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December 12, 2013

In Memorandum: The Care and Feeding of Emma

My friend and companion of 12 years passed away on December 10th, 2013.

Emma was a friendly cat with a quiet temperament and a cute face that could send cat slaves, such as I, into unscheduled trips to the store to find some new and fascinating toy to keep the master happy.

With Emma, there was no arguing over money, or fighting over the remote but I must admit, whoever got to the lazy boy rocker first usually had the upper hand.

I always knew this day would come. What is existence but life, death and feeding the cat. Emma was relatively healthy throughout her life, but the last year saw a slow deterioration that was heart breaking to observe. Even then, her passing came suddenly and was truly difficult to accept. A person gets used to taking care of another living creature and for days now the shadow of her existence keeps sitting in my easy chair or jumping up on the bathroom vanity asking for a drink of fresh water.

Memories linger on with tears and blinking eyes.

There was something magical about bringing home a new kitten all those years ago, an  experience comparable to bringing home that brand new car you've sacrificed and saved for just so you can appreciate that unique smell as you pull into your driveway.

I brought Emma home on a cold November night in 2001, a gift from my friend Kim who had rescued her from a Pet Store cage. We didn't know how old this little tabby cat was, probably five or six months, but she was lively enough and seemed to have a gentle temperament and she immediately charmed my pants off. Emma was the spit and image of my very first cat, Mickey, when I was a strapping five-year-old kid and so our bonding seemed to be almost immediate.

When we got home, I setup a few things Kim had provided me — Emma's litter box, water dish and so on. I tried to make Emma as comfortable as possible, but it was obvious she was having a bit of trouble getting oriented to her new surroundings.

There wasn't much I could do about that, but I hoped she'd survive the night and we could spend more time in the morning getting to know each other better.

When I got up the next morning, she was no where to be found. I checked everywhere -- under the bed and sofa, all throughout my office, in the bathtub ... even checked out the hallway of my apartment building until it dawned on me that no matter how strong she was, there ain't no way a little ball of fur was going to get that door opened. Duh!

I finally found her huddled in the dark recesses of one of the kitchen cupboards that had a broken door (one of the many repair projects I hadn't got around to), which gave her access to the back corner between an old frying pan and a bag of sponges.
With relief, I finally lured her out with a handful of kitty num-nums and we started the process of getting to know each other. Fortunately, that didn't take too long. There's something about being the hand that feeds them that will get a kitten's affection in no time at all.

I learned quickly that a kitten has a lot of energy and if you don't provide an outlet for it, they will find one of their own. She was quick to disc over a cork board I had leaning against my computer desk and before I knew it, she had claimed it for her own, turning it into a massive pile of rubble, cork droppings everywhere, until I had to hide it in the closet.

So I went out and bought her some expensive cat toys, some of which she liked, but many of which she lost interest in very quickly. I discovered that a lot of everyday articles were just as effective as expensive toys. A rolled up sheet of aluminum foil was just as much fun to knock around as those little fake mice that cost a couple of bucks each. Her favorite all time plaything turned out to be a big empty cardboard box filled with styro foam packing that I hadn't got around to throwing away after I got a new TV. She loved jumping into the box and dissecting bits of white foam into oblivion and the side of the box became as scarred as that poor cork board that I finally brought back out for her scratching pleasure.

As is the nature of cats, Emma spent lots of time licking her fur, which is nice because giving a cat a bath is not an experience any normal human being should ever have to live through. I did give her a good brushing from time to time, but since she's was an American Shorthaired tabby cat, there wasn't the constant requirement as would be the case with longhaired cats. She never had a major problem with hairballs, which is one thing to consider if you're trying to decide between a shorthaired or longhaired cat.


Another thing I decided early on was that Emma would eat when I ate. That way I wouldn't have her hanging around the dinner table while I ate since she'd be preoccupied with her own grub. This was an absolute rule and it worked out very well since she never, for the most part, bothered me for food before the appointed time.

Since my business was home-based back then, I usually knocked off working at the computer by 4:00 o'clock, did some reading for a half hour or so, had a quick cat nap and then by 5:00 o'clock it was time to get dinner for both of us. Sometimes, of course, Emma's timing was off by an hour or so. When that happened, she was relentless, but absolute rules are absolute rules, so I just kept on working.

On those days, usually around 3:00 or 3:30, she'd jump up and plop her butt directly on my keyboard or mouse and it was quite clear that she was on a mission. The thing is, it was a battle she never could win no matter how sweetly she rubbed her forehead against mine. I could work quite well with a top-heavy mouse, although typing got a bit ticklish at times since, as we all know, cats and mice don't usually get along very well. Slap a human hand in between the two and it can get a bit dicey.

And like I said, at 3:45 I usually knocked off work and you know, one day I'd worked so hard, I just had to knock off work at 3:33 I was so, ah, hungry ... and one day the next week I planned a special 3:00 dinner at noon ... sigh.

And now Emma is gone. I'll miss her. I already do. Tears will eventually subside, but the memories will last forever. Good-bye old friend.

