Tuesday, September 2, 2014

10 Most Anticipated Films of Fall/Winter 2014

The last four months of the year marks the time where studios pack the schedule to the brim with new releases. With everything from blockbusters to comedies to awards contenders on the docket, September-December offers up the largest and most diverse crop of movies of the entire year. Here are the 10 films I'm looking forward to the most this fall/winter.

10.Exodus: Gods and Kings (12/12):
Ridley's Scott recent filmography has been hit-or-miss, but that won't stop from getting really excited about Exodus: Gods and Kings. Scott is back in the sword-and-sandals subgenre where he hit his last home run with 2000's Gladiator, and with a cast featuring the likes of Christian Bale, Aaron Paul, Ben Kingsley and Joel Edgerton and a script penned by Steve Zaillian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Moneyball), this has the potential to be Scott's next masterpiece. Hopefully this doesn't turn out to be another film like Prometheus- which looked and sounded great on paper, but was ultimately underwhelming- for Scott.

9.A Walk Among the Tombstones (9/19):
Liam Neeson has reinvented himself as a certified badass, one-man killing machine with movies like Taken and Non-Stop over the past few years. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a bit of departure from his recent work as it's more of a crime drama than a straight-up action film. All of the ad's for this give off an eerie, gritty vibe that is reminiscent of last September's brilliant thriller Prisoners. The seemingly deeper narrative should allow Nesson to show off his deep acting chops without sacrificing the action he's become known for of late. A Walk Among the Tombstones has a lot going for it and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if this ends up being Nesson's finest work in years.

8.Kill the Messenger (10/10):
In my eyes, Jeremy Renner is one of the criminally underrated actors working in Hollywood today. His abilities has been kind of buried thanks to his recent forays into major action films such as The Avengers, The Bourne Legacy and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Kill the Messenger seems like a project that will remind audiences of how great of an actor he is. Kill the Messenger tells the fascinating story of a journalist (Renner) who uncovers that the Regan administration was giving guns to rebels in Nicaragua and the CIA was importing cocaine on government airplanes. The presence of Renner in the lead role paired with the plot and a strong supporting cast including Michael K. Williams, Michael Sheen, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes Kill the Messenger easily one of my most anticipated films of last quarter of 2014.

7.Whiplash (10/10)
Whiplash got a ton of buzz out of Sundance earlier this year as it went onto the win the audience award for best film of the entire festival. Considering my favorite film of 2013(Fruitvale Station) took home the audience award last year, that's a great sign for Whiplash's quality. The film also features one of my favorite up-and-coming actors in Miles Teller and the king of character actors in J.K Simmons. Based on the early reviews, both Teller and Simmons are serious contenders for Academy Award nominations. In short, there's basically no shortage of reasons for me to get really excited about Whiplash.

6.Fury (10/17)
I'm a sucker for a World War II films and Fury is no exception. What makes Fury standout from other WWII films on paper is the fact that's it centers around a five-man tank team. Tank operators are pretty much the only position in the military that have never been the subject of a film before. With a first-rate writer/director in David Ayer (End of Watch, Training Day) at the helm and an extremely gifted cast led by Brad Pitt, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal, Fury could very well be the next classic in the war genre.  

5.Interstellar (11/7)
Modern sci-fi wizard Christopher Nolan is back at it this year with his first original film since 2010's Inception. Admittedly, the marketing material for Interstellar hasn't been particularly great so far, but it's not doing much to deter from my anticipation for this film. Nolan has pretty much no blemishes on his resume so far and I'd be really surprised if now was the time where he suddenly crapped out. In typical fashion for Nolan, the premise for Interstellar is very vague at this point in time. Basically all that's known about the plot of Interstellar is that the Earth is dying and a team of explorers led by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway embark on a mission to space to try and find a new place for the citizens of Earth to live. Even with a lack of specific details, there's nothing about a film involving space travel with McConaughy and Hathaway that doesn't sound very intriguing. Nolan's a master of not disclosing a lot of details about his films prior to release and consistently captivating the masses with his work. Let's hope that Interstellar continues that streak.

4.The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (11/21)
Last year's second installment of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, turned me into a fan of this series. With Francis Lawrence back in the director's chair and Juliane Moore, Natalie Dormer and Toby Jones joining the already great cast, Mockingjay very well could recapture the magic of Catching Fire.  

