Who Should Win American Idol 2018?

I called this season’s American Idol Top 14 the strongest field of competitors in years, just a month ago, but on the dawn of finale night, it seems I may have spoken too soon. This isn’t all the contestants’ fault, necessarily. This extremely truncated season robbed these singers the opportunity to develop into more mature artists, comfortable on the Idol stage. Over the years, we’ve been privileged to witness singers’ transformations, from aspiring auditioners, to bona fide stars. But now, growth arcs are gone, and we’ve barely gotten to know these kids.

We’re left with three (blonde, white) performers who still have so much room to improve. We have Caleb Lee Hutchinson, the blandest of bland country guys, Maddie Poppe, an acoustic singer-songwriter with cool musical taste, and country queen Gabby Barrett, whom Vulture’s Louis Virtel affectionately called “Very Underwood.”

My American Idol partner-in-crime, Jonathan Yu, has joined me to share who should win this 16th season of Idol and our favorite performance of the season.

Jonathan Amores on Who Should Win: Maddie Poppe

Maddie Poppe has such an excellent gift: She is able to uncover the soul of a song and imbue a performance with genuine emotion and moving vulnerability. She has delivered the most consistently delightful performances, leaning into her crystal-clear vocals and multi-instrumented abilities. It’s as if each week, she reveals a new song from her personal concert set-list full of eclectic song choices from Simon and Garfunkle’s “Homeward Bound” to Melanie’s “Brand New Key.”

Speaking of song choice, I think Maddie deserves the crown based on one night alone. Top 10 Night was Disney night and I was hoping that these contestants would pick bold, out-of-the-box songs, like “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat” or “When She Loved Me.” Instead, we sat through expectedly banal performances of “The Circle of Life” and “Colors of the Wind.” Maddie, however, stood out with a ukulele-fied “Bare Necessities.” For that audacious song choice alone, Maddie Poppe should win American Idol.

I think that Gabby will actually win the season, and I wouldn’t be upset if that happened. She would be a worthy winner and I’m sure ABC would be thrilled with an Underwood-lite champion. Just as long as it’s not yet another White Guy With Guitar winner.

Jonathan Yu, On Who Should Win: Gabby Barrett

The odds are supposedly in her favor to become just the 6th woman to win American Idol in 16 seasons, and for good reason. This girl can SANG. She already commands the stage like a seasoned performer with incredible control over her voice. Her repertoire of audition songs maybe seem to overlap entirely with Carrie Underwood’s discography, but I actually think that the combination of nasal and grit in her voice is more effective on songs that lean more soulful – her rendition of “Ain’t No Way” by Aretha Franklin from Hollywood Week is probably my favorite bit of singing from the entire competition.

Here’s to hoping that she pulls out a showstopper performance this week, more in the veins of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” than “I Hope You Dance.” To be honest, though, I will be almost just as happy if Maddie “Consistent” Poppe gets the crown. Just please, dear God, not Caleb.

Jonathan Amores, On His Favorite Performance: Michelle Sussett’s “Remember Me”

When recalling this season’s performances, a handful have stood out. In terms of pure vocals, I’d choose Jurnee’s gorgeous Showcase performance of “Never Enough.” For sheer joy and surprise, I’d choose Michael J. Woodard’s “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret. Instead, I chose a performance that embodies this new era of Disneyfied American Idol: Michelle Sussett’s “Remember Me,” the Oscar-winning song from Coco.

Michelle was far from the best vocalist, but she had the strongest stage presence. She knew how to work a room, electrify an audience, and perform. The judges continually urged Michelle to sing in both English and Spanish (Michelle is originally from Venezuela), and in this performance, she delivers in spades. There’s so much joy in this performance and she lights up the stage from the first note, sprinkling in just the right amount of theatrics. Michelle had a rough run on Idol, but she left the competition on a high note.

Jonathan Yu, On His Favorite Performance: Ada Vox’s “Feeling Good”

There were many performances that I considered picking for my favorite performance of the season – Jurnee’s “Never Enough,” Dennis Lorenzo’s “This Woman’s Work,” or Michael J. Woodard’s “Beauty and the Beast” come to mind, but in the end, I decided to pick Ada Vox’s “Feeling Good.” She may have peaked a bit early with this performance, but it will forever be one of the most important performances on Idol ever for me.

I thought I had seen it all with Idol, but a drag queen crushing her competition unapologetically in a semifinals round, bringing Katy Perry literally to her knees, still brought a tear to my eyes. The song fit her over-the-top vocals (that range!!) and persona (that braid!!) perfectly. Even if she never quite lived up to expectations the rest of the season, I am still thankful that Idol gave a platform for a performer such as her. ❤

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It’s my American Idol Ranking of 2018’s Top 14! WIG.

Whether we like it or not, American Idol is back. And dare I say, better than ever?

After spending just less than two years off the air, this reality television mainstay is giving us the strongest field of competitors, or at least, most interesting, in years.

I’ve written in the past about why Nicki Minaj and Harry Connick, Jr. were wonderful additions Idol’s judging panel, but I truly think that Katy Perry is a perfect Idol judge. She understands the silliness of American Idol, and has given us plenty of fun, memorable moments so far. And yet, Katy is able to give thoughtful critiques, not just on the quality of the vocals, but on the quality of the performance. She’s embraced the show’s original subtitle, “the search for a superstar,” and has provided tailored insight into successful stardom along the way. Katy seems to genuinely care about these young singers and gosh darn it, I’m into this show again! It’s a shame that it’ll be over in just 5 short weeks.

Here’s how I’m ranking Season ‘s Top 14, from most to least favorite contestant.

Jurnee: Jurnee is an 18-year-old whose wife is serving in the military. She’s my American Idol, and unlike my favorites from seasons past, she could actually win this whole thing (Sorry, Majesty Rose!). She exudes an effortless cool and an awesome control of her instrument. Her voice is so clear, so strong, with beautiful shades of vulnerability. Plus Jurnee’s song choices of The Greatest Showman’s “Never Enough” and (to a lesser extent) Pitch Perfect’s “Flashlight” show that she has shrewd ability to choose songs that haven’t been sung to death on reality television, yet are contemporary enough to make an impact. Actually, I’d like to give props to all the contestants this season for picking fresh songs to perform. Good job, young people!

Ada Vox: Ada Vox is serving us vocal explosion eleganza. She is a consummate entertainer and holds us in the palm of her hand with every vocal flourish. It’s honestly amazing how far we’ve come on American Idol. Adam Lambert didn’t come out publicly until after his season ended, and here we are, nine years later and a drag queen is slaying the each performance and reading all the other contestants for filth. (Yes, I’ve finally started watching Drag Race this year.) Long live Queen Ada!

Gabby Barrett: Gabby is armed with radio-ready vocal chops and an understated confidence. It’s encouraging that Gabby has ventured outside of her country lane, with a performance of Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” earlier in the competition. Gabby’s performances tend to start slower, then build to a raucous finale, so here’s hoping in future performances that she can electrify throughout a song.

Maddie Poppe: Of all the contestants, Maddie has the strongest handle on who she is as an artist. It’s refreshing to watch her lean so far into what makes her distinct. She’s confident enough, that she doesn’t need to set off vocal pyrotechnics at every turn. And as evident in her original song performance in Hollywood Week’s solo week, Maddie can just be herself.

Jonny Brenns: If I were ranking these contestants solely by how much I enjoy the timbre of their voices, Jonny would probably be at the top. His voice is so smooth and syrupy. It’s a comforting warm blanket. It’s more synonyms and metaphors that describe his rich tone. As it stands, Jonny lacks apparent charisma, confounded by his gangly 6′ 5″ frame, but his boy-next-door-ness and massive feel-good support from his family should propel him far into the competition.

Marcio Donaldson: There’s no doubt about it: Marcio brings the capital D Drama to the stage. His velvet tones paired with his pliable facial expressions, are well-suited for television, giving the sense that he is really FEELING the music. His beautiful baby in the audience signifies just how much this opportunity means to him, and as a result, he wears his heart on his sleeve as each note pours through his soul. Not every note has been perfect, but Marcio’s passion definitely shines through.

Michael J. WoodardMichael has surprised and delighted us with his left-field song choices, from Cabaret’s “Maybe This Time,” to Alanis Morissette’s “You Outta Know,” to The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers.”His giddyness and enthusiasm is certainly infectious, and his voice has a rich, complex tone, but outside of his quirky song selection, who is Michael? Hopefully he’ll stick around long enough for him to uncover more delightful layers of his artistry.

