Films of the Decade: Vol. 7: 2016

Let’s go.

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Zootopia

We begin this year’s recap with another movie that appeals to both children and adults. But this time it isn’t Pixar (more on them later), although it is still Disney.

Zootopia is a clever film about a world where animals live like humans: they have jobs, wear clothes, live in houses, all that good stuff. And with that comes problems that look at lot like human problems.

The story centers on Judy Hops, a bunny who wants to live in the big city and be a cop, but generally speaking her species are considered to kind and sweet to be built for that kind of job. She does it anyway, and eventually gets assigned as a parking attendant, a job she takes on with as much excitement as she does everything else. She also comes across Nick Wilde, a fox who she initially assumes is a do-gooder, but who proves to be a swindler.

There are a lot of great moments in this film, lots of jokes for both kids and adults (the sloths work at the DMV!), but in the end the movie is focused on the idea of accepting people for what they’re good at, not just what they appear to be on the surface.

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Captain America: Civil War

While this is technically labeled as the third Captain America film, what it really amounts to is Avengers 2.5, since the events here set up much of the rest of the MCU’s overarching story, especially bleeding into the next official Avengers movie.

But in spirit this is still Cap’s story, as the fallout from The Winter Soldier becomes the driving force of this movie, wherein Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark finally learns the cause of his parents’ death: Cap’s old buddy Bucky Barnes, although under the brainwashing of Hydra.

The disagreement over the Sokovia Accords — so named because of the casualties suffered at the end of Age of Ultron — is the catalyst for a fracturing of the relationship between two factions of the Avengers. The realization of Barnes’ role in the death of Stark’s parents is the final nail in the coffin.

Yes, the movie ends with hope, since the MCU needed to continue to its end several films later, but there is a darker edge to parts of this film that wouldn’t return until the final two Avengers installments. This time around is less genre film than the first two Captain America movies, but it’s no less effective.

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Green Room

One of the more unsettling movies I’ve ever seen in a theater, Green Room is one of those movies that starts out tense and then continues to ratchet up the tension more and more as it goes on.

Starring Anton Yelchin in one of the last movies he filmed before his untimely death, the film follows a punk band on a truly DIY tour. They end up at the next stop along the way, to find it’s a “club” out in the literal middle of nowhere, which turns out to be run by group of neo-Nazis.

Before too long the band members witness a murder, which of course makes them expendable, and the rest of the film focuses on the band members trying to escape the gang, with increased violence.

Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, Green Room is one of those take you by the throat movies that you simultaneously can’t take your eyes off of and don’t want to keep looking at, such is the nature of the violence. But its insanity and pacing works to its advantage, and not to mention that it is excellently made by writer/director Jeremy Saulnier.

It’s unforgettable, but mostly because the wildness of what happens on screen is almost unbelievable.

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The Nice Guys

From Shane Black, the guy who brought us such movies as Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Iron Man 3 (it’s good, people), comes a movie that feels like the best combination of everything he’d done up to that point (okay, maybe not IM3). The Nice Guys features two fantastic, witty, and self-effacing performances from Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, as two private eyes looking to make it big in 1970’s LA.

One of the things that Black does so well as a writer is dialogue, the the quality of that in this film is never in question. And Gosling and Crowe look like they’re having the best time, even when the film calls for them to get beat up or knocked around, which is quite frequently.

It’s often hilarious and almost always a great time, and also features an absolutely fantastic mystery on top of everything else.

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Finding Dory

If there was ever a Pixar movie that called for more investigation into its world, the underwater world of Finding Nemo certainly feels like one of the better options. It took thirteen years, but Pixar finally returned to the sea to tell the story of one of the best supporting characters in its arsenal: lovable, forgetful Dory.

Still voiced with genuine charm and sweetness by Ellen Degeneres, Dory’s story is essentially Nemo’s in reverse: she’s off to find her parents, who, of course, she can’t remember. Through a series of spotty memories, her journey leads her to the Marine Life Institute, where she hopes to find them.

Along the way we meet more interesting characters such as Hank the octopus, Destiny the whale, and Bailey her neighbor. While maybe lacking some of the originality of the first Finding film, Dory’s story is just as sweet and tear-jerking as the first time around. And Nemo is even around to help her out this time.

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La La Land

It’s funny what happened to the discourse about this film during its run in theaters and during the Oscar race in late 2015 into 2016.

When it debuted at the Venice Film Festival in last August, the film was critically acclaimed, and immediately hailed as the frontrunner for Best Picture, among many other awards at the Oscars. It played at several other festivals, like Telluride, Toronto, and AFI before officially premiering in — where else — Los Angeles in early December. Again, the acclaim was great and the expectations were high.

Then, as often happens in this day and age, the think pieces started coming in, as they often do for movies like this that seem to have leg up on the Best Picture award, and another film, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, started getting mentioned in the conversation, too.

The movie ended up making over $446,000,000 worldwide, was nominated for 14 Oscars (winning six, Director, Best Actress, cinematography, original score, original song, and production design), and maintaining its critical acclaim. It also famously almost won Best Picture, and in fact did for a moment, before it was realized that the wrong card had been read and Moonlight had prevailed.

And yet to me, none of this matters; what matters is the general feeling of excitement that watching this film — the first time and every time since — gives me. I love the performances, I love the story, I love the songs, I even love the way the movie ends, which I would have never seen coming.

Simply put: it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. Not just of 2016. Not just of this last decade. Ever.

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Sully

Having just returned from seeing Clint Eastwood’s most recent film, Richard Jewell, the story of the man accused of the Atlanta Olympic bombing, my friend and I asked the same question: what was the last great Eastwood film?

The answer, we surmised, might go as far back as Mystic River from 2003, but might also include Invictus from 2009, and most definitely Sully, the story of the man who piloted, and then was forced to explain why he’d lost control of, the plane that landed in the Hudson River in 2009.

If I hadn’t seen the aftermath of the event with my own eyes (and also happen to know someone who was on the plane), I wouldn’t have believed it actually happen. This is probably why there was an investigation into the matter, as heroic as Captain Chesley Sullenberger, better known as Sully, was on that day.

The film is focused on that hearing, which allows the filmmakers to show the crash, recreated with great intensity and intricacy, from various angles and points of view. Sully likely experienced this throughout the investigation, and the film takes great care to show that even though he needed to intelligently make the case for his choices, that needing to do so agonized the pilot greatly.

Featuring an outstanding performance from Tom Hanks, who failed to score an Oscar nomination, Sully is a wildly well made film, as we as come to expect from Eastwood as a director.

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Arrival

A sci-fi film that isn’t particularly interested in answers or explanations, Arrival is a thoughtful, intelligent movie about the power of language, the importance of communication, and the reasons for the choices we make.

Amy Adams is spectacular in a role that asks her to do a lot of work and be on screen throughout most of the movie. The film paints her as a mother who lost her child, but there is a wild twist that only works because of the mysterious nature of the aliens that arrive as the film opens.

Great science fiction is not necessarily focused on aliens who are coming to take over the world and the violent ends that come because of them, but often works as allegory for the current world we find ourselves in. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young create a visually beautiful version of our world, but writer Eric Heisserer clearly has bigger things on his mind.

I won’t spoil the ending, even all these years later, because if you haven’t seen Arrival yet, it’s certainly worth not knowing going into it. But suffice it to say it says a lot about humanity, even as the story focuses on aliens arriving on Earth.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

There are a lot of questions about the direction of the Star Wars universe as it has been working towards the ending of the Skywalker Saga since The Force Awakens. While Disney continues to movie forward with planned movies once The Rise of Skywalker is released, many question what the focus will be. At this point, we still don’t know.

But Rogue One at least suggests there’s a possibility that movies can be made without characters named Skywalker or Solo and still be of good quality. It’s the story of those who gave their lives to steal the plans for the Death Star leading up to the events of the original Star Wars film. This, of course, means that the ending of the film is never in question, since gaining the plans came “at great personal cost” to the Rebellion.

That doesn’t make the “how” they got there that the film looks at less interesting, and while the backstory elements of Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso doesn’t always work (her father created the Death Star!), the action, especially the final set piece, is often successful.