3.Horrible Bosses 2 (11/26)
Horrible Bosses is one of my favorite comedies of the past five years, so I'm absolutely giddy about a sequel. Charlie Day, Jason Bateman and Jason Sudekis have a remarkable chemistry together and the writers of the original are also returning for the sequel, which all but ensures the biting dark tone and constant laugh-out-loud moments the original had will be back. In a pretty good year for comedy so far, Horrible Bosses 2 is in good shape to end up being one of the best.

2.Gone Girl (10/3)
David Fincher is back with another adaptation of a celebrated novel in Gone Girl. I haven't read the book that it's based on, but Gone Girl looks to be an especially disturbing and unique take on the murder mystery genre. Fincher is a master of bleak storytelling and the trailer makes this look like can't-miss cinema. Out of all the Oscar-bait films scheduled for release in the next four months, Gone Girl is by far the one I'm looking forward to the most.
1.The Interview (12/25)
Seth Rogen and James Franco play a moronic entertainment show producer and host that land an interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un, the pair then get approached by the United States government to assassinate Un after they conduct the interview. With a concept like this, there's practically no way this film can be anything short of genius. Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg have been behind a number of my favorite comedies of the past decade (Superbad, This is the End, Pineapple Express) and with a premise that has comic gold written all over it, The Interview is likely to join that camp. 

Also Interested In:
The Drop (9/12)
The Skeleton Twins (9/12)
This is Where I Leave You (9/19)
The Maze Runner (9/19)
Tusk (9/19)
The Equalizer (9/26)
Men, Women & Children (10/3)
Anabelle (10/3)
The Judge (10/10)
Birdman (10/17)
Dear White People (10/17)
White Bird in a Blizzard (10/24)
Laggies (10/24)
Horns (10/31)
Nightcrawler (10/31)
Rosewater (11/7)
Dumb and Dumber To (11/14)
Foxcatcher (11/14)
American Sniper (12/25)
Big Eyes (12/25)
Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (12/25)
Selma (12/25)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

2014 NFL Preview: NFC West

Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals were able to raise to quite a few eyebrows in 2013 with a surprising 10-6 finish that left them right on the cusp of making the playoffs. With an arguably easier schedule and most of the team's vital pieces returning, there's no reason to believe the Cardinals can't recreate that success this year. The Cardinals offense is in the best shape it's been in since their Super Bowl run in 2008. Longtime top Larry Fitzgerald is still putting up numbers after all these years while the duo of wide receiver Michael Floyd and running back Andre Ellington gives the Cardinals two more able and exciting playmakers to go to. The emergence of Floyd and Ellington alongside Fitzgerald gives the Cardinals most lethal options on offense they've had since Fitzgerald entered the league in 2004. The resurgence of the Cardinals offense can largely be attributed to the play of Carson Palmer- who is easily the most stable quarterback they've had since Kurt Warner retired in 2009. It may seem kind of ridiculous to say that a guy who threw 22 INT's last season is a huge positive to his team, but Palmer was able to largely counteract that with over 4,000 passing yards and a completion percentage of 63%. Even with his all of turnovers, The Cardinals could count on Palmer to make plays when they needed him to and for the rest of the guys on the offense to rally around his leadership- which is more than you can say about any of the other clowns the Cardinals wheeled out at quarterback from 2009-12. If Palmer can continue to make plays and cut down on his high INT total, he could be a borderline-line top-tier quarterback this season. Defensively, this still one of the most quietly gifted units in the NFL. Aside from Patrick Peterson, who is widely regarded as one of the best corners in the league, I'm willing to wager that most people don't know of the other impact players on this defense. Excellent run stuffers such as nose tackle Dan Williams and defensive end Calias Campbell led a unit that was number one against the run last season, outside linebacker John Abraham is arguably the best situational pass rusher in the business and second-year safety Tyrann Mathieu looks like he is going to be a hell-raising monster of a player for years to come. This unit potentially got even better by adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to their ranks in 2014. Cromartie is coming off an injury-plagued season where he looked consistently terrible for the first time in his career, which led to the Jets releasing him in the offseason. At age 30, Cromartie could easily bounce back and if he does, the Cardinals will have the most dangerous corner duo in the NFL. The offensive line remains a problem even with the signing of underrated tackle Jared Veldheer in free agency and suspended inside linebacker Daryl Washington will certainly be missed all season long, but ultimately I don't think either of these issues will be enough to sink this deeply talented team. If the Cardinals can win a majority of their divisional games and not lose their edge on defense, they can easily clinch a playoff berth.

