“Love”

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Most TV shows that face the subject of love head-on tend to take a formulaic route: boy-meets-girl premise, simplistic supporting characters, romantic setting, some sort of conflict and resolution, etc. It’s a rather broad and touchy topic that has been recycled over and over again for years in pop culture. But who says love doesn’t still contain some artistic merit? For Netflix’s newest original series “Love,” all those clichés about love, romance and relationships are thrown out the window for a practical, grounded perspective on every aspect of the show’s namesake.       

Despite its grating, generic-sounding name, “Love” is a down-to-earth, charming comedy bolstered by strong writing, two standout leads and a stinging sense of realism. Set in L.A. (my hometown), the story follows two thirty-somethings, the socially awkward Gus (Paul Rust, “I Love You Beth Cooper”) and the aimless Mickey (Gillian Jacobs, “Life Partners”), and their developing relationship from strangers to friends to possibly more than friends. Through awkward dates, revealing confrontations between exes and other romantic and sexual misadventures, Gus and Mickey successfully and hilariously guide the show’s exploration of relationships and male and female outlooks on modern love.

Executive produced by “Trainwreck” and “Knocked Up” director Judd Apatow, “Love” is exactly what you would expect from an Apatow production: risqué and vulgar, yet full of poignancy and heart. It isn’t always laugh-out-loud funny, but for those who enjoy observational humor within the underpinnings of day-to-day conversations or physical cringe comedy, “Love” is the perfect show to watch. With a UCB pedigree, Rust masterfully embodies the nerdy Midwestern nice guy archetype as Gus, but his character’s deep-seated aggression and disappointment with life’s constant downfalls elevates Rust’s acting. Having been on six seasons of the NBC-turned-Yahoo! cult hit “Community,” Jacobs effortlessly delivers as Mickey, transcending the well-worn high-functioning alcoholic archetype through a subversive, passionate performance.

Though its first season is only 10 episodes, “Love” is steadily paced, the characters and plotlines unraveling gradually with each episode (Mickey and Gus don’t even meet until the end of the first episode). One of “Love” ’s greatest strengths is making sharp examinations on the ecstatic highs and destructive lows of human interaction through its protagonists’ points of view. The third episode, “Tested,” finds Gus having trouble with his job as an on-set teacher tutoring a bratty young TV actress (Iris Apatow, “This is 40”), while Mickey has sex with her boss, radio host Dr. Greg Colter (Brett Gelman, “Another Period”) to avoid getting fired. “Party in the Hills” depicts Gus and Mickey having different experiences at the same party, with Gus spontaneously jamming out with a few hipster dads to Paul McCartney & Wings’s “Jet,” and Mickey tackling an uncomfortable situation with two former beaus (stand-up comedian Kyle Kinane and Rich Sommer, “Mad Men”). In “The Date,” Mickey stays home and does whatever she can to avoid drinking again after going sober, while Gus and Mickey’s perky Aussie roommate Bertie (the winning Claudia O’Doherty, “Trainwreck”) go out on a date that twists and turns into an unexpected outcome.

In addition to a tongue-in-cheek title sequence and an eclectic soundtrack that includes Queen, Jamie xx, Diane Coffee and Biz Markie, “Love” is stylistically on-point. As a native of Los Angeles, I can definitely say that the cinematography in “Love” does a fantastic job of encapsulating both the beauty and energizing nightlife of the city, from the hipster-friendliness of Echo Park to the laid-back hive of Silver Lake. It’s typical to just display West Hollywood or Beverly Hills, but “Love” unearths some hidden spots in the L.A. backdrop, which only adds to the visual and emotional experience of watching the show.

“Love” isn’t necessarily about falling in love or finding love, but about human connection and interaction in the realest, rawest sense. The show doesn’t romanticize or glamorize love; it simply shows the complicated, troubled and occasionally amusing nature intertwined within the context of love, whether it’s dealing with a breakup from a long-term relationship, a toxic attachment to an old lover or throwing out a collection of Blu-Ray DVDs to signify the media’s distorted idea of what love really is.

Grade: A-

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Why “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” Will Remain Kanye West’s Best Work

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When Kanye West’s newest record The Life of Pablo was temporarily dubbed Waves, West claimed that it was not only the album of the year, but also the “album of life.” While The Life of Pablo is certainly promising, both in its sonic scope and sprawling ambition, there is nothing that Kanye can create at this point that comes close to the greatness of his magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

In addition to being one of the best hip-hop records of the 21st century, MBDTF established Kanye at the peak of his career. Sure, he had already accumulated a large amount of controversy, from impulsively denouncing George W. Bush on live TV to his infamous interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs. But personal fits aside, Kanye was evolving as a musician and aesthetic artist and MBDTF is clear proof of that.