I still don’t know what direction the Star Wars universe will go from here, but there is hope that good stories can be made without the characters we’ve come to know and love during the nine films of the Skywalker Saga.

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Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): Hail, Caesar!, Deadpool, Zoolander 2, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (eyeroll), The Jungle Book, X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Cafe Society, Money Monster, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Now You See Me 2, The Shallows, The BFG,  Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, Jason Bourne, Don’t Think Twice, Batman: The Killing Joke, Suicide Squad, Pete’s Dragon, Sing, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Girl on the Train, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, Moana, Passengers, The Founder, A Monster Calls*

Didn’t see: Silence, Fences, Patriots Day, Hidden Figures, Jackie, Allied, Manchester By the Sea, Loving, Hacksaw Ridge, Moonlight, The Accountant, Birth of a Nation, The Magnificent Seven, Deepwater Horizon, Lion, The Light Between Oceans, War Dogs, Kubo and the Two Strings, Hell or High Water, Captain Fantastic, Star Trek Beyond, Independence Day: Resurgence, Neon Demon, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, Everybody Wants Some!!, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, London Has Fallen, Knight of Cups, Midnight Special

Films of the Decade: Vol. 6: 2015

Let’s get straight to it, shall we?

Ex-Machina

Ex Machina

No doubt one of the strangest films of the decade, Alex Garland’s directorial debut was one part horror story, one part sci-fi romp, and one part cautionary tale about the dangers of technology.

Domhnall Gleason is Caleb, who is expecting to help out Oscar Isaac’s Nathan with a secret AI project. Then he meets Ava, a droid who seems to be learning. Similar to a darker toned version of Her, Garland’s movie starts off uncertain of its direction, but takes a wild turn toward the end.

Ex Machina certainly doesn’t look or feel like a filmmaker directing his first movie, as there’s a sense of confidence and assurance throughout the film, something that would be increased a few years later with Garland’s followup. Even in its strangest moments, this film has a lot to say about the ideas it wants to convey.

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Brooklyn

This is one of the lushest, sweetest films of 2015, and one that was liked but likely not as well loved as it should have been. Saoirse Ronan continued another run of beautiful performances, this time as a woman who is looking to make the most of her life having come from Ireland to Brooklyn in the 1950’s.

There’s a clear level of care involved in each element of this film, from the writing by novelist Nick Hornby, to Ronan’s performance, to the direction of John Crowley, and the cinematography of Yves Belanger, everything is just splendidly done.

Brooklyn is an endearing film that has sort of disappeared among people talking about the best films of the decade. I’m not making that mistake.

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Me and Earl, the Dying Girl

This is one of those movies that I didn’t see coming. Based on a YA novel and featuring a less than appealing title, I wasn’t expecting a quirky, thoughtful, and often poignant movie about life and death and the impacts they can have on friendship.

But Me and Earl, and the Dying Girl is all of that and more. Greg (the “me” of the title) and his friend Earl spend their time making parodies of hit movies and otherwise being teenagers who don’t fit the traditional mold. When Greg finds out his friend Rachel is dying, he and Earl set out to make her a little less sad.

In the midst of the quirky films within the film, there is a sweetness and an honesty about this film that makes it stand out above other films in its general genre.

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The Lobster

Forget weirdest movie of the year, The Lobster might be the most bizarre, yet wholly original films, I’ve ever seen.

Set in a near future where the world has fallen apart, single people are taken to a hotel to mingle and hopefully find their mate. But after 45 days, if they haven’t matched up, they’ll be turned into an animal of their choice and sent into the woods. See. I told you. Weird.

There’s no explanation as to how the world got to this point, or even how the powers that be would actually go about turning people into animals, but the idea is so very absurd, I found myself giving into the concept without any explanation.

Partly that says a lot about the performances, especially the lead role from Colin Farrell in a career altering performance, which ground the film in spite of it’s strange ideas about the world we might soon be living in.

Exactly what writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos is getting at isn’t quite clear, but there is a sense that he sees something in the world that he finds strange and wants to highlight. The “leave it to the audience” approach is a little infuriating, but it also makes for a mind-bending movie watching experience that is never boring.

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Inside Out

In case you weren’t sure, I really respect the work that Pixar does. Almost all of its films are good, and often they are great or groundbreaking, and Inside Out is one that falls into the great category. Its characters are emotions, its setting inside the brain of a pre-teen girl named Riley, and yet its ideas are true to life and, in spite emotions being the focus, never feels manipulative.

As always, Pixar worked hard to make this film appeal to both kids and adults, with silly characters like Anger and Bing Bong combined with a real sense of what it means to look inside the mind of a young girl. Part of the goal is to remind the viewer how to properly handle the emotions that rear themselves on a daily basis, and gives kids (and adults, too) the okay to express themselves.

Per usual, the film is beautiful and features great voice performances from the likes of Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling, among many others. But the story and the truth of what it has to say are what gives Inside Out its staying power.

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Room

When I first heard about this movie, I sought out the book upon which it was based and devoured it. It’s often bleak, but more importantly, it’s told from a very specific point-of-view, one that didn’t seem to me to be ever remotely filmable.

And yet, using a script by the novelist Emma Donoghue, the film manages to pull back a little, but not too much so as to lose the claustrophobic feel that the story needs, especially during its first section when Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are stuck inside the titular room.

The movie, however, is mostly focused not on Ma and Jack being trapped, but on the way they are both still trapped even after their being released. The film is about mental health and the impacts that the experience of being kidnapped has on both mother and child, and consequently the impact that the mother’s mental state has on her child.

Featuring powerhouse performances from both Larson (who won an Oscar for the difficult role of Ma) and Tremblay (who, for some reason, wasn’t nominated for his wonderful work), Room isn’t an easy watch, but it’s a beautiful and important one.

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Steve Jobs

This film gets a lot of flack for its portrayal of its title character, the elusive man behind the success that is Apple Computers.

Told in the most unorthodox of manners, it is director Danny Boyle’s attempt to tell the story of a man who almost nobody knew through the very thing that most everyone knew him for: the introduction of his most famous products.

It’s an inventive script by Aaron Sorkin, who also managed to make an engaging script out of the creation of Facebook in The Social Network, and while lightning doesn’t necessarily strike twice for Sorkin, this movie is still likely better than many give it credit for.

Steve Jobs doesn’t achieve all its goals perfectly, and there are a great deal of questions about how true a lot of the story’s details are (along with some problems with the relationship between Jobs and his daughter), but Boyle and Sorkin’s film is nothing if not outside the box thinking.

It’s exactly what Steve would have wanted.

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The Martian

Matt Damon, it turns out, might be one of our best living actors. I say this because he manages, like Tom Hanks in Castaway and others before him, to make The Martian immensely entertaining and watchable in spite it be just him onscreen for much of the movie’s run time.

It’s also wild to think that this was among the Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, and even though it likely had little chance to win, that it was there in the first place was rather impressive.

There’s a fair amount of intrigue on Earth, too, and supporting roles from the likes of Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Donald Glover all guarantee the movie will continue to be packed with entertainment and star power even when Damon isn’t the focus.

Ultimately the point is that he’s always the focus, however, whether he’s onscreen or not, as the point is survival for his Mark Watney. And survive he does.

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The Big Short

That this movie got made at all is something of a miracle. That it works so effectively is simply wondrous, and is a tribute to the great cast of actors that director Adam McKay brings along for this movie about the financial crisis.

Christian Bale is here, as are Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, and Marisa Tomei. Not to mention the massive number of supporting characters like Max Greenfield, Karen Gillian, Melissa Leo, and Rafe Spall, among others.

Edited at a frantic pace, The Big Short tries to make sense of all the numbers required to get even a basic understanding of what happened, all while maintaining an entertainment value that doesn’t make sense given the subject matter.

It’s a smart movie about big ideas that often leaves you exhausted as a viewer, but it’s quite impressive that it got made and that it works so well.

