Album Reviews: 80s Flashbacks


Today I will review three recently-released albums by artists who were 1980s superstars.

AlbumWestern Stars
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Release Date: June 14, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • Western Stars
  • Chasin’ Wild Horses
  • Moonlight Motel

Thoughts:

I’ve always liked Springsteen well enough, although my knowledge of his work is fairly superficial.  This album reminds me of the Rolling Stones’ Blue & Lonesome in the sense that Springsteen is at an age where he has nothing left to prove, and has the leisure to dive into his roots.  Nonetheless, it’s a different sound for him, especially the string arrangements. Strings can be cheezy if done poorly, but they’re are well-integrated into the songs and the stories they’re telling and complement Springsteen’s voice which is as strong and expressive as ever. Springsteen is famously from New Jersey, but here is voice is baked in the Americana of the West.

Rating: ***


Album: Absolute Zero
Artist: Bruce Hornsby
Release Date: April 12, 2019
Favorite Tracks: none stand out, but they’re all decent
Thoughts:

The less-famous Bruce had his biggest hits at the beginning of his career in the 1980s, and probably for most people that’s all they know about him.  In the 1990s, Hornsby toured with the Grateful Dead and created new albums with a jazz fusion sound.  When I lived in Williamsburg, VA, his hometown, he was a local celebrity and people exchanged stories of Bruce sightings.  I saw him in concert several times and have always thought his music sounds far better in live performace than on an album.  Neverthless, over the past 15 years or so I’ve failed to keep up with his career – until now.  This album uses elements of classical, jazz, and avant-garde music with Hornsby’s virtuosic style.  Jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette guests on some tracks as does Justin Vernon of Bon Iver which gives it some NPR Music cred.  It’s a creative experiment with dissonant sounds and juxtapositions, but I don’t think it’s something I’ll want to return to.

Rating: **1/2


Album: Originals
Artist: Prince
Release Date: June 7, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • 100 MPH
  • Holly Rock
  • The Glamorous Life
  • Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?
  • Nothing Compares 2 U

Thoughts:

Prince, of course, is deceased and will no longer be releasing new music.  But his famous vault will be mined for music for the forseeable future. Following up on Piano and a Microphone, 1983, and collects mostly unreleased versions of songs Prince wrote as demos for other artists. So now we can hear Prince’s take on songs like “Jungle Love,” “Manic Monday,” and “The Glamorous Life,” which were hits for The Time, The Bangles, and Sheila E.  A number of these songs were crafted by Prince for his proteges in the Minneapolis scene so they’re not familiar to me, although the most bizarre of the songs that are new to me is “You’re My Love,” which Prince wrote for Kenny Rogers!  The demos exude Prince’s hard work and musicianship and would’ve been good enough for Prince to release himself.  On the other hand, there are things the other artists brought to these songs that I think Prince was aware was needed.  This album is enjoyable, but I think it’s worth more for historical/musicological study than for just listening for fun

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)


Title: Ralph Breaks the Internet
Release Date: November 21, 2018
Director: Rich Moore | Phil Johnston
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

The sequel to Wreck-It Ralph picks up the story 6 years later with Ralph content living his days predictably with his friend Vanellope, while Vanellope yearns to break the routine. When the steering wheel breaks on the Sugar Rush machine and the arcade owner decides that its too expensive to replace because the company that made it is defunct. So Ralph and Vanellope head into the newly installed wifi router to purchase a replacement wheel on eBay.  That is the first of many prominent product placements in the movie.

In order to pay for the new wheel, they take up jobs from spammers and Ralph becomes an online influencer by making lots of meme videos for likes.  Vanellope also spends sometime at the Disney social media website, visiting with her fellow Disney Princesses, a hillarious bit of self-satire.  The pair also enter a Grand Theft Auto-type game which terrifies Ralph but excites Vanellope with its unpredictable driving.  Vanellope wishes to stay leading Ralph to be insecure and possessive, and ultimate manifest as a Ralph-virus that is the nightmare fodder for the film.  Obviously, they work things out by the end, with some important messages about friendship.

A lot of the gags and satire of the internet are funny, but this movie is not going to make much sense outside of historical research in a few years.  Even a year after release, a lot of the gags seem dated.  The focus of the film isn’t very strong either as it seems mostly a plot to link together the various internet-related gags.  It’s entertaining but I don’t think it stands up as well as its predecessor.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)


Title: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Release Date: November 16, 2018
Director: David Yates
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures | Heyday Films
Summary/Review:

This sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them reunites Newt Scamander with his friends Tina, Queenie, and Jacob for a new adventure largely based in Paris.  While the first movie was mostly a romp with unsettling danger bubbling in the background of the wizarding world, this movie foregrounds the growing conflict of Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) and the wizards who wish to stop him.  A young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) recruits Newt (Eddie Redmayne) to go to Paris to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob (Dan Fogler) join in to catch up with Tina (Katherine Waterston) who is already in Paris looking for Creedence.

What follows is a jumbled mess.  The storytelling is very poor here, as the film throws in some interesting fan service (an appearance by the 600-year-old Nicolas Flamel, a flashback to Newt’s days at Hogwarts), but really makes no effort to tie it into a sensible plot.  Depp mails it in as a boring Grindelwald, Zoe Kravitz is wasted in an underdeveloped role as Leta Lestrange, and worst of all the returning characters are poorly used.  Tina and Jacob are minimized in their roles, and Queenie – one of the most delightful and loving characters in the first film – becomes evil? Early in the movie she puts a love charm on Jacob and later she joins Grindelwald, all so that she can marry a No-Maj, even though Grindelwald is vehemently racist against non-magical peoples. I get the point is that good people support autocracy when they’re desperate, but her motivations here are nonsensical.

There are some big twists at the end of the movie that don’t help make this mess of a movie any better.  There are more Fantastic Beasts movies to come, but I’m not looking forward to them.

Rating: *1/2

TV Review: Tales of the City (1993)


Title Tales of the City
Release Dates: 1993
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 6
Summary/Review:

After watching the new Tales of the City miniseries on Netflix, I saw that this original miniseries is also on Netflix and had to rewatch.  As good as the new series is, this original is really a masterpiece of television.  There’s a lot about it I love – the dialogue, the pacing, the way San Francisco is incorporated as a character, the camerawork (I especially enjoy how many scenes are shot through windows), and the music, both the period-specific pop tunes and the original score for the series. The new series, and well, a lot of television misses these deft touches.

I also like how it slowly reveals that in a city where no one seems to have any secrets that everyone has deep secrets indeed.  I like how well they handled a romance between an older couple – Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) and Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat) – something you rarely see depicted on film.  Marcus D’Amico is really the most heartwarming perfomer as Michael Tolliver, and I really loved his strong friendship with Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb). That Michael in the new series doesn’t share any memories of Mona and even changes the story of how he met Mrs. Madrigal is all the more disappointing.

Even though I haven’t watched this in at least 20 years, I was surprised how well I remembered so many scenes.  The big exception is that I forgot the whole thing about D’orothea (Cynda Williams) pretending to be Black and Mona trying to appeal to her with sould food, which is one of the big misteps of this whole series and worth forgetting about.  Otherwise this is a terrific show and if you have Netflix give yourself a treat and watch it.

TV Review: Tales of the City (2019)


Title Tales of the City
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 4
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

25 years ago, my sister introduced me to the PBS miniseries Tales of the City, which proved to be an eye-opening experiencing of seeing the intertwined lives of a group of people in San Francisco in the period of Gay Liberation and Sexual Revolution of the 1970s.  A couple more miniseries were made for a cable channel that I never saw, but I did end up reading the Tales of the City books by Armistead Maupin multiple times.  Maupin began Tales of the City as a newspaper column in 1974 and then compiled the stories into five novels through the 1970s and 1980s.  Maupin tied up the series with an original novel in 1989, but a couple of decades later he returned to the characters with three new novels published between 2007 and 2014.

And now Tales of the City returns to tv with a Netflix miniseries that draws on both the recent novels and the  1993 miniseries, with additional new characters and plots.  The story is set in the present day which creates a big cognitive roadblock for me as a Tales of the City fan.  The characters should have aged 40+ years since 1976, but the actors playing them have only aged 25 years and thus much of their backstories don’t add up.  With a large part of the story focusing on generational differences, we have the original Boomer characters and the new Millenial characters, but Generation X is completely erased (except, of course, that Gen X actors are playing the Boomers).

Leaving that aside, this version of Tales of the City viewed on its own is an excellent work of television.  In additon to the generational conflicts, the show focuses on truth, family, forgiveness, and how gentrification disrupts community and history.  LGBTQ actors are cast to play LGBTQ characters and the new cast brings a greater racial diversity.

Olympia Dukakis returns as Anna Madrigal, one of the great characters of literature and film.  Under threat of blackmail, Anna decides to sell her Barbary Lane apartment building.  A flashback episode to 1966 depicts Anna’s arrival in San Francisco and a shocking secret.  Young Anna is portrayed magnificently by Jen Richards, who is actually a transgender woman unlike Dukakis.

Laura Linney returns as Mary Ann Singleton.  Her character returns to San Francisco after 20 years to attend Anna’s 90th birthday party, and decides to stay when she realizes how much she misses it as her home.  Mary Ann dives into solving the mystery of why Anna is selling Barbary Lane. Initially, her character is off-putting, a pushy and privileged white woman from Connecticut, but over the course of the series she softens back into the Mary Ann we loved.

Murray Bartlett joins the cast as Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, and despite being way too young to play Michael, he does a great job inhabiting the character and has great chemistry with the other actors as if he’d been there all along.  Michael is dealing with a much younger boyfriend Ben (inspired by, but different from a character in the books and played by Charlie Barnett), and the return of an old lover who’d abandoned him, Harrison (Matthew Risch playing a character who as nothing in common with Michael’s former book boyfriends, Jon and Thack).

Paul Gross returns as Brian Hawkins, Mary Ann’s ex-husband, who raised his adoptive daughter as a single father and runs a garden nursery with Michael.  He is looking to get back in the dating game but keeps meeting up with women who remind him of Mary Ann.  He also attempts a relationship with his best friend Wren (played by Michelle Buteau, a really great character inspired by a book character of the same name, who should have had a bigger part).

The new, younger characters are also great.  Ellen Page plays Brian’s adoptive daughter Shawna, who is unaware that she was adopted and resents Mary Ann for leaving her behind (this was definitely NOT a plot in the books).  She’s pansexual and works for a radical cooperative burlesque bar that is central to many scenes of the series. And since Page is playing a character who is the biological child of a character played by Parker Posey, I now need to see Page and Posey together in a movie.

Other Barbary Lane residents include transgender man Jake Rodriguez (Garcia) and his partner Margot Park (May Hong).  Jake is realizing he is now attracted to men, while Margot regrets losing her lesbian identity from before Jake’s transition, leading to tension and eventual breakup.  Jake is a character from the newer books but characterized somewhat differently here, including having him be of Latinx heritage, while Margot is a characer new to the miniseries.

The other residents of Barbary Lane are a twin siblings Jennifer (Ashley Park) and Jonathan (Christopher Larkin) who dedicate their lives to performance art in hopes of becoming successful Instagram influencers.  Unfortunately, most of their plot is cliched Millenial sterotypes, although they are good comic relief.  They also are tied in with another returning character, DeDe Halcyon Day (Barbara Garrick), a wealthy socialite delighted to have young people make use of her mansion for their performance parties.

One frustrating element is that when Anna’s blackmailer is revealed, they are portrayed as a cartoon villain, ruining what I thought had been an intersting, nuanced character up that point.  Barring that, Tales of the City is a touching, funny, and thoughtful story and a  worthy addition to the ouevre.

Book Review: The Gay Revolution by Lillian Faderman


Author: Lillian Faderman
Title: The Gay Revolution: The Story Of The Struggle
Narrator: Donna Postel
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc, 2015
Summary/Review:

This book provides a historical overview of the gay rights movement in the United States from the post-World War II era to the present.  This sprawling account covers numerous groups, individuals, movements, protests, and legal cases that changed the status for LGBTQ people.  If one thing is clear, there is no one “great person” who lead the struggle, but it was a multi-generational effort of groups of people who stood up for equality.

The book starts in the 1950s when gays & lesbians were not only in danger of arrests, beatings, robbery, and sexual assault at the hands of the local police “Morals Squad,” but a “Lavender Scare” saw the exposure and firing of numerous gay & lesbian people working for the US government.  This occurred at the same time as the more famous “Red Scare,” but may have had an even more widespread and devastating effect.  In 1950, the Mattachine Society organized in Los Angeles as the first activist group to advocate for the rights of gay American citizens, with chapters in other cities established soon afterward.  The Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian civil rights group, was founded in San Francisco in 1956.  Early activism focused on court cases to defend gay people from losing employment, with some success.

The Stonewall Uprising of 1969 was a turning point, where the patrons of the Greenwich Village gay bar – inspired by the Civil Rights and anti-war movements – decided to stand their ground against a police raid.  The multi-day riots kicked off a decade of mass movement protests and pride parades.  The 1970s also saw gay activists take on the American Psychiatric Association to stop having homosexuality classified as a mental disorder.  Communities began to include gays and lesbians in their antidiscrimination codes, which prompted a backlash from conservative Christians.  Most famously, entertainer Anita Bryant lead an anti-gay movement in Florida.  Faderman credits Bryant as an accidental advocate for gay civil rights by bringing attention to their discrimination.

