Women of Action: MONSTER HUNTER and SHADOW IN THE CLOUD

The recent movie Shadow in the Cloud sounds like it could be one of those occasional January miracles: an efficient, unpretentious genre mish-mash executed with no-fuss brawn and style. It’s about Maude Garrett (Chloe Grace Moretz), a WWII flight officer who hitches a last-minute ride on a bomber, where she is beset by sexism, then Japanese fighter planes, then gremlins. Shadow is so theoretically January-tastic that it dropped on the very first of the year, a rare release date made more feasible by the global pandemic, which has sent the film to first-run VOD as well as a few theaters simultaneously.

The hybrid release model is unusually appropriate for this movie; for its entire 83 minutes (or rather, for the 75 minutes it actually runs minus credits), it straddles the line between unusually ambitious, well-made trash and the chintzy direct-to-video garbage of old. The movie even provides its own convenient delineation: there’s the sizable chunk of the story confined to Maude’s cramped stay in the plane’s ball turret, communicating with her mostly-offscreen co-stars via radio, versus the mayhem-heavier sequences where she exits the ball turret to fight off those human-sized beasties. The filmmakers seem torn over whether its low-budget ridiculousness should be elegantly elided, or powered through with smash-and-grab energy.
Continue reading Women of Action: MONSTER HUNTER and SHADOW IN THE CLOUD

Liam Neeson Cosplays Late-Late-Period Clint Eastwood in THE MARKSMAN

There is no shortage of Clint Eastwood. He may not star in movies as regularly anymore, but his late-late-period career has featured so many roles that seemed like de facto retirement ceremonies that Gran Torino, Trouble with the Curve, and The Mule feel closer together than they are, spread out over the course of a decade. He has at least one more starring role to go; his movie Cry Macho is due out by the end of 2021. By then, he will be 91. The Mule, his last not-quite-last movie made $100 million in the United States. He is easily the most popular eighty-and-ninetysomething actor and director in Hollywood history.

Yet at some point, very likely in the next five to ten years, Clint Eastwood will no longer make movies. (This is not a prediction of his death, mind. If it’s easy to picture any movie star making it to 110, it’s Clint.) He will leave behind the perception that a certain segment of the moviegoing public really enjoys seeing middle-to-advanced-aged men put younger bad guys in their place. 2009’s Taken, starring Liam Neeson, is generally considered to have kicked off the modern strain of old-man-vengeance thrillers, but Eastwood was there a few weeks earlier with 2008’s Grand Torino, just as big a hit with an even older protagonist. (Neeson was a spry 57 when Taken came out, compared with Eastwood’s 79 at the same time.)
Continue reading Liam Neeson Cosplays Late-Late-Period Clint Eastwood in THE MARKSMAN

Track Marks 2020: “No Body, No Crime” by Taylor Swift

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

For poptimists of a certain basic sensibility—not that I have anyone in mind—the prospect of Taylor Swift collaborating with Haim was tantalizing. (When I learned the news about Swift’s surprise December album, I was more excited than I’d been for any new music since… well, since Swift released her first quarantine record less than four months earlier. 2020 was an undeniably terrible year, but it had its first-world silver linings.) But “no body, no crime,” the sixth track off of Swift’s evermore, doesn’t just feature Haim as musicians; it features Haim as characters. It’s a murder ballad, starring Este Haim as the scorned woman who confronts her unfaithful husband, who then promptly kills her.

Sorry, did I spoil the ending? Not really, though I can understand the complaint. With its potboiler tone and its canny details—weekly dinners at Olive Garden, fateful life insurance policies—“no body, no crime” is decidedly cinematic, a 1940s noir by way of the Coen Brothers. In just three-and-a-half minutes, Swift tells a three-act story that opens with infidelity, progresses to homicide, and concludes with righteous vengeance. The plot traffics in hairpin twists and grisly violence: First, Este confides her suspicions about her husband (“that ain’t my Merlot on his mouth”) before accusing him of adultery, at which point she suddenly disappears; then Swift, ever the loyal friend, responds by killing the killer, framing his mistress for good measure. (Her alibi comes courtesy of Este’s sister, Danielle Haim, who casually lies to the police: “She was with me, dude.”) The lyrics are so clean and sharp, they compel you to imagine the sordid scenes unfolding in your mind, Swift effortlessly conjuring a squalid world of cheap jewelry, incriminating tire tracks, and corpse-carrying speedboats.
Continue reading Track Marks 2020: “No Body, No Crime” by Taylor Swift

TRACK MARKS 2020: “JU$T” by Run the Jewels

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

I don’t need to go through the whole rigamarole here about what an absolute dumpster fire 2020 was. We all experienced it; we all read the year-end reviews that rehashed it; we all know. Many of us hoped the start of 2021 would bring at least a bit of a respite. How foolish that seems now. January 6th was just the most recent of days where it felt almost dystopian to be still checking in on work email while the world fell apart before our eyes. At a time when so many are unemployed, facing eviction, scraping together a living, anger often feels like the only legitimate reaction. What, exactly, is the point of clocking in right now when it has never been a guarantee that you would be safe or cared for or valued beyond your ability to produce something commodifiable? That’s where a song like Run the Jewels’ “JU$T” comes in, articulating such volatile emotions with the ecstatically blunt verbosity that has become their trademark.

