Friday, July 3, 2015

Best Music of 2015... So Far

Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly this year and it seems to be the universally-acclaimed, best album of the year. According to Metacritic, Lamar's latest is the best reviewed, original album. It scored a 96.

Based on 44 critics, 17 gave it a perfect score of 100. Prior to the album's drop date, Lamar won two Grammy Awards for it. He won Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song for his single "i" that he promoted last year. The song in many ways was a reaction to the Ferguson protests and the shooting of Michael Brown, as well as the killings of many unarmed, black men at the hands of the police. Lamar also received the California State Senate's "Generational Icon Award." Lamar even landed on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

Speaking of songs that comment on the recent protests of police killings, Prince released the song "Baltimore," which came in the wake of the riots in the Charm City earlier this year and the death of Freddie Gray. At the heart, the protests are all about underlying, tense, race relations, and we're seeing songs, particularly rap songs start to reflect that.

Take the lyrics of "Old Rock N Roll" by Young Fathers, a hip hop group based in Scotland. In the first verse, they say, "I'm tired of having to hold back. I'm tired of wearing this hallmark for some evils that happened way back. I'm tired of blaming the white man. His indiscretion don't betray him. A black man can play him. Some white men are black men too." It's as much an expression of anger over inequality as it is a recognition of a need for reconciliation on both sides.

Other than Lamar though, there are two other albums that seem to have stolen the hearts of music critics. The first is Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens, the singer-songwriter from Detroit. The record is a return to the more folk-rock sound for which Stevens was initially known.

The other album with a lot of great reviews is No Cities to Love by Sleater-Kinney, an all-female, punk rock band that's been around for 20 years, but this is its first album in about a decade. Out of 39 reviews on Metacritic, it got five scores of 100. The most ardent defender was Helen Clarke, writing for musicOMH, when she says, "Its sheer ferocity gives them an edge beyond even what they'd achieved before... and this record plays like a triumphant middle finger salute, coolly showing everyone how it's done..."

Other critically lauded albums include Vulnicura by Björk and In Colour by Jamie xx. Both albums didn't win me over, but I could see the appeal they might have in others. For me, the album that did win me over totally and completely was Reality Show by Jazmine Sullivan, the R&B singer from North Philadelphia. Not only is Philly my hometown, but I'm a sucker for pointed R&B and Sullivan does that spectacularly.

Speaking of R&B, Janet Jackson made headlines this year. She announced that she was going to release a new studio album, which she hadn't done since her tenth album Discipline was released back in 2008. The new album will be released later this year under her own label called Rhythm Nation Records, thus making Jackson the first, female, African-American artist to form her own record label. She added that there will be a series of concerts called the "Unbreakable World Tour."

Currently, Taylor Swift's 1989 World Tour is the leading music tour of the year. Everyone knows that with her album 1989 Swift has crossed over from country music to more pop music. Another artist who has done a crossover, mixing country and pop is Steve Grand.

Grand released his single "All-American Boy" in the summer of 2013. He released a music video, which he financed himself. He then uploaded it to YouTube where it went viral, mainly in part because it heralded Grand as the first openly gay male country musician. This year, he released his debut album All-American Boy, which was financed through a Kickstarter campaign that became the third-highest funded music project on the site. It's since fallen to #5.

Shawn Mendes joins Justin Bieber
and Stevie Wonder as youngest artist at #1
Yet, the biggest new talent is Shawn Mendes, the Canadian pop star who at age 16 had his debut album Handwritten debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart. It made Mendes the youngest artist since Justin Bieber to do so in nearly 5 years. Bieber was 16 and 2 months when he released his first album My World 2.0 in 2010 where it became #1. Mendes was 16 and 8 months for Handwritten. Prior to both of them, the last person to be so young and be at the top of the charts was Stevie Wonder in 1963, yet he was only 13. Like with Bieber and Grand, Mendes made a name for himself online first. He rocketed so fast into success that he was even made the opening act for Swift's 1989 tour.

On another note, Paul McCartney made his first visit to the First State, that of Delaware, for the Firefly Music Festival. The event hosted a lot of great bands and crowds in the thousands. The festival is now in its fourth year.

Dan Deacon who was an act at the Firefly Music Festival back in 2013 released his fourth studio album this year. Derek Staples of Consequence of Sound writes, "On record or in concert, Deacon offers escapism at its finest." Based in Baltimore, he is renown for his live shows, but I was quite taken with a music video he did for his song "Feel the Lightning," which looks like it was inspired by Pee-Wee Herman's TV show.