Michelle Sussett: Bilingual performances have appeared several times before on Idol, starting with Karen Rodriguez’s “Hero” back in Season 10, but they’re truly never gelled. Enter Michelle Sussett, who brings the dynamics and theatrics to the stage, with some of the weaker vocals of the Top 14. I just appreciate that she just gives us more and more (I, for one, *loved* Naima Adedapo’s electricity). Michelle’s antics are all over the place, but hopefully, she’ll be able to raise the bar on her singing to match her stage presence.

Dennis Lorenzo: Dennis is a smooth operator, with a beautiful upper register. While his solo performance of MAGIC!’s “Rude” was a truly awful song choice (it screams one of those performances where all the contestant can say afterwards is that they “had fun”), but thankfully, his celebrity duet with Allen Stone, was an intimate, smoky, and cool affair. More of the latter, please!

Mara Justine: At just 16 years old, is Mara Justine too young to be competing on American Idol? I’m going to say yes. Her voice is undeniably powerful, but she reads as a teenager merely performing what she thinks a great singer should be. It comes as no surprise that she competed on America’s Got Talent at the age of 11. Yes, she does have massive talent, but it’s too raw and too overly-polished at the same time.

Cade Foener: Cade has everything together. The enviable style and swagger. The rocker hair. The passionate guitar playing. The vocal strain that gives his performances a gritty air of authenticity. Cade’s experience fronting a rock band certainly gives him a step up from his fellow contestants, but I’m just not energized by his performances.

Catie Turner: The very first audition of this American Idol revival featured a fresh-faced Catie Turner and we have been force-fed her self-proclaimed awkward antics ever since. The juxtaposition of her mature vocals and idiosyncratic personality was barely interesting the first time, and has now become tiresome. Her over-exposure has never charmed me. I give up, Idol producers; I have Catie fatigue. I’m done.

Caleb Lee Hutchinson: What’s that? It’s mandated that we need a male country singer in the competition? Ok, fine. We could do worse than the solid, if not uninspiring, Caleb.

Garrett Jacobs: WHY? Why on Earth is Garrett in this competition? He’s been called a “heartthrob” over and over by the judges, but don’t we already have Jonny and Cade? Each person in the Top 14 brings something different to the table, while Garrett offers up… what, exactly? Messy-to-decent vocals? The ability to hold a guitar? Garrett had the worst performance of the Top 24, and yet he advanced over the talented Alyssa Raghu, Effie Passero, AND Shannon O’Hara? I demand a recount.

My Ranking of the 2018 Oscar Best Picture Nominees

Take me back to Call Me By Your Name‘s warm Italian summer of 1983. I devoured André Aciman’s sun-kissed pleasure of a novel early last year and I was looking forward to Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation with eager anticipation. The film was everything I had hoped for and more. Call Me By Your Name is an intoxicating dive into the thrill, ache, lust and heartbreak of first love. A sweeping primal dance between the inner and outer lives of awakening and desire.

It’s a refreshing gift to watch a story of gay love unfold where the villain isn’t crippling self-hatred, devastating disease, or homophobic violence. We’re free to just be and exist with these characters. At the same time, there are signifiers of potential ruin and as an audience, we’re conditioned to wait for the other shoe to drop. Instead, the enemy of Call Me By Your Name is time. The movie speaks beautifully to the delay of queerness, how queer people typically aren’t able to act on their feelings at the same time as the sexual discovery of their heterosexual peers.

Timothée Chalamet delivers a knockout performance as the 17-year-old Elio, every fiber of his physicality bursting with curiosity and confusion. As the heart and soul of the film, he is my pick for Best Actor by a mile. His magnetic attraction to Armie Hammer’s handsome and seemingly aloof Oliver develops at a restrained pace, a yearning bubbling just under the surface, until the floodgates of infatuation are no loner able to contain him.

Call Me By Your Name‘s journey of discovery certainly has moments of pure gay wish-fulfillment. Towards the end of the movie, Michael Stuhlbarg, as Elio’s father, delivers a stunning monologue so full of empathy and humanity, an appeal to his son to accept both love and pain, that it left me breathless. (Stuhlbarg’s lack of an Oscar nomination is the season’s biggest disappointment.) Soon after, Elio’s final moments left me a silent, emotional wreck. Call Me By Your Name instantly became my favorite film of 2017.

Lady Bird considers that paying close attention to something is an act of love. You can truly feel the love and compassion Greta Gerwig has for all of her complex characters in her first outing as a solo director. Not only is it wonderful to see all this affection focused on the life of a teenage girl, but we’re able to feel the perspectives of both generations, of Saoirse Ronan’s Christine, aka “Lady Bird,” and her mother Marion, played by marvelous Laurie Metcalf (how unfortunate she hasn’t gotten the awards recognition she deserves). This is both a coming-of-age film and a gracefully realized examination of parenting, as these women so desperately want to be seen by each other.

The early 2000s NorCal high school setting and theatre kid experiences rang so true for me. While many of my peers deeply related to the relationship between mother and daughter, I was moved most by the arc of Lady Bird and her first boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges). Lady Bird succeeds because its lovingly crafted specificity is key to universality. Again, love and attention. The more I think about what worked so delightfully about Lady Bird, the more I fall in love with it.

Special shout-out to Beanie Feldstein’s buoyant charisma as Lady Bird’s best friend, Julie. These two share my favorite dialogue from all the nominated pictures:

JULIE: Ms. Patty assigned you a role, by the way. You just never showed up to claim it.
LADY BIRD: What role?
JULIE: The Tempest.
LADY BIRD: There is no role of The Tempest.
JULIE: It is the titular role.

If I were casting an Oscar ballot, I would vote Get Out for Best Picture in a heartbeat. No other film speaks so urgently and directly to these troubled times we live in. Part racial satire, part societal thriller, Jordan Peele’s audacious directorial début captures a vital American horror story. Peele masterfully explores real-life anxieties and dives into both the absurdity and menace, illuminating along the way, hypocrisies in performative wokeness. I’m thrilled with the awards recognition of Daniel Kaluuya’s complex performance, as his character struggles for a sense of normalcy in an increasing abnormal environment, from being black in a white space, from blackness simply existing. Get Out will leave an enduring impression in our pop culture psyche long after this awards season is over.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a gorgeous film. Every frame is exquisitely rendered in lush and opulent blues and greens. The radiant Sally Hawkins, as the mute janitor, Elisa, lures you into her world with a silent tenacity, as she races to save her fish-man love, with whom she connects so profoundly.

Elisa’s friends on the fringes (Richard Jenkins and a woefully underused Octavia Spencer) have touches of inner lives, elevating them from mere thankless sidekick tropes. Jenkins, as a lonely gay man, gives an especially nuanced performance. The Shape of Water is told from an artist’s point of view, framing the story as a fable. Though a feeling of inevitability permeates throughout, there’s enough clever originality that satisfies like a warm wave of emotion. Truth be told, I’m done with the “love letter to Old Hollywood” for a while.

I’m not fond of war movies, and I’ll never forgive the Oscars for making me watch Hacksaw Ridge. Much to my surprise, I was thoroughly entertained by Dunkirk. Whereas Hacksaw Ridge was at once both achingly saccharine and punishingly cruel, Dunkirk was thankfully neither. Though the film features a sea of same-looking brown-haired Brits, emphasizing the anonymity of war, I still managed to care for the survival of these soldiers, even without knowing much about them. Deep in the chaos of war, Dunkirk makes no time for clichéd backstories and stock characterizations, unlike other war movies.

Director Christopher Nolan has crafted an immersive war epic that celebrates the perseverance of the human spirit, yet doesn’t shy away from showing a primal fear. Through a clever storytelling structure that weaves timelines and narratives, this harrowing rescue mission is depicted on a scale both epic and personal, claustrophobic and cavernous. Dunkirk was such a technical achievement that Harry Styles wasn’t much of a distraction.

An exquisitely delicate film by Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread, chronicles the tense emotional life of an obsessive artist (Daniel Day-Lewis) who meets his match in his muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps). Their passionate love is a twisted and destructive duet, and while I admit I’m tired of meticulous creative geniuses (who are almost always white men), Alma’s keen resolve keeps the story on its toes. Their relationship weaves in surprising directions, but I could only enjoy Phantom Thread at a cool distance.

