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

Catfights, Cleavage and Carrie-Anne Moss: 'Models Inc.' Turns 25

In the early 90s, as anyone familiar with the oeuvre of uber-producer Aaron Spelling knows, the successful  Beverly Hills, 90210 begat ...