Unfortunately, one of my favorite songs of the year isn't available for download. It's the song "You Got to Learn" by Raphael Saadiq. The song is performed in the film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, directed by Spike Lee. Sadly, the song was not put onto the soundtrack being sold on iTunes. The only way to hear it is to download, stream or buy the movie on physical media.

Leanne Macomber of the band Young Ejecta wins the Shia LaBeouf award for nudity for the sake of music. Remember, LaBeouf went totally naked for the Sigur Rós video, "Fjögur píanó" and partially naked for Sia's "Elastic Heart."

Lastly, Cannibal Ox, the Harlem hip hop duo, sampled audio from the movie Minority Report on their album Blade of the Ronin. On the the brief track, "Pressure of Survival," audio from the film is taken directly. I thought this was interesting because also this year, a TV adaptation of Minority Report is set to premiere on FOX.

There's so much good music out there that I find it hard to narrow down a concise list. It's either that, or else I'm not that discriminating when it comes to the recording arts. However, here's my list of the 32 albums and 19 individual songs that are the best music of 2015... so far:

Best Folk / Country

CARRIE & LOWELL by Sufjan Stevens
I LOVE YOU, HONEYBEAR by Father Misty John
TOMORROW IS MY TURN by Rhiannon Giddens
I CANT IMAGINE by Shelby Lynne
THE FIREWATCHER'S DAUGHTER by Brandi Carlile
WILDER MIND by Mumford & Sons

Best Rock / Alternative

SOUND & COLOR by Alabama Shakes
DEEP IN THE IRIS by Braids
VAMALA by Champs
EVERMOTION by Guster
AMERICAN BEAUTY / AMERICAN PSYCHO by Fall Out Boy
RUN by Awolnation

Best Pop / Electronic

MERCY by Active Child
RATCHET by Shamir
THE DESIRED EFFECT by Brandon Flowers 
SUNDAY DINNER by Keath Mead
REBEL HEART by Madonna
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY [OST] by Various Artists
SOFT CONTROL by Laura Welsh

Best R&B / Soul

REALITY SHOW by Jazmine Sullivan
THE FUN RISES, THE FUN SETS by Van Hunt
BLACKHEART by Dawn Richard
WILDHEART by Miguel
LOOK CLOSER by Saun & Starr
TRUE ROMANCE by Estelle
YOU SHOULD BE HERE by Kehlani

Best Rap / Hip Hop

TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY by Kendrick Lamar
SURF by Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
WHITE MEN ARE BLACK MEN TOO by Young Fathers
EAT PRAY THUG by Heems
HAVE A NICE LIFE by Murs
THE ALBUM ABOUT NOTHING by Wale

Best Song from Non-listed Album

"You Got to Learn" by Raphael Saadiq
"Young Blood" by The Districts
"Baltimore" by Prince f/ Eryn Allen Kane
"Frederick Douglass" by Rumer
"What is Love" by V. Bozeman
"Conqueror" by Estelle f/ Jussie Smollett
"Sequential Circuits" by Panda Bear
"Devil in My Veins" by Yelawolf
"Play for Today" by Belle and Sebastian
"Wild Bush" by Howlin Rain
"Buffalo" by Toro Y Moi
"All in Cahoots" by This is the Kit
"When You Comin' Home" by Gretchen Peters
"Till the Water's All Long Gone" by The Decemberists
"Bridgebuilder" and "Precious" by JD McPherson
"Bug" by Boxed In
"Tape 2 Tape" or "Shame on Me" by Aqualung
"It Is You" by Natalie Prass

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Best Moments on TV of 2015... So Far

Taraji P. Henson (left) and Terrence Howard in 'Empire'
So far, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are two of the top TV shows in terms of viewership and critical reaction. Both those shows just aired their fifth seasons, but, turning to new programs to hit television, no conversation can be had without first mentioning FOX's Empire. It premiered on January 7 to over 13 million viewers. It instantly become FOX's highest-rated debut in three years, since FOX's Touch in 2012. The viewership continued to grow week-to-week for 12 weeks straight, which no broadcast show has done in more than 20 years. The finale soared over 23 million, which surpasses the previous finale ratings from a decade ago. It also jumped ahead of The Big Bang Theory as the most watched program of the year.

That show had a lot of epic fights, but the fight that perhaps should have been really epic is the one between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao on May 2nd. Unfortunately, the boxing match was far from epic. Many commentators were disappointed. Mayweather's win was disappointing for various sociopolitical reasons as well. The fight did generate millions and millions, but some speculated that it cut into the revenue of Avengers: Age of Ultron, which opened that same weekend.

Meanwhile, Netflix unleashed an onslaught of programming this year. The DVD-in-the-mail and online, video-streaming service is now a full-fledged television network capable of competing with the major five networks. Netflix managed to release a new TV program every month starting in January with season 2 of The Fall. The company probably got the most traffic or online buzz thanks to the success of its series Daredevil, the dark and gritty, Marvel Comics adaptation. Most of its programs had the entire season, typically 13 episodes, all released on the same day. The one exception was the sci-fi, post-apocalyptic series Between.

The Internet search-engine and web portal Yahoo! also got into the TV programming game with its Yahoo! Screen network, which also started pumping out original content, multiple series starting with its pickup of the cancelled NBC show Community. The Internet is becoming jam-packed with all kinds of shows and new content. As such, HBO finally launched its HBO Now service, which allows people to have access to all of HBO's programming online without having to be a subscriber to its cable network.

Here is my list of my favorite shows, what I feel are the best of 2015 for the time being. However, I start with isolating individual moments that I thought were monumental or highly memorable within the huge continuum that is television. Enjoy:

Best Moments on TV... So Far

10. Bruce Jenner is interviewed for 20/20 special with Diane Sawyer (April 24)
9. Joseph Kahn releases Power / Rangers to the Internet (Feb. 24)
8. Saturday Night Live celebrates its 40th anniversary (Feb. 15)
7. Kristin Wiig performs "Chandelier" at the 57th Grammys (Feb. 8)
6. David Letterman airs his final episode as host of The Late Show on CBS (May 20)
5. Common and John Legend perform "Glory" and win at the 87th Oscars (Feb. 22)
4. Maya says she's transgendered on The Bold and the Beautiful (May 18)
3. The Fosters on ABC Family has youngest same-sex kiss for Jude & Connor (March 2)
2. Undateable on NBC goes live for second season, episode 7 (May 5)
1. The Jinx on HBO has shocking finale (March 15)

Best Reality / Variety

Jon Stewart turns over 'The Daily Show' to Trevor Noah
1. Inside Amy Schumer: Season 3 (COM)
2. AfterBuzz TV: Scandal Season 4 - (YouTube)
3. Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO)
4. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (COM)
5. Watch What Happens: Live (Bravo)
6. Troy - Street Magic: Season 2 (Syfy)
7. The Talk (CBS)

Best TV Movie / Special

1. Nightingale (HBO)
2. Going Clear (HBO)
3. Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber (COM)
4. Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live at Brazos County Jail (COM)
5. Aziz Ansari Live At Madison Square Garden (Netflix)

Best Comedy

1. Looking: Season 2 (HBO)
2. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
3. Orange is the New Black: Season 3 (Netflix)
4. Silicon Valley: Season 2 (HBO)
5. Fresh Off the Boat (ABC)
6. Community: Season 6 (Yahoo!)
7. Glee: Season 6 (FOX)
Scene from 'Sense8', original series by the Wachowskis

Best Drama

1. Bloodline (Netflix)
2. American Crime (ABC)
3. The Slap (2011) (Hulu)
4. Bates Motel: Season 3 (A&E)
5. Sense8 (Netflix)
6. The Good Wife: Season 6 (CBS)
7. House of Cards: Season 3 (Netflix)
8. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 2 (ABC)

Best Individual Performance from Non-Listed Series

1. Viola Davis - How To Get Away With Murder
2. Taraji P. Henson - Empire
3. Chris Messina - The Mindy Project: Season 3
4. Tony HaleVeep: Season 4
5. Kristen Schaal - The Last Man on Earth
6. Christopher Sean - Days of Our Lives / Hawaii Five-0

Best Individual Episode from Non-Listed Series

1. "Cop Story" - Louie: Season 5
2. "Just Drive the Truck" - Chicago Fire: Season 3
3. "Blake Shelton" - Saturday Night Live: Season 40
4. "Chris Hemsworth/Zac Brown Band" - Saturday Night Live: Season 40
5. "Dwayne Johnson/George Ezra" - Saturday Night Live: Season 40

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Sexiest Stars of 2015... So Far

Lorraine Toussaint
Special acknowledgment has to go to Lorraine Toussaint. I should have put her on my list in 2014 because last year was truly her year. She had a small but significant role in the Oscar-winning film Selma, but she really exploded on television. She's been acting on TV since the late 80's. Her most prominent role was probably her leading character in Lifetime's Any Day Now. She appeared in four programs last year, including The Fosters, Being Mary Jane and Forever, but her best role was in Netflix's Orange is the New Black, which was probably Toussaint in her sexiest. If you don't believe me, check out Season 2, Episode 12 and fast forward to the end. Touissant is incredibly sexy and an even more incredible actress.