October 22, 2013

Upside Down (2013) - Big Budget Flopperoo

Upside Down is a strange movie, even for a Science Fiction Fantasy. Actually, it's quite a silly movie in many ways. However, the special effects that take us to this bizarre universe where two planets are interlocked by what is called duel gravity are quite spectacular at times. Without getting into the complications of the science, suffice it to say that the below planet is where all the poor people live in a dark, hellish nightmare of an environment and the 'upside down' planet, up above, is where all the wealthy elites live in a beautiful, bright city. The two planets are connected by a huge skyscraper owned by the Trans World corporation.

Despite the science fiction elements, the plot is your basic Romeo and Juliet scenario where boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, then loses her again before they finally get back together one last time in a final glowing, spectacular balcony scene. The two lovers, played by Kirsten Dunst (Eden) from the above world and Jim Sturgess (Adam), from the below world, are being kept apart by the rules of society that don't allow people from the upper and lower worlds to get together for any reason.

Does this sound somewhat familiar? — other than the upside down worlds, of course.

For me, this is where the writers and producers of this film went terribly wrong. Science Fiction is my favorite movie genre, and what I expect is a story that I've never seen before or at least some new element that takes me by surprise and makes the spectacle of the special effects meaningful in some way.

As I watched Upside Down, I kept thinking this story really didn't need a Science Fiction setting. In fact, all these elements just distracted from the story of the star crossed lovers. This plot could have taken place anywhere at anytime without the gimmick of this alternative universe.

Upside Down reminded me of two other Science Fiction films. The special effects were very similar to the Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (which I loved) and Gattaca, also a Jude Law film with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. I enjoyed these two films much more than Upside Down because, even though there were some romantic elements to them, there was much, much more going on beyond boy meets girl.

Kirsten Dunst and Jim Sturges are both attractive actors who do a fine job playing the romantic couple, but the really fun character is Bob Boruchowitz as played Timothy Spall who is best know for the part of Wormtail in the last three Harry Potter films. Bob is from the upper world, but befriends Adam and helps him perfect a chemical that changes the future of this weird universe.

Another good element to the movie is the soundtrack by Benoît Charest. The music has a familiar ring to it, but is never intrusive and doesn't try to overwhelm the scene.

Upside Down isn't a totally bad movie, but the gimmick of the upside down worlds was silly and stretches reality a bit too far to be even a little bit credible. I'd give the film a 6 out of 10. If you're looking for a Science Fiction romance on a Saturday night, it might make a decent DVD rental and I
have a feeling there will be some people who will love it to death.

The film is a Canadian/French production and was filmed in Montreal. This may explain why Upside Down appears to have had such a limited release and why domestic box office totalled a paltry $105,095. In fact, the opening U.S. weekend box office was just $28,722 in very few theaters. The film managed much better in world box office earnings of $8,001,380, but on a budget of $60,000,000, Upside Down must rank up there as one of the biggest movie flops of all time.

You can judge for yourself on this movie, here's the official trailer.

Kirsten Dunst  ...  Eden 
Jim Sturgess  ...  Adam 
Timothy Spall  ...  Bob Boruchowitz 
Original Music by Benoît Charest
Box Office
Budget: $60,000,000 (estimated)
Opening Weekend: $28,722 (USA) (15 March 2013)
Gross: $102,118 (USA) (5 April 2013)
Worldwide:  $8,106,475


October 03, 2013

Jeff Beck - The Gentle Beck

Jeff Beck is one of the greatest rock and roll guitarists of all time — of that there is no doubt, but there is much more to Beck than plain old rock. Certainly he's rocked with the best of them, from the early days with the Yardbirds, through various versions of The Jeff Beck Group, but his many solo albums also feature some very fine jazz fusion.

Beck is also one of the very best sidemen any singer could hope to have accompany them. His solo guitar work on so many songs by other artists are numerous, from the lovely Stevie Wonder tune Looking for Another Pure Love to the great Rod Stewart vocal on People Get Ready. However, along with his heavy rockin' tunes, sprinkled throughout his albums are some of the most beautiful and haunting melodies this side of rock 'n' roll heaven. Definitely Maybe and Cause We've Ended As Lovers come to mind, along with a few others.

Nadia is from the 2001 album You Had It Coming, The album features Beck going full electronic on a heavy duty slam of driving tunes, with the exception of Nadia and one other track. This is typical of a Jeff Beck disc. Hard driving, relentless, in your face tunes filled with harsh reality, and then, amidst the dystopia, a soft, violet of light and beauty.

In this live performance at Ronnie Scott's, Beck is at his best. His band includes Vinnie Colaiuta on Drums, the amazing Tal Wilkenfeld on Bass and Jason Rebello on Keyboard. This tune is simply haunting. Beck is the master of the tremolo bar and he puts it to good use here. For someone who can rock you out of your socks until your eyeballs pop, his light, gentle touch is simply amazing.

Here's another haunting tune featuring a great Beck solo from the same Live Concert at Ronnie Scott's. Imogen Heap is a sexy, beautiful lady who has a unique vocal style that makes your toes tingle.