The 1980s is defined by the AIDS crisis and the deaths that devastated a generation of gay people. Faderman notes that AIDS had the effect of strengthening gay rights activism, with the shadow of death making previous infighting seem irrelevant, and prompting people to be greater radicalism. ACT UP, founded in New York in 1987, staged direct action events at government buildings, the New York Stock Exchanged, and churches to bring attention to the lack of action to treat people with AIDS and seek a cure.  (Oddly enough, I had a run in with an angry conservative woman in the early 90s who said that gay men spit out communion at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which I’d always thought to be bigoted hyperbole, but it turns out it actually happened, although it makes more sense in the context of the protest).

I found the final chapters of the book that cover the 1990s and 2000s less interesting than the rest of the book, perhaps because it covered events that I remember living through.  The focus here shifts from activist people and groups, to government action and becomes more a litany of court cases and presidential campaigns that affected gay civil rights, than the work of the people behind it.  Still, this book is overall a good resource to get the big picture of struggle for LGBTQ equality.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: When They See Us (2019)


Title: When They See Us
Release Date: May 31, 2019
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Company: Harpo Films | Tribeca Productions | ARRAY | Participant Media
Summary/Review:

This Netflix miniseries dramatizes the stories of five teenage boys from Harlem who were accused and convicted of brutally raping a woman jogging through Central Park, but would be exonerated for the crime over a decade later.  The film covers the same as the Ken Burns’ documentary Central Park Five but with a greater emphasis on the emotional impact on the boys and their families.  When they see is directed by Ava DuVernay, who is also responsible for the biopic Selma, the documentary 13th, and fantasy/adventure A Wrinkle in Time (which is quite a varied portfolio).  While the four parts tell a complete story, each part also works as a stand-alone film.

The first part focuses on the night of the incident.  The media portrayed them as part of a “wolf pack” of “superpredators” who went out “wilding,” commiting crimes for fun. The truth is that the 5 boys and others were caught up in spontaneous gathering of about 30 teenagers who mostly didn’t know one another and went to Central Park to horse around.  And yes, some of them did participate in assault, robbery, and vandalism, but by and large that was a small portion of the larger group.  Oddly, one of the most beautiful scenes in this movie is an overhead shot of the boys running into the park.  The five – Raymond, Kevin, Korey, Yusef, and Antron – were among those rounded up by the police. When the unconcious jogger is found, the police held them overnight without food or sleep, interogate them without parents present, and coerce them to confess to a crime they knew nothing about. The NYC District Attorney Sex Crimes Unit leader Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) works up a narrative from the skimpy evidence to place the boys at the scene of the crime.

The second part focuses on the trial.  The film only dramatizes one of the two trials.  We see the boys support one another as they resolutely refuse a plea bargain or anything but their full innocence.  There’s support among the families too, but also a lot of tension as what course of action to take and distrust of the other families’ children. Archival footage of Donald Trump condeming the Five is shown with a mother commenting that his fifteen minutes are almost up, perhaps too big of a wink for this movie.  Their lawyers are not up to snuff to take on the city’s prosecuter Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga) despite the only evidence being coerced confessions that contradict one another. The five are all found guilty.

Part three focuses on the four younger members of the group – Antron, Raymond, Yusef, and Kevin – each of whom serve around 6-7 years in juvenile detention.  The film shows their transition from boys to adults through phone calls and visits with their families.  Then each is released and tries to return to their lives.  There are tensions with family members as they adjust to changes that happened during their imprisonment.  Worse, the law regarding what convicted felons and sex offenders can do leaves them very little opportunity to find work and housing, and require frequent check-ins.  One of them turns to crime to make ends meet and ends up back in prison.

The younger four are played by different actors as a child and as an adult – Kevin Richardson (Asante Black and Justin Cunningham), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse and Chris Chalk), and Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares).  They all put in an excellent performance portraying their characters, but the major star of the miniseries is Jharrel Jerome who plays Korey Wise both as a teenager and an adult.  Wise was 16 at the time of the case and thus tried as an adult.  He was sent to prisons where the other prisoners and guards targeted him for severe abuse.  Wise requested transfers to other prisons farther from NYC and spent lots of time in solitary for his own safety.  In one prison, there’s even a white guard who is sympathetic to wise and treats him humanely.  Many of the most intense scenes of the film focus on Wise enduring long periods of time in solitude and having memories and daydreams. Flashbacks show his close relationship with his transgender older sister until their mother throws her out of the house.  One of the most beautiful sequences shows Wise imaging that instead of going to Central Park with the other boys that he took his girlfriend to Coney Island.

In 2001, Wise meets another prisoner named Matias Reyes (one he’d actually had a fight with in prison several years earlier).  Reyes admits that he had raped the Centeral Park jogger on his own.  His description of the attack and DNA evidence verifies his claim, and this leads to vacating the convictions of Richardson, McCray, Salaam, Santana, and Wise.

This movie is beautifully directed  and yet a brutal depection of a grave injustice. It is an important film to watch to get an understanding of the discriminatory nature of the criminal justice system against black and brown people.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Ultimate Entrepreneur by Glen Rifkin and George Harrar


Author: Glen Rifkin and George Harrar
Title: The Ultimate Entrepreneur
Publication Info: Rocklin, CA : Prima Pub., c1990.
Summary/Review:

This is a book I read for research at work.  It is part biography, part business management book focusing on the career of Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC).  Digital was a post-WWII start-up that took advantage of new computing technology from MIT and the military and brought it to the commercial market.  DEC basically invented the minicomputer in the 1960s.  Minicomputers are huge compared to microcomputers (aka – personal computers), about the size of a refrigerator, but they provided users with real-time interactive capabilities they could not get with the massive IBM mainframes.  DEC’s minicomputers sold like hot cakes to corporate and research clients, and by the 1980s the company was the second largest computer company after IBM.  Olsen promoted participatory management at the company which made a lot of engineers loyal to the company because of the creative freedom, although working at DEC also involved heated arguments to defend one’s ideas.  It was a Massachusetts company, part of the Route 128 Tech Corridor that was the center of the computing industry before Silicon Valley took over.  Sadly, Digital didn’t survive the transition to personal computers but this interesting book tells of an innovative company that made great products through unique management strategies.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: Jessica Jones (2019)


Title: Jessica Jones
Release Dates: 2010
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

I kind of felt compelled to watch the third and final season of Jessica Jones on Netflix, despite my disappointment in the previous season.  This season starts of strong with some well-paced, character-focused episodes but about a third of the way through the season, the carpet is pulled out, and once again we’re stuck with ludicrous plot twists and lazy characterization.

The season starts with the newly-powered Trish (Rachael Taylor) working on becoming a hero by solving her own cases.  Naturally, Jessica  and Trish begin following the same guy and sooner than you’d expect they begin to work together and sort-of reconcile.  Jessica also has a new “hook-up” (it seems too much to say “romantic interest”) in Erik (Benjamin Walker), a man with the very mild power of getting severe headaches around evil people, a power he uses for blackmailing, but becomes key in helping Jessica and Trish solve cases.

After a few false starts, a big bad is revealed in the form of serial killer Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb).  Salinger is played like every stereotypical psycho killer you’ve ever seen on a detective procedural show, and is fine when his machinations are backdrop to the main characters’ actions, but BORING AS FUCK when he’s on the screen for more than 15 seconds.  So of course, he’s allowed to eat up tons of screen time over the season.  I also don’t understand why Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) is still in this series because her story of trying to win back an old lover, while well acted, feels like an entirely different tv show has been spliced in.  When she takes on Salinger as a client and decides to take on powered people through the law, it feels like a desperate attempt to shoehorn her character into the story.

But the worst element of this season is that (SPOILER) they decide to make Trish an eviiiiiiiil powered person who just ups and start killing people for no good reason (/SPOILER).  I think what bugs me most about this show is that it comes so close to being a great use of superhero tropes and detective stories as an outlet for exploring deeper human relations and behavior, but they never seem to have the confidence to follow-up on that. Instead the show relies too heavily on ridiculous plot twists and undermining character work for shock value.  Oh well, at least there won’t be any more Jessica Jones to underwhelm me in the future.

Related Posts:

Podcasts of the Week Ending July 13


Hit Parade :: The History of Show Tunes and the Pop Charts

A broad history of Broadway tunes and cast albums making it to the top of the charts, whether as original cast recordings, covers, or even samples.  I learned a lot, such as the fact that Natalie Wood did not sing her own songs in West Side Story, and that Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita were concept albums before they were staged as shows.

StoryCorps :: A Danger to My Country

Stories of the “Lavender Scare” in the 1950s federal government, and the gay man who had to enforce it.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances: