for your consideration: phantom thread.

Phantom ThreadPhantom Thread (2017 Focus Features/Universal Pictures/Annapurna Pictures/Ghoulardi Film Company/Perfect World Pictures)
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps.
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi. Music by Jonny Greenwood. Edited by Dylan Tichenor.

Set in 1950’s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.

If Woody Allen and Merchant Ivory Productions took a crap in the English countryside then decided to film it for two hours and make us watch it, you might have Phantom Thread. But along comes David Lynch to sprinkle some of his magic dust over the third act of this turd to turn these wretchedly boring characters into crackerjack nuts and—poof!—now you’ve got Phantom Thread!

I don’t know what happened to Paul Thomas Anderson, but his movies have gotten increasingly boring and utterly pointless!

Supposing Phantom Thread is a character study with a throwaway plot, it still fails. Daniel Day-Lewis is arguably the best actor in a generation—and he acted well in this film—but it doesn’t matter if the movie spends two hour sucking the air out of the theater. Sure, his character seemed interesting and Day-Lewis is convincing as a clothing designer, but still…what’s the point?

The only bright spot for me was Lesley Manville as Reynolds’s sister, Cyril. Manville deserves the hell out of her Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She made the most of her economy of dialogue in this otherwise snoozy, talky British film.

Sorry, folks. This was just not my cup of tea. This is one of those typical Oscar bait films that leave mainstream audiences saying, “uhh, what?”

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

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for your consideration: lady bird.

Lady BirdLady Bird (2017 A24/Universal Pictures/Scott Rudin Productions/Management 360/IAC Films)
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith.
Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig.
Producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Evelyn O’Neil. Music by Jon Brion. Cinematography by Sam Levy. Edited by Nick Houy.

In 2002, an artistically inclined seventeen-year-old girl comes of age in Sacramento, California.

It’s always interesting to see a movie told from a perspective we don’t see every day. On its surface, Lady Bird may not seem like much more than a typical, teen-ager coming-of-age story, but it’s so much more than that. It’s also somewhat odd to consider a movie set in 2002 as a “period piece,” but it sort of is, honestly. But that’s a different discussion.

Set in 2002 Sacramento, Christina, aka “Lady Bird” (as she wants to be known) seems like a typical, precocious 17-year-old high school student. Uncomfortable in her city, in her home, in her family, in her school, she can’t wait to leave it all behind for the East Coast.

The lesson comes clear soon enough to Lady Bird that she is not alone in her discontent. Everybody is carrying some level of pain, regret and a desire for better outcomes in life. We see this in Lady Bird’s relationship with her family, especially her mother, played wonderfully by Laurie Metcalf (whom I love in nearly everything she’s done). Their sometimes rocky relationship may show fissures, but they’re both reaching out to one another, searching for a way to understand and support one another.

In the lead role as Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan is tempered and believable as the protagonist. She has typical, teen-age girl problems, but doesn’t play the part of a bratty kid or too-whipsmart-to-be-believable girl (yes, I’m looking at you, Diablo Cody and Juno). Ronan’s scenes with Metcalf and Tracy Letts (who plays her father) are sincere.

On a side note: I appreciated Lady Bird for not reducing itself to cliché potshots at faith, religion and nuns. Yes, there’s humor in there, but there isn’t a meanness to it.

All in all, a solid, entertaining and impressive film from writer/director Greta Gerwig. It’s clear this is, on some level, a deeply personal story she’s telling and does so without being maudlin or trying too hard to make the lead character too cute by half. I also want to point out how great Stephen Henderson is in his handful of scenes as the school’s drama teacher, Father Leviatch. In two, maybe three scenes, we see a man who loves his job, loves his students, but is living with his own pain that he is trying to accept.

The beauty of Lady Bird is it’s not about an endless pursuit of a happy ending, but about accepting the life you have and finding your happiness within it. This theme presents itself throughout to Lady Bird in various ways; even in a warm moment between she and her teacher, Sister Sarah Joan.

STARS: **** (out of five)

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for your consideration: get out.