On paper, The Post screams Oscar excellence: a Steven Spielberg-directed movie about the true story of Washington Post journalists rushing to expose government flaws, starring American treasures Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Onscreen, The Post was… fine. It was more impressive for its timeliness and political relevance than anything else. Even so, there were sequences when film was too heavy-handed with its modern parallels; the shot of Streep as Katherine Graham, the first female publisher of an American newspaper, walking out of a courthouse among admiring female onlookers comes to mind.

Honestly, I was more entertained, if not a bit distracted, by the seemingly endless cavalcade of television stars. Carrie Coon! Sarah Paulson! Zach Woods! And on and on and on. It’s only when the Pentagon Papers are actually acquired, maybe halfway through, does the movie actually pick up steam. Historical spoiler alert: We know that the Post does publish the Pentagon Papers, so the sweeping climax of Streep in a kaftan making that history-altering decision just sits there, no matter how awesome the kaftan.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is my anti-Lady Bird; the more I think about it, the less and less I like it. On its surface, it’s a thrilling rollercoaster, racing from searing drama to black comedy and back, featuring Frances McDormand’s visceral and raw performance. Her portrayal of a grieving mother who turns her agony into a steadfast rage is worthy of acclaim, but boy, is the film that surrounds her problematic AF.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards feels like it’s made by someone who isn’t acquainted with the place they’re operating in. The way race is handled in this contemporary rural setting just doesn’t work. Unlike in Peele’s Get Out, McDonagh doesn’t have a coherent understanding of American racism. Rockwell’s violent and racist cop, who has tortured a black man in custody in the past, gets a redemption arc that is completely misguided and unearned. Rockwell is admirable in the role, but his character’s transformation is unjustified. It’s also extremely disappointing to see black characters, both onscreen and off, as merely plot devices and ciphers.

So much more of Three Billboards doesn’t come together, including the aforementioned tonal whiplash, unexplored consequences, a plethora of narrative coincidences and false endings, and whatever Abbie Cornish is doing.

I must give Darkest Hour credit; it was way more visually interesting than I expected it would be. On the flip side, I expected the movie to be a talky snooze… and it was. This plodding historical drama attempts to portray Winston Churchill not as a revered deity, but as a flawed man. It’s a damn shame that the luminous Timothée Chalamet will lose the Oscar to Gary Oldman, impressive as Oldman’s prosthetic and skilled imitation may be. The Academy has filled its ranks with younger and more diverse voters, and you can sense these Best Picture nominations as a result, with one foot in the thrilling contemporary (Get Out) and one foot in the stodgy past (Darkest Hour).

[gifs courtesy of son-of-athena-dg.tumblr.com]

My Favorite TV Shows & Films of 2017

Before we burn 2017 to the ground, here are my top 10 favorite TV shows, films, and more of the year.

TV SHOWS

THE LEFTOVERS
(HBO)

How do you make sense of a fundamentally broken world? The post-Rapture drama, The Leftovers — hands down, one of the best shows I have ever seen — embarked on a journey to explore these mysteries. What it uncovered was nothing short of a miracle.

Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta’s series was a powerful, and at times bleakly funny, meditation on loss and the meaning of life and love. Every episode in this final season was innovative and extraordinary — from a mystical walkabout, to a sex lion cult, to joyous trampolining set to the Wu Tang Clan.

The best art reflects our lives and processes the shared human experience. This year I experienced a profound loss of a best friend, and The Leftovers was there to help me process my emotions. Speaking to the profound series finale, creator Lindelof said, “We find release from suffering though community, through family, through love.” In the end, the show didn’t answer every question, but instead, “let the mystery be.” The Lefovers revealed the importance of human connection at its core and nothing was more satisfying.

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THE GOOD PLACE
(NBC)

Holy fork, this show is tremendous. Come for the candy-colored afterlife absurdity and stay for the twisted wordplay. (This genius list of food puns by The Good Place writer Megan Amram is one of my favorite things of the year). This scrappy and delightful cast knocks it out of the park with every chaotic curveball that’s thrown at them, from Jameela Jamil’s self-absorbed Tahani, to Manny Jacino’s lovable doofus Jason Mendoza. My life is so much better for The Good Place and yours can be too.

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CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND
(The CW)

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend proves its daring once again, by deconstructing the “crazy” in surprising ways. This darker, yet no less hilarious, third season, examines mental health through a deeply compassionate lens. Musical highlights include club banger “I Go to the Zoo,” 80s power anthem “Let’s Generalize About Men,” musical theatre “I Want song”-spoof “The Moment Is Me,” and ABBA-inspired “First Penis I Saw.”

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AMERICAN VANDAL
(Netflix)

My biggest surprise of the year. American Vandal is a pitch-perfect true-crime satire and a marvelously authentic high school story with unexpected emotional beats. I was particularly impressed with how social media was used in its storytelling. Social media depiction in movies and TV shows is often embarrassingly bad, but American Vandal’s footage felt like real teenage digital lives.

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BOJACK HORSEMAN
(Netflix)

At the end of Bojack Horseman’s magnificently silly and profoundly heartbreaking fourth season, a single smile filled my heart and delivered unexpected joy. We can be enough.

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PLEASE LIKE ME
(Hulu)

Josh Thomas’ coming-of-age comedy is a warm and witty romp, with an awkward gay 20-something at its core, doing his best to keep his life and family together.  The fourth and final season of this Australian import was a welcomed treasure, featuring an ending that packed a powerful emotional wallop.

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JANE THE VIRGIN
(The CW)

Our world is in desperate need of empathy and Jane the Virgin is our saving grace. This loving telenovela-inspired series gave me an unexpected gift of healing, which you can read more about here. Thank you, Jane the Virgin.

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SURVIVOR
(CBS)

With 35 seasons under its belt, not every season can be a winner. This year, we saw two mid-tier seasons in Game Changers and Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. The legacies of these two seasons include an ugly outing of a trans contestant, a beloved Survivor legend eliminated without receiving a single vote thanks to too many idols, and a controversial new twist which allowed one player, who would have been eliminated at Final 4, to save himself and ultimately win the game. Not the greatest of looks.

Bonus points for the triumphant return of my all-time favorite player, two-time Survivor winner Queen Sandra Diaz-Twine.

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MASTER OF NONE
(Netflix)

When I look back on this year in TV, the one episode that immediately comes to mind is the beautifully poignant “Thanksgiving.” Its audacious structure highlights that coming out is a continual process, and the strong performances by Lena Waithe and Angela Bassett keeps the humanity at its core. Writers Aziz Ansari and Waithe (who became the first black woman to win a comedy writing Emmy), are more than deserving of all their accolades for telling this story.

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AT HOME WITH AMY SEDARIS
(truTV)

No other show this year made me laugh harder. Amy Sedaris’ take on DIY homemaking shows is wacky, wonderful, weird as all hell.

HERE ARE 7 MORE (because it’s 2017):

PLANET EARTH II (BBC America)
GIRLS (HBO)
GLOW (Netflix)
THE AMERICANS (FX)
CATASTROPHE (Amazon)
AMERICAN CRIME (ABC)
FARGO (FX)


FILMS

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
(directed by Luca Guadagnino)

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LADY BIRD
(directed by Greta Gerwig)

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GET OUT
(directed by Jordan Peele)

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WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
(directed by Matt Reeves)

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THE BIG SICK
(directed by Michael Showalter)

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COCO
(directed by Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina (co-director))

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GIRLS TRIP
(directed by Malcolm D. Lee)

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INGRID GOES WEST
(directed by Matt Spicer)

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BABY DRIVER
(directed by Edgar Wright)

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BEATRIZ AT DINNER
(directed by Miguel Arteta)

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BONUS FAVORITE THINGS!

FAVORITE BOOKS:

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Everyone’s An Aliebn When You’re An Aliebn Too by Jomny Sun

FAVORITE PODCASTS:

Homophilia with Dave Holmes & Matt McConkey

Switched on Pop with Charlie Harding & Nate Sloan

FAVORITE THEATRE:

The final dress rehearsal of the First National Tour of Hamilton. When Amber Iman first sang her rich, sultry alto notes of “Say No to This” as Maria Reynolds, the stranger sitting next to me and I gay gasped at the same time, looked at each other, and laughed.

FAVORITE COMEDY THINGS:

Hasan Minhaj’s “Homecoming King” (Netflix)

John Mulaney & Nick Kroll’s “Oh, Hello On Broadway” (Netflix)

Julio Torres’ stand-up performance on Late Night with Seth Meyers

John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous tour

FAVORITE ALBUM:

Rainbow by Kesha

FAVORITE SONG:

“New Rules” by Dua Lipa

FAVORITE LATE NIGHT APPEARANCE:

Tiffany Haddish on Jimmy Kimmel Live

FAVORITE YOUTUBE VIDEO TO SHOW PEOPLE:

“Writing’s on the Wall” by The Nor’easters

(Yes, it’s from 2016, but I discovered it after watching the collegiate a cappella docuseries Sing It On this year. You’re welcome.)

