in the Bossier Press-Tribune, May 17, 2013)

It's not often that a true icon retires, let alone, two within a week of each other.

But that's what happened in the world's game over the last few days when Manchester United FC Manager Sir Alex Ferguson announced he was leaving the bench after 27 years and global icon David Beckham followed suit Thursday.

Interestingly enough, these are a player and manager who will forever be linked. Beckham, a fanatical Manchester United fan as a child, was signed by Ferguson at the age of 14, setting in motion what would eventually become “Brand Beckham” (but more on that later). The midfielder with movie star looks had great passing skills, especially on set pieces — corner kicks, free kicks, etc. — but was seen as more of a productive squad member until he gained the spotlight he would never give up for his audacious goal scored from literally the middle of the field during an English Premier League match in 1996.

He made 265 appearances for United, scoring 62 goals and winning the EPL six times, Football Association Cup twice, and the coveted Union of European Football Associations Champions League.
He also won big when it came to sponsorships, capitalizing on his fame and looks to help pioneer the era of sports stars as salespersons. He could/can be seen modeling underwear, drinking soda, wearing Adidas, and using a million other products. Just his picture on a billboard in China meant that sales would see an uptick.

And Beckham was wise to use all this to his advantage across the course of his two decades of playing time, moving to high profile clubs in various countries across the world in what detractors would say were only an attempt to promote Brand Beckham — the press' nickname for his ever-present PR and lucrative sponsorship deals.

At the same time, it's important to note that Beckham has won championships in four different major leagues, including two in America's Major League Soccer with the LA Galaxy.

His high profile move across the pond in 2007 saw Brand Beckham not only bringing attention to himself, but an identity-seeking league. The brainchild of Beckham's management company and the MLS administrators paid huge dividends for the league as attendance increased, jersey sales rose, and the league got time on major sports networks.

But it wasn't always champagne and roses in this Beckham-MLS love affair, as he only played sparingly his first year and even spent part of 2008 and 2009 playing for Italian giants A.C. Milan. 

Despite these decisions creating animosity between himself and fans, he settled down during the last two seasons of his contract, bringing back-to-back titles for the Galaxy.

He left our shores for the glamorous French club Paris St. Germain in January of this year and promptly turned around to win a title with them this past weekend.

Say what you will about Beckham's post-United playing career being nothing but a carefully decided publicity stunt, but all the guy did was win silverware.

And it's easy to argue this desire to win was instilled and groomed under Ferguson's tutelage.

The 71-year-old Scotsman is notorious for his unquenchable thirst to win, inspiring lackluster teams to the top, just like he did as recently as this season.

In all, Ferguson won 13 EPL titles, two Champions League titles, and pretty much every other trophy there is. Ferguson had the uncanny ability to adapt to the league, his playing squad, and the volatility of the era of sports agents and money to win big. Beyond his utter contempt for losing, he had complete control of his team, being disciplinarian extraordinaire and using both encouragement and fear to inspire his team.

To put it into perspective, imagine if Phil Jackson never left the Chicago Bulls, still winning his 11 NBA titles, plus a few extra to boot. And he did it by eventually trading away Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and any other superstar who came to play for him. But get rid of the easy going, Zen nature and replace it with a slightly less grumpy Nick Saban and now you're getting an idea of who Ferguson was as a coach.

Maybe that's why it was no surprise he and his star pupil eventually fell out in a very ugly and very public way.

Ferguson's contempt for Beckham's inflating ego and distracting star power was no secret and it all came to a head in 2003 when Ferguson, angry over a FA Cup loss to rivals Arsenal, kicked a stray cleat in the locker room and it caught Beckham above the eye. Beckham made no secret of the injury and while never expressing anger or disappointment, he never denied it either, eventually discussing the incident in his autobiography.

He shortly moved to Real Madrid in Spain that following summer, beginning his world tour.

Of course, distance puts things in perspective and the pair have seemed to make up in the years following their animosity, with Beckham saying, “Without him, I would never have achieved what I have done,” after news of Ferguson's retirement.