I said Tal Wilkenfeld is amazing on bass guitar. Here's a live rendition of Cause We're Ended As Lovers from Eric Clapton's 2007 Crossroads Guitar Festival. Beck is at his usual best — that guitar is actually crying! But watch for Tal's bass solo. 'Nuff said.

I've watched these three videos over and over again and never get tired of them. And just to round out the Gentle Ben videos, here he is with The Jeff Beck Group in the early 1970's doing Definitely Maybe. He really knows how to make a guitar cry.

Jeff Beck - Guitar Hero

September 19, 2013

Life Is Sloppy ....

Unless you're a member of the elite class with unlimited wealth to take care of most every need, life for the rest of us can be very sloppy. I have a feeling the Creator of our Universe (whoever that may be) had a great sense of humour when the great Almighty conceived of a planet that can be very, very hostile to its inhabitants.

Let's start with dust. Dust is everywhere, including the coffee you have sitting on your desk next to your computer, the toothbrush you have resting in it's little holder in your bathroom and every single piece of furniture, carpets, floors, and walls in your house or apartment. So we clean, we dust, we scrub and no matter how much effort we put into our forced labour, it's an ongoing battle to get rid of the dust our planet has gifted us with.

And then there are the bugs. I'm not talking about the big bugs such as grasshoppers, praying mantis, bees and caterpillars, but the wee tiny ones. We've got black flies, fruit flies, ticks, fleas, bed bugs, lice, maggots, dust mites ... need I go on? We spend millions, if not billions every year trying to eradicate these little devils. They feast on our bodies and blood, contaminate our food, cause untold number of diseases and deaths and we fight them in an unending battle that we know we'll always lose in the long run because no matter how many we kill, squash, stomp on and spray, they keep coming back at us. We cannot win, no matter how much we try.

Of course, the bugs do some good things, such as cleaning up a lot of our messes, but do they have to be so annoying? I read recently that if humans were to disappear off the face of the planet, bugs would just keep going on forever. However, if the bugs all disappeared from the earth, the human race wouldn't last a hundred years. Ironic, isn't it.

And then there are all the natural disasters — earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes — you get the picture. Life gets very, very sloppy for anyone who becomes a victim of any of these destructive violations that will change a family's life forever. What is hard to accept is there is very little we can do about any natural disaster except to clean up the mess they create and try to pick up the pieces and carry on.

There are places on earth considered Paradise, but for most of us, it's either too hot or too cold most of the time or there's too much snow and ice or it's too humid or too dry — weather can be such a bitch. So, we adjust our lifestyles to the weather and the seasons. Snow tires, snow blowers, and chains for our car tires if the slop gets really bad. We salt the roads to keep them free of snow and ice which, at the same time, helps rapidly deteriorate the very roads we're trying to keep cleared.

In the summer we bring out the fans, turn on the air conditioners and try to avoid walking on hot pavement in our bare feet. We drive down to the local WalMart through the heat and humidity, our eyes dripping sweat, our clothes clinging to our bodies, our faces red with sunburn, and step from the outdoor furnace to the freezing cold air conditioned store and immediately start shivering while we push our little carts around gathering all that good grub for tonight's BBQ party. Of course, in a few days a summer cold takes hold and now our bodies get to freeze and heat up at the same time as we sneeze our way through another wonderful July heat wave.

It seems weird to me that can we make a nice, hot, steaming cup of coffee and it tastes great but, if we leave it too long, it gets cold. And then, later in the day, we go to the fridge and pull out a nice cold beer. Of course, that cold beer is heading exactly where you don't want it to go ... it gets warm if you don't drink it right down. I don't get it. Why can't coffee (or tea) stay hot forever, or at least as long as it takes us to savour and enjoy the wonderful aroma and flavour? And there's nothing worse in the entire world than warm beer (except maybe cold fried eggs — actually, it's a tossup). The same thing happens with our food. I just don't get this hot to cold, cold to warm situation. Sure, we've invented special mugs that help keep the coffee hot for longer and special holders for our beer cans that keep it colder longer, but in the long run, they only slow down the inevitable.

And then there's the human body, which is a miracle in itself. However, there's all that hair that grows in places where we modern folk don't want it to grow. So we shave the places where hair isn't respectable most of the time. For most men, it's our faces and, as we get older, that nasty hair seems to double its efforts to embarrass us by teaming out of our noses and ears. But the one place we really want to keep our hair for as long as we can — on our heads — our hair decides to recede and eventually disappear altogether. Nuts! Of course, this doesn't apply to men who like hair on their faces or those who like the "sexy" look of going completely bald. But those guys are definitely in the minority.

The ladies have it even worse when it comes to hair. Not only do they have to pamper the hair on their heads, they're expected to eliminate hair on their legs, arms and all the other nooks and crannies where hair just isn't supposed to be. Shaving legs and under arms isn't a fun proposition, but most modern women put themselves through that torture in order to fit in with the respectable elements of society. Of course, there's always a few feminists around who repudiate this hair elimination task, but they don't really count because most of them aren't really feminine, now are they.