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Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

I’ll get into this more later, but The Force Awakens, while a quality reboot of the Star Wars franchise, isn’t exactly breaking any ground in terms of the series’ history. It hits a lot of the same notes as the original Star Wars, something that director J.J. Abrams no doubt did on purpose. And while it is wildly fun and introduces a whole score of great new characters, it isn’t a great film.

What it does is effectively kickoff the final trilogy of the now-called Skywalker Saga in a way that feels lovingly done and effectively crafted. Abrams is nothing if not a great ideas guy, even if he’s not always efficient in finding answers to the ideas he has.

But the characters of Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, Oscar Isaac’s Poe, BB-8, along with the return of old favorites like Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Carrie Fisher’s Leia, and the brief cameo from Mark Hamill are all effective and pull you into the universe yet again.

To my mind, the series would get better from here (although the ending remains to be seen), but The Force Awakens is a truly effective restart to the saga of a galaxy far, far away.

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The Revenant

I’ll begin with this: as well made and effective as The Revenant is, it remains a movie I have no intention of seeing again.

Based on the true story of Hugh Glass, who survived being mauled by a bear on the American frontier in the early 1800’s, only to pull himself back to civilization by the power of sheer will.

The role won star Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar, something many thought was well overdue, and while it isn’t my personal favorite of his performances, the immense physicality of the role certainly pushed him ahead in the Oscar race.

But like I said, this movie, while beautiful shot by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki and under the direction of Alejandro G. Inarritu, who won his second straight Best Director Oscar for this film, is a difficult rewatch. That’s exactly why I haven’t watched it since the first time I saw it, and have no intention to revisit it any time soon.

That says nothing about its quality, just how difficult a film it is to watch.

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Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): The End of the Tour*, The Last Five Years, Chappie, The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Man Up, Mad Max: Fury Road, Tomorrowland, Irrational Man, Aloha, Jurassic World, Results, Ant-Man, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation*, Paper Towns, Spotlight*, Pitch Perfect 2, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Bridge of Spies*, Spectre, The Peanuts Movie, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, The Good Dinosaur, Creed, Macbeth, In the Heart of the Sea, Concussion, Joy

Didn’t see: Point Break, The Hateful Eight, Carol, Crimson Peak, Beasts of No Nation, The Walk, Pan, 99 Homes, The Intern, Trumbo, Our Brand is Crisis, The Visit, Suffragette, Anomalisa, War Room, Straight Outta Compton, The Man from UNCLE, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Fantastic Four, The Gift, Mr. Holmes, Self/less, Magic Mike XXL, Ted 2, Amy, Southpaw, San Andreas, Poltergeist, Sicario, Spy, The Age of Adaline, Far From the Madding Crowd, Furious 7, Get Hard, Trainwreck, Hello, My Name Is Doris, Focus, McFarland USA, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, Cinderella, Fifty Shades of Gray, Jupiter Ascending, Dope, Tangerine, Cake, The Wedding Ringer, Blackhat

Films of the Decade: Vol. 4: 2013

As the end of the year (and decade) slowly approaches, I’m getting concerned I won’t be able to finish this. But my goal remains to get to 2019, even if these become daily updates between now and Christmas.

And so on we move to 2013!

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Warm Bodies

To be sure, the movie version of a teen novel about a zombie who seems to be reversing his un-deadness doesn’t sound like fodder for a movie I’d like, but somehow Warm Bodies feels lived in and intentional in its setup, to the point where it was both funny and heartwarming, neither of which you’d expect from a movie of its kind.

It’s ultimately a love story between Nicholas Hoult’s zombie R and Teresa Palmer’s zombie-friendly Julie, the latter of whom saves the former when she’s attacked. It wears its Shakespearean influences on its sleeves (instead of Montagues and Capulets, it’s zombies and non-zombies), but it also moves at a great pace and packs in the humor, too.

While not conventionally great cinema, it does stand up as one of the more entertaining films of its year.

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Much Ado About Nothing

Seeking a break from the gargantuan nature of filming his Marvel movie, director Joss Whedon decided to follow up his massive hit with a much smaller idea: a modern day retelling of a Shakespeare play.

Whedon’s movie essentially places the play in one location — the director’s own home, in reality — and casts his friends to play the roles. What you end up with is kind of like the types of movies kids might have made in their backyard, except much more expertly made and acted.

Shot is gorgeous black-and-white, Whedon’s film feels like the director is finally able to exhale after all the work he did on The Avengers, and while almost nobody saw the movie (it took in a whopping $171,942 on its opening weekend, barely eclipsing $5 million worldwide in box office), it feels light, breezy, and infinitely watchable.

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The Way, Way Back

Speaking of delightful films with loads of heart, I give you The Way, Way Back, a film that successfully turns Steve Carrell into a grade-A douche.

The story centers on Duncan, a young boy whose mother, played by Toni Collette, is dating Trent, played Carrell, but doesn’t really recognize what an awful guy he is. They go on vacation to Trent’s beach house, a place Duncan does not want to be, since he knows nobody and isn’t the type of kid who puts himself out there.

Eventually he starts working at a beat up waterpark alongside its manager, played with his usual gusto by Sam Rockwell, and meets the quirky staff there. Rockwell serves as the catalyst for Duncan’s coming-of-age during the summer, and pushes him to talk to the Susanna, the girl who lives next door.

It’s not treading any new territory, but the film, written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the Dean from Community), is both sweet and intimate at all the right times.

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About Time

Not including this film, which features the song that my wife walked down the aisle to at our wedding on its soundtrack, would be a travesty.

On the surface, the plot of the movie is a little ridiculous. Domhnall Gleason’s Tim is told by his father, played by Bill Nighy with his trademark goofy earnestness, that the men in their family have a special ability: they can travel back in time to change the outcome of events.

The movie never gives the audience any sense of how silly this is, but instead treats the news as fairly commonplace. Tim, who at the time he receives the news is still relatively young, at first uses the ability for his own gain. He messes up a conversation with a girl he likes, so he goes back to retry, things like this.

Then he meets Mary, played by Rachel McAdams in maybe her best role, and while some of the initial usage of the skill continue at first, it soon turns into an opportunity to save his relationship, eventual marriage, and all the things that are related to them.

The underlying message, however, steers away from the science-fiction of it all. Instead, the reminder is that time, no matter if you can manipulate it or not, catches up to us all.

It’s our job to take advantage of what time we do have.

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Gravity

The story of Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s space masterpiece from this year, isn’t much to discuss. Sandra Bullock is out in space with George Clooney — it’s her first mission and supposed to be his last — when something goes wrong. They have to make their way to an escape capsule or else they will die.

And yet the film, in spite it’s simple plot, is a massive achievement in terms of its scope, its visuals, and for a performance by Bullock that far outdoes that role that won her an Oscar for The Blindside.

And that is what makes the film so great. Not because the film is “about something” or is “important;” but because of what it achieves as a technical and visual marvel. It won 7 Oscars (cinematography, directing, editing, original score, sound editing, sound mixing, and visual effects), was nominated for three more (picture, actress, production design), and yet somehow still feels under appreciated.

I honestly haven’t seen the film since I saw it on IMAX when it came out, mostly because there’s no way to reach the massive heights of the visual sensation of having seen it that first time.

I should end that streak. It’s really a great film no matter what it’s seen on.

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Many people refer to Inside Llewyn Davis as so-called “lesser Coens.”

I think those people are wrong, and I think that distinction is stupid.

Sure, like most directors the Coen Brothers have films that work better than others, they have some films that are more “important” or well received than others. But why this film, about a down-on-his-luck folk singer during the 1960’s starring Oscar Isaac in an utterly fantastic, welcome to stardom performance, is among those considered in that group, I’ll never know.

It’s a smaller film in many ways, of that much I’m certain, but the magnitude of the performances and the care with which it is made suggest the this movie should be better regarded, not just shuffled into the “lesser Coens” category as if it should be happy to be invited.

I prefer the intimacy of this film than something like The Big Lebowski (yeah, I said it) or Hail, Caesar! To me, this isn’t just “major Coens,” it might be “best Coens,” save maybe for No Country For Old Men, Fargo, or O Brother Where Art Thou?