However, 2015 might just go down as the year of the transgendered person. A huge moment came with the TV interview of Bruce Jenner who was announced to be a transgendered woman newly named Caitlyn Jenner. This announcement sent a big splash all throughout the cultural landscape whose ripples will be felt for some time to come. In addition, we have the return of Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black. In daytime television, there was the storyline involving the transgendered character Maya Avant, played by Karla Mosley on CBS' The Bold and the Beautiful. Catfish: The TV Show also did an episode, "Jamey and Ari," involving a transgendered girl trying to come out to a potential boyfriend. There's also a series of films dealing with transgendered people. The first is Boy Meets Girl, which is a coming-of-age story set in Kentucky. Next up is Tangerine by Sean Baker about a working girl in Tinseltown. Lastly will be The Danish Girl, starring recent Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne about the very first known person to undergo sex-change surgery.

Aydian Dowling (left) recreates Adam Levine photo.
In light of this year being a cultural landmark for transgendered people, I also have to give special acknowledgment to Aydian Dowling. If you don't know, according to The Daily Beast, Aydian Dowling was born a female but transitioned into a male, a process he documented on YouTube, which made him an Internet star. He now has his own YouTube channel that's all about health and fitness. He lives in Oregon. He's married and he runs his own business, which provides clothing and other services for the transgendered community. What solidified his sex appeal was when he was put on the February 2015 cover of FTM magazine. He posed nude, imitating Grammy-winner Adam Levine when the music artist posed nude for the Feburary 2011 issue of Cosmopolitan UK. Dowling pulled a Nick Jonas-Mark Wahlberg move. Dowling also drew national attention in the spring when he was in contention to be put on the cover of Men's Health magazine, potentially making him the first transgendered man to do so.

Candice Patton posing for Maxim magazine
Dowling certainly would have made my list of sexiest stars, if he were an actor, which is what my list reinforces. Some fresh faces that almost made my list was Candice Patton who took some time but turned people's opinions around about her role on the CW series The Flash. If you have any interest in the daily British series Hollyoaks, you might have noticed Parry Glasspool, the hunky and adorable young man, playing one of several new teenagers on the scene. Bodybuilder-turned-actor Spencer Neville turned many heads on the daytime drama Days of Our Lives as well. I may change my mind about any of these people by year's end, but for now the following list are the people that truly made an impact for me.

Here it is, my list of the Sexiest Stars of 2015... So Far:

20. JAI COURTNEY - the Australian hunk appeared early in his career as a muscle-bound warrior in the TV series Spartacus: War of the Damned. He went on to play second fiddle to a lot of A-list actors. He was opposite Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher (2012). He was opposite Bruce Willis in A Good Day to Die Hard (2013). This year, he was opposite Russell Crowe in The Water Diviner. He was also in the latest Divergent movie, but he takes the lead in the blockbuster sequel Terminator: Genisys.


19. DAKOTA JOHNSON - she's the daughter of Oscar-nominee Melanie Griffith and the granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, the actress and fashion model known for some iconic, Hitchcock films. She's been in a few movies but Dakota's breakout is clearly her role as Anatasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey. The movie isn't that great despite making a half-billion worldwide, but hopefully it will allow her to do better things.


18. MATT MCGORRY - the 29-year-old used to be a bodybuilder and a writer for Men's Fitness magazine. Now, most people know him for his role as Corrections Officer John Bennett on the award-winning series Orange is the New Black. He now plays Asher Millstone on the hit show How to Get Away With Murder where he's the comic relief mostly. If you really want to have a laugh, check out his videos on CollegeHumor, including the Leaked Magic Mike 2 Audition and This Stripper is So Sexy It's Illegal.


17. AMY SCHUMER - she's a comedian who got her big break in 2007 on NBC's Last Comic Standing. She was a reoccurring panelist on Red Eye w/ Greg Gutfeld. She then was one of the comics in Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen in 2011 and then Comedy Central Roast of Roseanne Barr in 2012. She got her own series on Comedy Central in 2013 called Inside Amy Schumer, which earned her a Emmy nomination in writing last year. The best episode of which was when she did a spoof of 12 Angry Men. This year, she also wrote and stars in her first feature film Trainwreck directed by Judd Apatow.


16. RYAN PHILLIPPE - he first appeared in 1992 in the soap opera One Life to Live. He broke out by starring in hit films such as I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Cruel Intentions (1999). He shed his teen bad boy image with his appearance in the Oscar-winning film Crash (2005). He returned to TV after over 15 years in FX's Damages. He directed his first feature last year in Catch Hell. This year, he starred in the ABC series Secrets and Lies, which was a remake of a weirdly sexy Australian show about a dead child.