Before the album was released in late 2010, West had been known to mess around with hip-hop conventions. He imbued Southern soul in his 2004 debut The College Dropout, string-oriented pop in 2005’s Late Registration, U2-inspired electronica in 2007’s Graduation and Auto-Tuned melancholy in 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak. But with MBDTF, Kanye stripped down every single element of hip hop to its core and built up an elaborate, operatic and genre-blending album. No longer was Kanye just an ordinary rapper with clever lyrics and infectious beats. Kanye had reached GOAT-level, and he knew it.

In some respects, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy can be considered a near-perfect album. From its jaw-dropping guest list to its socially conscious themes, MBDTF saw Kanye at his most vulnerable, most inspired and most creative. “Power” and “Runaway,” in particular, hold a special significance for how they made the record so remarkable. The former is both a snarling diss track and self-loathing anthem about the issues of excess and celebrity; the latter is an epic “toast to the douchebags” (aka the media), in which Kanye accepts his faults and his past failed relationships. Both songs were powerful, exemplary and cathartic expressions that gave listeners a deeper glimpse into Kanye’s mad genius and incisive thoughts on society. Kanye managed to take the negative perception he received from the public and used it to create a modern day masterpiece. Even though he can be a problematic figure at times, there’s no denying that Kanye possesses an unprecedented gift for developing catchy and thought-provoking music.

MBDTF is quite like nothing Kanye — or any hip hop artist, for that matter — has ever done, or will ever do. With the theatrical opener “Dark Fantasy,” the gospel-tinged “Devil in a New Dress,” the demonically raunchy “Hell of a Life” or the seething rage of the star-studded “Monster,” it’s hard to find a single flaw in MBDTF. Plus, is there anything as witty and guffaw-inducing as the line “Have you ever had a sex with a pharaoh?/Put the pussy in the sarcophagus”? The manic, jubilant “All of the Lights” also showed that Kanye is the only artist ever who can put Fergie, Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Elton John and Alicia Keys on the same song. The Aphex Twin-sampling “Blame Game” dealt with tragedy and comedy, with John Legend singing a mournful hook while Chris Rock leaves a hysterically vulgar voicemail. Even the album’s bonus track, “See Me Now,” made for an extra treat as a breathtaking finale that included welcome features from Beyoncé, Charlie Wilson and Big Sean.

As one of my favorite albums, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has held personal significance for me. I used “Power” in a high school film essay on William Golding’s novel “Lord of the Flies;” I’ve rapped “Monster” with my best friend from back home several times; I watched the premiere of the “Runaway” music video on MTV in its entirety; I listened to the whole album track-by-track with my sister on a plane ride. Without a doubt, Kanye has continued, and will continue, to reach for new heights in his music. Yet his latest work, while fantastic, doesn’t contain as much of the same gratification as MBDTF did. 2013’s incredible Yeezus saw Kanye experimenting with newer genres and exploring the darker depths of hip-hop, but its meager 10 tracks and divisive reception distilled the album. This year’s The Life of Pablo is already garnering both acclaim and reservation, in that it’s both extraordinary and messy. Kanye may receive 100 Grammys one day, but there’s no denying that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy will remain Kanye’s best, most accomplished, and most iconic record.

 

“American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson”

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Along with the multitude of other shows Ryan Murphy is producing at the moment, “American Crime Story” is an anthology series that acts as a companion piece to Murphy’s other popular FX show “American Horror Story.” For its first season, “American Crime Story” takes the audience back to the 1990s, more specifically the 1994 trial of football star and actor O.J. Simpson. Arguably one of the most notorious trials in recent history, the O.J. Simpson case and its non-guilty verdict still resonates with people to this day. This is an event that divided an entire nation, that the media made a huge spectacle of and that many already know the outcome of. But with daring camerawork, intelligent writing and spectacular acting from a talented cast, “American Crime Story” is already setting standards for gritty television drama.

The show’s opener “From the Ashes of Tragedy” thrusts the audience into the story of O.J.’s trial, moving swiftly from one sequence to the next. It opens on a rather dour but relevant note: archival footage of the Rodney King beating and the subsequent 1992 L.A. riots. Since the Rodney King trial cultivated ripple effects that impacted O.J. Simpson’s case, the parallelism between the two is significant not just as a commentary about race, class and culture clash, but about America itself. While it is only the first episode, “From the Ashes of Tragedy” covers a lot of fascinating material, from the cops finding Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman’s dead bodies in front of Brown’s condo to O.J.’s suicidal behavior.

Cuba Gooding Jr. delivers an emotionally stirring performance as the season’s titular character, probably his best since his Oscar-winning role in the 1996 sports drama “Jerry Maguire.” Though he looks and sounds nothing like his real-life counterpart, Gooding Jr. emulates O.J.’s charisma, aggressiveness, pill-popping habits and despair during the most devastating moment of his life. David Schwimmer (“Friends”) does his best in conveying Robert Kardashian, one of O.J.’s closest friends, despite somewhat whitewashing the role (Robert Kardashian was half-Armenian). University alum Selma Blair (“Legally Blonde”) also makes a powerful impression as Kardashian’s ex-wife and current reality show gem Kris Jenner, evoking both Jenner’s physical features and personality. Though John Travolta (“Wild Hogs”) matches the mannerisms of O.J.’s confidant and defense lawyer Robert Shapiro, he falters slightly by giving an exaggerated caricature of Shapiro’s character rather than a three-dimensional portrayal.

On the other side of the O.J. case is Marcia Clark, played devilishly by “American Horror Story” favorite Sarah Paulson. In addition to Paulson, the show’s best performance comes from Courtney B. Vance (“Joyful Noise”) as Johnnie Cochran, a TV personality and integral lawyer in O.J.’s defense and criminal acquittal. In the brief moments he appears in the episode, Vance steals every scene he’s in with his gripping presence and says some of the episode’s best lines. During one tense scene between Cochran and his co-worker and ultimate rival Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown, “Supernatural”), Vance chillingly utters, “The world needs more black men willing to make a difference.” Amen to that.

The behind-the-scenes craft of “American Crime Story” is almost as good, if not better than the the show’s actual depiction of events on-screen. Screenwriting duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“Goosebumps”) write some powerful dialogue, while executive producer Ryan Murphy directs the episode with exceptional skill. The cinematography is well-executed and immersive, with the camera capturing some fantastic close-ups and wide shots. Interestingly enough, two specific shots give some insight into O.J.’s moral ambiguity: both show the backside of O.J., the first being when O.J. discovers the death of his ex-wife over the phone and the second being when O.J. stands over her body at her funeral. We understand O.J.’s pain and suffering, but showing only his back clearly shows some of his character’s restraint and uncertainty. It’s as agonizing and frustrating as one would expect when thinking about the ethical dilemmas imbued in the O.J. trial. The episode’s very last scene — O.J. escaping from the cops in a white Ford Bronco that would lead to an infamous chase on the freeway — makes it all the more haunting, especially with Nina Simone’s “I Shall Be Released” scoring the final seconds.

It’s unfortunate that the deeply rooted issues within the O.J. Simpson trial still exist today. The show poses tough questions about the case (the most important being, did O.J. really do it?) — and doesn’t give many answers. But luckily, what “American Crime Story” has done, and will most likely continue to do, is highlight the case as a way of engaging viewers in having an honest conversation about what’s going on in our society, whether it’s about issues of race, class, fame or America as a whole.

Grade: A-

DIIV’s “Is The Is Are”

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As a relatively new band, DIIV still has some time to figure out their approach to music. After an entrancing debut, 2012’s Oshin, the Brooklyn outfit cemented their style as an eclectic cross between shoegaze (My Bloody Valentine), grunge (Nirvana), and modern surf rock (Mac DeMarco, Real Estate). Despite looking like most indie rock groups trying to make it into the music industry, DIIV’s mellow and pleasant sound is oddly refreshing to listen to, especially with tracks “Sometime,” “Follow” and most notably “How Long Have You Known.”

With their newest record, the awkwardly titled Is The Is Are, DIIV disconnects from their multi-genre roots and instead plugs into a simpler, more relaxed sound. But by attempting to deconstruct their composed and nuanced music into something very laid-back, the group ends up creating a banal, hour-long record that moves at a gratingly slow pace. The album’s 17 songs all contain similar elements: a mid-tempo beat, glimmers of guitar screeches and reverbs, soft vocals and a general feeling of drug-induced numbness. And while it all sounds nice, Is the Is Are doesn’t take any risks nor does it break any boundaries.

Though the first few tracks radiate some potential, the majority of the record squanders any possibility for something to pop out. The enchanting “Out of Mind” opens Is The Is Are, followed by the chill “Under the Sun.” But by the third song, the droning “Bent (Roi’s Song),” the album starts to tire — and there’s still about 50 minutes left.

The rest of Is The Is Are is a rather hypnotic mess; there are moments when DIIV can sound captivating, but it’s easy to tune them out. “Take Your Time,” “Yr Not Far,” “Healthy Moon” and “Loose Ends” are some such examples: their languid speed and faint instrumentals make for good vibes, but not much else. Additionally, the dark and hollow “Mire (Grant’s Song)” is fairly reminiscent of Nirvana, yet it stands out not for its familiarity, but how much it grossly contrasts against DIIV’s own sweet-sounding musical palette.

On the other hand, Is The Is Are contains some highlights, particularly the drugged-out romance ballad “Blue Boredom.” Though DIIV frontman Zachary Smith doesn’t sing on “Blue Boredom,” he gives his girlfriend and indie rock enchantress Sky Ferreira the lead, her breathy vocals energizing the drowned-out production. The title track provides some much needed escapism, even though the album has already done a pretty good job of that; the dazzling, 17-second interlude “(Fuck)” sounds like a song waiting to be finished; and the poignant, multi-layered album closer “Wasted Breath” gives a solid ending to an otherwise drab record.   