And that is my hot take for 2013: Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the best films of that year and one of the best the Coen Brothers have ever made.

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Her

To call Spike Jonze one of our more interesting living filmmakers would seem to be a slight understatement. He’s made some bizarre films — Adaptation and his version of Where the Wild Things Are — and scores of music videos for artists like Kanye West, The Arcade Fire, and Lady Gaga, which seem to be his main focus these days.

But Her, a strange love story starring Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a man living in the near future who is riddled by anguish over having lost the love of his life, played by Rooney Mara, mostly in flashback.

He purchases an AI helper, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and as they learn about each other, Theodore falls in love for her, although the complications of the relationship are one of the many questions the film asks.

Ultimately, Jonze’s film is about loneliness and the lengths to which we will go to combat it, especially in our technologically driven society, ideas that feel more prescient than they even did back in 2013.

Phoenix, who is receiving acclaim in 2019 for his role in Joker, is much different here than in that role, but his muted uncertainty is what drives the film, and his sadness gives the film its emotional weight. It’s to his, and Jonze’s, great credit that this film, with his somewhat strange narrative, works at all; but it does, and it’s one of the best and most intriguing films of 2013.

Weekend of Music

Every so often–not nearly as often as I used to, and in some cases not as often as I’d like–I still get the chance to see live music. When I was younger and only responsible for myself, I’d go probably once a month, more during the busier periods of the summer, but for various reasons, I’ve not seen as much in recent years as I did. In some ways this is okay. It’s an expensive night out, and to be honest there are times when it just doesn’t seem worth it anymore. So there has to be some combination of the right bands, a good night, great location or something along those lines to really pique my interest. This past weekend, however, I found myself attending not one, but two shows, and it was one of the better weekends I’ve had in a while.

On Saturday night, my wife, my dad and I drove to Atlanta to see Switchfoot, Colony House and Tyson Motsenbocker at the Tabernacle. Since I moved to the Charlotte area, I’ve driven to Atlanta maybe a half a dozen or so times to see shows, the most recent being when my wife and I went to see The Classic Crime on a rare trip to the East Coast a few years back. This latest trip was a Christmas present, and along with concert tickets, my wife secured the three of us access to The Room, a VIP lounge located on one of the Tabernacle’s five levels, complete with catered hors d’oeuvre, our own bar and a private restroom, a cool perk to what was a great show at an excellent venue.

Mostenbocker opened the show with a few solo acoustic numbers. I’ve now seen him three times in the last six months, and while he’s never played for very long, he’s always earnest and entertaining. More importantly, his sets always seem to have a sense of purpose and theme to them, something I appreciate a great deal. I will say that I am bummed that he ignores his fantastic debut LP, Letters to Lost Loves, but I also understand that he might be ready to move on from those songs by now.

He was followed by Colony House, who are probably one of my favorite working bands at the moment. I’ve seen them several times over the last few years, and their debut record, 2014’s When I Was Younger, is one of my favorite albums of all time. They also kill it live, and they’ve continued to build their skills as cohesive rock band over the last several years. There’s a feeling that exudes from a band that has it that together on stage, and Colony House, led by frontman Caleb Chapman and his drummer/brother Will (along with guitarist Scott Mills and bassist Parke Cottrell) have it in spades. Their music has energy and dynamics that is unlike many other bands around these days.

Switchfoot closed things out with a fairly expansive set. Like the others, I’ve seen them several times over the years, and even in those moments where I haven’t been following the band that closely or really been enthusiastic about their most recent album, I have to say I’ve never been disappointed in the quality of their live show. Sure, there are always songs I wished they’d played or entire albums they might have ignored, but when you’re eleven albums in, that’s bound to happen; but the band always gives it their all, and I respect that. While there was some emphasis on their latest record, Native Tongue, for the most part they managed to cover most of their more recent albums going back to their breakthrough, The Beautiful Letdown, which features hits “Meant to Live” and “Dare You To Me.” But as was the case with the artists before them, the most exciting thing about the show was that you could feel that the band felt there was a bigger purpose to their being there; and that while playing a great show as important, creating a sense of unity amongst the people there, doing good for the world and spreading a message of the power of love matter most. So for all the bombast of the night, I walked away feeling that good was done in that place.

Tyson Motsenbocker
Almira
Something in the Way
Kickball (I’m guessing, I couldn’t find this song anywhere, so maybe it’s unreleased)
Dreamers
Colony House
You & I
Silhouettes
Was It Me?
Learning How to Love
2:20
Lonely
Caught Me By Surprise
Moving Forward
Waiting for My Time to Come
Wipe Out
You Know It
Switchfoot 
Let It Happen
Meant To Live
Voices
Hello Hurricane
Love Alone is Worth the Fight
Live It Well
Won’t Let You Go
Take My Fire
If the House Burns Down Tonight
Learning to Breathe
Shadow Proves the Sunshine
All I Need
Float
Native Tongue
Where I Belong
Encore:
Needle & Haystack Life
Prodigal Soul into
Dare You to Move

On Sunday night I went with a friend of mine to see Copeland headline at the Visulite Theater in Charlotte. The show was originally supposed to take place at the newly revamped Amos’ Southend, but it seems like Amos’ wasn’t quite ready, so they had to move the show a few weeks before the date. I like the Visulite, it’s a smaller, intimate venue with plenty of different places for people who want to stand (as we did, right up next to the stage) or sit at tables or the bar. I waited outside for a little bit before the doors opened, a misty rain falling down, and waited for my friend to arrive with another friend of his whom I had yet to meet. Upon their arrival, she promptly made friends with the guy standing behind me in line (who was alone and had driven up from Greenville), setting up the rest of the night.

Many Rooms began the show with a female-fronted, serene, atmospheric alternative rock sound that leaned heavily into the melancholy and quiet. The singer told us she was used to playing shows alone, and while I liked their sound, it was pretty clear the band wasn’t something she was used to, as there were several pockets in the set where the drummer had nothing to do and, to be honest, seemed a little bored. She didn’t play a lot of songs, but she was honest and thoughtful, and I appreciated the songs. I would have probably bought a record if they’d had one, but sadly they were all out.

From Indian Lakes came on next, a band who I’ve listened to sporadically for a while now, and actually own several albums from, but I wouldn’t exactly call myself a big fan of theirs. They played a great set of energetic indie rock–the lead singer joked about how fun it was being the heaviest band on a tour for once–and I recognized several of the songs from listening to the records over the years. I tried to snap a shot of their set list from my vantage point, but just as I was about to, someone reached out and grabbed it, so I don’t have a full set list for them, but I’ve included what of theirs I can ascertain from what I can see.

Copeland finished the show, playing a nice mix of songs throughout their discography, touching each of their six albums at least once. The focus was split between their most recent albums, 2014’s Ixora and Blushing, which came out just a few days before the show. As they were playing newer songs, I was watching the bass player, who was situation right in front of us, who seemed to be reacting to many people knowing the words, and I wondered about how cool it would be to be on a tour just as a new album was coming out and watching in real-time how the fans were reacting to it. Based on his face, he seemed pleased.

All in all, the weekend of music was excellent, and while they were two very different types of shows, I appreciated the intense work that went into the making of each one, be it in creating the music in the first place or figuring out how to piece the whole thing together in a live setting. I usually walk away from good live shows with two thoughts in my head: 1) I miss playing for people and 2) I should go see more live music. But then I remember it has to be the right collection of great things, and I’m thankful for times like this weekend where it all comes together.

Many Rooms (in no particular order and missing a few)
Hollow Body
99 Proof
Danielle
From Indian Lakes
Happy Machines (?)
?
Dissonance (?)
Blank Tapes
Sleeping Limbs
Am I Alive?
Awful Things
Sunlight
Bed (?, missing a word)
?
Copeland
As Above, So Alone
I Can Make You Feel Young Again
Chin Up
Have I Always Loved You
Disjointed
Lay Here
Choose the One Who Loves You More
Safer On An Airplane
Not Allowed
Should You Return
Erase
Pope
Skywriter
Coffee
You Have My Attention

10 Year Recall: Copeland’s You Are My Sunshine

It’s been awhile since I delved into one of these, what with all the other things to write about, but as I was looking at my now-failed attempt at setting up a calendar for my writing for this year, this one jumped out at me. Maybe it was because the band in question–Copeland, of Lakeland, Florida–has recently popped back into the world with what appears to be a new album (teasing its fans with a random assortment of Instagram posts over the last few days). Or maybe it’s because the record stands out as one of the most intriguing albums I’ve ever heard and it feels right to revisit it more than others on my list.