15. LILY JAMES - this year she shared the ensemble award at the Screen Actors Guild for her role in Downton Abbey. However, the English actress went on to star in the hit, live-action remake of Cinderella (2015), which grossed $200 million in the United States and over a half-billion worldwide. There was some controversy surrounding the poster for Cinderella and accusations that it was digitally manipulated to make her waist smaller. It doesn't take away from her beauty either way.


14. JOHN KRASINSKI - he was the only good thing in Cameron Crowe's Aloha. He didn't speak a single word in that movie, but with just a great physical presence, he came across as funnier and more interesting than Bradley Cooper. In fact, in one scene, he makes Cooper look small and less sexy by doing nothing more than towering over him.


13. HAYLEY ATWELL - she first appeared in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream (2007). She was in the remake of Brideshead Revisited (2008) but won more acclaim for her role that same year in The Duchess. She went on to co-star in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), which has made her one of Marvel's go-to girls. She did a very intriguing episode of the British series Black Mirror, but this year, she got her own series Agent Carter.


12. ZACHARY QUINTO - some people might have first seen him in the third season of 24. I first remember him from the short-lived So Notorious in 2006. His breakout role was as Sylar in NBC's Heroes. His biggest role is playing Spock in the film reboot of Star Trek (2009). He won a Spirit Award for producing Margin Call in 2012. He received an Emmy nomination for American Horror Story in 2013. However, 2015 might just be Quinto's busiest year. He appeared in three TV shows, The Slap on NBC, Girls on HBO and Hannibal on NBC. He's also set to appear in three films. I Am Michael premiered at Sundance. Hitman: Agent 47 is set for a late summer release. Oliver Stone's Snowden is set to be released on Christmas. The Slap and I Am Michael in particular show how sexy an actor he can be.


11. KARLA MOSLEY - she started on Guiding Light, establishing herself as a soap star. She solidified her status when she joined the cast of The Bold and the Beautiful in 2013. She had done some TV before and a lot of theater. She can also sing, but her role on the CBS show has probably been the most monumental. Her character of Maya Avant recently was revealed to be transgender, which marks the first-time for such a character on daytime TV.


10. MIGUEL ÁNGEL SILVESTRE - he's the Spanish actor who co-stars in Netflix's Sense8, a TV series with a very good-looking cast but his character in particular is known for his sexiness and he delivers that in spades.


9. GINA RODRIGUEZ - the Puerto Rican actress from Chicago first impressed me in the independent film Filly Brown. Her absolute breakout role was this past year on the critically-acclaimed comedy, the CW's Jane the Virgin. The love for her actually started before her TV show premiered. In July 2014, she made quite the impression to the press. In an article on HitFix, reporter Geoff Bershire said, "When you can charm a room full of grouchy, sleep-deprived critics at the 2014 TCA summer press tour -- as Rodriguez did, with ease -- you can probably win over the world."


8. DANIEL FRANZESE - he's been in over a dozen films, starting with 2001's Bully. His most famous role was playing Damian, a gay high school kid in the hit movie Mean Girls in 2004. Yet, it wasn't until ten years later that he would himself come out as gay. He's done a couple of hilarious music videos, but he was notably cast in the second season of HBO's Looking in which earlier this year he had his first ever same-sex kiss and full-frontal nude scene, proving that any body type can be sexy and in fact be the sexiest character on a show with younger, more muscular men.


7. ALICIA VIKANDER - she's a 26-year-old, Swedish girl who's best known for doing period pieces like A Royal Affair and Anna Karenina. She even has two this year. One that's already out called Testament of Youth and one that's coming out later in the year called The Danish Girl, which has some early Oscar buzz. Yet, most may know her from the sci-fi flick she just did called Ex Machina. More are probably going to know her from the potential summer blockbuster from Guy Ritchie, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.


6. CHRISTOPHER SEAN - he's Japanese-American. He's lovingly what some would call a soap stud. He's built like a Greek statue. His upper body and torso are chiseled perfection. His eyes are magnetic and his smile could charm the pants off anyone. He's currently the "it boy" on the NBC series Days of Our Lives, but he's also had an interesting re-occurring role on CBS' Hawaii Five-0.


5. ELIZABETH BANKS - she directed her first feature film Pitch Perfect 2 and it opened as a #1 film with $69 million and it has now gone on to gross nearly $300 million worldwide, whereas the first only grossed $115 million worldwide. She also gives an Oscar-worthy performance in the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, but in addition to all of that, she also did an episode of Modern Family this year. She'll reprise her cult film role in the Netflix adaptation Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp and she also appears in Magic Mike XXL and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 coming out later this year.


4. CONSTANCE WU - she stars as Jessica Huang, the mother of famed chef Eddie Huang before he became a famed chef in the ABC series Fresh Off the Boat. She is not only beautiful but also a fantastic actress who owns the role. In fact, she's the only reason that I kept watching the series.


