“Time Traveling Bong”

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Sci-fi and stoners have a funny relationship together. Perhaps it’s because the surreal visuals of the sci-fi genre cater towards consumers of THC. But it’s also possible that the heightened reality of science fiction movies and TV shows provides viewers with an immersive, trippy adventure, especially if time and space travel are involved. What’s even more fascinating is when stoners and sci-fi combine to form a truly psychedelic and hilarious experience. Comedy Central’s three-part special  “Time Traveling Bong” takes the mixed subgenre of sci-fi stoner comedy a step further, showing that you can learn a lot about the past by simply being in it.    

“Time Traveling Bong” is as kooky and silly as you would expect and bears a similar plot to other time-traveling stoner comedies like “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Hot Tub Time Machine.” But thanks to the comedic chemistry of its starring “Broad City” leads Ilana Glazer and Paul W. Downs and their socially conscious writing (helped by Downs’ wife Lucia Aniello), “Time Traveling Bong” develops into something much smarter to compensate for its complete ridiculousness.

After weed-loving slacker cousins Sharee and Jeff (Glazer and Downs) find and smoke from a mysterious glass water bong, they are transported into different periods of time, such as the Salem witch trials, the Stone Ages, the early 1960s and ancient Greece. The two explore these realms of history and relish in what each time period has to offer, only to later realize that they don’t actually like living in the past. Thus, they begin their quest to find their way home.

Because the special is separated into three different parts, each titled “The Beginning,” “The Middle” and “The End?,” it’s difficult to build character development in such a short amount of time. But “Time Traveling Bong” does its best to make Jeff and Sharee into grounded, albeit somewhat clueless, human beings.

Similar to Glazer’s “Broad City” persona, Sharee has an optimistic attitude while stuck in her time traveling, partaking in cavemen orgies and helping raise a young Michael Jackson in order to give him the childhood he never had. That being said, Sharee also faces some obstacles along the way, especially when she is immediately cast as a witch in 1600s Salem, while Jeff is praised by the townsfolk, oblivious to their blatant sexism. In addition to his role on “Broad City” and his recent stint on Netflix’s “The Characters,” Downs continues to showcase his funny side here in “Time Traveling Bong,” channeling Jeff as a nice-guy loser whose inability to ejaculate causes him sexual frustration and a sense of ineptitude. When he and Sharee are stuck in the Stone Ages, Jeff becomes so agitated and anxious from having rough intercourse with a few cavewomen that he regretfully asks his cousin, “Can you imagine how terrifying it is to be in a sexual situation where at any moment you could be overpowered?” That kind of comment adds onto the show’s satirical, thought-provoking commentary on the theme of women’s rights in history, which only continues to highlight the qualities of “Time Traveling Bong.”

Despite Downs and Glazer’s committed performances and the special’s unapologetic wackiness, “Time Traveling Bong” is slightly flawed in its execution. Each episode shows Sharee and Jeff’s attempt to fix the past in each era they enter, but they end up making things worse every time. After saving and transporting a few Southern slaves from 1800s to the 1960s, Sharee and Jeff understand that maybe it wasn’t the best decision, considering that Black civil rights were still not recognized. Then, the slaves are swept up by the American army and decide to go to Vietnam, making matters much worse for Sharee and Jeff. The two keep making the same mistakes without realizing the consequences, even if it’s for the greater good of humanity. Then again, this is a sci-fi stoner comedy.

Overall, “Time Traveling Bong” does a tremendous job of recreating the past, with the production design almost perfectly matching each period’s setting, politics and societal norms. Downs and Glazer seem like they’re having a good time with what they and Aniello have created, and considering their “Broad City” fan base, they don’t disappoint at all. Even with our society’s current tumultuous state, “Time Traveling Bong” makes the case that there really is nothing like the present.

Grade: B+

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M83’s “Junk”

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As both a musician and visual artist, M83 frontman Anthony Gonzalez makes his music sound as though it could be a movie or TV soundtrack. On 2011’s acclaimed double-album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Gonzalez demonstrated his love of Terrence Malik and Werner Herzog films by employing epic, stadium-ready jams to create the sensation of child-like wonder and innocence. His band’s latest record, Junk, draws inspiration from 1980s sitcoms, particularly “Punky Brewster and “Who’s the Boss”. And judging from Junk’s wacky album cover, Gonzalez shows that he isn’t afraid to move M83 into new directions.   