Copeland is a bit of a strange entity. When I first discovered them, they were opening for Mae at The NorVa in Norfolk, VA, and lead singer Aaron Marsh looked like he’d rather be literally anywhere else, the level of his perceived introversion was so great. Still the band’s set was excellent, and I immediately sought out their debut record, Beneath Medicine Tree, which I probably purchased from my local Tower Records, because it was 2003, and this was a thing kids did back then. The album was guitar-driven rock with Marsh firmly displaying his heart on his sleeve on a record focused on his grandmother dying in the hospital and a relationship the singer was in at the time. For all its flaws, the album still has some standout tracks (“Testing the Strong Ones,” “There Cannot Be A Close Second” & “California” are the best), and drew attention to the band in the indie music scene of the time.

The band’s follow-up, 2005’s In Motion, leaned even more heavily into the rock sound, and even featured some tunes that felt like radio rock of the day, while maintaining Marsh’s signature lyricism and well-trained vocals. The band would never be considered a hard rock band, but their sophomore record is certainly their heaviest (although it also features some pretty significantly softer moments on tracks like piano-driven “Sleep” and  the moody “Kite”), even if that isn’t saying too much. Their third release started a 180 degree turn, as Eat, Sleep, Repeat is still very much a guitar album, but starts to see the band delving into new sounds, like xylophones, brass and more atmospheric sounds, along with time signatures that were a little non-traditional for bands in their genre. And by the time You Are My Sunshine came around in 2008, the movement away from traditional guitar rock had pretty much disappeared. This was a new version of the band, and is one of the reasons that the record stands out so much amongst their early catalog.

To be clear, there are guitars on Sunshine, but rather than being the focal point of the album’s sonic space, Marsh’s keyboard takes over as the primary instrument, with other keyboard sounds and more classical instruments like bassoon, oboe and clarinet joining a string section and more horns as staples of Copeland’s sound. There are even suggestions of electronics peppered throughout the record, something Marsh and Co would dive into even more for their next record, 2014’s Ixora. What results is a record almost entirely devoid of anything that sounds like anything from their first two records and only contains cursory connections to ESR which came before it. Sunshine is a tremendously quiet record that pushes Marsh more into his falsetto and other higher voice registers, as if the band needed you to know that this is art and these songs are difficult. Yet the songs are simple in structure, foregoing the more complicated elements of songs on the previous record, and giving into the truth that a simpler structure allowed the band to be more experimental with the instrumentation. This is a daring choice, and one that mostly works, even if there are times where the album can sometimes feel like it becomes part of your surroundings rather than standing out. It’s beautiful and never boring, in spite of how much it maintains its overall feel and mood.

For all its loveliness, Sunshine is not a perfect album. The inclusion of early-Copeland retread “Chin Up” is odd here, mostly because it doesn’t quite sound like the rest of the record, although the band does their best to not make it seem too far out of left field (partially by placing it early enough in the track listing, and deftly in between songs that really commit to the new sonic space). And as I said, there are times where the album doesn’t require much of you as a listener, as it is possible to not be an active listener for this one, which can, likely on purpose, sound dreamy and spacey throughout its run time. It should be noted, however, that really digging into what the album is doing is well worth it, as active, engaged listening is essential for really understanding this record.

It should also be noted that the packing for the CD version of this album is one of the last great CD’s I remember owning. The special edition that I owned back in 2008 came in a simple almost khaki colored box, labeled very elegantly:

Image result for copeland you are my sunshine special edition cd

Inside the CD was sleeved individually, along with a making-of DVD and an additional DVD with “music videos,” mostly made up of abstract visuals mostly befitting the tone of the record. While the quality or necessity of these extras might be in question, the care taken into creating something that people wanted to own in an age where digital ownership was beginning to take over music sales. Such was the beauty of the CD, I almost held onto it when I unloaded all my CDs a few years ago. Now I own it and the rest of the band’s discography on vinyl, and of all the earlier albums, this one sounds the best on that format. Among all things to say about this album, the care that clearly went into it stands out the most, no matter how you hear it.

First Man has The Right Stuff

I should begin by making it clear that when I like something, I tend to really like something. I don’t have a ton of free time to give away, so it’s my experience that experiences or hobbies that I feel middling interest in often find themselves cut out completely. This goes for music, podcasts, and movies as much as anything else.

All that to say, directors play a large role in my connectivity to films. Sure, I get excited for the new Marvel or Star Wars films, too, but mostly because of the content; when it comes to directors that I love, the focus of the film is of secondary importance. That list is short for me, mostly consisting of Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan, and, most recently Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash, La La Land and now, First Man, which tells the story of Neil Armstrong and his fight to get to the moon.

Chazelle, who recently became the youngest person to ever win an Oscar for Best Director at just 32 years old, has already shown himself to be a master technician, and stands with the aforementioned directors, and others like them, who seem to always excel in the creation of the film, even if the sum of the parts doesn’t always add up. Fortunately for Chazelle, that hasn’t happened to him yet, as Last Man stands up both in terms of its technical prowess and storytelling, which focuses not necessarily on the Space Race or the politics of America in the 1960’s, so much as it does–like Whiplash and La La Land before it–on the obsession of its protagonist and the impact that has on those around him. So while Last Man is cognizant of its surroundings–the politics, the cost of errors, both in money and lives–the film is full entrenched in the mind and experiences of Gosling’s Armstrong, whom the actor portrays as focused but flawed, driven but disconnected from his emotions.

The film’s emotional framing device is the early death of Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, who dies of cancer at two-years-old just minutes into the film, allowing Chazelle and writer Josh Singer to insert the thematic ideas of how loss impacts Armstrong and the astronaut’s inability to express himself emotionally. Gosling’s performance, then, is muted and almost seems passive at times, but fits the reality of the character as the film presents it. This leaves the emotional weight to be carried by Claire Foy, tremendous as Janet Armstrong, who struggles both to keep her life together at home and with the regular and terrifying reminder that one of these days her husband may not come home. The repeated refrain of death is one that the film handles adeptly, as its drum beat repetition serves as a reminder both to the characters and the audience that the cost is extremely high.

Much has been made of the film’s perceived anti-American stance, and people who have not seen the movie, from friends of mine on Facebook to the President of the United States have spoken out against the movie because of what they’ve been told. The problem is that these people, who misinterpreted a story about the film, are wrong about the movie and its treatment of America as hero. While it is true that the planting of the American flag on the moon is not explicitly depicted on-screen, the flag is shown twice in rare wide shots of Tranquility Base, and the Stars and Stripes are all over the film’s scenes, from a heroic shot of Armstrong’s son hoisting the flag outside of the family’s Houston house to the flags literally in every shot of the astronauts in uniform or in spacesuits, the image is an indelible one in the film. Furthermore, while the script doesn’t go out of its way to make political statements about the Soviet Union, the mission is clear: NASA has to beat the Soviets to the moon, and it is embarrassed by its being beaten, time after time, by the Soviet space expeditions. The reason this is not hammered home even more throughout is also pretty clear: this is a film about Armstrong and his obsession to reach his goal, which has little to do with the Space Race and everything to do with his own desires. The film is called First Man, after all, and time and time again reminds the viewer that this is Armstrong’s story, not the history of the Space Race or of NASA (if that historical perceptive is of importance to you, try Tom Hanks and Ron Howard’s HBO docuseries From the Earth to the Moon).

