media & culture

Aunt May Energy

When your biggest takeaway from Spider-Man: Far From Home is how much you love Marisa Tomei’s overall vibe as Aunt May…

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Beyoncé’s Homecoming

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                                                                             Homecoming (Netflix, 2019)

Can’t stop and won’t stop thinking about Beyoncé’s new Netflix documentary, Homecoming. In what was already a feat unlike any other live performance seen in years, decades even, in Beyoncé’s 2018 two-hour Coachella set, Homecoming proves yet again the unyielding energy and commitment Bey has to her art. Everything is intricate, everything has a purpose, and here we see a raw energy in behind-the-scenes footage that highlights and draws inspiration from the HBCU experience as well as highlights black empowerment. It’s moving to see the months-long rehearsals pay off for everyone involved, and extra props to the editors who exquisitely spliced in clever edits from both of Bey’s sets that weekend with charming cutaways to hardcore fans in the audience. It’s an infectious two hours, but every minute is so entertaining and leaves you wanting more.

Favorites of 2018

In no particular order, here are my favorite movies, shows, and performances from the last year…

Favo(u)rite Films

Black Panther: The soundtrack. The villain. The villain’s complicated but understandable worldview. The women. The vibrant world of Wakanda. This is what a solid, live-action superhero movie looks like.

The Favourite: You’ll never hear the words “Rub my legs” the same again. I love a good historical drama, but I especially love a historical drama through the eyes of director Yorgos Lanthimos who turns history into a dark comedy, chock-full of the crass reality of early eighteenth-century life. Darkly lit settings, gross diseases, duck races, and a moment of strange break dancing are just a few of the reasons that make The Favourite a unique film. Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, and Joe Alwyn make this grim and witty tale about class and power politics even better, and then it leaves you pondering just how far you’d go for (what you think is) power.

Game Night: An unexpected, R-rated delight, full of fun performances from the whole cast. But perhaps Billy Magnussen and Jesse Plemons take the cake for the biggest laughs. Plus, love that Freaks and Geeks alum John Francis Daley co-directed.

Love, Simon: It’s hard to think that before 2018 we hadn’t had a gay lead in a studio teen film. Luckily, Love, Simon changed that with a charming story that gives us realistic young people to root for, even if they’re making mistakes along the way to adulthood. Props to Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel for being the couple and parenting role models that dreams are made of.

Paddington 2: The bear with the most returns in an even stronger sequel to a very strong debut in 2015. Though the plot surprisingly places Paddington in prison (he didn’t do it!), Paddington 2 is cute as hell. Ben Wishaw continues his voiceover work to make Paddington the most earnest and forthright character we’ve seen in recent years and Hugh Grant shines as a multi-talented villain.

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Although time has proved that Solo didn’t really make much of an impact in the cultural zeitgeist this year (as say, Black Panther has), I found this to be an entertaining romp. It’s also a really beautiful looking film. Alden Ehrenreich did the impossible—he stepped into the shoes of Harrison Ford and did a pretty darn good job at it too.

Sorry to Bother You: Sorry to Bother You is a weird, timely, and Black Mirror-esque allegory about race, labor, power, and the media. And for that, it’s unlike anything else this year. It also shows how great a villainous sociopath Armie Hammer can play, undoing the crush you may have developed while watching last year’s Call Me By Your Name.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: Mind-blowing animation. Ace voice acting. Deeply funny and earnest. Spider-Verse gives us thought-out characters and beautiful set pieces, and I came out of the viewing loving teen lead Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore, and Jake Johnson’s Peter Parker. Worth seeing in theaters if you have the chance.

Three Identical Strangers: A different type of documentary, Three Identical Strangers is full of quasi-reenactments and confessionals that make for really interesting storytelling, not to mention the most energetic and fun beginning to a story I’ve seen in awhile. The title gives away part of the story, but there is so much more under the surface that will leave you shocked, heartbroken, and angry.

To All the Boys I Loved Before: Lara Jean is basically a new teen movie and Rom-Com icon thanks to this surprise Netflix film. Lana Condor is a standout as Lara Jean and gives her that relatable humanity that so many young girls (and grown women) crave to see in pop culture. Not to mention, Noah Centineo, also known as Mark Ruffalo’s Looper, is the teen crush that young girls (and grown women) also crave to see. The story is sweet, but perhaps the sweetest moment is Lara Jean talking to her dad, played wonderfully by John Corbett, talking about Lara Jean’s late mom set to Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Cue the crying.