Though slightly uneven in its execution, Junk is M83’s weirdest, most ambitious and most experimental work to date. Similar to how Daft Punk revitalized ’70s culture on their Grammy-winning comeback record Random Access Memories, Gonzalez cherishes the soul and spirit of the ‘80s on Junk, transforming old-fashioned rhythms into modern pop songs. While appreciating a simpler time on American television, Junk also focuses on darker themes of existentialism and mortality. As Gonzalez stated in a press release, the album is about how everything we create will become “space junk,” a concept Gonzalez describes as both scary and fascinating. Junk certainly has a mystical, philosophical quality to it, which only adds onto the album’s daring scope.

Sonically, Junk doesn’t stray very much from M83’s grandiose electronic sound. There are still flourishes of saxophone solos, dizzying synthesizers and electric guitar breakdowns, but M83 goes a step further by utilizing New Wave and dance-pop influences. Though there may not be a song on Junk as massive as M83’s excellent “Midnight City,” there are several that come close. On the shimmering opener “Do It, Try It,” Gonzalez longs for love and connection over a glittery, video-game beat reminiscent of the 1982 sci-fi flick “Tron.” “Go!,” the catchiest track off Junk, is bolstered by Mai Lan’s breathy voice and renowned musician Steve Vai’s monumental guitar solo. The album’s longest song, “Solitude,” is a chilling meditation on the past backed by an orchestral instrumental. Beck provides a much needed assistance on the spacey “Time Wind,” a whirlwind of electric rock in the vein of Tears for Fears. The post-disco jingles “Walkway Blues” and “Bibi the Dog” each showcase Gonzalez’s range, the former throbbing with an atmospheric intensity and the latter operating as a fun, loose groove.  

Junk succeeds in capturing the ethos of ‘80s music, television and film, but it also delves into the sentimental and corny aspects of the three mediums with mixed results. The funky, string-heavy “Moon Crystal,” for example, is both captivating and confounding, especially since it sounds exactly like a mix between elevator muzak and a generic ’80s sitcom theme song. “For the Kids” is a dreary, mawkish slow jam that is fortunately enhanced by the beautiful vocals of Norwegian guest Susanne Sundfør. Similarly, “Atlantique Sud” suffers from an element of unflattering schmaltz, but Gonzalez and Lan’s mesmerizing French duet saves it from becoming too cloying. The two-minute interlude “Tension” also starts out with a syrupy guitar reverb, until Gonzalez lays down some tantalizing synths and transforms it into something awe-inspiring.  

Even with its overly romantic tendencies towards the past, Junk remains a grounded portrait of the importance and magic of art and its ability to last throughout generations. It’s definitely not M83’s most accomplished record, as it meanders between profound and sappy. But despite Junk’s imperfections, Gonzalez’s extraordinary vision shines through in the end.

Grade: B+

“American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson” Finale Review

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What a season it has been. “The Verdict,” the miniseries finale of “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” wrapped up an outstanding 10 episodes that covered almost every significant detail of the 1994 O.J. Simpson trial, from the invasive media coverage to the tense surrounding racial politics. Dramatizations and small inaccuracies aside, Ryan Murphy and Co. have built a masterful depiction of one of the most infamous cases of the 20th century. What’s even more impressive is how the show transformed “The Verdict” into a stellar, breathtaking ending, even when we already knew what the outcome was going to be.

Other than the actual verdict itself, the finale touches on several important aspects regarding the trial, particularly with the closing statements of prosecution duo Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson, “Carol”) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown, “Supernatural”) and defense attorney Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance, “Joyful Noise”). Considering how all three lawyers were able to develop compelling points for and against O.J. Simpson, it’s amazing to see how their arguments make the case even more complex. Additionally, it provides another showcase for Paulson, Brown and Vance’s consistently outstanding performances.

After the statements are finished, the remaining jury members are left to determine O.J.’s fate. The sequence of the trial’s ultimate decision between the jury is very telling of what the case is also really about: race. Following the horrific Rodney King beating and the subsequent 1992 L.A. riots, the O.J. trial divided both Black and white americans. In terms of the actual decision, this racial divide reigned true as well: the Black jury members all believe O.J. is innocent, while the two remaining white members think he is guilty. Whether or not this was actually what happened, it’s still very unnerving to watch. However, after only four hours until finalizing their decision, that’s where things get interesting.

