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the best picture nominees, ranked.

In order of worst to first, here’s how I’d break down tonight’s Best Picture nominees.

Phantom Thread_Breakfast9. Phantom Thread
This movie sucked and sucked hard. I’m getting kinda tired of Paul Thomas Anderson. You’ve become Jack Horner in the limo, dude! It’s been downhill ever since Boogie Nights. But I do love Daniel Day-Lewis’s hair, so there’s that.

The Post Streep Hanks8. The Post
No, I haven’t seen it, yet. But I’m pretty sure it’s better than Phantom Thread!

Call Me7. Call Me By Your Name
Pleasant, visually breathtaking and well acted.

Darkest Hour_Train6. Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman is spectacular as the iconic Winston Churchill.

HarryStyles-920x5845. Dunkirk
Well-crafted, fast-moving film that sheds light on a major turning point in world history. Should be watched in same sitting with Darkest Hour.

shape_water.04. The Shape of Water
Stunning for its cinematography, story and acting. Michael Shannon was robbed. He should’ve been nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

ladybird23. Lady Bird
Lovely, relatable storytelling that doesn’t beat you over the head to make its point. Ohhhhh…THAT guy actor Bob Stephenson KILLS in one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

GetOutChris.02. Get Out
Arguably the most original nominee this year. It’s as important and relevant as it is entertaining.

billboards1.01. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
I love everything about this movie. That’s really all I can say about it.

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for your consideration: three billboards outside ebbing, missouri.

Three BillboardsThree Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures/Blueprint Pictures/Film4 Productions/Cutting Edge Group)
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage.
Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh.
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, Martin McDonagh. Music by Carter Burwell. Cinematography by Ben Davis. Edited by Jon Gregory.

A mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder when they fail to catch the culprit.

What a fantastic movie. Truly. This is the shortest movie review I’ll probably ever write, but only because I don’t know how else to say it. Three Billboards is a dark movie with enough of salty language to make a sailor blush, but it delivers on every level. The beauty of the performances is they don’t feel over exaggerated. These are everyday people in small town America dealing with a tragic and complex situation. Of course, they make all the worst decisions when they address it, but that’s only where their journeys begin.

Exploring anger, redemption, vengeance and, ultimately, love, Three Billboards takes the audience through a town’s own sins as a grieving mother refuses to let them forget her daughter’s savage death. As Mildred, the grieving mother, Frances McDormand turns in one of the best performances of her career. Sam Rockwell’s been an underrated talent for years. After playing rogue cop, Dixon, in Three Billboards, I don’t think we’ll ever say he’s underrated ever again.

I’ll just leave it at that and say, thus far, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is my favorite Best Picture nominee.

STARS: ****1/2 (out of five)

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survivor recap: his own worst enemy.

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J.T., walking us through his Survivor strategy.

In the pantheon of all-time dumbest Survivor moves ever, nothing will ever top Erik’s decision to give away his Immunity Necklace. Nothing. That’s the dumbest move ever, in a very specific sense. In a general sense, the dumbest thing a Survivor contestant can do is watch your torch get snuffed out by Probst while an Immunity Idol is in your possession. Enter: J.T.

Oh, J.T. Sweet, sad, stupid J.T. You are a former champion of this game who’s done everything in your power to delegitimize your authenticity as a champion every chance you get. Think about it. Here’s a guy who won Survivor: Tocantins over the vastly underrated Stephen Fishbach in a unanimous Final Tribal Council vote. And how did he follow that dominant performance? By cooking up the “genius” plan during Heroes vs. Villains to give his Immunity Idol to Russell Hantz—while Russell was on an opposing tribe, no less! That move, of course, led to J.T.’s ouster from the game.

If you considered that move to be an anomaly—an otherwise strong player overthinking the game during a season full of strong players—J.T.’s decisions this week should lay all that to rest.

It’s bad enough he screwed his own tribe last week, tipping off Culpepper about their voting strategy during Tribal Council (only to watch it backfire in most spectacular fashion). Forced to lie to this tribemates in the aftermath of that debacle, J.T. seemingly saved himself by finding a hidden Immunity Idol. Only to leave it at camp instead of taking it to the very next Tribal Council.

In a game where deception is often abound and players must have sharpened wits to sniff out blindsides, J.T. committed the Survivor equivalent of stepping on a rake. He was his own worst enemy.