Favorite TV Shows

American Vandal: Season one of American Vandal was so unexpectedly good that it seemed a second season was going to just be a re-hash of the same sort of thing. Wrong! Instead of focusing on “Who drew the dicks?” in the first season, we go to the main mystery of “Who is the Turd Burglar?” in season two. It might sound like frat-bro humor, but I assure you the whodunit of the Turd Burglar is so much more. The show also creatively incorporates a few past characters of season one and brings them into the excrement-chasing fray of a new school in the Seattle area. The only downside of season two was later learning that Netflix cancelled the series and we’ll never know what crime involving a body part or bodily function season three could have brought us.

The Americans: Farewell to the Jennings family. The final season of The Americans came back in full force after a somewhat lackluster fifth season (although still great by comparison to many TV dramas), and ended on a high note. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys proved again why they are so deserving of their recent Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, while other cast members like Noah Emmerich deserve more love. But all said and done, the series gave fans a satisfying ending that both punished and relieved our leading family. And, on point as ever with their music selections, the show used U2’s “With or Without You” perfectly—even though it’s being used quite literally in one of the season finale’s final scenes, its presence only elevated it to make it one of the best television sequences, perhaps ever.

Atlanta: Two words: Teddy Perkins. Perhaps the most talked about episode of television this year. Beyond that, the second season of Atlanta brought us many great moments, like the mythical “Florida Man” in the season opener, the mythical Drake in a great Van-focused episode, and the hilarious Bibby the barber in the “Barbershop” episode, in what was my personal favorite episode of the season.

Glow: I just think this show is so much fun. It’s like the adult version of watching camp movies as a kid, but with the addition of glorious 80s hair, cocaine, Marc Maron, and spandex. This season, Ruth and Debbie still shine, Bash deservedly gets more airtime (and playing to my heart, makes reference to The Muppets Take Manhattan), and we get a real “GLOW” episode within an episode, which includes a beautiful studio-film era dance set-piece featuring two of GLOW’s lesser-seen ladies.

The Haunting of Hill House: For a show with a lot of creepiness and scares, it sure did make me cry a lot. I especially loved seeing Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas on screen in emotionally developed characters. And a job well done on casting two generations of actors for the central kids that felt fluid and believable.

Homecoming: Not only does Homecoming break the norms of a “drama” by giving us half-hour episodes, making for a breezy 5-hour binge, it also breaks many formatting molds. Without giving too much away about this story involving America’s military complex, pharmaceuticals, government investigations, and ordinary people, there are some really interesting cinematic choices at play here from director Sam Esmail that reflect tone, time, and mood, plus grade-A performances from Stephan James, Julia Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, and Shea Wigham.

Killing Eve: Beyond the excitement of watching charismatic Sandra Oh in an unexpected show, not to mention as an MI5 agent in a British show, Killing Eve introduced us to Jodie Comer as the truly horrifying yet oh-so-stylish serial killer, Villanelle. With other stellar performances that gave this dark show lots of dark humor, we have the great Phoebe Waller-Bridge at the helm of this series as creator and writer to thank. It’s all a recipe for a devilishly delicious 8 hours of primo television as female lead hunts the other female lead, and vice-versa.

Queer Eye: After 2017, we desperately needed something goodhearted. Well, we got it in early February, and then again in June, with the rebooted version of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The later batch of episodes feels a bit more contrived and schmaltzy than the first, but you can’t deny the chemistry and earnestness of this fresh-faced Fab Five and the diverse group of men they work with.

Sharp Objects: For some, this was too much of a slow burn. For me, it was an intoxicating tale with powerful and sinister performances, complemented by my experience listening to Vanity Fair’s “Still Watching” podcast, which explored all the symbolic layers that one could find, say, in a creepy dollhouse. Extra points for rewarding viewers who watch the credits.

Succession: I discounted this series from the initial trailers—I was not interested in watching a rich, media-mogul and his family be rich assholes thanks to our very own rich, media-adjacent family in the White House. Of course, there’s something much more fun about watching a fictional family instead. The devious backstabbing, the ridiculous rich-people traditions, and the ultra dysfunctional family at the center of this dramedy are extremely entertaining, as are the opening credits and score, which craft the right tone. The icing on the cake? My two favorite performances of the year: the very strange character of soon-to-be-member of the family Tom, played by Matthew Macfadyen, and his relationship with cousin Greg, played by Nicholas Braun.

Survivor: David vs. Goliath: It’s hard to believe that we’ve had 37 seasons of Survivor, but here we are. That many seasons later, however, the show has managed to keep twists coming and find new castaways that viewers love and want to see win a million dollars. It’s the characters that developed this season, plus fun editing that we’ve never seen before, that made this a fun season with all first-time players.

 Wild Wild Country: Two words that entered the 2018 zeitgeist? Tough titties. This Netflix documentary, which focuses on a subject I knew nothing about, truly is a wild ride. There is no clear side to root for, but it will provoke you to think about what it means to find meaning in something bigger than yourself, as well as what it means to have a way of life you’ve known for decades be turned upside down.

Favorite Performances

The cast of The Haunting of Hill House

Jennifer Garner in Love, Simon

The cast of Homecoming

The cast of Sharp Objects

Charlize Theron in Tully

Ben Wishaw in Paddington 2 and Mary Poppins Returns

Hugh Grant in Paddington 2

Hayley Atwell in Howards End

Matthew Macfadyen in Howards End and Succession

The cast of Succession

Travis Tope in American Vandal

Jodie Comer in Killing Eve

Sandra Oh in Killing Eve

Lily James in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Jesse Plemons in Game Night

Billy Magnussen in Game Night

Lana Condor in To All the Boys I Loved Before

Noah Centineo in To All the Boys I Loved Before

Alden Ehrenreich in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Thomas Haden Church in Divorce

Molly Shannon in Divorce

The cast of Sorry to Bother You

The voice cast of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Ladies in the Louvre

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I will not tire of this sequence from The Carters’ new video, APES**T video. Layers to unfold here, but I love that the they’re holding hands, almost as if provoking the subjects in the canvas behind them to the fiercest game of Red Rover ever imagined. I don’t think they’d break through.

Star Wars Coincides with Style and an Important Statement

Can we stop for a moment and discuss Thandie Newton’s Star Wars dress from the Solo premiere at the Cannes Film Festival?

At first glance the photographs aren’t super clear, but the word going around is that she wore a custom Vivienne Westwood gown made of a custom print featuring Star Wars figurines.

Many questions arise. Obviously she’s in the new film, but is she also a big Star Wars fan? And if that is in fact common knowledge, does that mean I may not be as big of a fan as I think I am?

Taking a closer look, you can tell that all of the photographed figurines featured on her dress are of black male characters that we’ve seen in the galaxy (from Finn to Mace Windu). Although this may not have been intentional, it’s a nice callback to the SNL sketch from the Donald Glover –hosted episode just a few weeks ago. But that aside, she’s clearly making a statement here as she is now the first black woman to be featured in a leading role in a Star Wars film. Get it, Thandie.

The sparseness in the design of the figurines is a reminder that there’s still more work to be done with representation in this franchise (although I’d like to think that Star Wars has often been ahead of the curve).

Another article claims the figurines featured on her dress are from her personal (!) collection—so if this is indeed true, when did she start collecting and how many does she own? Or do you think she may have just started collecting once she was cast in Solo?

Either way, it is a stunning dress with layered meanings and it just may be the most badass thing anyone has ever done.

Take It From Me: You Don’t Have to Be Religious to Appreciate Jesus Christ Superstar

I’ll admit, I’m not a religious person so sometimes just hearing the words “Jesus Christ Superstar” together isn’t necessarily going to grab my attention in a positive way. However, I am a person peripherally aware of a lot of culturally relevant works of art, so hearing those words in that order is something different altogether. Even though I’ve never seen the play or original film, created by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, I’ve definitely heard the “Superstar” song because it’s one of the greats (or so I’ve been told) among musical numbers, and I was also really into Cats as a child. Therefore, I listened to a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber compilation CDs in the 90s and you can’t forget those goose bump-inducing chords and chants at the beginning of that song. Yet, as a church-going but skeptical child (and an even more skeptical and non-church-going adult), I didn’t fully delve into this musical because I assumed it would be preachy, and even at a young age I was not about being preached to.

Obviously, I was wrong. The rock opera isn’t so much about “religion” or “Jesus” but about a story of people, relationships, points of view, choices, consequences, guilt, and acceptance. You know, a story about life. But even if you’re not interested in the morals of it all, you can still come for the fantastical musical set pieces and softly sung, yet deeply human melodies. My curiosity for turning on NBC’s live rendition of Jesus Christ Superstar really fell into the latter category—and I wasn’t disappointed. Granted, I had it on more for the sake of checking in to see how this live production stacked up against the others (perhaps only Grease and Hairspray beat it for me) and of course the fear of missing out on Chrissy Teigen’s live tweets (what I’m officially deeming FOMOOCTLT…rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?).