The titular climax of “The Verdict” encompasses pretty much every reaction possible before, during and after O.J. is found not guilty for the murder against Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Thanks to some fantastic editing and clever use of archival footage, a split-screen displays the polarized response from the lawyers, the courtroom audience and those watching on TV screens around the country. The Black community is relieved and cheering in the streets, while the white community is in total disbelief and shock. Though the verdict didn’t incite a resurgence of the ‘92 riots, there’s no doubt that the trial left some tense residue among Americans.

Once the dust settles, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” captures some of the final glimpses of its characters, strengthened especially by the tremendous effort from Murphy’s direction and Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s writing. First, Darden and Cochran share a passive-aggressive exchange about the distortion of the truth behind the case and its lasting effect. Cochran believes Americans are finally recognizing Black civil rights, but Darden counters him, saying that “police in this country will keep arresting us, keep beating us, keep killing us” and tells him straightforwardly that Cochran hasn’t “changed anything for black people here.” This, of course, is a sobering truth that continues to resonate today with police brutality against Black people in America. Later, Darden meets up with Clark and the two discuss their frustrations with not bringing justice to Nicole and Ron. But even in their disappointment, they still have each other.

Then comes O.J. (Cuba Gooding Jr., “Jerry Maguire”), relishing in his freedom but realizing that things are different now. He’s no longer “The Juice” that every football fan loved; he’s still in shackles. The final seconds of “The Verdict” concludes with a haunting image of O.J. walking alone in his backyard and hopelessly gazing at the marble statue of himself, knowing that his reputation will be forever tarnished by this murder, regardless of his race, fame or fortune. Coupled with Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” scoring an epilogue montage of each character, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” finishes on a rather devastating, eerie note: pictures of a smiling Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, ignorant to how their deaths will be taken in vain.

The O.J. verdict may not have brought justice, but “American Crime Story” shined a light on something in modern history that still matters today. And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t sweep the Emmys.  

Grade: A

“The Ranch”

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There’s a certain artifice about laugh tracks in traditional, multi-camera sitcoms. The laugh track can be an overused, frequently unnecessary aural element on TV that strives to elevate a show’s humor but instead becomes too distracting for its own good. CBS’s “Mom” and NBC’s “The Carmichael Show” are currently some of the only TV comedies with a laugh track that manage to subvert traditional sitcom standards by incorporating socially conscious themes and emotionally involved characters into their plots. Netflix’s newest sitcom “The Ranch” has the potential to do the same, but it first needs to learn how to escape the dreadful quality of the laugh track and then some.

Balancing on a tricky tightrope between ribald comedy and melodrama, “The Ranch” centers around the dysfunctional Bennett family. Considering its conservative undertones, you might expect “The Ranch” to take place somewhere in the South, but the show is surprisingly set in the swing state of Colorado. Regardless, everything about the show screams red-state values, from the country-themed opening credits to the good ol’ American town backdrop. Ashton Kutcher (“Two and a Half Men”) and Danny Masterson (“Men at Work”) reunite from their “That ’70s Show” glory days as the two dysfunctional Bennett brothers, the swaggering Colt and the sarcastic Jameson “Rooster,” respectively. After six years apart from his stern father Beau (the stellar Sam Elliott, “The Big Lebowski”), Colt returns home to make amends while trying out for the local football team. In addition to all that, Colt’s endearing mom Maggie (Debra Winger, “Rachel Getting Married”) comes back into the family picture after Colt presumed her and Beau to be separated, but are in fact seeing each other again.     

While most of “The Ranch” ’s humor is crass and childish — there’s a recurring pee joke and jab at Ugg boots in the first episode “Back Where I Come From” — there are a few instances of witty dialogue, especially when it involves a cuss word or two. “The Ranch” benefits from allowing its characters to curse, a factor that obviously wouldn’t work in the sanitized confines of network and standard cable censorship. Because Netflix is a great platform to showcase TV programs with explicit content, “The Ranch” has the opportunity to be a raunchy family sitcom à la HBO’s short-lived “Lucky Louie.” Yet it still suffers from the strains of ordinary sitcom tropes, even with sitcom veterans Kutcher and Masterson at the helm of the show’s acting and executive producing. They don’t make nearly as much of an effort as Elliott, whose charismatic Southern drawl, bushy mustache and strong emotional range are enough to make him stand out. In addition to the show’s god-awful laugh track, the comic timing of almost everyone, except Elliott, is way off, with each character spewing rote joke set-ups and predictable punchline after punchline. The only hilariously down-to-earth line in “Back Where I Came From” comes during a nice scene between the Bennetts during a rainstorm in the end of the episode and Maggie utters, “You know, if someone took a picture of us, you’d never know how fucked up we really were.”

Even with the comedic qualities dragging the show down, “The Ranch” could be a mild success if it continues to highlight the faultiness of its characters and the family tensions that reside underneath the surface. Unlike a lot of Kutcher’s previous sitcom characters, his role as Colt feels more mature, occasionally making dumb decisions but also taking responsibility for his actions. Despite being in his 30s and having gone to FSU to play as an all-star backup quarterback, Colt isn’t back in Colorado just to try out for football, but to regain a trusting bond with Beau. If it weren’t for the talent of Kutcher, Masterson, Winger or Elliott, “The Ranch” would also have trouble finding some form of dramatic depth and seriousness.

Like Colt, “The Ranch” still has some growing up to do. But with the right tools and mindset, the show has the ability to come back from its mistakes and find a way to make things right again.

Grade: B-

Weezer’s “Weezer (White Album)”

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By now, you’d think that a ’90s band like Weezer would have given up already. The L.A.-based rock group attained paramount success from their magnetic Blue Album debut and their universally praised sophomore record Pinkerton in 1994 and 1996, respectively. But even when their stardom grew with radio hits like “Island in the Sun” and “Beverly Hills,” the angsty coolness that they so effectively embodied was gradually disappearing. In the 2000s, Weezer released a string of lukewarm power-pop records like 2005’s head-scratching Make Believe and 2009’s severely misguided Raditude (yes, the one with a song that featured Lil Wayne for some reason). However, since 2014’s refreshing Everything Will Be Alright in the End, their best record in years, Weezer is steadily making up for lost time and rightfully so. Their sound, complete with sawtoothed guitar plucks, crisp drums, culturally relevant lyrics and lead vocalist Rivers Cuomo’s croon, is now even more finely tuned than before on their tenth record and fourth self-titled concept record Weezer (White Album).

While White Album still lacks some punch, it’s leaner, looser, happier and more mature than Weezer’s last few records. Like each of the previous Weezer concept albums, White Album’s “color” backdrop represents the overall tone of the record. It’s about rebirth, purity and to put it more concretely, it’s about their hometown of L.A. (mine as well) and the album uses the beach as its motif setting. Other than the sound of seagulls and waves crashing onto the shore in the album opener “California Kids,” you can really visualize the kind of peculiarities and strange beauties entrenched in the city of Los Angeles from Cuomo’s perspective.

By deriving its xylophone opening notes from Pinkerton’s “Pink Triangle,” “California Kids” possesses both a nostalgic feel and yearning for the present. That theme continues in “Wind in Our Sail” and “(Girl) We Got a Thing,” two energetic romantic ballads that name-check Charles Darwin, Sisyphus, Gregor Mendel, Stockholm syndrome and the Hare Krishna. With the hilarious, power-rock anthem “Thank God for Girls,” Weezer succeeds not only because of the song’s bizarre narrative, but also for its progressive, feminist overtones (“She’s so big / She’s so strong / She’s so energetic in her sweaty overalls”). The similarly sharp “L.A. Girlz” plays with gender stereotypes, with Cuomo making himself into a desperate guy begging his crush to “sweeten up” and acknowledge his feelings for her.

Despite all the hard rock jingles and odes to women and cannolis, Weezer also infuses some of their trepidation and Pinkerton malaise into “Do You Wanna Get High?” which deals with Cuomo’s prescription drug addiction and the relationship with his girlfriend around the time of 2001’s Green Album. Described by Cuomo as a “really yucky and intentionally uncomfortable portrayal” of an addict’s life, “Do You Wanna Get High?” is as drugged-out and depressing as you’d imagine, but Cuomo transforms it into a mind-numbing throwback. The mostly acoustic closer “Endless Bummer” is when White Album really shines, with Cuomo anxiously awaiting the end of the summer during the song’s climactic breakdown ending.    

Where Everything Will Be Alright in the End was a return to form for Weezer, White Album is a strong continuation of that return. Because Weezer has already ingrained such an impactful cultural legacy in pop and rock music, they don’t need to make a critically-acclaimed record (though, that would be pretty nice). The only potential issue here is if they continue to tread on familiar material without breaking new ground. Luckily, White Album has indicated that Weezer is on the right track to maintaining their awesomeness.

Grade: B+