The movie is also a technical marvel. Chazelle and DP Linus Sandgren, who won the Oscar for shooting La La Land, make the purposeful choice to double down on the claustrophobic nature of the film by shooting much of the movie in close-up on its actors, to the point where Gosling, Foy and others rarely even have their full heads on-screen throughout most of the shots. While this doubles as a metaphor for the tightness of the flight capsules the astronauts flew to space in, Sandgren’s camera work, and the snappy nature of Whiplash Oscar-winner’s Tom Cross’ editing, especially during the scenes in space, continues to make the point that the film is Armstrong’s, and that the outside forces, other than space itself, matter very little. Furthermore, the exactness of how the rockets worked, how space would have impacted the camera, and the lack of sound are all part of the decisions Chazelle makes, leading to a film that is more internalized than anything else.

This is explicitly stated in the lead-up to Armstrong leaving to prepare to leave on Apollo 11, where he worries himself with packing rather than spending time with his family. When Janet accosts him regarding his not saying goodbye to their boys, Neil’s response is that the “boys are asleep,” and whether it’s true or not isn’t all that important. His reply to his wife, who is clearly yearning for some emotional reaction from her husband, is damning–they might be asleep, but that he can’t even be bothered to wake them up anyway in light of where he’s heading says a great deal about the man. Yet there isn’t a cruelty to it, and Gosling’s muted temperament remains, but the violent anger of Janet’s retort forces action from Armstrong, who agrees to an uncomfortable Q&A session with his sons. Something about that, too, feels right, as Chazelle has already shown the best way to get information out of Armstrong is to ask him direct questions, and that even then his replies are short. When his eldest finally speaks aloud the question nobody really wants to ask–“Is there a chance you might not come back?”–Armstrong’s simple “Yes” feels equal parts agonizing and potentially catastrophic.

The final piece of the puzzle here is the score, a masterful piece of work by Oscar-winner Justin Hurwitz, who won for both score and original song for La La Land, that adds to the tension of the film. Somehow, even though I knew that there was a happy ending for Armstrong coming, Hurwitz’s musical choices, including the use of a theremin, supposedly a favorite of Armstrong’s, ratcheted up not only the claustrophobia of various scenes, but also never succumb to tropes of action sequences. In fact, in places where a more traditional film might have swelled, Hurwitz’s score goes minimal, all the while remaining a pivotal part of the film’s overall impact.

The film isn’t perfect by any means, however, and one of its weakest portions might be that Armstrong was who he was. There doesn’t seem to be as much as a single heroic bone in Armstrong’s body, but instead he comes across as an intellectual who is obsessed with the task, all the while being beaten down by the tragedy of his choice to get involved with NASA in the first place. And while the decision to start the film in 1961 allows for the death of Karen to play a major role in his life and showcase Armstrong’s emotional stoicism, it does force the rush through some of the events, such as skipping through much of the Apollo missions after the test failure of Apollo 1, and relying on dialogue to catch the viewer up on that. Granted, the movie is already push 2 1/2 hours, but more insight onto some of that might have been enlightening; but the centralizing of Armstrong as the story’s focus also argues against some of that, too. Some of the shots, while intentional and effective in their desire to cause a sense of disorientation, sometimes come across as little too artsy and confusing, although to the credit of Sandgren, Cross and Chazelle, they never allow those shots to linger for too long. And while the emotionalism of the film is sometimes lost by having to spend most of its time with Neil, the core feelings of loss and an inability to cope with or express emotions, are never lost.

While Chazelle’s filmography is short (other than Whiplash and La La Land, his directing credits include the Whiplash short that led to the full length film and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a super-indie that seems to have informed some of La La Land), all of his films have been incredibly well made and all convey the connective tissue of what being driven can do to people, whether that be taking people you love away or causing your dreams to come crash down before your eyes. In a way, Chazelle has gotten a little more optimistic as he’s gone along, as his endings, which are always spectacular and moving, have gotten sunnier, even if they aren’t flat-out living the “everything is going to be alright” mantra. It may be that First Man is Chazelle’s weakest output so far, but given the high bar he set for himself–he’s already been nominated for two screenplay Oscars, seen both of his films nominated for Best Picture and won the Best Director prize–this might not even be saying that much. Even more importantly, not only is the backlash against the film as anti-American not true, it actually flies in the face of how much the film goes out of its way to remind you what America accomplished (a French woman interviewed on TV after the landing says she knew she could trust the Americans to do the job). But ultimately this is the story of a man who accomplished what he set out to do, and that although it came with a cost, he is finally able to rest and acknowledge his accomplishment, one that he feels is very much his to relish.

Underoath’s “Erase Me” & Shifting of Life

My first interaction with Underoath was in college, and they terrified me a little bit. Why is that guy screaming? I can’t understand a word he’s saying! Fortunately, this initial listen was via the band’s 2004 album They’re Only Chasing Safety, a relatively pop-centric screamo album, featuring a lot of singing from drummer/clean vocalist Aaron Gillespie, although the bulk of the vocals came via Spencer Chamberlain’s guttural growls and piercing high screams. Over time, I came to appreciate the energy of the songs, the passion of the vocals–both sung and screamed–and the overall sensibilities of the music. The album rocked and popped at the same time, but the heaviness of the sound covered up the shifty ease of the song structures.

In the albums that followed–2006’s Define the Great Line and 2008’s Lost in the Sound of Separation–the pop sensibilities of the band’s third record faded more and more, as the sound got both heavier and more sprawling, taking major steps away from verses and choruses in favor of more classical structures, parts and sections, movements and motifs. Some time after Separation, Gillespie left the band, but they added a new drummer, with whom they recorded 2010’s  Ø (Disambiguation), the moodiest record in the band’s album since their early black metal days before Safety.

And then they disappeared, playing a short set of farewell tours in late 2012, and played their final show in January 2013. Two years later, they released a documentary about the tour–Tired Violence–that showed a band ending under not quite the best of circumstances, as some members, namely Spencer, wanted to continue, while others wanted to get off the road and spend more time with their families and take opportunities to do other things. Later that year, the unthinkable happened: the band announced a reunion tour, which would feature the playing of both Safety and Great Line in their entirety, a special vinyl release for both records and, perhaps most importantly, the return of Gillespie and the rest of the band who created those records. The announcement was a strange and unexpected occurrence, especially considering the depth of the relationship severing that felt apparent on Tired Violence, and yet there it was.

I went to see the Rebirth Tour at Amos’ Southend in Charlotte, and it was a wild, energetic show, albeit one I watched from the back because the mosh pit frightened me a little bit. I also assumed that was it. But as has often been the case with Underoath, I was wrong about that, too.

Earlier this year, the band suddenly dropped a video for a song called “On My Teeth,” and subsequently shared even bigger news: the band was really back now and was releasing Erase Me, its first album in nearly eight years, in April. Obviously when a band of its size goes away for a long time and then comes back, a lot of questions are asked: Is this a cash grab? What made them go away in the first place? What will new music sound like? Initial responses to “On My Teeth” were interesting, but the opinions of the general public aren’t really of major concern to me at this moment; instead, I’ll say that I was okay with the song at first, but was especially less enthusiastic about the single that followed, the very radio-friendly track “Rapture.” Still I tried to hold off full judgment until the album came out.

April 6 came during Spring Break, so E and I were in Charleston with her family, but on the Saturday morning that followed I found myself mostly alone in the big house we were all sharing. After watching Everton play rivals Liverpool to a 0-0 draw, I decided to get some writing done and throw on Erase Me for the first time. The record kicks off effectively, with “It Has to Start Somewhere” feeling a lot like pretty classic Underoath, especially the They’re Only Chasing Safety era of the band. The two singles–“Rapture” and then “On My Teeth”–followed, and the former continued to leave me at a loss, while the latter felt pretty comfortably mid-career Underoath to me. Then comes the middle of the record–roughly “Wake Me” to “ihateit”–where the radio friendliness, at least a first listen, began to make me feel uneasy. This was not the band that had left in 2010, it wasn’t even the band that released a giant album in 2004, although it did feel like some sort of strange hybrid of most of the band’s history, save for one thing: there were several songs without any screaming at all.

The record ends with a little more traditional Underoath turns, but closes with the moody, piano-led “I Gave Up,” which matches the melancholy and the pace of a song like “Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape,” although unlike the closer for Safety, the final punch of Erase Me sticks with its softness, ending the album on a dour note. My issue was that upon first listen, I didn’t feel the urge to listen again; I just felt disappointed.

