December 31, 2018

The 2018 Review: My Top 10 Film Picks


If anything, 2018 was the year movies felt more inclusive than any other year in recent memory (or ever). One could attribute it to the efforts of artists, writers, and filmmakers who have been given the opportunity to tell stories that are rarely distributed to mass audiences, with characters that are not often found on the big screen. Titles like Sorry To Bother You, Crazy Rich Asians, The Miseducation of Cameron PostThe Hate U Give, BlackkKlansman, SearchingHearts Beat LoudTo All The Boys I've Loved Before, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Love, Simon made their presence known and struck a chord.

And with critical faves like Roma and The Favourite not yet screened as of December 31, here's what left a mark on me this past year:


1.  EIGHTH GRADE (RT Score: 99%) - Bo Burnham's directorial debut may be the first (and best) movie about Gen Z capable of resonating across all age groups. Elsie Fisher, a true revelation, plays 13-year-old Kayla, a girl on the verge of graduating from middle school. And every awkward, humiliating, joyful, devastating, and mundane moment leading up to that transition is captured and conveyed with gorgeous poignancy and tender nuance. Burnham proves himself as a keen observer of adolescent life in the late 2010s. Welcome to a world of sniffing markers, shooter drills, and adults pathetically attempting to dab. When Kayla puts herself out there at a mean girl’s pool party — in an unflattering green swimsuit — we follow her along that tense, unbearable walk until she submerges herself, hiding among a group that doesn’t acknowledge her. We see her pain. We feel her pain. We know her pain. Eighth Grade never comes off as an indictment of Kids These Days. It’s a beautiful snapshot of youth and the culture that is rapidly shaping it, whether we like it or not.

2. WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (RT Score: 99%) - Morgan Neville’s sterling doc looks back on the impactful legacy of Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, simultaneously opening the floodgates of nostalgia and exploring the groundbreaking and powerful ideas that were subtly communicated within the show throughout its decades-long run. It is a beautiful tribute as well as a testament to the power of empathy. Soothing balm we need during our divisive Era of Outrage.


3. CRAZY RICH ASIANS (RT Score: 91%) - In an marketplace dominated by superheroes and YA adaptations, we almost forgot what rom-coms can be capable of -- despite the fact that the term "rom-com" has devolved into something cliched and easily mockable. But Jon M. Chu's vibrant and groundbreaking adaptation of Kevin Kwan's delicious bestseller reminded us of the magic of these films (when done properly, of course). Sure, CRA covers every trope in the genre (scene-stealing sidekick, exotic locales, a fashion-music montage), but it does so with unabashed gusto, uplifting and inspiring audiences when we needed it the most.

4. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (RT Score: 98%) - Melissa McCarthy wisely trades in her comic chops to inhabit the life of down-on-her-luck celebrity biographer Lee Israel in early-90s New York City, and thanks to Marielle Heller's restrained direction, what almost becomes another movie-about-a-writer turns into quiet yet engaging literary caper.

5. GAME NIGHT (RT Score: 83%) - The plot (a murder-mystery game goes horribly wrong for a group of competitive friends) is deceptively simple. The jokes (that squeaky toy gag, Jesse Plemon's creepy cop) are unexpected and clever. And the writing and direction is razor-sharp, carefully crafted, and surprisingly polished for a modern-day, R-rated laugher. A well-cast (and rewatchable) reprieve from the ad-lib-heavy joke machines that have forgotten what a great comedy is supposed to be.

6. TULLY (RT Score: 85%) - Forget the publicized gimmick touting Charlize Theron's weight gain for her role in writer Diablo Cody's tender ode of motherhood. Instead, focus on the actress's subtle choices and Jason Reitman's beautiful direction in this domestic drama that offers a brilliant twist on movies about nannies.


7. WIDOWS (RT Score: 91%) - An explosive, visceral collaboration between director Steve McQueen and writer Gillian Flynn, Widows is more than just a female-fronted heist story. It is a prime example of intelligent, impactful drama for grown-ups that not only taps into the zeitgeist, it holds a mirror up to it and dissects the sociopolitical and socioeconomic problems that continue to challenge American society. Featuring the best big-screen ensemble in recent memory, it is tight, tense, and tricked-out with twists that never feel contrived -- a manifesto for the demise of the American dream.

8. BLACK PANTHER (RT Score: 97%) - Even those suffering from the worst cases of Superhero Movie Fatigue couldn't resist the power, charisma, and genuine wonder of the latest installment within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. More than just another fantastical epic, Panther brought much-needed black excellence to the big screen in a way that felt effortless -- all while offering a fascinating look at an alternate world in which such excellence is allowed to soar beyond its potential.


9. SEARCHING (RT Score: 93%) - This is the second year in a row in which John Cho appears in my Top 10 (last year he starred in the beautiful Columbus), and this time he plays a father of a teenage girl who goes missing. What makes this familiar story so bracingly original is its execution: the increasingly tense narrative unfolds across computer screens, text messages, surveillance footage, and news reports -- never losing its momentum, rising above the tropes of the found-footage genre -- only to drop one of the best plot twists in years.

10. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT (97%) - Tom Cruise & Co. have successfully defied the odds, keeping a 22-year-old franchise as fresh and thrilling as ever. This sixth entry is a reminder that not all action flicks need capes and intergalactic battles to keep audiences engaged. This one has both brains and brawn, giving us one breathtaking sequence after another with twists and turns that are genuinely jawdropping.