As we get older or, if we eat too much, women get big butts and men get big bellies. So we spend a fortune on exercise equipment, or gym memberships or we get into the "eat healthy" craze which the politically correct minions of society have turned into a war on hamburgers and pizza and booze and all of life's pleasures we indulge in to help us take our minds off how sloppy life is. Maybe life will be easier in fifty or a hundred years when scientists will have figured out how to turn half of our bodies into robots so we won't have to deal with so many sloppy parts. Everyone will virtually be Robo Cops, at that point. Of course, then we'll have to deal with oiling the machine parts in order to keep them running properly.

(Don't believe me? Check this out: We'll be uploading our entire MINDS to computers by 2045 and our bodies will be replaced by machines within 90 years)

Oh well, I won't be around by then so what does it matter. Not sure whether I'd rather eat lots of broccoli to stay healthy or suck on an oil can for sustenance. Either way, life is destined to remain sloppy no matter what we do.

So far I've haven't mentioned all the man made causes of sloppiness, but all of them go without saying. We have murder, fraud, corruption, lying, cheating ... the list goes on. Our species, no matter which era of history, seems to have a natural ability to create so many ways to make life not only sloppy, but downright nasty. If only we could all turn into Vulcans, with their amazing sense of logic and an ability to clearly understand reality. Maybe then we could let up a little on the hatred that divides many of our species that keeps the nastiness flowing like a burning river. It's always puzzled me as to why so many people in the world spend so much time being angry and violent. I guess it's in our genes or something so hopefully a hundred years from now when humans will all end up being Cyborgs, they'll replace the angry genes with happy genes and we'll finally get some peace and quiet — but I wouldn't count on it.

So, aside from all these obvious deficiencies in human nature, there's one nasty imposition most technologically efficient people have to deal with on a daily basis ... and it sucks — big time! It's worse than being murdered because at least if you're murdered you're dead and you can leave all this
sloppiness behind.

In the words of Monty Python: spam! spam! spam! spam! spam!

No, I don't want your latest weight loss program or your counterfeit Viagra or your advice on how to lower my mortgage interest rate on a house I don't own. It's amazing how many spammers in the world are so concerned with my health, home and happiness. Do they really get anyone in their right mind to take them up on their offers of a better life? Total strangers I meet in live situations never seem that concerned about my well being. Why would total strangers who happen to get a hold of my email addresses care if I get richer while working in my pyjamas?

I have to spend time deleting over 500 spam emails every day. Thanks spammers for making life so much fun ... and sloppy as hell!

What is most amazing about us humans is that despite all of the above, we endure. We remain enthralled by a beautiful sunset slowly dipping below the horizon. We get chills of appreciation when we hug a loved one. We vacuum, we scrub, and we take out the garbage every day.  We clean the dishes, paint the fence, cut the grass and we create beautiful landscapes, buildings and playgrounds because, even with all the sloppiness we must endure, there is beauty all around us. An amazing universe is out there, so we study the stars and dream of going places "where man has never gone before" ... somewhere without the damn bugs, I suspect.

"I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equal." - Sir Winston Churchill

Have a nice day!

September 09, 2013

TV Review: Detroit 1-8-7 (2010)

Cops shows on TV are a dime a dozen, from the various CSI series to the boy/girl shows such as Castle and Bones.

I've never gotten into the CSI shows or Law and Order, assuming that they're all essentially the same basic plot repeated over and over, which is why I avoided similar shows in years gone by, such as Barnaby Jones, Ironside and the original Hawaii 5-0. However, I was a fan of NYPD Blues because of its gritty realism and complicated relationships, so I never completely avoided cop shows.

Detroit 1-8-7 was not on my radar when it originally aired in 2010, but I decided to give it a try since it's one and only season is out on DVD. I've now watched all 18 episodes and, to my surprise, I was quite taken by the cast of characters and how they managed to come across as real people with real
problems that aren't always solved during the shows 42 minute run time.

What really sets a cop show apart from all the others, aside from the basic murder mystery plot, is its characters. They don't have to all be likeable, but it helps if they're at least unique and interesting.

Detective Louis Fitch played by Michael Imperioli is one of the most compelling characters on any show I've watched in recent years. There's a mystery going on with Fitch that slowly reveals itself over the course of the 18 episodes that helps keep the plots from getting too predictable and cliché. Fitch is, at first, very much a loner who seems to have trouble developing relationships within the rest of the precinct. However, as the show progresses, we get to gradually understand the dilemma he's facing and how he finally deals with a difficult situation that wraps up, fortunately, before the series' final episode.

The show has at least two storylines in each episode, sometimes three, as each team works on their current case. Finch, the veteran cop, is partnered with Detective Damon Washington (John Michael Hill), a rookie, and their relationship stumbles through a several episodes as Washington tries to figure out how to deal with Finch's quirky, isolationist personality. He never truly succeeds, but they do find a harmonious, though frustrating, way to work together. Both actors do a great job of developing their partnership so that it feels realistic and, by the end of the series, they've come to a workable understanding once Finch's situation is worked out.

Sergeant Jesse Longford (James McDaniel), the veteran cop who is close to retirement, is dealing with the sudden death of his wife and is partnered with Detective Vikram Mahajan (Shaun Majumder). Detective Ariana Sanchz (Natalie Martinez) and Detective John Stone (D.J. Controna) are partners who develop an intimate relationship that creates some sticky situations within the precinct. All three teams have their moments through out the series. Lieutenant Maureen Wilson, as played by Aisha Hinds, is the den mother of all three teams and fills out the ensemble cast as a strong, but caring leader as she jugglles raising her teenage daughter with the stress of police work.

The problem with a lot of cop shows is the plots become too predictable. No matter how much danger the lead characters have to face, they always win in the end, so much of the drama is mute. Therefore, it was a nice surprise when one of the main characters gets gunned down unexpectedly. No spoilers here. You'll have to watch the show to find out which one. This alone puts Detroit 1-8-7 a step ahead of many other similar types of shows.

Finally, for once a show that is set in a city is actually shot in that city. Detroit plays an integral part of the atmosphere, especially with the soundtrack and music selections. Having grown up across the river from Detroit, it's sad to see the city having so many problems. Detroit 1-8-7 makes you
realize that with all the crime and financial difficulties, there are still people in the city who care.

Unfortunately, quality shows like Detroit 1-8-7 all too often don't get high enough ratings to keep them on the air for very long. However, with 18 episodes, there's enough to enjoy what could have been a long term stalwart for the network if only they had given the show a bit more time and publicity to catch on with the TV viewing public.

Note: Reviewing cancelled TV shows that are available on DVD will be a regular feature.

Detroit 1-8-7  Trailer

August 31, 2013

Classic Movies: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, is probably the director's most famous film. It's now hailed as one of his best, however, critics  weren't very thrilled with Hitchcock's venture into the horror genre when the film was released in June 1960. Whether Psycho qualifies as a "horror" film is open to debate, but the film's macabre elements and the violent way in which those elements were presented was regarded as a step down for Hitchcock who, in previous films, relied on subtlety and suggestion to convey the more unpleasant aspects of the script. While the famous "shower scene" is mild by today's standards, in 1960 the amount of blood spilled was considered gratuitous.

I first saw Psycho when I was an usher at the old Centre Theatre in Chatham, Ontario when the film returned to the theatres for it's second run. I was working the balcony that night and when the notorious shower scene arrived, our devious projectionist had a habit of cranking up the sound volume to enhance the horror of those few minutes. Even though my fellow ushers had warned me this was coming, I still wasn't prepared for those screeching violins and cellos and almost jumped out of my shoes along with the audience. I would go on to see that scene about a dozen times during its run and it creeped me out every time.

An important element of Psycho is the superb black and white cinematography of John L. Russell, the same cinematographer who handled the camera work on Hitchcock's television anthology program. Brooding shadows are expertly captured by Russell's lens, and his work was deservedly nominated for an Oscar. The scenes in which Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) dispenses death to his victims are strikingly photographed and Russell's talents are also represented well in less heralded scenes.

These include the scenes in which Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) drives along the road at night while the voices of her co-workers, as well as her victim, are heard questioning her whereabouts and wondering what fate has befallen both Crane and the money she was responsible for depositing. Perhaps the film's eeriest moment, especially for those who have seen the film, is when Crane reaches what will be her final destination on a dark, rain splattered night. The wipers clear the rain from the windshield of her car, and suddenly the neon sign bearing the Bates Motel — vacancy — becomes visible.

While the look of the film is important, there should be equal appreciation for its sound, particularly the music score by Bernard Herrmann. From the opening moments when the titles (expertly designed by Saul Bass) are slashed away, the composer masterfully conveys the sense of a knife eagerly ripping into human flesh. The Psycho score is music perfect for carving meat, and the film would be much less effective without it.

Hitchcock's touches of black humor are very evident in Psycho, most notably in Norman's hobby — taxidermy. Norman Bates likes to stuff things. The stuffed birds that adorn the walls of Norman's office were prophetic, for Hitchcock would, in his next film, provide members of the flying set an opportunity to stuff themselves by snacking on human heads in 1963's The Birds. In Psycho, those ever watchful yet dead eyes seem to represent Norman's voyeurism, his only mode of sexual expression, not only before the murder of Marion Crane when he watches her undress through a peephole, but throughout the film. When not cutting loose with a kitchen knife, Norman is passive, watching, and seemingly preparing for the kill.

The film stumbles somewhat at the end, but not as badly as Mrs. Bates whose hollow-eyed corpse hogs a well deserved close-up at the film's climax, but enough to prevent Psycho from achieving perfection. A lengthy denouement in which a psychologist (Simon Oakland) attempts to explain the motives behind Norman's behavior is filled with a lot of sophomoric psychology that would be embarrassing if it wasn't so dull. Rigormortis sets in at this point, and the scene seems longer than the 108 minute running time of the entire picture. Fortunately, there is a payoff in the final moments when Norman Bates returns to the screen for a brief but shocking moment as both mother and son.