Since they started working together in 2013, Killer Mike and El-P have built up something of a formula for most Run the Jewels songs, the former trading bombastic rhymes with the skittery energy of the latter. But over the course of their four albums they’ve made brilliant use of a wide variety of collaborators, from Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio to Mavis Staples to Blink-182’s Travis Barker. If your only awareness of Pharrell Williams was his “Happy” song being played on countless Democratic nominee stages, you might have been surprised by his appearance on this track. Certainly it’s a bit more unexpected to hear him sardonically deliver “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar” than when Mike and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine take up the refrain. But according to the Song Exploder episode on “JU$T,” the line was Pharrell’s idea. And of course it shouldn’t be a surprise at all. He is a Black man, and no amount of success or wealth shields him from what that means in America.

It all starts with four beats that sounds like a heart revving up before moving with lethal rapidity to verses that mercilessly skewer the capitalistic cycle that forms the backbone of our country and the parasitic ways it works to keep us, especially Black people, at its mercy. “Try to sell a pack of smokes to get food/Get killed and it’s not an anomaly/But hey, it’s just money,” El-P raps, a nod to Eric Garner when it was written but with George Floyd’s murder on Memorial Day became a damning indictment of America’s inability to enact any meaningful change. Backed by a choppy chorus of voices both angelic and robotic, like the sort of menacing call waiting tone you’d hear on Judgement Day, it’s an anthem that feels tailor-made for live performance. In any other year, you can imagine a huge crowd at an outdoor concert ironically shouting “Make money!” back at the rappers. In 2020 we had to settle for screaming into the void instead, but at least it was comforting to know that artists were doing it too.

Track Marks 2020: “One Night Standards” by Ashley McBryde

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

Country music is about form. It is constrained and traditional. It is so standard that, yes, it all can sound the same.

So what makes interesting country is a song that plays with its subject. A song that plays with rhyme. One that’s clever and smart and self-aware of the constraints that it lives in.
Continue reading Track Marks 2020: “One Night Standards” by Ashley McBryde

TRACK MARKS 2020: “Stain” by Soccer Mommy

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

It’s barely even a riff. Just four notes, two of them repeated—dun-dun da-doom. And with those quick plucks of her guitar strings, Sophie Allison suddenly drains her typically whimsical songwriting of all color and hope. The penultimate track on Color Theory, Allison’s second album as Soccer Mommy, “stain” is a stark departure; there are no gentle choruses or hummable bridges. But there isn’t angst or despair either; though she’s examining the dying embers of a failed relationship, Allison is too lucid to lapse into self-pity. Instead, the primary sensation of “stain” is absence. It feels like a void, like a sonic representation of the lack of connection. No wonder it hit me so hard in 2020.

Still, for its opening minute, it can fool you; catch it askance, and you’re liable to misinterpret the repetitive guitar and the sighing vocals as the setup for a sweet and vivid love song. After all, while Allison’s music packs a punch, it can also be soothing. (In my favorite track off her prior record, she softly marries the intimate with the interstellar: “I’m just a victim of changing planets / My Scorpio rising and my parents.”) And in the initial moments of “stain”, her metaphors hint at the possibility of true romance, as a former lover insists that they were “pulled off the refrigerator and magnetized at heart”. But then: dun-dun da-doom. The riff that isn’t a riff arrives, and from there, the song becomes an autopsy, a quietly volcanic reconstruction of a moribund partnership. Allison’s lyrics are characteristically evocative—her ex’s words were “like chloroform”, and they’ve befouled her “like the sheets at my parents’ house”—but what’s truly disturbing about the song is that there’s no escape from it. That riff just keeps repeating, like an eerily melodic terminator; it never subsides, but it also never builds to anything, because that would imply progress. Yet there’s no catharsis here, no sense of long-sought closure or even righteous anger. And after three unrelenting minutes, Allison doesn’t fade out the track so much as extinguish it, comparing herself to a burden-out match.

Just before delivering that beautifully terrible image, Allison recognizes that this ugly union has inflicted permanent damage: “I’m always stained, and it’s never coming out.” She sounds ruefully self-aware but not despondent, and I’m weirdly jealous of her composure. Perhaps she’s used her music as an exorcism of sorts, virtually transferring her pain to the listener. And so, while “stain” is magnificent, it should probably come with a warning attached. Once this song scratches its way into your soul, it’s never coming out.