...AND 7 HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Love, Simon (92%)
A Star Is Born (90%)
A Simple Favor (85%)
Annihilation (88%)
Bad Times at the El Royale (74%)
Blockers (83%)
Hereditary (89%)

@TheFirstEcho

December 20, 2018

This ‘Edward Scissorhands’ Musical is an Alternative Holiday Treat


Tim Burton’s modern-day fable from 1990, Edward Scissorhands, is the latest contemporary classic to receive a musical makeover at L.A.’s Rockwell Table & Stage. From Executive Producers Kate Pazakis and Bradley Bredeweg of The Fuse Project, this gender-swapping stage adaptation is moving audiences with its cleverly integrated soundtrack, timely touches, and powerhouse performances.

Jordan Kai Burnett plays the titular role Johnny Depp made iconic, an artificially created human with scissor blades for hands who is taken in by an Avon door-to-door saleswoman named by Peg (the fantastic Emma Hunton) and falls in love with her teenage daughter Kim, played by Natalie Masini (Winona Ryder in the film). Meanwhile, Edward’s dearly departed Inventor (an electrifying Dionne Gipson) remains a presence throughout while the innocent young man makes an impact on a suburban community, particularly with the local ladies of the neighborhood — all played with delightful relish by Ryan O’Connor, Morgan Smith, and Carly Casey (pictured below).


When a horrifying misunderstanding sends Edward on the run, the story takes a gripping turn, and its climax is staged in a way that — intentional or not — eerily mirrors 2018 news headlines. Meanwhile, the production is imbued with over two dozen tracks that tie surprisingly well to the narrative. Among them: The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” a haunting rendition of Sia’s “Breathe Me,” Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman,” Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” and rollicking takes on Scissor Sisters’ “Let’s Have a Kiki” and Florence + The Machine’s “Shake It Out.” Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” also makes an appearance, and it’s sung by Keir Kirkegaard as Jim, Kim’s jock boyfriend, in a performance that becomes a hilarious excuse for the actor to lose his shirt (frequent Rockwell attendees should already be familiar with his abs from previous productions).


Says Pazakis, “This holiday treat has been a long time in the making, simmering inside our minds…and this being Hollywood during the holidays, we can only imagine who from the film cast might show up on any given night to celebrate with us!” The Fuse Project’s brand is to meld together pop culture icons, cinema, and digital classics into one intense, hilarious, and thought-provoking night of epic musical theatre (while audience members nosh on Rockwell’s tasty menu offerings and imbibe craft cocktails).


Adds Bredeweg, “I have always wanted to pay tribute to Edward Scissorhands, along with the idea of a female to play the lead. And today, when diverse casting has become so important, I’m excited to turn an already big-hearted iconic holiday movie into a unique and memorable immersive theatrical experience for a modern audience.”

By popular demand, Fuse Project’s Scissorhands run will be extended on Saturday and Sundays through the end of January. The hit show The Unauthorized Musical Parody of Stranger Things will come back on Thursday and Friday nights for January 2019 and then go back to four shows, Thursday – Sunday in February. Visit Rockwell-LA.com for times and tickets.

@TheFirstEcho

December 17, 2018

Move Over, 'Die Hard': Why 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' Should Also Be a Christmas Favorite


Now that the overly drawn-out debate over Die Hard and its Christmas movie qualifications is finally wrapping up, it's time to present to the pop culture pundits another action-packed film for consideration: 1996's The Long Kiss Goodnight starring Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson.

Directed by Geena's then-husband Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4) and written by Christmas obsessive Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), the story about a schoolteacher and housewife with amnesia named Samantha -- who finds out she used to be an assassin named Charly -- should be placed in the Hall of Contemporary Holiday Classics.

The festive, yuletide backdrop in the film acts as a great juxtaposition to the brutal, violent plot. A snowy drive home from a Christmas party turns bloody when Samantha crashes into a deer and triggers memories from her past life (she later puts the deer out of its misery by snapping its neck). A group of carolers are terrorized by a one-eyed thug with a machine gun who tears up Samantha's cozy home. And a small town Christmas parade is interrupted by a car chase during which our heroine leaps off Santa's sleigh and onto an 18-wheeler carrying a chemical bomb.


That said, The Long Kiss Goodnight should be mandatory holiday viewing. (Sorry, Elf and Love, Actually.) This is one F-bomb-laden freeze-pack of fun that has aged considerably well 22 years after it was considered a box office disappointment ($33.4 million domestically).

In other words, it's one of the most criminally underrated movies of the 90s. It was also ahead of its time.

Back in 1996, men were dominating the box office, especially in the action genre (shocker). Will Smith became a bonafide movie star with Independence Day, Tom Cruise took on the first Mission: Impossible, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was still around, protecting Vanessa Williams in Eraser and later battling toy store shoppers in Jingle All The Way. However, a woman who knows how to handle a semi-automatic, beat up a bad guy to a bloody pulp, and detonate barrels of kerosine better than MacGyver was a hard sell back then. As Priscilla Paige at Birth. Movies. Death. writes:


The Long Kiss Goodnight came out 5 years before Jennifer Garner kicked ass on the small screen in Alias and Angelina Jolie swung from the rafters in the original Tomb Raider. It arrived in theaters 14 years before Jolie spied it up in Salt. And it also blew shit up two decades before Charlize Theron shaved her head for Mad Max: Fury Road and went platinum for Atomic Blonde.