FAVORITE 40+ HOUR WASTE OF MY LIFE THAT ALL BECAME WORTH IT IN THE LAST 5 MINUTES WHEN PAUL LOST *AGAIN* AND CAME IN SECOND PLACE FOR THE SECOND YEAR IN A ROW:

Big Brother 19.

Just look at Paul’s face.

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

My Ranking of the 2017 Oscar Best Picture Nominees

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source: olivierassayas.tumblr.com

Moonlight is extraordinary. At the heart of this story is the simple desire for human connection, told through the emotional experience of the character of Chiron in three stages of his life: as a child, a teenager, and as an adult (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, respectively). Barry Jenkins’ stunningly sensitive coming-of-age story, all at once suffocating and liberating, connected with me in such profound ways. A brief phone call took my breath away; that need for empathy and forgiveness was so deeply felt.

Through a strikingly immersive personal journey of acceptance of a queer, black man, Barry Jenkins’ and original playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s screenplay tackles the universality of the human experience and gracefully dismantles the performativity of masculinity. James Laxton’s cinematography channels Chiron’s inner life beautifully, from stark moments of sensual intimacy, to swirling shots of claustrophobia. So much is said in each look not met and each word not spoken. The quietness dances on these characters’ faces and through each ellipses. Moonlight‘s silences speak volumes that will stay with me for a long time.

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source: dailyaffleck.tumblr.com

I came into Manchester By the Sea expecting a bleak meditation on depression, but I was instead met with a finely balanced story between the embodiment of grief and the humor observed in the details of daily life. I was particularly impressed by the narrative structure of Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay; the masterful way character motivations are exposed, the revelations of how a tragic past informs a guarded present. Casey Affleck delivers a magnificent performance in restraint, capturing the complexities of his emotionally unavailable character behind pained eyes, furrowed brows, and clenched fists. Manchester By the Sea delivers especially devastating wordless, emotional scenes, but it’s not a film without hope.

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source: olivierassayas.tumblr.com

Arrival took me by complete surprise, both as an emotional personal story and as an intelligent and thoughtful work of science fiction. Amy Adams’ nuanced work as a linguist who attempts to speak with newly arrived aliens, is worthy of an Oscar nomination. There is such a captivating patience with her process that reveals a deep belief that communication is key to our species. Arrival believes in the optimism of humanity; that only through understanding and cooperation, can we advance together as a species. It’s a poignant message that rings especially true in today’s political climate.

source: olivierassayas.tumblr.com

source: olivierassayas.tumblr.com

In the hands of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, we are front row center to an acting masterclass. I respect Fences confidence in showcasing playwright August Wilson’s masterpiece of American theatre. The film embraces both Wilson’s dense, gorgeous dialogue and its stage roots. By keeping the Maxon family fenced-in in their backyard, director Denzel Washington allows the stifling pressure to build ever so slowly, until tensions to boil over and explode.

source: maemedia.tumblr.com

source: maemedia.tumblr.com

I can understand why some people have fallen head over heels for La La Land. The film provides a sweeping Technicolor escape of romantic reverie. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have dynamite chemistry together, particularly in Emma Stone’s fantastic expressiveness. Sun-kissed colors leap off the screen, thanks to a radiant costume and production design.

Ultimately, La La Land disappoints; it’s more a movie with musical numbers than a full-fledged musical. It’s a fine movie for movie lovers, but less so a successful movie for musical lovers. And for a movie that celebrates movie musicals, I wanted more musicality.

La La Land starts out with so much potential and promise with the inventive choreography of “Another Day of Sun” (but poor sound mixing, coupled with weak vocals from those soloists, makes the opening number surprisingly difficult to listen to). Sadly, that vibrant musical energy all but evaporates from the rest of the film, only to return in its wonderful final sequence.

It’s telling that my favorite musical moment, Ryan Gosling’s 80s cover band’s take on “I Ran,” is the one the film takes the least seriously. Emma Stone lights up the screen with her sharp comedic timing, which nicely contrasts his bright red jacketed self-loathing. No other moment lived up to this all-too-brief moment of delight.

Emma Stone’s struggling actress storyline is so painfully familiar (and really, what else do we know about her?), that nothing new comes out of it at all. I had an immediate, visceral reaction to Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash, but came away from La La Land with a “well, that was nice.”

Hidden Figures, the true life story of black female mathematicians working for NASA, was every bit as inspiring as I had wanted it to be. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and particularly, Janelle Monáe’s, performances are luminous and magnetic. There’s an undeniable sense of joy that radiates from every pore, delivered at just the right, crowd-pleasing levels. To be fair, you know exactly where the story is headed, but it’s a journey that needs to be told and CELEBRATED.

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Hell or High Water is a film for our times, a character-driven modern-day Western that captures the unease and unrest of our economic climate. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers who rob banks together as a last-ditch effort to save their family land from foreclosure. There’s a warm affection for its complex and morally ambiguous characters and the movie delivers a potent mix of emotionally rich human moments and bleak, non-romanticized action sequences.

source: rxbytuesday.tumblr.com

source: rxbytuesday.tumblr.com

I cried no less than five times during Lion. I can’t help it; I’m a crier! This tear-jerker of a movie belongs to Sunny Pawar, who plays Saroo, a young Indian boy who becomes separated from his family. He radiates such magnetic charm that it becomes all the more devastating once the tragedy takes hold. While Saroo’s journey as an adult (played by an excellent Dev Patel), and his isolating struggle to reunite with his family, is less engaging, Lion still delivers some truly emotionally potent fireworks.

source: letdiegolunatouchjabbathehutt.tumblr.com

source: letdiegolunatouchjabbathehutt.tumblr.com

The utterly charming Andrew Garfield aside, Hacksaw Ridge, about real-life WWII conscientious objector, Desmond Doss, is not for me. Altogether, the film is overly sentimental in depicting one man’s devout convictions and overly brutal in portraying the atrocities of human warfare. And boy, those war scenes are overflowing with torturous and unrelenting violence. Unfortunately, Hacksaw Ridge’s simple focus on an uncomplicated morality doesn’t reveal much of anything under a bloody surface. Inspiring? Sure. Interesting? Not so much.

My Favorite TV Shows & Films of 2016

Here are my top 10 favorite TV shows and films of 2016. Let’s get this year over with, shall we?!

TV SHOWS

CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND (CW)

There is no better gift to a theatre kid like me than Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s brilliant and subversive tribute to romantic comedies and musical theatre. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is fabulously self-aware, hilariously screwball, unapologetically feminist, and chock-full of must-see musical gems like the brilliant “JAP Battle,” Fifth Harmony parody “Put Yourself First” (that sax tho!), and Singing in the Rain send-up “We Tapped That Ass.”

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend knows exactly the show it wants to be and is refreshingly honest about its characters’ flaws, in particular, Rebecca Bunch’s (Rachel Bloom) anti-heroic delusions. If that weren’t enough, the show features a Filipino-American male romantic lead. Representation matters, y’all.

Season one is streaming on Netflix. I can’t recommend this show enough.

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source: talesofnorth.tumblr.com

SURVIVOR (CBS)

Even in its 32nd and 33rd seasons, Survivor still delivers surprises and shockers each episode. This fall’s season, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, delivered a deliciously entertaining combination of shocking blindsides, next-level strategy, and compelling (and most importantly, likable) characters. #wow

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PLEASE LIKE ME (HULU)

This Australian import is my favorite television discovery of the year. Josh Thomas’ coming-of-age comedy, centered around a young, gay twenty-something, has stolen my heart with its upbeat charm and quirky characters. I love this show to pieces.

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source: dailypleaselikeme.tumblr.com

THE AMERICANS (FX)

Each year, the best drama on television increases its heartbreaking stakes, while digging deeper into the emotional struggles of its characters. The Americans‘ unexpected dramatic instability kept viewers on edge all season long, as the stress of the Jennings’ real/fake marriage and their relationship with their teenage daughter were pushed to a near-breaking point.

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ATLANTA (FX)

Donald Glover’s brand new series swiftly and languidly navigates down the paths of the surreal and real, taking us to places TV hasn’t gone before. It’s a truly breathtaking endeavor.

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THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY (FX)

By all accounts, Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of the O.J. Simpson trial should have been a hot mess, but instead the limited-run series was an engrossing triumph that drew thought-provoking comparisons to today’s society, bolstered by a dynamite trio of performances from Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, and Courtney B. Vance.

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BOJACK HORSEMAN (NETFLIX)

Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s profound and profane animated series mixes pathos with animal puns, and existential crises with Hollywood satire. The tremendous third season delivered one of the best episodes of TV this year: the dialogue-free, underwater-set “Fish Out of Water.”

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source: jellymonstergirl.tumblr.com

JANE THE VIRGIN (CW)

Jane the Virgin is consistently the most intelligent, emotional, and character-rich storytelling on television. It’s a confident warm blanket of a telenovela that delights in its open-hearted interpersonal relationships.

source: b99.tumblr.com

source: b99.tumblr.com

AMERICAN CRIME (ABC)

The second season of this anthology drama, focused on an alleged rape of a male high school student by a fellow student on the school’s basketball team, features superb acting (Regina King! Felicity Huffman! Lili Taylor!) with powerful and provocative discussions about race, class, and sexuality.

source: laquing.tumblr.com

source: laquing.tumblr.com

BILLY ON THE STREET (truTV)

For a dollar, name another show on television that makes me laugh out loud more than Billy on the Street. Spoiler Alert: You’ll never get that dollar. Billy Eichner’s pop culture explosions are an incredible comedic tour de force.

One of my absolute favorite things of the year: Billy Eichner tells unsuspecting people on the street that Seth Rogen has suddenly died, while Rogen stands just feet away behind a camera.


FILMS

MOONLIGHT

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source: lgbtcinema.tumblr.com

ZOOTOPIA

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THE LOBSTER

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source: alsk00.tumblr.com

SING STREET

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source: sokillintime.tumblr.com

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

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source: emliy-junks.tumblr.com

DON’T THINK TWICE

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source: keegansjordan.tumblr.com

OTHER PEOPLE

other-people-2016

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LA LA LAND

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source: chazelle.tumblr.com

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE

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source: henricavyll.tumblr.com

LEMONADE

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source: causeislay.tumblr.com

Emmys 2016 Review: A Night of Surprises

Televised award shows can often be painful to sit through, but thankfully, there were enough surprises in the 2016 Emmy Awards to balance out the inevitable second consecutive wins for Veep and Game of Thrones. The potent combination of deserving first-time winners, moving speeches, and diverse voices at the podium made the night feel spontaneous and exciting. At its best, these Emmys, indeed, felt like a true celebration of what television has to offer, and many of the outcomes delighted me.

Master of None’s “Parents” was awarded the Emmy for Writing for a Comedy, an episode that focuses on two first-generation Americans asking their parents to tell the stories about their lives before coming to America. As a child of immigrant parents myself, this story hit straight to the heart. The episode brought me to tears and immediately after, I called my mother. *cue awwww* Awards aren’t the be-all and end-all, but it does feels good to know that this award reinforces the notion that these are stories worth telling. Even better was writer Alan Yang’s acceptance speech, which emphasized the need for more Asian-American stories:

There’s 17 million Asian-Americans in this country, and there’s 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We got Long Duk Dong, so we’ve got a long way to go. But I know we can get there. I believe in us. It’s just going to take a lot of hard work. Asian parents out there, if you could just do me a favor, just a couple of you get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’ll be all good.

emmys_alan_yang

Kate McKinnon’s win for Supporting Actress in a Comedy for her work on Saturday Night Live was also a delight. She had a banner year, thanks to Hillary Clinton, and sketches like The One Where She Was Abducted By Aliens And Ryan Gosling Couldn’t Keep It Together. McKinnon’s humble shout-outs from Hillary Clinton and Ellen Degeneres, to her writing partners, the now co-head writers Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly (watch his new film Other People!), to her late father who pushed her to watch SNL as a child, were particularly moving.

Director Jill Soloway, who won for Transparent, gave a particularly rousing acceptance speech, with a passionate plea to “topple the patriarchy.” Soloway centered the storytelling of queer and trans women in her acceptance speech:

When you take women, people of color, trans people, queer people, and you put them at the center of the story, the subjects instead of the objects, you change the world, we found out. This TV show allows me to take my dreams about unlikeable Jewish people, queer folk, trans folk, and make them the heroes.

Transparent’s Jeffrey Tambor’s won Actor in a Comedy for his thoughtful portrayal of Maura Pfefferman, and his speech concluded with a heartfelt plea of his own: a call for greater hiring of transgender talent. Witnessing diversity in storytelling from a pioneering show like Transparent be richly rewarded was a step in the right direction.

emmys_jill_soloway

American Crime was one of my favorite television shows of the year. The anthology drama couples superb acting with powerful and provocative discussions about race, class, and sexuality. It was gratifying to see Regina King be recognized two years in a row for her magnetic work as a mother of a high school basketball player team accused of assault.

Although I was rooting for the cool threat that was Bookeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan from Fargo, I was happy that the award went to Sterling K. Brown’s understated performance as Christopher Darden in The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. The thrilling wins for Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson, who played Johnny Cochran and Marcia Clark, respectively, proved the stellar casting for Ryan Murphy’s series. These three captivating actors took on historical figures familiar to the American public, and breathed new life into their narratives, making their portrayals deeply sympathetic and human. Paulson was one of the locks of the evening, and her win was long overdue.

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On the flip side, yes, The People vs O.J. Simpson was excellent television, but I’m disappointed that Fargo’s remarkable second season was shut out in the process, coming up empty-handed in every category it was nominated in. Was this season too left-field for voters? Too bleak or violent? Too wrapped up in Midwestern quirk, and mysticism? Sigh.

Grease Live was a fine technical feat, with swift and precise direction by Alex Rudzinski and Hamilton‘s Thomas Kail. The live broadcast navigated multiple indoor and outdoor sets, live crowds, inclement weather, and more, but the conceit has been done before, even if it was the best of this new generation of live musicals. Beyoncé’s Lemonade was an artistic achievement like no other. Queen B should have won Directing for a Variety Special and taken one more step closer to EGOT status.

Rami Malek’s performance as Elliot Anderson was a singular triumph on Mr. Robot. Malek tackled such an intense character plagued with drug addiction, social anxiety, and mental illness, but always found ways to humanize him. We don’t often see characters on television like Elliot, much less see their performances rewarded, so this win for Lead Actor in a Drama felt important. Plus, bae looked good in a white Dior suit.

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Host Jimmy Kimmel joked in his opening monologue that “the only thing we value more than diversity is congratulating ourselves on how much we value diversity.” As the night went on, the more this notion seemed true. However cynical Kimmel’s quip was, it was refreshing to see the stage visited by African-Americans, Asian-Americans, queer women, an Egyptian-American, and sure, a couple of white men here and there too.

At last weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s took home two trophies for Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy and Choreography. How it lost Main Title Theme Music to Jessica Jones (?!?!?!) is beyond me. One is a sunny, catchy earworm that jabs at sexism, while the other is a bland jazz number. The winner is completely obvious to me, but I guess the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that. Regardless, just let the words “Emmy Award-Winning Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” sink in. We’re so #blessed!

The best show on television, The Americans, was woefully ignored, after being finally being invited to the party in its fourth season. When Character Actress Margo Martindale’s won for Guest Actress at the Creative Arts Emmys, for a role with seemingly less than ten minutes of screen time, I was hoping that the award boded well for the show’s Emmy chances come Sunday night. Alas, the night was not for The Americans. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, your time has yet to come. Next year, Game of Thrones will air outside of eligibility for the 2017 Emmys, leaving a dragon-sized void in the race. With the HBO juggernaut out of the mix next year, could The Americans finally emerge victorious?

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[gifs courtesy of giphy.com and outofficial.tumblr.com]

My Ranking of the 2016 Oscars Best Picture Nominees

Thanks to the AMC Best Picture Showcase, I was able to watch all the Best Picture nominees before Oscar night! As a whole, my favorite movies make me feel something and take me on an emotional journey. I want to feel invested in its world and in its characters. That being said, here is my ranking of all the nominees, from my most to least favorite.

Room

My favorite film of this year’s Oscars crop is Room. I read Emma Donoghue’s Room for a book club in 2011. For the first time in my life, a book had made me cry. The tears flowed during this film adaptation as well (I lost count at six times). Like the novel, Room is an emotionally captivating character study of a kidnapped woman held prisoner with her young son that she was forced to bear. Brie Larson perfectly embodies both a fierce maternal instinct and the vulnerability and exhaustion of a woman who was taken captive at only 17. Jacob Tremblay is stunning as the 5-year-old Jack and leads us through the world of Room with curiosity, horror, and wonder. It’s a shame his exceptional work wasn’t acknowledged with an Oscar nomination. Ultimately, the catharsis I experienced filled me with an inspired and life-affirming empathy. Room is going to stay with me for a long time.

Brooklyn

Brooklyn is a deceptively simple and utterly charming tale about a young Irish woman emigrating by herself to America in the 1950s. This extraordinarily lovely coming of age film presents adulthood as a series of choices, and reminds us that smaller stakes stories can resonate even deeper into our hearts than life or death superheroics. Saoirse Ronan is absolutely magnificent as the film’s center and breathes life into Eilis Lacey’s emotional inner world. The humanity of her heartache, longing, tenderness, and bliss, is all deeply personal and deeply felt. Plus, Brooklyn has LEO FROM SMASH.

Mad Max

Mad Max: Fury Road is kinetic, frenetic, and is meant to be seen in movie theaters. George Miller’s images leap off of the screen (Cirque du Soleil-esque pole attackers!) and are littered with a manical style (flamethrowing guitars!). This is a wild action movie that has something to say and gives meaningful voices to the women who (pardon the pun) drive the plot. Charlize Theron’s performance as Furiosa is legit badass. You experience Mad Max: Fury Road, in all its full throttle, eye-popping glory. It’s what movie theaters were made for. I would love to see Mad Max: Fury Road take home the big prize.

Spotlight

Spotlight is a subtle and sharp film. Thanks to the its confident screenplay, Spotlight tells a seemingly straightforward story, the investigative reporting of the cover-up of the Catholic Church’s priest’s child abuses, and infuses it with vitality and deftness. It’s an ensemble showcase of its talented actors, including Oscar nominees Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, who do fine work, creating three-dimensional characters in the midst of this season’s flashier films. It’s certainly cliché to speak of a place as a character, but Boston lives and breathes in this film, especially in the exterior shots (all those churches!). Not to mention, the film’s unflinching portrayal of the scandal still manages to pierce our hearts without a trace of righteousness, culminating in the powerful epilogue screens of all of the Church’s sexual abuses over America and the world.

The Martian

Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman can barely contain his excitement when he yells out, “Yeah, science!” in a memorable Breaking Bad scene and “Yeah, bitch! MAGNETS!” in another. These enthusiastic exclamations about the joys of science is basically The Martian in a nutshell. In fact, Matt Damon’s Mark Watney proclaims that he will “science the shit out of this” in order to survive being stranded on Mars. Damon has charisma to spare and his journey as a sexy space botanist is simply a delight to watch. The Martian is an absolute crowd pleaser, but the action on Earth fares less well than the space adventures.

The Revenant

I came into The Revenant expecting to dislike it, but I came away impressed. This frontier revenge drama was as gorgeous as it was punishing. And boy, is it incredibly punishing. The movie is stunning to look at, but the story and thematic elements are lacking (as is a Best Screenplay nomination). Leonardo DiCaprio does admirable work in his mostly wordless performance, but Tom Hardy’s irked me to no end with his portrayal. I honestly couldn’t understand what he was mumbling half the time.

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies is a respectable (if not old-fashioned) film made by the respectable Steven Spielberg. In the casting of respectable Tom Hanks, you know exactly what you’re in for: a gentle, broad swath of optimistic patriotism. Mark Rylance’s performance as a captured Russian spy is easily the best part of the film. Rylance is refreshingly droll and remarkably measured. Bridge of Spies is beautifully crafted, but if I wanted to watch Russian espionage, I would gladly take the outstanding The Americans. Season 4 starts March 16 on FX!

The Big Short

When it comes down for it, The Big Short is simply not for me. That doesn’t mean that this well-constructed and often hilarious film about the 2008 housing crisis isn’t good, though. I can still appreciate the cheeky breaking-the-fourth-wall asides that simplify dense economic lingo, but Margot Robbie drinking champagne in a bathtub was not meant for me. I just wasn’t invested (again, pardon the pun) in this world of morally corrupt men in a morally corrupt business. It just so happens that another film about the 2008 housing bubble was released this year. I wholeheartedly loved 99 Homes’ personal, more emotional approach to the housing crisis by painting the story of one struggling man in a corrupt system way more than what The Big Short did. Go watch 99 Homes.

[all gifs courtesy of moviegifsthatrock.tumblr.com]

What I’m Watching: Fall 2015

The fall 2015 television season is here, right as we enter the age of “Peak TV,” with seemingly too many television series out there to consume.

At the summer Television Critics Association press tour last month, John Landgraf, the president of FX Networks, stated that “there is simply too much television” in our current landscape. According to Vox, “In 2009, there were 211 primetime scripted series on television. That number steadily climbed until in 2014 there were 371, an increase of 160 shows. FX expects the number to top 400 in 2015.” That number doesn’t even included reality television, talk shows, game shows, etc. It’s downright impossible for a person to sample every show that’s out there and once you’ve dropped a show, it becomes even harder to pick it back up.

In the opening number of the 67th Emmy Awards, host Andy Samberg tackles the issue of “Peak TV” head-on by locking himself in a TV Viewing Bunker for a year to catch up on every show:

So where does that leave me? I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll probably never watch the most critically acclaimed new series from this past summer, UnREAL and Mr. Robot, or the 2015 Emmy winners for Outstanding Comedy, Veep, and Drama, Game of Thrones (but let’s be real, Mad Men should have taken the trophy for its final season, or better yet, the real best drama series, The Americans, should have been nominated in the first place). I’ll take solace in the fact that I’m enjoying what I choose to watch. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If a TV show gives you pleasure, more power to you!

Special shout-outs to the shows I watched in the past two months: CatastropheBoJack Horseman season two, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Transparent, and Orange is the New Black season three. I highly recommend all of these excellent shows, especially BoJack Horseman, an uproarious, yet painfully bleak and honest, examination of depression, as filtered through the lens of an animated anthropomorphic horse. Will you get to watching these shows? “They’re on my list,” I’m sure you’ll say. #PeakTV

What I’m Watching:

Scream Queens – Premieres September 22 on FOX

Welcome to Ryan Murphy’s twisted take on campus slasher films! I’m cautiously optimistic about this show, with an emphasis on the cautiously. Ryan Murphy productions start with a bang (see: the first two seasons of Glee and American Horror Story. Ok, fine, maybe just season of Glee.) and they unfortunately get caught up in their own frenetic messes, ending with a whimper (see: the other seasons of Glee and American Horror Story).

Fortunately for viewers, Scream Queens doesn’t seem to have any higher aspirations than being a gleeful, campy, bloody bubblegum confection that offs a character each week to comically gruesome effect. Plus, I can’t help but root for a cast that includes Nasim Pedrad, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ariana Grande, and Nick Jonas. I mean, come on. There’s a fine line between bitchy, catty entertainment and outright meanness. Tread carefully, Ryan Murphy. Here’s hoping it’ll be fun to watch this sorority-set series inevitably fly off the rails!

Fresh Off the Boat – Returns September 22 on ABC

As the first network TV show to feature an Asian-American family in 20 years, expectations for Fresh Off the Boat were dangerously high. To make matters worse, in the weeks leading up to the premiere, Eddie Huang, who wrote the memoir on which the show is based, trash-talked his own team members for diluting his personal experiences. Thankfully, when the first episode debuted, you could feel the collective exhale of Asian America. It was a sigh of relief that this family sitcom was extremely funny, witty, and heartwarming to boot. There were no reasons for audiences to hang their heads in shame. Fresh Off the Boat made specific cultural experiences universal and reset the television defaults of what it means to be a sitcom family.

Constance Wu, who plays the matriarch Jessica Huang, addresses the issues of representation in an insightful Buzzfeed interview:

The Asian-American experience [is something] a lot of us as Asian-Americans really haven’t explored, because they lump us all into one… It’s terrifying to say, ‘This is a thing that is complex and worthy of our time,’ but it is complex, and that’s why you’re not going to always find an easy, palatable answer. I think [the show is] trying to approach that complexity in a very traditionally simplistic form. And I think if we can do that, it’s almost its own type of activism.

I’ve jokingly shared on social media that I love that I can see myself on television, as the youngest brother, Evan Huang. The sentiment is silly, but completely true. This quirky, sweet-natured, delicate boy is definitely me and it’s a feeling that I’ve cherished. It’s progress.

