December 21, 2017

The 2017 Review: A Totally Critical Look Back


Superficially speaking, we saw the resurrection of Kesha, the retribution of Taylor Swift, and the highly divisive results of People's Sexiest Man Alive. But if you want to get real about this past year, we saw a lot of frustrating, devastating, and jaw-dropping headlines that made us all question the future of our country, our livelihoods, and the rest of the world.

However, despite the relentless shitshow that played out across all of our news feeds, the female population of the human race experienced a watershed year, providing some welcome developments and inspiration. They united en masse, marching in Washington and in countless other cities around the world. They spoke up. They refused to be silent. They made history. They regained power over their abusers. They stood up for what they believed in. They won awards. They banded together on HBO (Big Little Lies) and on ABC (hello, TGIT lineup) and for the sake of Sandra Bullock in that Ocean's 8 trailer. They also came together to wrestle (Netflix's Glow), and they finally got Wonder Woman on the big screen -- and it was good. They sang their hearts out. They supported each other. They loved each other. They continued to bring new life into a world that is questionably hard to live in. They helped the rest of the us become better humans.

And if my #2017bestnine on Instagram is any indication, I personally didn't have anything to complain about this year. I got to visit places like Portland, Puerto Los Cabos and Parrish, Florida, but one major trip I took was down Memory Lane (when I had the chance to say one final goodbye to my childhood home). From there, I lived through a Category 4 hurricane, the California wildfires, and a minor earthquake with an epicenter three blocks away from my L.A. apartment. I celebrated my birthday in Vegas (with Britney). I read and learned about The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k. I used the word "basic" one too many times. I got retweeted by one of my literary idols. And throughout it all, I managed to maintain a sense of gratitude -- because as one heads deeper into his late 30s, the more he realizes how to not take things for granted.

But before I start to sound more like one of those insufferable "life update" letters you receive from friends and relatives you see once every decade...let's get to the good stuff.

Call me as basic as a flamingo floatie in a Palm Springs pool (damn, I used "basic" again), but as usual, I've compiled my annual Top Ten lists of movies, TV, and music.

Here are my entertainment picks of the year.


FILM PICKS of 2017


1. GET OUT - Jordan Peele's socially-conscious thriller is an instant classic, delivering frightful fan-service to genre aficionados while also crafting a resonating, philosophically rich story that taps into African-American fears that are rarely explored in mainstream entertainment. Star Daniel Kaluuya shines in one of the biggest breakout performances of the year, and Allison Williams surprises in the most delicious way. Welcome to woke horror.

2. LADY BIRD - Writer-director Greta Gerwig delivers one of the best coming-of-age stories to hit the big screen (and the first great attempt at early 2000s nostalgia). It's a delicately constructed portrait of so many things all at once: Catholic school teen angst, the nuances of mother-daughter relationships, and suburban socioeconomic politics. Saoirse Ronan perfectly inhabits the titular role and is surrounded by a shining supporting cast (Lucas Hedges, Timothee Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Tracy Letts, and the inimitable Laurie Metcalf).

3. THE BIG SICK - Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon's touching, hilarious, and very human love story is the film that deserves to be the poster child for Making Rom-Coms Great Again -- as well as proof why we need more of Holly Hunter.


4. COLUMBUS - Remember that online campaign to get John Cho cast in more leading man roles? Well, anyone who contributed to that cause can rejoice. The actor stars in this meticulously meditative film from South Korean writer-director Kogonada, a thoughtful story about a chance encounter between two strangers amidst the awe-inspiring architecture of the titular Indiana town (not Ohio). Parker Posey, Michelle Forbes, and Rory Culkin also appear in this humanist ode to modernism...and letting go of the past.


5. COLOSSAL - If you told me last year that an absurdist, allegorical monster movie starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis would end up on this year's list, I'd look at you as if you grew two heads. But here we are: one of the most underrated films of the year is also captivatingly original, exploring themes of loneliness, redemption, and ego. It packs a surprisingly emotional wallop.

6. THE FLORIDA PROJECT - Director Sean Baker's follow-up to 2015's fantastic Tangerine is a cinema verite-style examination of childhood during one summer in the Sunshine State. The wonderful Brooklynn Prince plays 6-year-old Moonee, a little firecracker whose carefree bubble in a welfare motel is on the verge of being popped. But it is thankfully maintained by Bobby, the well-intentioned manager (an amazing Willem Dafoe) who does his best to secure her innocence.

7. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI - Martin McDonagh's brilliantly executed (and polarizing) story about one woman's grief-induced rage setting off a fiery chain reaction of events is an embarrassment of riches -- from its machete-sharp writing and powerhouse performances (Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell) to its absorbing reflection on small-town America in 2017. Three Billboards is that rare, compelling American film that leaves you wanting more.