Simply put, Geena Davis & Co. lit the fuse for modern-day action heroines with The Long Kiss Goodnight. And it's no surprise that, 8 years after paving the way for female representation in the genre, the actress founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which is working to "engage, educate, and influence content creators marketers and audiences about the importance of eliminating unconscious bias, highlighting gender balance, challenging stereotypes, creating role models, and scripting a wide variety of strong female characters in entertainment and media that targets and influences children ages 11 and under." Like, whoa.

So do yourself a favor. Find a copy of The Long Kiss Goodnight or stream it wherever you can. Consider it a Christmas gift from me to you.

@TheFirstEcho

December 11, 2018

The 2018 Review: My Top 10 TV Picks


The Peak TV bubble has yet to burst.

And with over 500 scripted shows that were in production in 2018, it has become an increasingly difficult task for TV critics and pop culture pundits alike to keep up with the amount of content that is made available nowadays. How does one just pick ten of the best shows by the end of the year? Is it possible? Can it be done?

I'll damn well try. Here are mine:


1. HANNAH GADSBY: NANETTE (Netflix) - Never has a stand-up act been able to transform into such a powerful wake-up call. But Gadsby's much-talked-about one-hour special is just that, a once-in-a-generation piece of work that (at the risk of sounding overly dramatic) should be mandatory viewing for all of humanity. It's a one-woman show that not only has the balls to challenge the conventions of comedy, it forces us to rethink our role as an audience in a much larger societal context. A lot of well-deserved praise has come her way since Nanette became available to stream this past summer; words like "brilliant" "raw," "devastating," and "daring" have been tossed around. But frankly, it is the most indelible, awe-inspiring experience on the small screen this year.


2. KILLING EVE (BBC America) - Creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge gave us the year's most exciting game of cat-and-mouse while subverting the spy-assassin genre, thanks to the talents of its two leads. Emmy nominee Sandra Oh plays the titular MI5 operative tracking down the deadly Villanelle (Jodie Comer, a revelation) throughout Europe, and each episode is a thrill, infused with a surprisingly wicked sense of humor and, yes, some slight sapphic tendencies.

3. ONE DAY AT A TIME (Netflix) - The multi-cam sitcom got better and wiser in its second season due to its tackling of topics other family comedies rarely touch. The chemistry of its cast, bolstered by the hard-at-work Justina Machado, is also stronger than ever. In a TV landscape now cluttered with reboots, this is one that sticks with you -- a reimagined story that deserves to be told in 2018.

4. BARRY (HBO) - Part hitman comedy (a hit-com?) and part showbiz satire, the first season of Bill Hader's out-of-nowhere series introduced us to an assassin who accidentally stumbles into something far scarier than a mob operation: the L.A. acting scene.

5. ATLANTA (FX) - The second season of Donald Glover's "comedy" was a series of closely observed vignettes that defied categorization. Whether skewing the music industry, American race relations, or the culture at large, Atlanta settled well into its weirdly fascinating groove.


6. HOMECOMING (Amazon Prime) - Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail directs every dread-filled, 30-minute episode of this throwback to the paranoia thrillers of the 70s and provides Julia Roberts with one of the best roles of her career. She's Heidi, a social worker helping American soldiers transition back into their civilian lives, yet something sinister stirs underneath the surface of the facility where these sessions take place.

7. BLACK MIRROR: U.S.S. Callister (Netflix) - The Emmy-winning first installment of the anthology's fourth season is a chilling indictment of extreme fandom, giving star Jesse Plemons a platform to create one of the most memorable characters on television this year.

8. THE HANDMAID'S TALE (Hulu) - The dystopia drama continues to excel across the board, expanding upon its source material with more devastating visuals, more superb acting, and bleak plot developments that make me question how much further we can follow June's journey. Or I can just stop wondering and savor every moment of this gripping series.


9. YOUNGER (Paramount Network) - The fifth season of the highly bingeable rom-com beautifully soared to new heights, thanks to its undeniably charismatic ensemble. Also: someone give Miriam Shor (whose fierce Diana Trout was given a tasty romantic subplot) a damn Emmy nomination already!

10. AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE (FX) - The brutal shooting of the renowned fashion designer is only the tip of a multi-layered iceberg that is carefully exposed across nine chapters of Ryan Murphy's anthology series. Bolstered by a jaw-dropping cast and a shocking performance from Glee alum Darren Criss, Versace ultimately succeeds in taking a closer look at America's complicated relationship with homophobia and sexual identity in the late 90s. 

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Queer Eye (Netflix)
Will & Grace (NBC)
The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix)
Pose (FX)
Big Mouth (Netflix)

@TheFirstEcho

December 10, 2018

The 2018 Review: My Top 10 Music Picks


2018 is officially the year pop music started getting into Y2K nostalgia.

While British pop tart Anne-Marie reminisced about "2002," Charli XCX teamed up with Troye Sivan and traveled back to "1999" with a fun music video for the single that revisited some turn-of-the-21st-century pop culture. And let's not forget that *NSYNC reunion on Ellen, the Backstreet Boys dominating in Vegas before announcing a new album, and the recent premiere of Ariana Grande's video for "thank u, next," chock-full of homages to early-aughts hits like Mean Girls, Bring It On, Legally Blonde, and 13 Going On 30.