Look, I know what a lot of you are thinking: bands are allowed to change, and should actually be encouraged to do so. And yes, I agree with this. But even for people like myself who consider themselves pretty advanced listeners, sometimes it’s true that emotions take over higher level thinking. The weirdest part about this particular instance is that there isn’t a singular sound I wanted from Underoath, because I like the string of Safety to Separation all a great deal, but for very different reasons ( Ø (Disambiguation) never did much for me, although in going back to it recently, I admit it’s got its charms). I don’t exactly what I expected of the band in 2018, but initially I knew that Erase Me wasn’t it.

A week or so after the release, I finally went back to the album, and soon the ear worms began to dig in. There was something undeniably catchy about songs like “Rapture,” “Bloodlust” and even the silly-titled “ihateit,” and as I began to take in more information about the record itself–like Matt Carter’s podcast with guitarist Tim McTague on the making of the record, or Spencer’s appearance on the Lead Singer Syndrome podcast–I felt compelled to go back to the record, to give it more than the chance my first listen suggested I should.

For various reasons, I don’t think I’ll ever get to a place where Erase Me rises above my three favorite Underoath records–there are just too many outside factors that are part of the reason I connect with those three so much and they’ve been part of my life for so long, I can’t imagine this new album having that much power–but I am willing to acknowledge that my first impression wasn’t completely accurate. It’s a good album, even if it’s not a spectacular one to my mind, full of interesting sonic choices and featuring a band that finally seems to be on the same page, as weird as that is to say this many albums in. The songs that sound more like alternative rock tunes are catchy, but still feel genuinely Underoath in a lot of ways, and are certainly better than most of what rock radio has to offer these days.

The point of all this is similar to something I considered after the release of the second Colony House album: music as art is tough, in part because of expectations of fans, but also because it’s one of the few mediums where the fan matters almost as much as the artist does. Maybe that means that Erase Me remains a mid-tier Underoath record in my mind, or maybe over the years I learn to love it more for whatever reason. Either way, my ability to grow with artists and to continue to let them do what they think is best is always going to be better.

10 Year Recall: Thrice’s “The Alchemy Index”

For this particular edition of 10 Year Recall, things get a little tricky. Technically, I’m looking back at half of a release, the other half of which came out a few months earlier, in the waning days of 2007. Thrice’s The Alchemy Index, no matter how you break it up, is a daring piece of work. Coming off the heels of their critically acclaimed record Vhiessu–which also happens to be the first Thrice album I ever cared about–the band decided to try something unorthodox: they recorded four EPs in different styles, each connected to the classical elements of life–fire, water, air and earth. Volumes 1 & 2 were Fire and Water, with the former sounding more like the Vhiessu, with its guttural vocals and chugging guitars, while the latter delved into more electronic sonic choices and softer arrangements, with some pieces of atmospheric samples, making the EP sound like it was being listened to under water. In many ways, these two parts didn’t deviate too much from Thrice’s sound, and it was especially smart to have the 4-part concept album kick-off with the part that most fans would most easily connect with.

But April 2008 brought on volumes 3 & 4 of the set–Air and Earth–which pushed the band in two very new directions. If Water was a slight departure, Air takes the ideas presented on Volume 2 and makes them sound even lighter and more, if you will, airy, although the band chose not to take things too far into that concept. So while a song like “Broken Lungs” might indulge that concept quite a bit, “Daedalus” is something in between the heavier side of Thrice and this new, exploring side. Still, the EP again doesn’t stray too far from what came before it, both in terms of the this record and previous Thrice albums. Part of this must have to do with the major turn that the Earth portion of the record is.

Thrice’s interpretation of earth is a raw, wooden sound, driven by more acoustic instruments and a more rustic vocal delivery from frontman Dustin Kensrue. The songs feel like they meander more than other Thrice tunes, but a cursory glance at the timestamps for the songs suggests that the EP is just as time efficient as the others in The Alchemy Index. It also works as the closer for the entire unit when listened to chronologically. While Fire is loud and often overwhelming, each consequent elemental group moves logically toward the conclusion of the album; furthermore, the way in which the volumes were set up also balance out the set, as well as prepare the listener for what’s to come. The fury of Volume 1 doesn’t completely dissipate for Volume 2, but it does lessen, and the electronic elements don’t go away for Volume 3, but they aren’t as prevalent, giving way to more organic sounds, a foreshadowing of Volume 4’s sonic space. All in all, the collection is a well-considered, lovely example of what a band can do when it allows itself to stretch and try new things.

Part of that is due to the make up of the band itself. Kensrue’s vocals can range from heavy screams to soft falsetto, making him the ideal singer for ever-changing stylistic choices. Lead guitarist Teppei Teranishi is not just a guitar player, but a multi-instrumentalist, capable of playing various keyboard instruments, glockenspiel, as well as saxophone and clarinet. The rhythm section, made up of brothers Eddie (bass) and Riley (drums) Breckenridge is wildly versatile, too, making the constant rhythmic, stylistic and time alterations much more attainable. And the band works well within itself, too, never attempting to stray too far from what it does well, even if that list of skills is longer than most. They may still be a rock band at their essence, but the various talents amongst the four members of the band allow them to be experimental with that sound, and The Alchemy Index, for any flaws it may have, is the beginning of the band giving itself permission to try new things.

And flaws do exist. The formatting works on a lot of levels, but the record ends up being quite long if you’re listening from the beginning of Volume 1 to the end of Volume 4, and the stylistic moves can sometimes feel too jumpy. There wouldn’t have been a better way to include all of the elements, however, as making one, shorter record with all these styles would have felt really disjointed and disconnected. Fire, while being the EP nearest to the band’s “normal” sound, is honestly a little too overdone; it tries too hard to be a fan favorite, but none of it is as good as the best parts of Vhiessu, so it suffers a little because of that. The other volumes are more interesting in that regard, as Thrice doesn’t look to use some of the tricks it learned on earlier records. Otherwise, it’s not hard to see that this is an important work for the band, as it gave them the opportunity to branch out and express themselves outside of what was expected of them.

Last thought on this one: the band re-released the album on vinyl to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the entire collection (the vinyl came out in early 2018, bridging the space between the two release dates), and it sounds really great, especially the Air and Earth volumes, which are perfectly mastered for the format. The 10-inch vinyl format is a little obnoxious (2-3 songs, then flip, 2-3 more songs, change discs), but the packaging is gorgeous and feels like my first real collectors item record purchase. This isn’t my favorite Thrice record, but I appreciate it the more I dig into it, and the growth they allowed themselves to make on it certainly makes the entire project worthwhile.

thrice1_original

 

10 Year Recall: Ivoryline’s “There Came A Lion”

Yes, folks, I’m bringing the 10 Year Recall series back in 2018, this time with (hopefully) more consistency and thoughtful planning. The goal is to tackle the records in the month they were released back in 2008, usually as close to the actual release date as possible.

I’ll be honest, compared to 2007 and its relative bevy of quality/impactful releases, 2008 is a bit of a wasteland. Still, I managed to find several records to cover throughout the year, and it’s especially important to note that my opinions on the records/artists in question will likely have changed over time in a way things didn’t for many of the 2007 releases.

This year’s 10 Year Recall kicks off with the debut record from Tyler, TX rock band Ivoryline, who released There Came A Lion on February 5, 2008 via Tooth & Nail Records. At the time, I was a few years removed from college (I graduated in the summer of 2005), and still leaning heavily on T&N for my musical choices. I liked that they released artists who were thoughtful, challenging and, to be fully honest, mostly safe to listen to with anyone around in terms of content, all the while allowing me to expand my listening interests. In the case of Ivoryline, they fell under the category of bands I listened to automatically because of the record label their record was released through, although upon listening, I was immediately drawn to their high energy rock music, featuring soaring vocals from frontman Jeremy Gray, who also penned the lyrics to the songs.