How Did We Get Here?
Simple: Sandra is running the show at the Nuku Tribe. She locked onto J.T. after the previous Tribal Council and, like the cold-blooded serial killer she is, gutted J.T. like he was a baby goat. Think about how Sandra exposed a personal fissure between J.T. and Michaela at camp to her advantage. Remember how Sandra was, at one point, a target in J.T.’s eyes? That was ancient history once Sandra devoured all the sugar—in front of an obsequious and docile Jeff Varner, no less—and successfully convinced him it was Michaela who did it. I wouldn’t call that brilliant, but I definitely applaud the move as opportunistic and kinda funny. Although I wonder if consuming all that sugar made Sandra run to the woods. That could NOT have been pleasant.

After that, it was simply a matter of making J.T. believe everyone was onboard with him in voting out Michaela, which didn’t seem too difficult if he didn’t even bother taking his Immunity Idol to Tribal Council. I can’t call it a blindside since J.T. simply fell victim to his own inability to read the tea leaves. He missed not just one clue, but an ENDLESS SERIES OF CLUES!”

The Deadly Sins of J.T.
I know the Seven Deadly Sins: Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. J.T.’s Deadly Sins are much simpler to identify: STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!

From the moment he got back to camp from watching Malcolm get voted out, he knew he was a target. So he runs out, finds an idol, unbeknownst to his entire tribe. SMART!

He has a five-minute chat with Sandra, Aubrey and Varner about voting out Michaela. Did it not occur to him that Sandra was all-too-agreeable to his plans, despite her obvious frustration with him over the previous vote? Did that not seem a bit too easy, J.T.? STUPID!

And then, so convinced Michaela was going home, leaves it at camp for the next Tribal Council. STUPID! STUPID! STUPID!

You never leave it at camp! Ever! Did he not see the red flags popping up at Tribal Council? Every time he tried to pile on Michaela, who was defending her? Sandra! Honestly, I’m not even sure J.T. recognized those as red flags. I think he was so convinced Michaela was going home that tuned out everything that was happening around him.

If J.T. were smart, he would’ve played his idol. Even if there weren’t as many warning signs, he should’ve played it. All signs pointed to a close vote. If you knew you were on the chopping block three days prior, chances are, you still are on the chopping block. Getting snuffed with an idol in your possession? STUPID!

It’s Peanut Butter Jelly Time!
As far as Reward Challenges go, this was almost a “who cares” challenge, to me. Yeah, food is always an incentive in a game where you’re starving yourself on rice and dirt, but it’s not like they were getting something really big. The winning tribes got every 12-year-old’s favorite lunch. Big deal. Especially given how physically taxing—and mentally taxing, if you’re cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs like you-know-who (more on that later)—the challenge turned out to be.

The hidden subtext to me was Michaela’s performance and how her inability to be a team player is going to bite her in the ass. In terms of sheer competitive will and intensity, no one comes close to Michaela in this game. She backs it up by usually coming through for her tribe, as she did in this challenge, digging out bags from the sand in record time. But she also leads the way in selfishness and bad attitude. I get it. I want players with a “gimme the ball” mentality. But when you turn “gimme the ball” into “all about me,” you lose me. That’s where Michaela is terrible as a team player. Her tribe knows it. I think she knows it, too. It’s unfortunate because she’s also a smart player in this game. I could very easily see her making it to the end, but her inability to get out of her own way is going to cost her votes if she’s not careful.

 

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Debbie, plotting her next psychotic break.

Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs
In case anyone forgot one a complete nutbar Debbie is, she reminded us this week. “Oh yeah,” said the audience during her onscreen meltdown. ”NOW I remember her!”

 

What. In. The. HELL! Is wrong with Debbie?!?! That Gordian Knot of bad wiring she’s got inside her head creates a bizarre and frightening worldview that I can’t even begin to comprehend, to say nothing of her complete lack of self awareness. She had a bad performance at the Reward Challenge. It happens. But instead of owning it, she turns around and unleashes a machine gun-like spray of vitriol, blame and insanity at virtually each member of her tribe. Best of all, she openly called out Hali for losing the challenge. Really, Debbie? Really? Is that the hill upon which you chose to die today?

On top of that, she carries that grudge into the Immunity Challenge to the point that she’s screaming and bellowing, “I was over first!” at her tribemates like a petulant child. Seriously, Debbie. How old are you? WHY are you, Debbie?!?!

I’ve been saying it all season long, Debbie will not win this game. If I’m on her tribe, I’m more concerned with my personal safety than winning a challenge.