3. SCOTT EASTWOOD - he's the son of Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood and is a dead-ringer for his father when he was younger. If anything, his son is actually better-looking. He's popped up in his dad's most recent films. He had a lead in an indie film back in 2011, but his first lead in a major motion picture was this year in The Longest Ride, a Nicholas Sparks adaptation whose advertising was all about how hot this 29-year-old is, and who could disagree?


2. JUSSIE SMOLLETT - he started out as a child actor at the age 9 appearing in The Mighty Ducks (1992). He co-starred with his fellow siblings in the ABC sitcom On Our Own. He didn't really do anything of note for nearly 20 years until he resurfaced as the lead in the LGBT film The Skinny in which he also sang on the soundtrack. He did brief guest spots on two other TV shows before landing the role of Jamal in the monster hit series on FOX called Empire. The show broke several ratings records and is probably the most successful new series of 2015. When he performed on The View, Raven Symone proclaimed him to be "America's boyfriend."


1. TARAJI P. HENSON - she made a mark on the screen first in John Singleton's Baby Boy (2001). She did a lot of television, but she co-starred with Terrence Howard in the Oscar-winning Hustle & Flow (2005). She received the first Oscar nomination for herself in David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). She did four seasons on CBS' Person of Interest. However, the TV role that has been more of a smash is her starring role on Empire as Cookie, the hot-as-fire matriarch who wants a piece of the company and a relationship with her sons.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

TV Review - Nightingale

David Oyelowo (Selma and Lee Daniels' The Butler) stars as Peter Snowden, an army vet who lives at home with his mother. He becomes obsessed with meeting up with an old friend he knew while serving in the military. It's similar to the film Locke starring Tom Hardy in that the whole thing takes place in one confined space and Oyelowo is the only actor who is seen on screen. The voices of others are heard like in Locke when the titular character talks on the phone, but he's the only one seen on screen.

My problem with Locke is that I didn't see the point and I didn't get the character. I certainly didn't like the character. Here, I'm more intrigued with Oyelowo's character, even when he's doing despicable or highly unlikeable things. I also think Oyelowo's performance is better in part because he gets to play a wider array of emotions and gets more to do. The constraints of the premise of Locke limited it but still.

Directed by Elliott Lester, the look of the film is also intriguing. The movie feels like it's taking place in the past like the 1980's or 90's. This is mainly due to the production design inside Peter's house. The clothing and objects are almost anachronistic. It's like the recent horror film It Follows in that regard. However, one piece of technology snaps us into the present or future.

There's a TV series called Bates Motel, which has the actor Freddie Highmore doing an interpretation or version of Anthony Perkins' character Norman Bates from Psycho. Yet, Oyelowo does one better than Highmore and comes across as more Norman Bates than either. It's also interesting to think of Peter as possibly being gay.

That might not be the case, but Oyelowo's performance is so great that much of the fun is watching it and watching it again, while trying to deconstruct Peter's words and actions. Every movement and even the way Oyelowo holds his body are all just amazing choices. His is a performance that should get an Emmy nomination for Best Actor.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-14-DLV.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 22 mins.
Available on HBO.

TV Review - Unreal

Shiri Appleby (left) and Josh Kelly in 'UnREAL'
Shiri Appleby (Roswell and ER) stars as Rachel Goldberg, a TV producer on a dating and reality show called "Everlasting," which is a version of ABC's The Bachelor. Written by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, this show is a cynical look at what goes on behind-the-scenes of a program like The Bachelor. Rachel, for example, is very manipulative and will lie to people in order to get them to behave the way she wants on camera for what will get good ratings.

Constance Zimmer (House of Cards and Grey's Anatomy) co-stars as Quinn, the show-runner and executive producer who is Rachel's boss. She is the queen of manipulation. Actually, she doesn't do much of the groundwork. She instead barks orders from the control room where she monitors all the cameras and the footage. On the Firewall & Iceberg podcast, Quinn was called the female Ari Gold, referring to the character who was her husband on Entourage.

Quinn wants to push extreme stereotypes and over-the-top fights. She wants manufactured drama. It goes beyond what other reality shows do, which is intentionally cast people with opposite and strong personalities whom you think will clash, and then supplying them with tons and tons of alcohol and sitting back while the sparks fly. Quinn wants Rachel and all the other producers to be more puppet-master than that.

Regardless of the truthfulness, none of this is believable, which could be fine, as it could aim for satire, but, at the same time, none of the characters are likeable. It reaches its limit of bad people doing bad things pretty early and there is no one to bring it down.