When Ferguson leaves the bench for the last time this Sunday and Beckham walks off the pitch for good a week later, they will always have the bond between them — one of winning, everything, at all costs.  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dead show walking?

Mads Mikkelsen plays the not-so-good Dr. Hannibal Lecter in NBC's "Hannibal."

Sometimes, you know when you're watching a great, but soon-to-be cancelled TV show. Right now, NBC's "Hannibal" (Thursdays at 9 p.m. CST) is the latest dead series walking.

Too intense, too darkly violent for network TV, not cerebral enough for cable, it is a strange middle of the road. But the surreal scenes of stylized blood sprays, rotting corpses, and impaled bodies will no doubt confuse the CSI crowd and scare off the Law and Order lovers.

It's a shame. Because after a rocky, but promising, pilot and a more fleshed out (pun alert #1) follow up, the series seems to be sinking its teeth (pun alert #2) into its source material with episode three.

To those unfamiliar with the premise, "Hannibal" focuses on the early relationship between characters of Thomas Harris' "Red Dragon" novel, FBI Special Agent Will Graham and psychologist by day, serial killer cannibal by night, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Will has the taxing ability to empathize and envision murders and Lecter is helping him deal with these ghosts in his head.

Already brought to the big screen in 1986's "Manhunter" and again in 2002 with "Red Dragon," it could be easy for the writers and producers to ape what came before. Instead, network execs bravely gave the go ahead to allow the show's creators to completely reintroduce the characters, especially Lecter.

Hugh Dancy plays Will as more William Petersen in "Manhunter" than Edward Norton in "Red Dragon." Will is fully aware of the psychological baggage that comes with his unique and advantageous gift, and Dancy wears his fragile mental state on his sleeve. Not necessarily a heroic protagonist, but definitely a sympathetic one, we the audience suffer along with Will as mentally reconstructs horrific scenes only to endure maddening night terrors and surreal day dreams.

Mads Mikkelsen is outstanding as the not so good doctor. He wisely chose to not recreate Sir Anthony Hopkins' iconic interpretation of an eerie, genius maniac obsessed with politeness. Here, we see a cold, calculating, pensive murderer. Instead of Hopkins' caged beast standing at attention on the other side of a glass cell, Mikkelsen's Lecter is a free roaming viper ready to strike. The tension between the Lecter the characters see and the one the audience knows him to be is very unsettling. 

This is all heightened to great effect by combining the audience's understanding and the score's grating strings that swell in reference to Lecter's nefarious after curricular activities — breaking the fourth wall in a more subconscious manner than a wink and nod into the camera (the show's music isn't really so much a score as a clanging, discordant, unsettling atmosphere that lies somewhere between new age and The Joker's theme from "The Dark Knight").

The chemistry between Dancy and Mikkelsen is growing with the characters, having gone from an agency mandated inconvenience to an uneasy alliance that we know will veer towards friendship and end up at codependence before a messy end. Lecter is manipulating Will with their therapy sessions while Will uses Lecter's insight in cases and inches closer and closer to discovering who Lecter really is. It's the perfect cat and mouse game — we're just not yet sure who's the cat and who's the mouse.

Thrown into this modern Greek tragedy are Lawrence Fishburne's Jack Crawford and Psychologist Dr. Alana Bloom, played by Caroline Dhavernas.

Crawford is the worst-written character — a cutout of the stereotypical law enforcement official who only cares about results while trying to serve as an authority/father figure to Will. However, Fishburne's performance brings the character above mediocrity, giving Crawford a certain gravitas that the script lacks. You feel that as much as Crawford wants to catch the bad guy, he isn't willing to lose Will in the process.

Bloom evaluates Will's mental state for the FBI. Bloom is the perfect set up for a love interest — likable, sweet, still damaged in a yet unspecified way. But more importantly, she is the show's conscience. The only true, caring character who is not affected by their debilitating psychoses, madness, or crusade for justice.