Meanwhile…Over at Tavua
Who the hell cares? They keep avoiding Tribal Council, so we have no idea who the dynamics are playing out. Is Troyzan actually building an alliance with Sarah? Is Ozzy deep sea fishing with a spear to relax? Is Zeke’s mustache encrusted with charred rice and snails? No one knows.

In the Driver’s Seat
Sandra has her little Nuku minions marching to the beat of her drum. And she knows it. At what point do they wise up and realize they’re being pushed around that island like a bunch of chess pieces? Clearly, Sandra is dominating the team portion of Survivor this season. I wonder if she becomes a target as soon as we reach the merge. If she doesn’t, I question the brains of some of these players. Which ones? Any of them who’ve ever watched Survivor! It kills me that no one seems to recognize a growing threat until Probst is kicking them off the island. You let a player like Sandra control the game at your own peril.

The Load of the Week
Instead of Employee of the Week, I decided to change things up a bit. Who’s the Load of the Week? Varner. Dude is lying around the joint like Jabba the Hut, pretending to be some sort of quiet mastermind while waiting for things to happen. And that’s just his performance in challenges.

Back at camp, he’s no damn better. Varner over-relishes his significance in this game right now, playing up his “swing vote” status. Think about that, dude. You’re a swing vote. You know what that means? It means no one looks to you for strategy, because you’re a walking tactic. Swing voters are not big-move players. They are sneaky weasels who advance in this game by merely laying low. You can skate by for a long time in this game as a swing-voting weasel, but you’ll never win. My guess is Varner’s waiting until the merge to make moves, but that’s a risky strategy. On a tribe of five four, Varner is a distant last when it comes to a championship-earning résumé.

Move of the Week
Sandra proved that it doesn’t require A Beautiful Mind-like mathematical equations to influence this game. All it took was eating a pound of sugar to fool J.T.

Prediction for Next Week
Debbie continues her descent into madness, challenging Culpepper to a leg-wrestling match while Varner reveals to his tribemates that his spirit animal is a Coney Dog.

ConeyChiliDog.jpg

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for your consideration: manchester by the sea.

manchester-by-the-seaManchester by the Sea (2016 Amazon Studios, Roadside Attractions, K Period Media, B Story, CMP, Pearl Street Films)
Starring Casey Afflect, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler and Lucas Hedges.
Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
Producers: Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Kevin J. Walsh, Lauren Beck.
Cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes. Edited by Jennifer Lame
Lee Chandler is a brooding, irritable loner who works as a handyman for a Boston apartment block. One damp winter day he gets a call summoning him to his hometown, north of the city. His brother’s heart has given out suddenly, and he’s been named guardian to his 16-year-old nephew. As if losing his only sibling and doubts about raising a teenager weren’t enough, his return to the past re-opens an unspeakable tragedy.

Might as well call it Limbo by the Sea, because all its residences are living in limbo, for assorted reasons. Whether tragedy, addiction, bad health or whatever put them there, Manchester by the Sea is a town full of people who either can’t or won’t get out of their own way; a bunch of tortured souls that don’t know how to move on. Or, in Lee Chandler’s case, you refuse to move on.

Well, all but Joe. He moved on, whether he wanted to or not.

Yes, that’s a rather glib review of Manchester by the Sea, but it’s pretty much what we’re dealing with in this film. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie, but finding a takeaway to latch onto is difficult.

Casey Affleck, as Lee Chandler, gives a great performance in Manchester by the Sea, as does Lucas Hedges as his nephew, Patty. But if we’re to glean from the two of them some sort of chemistry, it’s hard to find. Then again, Lee’s M.O. throughout the story is to push everyone away as a means of punishment for his past.

For his part, Patty comes across as either spoiled or ungrateful for most of Manchester by the Sea. It’s difficult to tell if he’s grieving or just doesn’t care, so long as his life isn’t upturned too much by his father’s death.

It’s an interesting story about ordinary people muddling through their lives, trying to sort out their own issues while addressing the loss of a loved one. At times, it fees a bit like Ordinary People, set in a cold, gray, wintry city in New England.

Even though everyone’s going through some level of personal torture (or so it seems), writer/director Kenneth Lonergan maintains the story through Lee’s point of view, sometimes uncomfortably so. Even when he tries to loosen himself from his own guilt, he always finds a way back to it. And if Lee doesn’t fall back into his guilt, someone else drags him there. The one time someone tries to pull him out of it, to let him free himself from his sins, leads to one of the most wrenching scenes in the movie.