Get OutGet Out (2017 Universal Pictures/Blumnhouse Productions/Monkeypaw Productions/QC Entertainment)
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield, Catherine Keener.
Written and Directed by Jordan Peele.
Producers: Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, Edward H. Hamm Jr., Jordan Peele. Music by Michael Abels. Cinematography by Toby Oliver. Edited by Gregory Pickin.

It’s time for a young African-American to meet with his white girlfriend’s parents for a weekend in their secluded estate in the woods, but before long, the friendly and polite ambience will give way to a nightmare.

Watched it. Loved it. Watched it again and again because I love it. Smart, intense, memorable and multi-layered. Pretty impressive directorial debut for Jordan Peele. Unique and with a definite point of view, Get Out might be the most important film of the year.

Daniel Kaluuya’s performance in the lead role is impressive not just for his own acting, but the fact that he carries the picture among a cast of impressive actors. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, as Dean and Missy Armitage are peculiar, intense and convincing as limousine liberal white parents whose acceptance of their daughter’s African-American boyfriend is so over the top it’s suspicious; especially to Chris. As Chris’s girlfriend, Rose, Allison Williams takes suspense film psychos to new heights.

The not-so-subtle undercurrent of Get Out is obviously race; how white America views young, black men. Get Out succeeds in forcing its white audience to see the world through the eyes of a young, black man and confront racism, stereotypes and social constructs. Best of all, it succeeds at doing this without being preachy.

Get Out may be my favorite nominated film this year.

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

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for your consideration: dunkirk

DunkirkDunkirk (2017 Warner Bros. Pictures/Syncopy Inc.)
Starring Fion Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy.
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Producers: Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan. Music by Hans Zimmer. Cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema. Edited by Lee Smith.

Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German Army, and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.

“All we did is survive.” “That’s enough.” That exchange in the film sums up Operation Dynamo, better known through history as the Miracle at Dunkirk, an evacuation operation in May 1940—by way of a fleet of civilian boats crossing the English Channel, despite the risk—that meant not just the survival of more than 300,000 British troops, but quite possibly the survival of Great Britain herself and the entire world from the tyranny of Nazi Germany.

Rather than focus on a main protagonist with a personal connection to the war, director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is laid out by an ensemble cast, portraying RAF pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden), shell-shocked soldiers (James Bloor), troops clawing their way to survival (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard) and a father/son/son’s friend trio (Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan) who set out on a mission out of a sense of duty. The result is a loosely-woven tapestry of compelling story arcs that never fully intersect, but remain connected by one, common thread: saving the troops at Dunkirk.

In terms of war/action films, Dunkirk delivers high drama without succumbing to maudlin tropes and clichés. I suppose this “stiff upper lip” approach to an emotionally charged moment in world history is what some would regard as British stoicism. But don’t let that characterization fool you. Dunkirk is dramatic, emotional (on its own level) and riveting from beginning to end, but it gets there without too much deep dialogue or faux drama. It’s simply a race against the clock and a race against the Germans to save the world.

Solid film. Interesting viewing—especially for an American audience that may not know the details about an historic WWII event that pre-dates the U.S. involvement in the war by more than 18 months. Dunkirk succeeds in capturing the drama and importance of this moment in time from the perspective of men who were simply fighting to stay alive. Given that backdrop, I suppose that’s all the drama it needed and Nolan correctly stayed that course.

STARS: *** (out of five)

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for your consideration: darkest hour.

Darkest HourDarkest Hour (2017 Focus Features/Perfect World Pictures/Working Title Films)
Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn.
Directed by Joe Wright.
Producers: Tim Bevan, Lisa Bruce, Eric Fellner, Anthony McCarten, Douglas Urbanski. Written by Anthony McCarten. Music by Dario Marianelli. Cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. Edited by Valerio Bonelli.

During the early days of World War II, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who must decide whether to negotiate with Adolf Hitler, or fight on against incredible odds.