Freddie Stroma (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Pitch Perfect) plays Adam Cromwell who is the absolute worst. He's the 29-year-old, British hunk who is "the suitor," the equivalent of the guy who is "the bachelor." He has to date a group of women and week-to-week eliminate them until he finds someone whom he wants to marry. In reality, the process doesn't work and has been proven to be a farce, but any shred of sincerity or genuineness is completely burned away in this series.

Adam is not in this for love. He's mainly in it to build publicity for his waning business. For him, it's shameless self-promotion. He also pretty much proves himself to be a whore, literally a whore in Episode 4. It's gross and disgusting. The women whom he allegedly dates are shown to be not much better.

I get the point here. Reality TV doesn't have anything to do with reality or how people actually behave. Everyone involved puts on an act for self-aggrandizing or some selfish purpose other than just sheer, human connection or compassion. The problem is that I don't buy it. Plus, it's too oppressive to be bombarded with it. Even in House of Cards, there are people or characters who push back or against the cynicism. This show just revels in it.

One Star out of Five.
Rated TV-MA-LS.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Mondays at 10PM on Lifetime.

Monday, June 29, 2015

TV Review - Whitney

Oscar-nominee Angela Bassett worked with and befriended Whitney Houston, one of the greatest and best-selling, R&B singers who ever lived, during the film Waiting to Exhale (1995). There is perhaps no one more qualified to do a biopic on Houston. Sadly, this teleplay by Shem Bitterman is not about Houston per se. It's more about Bobby Brown, the former boy band member and her on-again-off-again husband. Yes, arguably, the movie is specifically about the relationship between the two of them, but the movie pivots, so that it's no longer balanced and it becomes more about his experience and his perception of her.

In fact, the first of five, full, musical performances is that of Bobby Brown, played by Arlen Escarpeta, doing "Every Little Step" at the Soul Train Awards in 1989. In actuality, the real-life Bobby Brown did the song "My Perogative" at that awards show. Escarpeta's outfit and even dance-moves match Brown's actual performance. The only difference is the choice of song. The reason for the difference is probably because "My Perogative" is more of a song about doing whatever he wants despite what people say, whereas "Every Little Step" is more of a romantic song.

Yet, we're meant to be impressed with the sexy and smooth performer as is Whitney Houston, played by Yaya DaCosta (Lee Daniels' The Butler and Mother of George), and we are. Escarpeta owns the role in that moment and immediately thereafter. You get why she would fall in love with him. It helps that Arlen Escarpeta is far better-looking than the real Bobby Brown at that time.

DaCosta is fine as the stand-in for Houston. She emotes on stage with conviction and does some mean lip-sync. Real-life, R&B singer Deborah Cox recreates the voice of Houston and does a pretty knockout job. What DaCosta does mainly is try to fill in the time in between the musical numbers. The intriguing bits include this clash that Whitney's mom, Cissy makes. Cissy is played by Suzzanne Douglas (Jason's Lyric and How Stella Got Her Groove Back), and Cissy calls Bobby a bad influence or ghetto trash essentially.

Yet, Bitterman's script or Bassett's direction doesn't really make us feel that bad boy or ghetto side of him. There's a little bit thrown in at the end, but when Cissy objects to Bobby as a boyfriend and potential husband, it makes no sense or it doesn't resonate. It's not clear where she's coming from. One clear example is that early Whitney offers Bobby some drugs and he turns her down. He's honest with her. He says he loves her. He wants to be serious and make a commitment but she pushes him away.

Yes, in real-life Brown was a bad boy who split from New Edition, the band he was in, and he had two babies by two different women and ran around with guys on the streets with guns, but again, Bitterman's script or Bassett's direction doesn't allow us to see or truly feel that. We're told that by Cissy, but the movie never truly realizes it. For the most part, Bobby is a sweet guy who is desperately in love who in the end makes a mistake but is hardly the threat Cissy says.

Perhaps, this is the point. In real-life, Brown has been demonized. People in fact blamed him for Houston's death, which was of an overdose. He was blamed for exposing her to drugs or the drug-using lifestyle. This movie would seem to suggest that he didn't expose her to anything that she didn't already have. If anything, this film is a rebuttal and seeks to redeem Bobby Brown, which is fine, but the question then becomes, if Bobby didn't give Whitney those drugs, where did she get them from? It's an obvious question that this film doesn't even think about approaching.

Reign Morton does a good imitation of Eddie Murphy in his one scene. I like Wesley Jonathan but he's perhaps miscast as Babyface, though Mark Rolston as Clive Davis seems spot on. The real hero, however, is Deborah Cox as the voice of Whitney Houston when performing her iconic songs. We hear her recreate "Greatest Love of All" as well as "I Will Always Love You" and she nails it, almost perfectly.