Manchester by the Sea is a slow burn and a good story. But don’t come here looking for some big payoff in the end or a triumph-of-the-human-spirit climax. To that end, Manchester by the Sea is like real life. In the movie, as in real life, sometimes you just have to do the best you can to get by.

***-1/2 stars (out of five)

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for your consideration: moonlight.

moonlightMoonlight (2016 A24)
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali.
Directed by Barry Jenkins.
Producers: Adele Romanski, Dade Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner.
Screenplay by Barry Jenkins. Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Cinematography by James Laxton. Edited by Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon.
A timeless story of human self-discovery and connection, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.

In a word, wow. I’m not even sure where to begin. Moonlight tells a story in such a unique, lyrical manner that I can’t quite get a handle on it. Yes, there’s a strong, emotional center to Moonlight. The story and performances revolve out of that emotional center and are woven together into tight-yet-unconventional manner.

Depicted through the eyes of the lead character, Chiron, at three critical stages of his life, Moonlight is the story of perseverance, personal discovery, acceptance, forgiveness and, in some ways, surrender. Whether it’s to bullies or his drug-addicted mother, Chiron is forced to mostly persevere and surrender throughout his young life. How does that shape a boy who’s coming of age and just beginning his own journey of self awareness? That’s what unfolds throughout Moonlight.

Director Barry Jenkins relies less on dialogue throughout much of Moonlight to tell Chiron’s story. While slightly reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s style in that horrendous picture, Tree of Life, Jenkins is able to do something Malick couldn’t do: maintain both the emotional impact and the story’s thread throughout the film. We see Chiron connecting with local drug dealer Juan, magnificently portrayed by Mahershala Ali (who’s quickly becoming the newest Ohhhh, THAT guy! actor in Hollywood). Ali’s Juan is sensitive, empathetic and ultimately feels a sense of responsibility in caring for Chiron.

While Jenkin’s fluid directing style gives Moonlight a somber and, at times, dark tone, the actors’ performances keep the story stitched together. Three separate actors—Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes—portray Chiron at different stages of his life. Most impressive is all three maintain the character’s doubts, anger, fear and confusion.

Yes, Moonlight is about one character’s personal journey, but it avoids the cliché pitfalls of typical triumph-of-the-human-spirit fodder. It’s about acceptance; acceptance of who you are, what you’ve become and, ultimately, acceptance of your past. Moonlight succeeds in connecting with audiences because it shows that, no matter where you come from, the emotional complexities of that journey are familiar for all of us.

**** stars (out of five)

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for your consideration: la la land.

la-la-landLa La Land (2016 Summit Entertainment)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt.
Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Producers: Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Gary Gilbert, Marc Platt
Cinematography by Linus Sandgren. Edited by Tom Cross.

The story of Mia, an aspiring actress, and Sebastian, a dedicated jazz musician, struggling to make ends meet while pursuing their dreams in a city known for destroying hopes and breaking hearts. With modern day Los Angeles as the backdrop, this musical about everyday life explores what is more important: a once-in-a-lifetime love or the spotlight.

This is from the same guy who wrote and directed Whiplash? Seriously?!?! Everything Whiplash was—dark, intense, mentally exhausting—La La Land ain’t. Yes, it’s the story of Mia and Sebastian, but the real story is it’s a throwback to the mid-20th century heyday of big-time Hollywood musicals. Well, for the first half of the movie, at least.

I’ll be honest, I found myself tapping my watch throughout the first 60 minutes or so of La La Land. It felt cheesy, gimmicky and like it was trying too hard to be an old movie. Instead of paying homage to the Busby Berkeley era, it got a little too homage-y there for awhile, if you ask me. Sure, the backdrop of vintage Los Angeles landmarks and scenery were visually satisfying and harkened to movies of days gone by, but it seemed forced, at times.

The musical numbers were quaint and kinda fun, but watching two great actors in Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling soft-shoe their way through a couple of these numbers was a bit like pounding a square peg into a round hole. Fun? Sure. Emotional depth? Well…

That didn’t come until the second half of the film, when writer/director Damien Chazelle focused less on the gimmick of a big, ensemble song-and-dance routine and more on the burgeoning relationship between our protagonists, Mia and Sebastian. Both were interesting characters with big, Hollywood dreams of their own that seemed at odds with their relationship.