Along with these great performances is some of the better television cinematography and set design you'll find today. The dreamlike techniques behind Will's crime recreations and nightmares along with the treatment of blood as paint across a canvas show a vision that is lacking in most crime dramas. The hunting shack crime scene's claustrophobic collection of antlers less resembles a set than a postmodern sculpture gallery showing. Interestingly, Lecter's murders are also presented in an artistic (you know, as artful and elegant as murder can be) manner while the show's other killers are more brutish and downright ugly in their killings.

Still, despite having everything going in the right direction and heaps of promise in terms of storyline ahead, you can't help but feel the masses will be turned off by this intelligent look into the worst part of humanity.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

FC Dallas crowd shows its fan muscle

Saturday, I was given the opportunity to be on the field at my first major sports event ― even though it may not be so major to some people.

I was able to attend the FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy Major League Soccer match. I know, many people, even soccer fans, will scoff at my excitement.

But the fact is, if you can go to one of their games ― do it. I can tell you, it looks, feels, sounds, and smells like a big time event. Well, from where I was standing, it mostly smelled like beer and sounded like fans singing, but you catch my drift.

After a small snafu at the will call window, I grabbed my press pass and some tickets for a couple of friends, and made my way down to the field.

Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas is the home stadium for FC Dallas. It's a mid-size venue in MLS, but is one of the true soccer-specific stadia in the league (which is a big deal since the league has a goal of getting a stadium specific for all of their 19 teams). Its size also gives the advantage that there's not really a bad seat in the house. Combine that with everyone involved with the operation, from ushers to their photographers, being professional and courteous, and it is a great place to catch the highest level of soccer you will see in the country.

I got behind the goal in the north end of the stadium right before kickoff to find the stadium was almost to capacity. And when you have perfect weather ― 70 degrees, slight wind, nary a cloud in the sky ― and the league's premier team coming to visit, it's easy to see why.

Most press folks who aren't photographers go to the press box because it's easier to see the entire field, you can sit down, you can type easily, and there's free food. But I wanted to be amongst the real fans ― the Dallas Beer Guardians.

This hardcore supporters group is the one that is full of life. A drum line, chant/song leaders, and hundreds of scarf-wielding, jersey wearing young adults let loose in the north end of the stadium.

They cheer constantly, sing their hearts out, mercilessly taunt the opposition, and give some much needed humor to what can, at times, be a tedious sport.

The game itself was low-scoring, Dallas won 1-0, but highly entertaining affair. It was everything you could expect from a matchup between number one in the western division hosting number three and the league's defending champions. In 90 minutes, fans were treated to an up and down game with a couple of disallowed goals, two saved penalty kicks, and a Galaxy player being red carded and sent to the locker room early, before a late headed goal won the game. Cue rapture in the beer garden.

And then it happened.

As the George John, the goalscorer and hero on the day, ran off to celebrate, an errant beer flew from the stand and pegged him ride on the temple. He may be a large man, but he is no match for a well thrown missile of alcohol. He spent several minutes on the turf and had to leave the game to receive five stitches.

But either it's expected or the team is just happy for the die hard fans, because John said after the game, “Yeah, they can get a little crazy sometimes.” You think so?

If that can't dampen the proceedings, what can? Nothing I suppose, and why should it? Dallas had won. And I realized that maybe, just maybe, the Beer Guardians and rest of the crowd had swung me from an unbiased journalist to a crazed fan.

If they can do that, look out America. Soccer is on its way.

As we made our way back to the car with chants still going on all around us and horns bleating in the background, all I could think about was getting home and how I would miss this. Anyone else miss the Mudbugs and BattleWings?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Review: "The Five Year Engagement"

I don't often write movie reviews, let alone those about films that have been released for almost a year. However, I recently watched "The Five Year Engagement" and I decided I would, nay, should, give this film a review. As someone who can relate to the dilemmas and struggles at the core of the plot, it equally bothered me that I couldn't like it as much as I wanted to.
It's a simple enough story: Jason Segel plays Tom, an aspiring chef who loves his life and loves his fiance, Violet (Emily Blunt). But all of that is turned upside down when Violet takes a job across the country and he sacrifices his career, and a lot more, to let her realize her dreams as he was about to realize his (running his own restaurant and marriage to Violet). 

