Monday, August 29, 2016

Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of Fall 2016

The summer season officially concluded this past weekend with an unusual amount of fanfare as Fede Alvarez's horror/thriller Don't Breathe received stellar reviews and made $26.1 million in its first three days of release, which was a record-high August opener for Sony's Screen Gems label. The surprise success of Don't Breathe marked a rare triumph in what was one of the most bitched-about and bomb-filled summer movie slates in recent memory. A majority of the sequels on the slate grossed merely a fraction of what the original did (Alice Through the Looking Glass, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows) while other tentpole titles were widely trashed by audiences and critics alike (Suicide Squad, Independence Day: Resurgence, Ice Age: Collision Course), regardless of box success.Fall, with its onslaught of awards-bait and highly-anticipated reboots, spin-offs and sequels, represents a much-needed clean slate for the industry as the major studios (save for Disney, who escaped this nighmarish summer with a pair of universally-beloved, smash hits in Finding Dory and Captain America: Civil War) recoup the financial damage and tidal waves of critical/audience scorn they've taken over the past four months.
I'm in the complete opposite camp as the studios and a large number of moviegoers as I was highly satisfied with this summer's offerings on the whole and am currently looking at the fall slate with a lot of indifference outside of a dozen or so titles. Hopefully September-December will produce some surprises because as of right now, the prospects for the final stretch of 2016 in film is murky at best and depressing at worst. Without any further aimless rambling, here are the 10 films I'm most excited to see this fall.

10.Patriots Day (12/21): As someone who is from the Boston-area, Patriots Day-the dramatization of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing-is a film that hits very close to home. I'm very interested to see what angle director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor, Friday Night Lights) takes in telling this very complex story and if the cast led by Mark Whalberg, John Goodman and J.K. Simmons can accurately capture the relentless spirit and bravery of the key players that were involved with the bombing itself as well as the harrowing aftermath.

9.Nocturnal Animals (11/11): Nocturnal Animals is a film that I don't know much about as there is no trailer out right now and the plot details that are available are pretty vague. However, the prospect of seeing a film features two of my favorite actors (Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams) in the lead roles makes me absolutely giddy.
8.The Birth of a Nation (10/7): While the saga surrounding writer/director/star Nate Parker's sexual assault case from 1999 is awful and a completely valid reason to not support his work, I'm not going to let it effect my anticipation level for The Birth of a Nation. Nat Turner is one of the most fascinating figures in all of American history and if his story is told correctly, it has the potential to be the potent, no-holds-barred look at the atrocities of slavery that Hollywood has needed to release for quite some time.
7.Arrival (11/11): The trailer wasn't as impressive I had hoped it would be given its unique concept (a linguist is brought in by the United States military to try and communicate with aliens that have just landed on Earth), but the pairing of elite actors in Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker with a director in Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) that's currently on a hot streak is more than enough to get me in the theater opening weekend. 
6.Bleed for This (11/4): Has Hollywood put out an oddly high number of boxing films over the past couple of yes? Yes. Is that fact going to stop me from getting excited about Bleed for This? Absolutely not. With an unbelievable, fact-based story to work with and an incredible actor in Miles Teller in the lead role, Bleed for This could very well end up being the undisputed champion among the sea of recently-released boxing films.
5.Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (12/16): The only reason this isn't higher is because I don't like director Gareth Edwards's past work and I wouldn't be shocked if he found a way to botch this. Both trailers that have been released so far have been excellent, the cast is great and as a longtime Star Wars fan, it should be cool to see a film dedicated to the origins of the Rebel Alliance.
4.Snowden (9/16): Co-writer/director Oliver Stone's inconsistent track record and the film's multiple release date shifts (it was originally supposed to be released on Christmas Day last year) makes be a bit nervous about its quality, but Edward Snowden's fascinating backstory and the insane amount of talent in this ensemble cast gives me faith that this will be one of Stone's hits on the dartboard.
3.Passengers (12/23): Passengers boasts an original concept, two of the most likable, talented actors on the planet right now in Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in the leading roles and a writer/director pairing (Jon Spaihts and Morten Tyldum) with a solid track record of producing quality films. In other words, I'm sold.
2.The Girl on the Train (10/7): The novel version of The Girl on the Train has been widely (and favorably) compared to Gone Girl. As Gone Girl was my favorite film of 2014, that fact alone has sold me on seeing The Girl on the Train. While it would be unfair to expect it to match the quality of David Fincher and Gillian Flynn's film, the excellent trailers and strong cast including Emily Blunt, Justin Theroux and Allison Janney certainly make it seem like a real possibility.
1.The Magnificent Seven (9/23): Antonie Fuqua's (Training Day, Southpaw) reboot of The Magnificent Seven looks like the type of grand-scale, ultra-fun affair the western genre hasn't seen since the Coen Brothers' True Grit reboot back in 2010. Throw in an amazing ensemble cast headlined by the always great Denzel Washington and a script co-written by True Detective showrunner Nic Pizzolatto and veteran action movie scribe Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2, The Mechanic), and you have a recipe for this fall's most promising film.   