From a newcomer’s perspective, the show was energetic, heartfelt, and had Alice Cooper in it. What’s not to like?! All kidding aside, I actually came away from it with much more appreciation for the show, its cast (talking about you, Brandon Victor Dixon!), and the fact that it’s great to see live musicals on television in this age. But the most important moral lesson for me, because I suppose it doesn’t hurt to have some sort of moral takeaway on Easter Sunday, was that I shouldn’t have ever judged this show by its name alone. So, I’m glad that a modern production of a 70s musical starring John Legend wearing an extremely deep-v shirt helped me realize that you have to give everything a real chance before you can judge it. Plus, Chrissy Teigen’s tweets were pretty entertaining, too.

The New Queer Eye is Absolutely Fab (And the Perfect Family Affair)

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Queer Eye (Netflix, 2018)

The first time I saw a billboard in Los Angeles for the new Netflix reboot of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (now more aptly called just Queer Eye), I was skeptical. I was also tired, for this seemed like the 1,456th old show to be brought back to life—I’m worn out on that trend. But then I heard the conversations swirling around in person and online who had watched it and said it was actually really good, and earnest, and groundbreaking in its own way. Fine, I’ll watch!

And yeah, it was pretty great. It’s actually really fabulous and I loved nearly every moment (more on that later). I was in high school when the original series debuted and it was something that my mom, sister, and I loved to watch together. Perhaps that was my hesitation, that I was worried it would somehow mar my experience with the previous Fab Five. Well, I should have had more faith in Netflix because it didn’t.

The new Fab Five are equally fun-spirited as the OGs, but the new show has found five men that reflect an even more global and diverse world, being more inclusive and reflective of how people from all sorts of backgrounds (religion, race, nationality) can also be gay too (gasp!). Antoni, Bobby, Jonathan, Karamo, and Tan also bring earnestness to the show that is so welcome in 2018. The men that they makeover are also a diverse bunch, including a gay African-American man struggling to come out to his stepmother, all within the city and suburbs of Atlanta. This aspect is perhaps the most contrived part of the series, as it’s clear the producers tried to find makeover subjects that might have political and social differences from the Fab Five (yes, we see a MAGA hat in the third episode) as a means to create meaningful conversations. But most of the time when you can tell this is the case, it pays off. I say most because there’s one moment that still feels a bit off-kilter, and that is also in the third episode when the guys are pulled over by a cop while the one black castmate, Karamo, is driving. Of course, this immediately puts the Fab Five and viewers on edge due to recent incidents of police violence against black men and women as well as the Black Lives Matter movement. Lucky for them, this cop is the best friend of the man (and cop) they’re about to make over, so it’s just a joke and no one gets hurt! Ugh, that was extremely awkward. Now, the episode does lead to Karamo and the makeover subject talking about police brutality from both perspectives, and the two do seem to have a sincere conversation and appreciation for each other’s openness in that moment—so although it felt a little weird and warrants some side-eye toward the producers, this time it ultimately seemed to do more good than harm.

I think the great improvement to this show is the Fab Five’s genuine focus on self-care and building the confidence to be the best version of yourself. It’s not just about cutting off some hair or rearranging the furniture in your living room—these guys are here to help the subjects find something that’s already there, to bring it out and improve their well-being (which oftentimes means improving the well-being of those around them). Whether it’s something as simple as giving a stand-up comedian who lives with his parents a better space at home where he can feel more independent or encouraging a husband and dad of two to take his family out on the town more often, they’re really all about helping some strangers out. However, it’s not always so serious—they find plenty of time to have lots of laughs along the way (hello, Jonathan!). But that’s not to say that you won’t need some tissues handy, because every episode got to me at some point.

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Jonathan! Queer Eye (Netflix, 2018)

Once I was one episode in and knew that this was indeed a great show, I knew I had to get in touch with my mom and sister and let them know (none of us live in the same city at the moment). Well, my mom happened to be visiting my sister and they watched an episode together. Then the following weekend I was back in my hometown with my mom, and we watched two episodes together. And THEN, the weekend after that I was with my sister and we watched three more. Somehow, after nearly fifteen years of watching the original together, either coincidence or serendipity (whichever you prefer) brought us together to share this new version. I can’t quite express how lovely that was, except to say thank you to the Fab Five for being a part of it.

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Queer Eye (Netflix, 2018)