Psycho is an important film, not only in Hitchcock's filmography, but also in film history and culture. For Hitchcock, Psycho is unique and a source of controversy. After a string of big budget, colorful, and glamorous films (To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest), Hitchcock was forced into making Psycho on a very small budget, filming almost entirely on the backlot of Universal Studios. (At one point, it is even rumored that the film, having shocked the original distributor, Paramount, almost became a two-part episode of his NBC program, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.)

Psycho's ultimate success reverberated throughout Hollywood. The film's graphic, for the time, depictions of violence broke a few taboos, and after John Carpenter's 1978 production of Halloween, which owed a debt to Hitchcock's style, Psycho was deemed to be the first "slasher" film. Soon after the Friday the 13th series followed in the wake of Halloween's box office success.

A great companion film to Psycho is the 2012 film Hitchcock, which depicts the development and filming of Psycho and all the trials and tribulations that ensued. Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren are spot on as Hitch and his wife Alma Reville and they're quite a couple. The script is smart and witty and is a great way to understand how difficult it was to get this picture made.

Psycho (1960)

Anthony Perkins ... Norman Bates 
Vera Miles ... Lila Crane 
John Gavin ... Sam Loomis 
Janet Leigh ... Marion Crane 
Martin Balsam ... Det. Milton Arbogast 

Director ... Alfred Hitchcock

Psycho Trailer:


August 20, 2013

Top Fives - The Best of The Beatles

According to John Lennon, the Beatle who sang lead vocal on a song was usually the main songwriter. So, here are my favorite Beatle songs determined by who I believe is the main songwriter of the tune. The Beatles started song writing right from the beginning. Their first album included a mixture of original tunes such as Love Me Do, Do You Want to Know a Secret, PS I Love You along with cover songs ranging from girl groups, R & B, pop classics and good old Rock 'n' Roll.

Choosing favorite songs from so many diverse and classic tunes is definitely a difficult task, since the band went through several stages during their six plus years together on the international stage. It's kind of like choosing between the early rocker Elvis and the later Vegas Elvis. The early Beatles covers were great, but can't really be counted in the Top Five if the song wasn't written by John, Paul or George. As the band matured, the arrangements became more complex to the point where the band, along with producer George Martin, succeeded in changing the face of rock music from a limited range to an anything goes approach.

So here's my Top Five list (plus a few extras).

Overall Favorite:

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

We all have out favorite Beatle song, and While My Guitar Gently Weeps is the one that haunts me to this day.  While My Guitar Gently Weeps has been covered by many different artists, from Jeff Healey to Santana and it remains one of my favorite rock songs of all time. We have meaningful lyrics, a haunting beat and an luscious Eric Clapton solo that is hard to beat. George had become a very talented songwriter as The Beatles' music matured, but he was only allowed one or two songs per album. With the release of the double White album, George had more opportunities to shine and came up with some great tunes.

George Harrison

While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Here Comes The Sun
I Need You

John Lennon

Come Together
If I Fell
You've Got to Hide Your Love Away
In My Life

Paul McCartney

Gotta Get You Into My Life
Oh! Darling
Lady Madonna
She's a Woman

Most over rated songs

Hey Jude
Let It Be

Best Ringo Starr vocal

With a Little Help From My Friends

Worst Song

Why Don't We Do It in the Road

Lennon & McCartney

A Day in the Life

This is the definitive collaboration of Lennon & McCartney and George Martin, and a major innovation in rock music at the time. For many years it topped the greatest rock song of all time on many lists and is masterful in its concept and execution. The Beatles had evolved from I Want to Hold Your Hand to I Want To Turn You On, and it was as if we all woke up to a much more expansive world of Rock 'n' Roll. The question is: Is A Day in the Life really a Rock song?

One final note. When I shared my list with my brother, he scolded me for leaving out Norwegian Wood, You're Gonna Lose That Girl, Fool on The Hill and a dozen other songs. Sorry Dennis, I did my best with this list. If I did the list on another day, it very well might come out a lot different. Bottom line: While My Guitar Gently Weeps will always be my favorite no matter how many times I do this list.

So what are your favorite Beatle songs?

A Day In The Life video:


August 14, 2013

Book Review: The Soundtrack of My Life by Clive Davis

Back in 1974 I read a book called Clive: Inside the Record Business and it remains one of my favorite non-fiction books. Still have the paperback edition. I was not many years from being a musician at the time, so reading about the inner workings of the record business was interesting and enlightening.

Now we have Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of My Life which is an updated version of that 1974 book in my estimation, covering his early years as well as his record executive experience up to 2012. I enjoyed the book but that's because I love any book that reveals the behind the scenes goings on, whether the movie, music or book business.

This is not a gossip filled account of celebrity musicians, but concentrates on the business side of how Clive Davis became a successful music executive and how he dealt with the singers and bands throughout his career and helped them become commercially successful.

