Album Review: Structure by Water From Your Eyes


AlbumStructure
Artist: Water From Your Eyes
Release Date: August 27, 2021
Label: Wharf Cat Records
Favorite Tracks:

  • “When You’re Around”
  • “Track Five”
  • “”Quotations””

Thoughts: This album from the Brooklyn electro-pop duo Water From Your Eyes documents a break-up.  Specifically the end of the romantic relationship between band members Rachel Brown and Nate Amos, although they remain together as a band and as friends.  There’s a lot of variety to hear: Beatles-esque harmonies, shoegaze guitar, ghostly vocals, relentless industrial noise…  It changes from track to track and sometimes within the song.  But there is, er, structure here as the album is broken into two sets of four songs symmetrical to the other four.
Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Sophie’s Choice (1982)


Title: Sophie’s Choice
Release Date: December 10, 1982
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Production Company: ITC Entertainment | Keith Barish Productions
Summary/Review:

I watched Sophie’s Choice many years ago and then read William Styron’s novel and loved them both. So I was happy to revisit this movie. It’s the story of a young aspiring writer, nicknamed Stingo (Peter MacNicol playing a character much like Styron), who moves from the South to Brooklyn. At his rooming house he meets and befriends the tempestuous couple upstairs of Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline).

While Stingo sees Sophie and Nathan as glamorous, they each have dark secrets. Sophie survived the Holocaust in Poland and over the course of the film reveals her shame over her actions there in long flashbacks. Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic which manifests in extreme jealousy and abuse of Sophie. Most heartbreaking is that Sophie, because of her guilt over the past, seems to believe she deserves the abuse. The story ultimately leads to tragedy.

I remember watching this movie the first time and being utterly charmed by Nathan in his early scenes. This time I was more weary because I knew he was an abuser and it the patterns of abuse were more clear to see. Oddly enough, Kline’s portrayal of Nathan is very similar to his portrayal of Otto in the later film A Fish Called Wanda. We can laugh at Otto because he’s in a comedy, but since Nathan is in a drama, he is terrifying.

Meryl Streep’s performance is excellent, of course. She does a great job of portraying a person inexperienced with speaking English as well as the nuances of someone dealing with trauma. I was surprised that MacNicol portrays Stingo since it is very different from his later roles in things like Ghostbusters II and Ally McBeal. The one thing that bugs me about this movie is that when Stingo and Sophie have sex, Stingo narrates it like he’s in a frat boy comedy and he just made a great conquest. It really jars against the tone of the film and makes me wonder if Stingo learned anything from his experience.


Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Do the Right Thing (1989)


Title: Do the Right Thing
Release Date: July 21, 1989 
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Summary/Review:

Do the Right Thing is a movie I watched ages ago and liked and always meant to revisit. The movie holds up startlingly well after 31 years and remains sadly relevant to our time as it deals with racism, police violence, and even global warming. It features a remarkable ensemble cast including legendary actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, John Turturro and Samuel L. Jackson before they became super famous, and the film debuts of Rosie Perez and Martin Lawrence.

The movie is set on the hottest day of the year on one block in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The film is largely vignettes of various people on the street and in Sal’s pizzeria. Over the course of the day various antagonisms and aggressions build up leading to a massive fight erupting at Sal’s. When the police arrive they kill a young Black man, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), and the people of the neighborhood vent their rage by trashing and burning Sal’s pizzeria.

Spike Lee brings his distinct style to the film. The camera adopts extreme angles and movements to accentuate the conflicts. He also has almost every shot filmed against bold background colors. I remember this style being visually stunning at the time, but partly due to Lee’s influence, it also became emblematic of the late 80s/early 90s period. Music also plays a strong role in the film, especially Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which appears 15 times in the movie from the opening credits where Rosie Perez performs a very angry dance to the recurring appearances of Radio Raheem and his boombox. The rest of the soundtrack includes an original jazz score by Bill Lee and soul and R&B tracks, many played by the DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), who watches over the day from his radio studio.

The cast does a great job of portraying the characters that are recognizable from any urban community. The movie pushes the line of being a neighborhood made up entirely of characters, but restrains itself and allows the nuances and humanity of each person to develop. Stand out performances of the movie include Ossie Davis as Da Mayor, kind of a wise fool who patrols the street in a filthy suit and has an alcohol problem. Davis’ real-life wife Ruby Dee plays Mother Sister, a neighborhood matriarch who looks down on Da Mayor despite his efforts to impress her. Danny Aiello portrays Sal as a complex character, a white man who feels a place of pride being part of a Black and Latin American community and watching the kids grow up eating his pizza, but nevertheless harboring racial animus. Turturro plays one of Sal’s sons, Pino, and despite being from the younger generation he is more openly racist and angry. Finally, there is Spike Lee himself who plays the pizza delivery man Mookie and somehow remains a likable character even though Mookie can often be a selfish jerk.