8. LOGAN - Call this one No Country For Old Mutants, a comic book superhero movie that doesn't feel like one...and that's a beautiful thing. Logan earns its R-rating as a Marvel property, an X-Men entry made for adults that gives its titular character (Hugh Jackman, in a role that should never be recast) a proper sendoff after going through some violent motions. The main plot may not be all that original (it's The Professional with adamantium claws), but in director James Mangold's capable hands, it is a dark, rough-around-the-edges chapter that satisfies on all counts.

9. BEACH RATS - While Call Me By Your Name is currently wooing audiences with its gorgeous Italian backdrop and 80s soundtrack and reaping all the benefits of passionate word-of-mouth amidst Oscar season, Eliza Hittman's quiet little indie about the sexual coming-of-age of a teen in present-day Brooklyn tackles themes of masculinity in subtle, haunting ways that demand discussion. Star Harris Dickinson gives a magnetic performance, one that justifies the cliche "a star is born." 


10. DUNKIRK - Christopher Nolan's unconventional approach to the WWII epic is an astounding achievement, sprawling across land, air, and sea, eschewing cliches, and compelling audiences to emotionally invest in nameless characters who all have one goal in common: to get home safe.

Honorable Mention: INGRID GOES WEST - A seriocomic commentary on the way we live our digital lives starring Aubrey Plaza as a troubled Single White Social Media Stalker who travels to California and lies her way into a friendship with an Instagram star (a perfectly cast Elizabeth Olsen).


TV PICKS OF 2017



1. THE HANDMAID'S TALE (Hulu) - The well-deserved Emmy winner for Outstanding Drama Series is a grim, absorbing look at an American future that doesn't seem so far off. The adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel is beautifully brought to life through sumptuous cinematography, sly writing, and knockout performances, especially from star Elisabeth Moss, who delivers the most unforgettable fury-fueled monologue of the year in the climactic finale.


2. MASTER OF NONE (Netflix) - The long-awaited sophomore run was rich with standout episodes like the Emmy-winning "Thanksgiving," the excellently executed "First Date," and the brilliant "New York, I Love You." Aziz Ansari's masterful meditation on romance, career ambition, and friendship continues to celebrate otherness, and in doing so, subtly elevates it to a level of we're-all-the-sameness.

3. INSECURE (HBO) - Season 2 of Issa Rae's comedy soared to new emotional heights, thanks to its expanded narrative focusing more on those in our heroine's circle. The nuanced aftermath of Issa and Lawrence's breakup made for some great episodes, both spending the season attempting to fill the holes in their hearts (one word: "ho-tation") while Molly (Yvonne Orji) had some much-needed screen time dealing with office politics, family secrets, and one complicated relationship.

4. THE KEEPERS (Netflix) - The true crime doc, gorgeously directed by Mike White, twisted and turned with every episode, chronicling the events leading up to the shocking murder of a nun which then led to a devastating conspiracy that left a school, parish, and Baltimore suburb emotionally ruined.


5. PLEASE LIKE ME (Hulu) - The final season of the Australian cult comedy wrapped up for American audiences at the beginning of the year, and it was a hysterical, warm, heartbreaking, and endearing set of installments that saw our reluctant hero Josh come to terms with adulthood and his evolving friendships in the show's signature, authentic, awkward way.

6. BIG MOUTH (Netflix) - Nick Kroll's delightfully twisted animated series about the hormonal dramas of a group of preteens in the suburbs of New York is a smorgasbord of standout voices (case in point: Maya Rudolph as the scene-stealing Hormone Monstress) -- and obligatory sperm jokes. Puberty has never been portrayed in such an awesomely absurdist way.

7. ONE DAY AT A TIME (Netflix) - The Norman Lear classic from the 70s and early 80s gets a reimagining we thought we never needed, reinvigorating the traditional format of multi-camera comedy with a scene-stealing Rita Moreno, a refreshingly daring storyline involving teen daughter Elena that's rarely explored on sitcoms, and a fierce Justina Machado as the head of this Cuban-American family living in the Echo Park neighborhood of L.A. (*And two more words: hot Schneider.)

8. BIG LITTLE LIES (HBO) - Calling this "limited series" the prestige version of Desperate Housewives would be trite. David E. Kelley's adaptation of Liane Moriarty's bestseller is a deeply rich and satisfying domestic saga with performances that turned an affluent coastal California town into a stage for the Acting Olympics in what has proven to be a watershed year for all women. Nicole Kidman stands out as the emotionally and physically scarred Celeste Wright.

9. FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN (FX) - Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon outdid themselves, bringing dimension to the titular screen legends who inadvertently became pawns in Hollywood politics and misogyny-fueled tabloid fodder that is still prevalent today. Feud wasn't just about witnessing delicious shade being thrown at every opportunity; it was a clever indictment of an industry that is finally dealing with the reckoning of its faults.

10. 13 REASONS WHY (Netflix) - The controversial teen drama was beautifully unapologetic in every way -- from its depiction of 21st century high school life to the brutal effects of a culture that is in dire need of some lessons in empathy. America, take note: our kids are definitely not all right.

Honorable Mention: AMERICAN HORROR STORY: CULT - The seventh season of Ryan Murphy's anthology series uses the 2016 Presidential election as a backdrop and trigger for a sinister satire that taps into American rage and anxieties. It disturbingly sums up what we as a nation have been experiencing for the past 365 days. It's demented, it's funny, and it's downright chilling. It's exactly the kind of unsettling pop art tailor-made for this Blunt New World.


MUSIC PICKS OF 2017

1. "I Know A Place" / MUNA - The best song of 2017 comes from an LA-based trio that has been compared to HAIM. It is electro-pop balm for these high-anxiety times, a soothing and earwormy promise for those who don’t feel safe in the world they live in. Originally written as a response to last year's mass shooting at Pulse in Orlando, the song, guided by lead vocalist Katie Gavin, has now taken on more meaning, urgency, and resonance. And I had the pleasure to see it performed live. ALSO WORTHY: "Crying on the Bathroom Floor" and "Loudspeaker."


2. "Don't Take The Money" / Bleachers - A sad love song has never been so rousing, but leave it to singer-songwriter-producer Jack Antonoff to craft a multi-layered anthem this big and celebratory. With a mix of New Wave synths, a driving beat, and one cathartic chorus, "Don't Take The Money" is a charmer that sounds like it came out of the alt-pop-rock scene of 1988 -- and that's a beautiful thing. Watch the making-of this terrific track here.


3. "Lost in Your Light" / Dua Lipa feat. Miguel - The Summer of 2017 should go down in history as the Summer of Dua Lipa. (Just ask Esquire's Dave Holmes; he'll back me up.) The smoky-voiced Londoner delivered an irresistible album loaded with should-be hits. I couldn't have said it better than Holmes: "She displays the self-assurance and sophistication of a pop star five albums deep. There is drama and passion, there are no left-field rap breaks or gratuitous guest appearances (save for Miguel on "Lost In Your Light," and Miguel is always welcome)." And that collaboration is a strutting, seductive single that beautifully blends both vocals to perfection. ALSO WORTHY: Summer bop "New Rules," which TIME listed as the #1 Song of the Year, "Hotter Than Hell," and "Blow Your Mind (Mwah)."


4. "Cut to the Feeling" / Carly Rae Jepsen - A true song of the summer (sorry, "Despacito"), this shimmering piece of delicious pop was what we needed during these trying times. And it pulled off the most miraculous of feats: it never got tired.


5. "If I Dare" / Sara Bareilles - The hypnotic theme from September's Battle of the Sexes should be a shoo-in for Best Original Song for its gorgeous lyrics about defying the odds while providing a voice for the marginalized and oppressed. And Bareilles's restrained vocals cast a spell, lingering long after the track's end.

6. "Sign of the Times" / Harry Styles - Haters may be quick to accuse the former 1D-er of cribbing from Bowie and The Beatles after hearing his lead single from his ambitious solo debut, but like everyone else, they'll grow to appreciate the sincere nostalgia and appropriate message behind this epic track as well as the singer's surprising vocal range.

7. "Bad Liar" / Selena Gomez - Whispered purrs paired with a Talking Heads sample makes for one of 2017's oddest and most surprising singles; it sounds retro yet feels like the future. That's because Gomez admirably shuns the formulaic stylings of her Top 40 contemporaries and continues to prove herself as a mold-breaking pop princess.

8. "Castle on the Hill" /  Ed Sheeran - While Top 40 radio refused to stop playing "Shape of You," more attention should have been paid to this rollicking, nostalgic track about the power of memories and celebrating where you come from.

9. "What About Us" / P!nk - The Grammy winner triumphantly returns with an anthem for anyone in a tumultuous relationship, or, depending on your mindset, America's current sociopolitical climate. Whatever the interpretation, you can't deny its beauty and ability to empower.

10. "1-800-273-8255" / Logic feat. Alessia Cara and Khalid - Socially conscious pop that shined during a rough year filled with horrendous headlines. The breakout rapper enlisted a pair of breakouts for one impactful track that is basically the best PSA of 2017.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: 
The Meaning of Life / Kelly Clarkson
"Attention" / Charlie Puth
"Stay" / Zedd feat. Alessia Cara
"You Can Cry Tomorrow" / Betty Who
"Green Light" / Lorde
"Instruction" / Jax Jones feat. Demi Lovato

@TheFirstEcho

December 12, 2017

Dealing with Double Negatives in a Negative World


"He knows it is a graceless and condescending thing to do, correcting someone’s spoken grammar. Like being at a party and criticizing someone for not being well-read enough…” 

– Nathan Hill’s The Nix 

I have a superpower.

I have only been aware of this ability until recently. However, what I perceive to be a superpower may be seen by others as an insufferable nitpick. So, it is both a blessing and a curse.

Whenever I hear a double negative, whether it’s in a song or in conversation, an alarm goes off that only I can hear. It is a blaring noise alerting me that grammar is being abused, so naturally, I find myself compelled to come to the rescue and right these wrongs.

Back in 1999, TLC’s “No Scrub” was a definitive summer jam. Back then, I bounced along to the She'kspere-produced beats, marveled at the Hype Williams-directed video, and attempted to learn Left Eye’s rap bridge. But now, if I hear it come through my car radio or through the speakers at my local supermarket (because that's how old I am; the songs of my youth are now relegated to the homogenized aisles of brightly lit retailers), I want to yell back, “I don’t want ANY scrub! You can’t use ‘don’t’ and ‘no’ in the same sentence while referring to the same object! A double negative actually expresses a positive! ARGH!”

Additionally, if "a scrub is a guy that can't get no love from me," then I am basically saying that a scrub is indeed someone I will give love to! Double ARGH!

In some cases I imagine myself going on a rampage, releasing my rage over this grammatical injustice, flipping over my shopping cart, and knocking over boxes of crackers that have been stacked neatly in a pyramid. From there, a pair of security guards would come out, restrain me, and forcefully escort me out of the supermarket while I scream at the top of my lungs, "It's a double negative! Don't you people hear it? It's a double negative!"

That TLC single isn't the only guilty party either. "We don't need no education"? Really, Pink Floyd children? You clearly do need a proper education based on your poorly structured chorus.


This ability, this skill, this "superpower" is clearly a result of twelve years of Catholic school training and several English teachers instilling in me proper sentence construction. Being an enormous bookworm who didn't have much of social life probably had something to do with it as well. Reading five to six novels per month, I absorbed the written word and became very familiar with the mechanics of language as it appeared on the page. I quickly learned how to speak good...I mean well! Speak WELL.

But sometimes I wonder...what does this say about me? Have I become one of those overly critical Grammar Snobs prone to eye rolls whenever they hear the improper use of a prepositional phrase or subject pronouns? He and I attended the Dua Lipa concert together -- NOT "him and I!" Do I secretly get a kick out of making these corrections because it makes me feel somewhat intellectually superior? Probably.

It's so easy to be critical nowadays. I am constantly inundated with news feeds displaying people's opinions on matters both important and mind-numbingly trivial. Every day I am guilty of interacting with the vast digital echo chamber that is social media, where everyone has something to say, and it's hardly positive. And with every knee-jerk reaction I have, I have to step back and practice some restraint, reminding myself that it may not be worth engaging in a comment pile-on that has metastasized into an ugly Ignorance Monster, especially when there's incorrect grammar or misspellings involved. (People's true colors come out as well as their socioeconomic status sometimes.)



Top 40 radio, as little as I listen to it nowadays (ever since the dawn of digital streaming services) is a hotbed of double negatives. It has reached a point of no return, and I am certainly critical of a lyric that refuses to adhere to the Rules of Grammar. It makes no sense to me why it has to be sung incorrectly when a simple rewrite can keep the song's melody intact. "I don't want nobody but you"? Puh-lease. Of course, overall production value is also a determining factor in whether or not I will enjoy a song, but if it sounds dumb -- no matter how many arguments you can make about its earworm potential -- the Grammar Snob in me will think the song is for dumb people.

And there I go again, acting all high and mighty, contributing negatively to the world because I have no tolerance for what others may find tolerable.

Feel free to slap me the next time you see me. Actually, on second thought, don't.

I don't want no slaps.

@TheFirstEcho

December 05, 2017

The Santa Sessions: The Ultimate Christmas Playlist


Sure, Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole are great and all, but there are only so many times you can hear them on your easy-listening station around this time of year. That's why I present to you this big bag of yuletide goodness, 50+ songs that'll have you prancing and dancing around the house in your slippers in between sips of peppermint hot cocoa.

Merry Non-Denominational Holiday to you and your loved ones.


@TheFirstEcho

The 'Roseanne' Revival and the Sad Side of Nostalgia

I was eight when my mother and I caught a teaser for a new sitcom "coming to ABC" called Roseanne . It featured Roseanne Barr a...