Survivor – Returns September 23 on CBS

I’ve never been more excited about a season of Survivor in 31 seasons than I am about Survivor: Cambodia – Second Chance. And neither have any other of Survivor’s ten million viewers. Twenty returning players were voted in by America to compete for a second chance to win the million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor. After All-Stars and Heroes vs. VillainsCambodia is only the third season to feature all veteran players. This past summer, I re-watched Heroes vs. Villains, arguably Survivor‘s best, for the third time and this new season has all the potential to match HvV’s soaring highs.

Some of these players, like Borneo’s OG Kelly Wigglesworth and Australian Outback’s Jeff Varner and Kimmi Kappenberg, have waited over a decade for the opportunity to play again. Every single one of these contestants is here to WIN, ready to overcome their earlier flaws, course-correct for past mistakes, over-compensate for character flaws, underestimate and overpower the competition, and outwit, outplay, and outlast to the Final Tribal Council. The hunger is real.

Each contestant has a strong storyline going into the competition: Can Stephen Fishbach shed his overwhelmingly large target of being a Survivor Know-It-All podcast host? Will Ciera Eastin be able to convince her tribemates she’s a trustworthy player after she voted out her own mother in her previous season? Will Abi-Maria Gomes be able to cool her hot temper and play nice with others? Will Spencer “Charlie Brown” Bledsoe finally be able to kick that football set up by Chaos Kass? The list goes on… What makes this season so exciting is that each person comes in with so much baggage and so much to prove. You can read some of my thoughts on the cast here.

Peih-Gee Law

Peih-Gee Law (source: EW.com)

Who am I rooting for? In addition to the aforementioned Jeff Varner (love his cheeky energy) and Stephen Fishbach (love his quick wit), I’m pulling for for my friend, Survivor China’s Peih-Gee Law, who famously was good at Sudoku and claiming victory of the last of her tribe, ultimately achieving 5th place. Will she be able to keep her emotions in check and not make waves in the early goings of the game? If so, Peih-Gee will at least make it to the merge. In pre-game interviews, Peih-Gee talked about a smart strategy she picked up from fellow China player, Amanda Kimmel:

You have to find someone really strong […] like a Woo…who will be able to win challenges, but he’ll be kind of a target after the merge, which is fine because then I won’t be a target. Then you want somebody weaker, like maybe like Kass. They’re good to have by your side because if they want to get rid of someone who’s not good at challenges, then you’re protected. And then, these people, the weaker ones and the stronger ones, they’re the targets.

Who am I picking to win? Looking at the winners of the two previous all-star seasons, Amber Brkich and Sandra Diaz-Twine, both women entered the game as unassuming characters. They laid low and watched as the bigger targets take each other out each week. I see the same characteristics in San Juan Del Sur’s Kelley Wentworth. Although we never fully saw her game in her first season (which means neither did her competitors), she seemed smart and level-headed enough to be a savvy player. Kelley enters Cambodia without a huge target on her back, but possesses great potential. If she aligns with the right players, she could fly under the radar, make smart moves to get her to the end, and emerge victorious.

How to Get Away With Murder – Returns September 24 on ABC

To be honest, I was a bit on the fence about returning to this Shondaland series. Only Viola Davis’ magnetic and emotionally fraught tornado and Jack Falahee’s voracious sexual appetite and surprising vulnerability proved to be compelling characters. The rest of How to Get Away With Murder’s ensemble was merely beautiful set dressing. I also couldn’t stand Wes and Rebecca at all, separate or together.

Ultimately, Viola Davis is worth the price of re-admission. Her extraordinary history-making Emmy acceptance speech brought me to tears. As the first African-American woman to ever win Lead Actress in a Drama Series, her words were a powerful and inspiring indictment of the decision makers of Hollywood, highlighting how few opportunities women of color have had the chance to even compete for the title.

‘In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’

That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.

I will keep watching to support your trailblazing work, Viola Davis. Here’s to you!

The Flash – Returns October 6 on The CW

Simply put, The Flash is fun, fun, fun. The mere thought of more adventures in Central City fills me with joy. The Flash is a winning combination of celebrating the heroics of superheroes and meaningful, emotional character relationships. Of all the shows I watched last year, I’m certain I cried the most and hardest at The Flash season one finale. Damn you, Grant Gustin, and your beautifully emotive, tear-streaked face! This upcoming year spirals further down the comic book spiral, introducing a parallel universe and the original The Flash, Jay Garrick. I’m not a superhero superfan by any means, but I’m in for whatever thrilling twists are coming our way.

American Horror Story: Hotel – Returns October 7 on FX

Oh boy, American Horror Story, where to begin? Season three (Coven) was a supreme mess with inflated dramatic stakes (If characters could be resurrected willy-nilly, what did it matter that characters died?), while season four (Freak Show) was a frightful bore that suffered from warmed-over and languid pacing.

Season five, Hotel, brings AHS into the dark hallways of the Hotel Cortez. The one shining beacon of this season is that the incredible Jessica Lange is sitting this out of this chapter. Lange has portrayed massive powerhouses, stealing every scene and chewing each piece of scenery, but over time, these power-hungry matriarchs drew from the same well one too many times. It will be interesting to watch a more ensemble-driven AHS, as anchored by Lady Gaga.

Billy on the Street – Returns October 8 on TruTV

Pop culture and yelling. #selfexplanitory
I wrote about Billy on the Street’s first season here.

Jane the Virgin – Returns October 12 on The CW

The first season of Jane the Virgin skillfully balanced the hilarious with the heartfelt, and the playfully surreal with the emotionally real. Even when the telenovela-inspired narrative engine seemed to barrel through storyline after plot twist after jaw dropping moment, Jane the Virgin never lost its way, thanks to its charming and radiant lead, Gina Rodriguez.

The world was also introduced to new comic icons in Jaime Camil’s self-absorbed Rogelio De La Vega and Anthony Mendez’ cheeky narrator. Season two promises to double down on the over-the-top telenovela world, announcing guest appearances by not only pop icon Britney Spears, but my beloved darling, Kesha (#FreedomForKesha). The Flash and Jane the Virgin both had stellar first seasons (which I wrote about) and I expect no less this year.

Plus, Jane the Virgin also featured my two favorite Emmy “For Your Consideration” campaigns for Gina Rodriguez and Jaime Camil. Jane the Virgin, you are both inspiring and freaking hilarious.

Fargo – Returns October 12 on FX

My favorite scripted series from 2014 returns. Fargo’s first season was a tightly plotted morality tale, bursting at the seams with memorably quirky characters and black-hearted humor. Fargo follows in the footsteps of its fellow FX series, American Horror Story, and resets its second season in 1979, with a new murderers row of actors taking on the series’ unique voice: Patrick Wilson. Kirsten Dunst. Jessie Plemons. Ted Danson. Jean Smart. Cristin Milioti. Nick Offerman. Kirsten Dunst’s awesomely feathered coif. Just watch the trailer below and tell me you are giddy either.

The 20 People I’m Voting In For Survivor: Second Chance

There’s no better time to be a Survivor fan! For the show’s upcoming 31st season, it’s up to America to vote for 20 returning players to return for their second shot at the game. The voting pool of is made up of 32 one-time players who have never won the game.

What’s most exciting is that each and every Survivor fan has different criteria for voting, and, as a result, a different list of people they want back on the show. Yes, there’s a gigantic recency bias (15 out of the 32 contestants are from the past 4 seasons), but I’m hoping that a nostalgia factor will give some of the old school players a boost.

Which voting bloc will win out: the millions of casual fans who’ll only vote once, or the thousands(?) of hardcore fans who will vote daily? Aside from a handful of shoo-ins (I’m looking at you, Joe Anglim), it’s honestly quite difficult to tell which combination of 20 will make the final cut.

Before I reveal my list, these are the 12 people who didn’t make my Survivor: Second Chance cut: Monica Padilla, Natalie Tenerelli, Mikayla Wingle, Troyzan Robertson, Sabrina Thompson, Brad Culpepper, Woo Hwang, Keith Nale, Joe Anglim, Mike Holloway, and Carolyn Rivera.

I initially had Worlds Apart‘s Mike Holloway in Andrew Savage’s place, as Mike has proven to be an explosive player firing on every cylinder imaginable, but I figure Mike will have more than a second chance to return to the game. Savage, not so much. Same goes for Mama C, as I put T-Bird in her place. Plus, it’s obvious either Mike or Mama C will win Worlds Apart, right?

The voting takes place daily at cbs.com/survivorsecondchance until Wednesday, May 20, 2015 at 9 pm EST.

WOMEN (in order of appearance)

Survivor_female_castaways

Kelly_WiglesworthKELLY WIGLESWORTH
Borneo, Season 1
Runner-Up

Look up “Second Chance” in the Survivor dictionary and there you’ll find Kelly’s headshot. This season’s theme was made for her. Kelly famously lost to Richard Hatch in front of over 50 million viewers by one vote. ONE VOTE. 30 seasons later, does she have what it takes to make it to the end again?

Kimmi_KappenbergKIMMI KAPPENBERG
The Australian Outback, Season 2
12th Place

I only caught a couple of episodes of the first season as it aired live on television, but I was completely hooked thanks to The Australian Outback. From triumphing in a gross food eating challenge (“I can eat a worm! I can eat a worm!”) to getting into an argument with a fellow hot head (Alicia Calaway: “I will always wave my finger in your face!”), Kimmi was a source of the second season’s memorable moments.

Teresa_CooperTERESA “T-BIRD” COOPER
Africa, Season 3
5th Place

I can’t say that I remember much of T-Bird’s game, or much of Africa (other than the drinking cow’s blood challenge and Silas “Colby 2.0” Gaither), so this is purely a vote for the nostalgia of old school players.

Peih-Gee_LawPEIH-GEE LAW
China, Season 15
5th Place

Peih-Gee was a fighter, pure and simple. As the last of her Zhan Hu tribe, she fought a scrappy uphill battle against a powerful, and ultimately, winning, alliance. Armed with a fierce personality, Peih-Gee wasn’t afraid to mix things up (see: throwing an immunity challenge to knock out a strong competitor) and confront others on their BS. Out of all the women on the list, she’s the one I’d like to see return the most. Peih-Gee will certainly make for entertaining TV.

Abi-Maria_GomesABI-MARIA GOMES
Philippines, Season 25
5th Place

Oh, Abi-Maria, you were blissfully unaware of own obnoxiousness and the viewers were all the more better for it. Has Abi-Maria learned from her previous game? Does it matter? Abi-Maria was as an entertaining a villainess as they come. Unlike past disasters like Hurricane NaOnka, who just brought a deluge of frustration onto viewers, Abi-Maria at least has spirit.

Ciera_EastinCIERA EASTIN
Blood vs. Water, Season 27
5th Place

Sure, Ciera didn’t come alive until the last third of the game, but when she did, she lit up the screen like no other. She voted her own mother out of the game, y’all. No one else in two seasons of Blood vs. Water can claim that. She forced a tie and drew rocks, and was only the second group in 30 seasons to do so. Just imagine what her gameplay could be like with her mom. It could be epic.

Tasha_FoxTASHA FOX
Cagayan, Season 28
6th Place

Tasha was a challenge beast and really came through when it mattered most, winning three individual immunities in a row. She’s a strong competitor, which is exactly what an All-Star season needs. Let’s hope she plays an even better social game and doesn’t get #StoodUp again.

Kass_McQuillenKASS McQUILLEN
Cagayan, Season 28
3rd Place

Kass is an intelligent player with a snarky sense of humor. She not only gave herself a nickname (#ChaosKass for life), but she lived up to her moniker. While Chaos Kass’ strategic moves may or may not have best the soundest, they sure were interesting and unpredictable moves and gave Survivor fans a lot to discuss and debated.

Kelley_WentworthKELLEY WENTWORTH
San Juan del Sur, Season 29
14th Place

I’m thrilled, and frankly really surprised, to see Kelley on this list. Thanks to the Blood vs. Water twist, her game was mostly straddled to cleaning up the messes made by her father, Dale. Add to that lameness, Resident (Basically a) Badass Drew got Kelley out of the game because she had seen every episode of Survivor, unlike most of the dolts her season. Let’s give her a chance to show off her skills in a better arena.

Shirin_OskooiSHIRIN OSKOOI
Worlds Apart, Season 30
8th Place

Shirin just needed to get her Survivor superfandom jitters out during her first season. With that over-the-top enthusiasm out of the way, she can work on her social game. During Worlds Apart, she was never in the driver’s seat of an alliance, so it’ll be fun to watch if she can pull off strategic maneuvers of her own.

MEN (in order of appearance)

Survivor_male_castaways

Jeff_VarnerJEFF VARNER
The Australian Outback, Season 2
10th Place

Jeff Varner was my favorite player on The Australian Outback. In the midst of all the surviving, it appeared that he was the only one out there playing the strategic game. And he was there to PLAY. Undid by a defunct rule and Kimmi’s big mouth (she told Tina that Jeff had votes cast for him previously), he was taken from us way too soon. Of all the old school players, Jeff seems to be the best equipped to navigate the extremely fast-paced game of today.

Andrew_SavageANDREW SAVAGE
Pearl Islands, Season 7
10th Place

Andrew Savage is another player who deserves a second chance, in the purest sense of the word. He was screwed out of the game by the infamous Outcasts twist, when Lil flipped upon returning to the game. Savage fit the mold of Jeff Probst’s dream alpha male, receiving the last name only treatment. I’m not certain if the nostalgia factor is as strong with him, but it’s surprising it’s taken so long to get him back.

Shane_PowersSHANE POWERS
Panama, Season 12
5th Place

Shane Powers is a larger-than-life character who needs to return. He was recklessly erratic, shockingly unpredictable, and wildly entertaining. I mean, he quit smoking cold turkey when he went on the show! He talked on a piece of wood that he called his BlackBerry (remember those?)! He asked Cirie nursing advice and showed her his junk! He fell apart at the sight of his son during the loved ones visit! We need more Shane on our televisions.

Terry_DeitzTERRY DIETZ
Panama, Season 12
3rd Place

Terry was an unstoppable Panamanian force, winning five consecutive immunity challenges. Terry will need to improve his social game the second time around, as he came off as smug father-type, and I’m willing to give him the opportunity to do so.

Stephen_FishbachSTEPHEN FISHBACH
Tocantins, Season 18
Runner-Up

I’m most excited to watch Stephen play again. He’s made a name for himself in the years following his stint on the show as a Survivor pundit, writing a blog for People.com since 2009 and as a Survivor Know-It-All, co-hosting a weekly podcast with former player Rob Cesternino for the past six seasons. As a Know-It-All, he’s claimed to be one of “the guys who know everything about Survivor except how to win the game.” I’ve also purchased and listened to Stephen and Rob’s 9+ hour audiobook, The 49 Laws of Survivor. I’m ready to see Stephen put his money where his mouth is. #BringFishBack

Jim_RiceJIM RICE
South Pacific, Season 23
12th Place

Jim Rice is a player. He’s outspoken, quick on his feet, and smart as a whip. And he was royally screwed when Cochran flinched on drawing rocks and bailed on his alliance. Jim can bring some grade-A strategy to Survivor once more.

Vytas_BaskauskasVYTAS BASKAUSKAS
Blood vs. Water, Season 27
10th Place

Blood vs. Water introduced us to the brother of Aras Baskauskas, winner of Panama. Vytas was the self-proclaimed “reformed bad boy” of Survivor and managed to charm his way out of being voted out when he was outnumbered by women after the tribe swap. Vytas has so much strategic and social potential going into the game and I look forward to him possibly playing outside of his younger brother’s golden boy shadow.

Spencer_BledsoeSPENCER BLEDSOE
Cagayan, Season 28
4th Place

Spencer, Spencer, Spencer. There is no way that this charming Charlie Brown underdog who won the hearts of millions during Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty won’t return for his second chance. Having always played with his back against the wall, it will be exciting to watch him play again, with the possibility of reversed fortunes and an upper hand.

Jeremy_CollinsJEREMY COLLINS
San Juan del Sur, Season 29
10th Place

One of the few bright spots in his season, known for his “surround and drown” strategy. Many Survivor fans, including myself, were envisioning an epic Josh vs. Jeremy showdown, and were floored when the two were cut down in 11th and 12th place, respectively. What will Jeremy’s game look like without his wife, Val, and with players with an actual keen sense of the game?

Max_DawsonMAX DAWSON
Worlds Apart, Season 30
14th Place

The Survivor professor needs redemption! After a fairly dismal social game cost him the game pre-jury, I’m willing to give him a second shot. I’m sure he’ll know exactly how to adjust his social strategy after having seen himself flame out on television.