For all the realism of the movie, it also has a lot of unreality. It is virtually impossible for everything that happens to have happened on one block in one day. I don’t even think that Mookie ever has to go around the corner to deliver a pizza. The only people who ever leave the block and return are the police, the outside antagonists. In of the most startling sequences of the movie, a series of characters look straight at the camera and shout slurs about another race. Despite this movie showing a balance of views and nuance in every character it never gets preachy or reaches for easy conclusions like “Everyone is a Little Bit Racist” unlike some weaker movies that have attempted to address the same issues.

I remember when this movie came out that people said the murder of Radio Raheem didn’t resonate since he was an unsympathetic character. Critics who were indifferent to Radio Raheem’s death were nonetheless outraged by the destruction of Sal’s pizzeria. This valuing of property over human lives is all too familiar in our time where people still try to deny that Black Lives Matter. The heat of the day is also relevant as we have more and more hot days, and characters in the movie even discuss the polar ice caps melting. And the Unspooled podcast notes that New York City is getting much hotter summer days than the 92° in this film. If all that isn’t relevant enough to our times, some characters even discuss Donald Trump!

This movie remains excellent and deserves all the accolades it has received over the years.


Rating: *****

Monthly Mixtape – December 2019


Better late than never!  Here are some good new songs from the last month of last year.

Madame Gandhi :: Top Knot Turn Up

Madame Gandhi, the former drummer for M.I.A and a runner of the London Marathon, s an electronic music artist and activist based in Los Angeles.

Antibalas :: Fight Am Finish

My favorite Afrobeat band from Brooklyn (with ties to Daptone records) returns!

beabadoobee :: Are You Sure

Beatrice Kristi Laus is a youthful Filipino-British indie singer-songwriter.

MaLLy :: Black Moses

The latest from a Minneapolis rapper. Read more at The Current.


Previous Mixtapes:

Movie Review: See You Yesterday (2019)


Title: See You Yesterday
Release Date: May 17, 2019
Director: Stefon Bristol
Production Company: 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks
Summary/Review:

C.J. (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Danté Crichlow) are a pair of nerdy teens who develop a device that allows them to jump into wormholes and travel back in time.  Their rather modest goal is to win a prize at a citywide science competition but when the device actually works it opens new possibilities and deadly consequences. The movie draws on classic time travel movies like Back to the Future which it acknowledges with a cameo by Michael J. Fox as C.J. and Sebastian’s teacher (and in a double reference, he’s first seen reading the time travel novel Kindred).

The movie also draws influence from producer Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, as well as current events. C.J. lives in an African-American and Afro-Caribbean neighborhood at a time of heightened tension following a police shooting of a community member. The tension is exemplified in a scene where C.J. and her brother Calvin (Brian “Stro” Bradley) can’t even have an argument on a sidewalk without drawing harassment from the police. Another police shooting is a key event as C.J. and Sebastian use their time travel technology to attempt to prevent the killing but each time they go back they inadvertently change events leading to someone else dying.

This is a movie that deserves a happy ending.  Instead we get an ambiguous ending as we see C.J. returning the past once again and running as the screen goes black.  Perhaps her running represents the endless cycle of death she cannot break, perhaps this time she is planning to sacrifice herself to save the lives of others.  Marty McFly was able to change events in the past to save the live of Doc Brown and inadvertently make his family happier and more prosperous.  But there are no happy endings in Black and brown communities where children continue to be shot dead by the police with no consequences.

The movie is very short, which is a strength in tight plotting and scripting, although I felt a longing for more. Sometimes the messaging has an after school special feel to it.  But the acting by Duncan-Smith, Crichlow, and Bradley is strong, and I hope to see more from them in the future.

Rating: ***1/2

City Stories #1 – The Pigeons


City Stories is a new semi-regular feature where I will write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. This series is inspired by the writings of Max Grinnell, The Urbanologist. The first City Story takes place in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

My grandparents lived in the most boring place in the world.

Correction, my grandparents’ apartment was the most boring place, set in the middle of the world’s most exciting and vibrant city in the world.  My grandparents’ apartment was on the 23rd floor of the western building of the Towers of Bay Ridge, right where the Belt Parkway splits from the Gowanus Expressway.  My sister and I spent many a childhood weekend seeking some escape from the boredom that permeated from every corner of that apartment, including through the plastic-covered sofa.