The Soundtrack of My Life begins with his early life, family history, education and how he was able to become a lawyer despite his middle class, Brooklyn upbringing. Clive Davis did not set out to be a music mogul, but earned a scholarship to Harvard and, after getting his law degree, became a lawyer at Columbia records after a series of unplanned events.

He became the driving force who led Columbia Records from its successful history of pop classics, Broadway cast albums and movie soundtracks, to one of the major labels of rock n roll, and it all started at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The provocative rendition of the song Ball 'n' Chain by Janis Joplin and her band Big Brother and the Holding Company thoroughly enthralled Davis and he insisted on signing the group to Columbia, even though he wasn't really in charge of signing new artists at that point in time.

From Monterey Pop to American Idol, the history of Rock 'n' Roll behind the scenes is laid out, including his sudden firing at Columbia in the early 70's to the rise of Arista Records to the formation of J Records. The Soundtrack of My Life is filled with fascinating stories about some the most successful icons of music in the last 50 plus years.

A couple of stories stand out, those of Barry Manilow, Aretha Franklin, the tragic demise of Whitney Houston and the amazing revival of Carlos Santana's career with the release of Supernatural, the number one hit of 1999.

There was an ongoing conflict between Clive Davis and some of his artists, including Manilow, regarding which songs would appear on their albums. Barry wanted to record just the songs he'd written, but Davis felt this was a mistake. Davis wanted Barry to allow him to choose two songs for each album, which Manilow finally agreed to. Thus many of Barry's major hits ended up being songs written by other songwriters, which helped boost him into super stardom. On the other hand, Taylor Dayne wouldn't agree to this arrangement, to her detriment. Her career rapidly declined after a few years and years later she expressed her regret to Clive Davis that she didn't follow his advise.

The stories about how Clive Davis helped revive the careers of both Aretha Franklin and Carlos Santana are fascinating. One important element of these stories is that Davis doesn't take all the credit for himself. He consistently lavishes praise on the producers, A & R personnel, songwriters and other company executives who took part in these successes.

The triumphs and tragedy of Whitney Houston is told in detail by Davis as he unsuccessfully attempted to steer her career away from the drugs and unhealthy relationship that ended up bringing her down. This is probably the longest section about one artist. Whitney Houston had a major impact on the music business and it's sad that such a talent could lose everything due to addictions that suffocated her life. But it's a common tragedy in the world of celebrities and a stark warning for those who are paying attention.

Of course, The Soundtrack of My Life is an autobiography, so we are getting the stories from one point of view. I'm sure there are those who will have major disagreements with how Clive Davis renders the facts. In fact, there are many who believe that Clive Davis and the entertainment business is evil and has a bad influence on culture and society. So be it. There are many other publications out there with different opinions you can check out.

If you're not interested in the business side of the music business, then this probably isn't the book for you. I enjoyed the inside stories about how artists are signed and developed. I didn't really need the details about his sex life, but other than that, The Soundtrack of my Life is a fascinating history about how one man successfully became a major power player in the music business and changed the direction of rock 'n' roll forever.

August 10, 2013

Movie Review: The Master (2012)

Philip Seymour Hoffman is well cast as cult leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master, the 2012 film from director Paul Thomas Anderson. Unfortunately, Hoffman's performance is caught in a script that flounders around from one disjointed scene after another.

So many scenes come and go and are never developed. For instance, there's a scene where Dodd's married daughter makes a pass at Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) while a group of cult followers are gathered together. This action comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere except a brief mention later on when the daughter tells her father she thinks Freddie is in lover with her, which obviously isn't true.

Another scene out in the desert of Arizona has Dodd, sitting on his motorcycle, breathlessly telling his daughter, her husband and Freddie, that the game is to pick a point and drive there as fast as you can. So, we get a scene of Dodd driving his motor bike as fast as he can. When he returns, Freddy picks a point and drives there as fast as he can, interspersed with Dodd in extreme close-up stating, "He's going very fast." So what's the point of this scene? Beats me. It feels like it's just dropped into the movie to give all the intellectual snobs a reason to proclaim how deep and meaningful the movie is, as if we've witnessed some metaphysical secret. However, chop this scene from the movie and nothing changes. It's nothing but smoke and mirrors from a director who shot the scenes perhaps with some purpose in mind but wasn't able to connect it to the rest of the story in a meaningful way.

Transitions from one scene to the next are a problem since no coherent story line has been developed. Joaquin Phoenix's character is the main focus, rather than Lancaster Dodd. Freddie Quell is a drunk and not very pleasant guy. I'm not a fan of Phoenix as an actor but he plays this crazy guy rather well, however, there is no growth in the character. He's the same jerk at the end as he was at the beginning despite all the silly games Dodd puts him through that are supposed to improve his personality or something, none of it very interesting.

And that's the biggest disappointment with The Master. Nothing that happens is very interesting. I expected a tense drama showing the clash between the cult's teachings and the mainstream, but other than a brief scene where some guy challenges Dodd's ideas, nothing is developed in this direction. Instead, we get a story about a cult leader who is making up his philosophy as he goes along while using Freddy as a guinea pig that is supposedly helping him find self enlightenment. So he has Freddy walk between a wall and a window over and over again and stating what he feels, while other cult members watch. The character gets quite bored with this after awhile ... and so do we, the movie audience.