TRACK MARKS 2020: “Animal” by Katie Malco

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

In August 2020, I made a promise to myself: I would stop drinking for at least 90 days. It was one of those tests that people who suspect they might have a problem give themselves in the months, or years, before they decide to quit something for good. I made it, and then some, and while I have had a glass of wine at a holiday dinner here and there since, for the most part I’ve cut alcohol out of my life. The decision was and wasn’t related to the pandemic, which forced many of us to confront habits and tendencies that we otherwise might have been happy to avoid indefinitely. In truth it was a long time coming, longer than many of the people close to me probably realized. It also had some inevitable consequences, some of which I expected and some of which were a surprise. For example, I started noticing in ways I hadn’t before how people imbibed, casually or otherwise, in the pop culture I consumed — how the placement of a bottle in a frame can indicate either a detail or a problem, or how the intentions of a song lyric can be twisted depending on our knowledge of the singer’s life.

A lot of artists were confronting addiction issues in 2020, particularly women. Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud explored the often uncomfortable contours of recovery, as did Best Coast’s Everything Has Changed. While the U.K.-based Katie Malco’s debut solo album Failures has the sort of title that connotes struggles with a substance, it’s not explicitly about that. Alcohol is just one of the many coping mechanisms for modern life that are explored with unflinching honesty here. “Animal” is the bracing opening track; after the first fifteen seconds of plaintively searching piano it drops listeners in media res with Malco heedlessly powering her way through an all-night bender: “Thirteen beers and a bad taste in my mouth” are the first words we hear. It mimics the textures of binge drinking in both its lyrics and composition, with guitars that veer from chugging along like the train the singer has found herself on to the jagged shards of memory in the morning-after. According to Malco, “Animal” is based on nights when she stayed out to avoid being at home with her mother’s abusive partner. She cycles through the same story in both verses, not unlike how someone who’s suffered a blackout tries to piece back together what they might have done. It’s strung together with a chorus both defiant and defenseless, with Malco sounding like she can barely catch her breath, raging one moment for the listener to “take those worried eyes off me” and pleading with childlike vulnerability to be carried home in the next. I wish I didn’t recognize myself in those words, but Malco is not judgmental of her younger self, only of those who might judge her. Like many a drunk, the song relents eventually, tapering off with a churning coda like the singer has finally laid down, head heavy with a case of the bends that might never stop.

Looking back now, Malco’s potential breakout year feels more like a dream deferred. Though she’s been the opening act for artists like Jenny Lewis and Julien Baker, missing out on a headlining tour has to hurt, and it means a lot of music fans were deprived of a potential new favorite. I look forward to when concert venues open up again, and hope Malco has the chance to do some gigs in the U.S.; in the meantime, her album is available on Bandcamp.

TRACK MARKS 2020: “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

1. History and Context

Do you ever listen to an old song and ask, if this song came out today, would it still be a hit? Sure, there are songs that are clearly of their time — a grunge anthem that typifies the ’90s or an early hip-hop song of the ’80s that might not translate well. But then, there are those songs from whenever they came out that make you think, yeah, this is still a banger.

“Blinding Lights” answers a different question: If you created a perfect ’80s synth pop song with post-2000s production technology in the year of a quarantine, would it be popular?

Sure, the ’80s has its gems. Yes, Pitbull can sample Ah-ha’s classic “Take On Me” in “Feel This Moment” to push out a party anthem, but Abel Tesfaye (aka The Weeknd) along with Max Martin and Oscar Holter (with a few others) did something remarkable: They created a song for 2020 with its roots clearly in the 1980s (if not a little before), and they made it slamming.
Continue reading TRACK MARKS 2020: “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd

TRACK MARKS 2020: Coldplay’s “Orphans,” the Unintentional Pandemic Anthem Released in 2019

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

Coldplay performed “Orphans” on Saturday Night Live on November 2, 2019, when I was more worried about middle age than coronavirus.

“Shit,” I thought. “This is catchy.” As a rock-music fan approaching 40, I’m always worried about showing my decrepitude through the music I like. Ragging on Coldplay is an easy way to keep my bones from turning to dust. It shows I’m still with it enough to discern the difference between corporatized, consciously-coupled-with-the-mainstream dad-rock and truly felt, authentically crafted indie rock. But every once in a while Coldplay manages to slip a song through my defenses and expose my whole view for the lie that it is.

Continue reading TRACK MARKS 2020: Coldplay’s “Orphans,” the Unintentional Pandemic Anthem Released in 2019

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Wonder Woman 1984

What now seems like a solid century ago, we held a discussion about the 2017 smash hit Wonder Woman in the context of the modern superhero movie. Now Wonder Woman is back on the big screen but mainly on a bunch of small ones as Wonder Woman 1984 premieres on HBO Max to the delight/consternation of viewers, fans, critics, and Twitter People everywhere. A SportsAlcohol.com nerd crew of Rob, Jon, Jesse, and Marisa wade through our own reactions as well as some popular (and sometimes baffling!) internet gripes to discuss the pros and cons of Wonder Woman 1984, a sequel that, depending on your mileage, we may have liked more than you?! Listen up and find out!

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast: