“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-

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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+

Earworms: Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” and “Reaper”

It feels like hit singer/songwriter Sia can sing/write just about any song and make it sound good. After a string of awesome singles from her upcoming record, This is Acting, the elusive Swedish pop artist released two new tracks, the tropical party jam “Cheap Thrills” and the Kanye West-produced “Reaper.” Both songs are great in their own right, the former being a funkadelic, dancehall-infused banger about giving zero fucks and “just having fun tonight,” and the latter being another crazy power ballad in the likes of 2014’s ubiquitous “Chandelier” and the more recent “Alive.” Even though many of the tracks off This is Acting were intended for other musicians, Sia utilizes her groundbreaking vocals and maximalist production to make each song as powerful as the next.

The Return of LCD Soundsystem and the 2016 Coachella Lineup

lcdsoundsystemNow, THIS is how you start the new year. After what seemed like their final concert ever, beloved electronic group LCD Soundsystem have reunited not only to headline Coachella in April, but also to go on a world tour and release a new album (!). Like many fans such as myself, this comes as both a shock and a joy. The band’s leader James Murphy addressed a note on LCD Soundsystem’s website, explaining his journey after that fateful 2011 show at Madison Square Garden and the next steps towards coming back together. If you don’t listen to LCD Soundsystem, this is still pretty frickin’ cool. I mean, they made a DOCUMENTARY about their break-up and final show together and NOW they’re coming back together. As Kenan Thompson would say on “SNL”‘s Weekend Update as French rapper Jean K. Jean, “In-crey-aab-lay!”

In addition to the exciting news of LCD Soundsystem’s return, the Coachella lineup looks stacked with awesome artists: Ice Cube, Disclosure, Grimes, Beach House, Purity Ring, Guns ‘n’ Roses (who have also reunited after an eight-year dormancy), Sufjan Stevens, Run the Jewels, Death Grips, Shamir, Kamasi Washington, Calvin Harris, and more. Too bad I will be unable to go, as it takes place during my finals! But still, pretty awesome to look at and much better than last year’s disappointment of a lineup.  

2014 Oscars Recap

It has been over a week since the 2014 Oscars aired on ABC and though the hype has died down, here’s a recap some of the best (and worst) moments from the Academy Awards:

Ellen Degeneres hosted the Oscars last Sunday with a much better approach than the controversial Seth MacFarlane had at last year’s Oscars. Ellen impressed the audiences in the Dolby Theater and at home with her satirical humor, pleasant demeanor, and utilization of improv and unexpected surprises (i.e. ordering pizza). With 43.74 million viewers, Sunday’s Academy Awards was marked as the most watched Oscars ceremony since 2000, which is partially due to Ellen’s appearance. In addition, Ellen’s infamous celebrity selfie that took place during the ceremony made for the most tweeted post on Twitter and practically crashed the social media website.

The infamous, record-breaking Oscars selfie

The infamous, record-breaking selfie.

The rest of the evening was also filled with glamorous award presenters, electric musical performances, and even a few kooky moments. My favorite parts were especially the music performances of the Best Original Song nominees. Although U2’s “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was a little bland, I did enjoy Pharrell’s lively number for the aptly titled “Happy” from Despicable Me 2, Karen O and Ezra Koenig’s understated but beautiful love ballad “The Moon Song” from Her, and Idina Menzel’s powerhouse singing on “Let It Go,” from Frozen. Speaking of which, one of the most awkward and bizarre moments of the Oscars came right before Menzel’s performance, when presenter John Travolta mispronounced the Wicked singer’s name as “Adele Dazeem.” Though that bit caused instant ridicule and criticism, it also ignited a plethora of memes online and even a name generator “#TravoltifyYourName,” creating yet another Oscars moment through social media.

John Travolta's incident at the Oscars

Oh, John.

Perhaps the most feats achieved that night were the award wins. Gravity, the epic space thriller starring Sandra Bullock, won the most awards (7). Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón also became the first Mexican director to win the prestigious Best Director award at the Oscars. Though Gravity won the most accolades, it was Steve McQueen who scored big on Oscars night when his breathtaking historical film 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture. I was surprised to see that American Hustle, which held the most nominations of the night (10), received zero wins. Other Best Picture nominees bereft of award wins also included The Wolf of Wall Street, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, and Philomena

(From left) Matthew McConaughey won Best Actor for "Dallas Buyers Club;" Cate Blanchett won Best Actress for "Blue Jasmine;" Lupita N'yongo won Best Supporting Actress for "12 Years a Slave;" and Jared Leto won Best Supporting Actor for "Dallas Buyers Club"

(From left) Matthew McConaughey won Best Actor for “Dallas Buyers Club;” Cate Blanchett won Best Actress for “Blue Jasmine;” Lupita Nyongo won Best Supporting Actress for “12 Years a Slave;” and Jared Leto won Best Supporting Actor for “Dallas Buyers Club”

Though most of my predictions of the award were fairly accurate, it was still exciting to see the tension build up to that fateful moment when the presenter utters the phrase, “And the Oscar goes to…” I’d have to say that Ellen definitely brought forth the energy, effort, and spirit of an Oscar host to the ceremony, something that has been somewhat neglected in the past (i.e. 2011’s disastrous hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco). Even though there were some boring parts to the show, such as the lengthy, unnecessary “Superhero” montages or Bette Midler’s uncomfortable performance after the In Memoriam segment, next year’s Oscars will hopefully be just as good as this year’s, if not better.

 

Grade: B+