 St. Louis Rams: The Rams kind of get lost in the shuffle in the ultra-competitive NFC West. The Rams are by no means a bad team, they just can't really compete in this talent-rich division. If the Rams were in literally any division in the AFC and most of the other divisions in the NFC, they would stand a chance of getting to the playoffs annually. What holds the Rams back from competing for a playoff berth is their lack of offensive weapons in a division that features three of the best defenses in the league. There is not a single guy on this offense that really scares defenses- especially units that are as stout as the Cardinals, 49ers and Seahawks are. I will fully admit that far too much stock is being put into the season-ending injury to quarterback Sam Bradford on this offense. While I feel really bad for Bradford and his horrible luck with severe injuries, Shaun Hill is a completely apt replacement for him. Hill has been one of the most reliable backups in the league for the past decade with considerable success in his 26 career starts (13-13 record). Hill is every bit as talented as Bradford and there will not be a huge dropoff in 2014 with him as the starter. However, it doesn't matter if Bradford or Hill or basically anyone else was at the helm because quarterback is not really the problem with the Rams offense, it's the guys around them. The Rams receiving corps is loaded with mediocre young receivers with only 2013 first-round pick Tavon Austin showing any sort of potential for future success in the NFL. When your number two wideout is the trainwreck otherwise known as Kenny Britt, you are fielding a receiving corps that is lacking some serious talent. Zac Stacy is a stable running back with relatively high upside who can be counted to move the chains multiple times per game, but he isn't the type of the back that can take over a game at will. Stacy is a clear downgrade at the position for a team that has had the likes of Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson as their feature back for much of the past 10-15 years. The Rams offense always seems like it's going to work on paper, it just never seems to work in the actual execution thanks to the underachieving receiving corps and good but not great running backs. Where the Rams can and will contend with the rest of the division is on defense. Their defense keeps them in games and is the primary reason they finish in the ballpark of .500 every year. Their front seven- led by powerhouse defensive end duo Chris Long and Robert Quinn-is so dominant that you don't even notice the mediocrity of their secondary. That dangerous defensive front should only get better in 2014 as second-year linebacker Alec Ogletree continues to progress and freakishly athletic rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald adds another hybrid run-stuffer/pass-rusher to the mix. The Rams are continuing to head in the right direction, they just don't have the overall talent to be a playoff contender in 2014.