There Came A Lion was a fun, upbeat album pretty much from beginning to end, save for a small drop in energy and tempo to start off album closer “The Last Words,” the song on the album that best expresses Gray’s ability to emote effectively and write about said emotions. The record isn’t clearly Christian, but the subtext of Gray’s lyrics certainly present a central message, with suggestions about God rather than direct references to His existence in the life of the band’s members. This allowed the band to straddle the CCM/secular music line, even though its connection to Tooth & Nail meant they were seen, first and foremost, for better or worse, as a Christian band. Anyone who knows anything about T&N’s roster, both past and present, knows this is a complicated notion, but Ivoryline fit into the band’s mid-2000’s mold quite well. It wasn’t a remarkably challenging or thought-provoking record, but Ivoryline write catchy, upbeat music, and Gray’s lyrics were sincere and delivered deftly, making it impossible not to like them.

Listening back to the record the other day for the first time in a long time, I discovered two things. First, I still remembered a lot of the lyrics, in spite the fact that my go-to Ivoryline album tends to be their sophomore (and final) record, 2010’s Vessels, which came out with little fanfare in the middle of the summer, just before the band disappeared, seemingly forever. Secondly, I was struck by how simple the songwriting was. Most of the songs followed the same formula: kick off with a few lines from the chorus or some instantly catchy repeated line or two, straight into verse one, chorus, verse two, chorus, bridge, chorus(es), sometimes wrapping up with those opening lines again to give the song a “full circle” feel. While this song structure is nice at times–it keeps the album at an even keel, making the listening experience all the easier–it becomes overly repetitive, making the album’s 11 song run feel longer than that. The main reprieve from the formula doesn’t come until the aforementioned final track, and by then the band has lost all chances to impress further.

Gray’s lyrics sometimes suffer from a similar repetition, as there are various times throughout the album where two lines in a row are just the same lyrics repeated back to back; again, as an every-so-often idea, this is fine, but as a lyrical motif, it starts to feel a little less creative than Gray might have had in him. On top of that, Gray didn’t take the time to explore the range of his vocals, leaving most of the song’s verses in one lower timbre and most of the choruses in a higher one (he explores more range on Vessels, but not to an extreme effect). In the end, There Came A Lion feels like one long song with some breaks in the music and lyrical content, but mostly hanging around in the same tempo, keys and patterns.

This isn’t to say that the album is completely worthless. Like I said, it’s a fun, upbeat and energetic record that, due to its repetition, doesn’t require a listener to pay a great deal of attention to follow along. It is music that is great for the right atmosphere, like an upbeat party or while exercising, but doesn’t ebb nor flow enough to capture your full focus. The good news is that not all music needs to do that; we shouldn’t have to think hard about everything we consume, and as far as pop music goes, I’d prefer Ivoryline to most of the garbage playing on the radio these days. There Came A Lion deserves to be recognized for all the things it is, and that’s why I can still revisit it all these years later. It’s a shame the band didn’t make it past their second album, because they could have become a great pop/rock band if pushed properly. It just didn’t work out exactly as it might have.

 

No, I have not fallen off the planet (and other things)

Dear Reader (whomever you might be), I do apologize. The holidays tend to do this to me, especially over the past two years, where they no longer just mean time with my own family, but now time with my family, and parents/relatives on both sides. So while this is a bad excuse, this is the basic reason for my lack of communication in recent days (or weeks).

I really wanted to write about my favorite albums of 2017, but every time I looked at the list of things I listened to last year, I felt unmoved by the clutter. The prospect of paring down the rather long list (I’ve been keeping a log of every album I’ve listened to for a few years now, and it gets really, really long) never appealed to me, and eventually it started to feel too late to write much. This top ten will have to suffice (in no particular order):

  1. Sinai Vessel – Brokenlegged
  2. The Classic Crime – How To Be Human
  3. John Mark McMillan – Mercury & Lightning
  4. Acceptance – Colliding by Design
  5. Lo Tom – Lo Tom
  6. Colony House – Only the Lonely
  7. Paramore – After Laughter
  8. Have Mercy – Make the Best of It
  9. Racquet Club – Racquet Club
  10. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights

Very difficult to mention honorable mention: Brand New’s Science Fiction, an album so loaded in light of recent allegations against lead singer Jesse Lacey that it makes it a complicated listen on multiple levels. Unfortunate. On its own, it’s a masterclass work.

All these albums spent a lot of time in my ears this past year; but 2017 was a year where I spent a lot of time in the car (I drive an hour to teach classes every other day each Spring), so podcasts tend to fill up the bulk of driving time. I’m still struggling with the balance there. That said, there’s a melancholic feeling to all of these records (save, maybe, for Colony House and Paramore, but I think the argue could be made that deeper listens to both supports my original statement), and this, I find, is what often draws me to  music in the first place. I don’t want music to inform my general mood; instead, I choose to create a tone to my life via the music I enjoy, and I think, given the proper balance, this helps keep my overall mood a little more where I prefer it to be.

For many, sad music makes them feel sadder; for me, it reminds me I’m not the only one who feels that way sometimes, and this is enlightening and empowering.

*****

I also wanted to write about all the films I saw this year and which ones I liked the best. However a quick perusal of the year in film for 2017 indicates that I’ve missed a great deal this year (I mentioned this in an earlier blog, and much of that remains unseen by me), partially because life happens and partially because a lot of the “important” films of 2017 haven’t appealed to me (thankfully I purchased MoviePass for my wife and I, so 2018 promises to be better on that front). My “haven’t seen” list hasn’t shrunk too terribly much, mostly because I didn’t list most of the year’s awards contenders, which have become the preferences when it comes time to actually go see a movie.

Again, I offer a top ten list, with few thoughts added:

  1. Dunkirk
  2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  3. Lady Bird
  4. The Disaster Artist
  5. Blade Runner 2049
  6. The Big Sick
  7. Spiderman: Homecoming
  8. Logan
  9. Thor: Ragnarok
  10. War for the Planet of the Apes

I did see The Shape of Water recently as well, but wasn’t as taken by its story as others have been (although it’s beautifully made, as expected). Still plan to see The Post, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Coco, Darkest Hour, and Phantom Thread before the Oscars in March.

Also, I thought The Last Jedi was a brilliant addition to the Star Wars canon, and if you didn’t get it, then I question your ability to have an open mind. Rian Johnson massively expanded the universe that used to exist only as a Skywalker saga, but now is free to literally go anywhere it wants in a galaxy far, far away. How that isn’t good for the series is beyond me.

*****

My final thoughts pertain to my number 3 movie of the year, and its a piece of the film that I haven’t seen anyone else write about (if I missed it, I’d love to read what else has been written). The father in Lady Bird is played masterfully by Tracy Letts, an actor I don’t think I’ve ever seen before (although a quick IMdB search tells me I have in U.S. Marshals and The Big Short, and that he’s also in The Post). To me, he is the hero of the movie, or at the very least he is the glue that holds the whole thing together; and while I understand this might come across as a misogynistic viewing of the movie, for me, Letts’ nuanced, thoughtful and caring performance is what gives the ever-fluctuating relationship between Lady Bird and her mother (fantastic performances both from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf) a counterbalance; Lady Bird never hates her father, instead he’s responsible for holding them together. Hence the glue metaphor.

Yes, ultimately the film is about a young girl coming of age and leaving a home she actually loves more than she thought she did (the scene where the nun points this out to Ronan is charming and telling), but it’s also about how important each relationship in our lives can be, even the ones we tend to overlook. Ronan’s Lady Bird insists on being her own person, but it is the sacrifice of her mother combined with the steadfastness of her father that allows her to do so. She isn’t who she is in spite of her upbringing, something that is often hammered into audiences by movies year after year, but because of this. Writer/director Greta Gerwig (who, by the way, is at the very least the inspiration for Ronan’s performance, as the cadence and timbre of Ronan’s American accent seems to match Gerwig’s to a T) seems to know this instinctively, but I believe the publicity for the film undersells itself. This isn’t just a mother/daughter dramedy; it’s a film about how our families (and, really, almost all our relationships) shape us, even the ones who do so a little less quietly.