Bassett directs the musical numbers with just DaCosta on stage, which is fine because the voice is the true wonder. However, Bassett attempts something different with the performance of "I'm Every Woman." Bassett cuts back-and-forth of DaCosta in various outfits, giving the idea of the multiple times that Whitney had to do that song and have the same energy and vocals. This is also fine, but it seemed like a missed opportunity to cut away to Houston's real-life so we can see her being every woman, as the song says.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-14.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 28 mins.
Aired on Lifetime.

TV Review - Bessie

Dee Rees directed Pariah, an independent film about a young, black girl who comes to terms with her lesbian identity. It's not surprising why Rees was chosen to helm this biopic about Bessie Smith. Bessie was a blues singer whom we meet early in her career in Atlanta 1913. She's doing a stage musical, but the following morning, she wakes up with not a man in her bed but instead a woman. Yes, it's revealed that Bessie had some lesbian tendencies. However, this film is not an exploration of sexuality. Bessie's lesbian side isn't even treated as much of an issue. In fact, most people in the film accept it without question.

Queen Latifah stars as Bessie Smith. Latifah was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Chicago, but the majority of her roles on the big screen have been musical, broad or comedic. It's only been on television that she's been doing more dramatic pieces like Life Support (2007), which was probably her best role, and Steel Magnolias (2012). This is Latifah perhaps at her most vulnerable, literally letting all of herself be exposed.

Last year, Viola Davis made headlines when she did a scene in her hit TV series How to Get Away with Murder where her character removed her wig and makeup, revealing her natural self in an intimate moment in the mirror. It's the kind of image that one rarely sees on television, a black woman with no artifice, just her natural self, bare to the world.

Here, Latifah takes it a step further. Her character doesn't just remove a wig and makeup. Her character goes completely nude and stares at herself in the mirror. It comes at a crucial time when Bessie after being at the height of her fame and power starts to lose everything. She then has to look at herself, all of herself, naked and bare to the world, contemplating who she is and what's important. It's a powerful moment beyond the nudity aspect.

Co-written by Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois, the film charts the typical rise and fall that we've come to expect in many stories about musicians. Stories about musicians are so formulaic that VH-1 was even able to make a TV series out of that formula called Behind the Music. The E! True Hollywood Story abides by the same formula. At least, in this case, Bessie isn't taken down by her own addictions or vices, which is normally the case. She isn't taken down by racism either, which would have been an obvious route. She's taken down by what generally took down all, and that was the Great Depression.

Therefore, we simply have to delight in particular moments or passages in Bessie's life, since the whole thing never really congeals to a whole where we're left with one over-arching idea or message. The only real takeaway would simply be the fact that there was this amazing black woman who was talented and successful, but she didn't fit the archetypes of beauty that society has today. She was dark-skinned and seemed to want to promote that. She was also not skinny but didn't let that stop her.

Oscar-winner Mo'Nique (Precious and Blackbird) co-stars as Ma Rainey, one of the first blues singers to get a recording contract. Bessie seemed to pattern herself and her career after Ma Rainey who became like a mother figure to Bessie. Ma Rainey became somewhat jealous of Bessie when she started to rocket upward in appeal and fame. Yet, they remained good friends. They experienced ups and downs together, and some of the best scenes in this movie are between Mo'Nique and Latifah.

However, there are a lot of great scenes with a lot of great actors. Michael K. Williams (The Wire) plays Jack Gee, the first husband of Bessie. He becomes her manager as well as her man, understanding of her bisexuality. Tory Kittles (True Detective) plays Clarence, her brother who becomes jealous of Jack Gee who takes control of Bessie's career, pushing him aside. Khandi Alexander (CSI: Miami and Treme) plays Viola, her sister who is very resentful and sly.

A surprising performance came from Mike Epps who plays Richard, the second "husband" to Bessie. Epps in real-life is a stand-up comic who normally plays the comic relief or the wise-cracking sidekick in many films. His most serious role was probably in Sparkle (2012) where he got to play a villain. Here, however, he sheds all that and he believably becomes a romantic lead. He's not being funny or silly. He's being seriously sexy and it works. He makes you believe why Bessie or anyone would be drawn to him. He's sweet and loving and again very sexy.

The movie in fact ends on a romantic and hopeful note between Bessie and Richard. It almost makes you think that Bessie and Richard lived happily ever after. This is of course not the case. I understand why Rees probably didn't want to end on a downer, but depicting Bessie's true end could have been interesting being that there's controversy surrounding it. Tika Sumpter is also beautiful but wasted in this film as Bessie's girlfriend on the side.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA-LSV.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 52 mins.
Available on HBO.