At its heart, this is what La La Land is about: can young love survive one’s professional aspirations? It’s this intersection where La La Land’s impact comes to bear. It’s also where Stone and Gosling flourish as actors in this picture. Both are such gifted performers, they are able to squeeze out visceral, emotional responses between lines of dialogue simply through their eyes. That, to me, packs more punch than breaking out into song-and-dance at a party (although, to be fair, that party scene was pretty fun…just sayin’.).

La La Land is an enjoyable throwback to old-time Hollywood productions, but it succeeds better on the drama, rather than the musical aspects. No disrespect intended for the songwriters, though. Give credit to John Legend for delivering one of the best musical moments in the picture, but I have to say my favorites were the jazz ensembles. Your mileage may vary, which is sort of how I feel about La La Land as a whole. I know what I liked the most, but you might see it otherwise.

*** stars (out of five)

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the election 2016 hangover: where do democrats go now?

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Yes, the Democrats got a rude awakening last Tuesday and probably spent the rest of the week searching for answers at the bottom of a tequila bottle. Sure, party leadership is probably coming off a bit of a bender right now. I can dig it. Losing to Donald Trump last week is a bitter pill to swallow, so get it all out of your system, Democrats, The Hangover (the movie) style.

Once you get your head back on straight, come to terms with this reality: Trump’s victory/your loss was a symptom of a larger problem festering within the Democratic Party at every level: lack of strategy, lack of message, lack of listening, lack of grassroots network. And it bit you in the ass. Again. The real question isn’t, “Why did we lose?” It’s, “When will you learn?!”

Rust Belt Red
If watching the entire Rust Belt go red on Election Night shocked DNC and state party leadership, they all should be fired. They’ve taken for granted the blue collar, middle class in these states for so long without actually competing for their interests that it results in more than just losing the presidency. Democrats have lost the Midwest at every level. As it stands, Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature in:

  • Indiana
  • Michigan
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Wisconsin

On top of that Republican governors sit atop the state government in all those states, but Pennsylvania (watch your six, Tom Wolf).

President Barack Obama’s popularity in the Midwest overshadowed the reality that Democrats have been steadily losing ground in the Midwest for years. No longer can they blame anyone but themselves.

The issues that plagued the Clinton campaign magnified the deepening divide among liberals and progressives who believe the party has gotten too cozy with Wall Street, with corporate donors and with centrist policy at the expense of core liberal values that once defined the Democratic Party.

True, unions may endorse Democratic candidates, but many of their members voted for Trump. We can say all day they were duped (they were), but who can blame them? National Democrats stopped paying attention to them. Voters went with the only candidate who showed interest. While Michigan Democrats were pleading with the Clinton camp to take the threat seriously, the DNC waved at them from afar.

When people feel they only have one side empathizing with them, guess who they support?

“You’re Fired!”
My only hope coming out of this election cycle is the DNC cleans house. Same goes for state party leadership throughout the Midwest; particularly in Indiana. Why Indiana? Because I lived there for 25 years and have watched the Indiana Democratic Party become a farce. All that’s missing from their efforts is Yakety Sax playing the background. In fact, I’d probably trust Boots Randolph more than any of the current state party leaders at this point.

With that in mind, Indiana Democratic Party, you are dead to me. DEAD. I may live on the other side of the country now, but I still get the occasional call from INDems for donations or support. At this point, kindly stop calling me. You will never get another dime out of me until you get serious and quit ceding three-quarters of the state to Republicans.

Who’s the Boss?
As for the DNC, a lot of talk about who will lead the party into a brave, new chapter is abound. We’ve heard names like Howard Dean (the past), Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison (the present) and South Carolina State Party Chair Jaime Harrison (the future). Honestly, all three are solid choices, but I have a better person in mind.

f8cd0ecae63b47e68fc87ababad92e2f.jpgTheo Epstein.

You think I’m joking? I’m being absolutely serious here. I have no idea about Epstein’s passion for politics (he donated to the Clinton campaign), but there’s no questioning his passion for winning. And there’s especially no questioning his bona fides. He took two “cursed” baseball franchises and turned them into world championship powerhouses after decades of futility, close calls and heartbreak.

Whatever Epstein knows about baseball, I bet he could apply that to politics and win.

Given my doubts he would leave Major League Baseball for the soul-crushing nature of national politics, I suppose Democrats can at least hope party leadership looks back at 2016 and listens to the message of the people, and it’s a pretty simple one:

Move to the left.

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