Films I'm also interested in:
The Light Between Oceans (9/2)
Morgan (9/2)
Yoga Hosers (9/2)
Sully (9/9)
Blair Witch (9/16)
Storks (9/23)
Goat (9/23)
Deepwater Horizon (9/30)
Masterminds (9/30)
The Greasy Strangler (10/7)
The Accountant (10/14)
Kevin Hart: What Now? (10/14)
A Monster Calls (10/21)
American Pastoral (10/21)
In a Valley of Violence (10/21)
Keeping Up with the Joneses (10/21)
Doctor Strange (11/4)
Hacksaw Ridge (11/4)
Loving (11/4)
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (11/11)
The Edge of Seventeen (11/18)
Manchester by the Sea (11/18)
Allied (11/23)
Bad Santa 2 (11/23)
Rules Don't Apply (11/23)
La La Land (12/2)
Office Christmas Party (12/9)
Fences (12/16)
The Founder (12/16)
Gold (12/25)
Why Him? (12/25)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Concert Review: Black Sabbath--Mansfield, MA-- August 25th,2016

Lineup: Black Sabbath/Rival Sons
Venue: Xfinity Center, Mansfield, Massachusetts
Date: August 25th, 2016

Rival Sons: Rival Sons is a band that I'd heard a decent amount of hype around over the past few years, but had never bothered to actually check out. After seeing them live, I doubt I'll ever listen to them again. They were an inoffensive yet completely forgettable blues-tinged hard rock band that brought nothing interesting to the table outside of a couple of decent guitar solos. Black Sabbath could've brought out a far worse opener for their final U.S. tour, but I feel like a stoner rock/metal like Red Fang or Clutch would've been a far more fitting choice for this coveted slot.

Black Sabbath: When it comes to heavy metal, no band has more clout than Black Sabbath. The roots of every single metal band of the past 40 years can be tied back to the British four-piece that took the early 1970's by storm with a crushing, sinister type of music that had never been heard before. While there were a number of other bands that played a bigger role in developing my love affair with metal, I've always appreciated Black Sabbath and thoroughly enjoy a number of their albums (particularly Paranoid and Master of Reality). I finally got the opportunity to see the godfathers of the genre that has been an integral part of my life for the past 11 years and it made for one of the most special performances I've seen.

Based on the way Black Sabbath performed last night, you would've they were a young band in the middle of their prime. The precision and edge they played with for a band that is collectively pushing 70 was awe-inspiring to behold. Ozzy Osbourne verified why he's one of the most iconic frontmen in the history of music with a stunning vocal performance and towering stage presence, Geezer Butler can still slap the ever-loving shit out of the bass and watching guitarist/riffmaster overlord Tony Iommi play live filled me with a borderline pathetic level of joy. It's honestly kind of astonishing how these guys still sound so good at their age and more aging bands should drink from whatever fountain of youth Osbourne, Butler and Iommi have been sipping from.

Further cementing this set's brilliance was a hit-showcasing, career retrospective setlist that was pretty much perfect. The slow-burning "Black Sabbath" did a great job of establishing the set's haunting, bittersweet tone while "Into the Void" and "Children of the Grave" were so beautifully satisfying and heavy that they reduced me to a combination of shit-eating grins and dumbfounded expressions. Even songs like "Dirty Women" and "Iron Man" that I don't really like that much on record absolutely destroyed live. "Electric Funeral" being the only non-instrumental song they didn't play from Paranoid was a bit disappointing , but that was merely a small misstep in an otherwise excellent setlist.  
Getting to see Black Sabbath on their farewell tour was a surreal, invigorating experience that greatly surpassed every expectation I had before the show. If you're a Sabbath fan or just appreciate heavy metal in any capacity, I urge to you see them-regardless of how much it costs-while you still have the chance. 
Rival Sons 5/10
Black Sabbath 10/10

Black Sabbath:
Black Sabbath
Fairies Wear Boots
After Forever
Into the Void
War Pigs
Behind the Wall of Sleep
Hand of Doom
Rat Salad (w/extended drum solo)
Iron Man
Dirty Women
Children of the Grave


5 Pieces of Fantasy Football Advice to Consider Before Your Draft

"These 5 fantasy football sleepers will help you win your league":
"How to find a breakout fantasy star":
"Fantasy Football 2016: 6 high-reward players to target in your draft":

Articles and videos like the ones listed above flood sports sites this time of year. Every paid fantasy "expert" claims to have a foolproof strategy to win titles. My question to them is how do you make guarantees in a game that's based on a sport that is consistently insane and unpredictable? What if the guys you guaranteed to be studs get injured or underwhelm? What if that late-round sleeper that was supposed to lead me to the promised land ends up being the only schmuck on my time that's any good? What if a previously great team full of highly-touted fantasy players suddenly loses their way?

As a loudmouth blogger with no shortage of opinions on this subject, I figured I would offer up a fantasy football draft advice column of my own. I won't guarantee you a damn thing, but I will say that I feel simple draft strategies like these are vastly overlooked among all the "draft this asshole and you'll crush the rest of the dumbasses in your league" pieces that are out there right now. I hope this serves as a departure from the typical draft pieces on the bigger websites and I'll gladly accept gifts if any of these strategies end up helping you win your league this year.

Trust Your Gut: This is by far the simplest advice I can give to people who are struggling with figuring out a draft strategy. If you feel like a player represents the best value at that pick, you should go for it, regardless of what position they play (you probably shouldn't take a kicker in the first 6 or 7 rounds though). Fantasy football isn't the exact science the high-profile experts at ESPN, and Yahoo! make it out to be and you shouldn't be afraid to pull the trigger on a player you believe in because it goes against popular draft strategies. 

Read the Room: Clearly this rule doesn't apply to people who are in public leagues with strangers, but for anyone who is in a league with friends, co-workers, etc., this is arguably the most important rule of fantasy football. Every person has a different approach for building a fantasy football team, so it's important to monitor the approach each person takes with their first couple of picks before you fully commit to a strategy. Following the default rankings to a T and/or entering draft with a firm plan is just silly given the full-blown insanity that can occur on a whim in a fantasy football draft room.

Don't Feel Obligated to Take a Running Back in the 1st round: fantasy analysts Michael Fabiano and Adam Rank preach the importance of taking a running back in the 1st round in almost every column they write or television segment they appear on. Given the pass-first mentality that has taken over the league, Fabiano and Rank's unwavering love of running backs make them sound like a pair of men that have just awoken from a decade-long coma. The "bellcow" running back glory days of the early-to-mid 2000's where the likes of LaDanian Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander and Priest Holmes were the keys to fantasy gold are long gone. You can take a wide receiver, quarterback or even a tight end like Rob Gronkowski in the 1st round and still be on the path to potential fantasy glory. There are still a handful of guys that worthy of 1st round consideration (Todd Gurley, Adrian Peterson, David Johnson, Lamar Miller), but to say that running backs are the cornerstone of a successful fantasy team in 2016 is downright absurd.

Don't Go Overboard with Drafting Players from the Same Team: I have a friend that this does religiously because he won a title with the combo of Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Stephen Gostkowski in 2011. For those don't remember, that was the season the Patriots went 13-3 and went to the Super Bowl that season. His annual attempts to recreate that magical season have been unsuccessful. Taking a QB/WR, QB/RB, RB/WR, etc. combo from the same team is a logical move, but living and dying on the backs of 1 team is a disaster waiting to happen 99% of the time. 1 down week from that group and your title dreams could go up in smoke (this happened with my aforementioned friend when the record-setting 2013 Broncos offense, which he owned 5 members of, shit the bed against the Chargers in Week 15). A small number of people will get lucky and net a title using this strategy, but it's a popular move that usually backfires.

Don't Draft Players by Name: What I mean by this is don't draft players based on their legacies. Every single year there are older players that are overvalued due to the fact they've put together impressive, Hall-of-Fame caliber careers (in 2015 it was Andre Johnson and Peyton Manning) who ending getting drafted in the first 4-5 round and subsequently burning their fantasy owners with well below-average production. Unless that player is constantly putting up eye-popping numbers that deifies their age (ex: Adrian Peterson, Tom Brady, Larry Fitzgerald), don't waste a high pick on them.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

2016 NFL Preview: AFC North

Baltimore Ravens
2015 Record: 5-11 (3rd in AFC North)
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (9th season)
Notable Additions: S Eric Weddle, WR Mike Wallace, CB Jerraud Powers
Notable Departures: G Kelechi Osemele, ILB Daryl Smith, T Eugene Monroe (retired)

The Ravens offense going into 2016 is not in the greatest shape from an overall talent standpoint, but they're at least on track to be healthy out of the gate after major injuries to key players pretty much single-handedly derailed their 2015 season. Quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Justin Forsett, wide receiver Steve Smith, center Jeremy Zuttah and tight end Crockett Gilmore haven't had setbacks in their rehabilitation and are all currently slated to be on the field when the Ravens take on the Buffalo Bills in Week 1. If the improbable happens and the offense gets bombarded with injuries and/or further regresses, my theory that their offensive coordinator Marc Trestman is a demon that was sent from the depths of hell to ruin talented offense is correct and general manager Ozzie Newsome should put a stop to his reign of terror by promptly throwing him into a piranha tank.
With the health of their top players presumably restored, the Ravens primary concern can be shifted over to their offensive line. They are returning 3 out of 5 starters including perennial All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda, but the loss of left guard Kelechi Osemele in free agency and left tackle Eugene Monroe to retirement could be potentially devastating for this unit. Osemele is one of the most powerful, well-rounded guards in the league and while Monroe has been plagued by injury over the past couple of years, he was a rock-solid left tackle whenever he was on the field. Osemele and Monroe are being replaced by John Urschel and rookie Ronnie Stanley, who was selected 6th overall in this year's draft. Urschel has picked up 10 starts (mostly at center after Zuttah got injured last season) over the past 2 seasons, but hasn't shown enough to prove he's capable of being a full-time starter in the league and while Stanley has showed a lot of promise in training camp and the preseason so far, left tackle at the professional level has such a steep learning curve that even the promising players at the position tend to get destroyed as rookies. If the newcomers struggle to adjust to being full-time starters in the NFL and right tackle Ricky Wagner can't return to form after a disastrous 2015 campaign, the Ravens could end up having their worst offensive line in at least a decade.

Their receiver group is also going to need to mesh if they want to return to form this season. Steve Smith Sr. will be back for his 16th NFL season, but coming off of a major Achilles injury at age 37 makes his comeback bid far from a sure thing. Things are equally unsettled behind Smith. 2015 1st-round pick Breshad Perriman-who has yet to play a down in the NFL-seems to develop a new ailment every day, free-agent pickup Mike Wallace is an excellent fit for the Ravens deep-ball heavy passing game, but his limited route tree and shaky hands make it hard for him to be relied upon as a primary target, their clusterfuck of tight ends (Maxx Williams, Gilmore, Nick Boyle, the newly-signed Benjamin Watson, possibly the remains of Dennis Pitta) are all average at best and it's currently unclear how 2015 standout Kamar Aiken will fare when he's not the only competent option in the passing game. There's certainly some promise with their young guys (especially Aiken) and Smith has defied the odds so many times before that it's hard to seriously doubt him, but there's also no reason to have serious faith in any wide receiver or tight end that is currently on the Ravens roster.
 The passing of the torch in the Ravens defensive front appears to be in full swing.The Ravens used their 2nd and 3rd round picks in this year's draft on a pair of edge-rushers in Kamalei Correa and Bronson Kaufusi and a 4th-rounder on defensive tackle/end Willie Henry. Adding Correa, Kaufusi and Henry to a group of already promising young players anchored by inside linebacker C.J Mosley, defensive end Timmy Jernigan and nose tackle Brandon Williams proves that Newsome is making a conscious effort to not repeat the sins of other teams with aging stars by bringing in new blood while the older guys (Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil) are still around to hold down starting spots and bestow their wisdom onto the young guys before they ride off into the sunset.

Just like the past few seasons, the Ravens strong front appears set to be undermined by the utter chaos and general lack of talent within their secondary. The addition of 5-time All-Pro safety Eric Weddle in free agency appeared to be the game-changing move they needed to finally get back on track, but that was almost immediately offset by the loss of talented young safety Will Hill, who was released 48 hours after Weddle signed with the team after once again demonstrating his lack of commitment to football by picking up his 4th drug-related suspension in 5 seasons.

To offset the loss of Hill, the Ravens have moved longtime starting corner Lardarius Webb to free safety. Plenty of aging, former star corners have found at new life after being moved to safety later in their career (Charles Woodson, Rod Woodson, Ronde Barber), but none of them were struggling as bad or as injury-prone as Webb at this point of their careers. However, Webb is only about four years removed from being an elite NFL corner, so it's certainly possible that this move could revitalize his career and make head coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees look like geniuses in the process.

The cornerback situation is somehow even messier than safety. Shareece Wright and Jimmy Smith did a fun body swap exercise in 2015 as the usually inept Wright turned into a pretty solid player as soon as he arrived in Baltimore (he was signed in early October after being released by the 49ers) while the usually excellent Smith looked like a rookie who was in way over his head dealing with top wideouts. Anyway you could possibly assess the prospects of Wright and Smith for this season, this a corner tandem that you simply can't rely on to be productive heading into 2016.

It wouldn't be a Ravens season preview without talking about their inability to lock down a competent slot corner. It looked like they had finally found the answer when they signed ex-Patriot Kyle Arrington, but he was a massive disappointment in his 1st season with the team. The Ravens newest bold solution to their slot corner woes was to bring in veteran Jerraud Powers, who has spent the past 3 seasons being the weak link in an otherwise excellent Cardinals secondary. Powers is a below average corner at best and I don't see how he's going to fare any better than Arrington did in the slot. As far as I'm concerned, the decision to play Powers and Arrington in the slot is a coin-flip with no good outcome. They are both established, mediocre veterans who hit their ceilings years ago and are unlikely to make this embattled secondary any better or worse. 

Bottom Line:

The Ravens are one of the most popular choices for a bounceback season in 2016, but the unusual amount of question marks that they have surrounding them on both sides of the ball leads me to believe that they'll miss the playoffs for a 2nd straight season.

Cincinnati Bengals
2015 Record: 10-6 (1st in AFC North)
Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (14th season)
Notable Additions: WR Brandon LaFell, ILB Karlos Dansby, S Jimmy Wilson
Notable Departures: WR Marvin Jones, S Reggie Nelson, WR Momahed Sanu

While I doubt it will happen given the consistent contempt Bengals fans show for their team, they should welcome back starting quarterback Andy Dalton with open arms this season. A.J McCarron was able to keep the ship afloat when Dalton was held out of the last 4 games of the season after suffering a broken thumb on his throwing hand making an ill-advised tackle on an interception return in Week 14 against the Steelers, but he was merely a middling game manager who couldn't be called upon to make big plays. Dalton is a productive and proven veteran quarterback with an excellent track record in the regular season and as long as he's out there, the Bengals are going to be in playoff contention in the AFC.

Dalton's return has made some waves, but the main storyline coming out of Bengals camp this offseason is who's going to land the vacant starting receiver spot (2015 starter Marvin Jones signed with the Lions in free agency) alongside star wideout A.J. Green. With last year's number 3 wideout Momahed Sanu also departing in free agency, the battle for the number 2 receiver job appears to be between newly-added veteran wideout Brandon LaFell and rookie Tyler Boyd. LaFell appears to have the inside track for the job at the moment, but if the drop problem he showed with the Patriots last season continues in the early stages of this season, Boyd should be able to take his job in no time at all.

Some analysts have theorized that the running game is going to suffer now that offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is gone, but I firmly believe that the Bengals rushing attack is going to be stronger in 2016. Their heavily-criticized starting running back Jeremy Hill had one of the biggest sophomore slumps after an excellent rookie campaign in recent memory with a weak 3.6 YDS per carry and a well below-average 794 yards in 2015, but I expect this to only be a bump in the road for the LSU-bred running back. Giovani Bernard followed up his promising rookie campaign with a terrible 2nd season before getting back on track last year. With one of the best offensive lines in the league in front of him and a punishing rushing style that tends to lead to high production levels in the NFL, Hill is in an excellent position to have a similar resurgence in 2016. If Hill can get back on track, this offense should be able to remain the well-balanced force they were under Jackson.

The cash-strapped Bengals were forced to make some tough decisions in free agency this season with 4 starters hitting the open market. They wisely decided to use their limited space to re-up on their excellent 26-year old safety George Iloka and cornerback Adam Jones, who is strangely playing the best football in his early 30's and let 2015 All-Pro safety Reggie Nelson, who turns 33 in September and 9-year veteran cornerback Leon Hall walk.

Outside of  Nelson, Hall and backup defensive end Wallace Gilberry, this is basically the same unit that took the field in 2015. The defensive front led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap features one of the most explosive pass-rushes in the league, their rush defense is quietly excellent (finished 7th in the league in 2015) and while losing a player of Nelson and rookie cornerback William Jackson III to a season-ending pectoral tear stings, there's enough talent in place to ensure that the secondary doesn't completely collapse this season. With little notable changes and every notable contributor (except for Jones) under the age of 30, this defense appears to be in pristine shape heading into 2016. 

Bottom Line:
This looks like a classic Bengals team, so expect a solid regular season before their annual grand-scale meltdown on Wild Card weekend.

Cleveland Browns
2015 Record: 3-13 (4th in AFC North)
Head Coach: Hue Jackson (1st season)
Notable Additions: QB Robert Griffin III, ILB Demario Davis, S Rahim Moore
Notable Departures: C Alex Mack, T Mitchell Schwartz, QB Johnny Manziel

The Cleveland Browns finally decided to do the mass house-cleaning they've putting off for a decade this season by firing head coach Mike Pettine, general manager Ray Farmer and either releasing or refusing to re-sign 9 starters this offseason. Arguably the most notable move of the bunch was the decision to cut ties with troubled quarterback Johnny Manziel after 2 seasons because of his off-the-field partying antics.

With Manziel now of the picture, would they draft another quarterback at the top of the draft? Or perhaps bring in a journeyman veteran to serve as a stopgap until they find a young player they like? The answer to both of those questions is of course not. The new Browns braintrust headed by general manager Sashi Brown and his team of Ivy League-educated analytics guys thought the safest bet to replace their embattled young quarterback was to bring in another one in Robert Griffin III, who is essentially just Manziel without the coke problem. After the RG3 signing, I'm questioning whether or not the Browns number-crunchers even graduated from middle school, let alone Harvard or Princeton.

RG3's career following his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign in 2012 has been a trainwreck of epic proportions  He's been playing in a perpetual state of fear since he torn his ACL in the wild card game back in January 2013 and his throwing mechanics and accuracy seem to get worse every time he takes the field. In addition to his visible lack of confidence under center and penchant for ugly throws, he's so mentally fragile that he notoriously clashed with former head coach Mike Shanahan for making him watch tape of his bad throws. While I think that head coach Hue Jackson is an excellent football mind who is capable of creating the most stable locker room atmosphere he's had since he's been in the league, I think RG3's treasure trove of problems on-and-off-the-field are past the point of fixing.

Adding to the impending doom of RG3's tenure at quarterback is an unstable offensive line and untested receiver group. The status of the offensive line, which had been of the team's few strengths in recent years, went up in flames this offseason following the departure of center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz in free agency. Mack and Schwartz were two of the only pillars of stability within this team over the past few years and their presence will be sorely missed as the Brown hit the reset button on their roster. Left tackle Joe Thomas-who should win the Walter Payton Man of The Year every single year for voluntarily spending the duration of his entire Hall-of-Fame career so far with the Browns-alone is enough to prevent the line from being a complete disaster, but there's reason to be seriously concerned about the rest of the unit. Cameron Erving was terrible as a fill-in starter at guard last season and the prospect of moving to center to replace Mack is fucking terrifying, right tackle Austin Pasztor got released by the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, prior to the start of last season and both of their guards (John Greco and Joel Bitonio) are coming off of below average seasons in 2015. RG3 is probably cowering in a corner and crying as we speak at the thought of playing with "Thomas and the 4 Jabronis" in front of him this season.

On paper, the receiver situation seems pretty alright. Rookie Corey Coleman has reportedly been highly impressive throughout offseason workouts and one-time star wideout Josh Gordon managed to put the bong down for long enough to get reinstated by the league after an 18-month suspension. However, I have almost no faith that RG3 will be able to get them the football. The main knock on Coleman is his limited route tree, which doesn't bode well for a quarterback that is wildly inaccurate past 5-10 yards and despite his familiarity with RG3 during their time together at Baylor, Gordon's extended absence from football raises a lot of questions about whether or not he can still play with the same polish and edge that he had before Rodger Goodell sent him into exile for smoking the jazz cigarettes. Behind Coleman and Gordon, the prospects are bleak. Taylor Gabriel is good for the occasional surprise 65-yard touchdown and nothing else, Terrelle Pryor is a converted quarterback that has made some splash plays in the preseason, but will likely flounder the minute the regular season starts and Andrew Hawkins somehow manged to survive the mass roster purge in the offseason. If RG3 can magically regain his swag back, this passing attack could be surprisingly effective. If he continues to be the sadsack RG3 of the past 3 seasons, the Browns aerial attack will likely be even worse than it was when Brian Hoyer and Austin Davis were under center. 

The potential of their rushing attack is the only reason to get excited about the Browns offense this season. Jackson is a strong proponent of the running game and he has a pair of promising backs in Isiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr that could flourish in his system. Crowell has been reasonably productive in his first 3 years in the league and Johnson Jr. showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie campaign a year ago and seems like he could be the top beneficiary of Jackson's arrival in the Forest City. Given their shakiness at quarterback, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the Browns had a top 10 rushing offense this season.
The Browns overhaul was arguably more drastic on the defensive side of the ball than offense. The team wisely dumped a lot of their overpaid aging starters (safety Donte Whitner, inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, defensive end Randy Starks) and showed their dedication to injecting the defense with young talent by selecting outside linebacker Emmanuel Ogbah and defensive end Carl Nassib with 2 of their first 3 picks in this year's draft.

The ousting of the team's older starters gives excellent opportunities for their young players including defensive tackle Danny Shelton, outside linebacker Nate Orchard and safety Ibraheim Campbell to prove their worth. However, that opportunity is bound to come with a lot of growing pains for this young nucleus (6 of their 11 projected starters have been in the league for 4 seasons or less) that collectively has very limited starting experience. Even the few veteran presences they have scattered throughout this group are unlikely to do much. Newly-signed inside linebacker Demario Davis is a competent albeit unremarkable player, outside linebacker Paul Kruger has been a massive bust since he signed with the team ahead of the team in 2013 and 2-time Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden has fallen from grace with back-to-back terrible, injury-plagued seasons. Their odds of being successful this season are very slim, but it'll be interesting to see if defensive coordinator Ray Horton will be able to discover any building blocks for the future among this raw group.

Bottom Line:
The Browns are in the middle of a major rebuild on both sides of the ball, which means they're on track for another miserable season in 2016.
Pittsburgh Steelers
2015 Record: 10-6 (2nd in AFC North)
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (9th season)
Notable Additions: TE Ladarius Green, DE Ricardo Matthews, T Ryan Harris
Notable Departures: T Kelvin Beachum, TE Heath Miller (retired), DT Steve McClendon
The Steelers offense can't seem to catch a break heading into 2016. Martavis Bryant got suspended for the entire season back in March after failing his 3rd drug test, star running back Le'Veon Bell got suspended for 3 games for skipping multiple random drug tests and to top it all off, projected starting tight end Ladarius Green, who was signed in free agency to replace the recently-retired Heath Miller, is reportedly dealing with chronic, concussion-related headaches which may force him to retire at the age of 26.

Even with the wave of notable absences for at least a portion of 2016, the Steelers should still have one of the most potent offenses in the league this season. They have the depth at receiver (Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey) to make up for Bryant's absence and DeAngelo Williams appears to have enough left in the tank to weather the storm while Bell is forced to sit on his couch for the first 3 games of the season. More importantly, the Steelers still have one of the league's best quarterback/receiver tandem in Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown at their disposal, which allows them to be a threat regardless of who else is on the field with them. If the Steelers big 3 (Roethlisberger, Bell, Brown) can stay healthy and at least provide their normal contributions, this offense will continue to be a nightmare for opposing defenses to try and contain.     

There are few things in the NFL that change less than the Steelers defense on a year-to-year basis. The usual suspects save for nose tackle Steve McClendon and cornerback Cortez Allen are all back for another season. The defensive front led by borderline elite defensive end Cameron Heyward and grizzled 10-year veteran inside inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons continues to set the tone for the whole defense. The efforts of their front led to a stout rush defense that finished 4th in the league and an excellent pass-rush that generated 48 sacks, which ranked 3rd behind the Patriots and the Super Bowl-champion Broncos, last season. If the young guns (inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, defensive end Stephon Tuitt,outside linebacker Bud Dupree) can build upon the promise they showed in 2015, the Steelers quest to return to their former defensive glory could be fast tracked.

The downside to the lack of change is that the Steelers secondary, which ranked 30th in the league last year, is still riddled with holes. Rookie Artie Burns is more than likely too raw to make a notable contribution right away and the projected starters save for last season's extremely pleasant surprise Ross Cockrell are all below average at best. At least they can relish in the fact that the frequently torched Antwon Blake decided to take his ghost coverage talents to the Titans this offseason.

Bottom Line:
With a relatively easy schedule and an almost unrivaled level of continuity, the Steelers could be primed for a deep playoff run if all of their key players can stay healthy and out of trouble.
Projected Standings:
1.Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
2.Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
3.Baltimore Ravens (9-7)
4.Cleveland Browns (4-12) 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Movie Review: War Dogs

Just in time for election season, Hollywood has given American audiences another reason to feel sick about their country with the fact-based crime drama/black comedy War Dogs. War Dogs takes a look at the sky-high profits that can be made when the United States government needs to be armed for a military conflict. The film would've absolutely benefited from going into more specific detail about the arrangements and it's not nearly as scathing of a condemnation of the system as it was clearly intended to be, but the nuggets of information that are present about the workings of the government's defense industry and how lightly people within the industry are punished for committing illegal activity to procure firearms, ammunition, etc. are astonishing and truly appalling.  

Politics aside, War Dogs is a competent film with flashes of greatness that never materializes into something truly special. It's evident that co-writer/director Todd Philips (The Hangover trilogy, Old School) and his writing partners Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic wanted to this be the arms-industry answer to The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short, but it lacks the manic energy, satirical tone and gut-punch impact of those films. It also doesn't help that the plot is bizarrely grounded for the genre. The film hums along at the same semi-slow pace throughout and the tension/stakes never elevate, even when the consequences for the protagonist's illegal activities come into play in the second half of the film. War Dogs was definitely engaging enough to keep me relatively interested throughout the film and the last handful of scenes are absolutely brilliant, but there wasn't enough narrative fireworks or sting in its messages to be a great film overall.

While War Dogs has its faults with writing and pacing, the acting is universally excellent. Jonah Hill continues his dramatic acting hot streak with a phenomenal turn as Efraim Diveroli, the manipulative, morally bankrupt leader of the arms operation, while Miles Teller is appropriately even-keeled as David Packouz, Efraim's unassuming and overly loyal accomplice who reluctantly takes the job to support his newborn daughter and soon gets swept up with the opulence and adrenaline-driven lifestyle of an arms dealer. Hill and Teller are two of the best actors of their generation and War Dogs would've more than likely fallen apart without their efforts. The leads do excellent work, but it's Bradley Cooper's supporting turn as the arms magnet that supplies Diverloli and Packouz with the weapons they need to fill the massive $300 million Pentagon contract they landed to arm militias in Afghanistan that proves to be the film's finest piece of acting. In a mere 15 minutes on screen, Cooper manages to give a commanding and legitimately terrifying performance that injects War Dogs the type of imposing, sinister presence that it desperately needed more of. Not since John Goodman in 2014's The Gambler have I seen an actor run away with a movie in such a short period of time.

War Dogs is a well-acted and pretty entertaining film, it's just a bit disappointing that it never fully embraces the insanity and potential dark comedy gold that could've been harvested out of its premise. In the right hands, this could've been a classic piece of scathing satire instead of merely a respectable crime drama that's bound to get lost in the shuffle of similar films before too long. Phillips and co. put forth an admirable effort with War Dogs, it just never quits add up to the timely, intelligent and pointed film they wanted it to be.

3.5/5 Stars

Monday, August 22, 2016

2016 Potential Fantasy Football Sleepers

Editor's Note: This post was originally written on August 3rd, but due to the uncertainty surrounding  Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Ladarius Green's availability going into the season, I decided to edit and re-post the piece.  

Fantasy football pundits and players across the country have a zillion different strategies that they claim will guarantee you a championship. Personally, I think a lot of these strategies are horseshit and that luck can often trump knowledge in this chaotic game. That being said, one of the only things that I believe is truly essential in the quest for fantasy football glory is late-round value picks (aka sleepers). Any asshole can select a productive player in the first few rounds, the success of your draft is truly determined by the last five or six rounds when your forced to take chances on under-the-radar, risky veteran or young, untested players. Getting players that put up excellent numbers late in the draft isn't a gamble that usually pays off, but when it does, it often leads to a league championship. Here are the guys that I believe could end up being the top sleeper picks of 2016.

Quarterback: Derek Carr (Raiders)(Average Draft Position: Yahoo!: 103.5 ESPN: 109.2 110.2)
Carr made tremendous strides in 2015 after a solid rookie season in 2014, putting together a 3,987 YD/31 TD/13 INT campaign that led the Raiders out of the league's basement and made them one of the most exciting up-and-coming teams in the NFL. With top receiver Amari Cooper entering his 2nd season and the addition of Kelechi Osemele in free agency to an offensive line that was already one of the best in the league a year ago, there's no reason to believe that Carr can't significantly up his game yet again this season. Carr's intangibles, solid arsenal of receiving weapons and comfort level with Bill Musgrave's system give him a legitimate chance to be a top-tier fantasy quarterback in 2016.   
Honorable Mentions: Jameis Winston (Buccaneers), Andy Dalton (Bengals), Tyrod Taylor (Bills)

Running Back: Duke Johnson Jr. (Browns) (Average Draft Position: Yahoo!: 107.8 ESPN: 82.7 97.6)
After a top-to-bottom purge of their organization this offseason, the Browns are in the inevitably painful first season of a rebuilding process. With a roster full of mostly unproven young talent and cheap, stopgap veterans, the amount of potential fantasy impact players on the Browns roster is even lower than usual. One of the few intriguing pieces they possess is second-year running back Duke Johnson Jr. Johnson showed flashes of brilliance in a limited role last season and with a new head coach/offensive coordinator in Hue Jackson that covets the running game, there's good odds he'll have a more prominent role this season. With his distinction as a true two-way back in an offense that is largely devoid of talent, Johnson has a fantastic opportunity to emerge as this offense's go-to-guy and could prove to be a cheap, productive option at a position that has a severe lack of depth.
Honorable Mentions: T.J. Yeldon (Jaguars), Jay Ajayi (Dolphins), Paul Perkins (Giants)

Wide Receiver: Marvin Jones (Lions) (Average Draft Position: Yahoo!: 98.0 ESPN: 100.6 124.8)
Golden Tate my be entrenched as the Lions top receiver now that Calvin Johnson is retired, but Marvin Jones was brought in free agency to be utilized as a field-stretching complement to Tate, who is mostly utilized in the short-passing game. Jones was rock-solid as the number 3 option in the Bengals passing game behind A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, putting up 816 YDS and 4 TD's in 2015, and the inevitable increase in opportunities he's going to get in this pass-happy Lions offense could very well lead to a career year for the 26-year old receiver.  
Honorable Mentions: Sterling Shepard (Giants), Kevin White (Bears), Kamar Aiken (Ravens)

Tight End: Clive Walford (Raiders) (Average Draft Position: Yahoo!: 129.8, ESPN: 170.0) 149.7)
Walford is a very deep sleeper (currently going in-between 3 and 5% of league's on the 3 biggest fantasy sites), but I think he has as much as upside as anyone else on this list. He thrived in limited snaps last season (329 YDS and 3 TD on 28 receptions) and his standing as the projected starting tight end in one of the fastest rising young offenses in the league makes him a logical candidate to enjoy a breakout season in 2016. Walford is a potential very late round gem at the single thinnest position in fantasy football.
Honorable Mentions: Dwayne Allen (Colts), Eric Ebron (Lions), Charles Clay (Bills)

Defense: Oakland Raiders (Average Draft Position: Yahoo!: 123.2 ESPN: 138.5 143.6)
The Raiders had the sack (38, tied for 14th in the league) and takeaway total (25, tied for 12th in the league) of a solid fantasy defense, but their high points allowed (24.9, 22nd in the league) total made them a merely average option in 2015. With the additions of outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, cornerback Sean Smith and safety Reggie Nelson in free agency and safety Karl Joseph in the draft to a defense that already featured All-Pro outside linebacker/defensive end Khalil Mack and highly underrated run-stuffing defensive tackle Dan Williams, the Raiders don't seem like they're going repeat that high points allowed total again. They more than likely won't put up Broncos or Seahawks-esque numbers in most weeks, but their sky-high ceiling and favorable late-season schedule makes them a great pick for owners that like to wait until the final few rounds of the draft to select a defense.
Honorable Mentions: Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets

The Best and Worst of Mary Elizabeth Winstead

The "Best and Worst" series profiles the best and worst work of an actor starring in one of the week's new theatrical releases. This week I take a look at the filmography of "The Hollars" star Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

Films starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead that I've seen:
Death Proof
Live Free or Die Hard
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
The Thing
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
A Good Day to Die Hard
The Spectacular Now
Kill the Messenger
10 Cloverfield Lane

Best Performance: Smashed (2012)
During her first seven or eight years in Hollywood, Winstead wasn't really on my radar. I had enjoyed some of the films she starred in (Live Free or Die Hard, Death Proof, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), but she failed to leave any sort of positive or negative impression on me. That all changed when I saw the criminally underappreciated indie drama Smashed in the spring of 2013. Winstead's portrayal of an elementary school teacher who is battling severe alcoholism is heartbreaking, emphatic and alarmingly authentic. Her powerhouse performance here showcased a remarkable level of talent that had somehow been buried for years and she has since gone onto become one of the most reliably impressive actresses in Hollywood.

Worst Performance: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
This is yet another case of a poor performance primarily caused by the script and not the actor itself. Winstead plays Ramona Flowers, the mysterious yet enchanting delivery girl that Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) can only date if he defeats her eight evil ex-lovers in combat, who serves as more of plot device than a fully fleshed-out character. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is full of flaws, but the poor development of its female lead and subsequent underwhelming performance from Winstead is near the top of the list.  

Best Film: The Spectacular Now (2013)
Audiences are treated to at least a half-dozen indie, coming-of-age films each year, but there aren't many that are as well-done as James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now. The Spectacular Now makes up for its well-worn premise (a popular high school senior boy falls in love with the misunderstood, quiet girl) with phenomenal acting from its primary cast (Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Winstead, Brie Larson, Kyle Chandler) and a level of heart and realism that you typically don't find in these films. Without question, one of my favorite films of the 2010's far.  

Worst Film: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)
Unlike most long-running franchises, the Die Hard series maintained a remarkable level of consistency over multiple decades. 1988's Die Hard, 1990's Die Hard 2: Die Harder, 1995's Die Hard with a Vengeance and 2007's Live Free or Die Hard are all damn near-perfect action films that are funny, clever and highly entertaining. Then A Good Day to Die Hard came along and brought the franchise's hot streak to a screeching halt with a film that didn't come anywhere close to capturing the spirit and fun of the earlier films. The action scenes were completely forgettable, Jai Courtney was flat-out abysmal as John McClane's son and worst of all, Bruce Willis displayed almost none of John McClane's trademark charisma and snark. Shout-out to Skip Woods, John Moore and whatever dingus at 20th Century Fox that greenlit this film for tarnishing the legacy of Hollywood's greatest action franchise with a half-assed and completely unnecessary sequel that went against everything that made the Die Hard films great.  

Thank you for reading this week's installment of "The Best and Worst of". Next week, I'll take a look at the best and worst work of  "Morgan" star Brian Cox.