Central to the movie are the performances. The supporting cast stereotypes are represented — the big, dumb best friend (Chris Pratt); the needy, overemotional sister (Alison Brie); the cool, womanizing professor (Rhys Ifans) — but they are all injected with heart and verve. For example, we know we're supposed to hate Ifans' Winton because he will inevitably hit on Violet, but we actually do like him, which makes Violet's indiscretion so tolerable later in the film.

Still, as good as the side characters are, Blunt and Segel's authentic, down to Earth performances are that much better. Their hero and heroin are a real, breathing couple and how their lives play out, while exaggerated for comic effect, are believable and even rational. 

It's worth noting that even though Segel plays a character similar to that of Peter in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (a script also written by Segel), Tom is not a victim of circumstance wallowing in his misery as Peter was, instead, we see someone who made a hard decision because he felt his hands were tied to do the right thing for the person he loves the most. And he ends up searching to find a way through its fallout, eventually disintegrating into a hapless, unhappy, shadow of his former self who works at a sandwich shop, wears old Halloween costumes around the house, and seeks out self-destructive hobbies that all climax with him having an ugly, pathetic infidelity. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Especially in relationships.

Blunt plays Violet as someone who is simultaneously seeing her worst fears come true in her personal life and exceeding her hopes professionally. She is not passive, but more at a loss on how to help Tom find the same happiness she has. She is torn between seeing her career develop and making her future husband happy, all the while, hoping he can just hang on long enough. She warned him about her fears of his possible resentment, and as he does come to resent what his life has become, if not Violet herself, she makes a mistake that seals their fate.

As good as the performances and script are, there are scenes that scream of a punchup writing job that crudely insert slapstick or random humor to remind the audience this is a comedy. And it's these moments that are my biggest problem with "The Five Year Engagement." Do we need to see Winton use parkour to escape Tom? Does Tom need to end up naked in the snow with frostbite? No. And while they do alleviate the heavy tone from what is ultimately supposed to be a comedy, they are at best a distraction, and at worst a momentum killer. 

Perhaps I could let it slide if the last scene wasn't one of these moments. After a movie largely filled with the same problems and emotions that couples can recall from their own lives, we are treated to an overblown ending that squanders all the good of the previous two hours for the sake of the Hollywood ending.

In keeping of the spirit of the rest of the film, why couldn't Tom and Violet realize that their insistence on getting married is one of the things that drove a wedge between them in the first place? It's not about their engagement persevering through sibling's shotgun weddings, deaths in the family, cross-country moves, jobs, or cheating. It's that their relationship — their love for each other — survived. 

And as anyone who has planned a wedding, they can tell you it doesn't get any more real than that.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A WAY Too Early EPL 2012/13 Season Preview

[Ed.'s note: Another soccer blog?!?!?!? Yes. Another one. I'll make this country love this sport or die trying.]

With the 2012-13 English Premier League fixture list being released and the transfer window now open, it’s time to throw out all common sense, switch off that part of your brain that tells you to be cautious, look into a crystal ball that could be better titled “hopeful delusion” and make a way too early prediction for the upcoming season.

Below, I’ve stuck out my neck and named some of the moniker games on paper as well as predictions that will come back to haunt me, such as the golden boot winner, manager of the year, UEFA Champions League spots, and the team that will walk away with the big prize come May 19.

First, let’s look at some of the games that you might not want to miss. 
The season opens Aug. 18 with Manchester City beginning their title defense against newly promoted Southampton. Everton hosts Manchester United — their last encounter ended in a late season draw that ultimately resulted in United’s bitter rivals walking away with the trophy. If Tottenham GM Daniel Levy can hang on to midfielder Luka Modric and find a striker, then Andre Villas-Boas’ opener as manager against a fun to watch Newcastle United looks promising.