As a child visiting this apartment – especially when it wasn’t Christmastime when at least there were new toys to play with – entertainment was hard to come by.  Television was the preferred source of diversion, but it wasn’t always available to us as my grandparents were watching their programs, or otherwise forbidden us from watching. Taking out the garbage was always a welcome chore as it meant being able to drop bags of rubbish one by one down a chute to a compactor in the basement.  After disposing our trash, we could keep the door to the chute open and if we were lucky we could see trash falling from higher stories and take the chance of trying to catch some.

Once these options were exhausted, my sister and I diverged on what to do next.  She often ended up in our uncle’s former room, excavating old issues of Mad magazine that were still piled in his closet.  I made my way to the terrace – what my grandparents called the small concrete balconies that clung tenuously to the brick facade of the Towers.  From here I could get a view of  New York City’s famous skyline, bridges, and even a tiny green dot I knew was the Statue of Liberty. I could also see a massive bus yard, where half-concealed by a building, I got a tantalizing view of what looked like red London-style double-decker buses, but could never verify for sure if that’s what they were. *

Eventually, one of our grandparents would have to take us outside. If it was our grandmother, we would typically end up in the Tower’s playground. The centerpiece of this playground was a geodesic half-dome one could climb up and dangle by one’s knees, knowing that should one fall, one’s head would be protected by a thin layer of rubber spread over the asphalt.

I always preferred it when our grandfather took us out. We would escape the Brutalist hellscape of the Towers for a stroll into the more human-scaled row houses and shops along Third Avenue. Our destination was The Three Jolly Pigeons. In the official nomenclature of restaurateurs, The Three Jolly Pigeons is classified as an “Old Man Bar.” True to form, the Pigeons (as my grandfather always called it) featured a long bar of a dark wood with a line of rickety stools, lots of oak paneling, and stained glass windows and light fixtures. The back room was separated from the main bar by a particularly attractive wood-panel and stained-glass partition.

My grandfather was an old man so naturally an “Old Man Bar” suited him. But I’m going to tell you something about my grandfather that I didn’t know. My grandfather was an alcoholic, and a particularly troubled one at that. One of my earliest memories of him was visiting the hospital after he crashed his car on Brooklyn Bridge. The “car crash” and “drunk driving” didn’t connect for me until years later. Children were not allowed to visit the patients’ rooms, so instead we stood outside waving at the window where purportedly my grandfather was waving to us. I was never quite sure that I actually saw him or was even waving at the correct window.

The stories I would later hear of his drunken anger and violence never matched the cuddly old man who’d bring us to this lovely oasis, buy us a glass of Coke, and give us quarters for the arcade games that we could enjoy while he spoke to his bookie. Yes, this is the other thing that I didn’t know at the time. It was not normal for one’s grandfather to regularly meet with a bookie, and I’d learn later that the other adults in our family were not aware of this habit. This is probably because he never said to anything like “Don’t tell anyone I’m seeing my bookie,” because then we totally would’ve ratted him out rather than going along as if it were normal.

But let’s return to those glasses of Coke and arcade games. The Coke was dispensed from a fountain over the rocks into a small glass. I can’t verify this, but it is my belief that the Coke served at the Three Jolly Pigeons was the best tasting Coke anywhere. The bartender would set our Cokes at the end of the bar for us to pick up and from there we made out way through the partition to the back room.

The entertainment equipment in the back room changed from time to time, but the mainstay was a coin-operated bowling game. The shuffleboard-style game was built on a long waist-high table (or shoulder-high table if you were under ten) along which one would slide a heavy, metallic puck. The bowling pins hung from a cabinet at the far end, and the puck wouldn’t actually come in contact with the pins, but you could knock them over if the puck slid over what looked like giant staples under each pin. The surface of the table was very slick and one could make the heavy puck move wickedly fast, smashing into the wall at the far end with a satisfying crash, and rebounding into one’s palm.

Over the years, I got very good at this game. Fueled by Cokes and quarters, I smashed my way into the ranks of shuffleboard bowling greats. Or so I’d like to imagine. I never saw another game like this until about a decade later while in a pub in St. George, Bermuda. I challenged my compatriots to a game and drawing on my skill honed at the Pigeons, I won a round of beer. In another timeline, I may have gone pro as a shuffleboard bowler.

In my memory, it was always daylight when we went to the Pigeons. The late afternoon sun shone through the stain-glassed windows with the multi-color rays tinted by smoke and dust in the air. I can still see the silhouettes of my grandfather and his bookie sitting across from one another at the table by the window in a mostly empty bar. But there’s one occasion I recall being at the pigeons after dark and in a crowded room, on the day after Thanksgiving when the sun sets early. I’ve never paid much attention to college football, but while waiting for another Coke at the bar, by chance I happened to look up at the tv to see Doug Flutie’s famous “Hail Mary” pass. There was some celebration among the assemblage of old men and I before they returned to their beers, and I returned to bowling.

Unlike many places from my childhood for which I have fond memories, the Three Jolly Pigeons still survives in Bay Ridge. Reading the reviews online, it’s hailed as a great place to see rock bands and karaoke, two things I could never imagine in the Pigeons of my time. But I like to think that in the dying rays of afternoon sunlight, the old men still gather to nurse a quiet drink, confer with their bookie, and perhaps buy a Coke for their grandkids.

 

 

* Seriously, this was decades before double-decker buses were used for sightseeing tours in New York City. If anyone could verify if and why these buses were in New York circa 1980-1984, I will love you forever.

Book Review: Jackie & Me: A Baseball Card Adventure by Dan Gutman


Author: Dan Gutman
TitleJackie & Me: A Baseball Card Adventure
Publication Info: New York : Avon Books, ©1999.
Summary/Review:

This is the second book in the Baseball Card Adventure in which Joe Stoshack uses  his power to travel through time using baseball cards to meet Jackie Robinson.  As an added wrinkle to the story, he initially arrives in 1947 as an African-American boy and directly experiences the racial animus of New York at that time.  I felt that Jackie Robinson’s character in this novel was one-dimensional, too much of a heroic martyr, although the book does offer some nice glimpses of his family life.  Meanwhile, it seems too flippant that Stosh is traveling to meet Robinson merely to write a Black History Month report for his school, and spends much of the novel trying to gather rare baseball cards to bring to the future.  The lesson of the book is how to stand up to bullies without resorting to anger, which Stosh applies in his own youth baseball games, but seems to miss out on the heart of the Jackie Robinson story in the process.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson


Author: Jacqueline Woodson 
TitleAnother Brooklyn 
Narrator: Robin Miles
Publication Info:  HarperCollins Publishers and Blackstone Audio, 2016
Summary/Review:

This short novel is the reminiscences of the narrator August reflecting on her childhood in 1970s Brooklyn.  It’s a period piece that recreates a place and time so different from the Brooklyn of today, and very specifically the challenges of joys of being an African-American girl in that place and time.  It’s also a meditation on friendship, as August recalls the tight relationships with her friends Gigi, Angela, and Sylvia, friendships that at the time seemed permanent but have long since faded away.  The book is permeated with a nostalgic sense of loss, and is a poetic rumination of the more complex themes underlying everyday childhood.

Recommended booksSula by Toni Morrison and The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy


Author: Tara Clancy
TitleThe Clancys of Queens
Publication Info: New York : Crown Publishers, 2016.
Summary/Review:

Tara Clancy is one of my favorite storytellers from shows like The Moth, Risk, and Snap Judgment, so I was delighted to receive a free advanced review copy of her memoir through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Clancy describes her childhood in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s moving around to live with her cop father in a repurposed boat shed in Broad Channel, a virtual commune of elderly relatives at her Grandparent’s house in Brooklyn, and weekends at her mother’s wealthy boyfriend’s estate in the Hamptons.  Young Tara navigates these three different worlds with aplomb and even with the tough challenges of poor kid in the city manages to maintain a sense of humor and adventure.  This is an inspired memoir and a joy to read.
Favorite Passages:

“By then, age ten, I was already a tried-and-true child chameleon, a real-life little Zelig who knew how to go from being barfly at a Queens local hangout to a summertime Bridgehamptonite to an honorary septuagenarian at the drop of a dime.  Despite all that (or maybe  because of it), there was one role I didn’t always like to play: kid.  More specifically, rule-abiding kid.”  – p. 111-112

Recommended books:

Talking to Girls About Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield, Lost In Place by Mark Salzman, and All Souls by Michael Patrick MacDondald

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park


Author: Linda Sue Park
TitleKeeping Score
Publication Info: New York : Clarion Books, c2008.
Summary/Review: This brilliant children’s novel is set in Brooklyn in the 1950s, the golden age of New York City baseball. Young Maggie, a devoted Dodgers fans, listens to games with the firefighters at the local station, until one day a new guy is listening to a Giants game on the radio.  Despite their conflicting allegiance, Maggie and Jim become friends and he teaches her how to score a baseball game.  Then he is drafted into the ambulance service in the Korean War.  They keep in touch but then Jim suffers a trauma that prevents him from being able to communicate with anyone.

The novel depicts Maggie’s efforts and sacrifices to connect with her friend through baseball and doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war, or the futility of this particular war.  Along the way, Maggie also invents sabermetrics (okay, I’m kidding, but it’s not too far of a stretch).  This is a loving book about friendship and healing.

Recommended books: Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger and Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir by Doris Kearns Goodw
Rating: *****