Less an historic reading of World War II, Darkest Hour is a character study of one of the most pivotal figures in 20th century history and the personal trials and struggles that come with carrying “the weight of the world on your shoulders,” as told to Winston Churchill by his wife Clemmie, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. It is a magnified view of Churchill’s first month in office as Great Britain’s prime minister in May 1940, as Hitler’s Germany was toppling Europe and threatening to topple the British Empire. Stepping into the role as prime minister, Churchill has to contend with factions from within who seek to limit his power and reach as England lurches toward becoming Hitler’s next chess piece after France.

Director Joe Wright captures Churchill’s sense of isolation and despair throughout Darkest Hour through long overhead angles and framing the prime minister—alone, mostly—in tightly-composed boxes and darkness. Being the savior of Great Britain is a lonely and desperate existence, Wright is telling us.

But the portrayal of Churchill’s anguish is told mostly through the sturdy performance of Gary Oldman. Not surprisingly, he is absorbed into the character and channels Churchill’s precarious balance of defiance, confidence, self doubt and fear. It would be easy to lapse into a cliché performance of a man whose voice, face and wit remain recognizable and familiar today as they were 80 years ago.

Darkest Hour is a solid picture with yet another stellar performance from Oldman. Problem is, Oldman doesn’t leave much room for anyone else. Sure, Lily James as Churchill’s typist, Elizabeth Layton, holds her own as the audience’s eyes and ears to history, but she (like most of the cast) never gets in Oldman’s way, nor does the picture swing for the fences. Yes, we get a steady, consistent story, but it’s muted and reserved; lacking that rousing, crescendo moment like we saw from Colin Firth in The King’s Speech Great performance from Oldman, though.

STARS: *** (our of five)

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an american badass.

What if I told you a story about an American who began life in captivity, broke free, then risked life and limb numerous times to save hundreds of men, women and children from a life of captivity. What if I told you a story about an American who fought for human rights? What if I told you a story about an American who worked as an armed scout and spy for the United States Army?

These are not different people. This is the same person. This person led a life dedicated to justice, freedom and ending human suffering; even if it meant dying for that cause.

You would call that person a hero. You would call that person an American badass. You would demand history tell this person’s story over and over. You would demand statues be erected and schools named in this person’s honor.

Who is this American hero?

Harriet Tubman.

a705fb06-4843-4a9c-904f-bfff8abf2d39.pngIf you’re surprised, it’s only slightly understandable. You probably didn’t hear much about Tubman beyond elementary school. That’s when I learned her story. We learned of her bravery in leading former slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Sure, she was covered in Civil War history classes, but not to any great extent. Her life’s journey is an iconic story of triumph over evil and of American exceptionalism.

Yet these days, if you listen to the rancor across social media, you don’t hear people championing Tubman as a pivotal figure in American history. You hear people cheering the decision by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to delay plans to put Tubman on the $20 bill.

Mnuchin claims this is not a high priority. Even if you take him at his word, the most troubling aspect of this story is the response from (white) people. At the low end, it’s ambivalence. But the most vocal proponents of this decision speak of Tubman as though she’s not an American, that she’s now worthy of the honor.

How did we arrive at this minor public debate? Last year, then-Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced Tubman would replace Jackson—seventh president of the United States—on the $20 bill. Tubman would be the first African American on the front of paper currency. The plan included keeping Jackson on the bill, but he’d be riding in the back of bus (on the backside).

For reasons beyond me, this seemed to cause quite a stir among conservatives. So much so, that rank-and-file conservatives cheered this week at Mnuchin’s announcement.

Personally speaking, I mostly don’t care whose face is on my foldin’ money. To me, the deeper subtext is more troubling; that people openly and vocally opposed this move with such vigor is disturbing to me. And, yes, the vast majority of the opposition is coming from white people, which confuses me. I’m a white guy (news flash!) and I don’t see the big deal about putting Tubman on the bill.

Some have argued Jackson, a former president, shouldn’t be pushed aside because Tubman was not a Founding Father or a president. My response: EXACTLY! There is no pecking order for whose face is placed on American currency. After all, did people make a stink over Susan B. Anthony coins? Probably, somewhere. But most people simply didn’t cotton to the idea of dollar coins in this country. Same thing with the Sacagawea coins. There might have been some quiet rumblings here and there about the person on the coin, but most people just seemed confused by the idea of dollar coins in circulation.

Fast forward to 2016 and the thought of a black woman on the $20 bill didn’t confuse people. It made people angry. In fairness, some of the backlash came from the left, as well. Some argued it was antithetical to Tubman’s legacy to place her image on currency. I’ll leave that to the liberal scholars and social justice warriors to hash out. You could say that argument is either absurd or warranted, but it’s not pernicious, like the not-so-veiled racist vitriol that flew around after the announcement.

Some said it was a form of “reverse racism” (which is both absurd and stupid). Others, like news commentator Greta Van Susteren, said it was “dividing the country.”

Huh?

Is this really where we are? People feel “divided” simply because a black woman will be on money? If that’s true, then those people seriously need to get a grip on reality.

At the end of the day, I honestly didn’t care one way or the other. Until Mnuchin made his announcement. By itself, the decision seems innocuous and, possibly, rational; until you look at the recent actions and decisions by this administration.

Before Mnuchin’s decision, you had the President of the United States referring to Confederate statues as “beautiful” and lashing out at decisions to remove them from public spaces. Prior to that, you had that same president give soft-pedaled denouncement of violence “on all sides” in Charlottesville. Oh yeah, he also said there were “fine people” on the side of Nazis, Klansmen and white nationalists (racists). David freaking Duke thanked him—THANKED HIM!—for his response. And let’s not forget the “build the wall” and so-called “Muslim travel ban” this president wants.

Never mind that we haven’t even discussed that this decision also feels oddly personal, since Trump is a self-identified fan of Andrew Jackson. That a president’s cabinet secretary would do the bidding of an American president based upon his own fancy vs. a decision that was put through a public vetting process during the previous administration is unsettling.

Now, I’m not saying this administration is overtly racist, but there is no question their policy decisions, their rhetoric and their actions clearly favor one group of people over others; so much so, that white supremacists have openly thanked the president.

Against this backdrop, Mnuchin’s Tubman decision—and those who applauded it—leave me feeling slightly queasy about people’s grasp of history and their understanding of what it means to be an American. Harriet Tubman is an American hero…FOR ALL AMERICANS. Her history is complex, brutal, angering and, at times violent. But it is also inspiring and champions those who made this country better for its sins. It is a testimony of how America is better for those who fought against tyranny in order to form a more perfect union.

Harriet Tubman’s history is American history. We all should celebrate her, whether she’s on the $20 bill or not.

HarrietTubman20-1

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if i were the white house communications director for a day.

KevMooch.jpg

Yes, that is my giant, jack-o-lantern-like cranium perched atop Anthony Scaramucci’s tiny, Lilliputian-like body. And yes, it’s bad PhotoShop. Sorry. My graphic designer sucks.

Presidents have to wear many hats. Outside of the actual duties of the job, as laid out by the constitution, they also have to sometimes serve as moral leaders, mourners in chief and wise, empathetic “dad” to the American public. The good ones know how to give voice to our anxiety, our pride, our pain and our anger. Where Ronald Reagan was masterful at communicating to the American public with sincerity, our current president—who burns through communications directors the way Spinal Tap burns through drummers—is the exact opposite.

Because I’m a communications hack by day, I’ve been viewing the post-Charlottesville events unfold through my public relations prism. Bottom line: this president and this White House couldn’t have botched it more if they tried. If I were the White House communications director for a day (which is about how long they usually last), I have my own thoughts on how I would’ve advised this president on what to say in response to Charlottesville.

Let me break it down for you in parts.

Part I: The Initial Statement
This is a delicate matter. In times of national crisis and/or tragedy, the nation looks to the president for reassurance and validation. Trump blew it. He absolutely blew it. You don’t tweet at an event like what we witness last weekend. That should never be the president’s first reaction.

Instead, the president must deliver a statement that conveys empathy, condolences and a sharp rebuke against Nazis. In the pantheon of political no-brainers, opposing Nazis is about as easy as it gets; or so we thought.

Anyway, if I were the White House Communications Director, I would’ve advised the president to deliver a statement that goes something like this:

[BEGIN]
My fellow Americans.

You are all aware by now of the awful tragedy that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend. Like you, I am appalled, saddened and angered by the violence and tragic loss of three lives. The awful events of this weekend were set in motion by a gathering of hate groups with long histories of violence in this nation. These racist organizations took to a college campus to foment fear, hatred and to spread their racist ideology.

Let me be clear: these hate groups are an abomination to our American values and our American way of life. Nazis, white nationalists and racism have no place in civilized society. In no uncertain terms, you are not welcome here. I am instructing the Justice Department to conduct a full and thorough investigation of this weekend’s tragic events. I am also instructing the Department of Homeland Security to regard these hate groups as terrorist organizations that must be eradicated.

Our constitution avails all Americans the right to free speech, but it does not avail rights to hate groups to spread their pernicious ideology of hatred.

What cannot be lost in all this is the loss of human life today. We mourn for Heather Heyer, a bright young woman who felt her true purpose in life was to spread a message of love and hope. We also mourn for Virginia state troopers Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Pilot Berk Bates who tragically died in a helicopter crash while monitoring the protests. I offer my deepest condolences to the families of these three victims.

Throughout the history of our great nation, we have encountered civil unrest too often as a result of racism. While I understand and appreciate the passion and dedication of those who speak out against racism in all its forms, I implore you to not resort to meeting violence with violence. We must appeal to our better angels and spread a message of peace, inclusion and togetherness. Answering violence from this awful scourge with violence will only dampen our efforts to achieve a more perfect union.

I encourage you to continue to speak out, to not allow racism to take root, but to do so peacefully.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” I call upon each of you today to carry Dr. King’s message forward and continue to spread love throughout your communities. This is the only true way—the American way—to stamp out this threat to our great society once and for all.

May God bless you, may God bless our fallen victims and their families, and may God bless these United States of America.
[END]

I know it’s not perfect, but it’s a first (and only) draft. Either way, you get the point. You offer empathy. You offer condolences. You tell the Nazis they are not welcome. You let the counter-protestors know you’re with them, but you ask for calm and nonviolent means to achieve their goals. You’re knocking it all out in 500 words or fewer.

That’s what a president does. You don’t step in a bear trap. And, by bear trap, I mean the false equivalence of “both sides.” No. Wrong. You condemn violence, but you do not lump counter-protestors in with racists. If you do that, you’re essentially validating the racists’ ideology.

A statement like this inoculates him from falling into a combative, disturbing and horrifying press conference where he gets into a push-and-shove over Confederate statues. Which leads me to…

Part II: The Great Statue Debate
Simply put: PUNT!

I say that because this president doesn’t share my views on the matter. But even if he did, I would advise against taking a hard position on it. Doing so would undermine and unravel the above statement that calls for unity and nonviolence against hate groups.

The goal is to keep the president aligned with the larger issues and to not get pulled into quicksand over hunks of bronze.

No, I’m not trivializing people’s feelings on the statues; but the president needs to focus attention on those about as much as he does the paintjob on Air Force jets.

Let the pundit class deal with the statues.

I would let the press secretary (eeeeeek!) say something like: “The president understands that passion runs deep on these statues in the communities. Therefore, the communities should decide for themselves how to address the issue. The president remains focused on addressing and eliminating future threats from racist hate groups.”

Also, what not to do: equate two Founding Fathers to Confederate generals. That does you no good at all.

Part III: When in Doubt, Denounce the Nazis
If you wish to be the president of all 50 states, don’t fall into the false equivalence trap. Don’t do the bidding of cable news hacks and Infowars. Just stay away from it. We aren’t talking about the ACLU vs. the Christian Coalition. We aren’t talking about Planned Parenthood vs. Focus on the Family. We’re talking about Nazis. NAZIS! No politician will lose points by denouncing Nazis. But the moment you start lumping other groups in with Nazis—and let’s be clear, NO OTHER GROUPS COMPARE!—you once again validate the racists. Simply put, don’t do it!

Of course, all this is predicated upon the belief that the president will be a rational, pragmatic, empathic, clearheaded and focused leader.

Your mileage may vary.

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