San Francisco 49ers: I can't remember the last time a team as good as the 49ers had an offseason that was so turbulent. Ever since the loss in the NFC championship game to the arch-rival Seattle Seahawks, it's been a consistent downward spiral for this team. In that game, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman tore his ACL and MCL, and will be out for at least the first half of 2014. Bowman's injury caused a domino effect that led to an offseason full of bad luck. 3/4 of the starting secondary from a year ago (Tarrell Brown, Carlos Rodgers and Donte Whitner left in free agency, starting guard Alex Boone never reported for camp and continues to hold out for a new deal and to top it all off, outside linebacker Aldon Smith was suspended for the first nine games of 2014 for violating the league's personal conduct and substance abuse following a pair of offseason arrests. The defensive side of the ball pretty much in shambles to start the season as inside linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive end/tackle Justin Smith are the only proven pieces in place. The depleted front seven makes matters worse for the 49ers suddenly unproven, rebuilding secondary. Former slot corners Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver have been thrust into starting jobs for the first time in their careers. Behind Brock and Culliver are a pair of equally shaky veterans in Perrish Cox and Chris Cook- who was arguably the worst corner in the league last year with the Vikings. Brown and Rodgers weren't exactly superstars, but they were far more reliable than any corner the 49ers currently have on their roster. The 49ers' typically great safety pairings even took a hit with competent but fading veteran Antonie Bethea brought in to take Whitner's spot in the lineup alongside second-year stud and lone bright spot in this mess of a secondary, Eric Reid.  Even with all this turmoil, the 49ers should still be a quality, title-contending team in 2014. Say what you want about head coach Jim Harbaugh, but there are few coaches in the league that are more equipped to handle adversity than him. Harbaugh has brought this team to at least the NFC Championship in his first three years with the team and they'll be in a good place to get back there this year thanks to Harbaugh's ability to get the most out of his players regardless of the situation. Balancing out the major losses on defense is an offense that made some nice pickups that will allow them to spread the ball out more than they've been able to in recent years. The team made a big post-draft trade to acquire Stevie Johnson from the Bills to sure up the depth in the receiving corps. The addition of Johnson gives the 49ers the legitimate number three wideout they sorely lacked last year and will take some pressure off of the team's main receiving trio of Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. The team also went out and drafted another bruising running back in Carlos Hyde to complement Frank Gore. The combination of Gore and Hyde in the backfield could be seriously dangerous and give the 49ers an old-school, physical pair of backs that can quickly wear down a defense. Above all, the 49ers will benefit from having Crabtree healthy at the start of the season. With Crabtree out of the lineup for the first 3/4 of the 2013 season, the passing offense was a borderline disaster with no one besides Boldin and Davis doing much of anything. Crabtree not only gives this offense another threat, his chemistry with Colin Kaepernick is deadly and breaks games wide open for this squad. The 49ers may have a lot more question marks and obstacles to overcome than the previous few years, but it would be an absolute shock if the team wasn't once again playing well into January. 

Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks time to shine finally came last season as the squad hoisted their first Lombardi trophy in one of the biggest blowouts in Super Bowl history. Recent history has suggested that the Super Bowl winners struggle the year after they win it all, but I think the Seahawks are going to be the team that breaks the Super Bowl hangover curse. Unlike other recent Super Bowl winners such as the Ravens and Giants -who were decent teams that got hot at the right time- the Seahawks are absolutely loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. It goes to show you have just how gifted this team is on defense when they let guys like Brandon Browner, Walter Thurmond and Clinton McDonald walk and their overall unit hasn't gotten any worse. Their defense is by far the most intimidating unit to emerge in the league since the Ravens of the early 2000's. With Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Bobby Wagner entering the primes of their career, this defense is not going to fall off anytime soon. While the defense runs the show, their offense can't be slept on. Russell Wilson is a budding star quarterback with maturity well beyond his years and running back Marshawn Lynch remains the focal point of this offense and arguably the hardest runner in the NFL at age 28. The X-factor for this offense is wide receiver Percy Harvin. Last year, Harvin missed all but one regular season game, which forced the Seahawks to stick to their run-first offense. When Harvin was on the field during the playoffs, he opened up this offense and give them a level of flexibility and explosiveness in the passing game that they have never had in the past. Harvin's versatility and proficiency in the rushing and passing game should be an incredible asset to this team and if he can stay healthy, this offense is going to be far scarier than they were in 2013. I firmly believe that the Seahawks could be the first team since the Patriots in 2003 and 2004 to win back-to-back Super Bowls.  

Projected Standings for NFC West
1.Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
2.San Francisco 49ers (10-6)
3.Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
4.St. Louis Rams (6-10)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Movie Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

The wait for a sequel to Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's 2005 cult favorite Sin City has been agonizing to say the least. Miller and Rodriguez signed on to do a sequel entitled A Dame to Kill For shortly after the original was released, but it kept getting pushed back as Rodriguez and Miller worked on other projects. The delays were so frequent that it seemed like the film was a myth. Just over nine years after the original was released, A Dame to Kill For has finally arrived, and it was well worth the almost decade-long wait.

As is the case with all sequels, fans of the original will be skeptical of whether or not the filmmakers can capture the magic of the first film again. Miller and Rodriguez seemed to be well-aware of that fact as A Dame to Kill For does exactly what any good sequel does  recaptures everything that was great about the first film. The trio of stories feel fresh and independent from the first Sin City yet maintain the same sleazy allure, grit and noir-throwback appeal that made the original such a dynamic film. 

Miller- who authored the Sin City graphic novels and penned the screenplay- once again brings a series of dark, twisting stories loaded with fascinating characters to the screen. The assembly of antiheroes that make up this film may turn off some audiences, but it's a big part of why the film is so appealing to me. Every character was either born evil or has been someway corrupted by the city they live in. The motives for some of the characters are more noble than others, but there is not a single character in this entire film that is an upstanding citizen. During a time where cinema is so focused on sending positive messages, it's refreshing to see a film that is so unapologetically bleak.

The enormous ensemble cast was one of the strongest elements of the original and that remains the case in the second installment. Series newcomers Joesph Gordon-Levitt, Dennis Haysbert and Christopher Meloni as well as returning stars Mickey Rourke, Powers Boothe and Jessica Alba are all excellent in their roles. The two new additions who gets the most screen time- Josh Brolin and Eva Green-also manage to give the best performances in the entire film. Brolin takes over the part of Dwight McCarthy that was played by Clive Owen in the original and really takes the character to the next level by examining the character's struggle to keep his inner demons inside, and not let his criminal past seep into his current life. Brolin walks a fine line between being in-control and resorting back to his violent ways of the past every second he is on screen and it's absolutely remarkable to watch. Green is also perfect for her role as manipulative femme fatale Ava Lord, who uses her sex appeal to get exactly what see wants from any man she meets. As Green proved earlier this year with her scene-stealing performance in 300: Rise of an Empire, she is a perfect villain that burns up the screen with a relentlessly sinister energy. Green has made a serious resurgence in American cinema lately after spending years making films in her native country of France. With performances like this, I really hope she doesn't return to obscurity in the U.S. ever again.

While Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a well-written film with plenty of great performances, you can't help but be swept up in the film's visuals. Miller and Rodriguez are able to create the film that feels exactly like a comic book. Every frame of the film oozes cheesy yet badass style and the green screen backdrops are packed to the brim with detail. The black-and-white color palette Rodriguez and Miller employ here is so striking that it even makes the barrage of CGI blood and severed limbs that regularly grace the screen look beautiful. This visual style may not be as groundbreaking as it was in 2005, but it still pops off the screen and looks better than a vast majority of films that have been released in the past decade or so. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is one of the most satisfying sequels of all-time and easily one of the finest films to be released in the first eight months of 2014.

4.5/5 Stars


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Beginner's Guide to Trap

Sub-movements within hip-hop happen all the time and at least once year, one of them really takes off. Of all the recent movements, none has been more fun or entertaining than trap. Trap is a genre that emerged out of the south and is arguably the most over-the-top, absurd style of hip-hip to ever catch on in the mainstream. The lyrics are often riddled with drug references and bizarre pop-culture references that can only be understood by the most savvy of listeners, each track has a distinct groove that can't be found in other styles of hip-hop, and there's a good chance you will hear a bird call, gun shot or other incomprehensible noise in every song. In short whether you love or hate it,  there's no way you're forgetting a trap song once you hear it.  Below is a checklist of the elements that are needed in order to make a successful trap song:
-Great flow
-Memorable, repeated hook
-A bass or synth-heavy beat with prominent snare drums
-Amusing lyrics
-Self-aware/deprecating attitude
-Impeccable swag

Here are 10 songs that I believe serve as a perfect introduction to the genre. As soon as your done listening to these tracks you'll either be a full-blown trapaholic or want to come to Massachusetts and beat the piss out of me for wasting your precious time with nonsensical rap songs. Hope you enjoy!

(I can't embed videos on this page at the moment, so I can only provide the links to watch the videos for these tracks on YouTube. Sorry for the inconvenience.)
2 Chainz-Crack http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVjeKltMVJs  
A$AP Ferg-Let it Go http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12tDb2KKHO4
A$AP Rocky-Angels http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mO6XjVph3Y8
Danny Brown-Dope Song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yewc-aTlSWU
Gucci Mane-Lemonade http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6Q4s_ZdvAQ 
Jucy J-All I Blow is Loud http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kagjaZoBC3s
Migos-Hannah Montana http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHT1EDXtxws
Riff Raff-Wetter Than Tsunami http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNtd_XN6v1s
Trinidad James-All Gold Everything http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NK2FqPNIT_U
Waka Flocka Flame-Word to the Wise http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLFtBsz1ItM

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

2014 NFL Preview: NFC South

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons made a rapid decline in 2013, finishing 4-12 after falling just short of a Super Bowl berth in 2012. While the Falcons are unlikely to be as bad as they were in 2013, I also highly doubt they'll be back to Super Bowl-contending, let alone playoff-contending form in 2014. This team simply does not have the defensive firepower or talent on the offensive line to be a great team in the increasingly competitive NFC.  he Falcons did make some improvements in these areas by bringing in veteran defensive tackle Paul Soliai, guard Jon Ashmoah and using their first two draft picks on promising prospects in tackle Jake Matthews and defensive tackle/end Ra'Shede Hageman, but I don't think these pickups will be enough to fix the gaping holes they have at these positions. The offensive line is especially bothersome as they were nothing short of abysmal in 2013. Their lack of protection gave quarterback Matt Ryan practically no time to make reads and forced him to rush a lot of his throws, which led to him to finish with a career-high 17 INT's on the year. Matthews and Ashmoah need to come in and desperately change the fabric of this offensive line because none of the incumbent lineman played even remotely well a year ago. The Falcons also have a huge problem in the backfield as last year's high-profile free agent pickup Steven Jackson was injured for most of the year and looked terrible during the few times he made it onto the field. The team drafted Devonta Freeman, who has looked promising in the preseason, but he doesn't look like he has the skills to be an every-down back in the NFL. If Jackson continue to struggle with production and health and Freeman doesn't break out, The Falcons are going to be doomed in the rushing game yet again. Any chance the Falcons have at making a surprise run back to the playoffs lies squarely on the shoulders of Ryan. Ryan is a guy who doesn't get nearly enough credit for his accomplishments and is one of the very few quarterbacks in the league that can take over a game at will. Ryan was able to throw for over 4,500 yards in 2013 without a healthy Julio Jones or Roddy White for a majority of the year. With Jones and White back in the fold at 100%, Ryan is bound to improve from his already gaudy numbers from a year ago. The Falcons are no longer the threat they were just a few years ago, and will be lucky to finish on the right side of .500 in 2014.

Carolina Panthers: Pretty much the only story that has come out of Carolina this offseason is the fact that the Panthers let their top four wideouts (Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr, Dominik Hixon) walk. While the receiver loss certainly doesn't help matters, I believe it will be the offensive line losses and Cam Newton's bum ankle that will prevent the Panthers from recreating their magical 2013 playoff run. 3/5 of the Panthers' starting offensive lineman- most notably three-time Pro Bowl tackle Jordan Gross- retired over the past months, leaving the team with quite the conundrum at the offensive line going into this year. Aside from center Ryan Kalil, none of the current starters can be trusted. The other returning starter, Byron Bell, is shifting to left tackle after playing right tackle during his first three years in the league while new starting right tackle Nate Chandler is a converted defensive lineman who is still learning the position after a stint starting at guard at the end of last year. The play of Bell, Chandler and rookie Trai Turner is going to be the deciding factor of whether or not this offense can get off the ground. The effect of the new receivers on this offense can not be entirely downplayed either. Save for tight end Greg Olsen, Newton does not have a rapport with any of these receivers, which could lead to some serious growing pains early in the year. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin has far exceeded expectations in training camp and the preseason thus far, but the Panthers are going to need at least one of their new veteran receiving options (Jericho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Ed Dickson) to step up and take pressure off Benjamin. While there's plenty of concerns with the Panthers this year, none is greater than Newton's health. Newton is coming off major offseason ankle surgery and has not looked like himself in the preseason thus far. To make matters even worse, Newton cracked a rib during last week's preseason game against the Patriots. Newton is the backbone of this team and if he can't overcome these injuries, you can kiss any playoff dreams this team out the window. The Panthers are once again going to be carried by their defense. Even though they have to assemble a patchwork secondary for the second year in a row, this defense will be unstoppable force thanks to their loaded front seven. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly and the best defensive end duo in the NFL in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy- who is basically the only free agent the Panthers retained this season- cause a ton of matchup problems for anyone that faces them and are good enough by themselves to keep this team in games regardless of how the offense performs. If Newton can overcome the personnel and health obstacles that have been thrown at him and this defense can remain dominant, the Panthers could be squarely in the playoff picture once again.    

New Orleans Saints: The New Orleans Saints are the NFC version of the New England Patriots: There isn't a lot of change year in and year out and the team is going to always going to be competitive thanks to stellar quarterback play and coaching. The Saints are in a position to be even better in 2014 thanks to a couple of big pickups that further improved their talent-dense squad. The Saints were strapped for cap space this year, but still managed to make one major move by landing safety Jarius Byrd in free agency. Byrd gives the already stacked Saints secondary a game-changing safety with elite range and ball skills to place alongside rising star Kenny Vaccaro. Safe to say, Rob Ryan is going to have a field day with Byrd in this defense and it would be a complete shock if this unit didn't finish in the top five in pass defense once again in 2014. While Ryan has turned this defense into a pretty solid unit,  the centerpiece of the Saints remains Drew Brees and the passing offense and they should once again be dominant. Brees' favorite target in tight end Jimmy Graham inked a new, long-term deal that ensures that the duo will be causing a lot of problems not just this year (Graham was previously given the one-year franchise-tag designation before reaching a long-term deal ), but for the foreseeable future. The Saints also further bolstered their receiving corps by picking receiver Brandin Cooks- whose combination of great hands, route-running ability-with their first-round pick in this year's draft. Cooks gives Brees another potentially deadly weapon in his arsenal and could very well end up being the top wideout in the ridiculously deep 2014 draft class. In typical Saints fashion their weaknesses, just like their strengths, remain in tact. The team still has a carousel of mediocre running backs which managed to get even worse after they traded Darren Sproles to the Eagles in the offseason, and they still lack a pure run-stuffer in the front seven, which should caused their run defense to make a return to the bottom half of the league yet again. The Saints have the most talented roster they've had in years and they should be right in the thick of the Super Bowl chase if the injury bug doesn't ravage the team. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: In my humble opinion, no team improved more this offseason than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After a 2013 season that was dragged down by the player's disdain for head coach Greg Schiano, the Buccaneers go into 2014 with a new head coach, improved roster and a whole lot of potential to become the surprise team of 2014. The Bucs replaced the hardass Schiano with his polar opposite in soft-spoken, players coach Lovie Smith. Smith not only brings in a new atmosphere that players will happily buy into, he is one of the most brilliant defensive minds in the modern NFL. The Buccaneers defense was already pretty good under Schiano, with Smith and Leslie Fraizer running the show, they should be downright dominant. Smith spent the offseason putting his fingerprints on team by bringing in a lot of pieces Smith broke his defensive-minded ways a bit and made a majority of the offseason moves on the offensive side of the ball. Smith completely overhauled the offensive line bringing in three new starters in center Evan Dietrich-Smith, tackle Anthony Collins and guard Logan Mankins, picked up a new starting quarterback in Josh McCown and using every single one of the team's six draft picks on offensive players. Of course Smith didn't completely ignore the defense as he brought in defensive end Michael Johnson, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, safety Major Wright and most notably, cornerback Alterraun Verner to make the Buccaneers established defensive corps led by 2013 All-Pros defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and outside linebacker LaVonte David that much stronger. The biggest question mark surrounding the Buccaneers 2014 campaign is how McCown will fare now that he's out of Marc Trestman's quarterback-friendly in Chicago. I don't expect to him be quite as dominant as he was in Chicago, but I believe McCown will do just fine in Tampa Bay. McCown played under Smith for two years in Chicago and has a pair of giant, physical starting wideouts in Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans that bare an eerie resemblance to the receiving duo that led him to great success with the Bears last year. Even if McCown falters or gets hurt, the Bucs have a very promising second-year quarterback in Mike Glennon,-who was one of the few bright spots for this team a year ago-waiting in the wings. If the Bucs happen to call upon him at some point in time this year, Glennon has the potential to be this year's Nick Foles. Between the roster improvements and new coaching staff, the Buccaneers have the tools to make the jump and become a playoff team in 2014. 

Projected Standings for the NFC South:
1.New Orleans Saints (12-4)
2.Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
3.Carolina Panthers (9-7)
4.Atlanta Falcons (7-9)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Album Review: Ariana Grande-My Everything

Ariana Grande has risen from Nickelodeon star that dabbled in pop music to full-blown pop superstar in just a years time. Grande's rare vocal talent and collaborations with other high-profile artists such as Mac Miller and Iggy Azalea have allowed to not only dominate the pop world, but crossover into other genre's fanbases with ease. While Grande's second full-length, My Everything, is sure to further expand her rapidly-growing following, it ultimately fails to live up to the hype and Grande's potential as an artist.

As you would expect, the vocals on My Everything are phenomenal throughout. Not since Lady Gaga has a pop vocalist delivered consistently potent vocals or shown a wider range than Grande does. Unfortunately, just about everything else surrounding Grande's vocals manages to underwhelm. The production on this record is especially weak. Based on the thumping, wildly catchy production of lead single "Problem", I expected this to be a really well-produced record, but "Problem" ended being the sole highlight from a production standpoint. The rest of the record Grande spends time experimenting with everything from electropop ("Break Free", "One Last Time") to piano ballads ("My Everything", "Just A Little Bit of Your Heart") with very little success. I'll give Grande points for diversity, but not a single one of the styles she tries suits her voice well at all. The production on "Problem" made Grande's vocals pop that much more, the rest of the material hear her voice manages to either get buried under how overwhelming the beat is or just so generic that no amount of virtuoso vocals can save how pedestrian the track is. Tackling multiple genres is well within Grande's vocal skill set, she just needs the quality production to make her multi-genre ambitions work.

Grande's frequent collaborations with hip-hop stars also don't mesh well with her sound. Iggy Azalea and Childish Gambino sounds completely out of their element on "Problem" and "Break Your Heart Right Back" respectively. The energy and tenacity Azalea and Gambino typically bring on the mic is completely missing and neither one of their guest spots serves as anything but an unnecessary detour from Grande's singing. While Azalea and Gambino fall short of their potential on their verses, it's nothing compared to the colossal failure A$AP Ferg has on "Hands on Me". When the track last for My Everything came out, I was extremely intrigued to hear how a track featuring the Trap Lord and Grande would sound. Now that I've heard the finished product, I wish this song had never been recorded. Ferg has never sounded more uncomfortable and awkward on the mic as he tries to alter his gritty trap style to fit Grande's radio-friendly sound. Ferg loses everything that's special about him as his typically dynamic flow becomes stilted and dull during this self-inflicted mainstream assimilation. At least Juicy J's toned-down verse on Katy Perry's "Dark Horse" displayed the same charisma he has in his solo stuff, Ferg just sounds like a bumbling, lifeless moron alongside the ever-confident Grande in his first jaunt into mainstream pop music. Oddly enough the least gifted MC to appear on this record, Big Sean, is the only one that sounds right at home with his guest spot on "Best Mistake"-which has a similar feel to the pop-rap drivel Sean drops on every single one of his records. The only collab on this record that can be deemed a real success is "Love Me Harder"- which features Canadian crooner The Weeknd. The Weeknd's dreamlike falsetto vocals sounds fantastic alongside Grande's and the last minute of the track where the pair trade off vocal lines is easily the most poignant moment of the entire record. "Love Me Harder" is a reminder of just how great Grande can be when given the right hook and beat and has a collaborator that gels with her style.

My Everything is a wildly uneven listen that fails to capitalize on the strength of Grande's vocals. The few highlights on here flash serious potential and are amongst the best pop songs of the past decade, but the middling material that takes up most of the record makes this album frustratingly forgettable on the whole. Grande has the tools to be one of the greats in this genre and at age 21 with only two LP's under her belt, she has plenty of time to realize her potential and truly flourish as an artist.     

2.5/5 Stars
Standout Tracks
1.Problem (feat. Iggy Azalea)
2.Love Me Harder (feat. The Weeknd)
3.Be My Baby (feat. Cashmere Cat) 

Update 8/25

Hello all,
I'd like to take this time to update you on my current projects. The content was far less frequent last week than his over the past number of weeks, which I sincerely apologize for. This week should more than make up for that as I'm planning on not only wrapping up my NFL previews series, but posting a few music/movie reviews and continuing the long-delayed Top 50 Underrated Albums of the 2000's so far countdown. Thank you for sticking with me during this reduced production period and I hope you enjoy the plethora of new material that's in the works for the coming weeks.

Chris Maitland