While these songs are decently written and well-produced, they just don’t have the vitality nor the gravitas that Oshin displayed. It’s even difficult to hone and comprehend the lyrics, as Smith’s benign vocals are buried under several strands of noise. Perhaps the album’s lack of effort and creative sparkle can be traced back to the actual recording process. DIIV began work on Is The Is Are a year after Oshin’s release but ran into some delays for a variety of unfortunate reasons: failed sessions with Chet “JR” White of the defunct indie rock group Girls; Smith’s drug addiction and arrest; controversial online remarks regarding bass guitarist Devin Ruben Perez; the departure of the band’s drummer Colby Hewitt due to his alleged drug addiction. Even with all that mind, it’s disappointing that Is the Is Are offers nothing new for DIIV or their listeners. Instead of propelling to greater musical and thematic heights, the members of DIIV just kind of sit in place, not really sure of where they want to go.

Grade: C+

 

Sia’s “This is Acting”

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Even after a nearly 20-year long music career, Sia Furler is just starting to become a pop sensation. Before she released her first successful solo hit “Chandelier” and concealed her face from the public with her signature black-and-blonde wig, Sia was just a indie songstress, writing tracks for Christina Aguilera and singing lead vocals for acid jazz outfit Zero 7. She had released five solo records, two of which made the U.S. Billboard 200 but failed to reach notoriety. However, her sixth album, 2014’s underrated, chart-topping 1000 Forms of Fear, paved the way for Sia not just as a songwriter but as an experienced musician making her way to the top. With her newest record This is Acting, Sia is embracing this newfound superstardom while retaining her deft songwriting abilities with 12 vigorous tracks.

Many of the tracks off This is Acting were intended for other musicians, but Sia hones her groundbreaking vocals and maximalist production to transform each song as if it were her own. 1000 Forms of Fear reflected the pain and loneliness of Sia’s past experiences with depression, alcoholism and drug abuse. In contrast, This is Acting boasts an overarching optimism that sounds both authentic and liberating. On the piano-laden opener “Bird Set Free,” Sia howls, “And I don’t care if I sing off key / I find myself in my melodies.” It’s sounds corny, sure, but with the Australian singer’s impeccable vocal range, it’s impossible to not get chills. The record’s recurring theme of persistence against adversity continues in “Alive,” another spine-tingling ballad and “Unstoppable,” an empowering confidence booster perfect for exercising at the gym or a random dance party in your bedroom.

Kelly Clarkson collaborator and renowned pop producer Greg Kurstin provides the infectious beats of the ecstatic “Move Your Body,” the dancehall-infused “Cheap Thrills” and the hip-hop heavy “Sweet Design” — arguably the album’s strongest track. Of course, there are some bumps in the road, particularly with the middling throwaway “Footprints” and the sluggish “One Million Bullets,” which ironically was the only song on This is Acting not intended for another artist. Yet even on songs that fall flat, Sia manages to add some flavor using her powerhouse of a voice. “Reaper” suffers from being a formulaic ballad, but regains some energy through Kanye West’s production. The synth-pop jam “House on Fire” is lukewarm, until Sia soars when the chorus hits and the production switches from tepid to sparkly. The heart-wrenching penultimate track “Broken Glass” starts out bland, but Sia’s two powerful key changes save the song from sounding stationary. Sia briefly returns to a place of brokenness and despair on the album closer “Space Between.” But instead of regressing into pessimism, Sia sounds more emancipated than ever.

It’s interesting to think about what these songs could have sounded like had they been recorded by their original performers. “Bird Set Free” had been rejected three times, first by “Pitch Perfect 2” producers (who favored Jessie J’s anthem “Flashlight”), then by Rihanna and finally by Adele. “Alive” was also initially intended for Adele’s 25, but didn’t make the cut, even though Sia co-wrote the song with Adele and indie pop artist Tobias Jesso Jr. Rihanna also rejected “Cheap Thrills” and “Reaper.” Some sources speculated “Unstoppable” was meant for Demi Lovato’s Confident, another pop record that, like Sia’s, channeled happiness and buoyancy in efforts of escaping past negative experiences. Regardless of how these songs could have sounded, Sia crafts This is Acting so meticulously and effortlessly that you forget about what could have been.

With the right balance of electric club bangers and poignant power ballads, This is Acting hits the ground running at lightspeed and doesn’t stop until the very end. For those who think Sia had reached her peak with “Chandelier,” you could not be more wrong. At 40 years old, Sia is just getting started, and This is Acting proves that she still has some tricks up her sleeve.

Grade: B+