Why the sudden urge to revisit the past? Blame it on the usual 20-year cycle of pop culture's hindsight...or the fact that this year's news headlines made everyone pine for pre-Twitter times, when no one ever dared to describe legitimate news as "fake" and stir the country into a heated frenzy.

But pop music did more than just look back at "better days." In fact, some of the best looked forward...

Here are my top 10 picks of the year:


1. Dirty Computer by Janelle Monae - "I am not America's nightmare, I am the American dream." So sings Monae in "Crazy, Classic, Life," the sparkling track that kicks off the stunning, retro-futuristic "emotion picture" that is Dirty Computer. The album unabashedly embraces its musical influences (Monae has listed Prince as her main muse) as well as its sex-positive sensibilities. Simply put, it is one of the best pop achievements in recent memory. Watch the entire 48-minute opus here.

2. "All The Stars" by Kendrick Lamar with SZA - This Grammy nominee for Song and Record of the Year (from the mega-blockbuster Black Panther) brings together a hip-hop master and a rising alt-R&B star for a hypnotic, enthralling, spacey jam.

3. "Surrender" by Walk the Moon - The group, known for their 2015 megahit "Shut Up and Dance," delivered a more mature-yet-soaring, neo-New Wave anthem (featured in the Love, Simon trailer) that deserves to be slotted on every playlist.


4. "Some Kind of Wonderful" by MOBS - The concept behind the Australian synth-pop group's EP, You Want Beauty?, is an act of why-hasn't-anyone-thought-of-it-before brilliance: a collection of earwormy, throwback tunes, each written from the perspective of a different character from an 80s movie. The result is glorious. While "Growing Up" name drops The Lost Boys, "Drive Away" channels Whitney's "How Will I Know," and "Say Anything" samples the Peter Gabriel track from the 1989 movie of the same name, "Some Kind of Wonderful" is the energetic standout that enhanced my summer.


5. Bloom by Troye Sivan - With his drowsy crooning and reflective lyrics, Sivan avoids the sophomore curse with this long-awaited encore, a mesmerizing, barrier-breaking compilation that gets better with each listen. In the dreamy "Seventeen," he revisits his first love, in "My My My!" he rejoices in all-consuming love, and with "Plum," he discovers how that love can quickly lose its luster. But it's the title track, with its provocative 2018 metaphors and 1988 production value, that soars.


6. "No One" by Jess Glynne - Leave it to the British songstress to make co-dependency sound uplifting. She returned stronger than ever with this rollicking, hand-clapping track from Always In Between.

7. "High Horse" by Kacey Musgraves & "Summer Fever" by Little Big Town - The Summer of 2018 will go down as The Summer Country Music Went Disco, and these irresistibly breezy singles are tailor-made for a nighttime backyard barbecue under the stars.

8. "Pink Lemonade" by James Bay - The catchy electronic rock track from the English singer-songwriter is, to borrow from Billboard's initial reaction, "delicious":


9. Pray for the Wicked by Panic! At The Disco – Frontman Brendon Urie’s vocals have never sounded better (or more versatile) on the band’s sixth studio album, a fantastic cornucopia of Broadway theatrics, dance-punk, and big-band brass. From the rousing “High Hopes” to the piano-sensitive “Dying in LA,” the newly assembled Urie & Co. have struck gold.

10. “Twice” by Christina Aguilera – The “Dirrty” princess finally shed her overproduced and defensive schtick for some controlled contemplation on Liberation, the album that earned her critical praise across the board for the first time in a decade (and not just for “Fall in Line,” her #MeToo duet with Demi Lovato). As Pitchfork‘s Claire Lobenfeld said, “As contemporary radio continues to favor lighter vocal performances from artists like Halsey and Charlie Puth, Aguilera’s powerhouse voice remains the nucleus of her sound, even when she’s tinkering with trap tropes and try-hard slang.” (For the record: I was majorly disappointed with lead single “Accelerate.”) However, that voice comes through on “Twice,” her Adele moment, a gorgeous ballad that digs deep and never lets go.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Remind Me to Forget” by Kygo & Miguel, “Til I’m Done” by Paloma Faith, “Alone” by Halsey, “Coming Home” by Sheppard, and “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” by Pink.


@TheFirstEcho

December 05, 2018

20 Years Before Ariana Grande Said "thank u, next," Alanis Morissette Had "Unsent"


Singing about past love is nothing new, and as much as I enjoy Ariana Grande's "thank u, next" (especially that 00s nostalgic video), I can't help being a nitpicky teen-from-the-90s and pointing out that Alanis Morissette nailed the whole "ode to my exes" thing back in 1998 with "Unsent," an underappreciated single from Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.

The contemplative song is a series of letters to men who taught Alanis a few things about life and love. And the video itself is an intimate glimpse at each relationship in the form of vignettes with subtitled dialogue:

@TheFirstEcho

November 16, 2018

Review: 'Widows'


Earlier this year, Ocean’s 8 gave us a female-fronted heist story that was as frothy and fun as a champagne brunch in the middle of May. At least, that’s what it feels like compared to the riveting and razor-sharp Widows, an explosive collaboration between 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen and Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn.

In fact, “female-fronted heist story” are the only words both films have in common, and it may be unfair to utter the two titles under the same breath. While one is the epitome of delightful summer fare (with a killer wardrobe for Cate Blanchett), the other is a prime example of intelligent, impactful drama for grown-ups that not only taps into the zeitgeist, it holds a mirror up to it and dissects the sociopolitical and socioeconomic problems that continue to challenge American society two decades into the 21st century. And it features the best big-screen ensemble in recent memory.

Widows, a remake of an 80s British miniseries of the same name, is more than just another heist film. It’s so richly layered and skillfully assembled with so many puzzle pieces, nothing ever gets lost in the shuffle, and that is a testament to the talented and meticulous McQueen and Flynn...

For more of my review, head over to ScreenPicks.

@TheFirstEcho

November 05, 2018

An Interactive Musical Version of ‘Stranger Things’ Exists. And It’s Awesome.


The folks behind L.A.’s Unauthorized Musical Parody Of… series is at it again, this time with a spoof of the hit supernatural drama Stranger Things.

Having already covered parodies of popular big-screen titles like Home Alone, Scream, Jurassic Park, and Clueless, this appears to be the troupe’s first time dedicating a production to a TV series. And like its pop-cultural predecessors, it’s a rockin’ good time.

Written by executive producer Kate Pazakis and directed by Nathan Moore, who last appeared as Rhodes in UMPO: Bridesmaids, this pop-cabaret show (at Rockwell Table & Stage) brings to life the first season of the Duffer Brothers’ critically-acclaimed Netflix drama that takes place in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana during the 80s.


And you know what that means: a song list chock-full of Reagan-era pop-rock is inevitable.
Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money” becomes an anthem for frantic mom Joyce (powerhouse Emma Hunton of Freeform’s Good Trouble), who searches for her missing son Will (played to hilarious effect by…a felt puppet). Diana Ross’s “Upside Down” gets a wicked rap break when Dustin, Mike, Lucas, and Eleven enter the parallel universe of the same name. And Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” makes an appearance as a duet between teenage good girl Nancy (Pitch Perfect‘s Kelley Jakle) and ill-fated fan-favorite Barb (Tony winner Marissa Jaret Winokur). And speaking of Barb, this spoof benefits from an inventive twist: a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure feature allows members of the audience to roll a dice and determine the fate of certain characters. (According to our show, Barb lives!)


The show’s supernaturally talented cast also includes Eric Petersen (Kirstie, School of Rock on Broadway) as Sheriff Hopper and Garrett Clayton (King Cobra, NBC’s Hairspray Live!) who pulls double duty as Nancy’s boyfriend Steve and the lovable-but-goofy Dustin. Look out for his awesome rendition of Europe’s “The Final Countdown” in Act Two. And then there’s Damon Gravina as Mike and Lana McKissack as the telekinetic Eleven: the pair stops the show with a kickass cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.”

Says Pazakis, about the Unauthorized Musical Parody Of… series: “We always try and merge movies and musical theatre, and love revisiting and retooling popular films and series for the live audience…Our live band and slew of hit pop songs develop this cult classic story in a way that UMPO Rockwell audiences have come to expect – a night of great talent, entertainment and laughter!”

By popular demand, the run for UMPO: Stranger Things has been extended through Sunday, December 2. Get your tickets here.

@TheFirstEcho

November 04, 2018

Great L.A. Eats: Fall 2018


Now that we’re well into fall and less concerned with swimsuit selfies, it’s time to indulge in some good grub, some tasty bites, some delectable goodness…After all, ’tis the season for eating.
Luckily we’ve manage to pinpoint some highlights from our culinary escapades during the past couple of weeks. Get those forks and knifes (and stomachs) ready…

BEST SLICE OF BROOKLYN


Finding “authentic Brooklyn-style pizza” in Los Angeles may sound like an impossible quest, but 
Lupetti is making it possible. The pizzeria, which opened earlier this year in downtown’s booming Arts District, serves up delicious thin crust and comes with a delightful surprise: In Sheep’s Clothing, the speakeasy-esque, Japanese-kissa-style, hi-fi bar that is open from morning (for a fresh brew) to night (for a strong cocktail).

BEST WAKE & BAKE


Alfred, which recently opened its newest location in Brentwood, has partnered with VYBES to up the ante on all your favorite drinks. From matcha to their famous vanilla lattes, you can add a dose of CBD (that’s Cannabidiol, or cannabis oil) to your daily pick-me-up (for just $4). CBD benefits include: reducing pain and inflammation and even helping curb anxiety…so why not drink your greens at Alfred? And no, you won’t get high from it, so carry on with your morning commutes.

BEST COMFORT FOOD REBOOT


Part of the Beverly Center’s revitalization includes the opening of Easy’s, a stylish, “new age diner” located at the Sixth Floor Entrance. From restaurateur Jeremy Fall, this open-space eatery and bar is a revival of the popular burger pop-up from Chinatown. Easy’s offers an all-day menu, from breakfast items (the Pork Belly Benedict is a must) and casual lunches (try their version of a Kentucky Hot Brown) to hearty dinners (two words: Duck Parmesan) and inventive cocktails (the Tang Julius is like an alcoholic creamsicle). After a brisk stroll throughout the renovated retail behemoth, stop by for a bite.

BEST ITALIAN NEW WAVE


No. 10 Restaurant on 3rd Street is a contemporary Italian-American fusion restaurant from Italian football legend Alessandro Del Piero. Chefs Fabio Ugoletti and Nick Parker join forces to craft multi-regional, seasonal cuisine served in a modern-yet-intimate space packed with ambiance. Ugoletti started his culinary career in luxury hotels and upscale restaurants, working under the likes of Daniele Sera and Massimo Spigaroli, while the self-educated Parker has worked in kitchens across the U.S. feeding his love for “molecular gastronomy.” Their Paccheri dish (chunks of lobster mixed with pasta pomodorini in a crustacean broth and basil pesto) is as indulgent as it sounds and worth your cheat day.

BEST CHOCOLATE CHIP FIX


“Life is short. Eat cookies.” That’s the motto hanging over the counter at Wilshire Boulevard’s Milk Jar Cookies, which continues to be our go-to when it comes to freshly baked treats, especially their chocolate chip cookies (the best in town, and we’re not the only ones who think so).

@TheFirstEcho

November 01, 2018

An Open Letter to Christmas, From Thanksgiving


Dear Christmas,

Thanksgiving here.

I realize you may still be coming down from the sugar highs of Halloween (how great were those costumes?), but I wanted to take a moment to talk to you one-on-one, from one holiday to another.

For the past few years, I've noticed that some of your followers just love celebrating your season. I like to call them Christmas Enthusiasts, and I think it's great that you have so many loyal, dedicated fans. I really do. The moment November 1 rolls around, some of them are putting up your trees, hanging up those lights, and decking all the halls. I get it. They can't contain their excitement for all of the upcoming yuletide festivities.

But Christmas, could you do me a solid and tell them to ease up a bit? I mean, December is still a month away. And dude, November is my month. Can I just get my three-and-a-half weeks of pilgrim statues, cornucopias, and cartoon turkeys? That's all I ask.

Now, I understand that some folks have an issue with my origin story (hello PC Police). And while all of that business went down hundreds of years ago, Americans have claimed me as their own, redefining the meaning of, well, me. I'm the frickin' representation of gratitude, a time to be grateful for everything you have, a time to be surrounded by loved ones, filling your bellies with delicious goodness. Come on -- have you ever heard of anyone having a blue Thanksgiving?

I also understand that some folks think there's been a war waged on you, Christmas, but let me tell you, from where I'm standing, that's the fakest of fake news I have ever heard. If anything, I think there's been a war waged on me. I get one or two racks of the same yellow-orange-brown shit while YOU get an entire section of a store dedicated to you. You get radio stations playing songs about you 24-7. Where are my tunes? Where my carolers at? And I can't drive down any main street in any town or city without seeing red and green garland being wrapped around streetlights.

Halloween's got the whole month of October, and that bitch got his fans rolling in pumpkins on Labor Day who, by the way, won't complain because everyone already hates him for ending summer. So please, just give me these few weeks. For once, put yourself in my shoes. Think about how you feel come January when Valentine's Day is pushing those marshmallow Santas out of the way to make room for her heart-shaped boxes of chocolates.

I hope you can understand where I'm coming from.

Sincerely,
T-Giv

P.S. - Hanukkah says hi.

October 25, 2018

‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Arrives in Southern California


If the success of Kenneth Branagh’s big-screen remake of Murder on the Orient Express was any indication last year, audiences are still craving for a well-crafted whodunit loaded with a long list of suspects. (Case in point: a remake of Death on the Nile is also in the works at 20th Century Fox.)
That’s probably why Southern California is the place to find the West Coast premiere of the first-ever stage adaptation of Agatha Christie’s seminal mystery, thanks to the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and Executive Producers Tom McCoy and Cathy Rigby (of McCoy Rigby Entertainment).
This new take on Murder, which has been adapted by two-time Olivier Award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig and directed by Sheldon Epps, the Artistic Director Emeritus at Pasadena Playhouse, should thrill and surprise Agatha Christie loyalists.
The thrill comes from seeing a recreation of the titular train on stage, particularly two cars in which a majority of the action takes place. Stephen Gifford’s impressive designs of these massive mobile platforms is a sight to behold, though sometimes a distraction from the players who are so game to bring these iconic characters to life.

The surprise comes from the liberties taken regarding the characters and overall tone. To make the staging (and running time) more manageable, Christie’s original dozen of suspects has been trimmed down to eight. Look carefully, and you’ll notice that a couple of the actors are also pulling double duty; Matthew Floyd Miller appears as both Colonel Arbuthnot and the villainous Samuel Ratchett. The actor manages to have fun jumping between a Scottish brogue and a New York gangster during the first act.
And mystery buffs may also be surprised to discover that some comedy has been injected into this adaptation. “I think the genres of comedy and mystery have a lot in common,” Ludwig explains. “Both start with the puzzle assembled, and suddenly the pieces are taken apart and thrown into the air. And then they finally come down, and all is well.” The result works, giving us an enjoyable spin on an efficiently run machine that has been chugging along ever since audiences first laid their eyes on director Sidney Lumet’s masterful 1974 interpretation.
The cast of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express features Tony Amendola as the world-famous detective Hercule Poirot and as well as (in alphabetical order) Julia Aks as Greta Ohlsson, Hope Noel Bradley as Daisy Armstrong (in the attention-grabbing prologue), a perfectly neurotic Will Block as Hector MacQueen, Anne Gee Byrd as Princess Dragomiroff, Brad Culver as Michel the Conductor, a scene-chewing Christine Dunford as Helen Hubbard, Zarah Mahler as Countess Andrenyi, Rachel Seiferth as Mary Debenham and Time Winters as Monsieur Bouc.
Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express runs now through November 11 at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available at www.lamiradatheatre.com or by calling the La Mirada Theatre Box Office at (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. Student, Senior and group discounts are available. $15 Student Tickets available for the first 15 performances.

TRICK'd: The Halloween Sessions


When some people think of Halloween party music, they think "Monster Mash" or "Purple People Eater."

But this ain't some cheesy episode from an 80s or 90s sitcom. 

Yes, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" makes an appearance on this special playlist -- twice in fact, thanks to Steve Aoki's awesome remix of the 1983 classic -- and yes, Walk the Moon's rendition of "Ghostbusters" is in here, but that's it. The rest is designed to keep your party going well into the wee hours of the morning, loaded with hits from the 90s, 00s, and today (cue the corny radio disc jockey spiel). And it will certainly be playing at one particular party this weekend here in L.A...

See some of you there.

@TheFirstEcho

September 19, 2018

The Mayfair Hotel: A New Staycation Spot for L.A. Creatives


Most writers in Los Angeles will tell you that it’s sometimes hard to find the perfect spot to get the creative juices flowing, to finish that script, to meet that deadline. Of course, said place needs to have decent coffee, free wi-fi, and comfy seating, but cafés throughout the city are becoming increasingly flooded with laptops, bloggers, and any old-school scribes who still prefer pen and paper.
That’s why The Mayfair Hotel in downtown L.A. is becoming the next great getaway for local artists looking for an environment that can facilitate the creative process. (History lesson: this was a writing spot for legendary novelist Raymond Chandler nearly 80 years ago — so you know this place is legit.)
Last month, The Mayfair celebrated its reopening with an epic party that attracted the best and the brightest in the L.A. art scene. While attendees were treated a smorgasbord of treats, tunes from DJ Muggs, and live performances from Mickey Avalon and London McNamaraothers were introduced to the hotel’s custom-built podcast studio where locals and guests can be their own content producers and tell their own story. Then there’s the writers room, a creative space with a long, communal table with chairs for emerging and seasoned authors working on the next award-winning screenplay or big hit novel. (I gladly took the opportunity to polish a chapter during a recent stay.)

And caffeine addicts, don’t worry. The room is connected to Fairgrounds, a coffeeshop where you can pick up an artisanal brew and pastry.
Back when the Academy Awards weren’t proposing controversial new categories — 1929, to be exact — they held an afterparty in The Mayfair Hotel’s brick-walled ballroom, and some of that glamor can still be felt throughout, thanks to the posh interior designs of Gulla Jónsdóttir. Every square inch is a sleek and sexy throwback to a long-gone era.
The Mayfair is also more than just a staycation spot for L.A. creatives. It’s building a reputation as a destination for those seeking world-class accommodations carefully paired with a hand-picked collection of art, music and entertainment. Under the direction of Artist-in-Residence Kelly “RISK” Graval and Regime 72‘s Kevin Zinger and Ivory Daniel, the hotel’s creative programming recalls the glamorous heydays of the Roaring 20s while also offering visitors an intimate view into the DNA of the city.

Guests and visitors can also experience The Mayfair’s multi-faceted dining options including M Bar in the lobby lounge and Eve American Bistro, with Hell’s Kitchen winner Executive Chef Scott Commings at the helm. The stylish restaurant was named after Eve Cressy, the main character of Raymond Chandler’s short story “I’ll Be Waiting.” And behind M Bar is The Library, a cozy, secluded room with bookshelves, curve-backed chairs, and a grand fireplace perfect for reading sessions or, according to the hotel’s site, “an unexpected adventure that always leads to a happy ending.”
Mayfair recently hosted Banksy’s Haight Street Rat, while opening its doors to the art community for a few select screenings of the critically acclaimed documentary, Saving Banksy. The Haight Street Rat will return to The Mayfair this fall for another exhibition.
“The Mayfair is a special place,” said Kevin Zinger, founder of Regime 72. “It’s important to all of us that the art community feels at home when they walk through the doors. We spent years planning, designing and executing what is now The Mayfair. It only made sense to do a few events specifically for artists and musicians first. Everyone involved wants to make sure the art community thinks of The Mayfair as a home. We are genuine in the approach and not making it feel like a marketing ploy. Of course, we want everyone to be able to enjoy The Mayfair, but building the trust with the art community first was important.”
For more information, visit www.MayfairLA.com. Starting rates begin at $185 per night.
@TheFirstEcho

September 18, 2018

Song of the Month: September 2018


2018 is proving to be The Year I Fell in Love With Australian Pop Artists.

After discovering the awesome retro sounds of MOBS and the harmonies of Sheppard, it's official: Australia has been churning out some great talent this year.

More proof can be found in Future Jr., the indie artist from Down Under who's been wooing me with his single "Changing." (Also worth listening: "Forget About Me" and "Half Past You")

Give it a listen:

@TheFirstEcho

September 17, 2018

‘Bridesmaids’ Gets the Unauthorized Musical Parody Treatment


Bridesmaids, the 2011 comedy blockbuster starring Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and a slew of funny ladies who are now household names, has landed for an encore run at L.A.’s famed Rockwell Table and Stage as part of the venue’s Unauthorized Musical Parody Of… series.
Actress Natalie Lander takes on the role of Annie, originally played by Wiig, the manic maid of honor whose life unravels as she leads her best friend, Lillian (a pitch-perfect Molly Stilliens), and a group of colorful bridesmaids (Ashley Argota, Nohely Quiroz, Aynsley Bubbico, and Desi Dennis-Dylan) on a wild ride to Lillian’s wedding. Along the way she crosses paths with the adorkable cop Rhodes (here played by the charming Nathan Moore) while trying to unwrap herself around the finger of sleazy douchebag Ted (Michael Deni).
The intimate, cabaret-style production is an inspired romp, especially with its surprising mash-ups that manage to make the movie’s memorable scenes even funnier. (Case in point: the iconic, food-poisoning-fueled bridal shop scene becomes a hilarious throwdown between Frozen‘s “Let It Go” and Ludacris’s “Move Bitch.”) And of course the bridesmaids rivalry only gets amped up when these ladies break out into dueling vocals on Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” The infectiously plucky Lander even manages to hold her own during a super fun rendition of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” writhing on the stage like no one’s watching.

The show, co-directed by the Tony Award-winning Marissa Jaret-Winokur, briskly runs through the two-hour movie in a tight 90 minutes that’s jam-packed with other numbers from the past decade, including Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper,” P!nk’s “Fuckin’ Perfect,” Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” and even that signature closer from 1990, “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips. There are even a few nods to other bridal-themed comedies (hello, My Best Friend’s Wedding) that pop up when you least expect it.
“This parody, driven by song and dialogue, is an homage to one of the most side-splitting films of all times,” says Executive Producer and co-writer Kate Pazakis. “Adapting this for Rockwell’s dinner theater with ‘tasteful raunch’ while recalling our own experiences with weddings—and all that leads up to them—had us rise to the challenge…but it’s guaranteed to keep you laughing. Audiences have been clamoring for it, so we’re thrilled to bring this show back for this special limited run!”

UMPO: Bridesmaids is now running through November 17th, 2018.
Created by Kate Pazakis, The UMPO (The Unauthorized Musical Parody Of) series merges movies and musical theatre, revisiting and retooling popular films for live audiences. Performed with a live band and slews of hit pop songs to help tell the stories, UMPO audiences have been cheering and laughing since 2015. Rockwell Table & Stage is located in Los Feliz at 1714 N. Vermont Ave, Los Angeles. Tickets are now on sale at www.rockwell-la.com.
@TheFirstEcho

September 16, 2018

What I Did On My Summer Vacation (Most of Which Wasn't a Vacation)


NAME: Hiko Mitsuzuka
SUBJECT: Summer Vacation
HOMEROOM: 7C
DATE: Sept. 16, 2018

The Summer of 2018 was a busy one.

I kicked it off with a 10-night journey through Europe. You can read about my first six nights in Berlin and Paris here, here, and here.

I read Crazy Rich Asians before seeing the movie and fell in love with Astrid long before all of y'all did.

I consumed an adequate amount of ice cream; shout-out to Talenti gelato.

I treated my parents to a weekend in Vegas. Along with a Jennifer Lopez concert.

I had many strong feelings about Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, mostly about how the franchise is losing its luster.

On the other hand, I saw and reviewed the fantastic Eighth Grade. It is being slotted in my Top 10 of the year.

I was transported back to high school when I saw TLC headline a music festival in South London. I also fell in love with London all over again.


I binged Season 2 of the brilliant Atlanta and Season 4 of the criminally overlooked You're The Worst.

I gave my MoviePass a run for its money (six movies in June, five in July) before those damn restrictions kicked in.

I attended a wedding in Santa Monica and realized not all wedding bands suck. (Kudos to the singer who pulled off Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody" and Whitney's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody.")

I got a little tipsy in Palm Springs during the extra-long 4th of July weekend. (Okay, I got a lot of tipsy.)

In Berlin, I ate schnitzel for the first time. And my God, it was delicious.

My father was soon thereafter diagnosed with prostate cancer, so I flew to Florida to help my parents reach a decision on treatment: he is scheduled to receive radiation treatments this fall. My family is currently doing well. Therefore, #fuckcancer.

I saw The Spy Who Dumped Me. My reaction: NO ONE TOLD ME GILLIAN ANDERSON HAS THREE SCENES IN IT!

I went to the Saved by the Bell-themed pop-up diner, Saved by the Max, in West Hollywood. The food was expectedly...okay. There were plenty of Instagram ops to be had.

My company was awarded Global Agency of the Year. NBD.

I finally read Ruth Ware's The Woman in Cabin 10. This book is screaming for a Reese Witherspoon-produced adaptation.

I bought a new pair of glasses.

I was absolutely floored by Hannah Gadsby's Nanette on Netflix.

In Paris, I ate escargot for the first time. The copious amounts of garlic butter helped.

Oh, and I signed with a lit agent before finishing the first draft of my YA horror novel, Slasher Movie Girl. (To clarify: my agent isn't actually lit; she's a literary agent, someone who reps authors. Duh.) Publishers, keep your eyes peeled this fall...

@TheFirstEcho

Nearing the End of My 30s

With age comes an increased indifference. And during my birthday this year, I realized I am now old enough to have a kid college ( But ...