Sept. 15 sees QPR host Chelsea in a rematch of an ugly game in 2011 that got Blues’ Captain John Terry a court date. Stoke City host Manchester City in the Sky Blues first real test of the season. While Sept. 22 sees Brendan Rodgers in his first Liverpool-United derby and Sept. 29 sees Chelsea go to north London to take on rivals Arsenal.

Oct. 27 has bad blood written all over it — the first Merseyside Derby takes place at Goodison Park, Liverpool will face Swansea City as the Swans face their old manager for the first time, and Norwich City travels to Villa Park hoping to take down their old manager Paul Lambert and Aston Villa. 
The first North London Derby of the year is set for Nov. 17 when Spurs travel to the Emirates to battle their hated rivals.

Southampton will face Reading, a team they should be familiar with, Dec. 8 when the two former Championship teams meet for the first time that season. Oh, and there’s the little to-do between the reigning champions and their neighbors in the first rematch since last season’s two epic Manchester Derbies.

The annual Boxing Day fixtures are headlined by a London Derby between Arsenal and West Ham United and Newcastle away at Old Trafford. The usually congested holidays continue with Everton hosting Chelsea Dec. 29 and Southampton vs. Arsenal on New Year’s Day.

Tottenham and Arsenal square off again at White Hart Lane March 2 and the second sure-to-be-endlessly-hyped Manchester Derby takes place April 6.
The last day sees Manchester City taking on Norwich City, United away to West Bromwich Albion, the Gunners at St. James Park (I don’t care what sponsor name the stadium will have by then), Chelsea hosting Everton, QPR at Anfield, and Spurs hosting Sunderland.

Golden Boot Winner: “So who’s going to score these goals that will make these games so interesting?” you ask. It’s hard to doubt Robin Van Persie considering his scorching form last year, but it’s safe to say last year was an anomaly for the man made of glass. Plus, he’s probably going to have to adjust to a new team. I really think City's Sergio Aguero will set the league on fire after adapting to his first season in the EPL. He made me a big believer even before his last day heroics that brought City the title. I think he’ll end the season with the metallic footwear.

PFA Player of the Year: All that said, Player of the Year will go to Man U's Wayne Rooney. Yes, I hate to hear it as much as you do, but I expect Wazza to grow with his ability to influence games by creating and leading, not just scoring. And look for him to singlehandedly drag United to near the top of the table much as he did in 2009-10.

Manager of the Year: If Paul Lambert is handed some cash to throw around at Aston Villa, that young team crying out for strong leadership can turn some heads next season. I fully expect him to right the ship and walk away with Manger of the Year honors for doing so.

Biggest Disappointment: Brendan Rodgers will be expected to improve on last year, and I’m a big fan of what he did with Swansea, but it’s still the same players for the Reds. The histrionics of Suarez, an aging Steven Gerrard, aimless Jordan Henderson, and lolloping Andy Carroll are square pegs in his round hole of beautiful football. Liverpool will still underachieve.

Biggest Surprise: IF Everton can avoid their annual slow start, AND they can hang on to Marouane Fellaini ANNNNNNNND get Steven Piennar back from Tottenham… The Toffees can challenge for a Champions League spot.

Major Managerial Casualty: Arsenal's Arsene Wenger. I know, he’s untouchable, but their inability to win a trophy (again) and falling out of the Champions League spots combined with no real ambition in the transfer market and a revolting fan base will mean the axe finally falls and the Gunners make a serious run at a relaxed, rejuvenated Pep Guardiola. 
Cup Winners: Carling – Man City, FA - Everton

EPL Title: It’s wide open and really hard to call, especially since the carousel hasn’t stopped spinning…Heck, stopped spinning? Euro 2012 means it hasn’t even really got going, yet. But I think City will assert their dominance in the same way Chelsea did in 05-06. Iwrote that the touchline spat between City Manager Roberto Manciniand United Legend Sir Alex Ferguson was a turning point for the NoisyNeighbors and I stick by it. Their inferiority complex is done and dusted. Look for their talent and depth to overwhelm the league this season.

UEFA Champions League Spots: Man City, Man United, Chelsea, Newcastle

Relegated Teams: Norwich City, Reading, Wigan Athletic