Amy Adams plays Dodd's wife, but really has little bearing on the story except for a couple of brief scenes where she makes nasty remarks about Freddy Quell. Laura Dern has a small part as one of the cult leaders and is in probably one of the few good scenes in the movie when she questions the changes in Dodd's philosophical direction. But again, this goes nowhere and we're next treated with the aforementioned desert scene that serves no purpose at all.

Disjointed, purposeless, boring and little development of any character makes The Master a major disappointment. It also has one of the weirdest soundtrack music you'll ever come across in a movie. The acting is consistently quite good and the cinematography is excellent, but this movies is only going to be appreciated by those who can find intellectual genius in a painting that consists of one black stripe going from top to bottom on the canvas.

The Master (2012)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Joaquin Phoenix  ...  Freddie Quell
Philip Seymour Hoffman ...  Lancaster Dodd
Amy Adams ...  Peggy Dodd

The Master Trailer


August 06, 2013

Osibisa – Joyful Music

Osibisa hails from West Africa, specifically Ghana but they started recording in London in the late 1960's. The band was a bit of a sensation in the mid 70s and their popularity continues today, even though you've probably never heard of them.

They've been labelled World Music, AfroPop, Highlife, but I would call them jazz/funk due to their incredible rhythms and sensational horn solos including flute, flugelhorn and trumpet, along with an amazing percussions and drum beat. But that label doesn't really describe the extent of all the bases they touch.

The band features a flying elephant(s) on the cover of their first two albums, which may have been the reason why I was curious enough to buy both albums out of the bargain bin at Kmart many years ago. I've found a lot of treasures in those clearance tables and this band is at the top of that list.

Osibisa's music is very intoxicating, and filled with happiness and joy. Their guitars, drums, horns and percussions work in perfect harmony to create music that is an amazing amalgamation of rhythm & blues and rock & roll to an African drum beat with a strong bass line that keeps the music thumping along.

Most of their songs are funky instrumentals, but they do some vocals, such as Woyaya, which has been covered by diverse artists including Art Garfunkel, The 5th Dimension and Book of Love. It's a joyful song of hope and determination and one of their best.

A lot of their song titles are going to look strange to our Western eyes — Akwaaba, Ayiko Biya, Kokorokoo — but don't let that bother you, every song is hot and definitely won't disappoint. My favorite tune is Y Sharp from their 2nd album, Woyaya, released in 1971. What can I say, best for you to listen to this tune yourself.

This live performance combines two Osibisa tunes, Y Sharp and Beautiful Seven. Enjoy!

You can check out more Osibisa performances on You Tube. What are you waiting for??

August 04, 2013

Rock 'n' Roll Will Never Die — But it Did (Part 1)

... at least, it did for me sometime in the mid 1990's. The scene had changed. Boy bands, hip hop, rap, grunge, spicy girls dominated the charts and it didn't do much for someone who'd grown up with Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, the Blues, Otis Redding, James Brown, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Motown ....

I'm not trying to knock the "rock" music of today — every generation has their musical heroes -- and the generation before mine certainly had their problems with that "devil music" rock 'n' roll. What I guess I'm saying is each generation of music reflects the cultural changes that inevitably happen with the technological advances available at the time, leaving behind those who get older and can't identify with the new music being presented.

I'm certain I've missed some good rock 'n' roll bands since my self imposed exile from listening to the current scene (my brother keeps telling about Tragically Hip), but my problem is there is so much stuff out there that doesn't interest me at all, I don't have the time or energy any more to wade through it all to find a few gems.

I started high school in 1963. It was quite a year. In November, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Us high school kids were shocked, along with the rest of the world. And then, in December of 1963, I heard a Beatles song for the first time. We went from one low, low point when it seemed as if the world had gone mad, to the calming effect this band of merry Englishmen brought to the world and culture suffering through a major heart wrenching disaster.

Dion singing Ruby Baby
Of course, I was into rock 'n' roll before The Beatles. My hero before December of 1963 was Dion DeMucci, better know as just Dion. His music came out of the doo wop craze of the 1950's and his songs are infectious and finger snapping great. From the whiny teeny bopper laments of Teenager in Love and Lonely Teenage, to the very adult Ruby Baby and Runaround Sue, Dion, who started out with The Belmonts before going solo, rocked right up there with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and all the great pioneers of rock n roll. Last time I checked, he was still at it at the age of 75ish.

You know how certain songs or bands remind you of certain people in your life? Well Ruby Baby always makes me think of my older brother, Dennis, who is also a big Dion fan. It's a song I can listen to over and over again and sometimes I can't get it out of my head -- or want to. I'm so glad Dion didn't take that plane ride with Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens when, according to the great Don McLean in his epic song American Pie, it was the day the music died.

Many people believe that rock 'n' roll started on the day in July, 1954 when Sun Records released Elvis Presley's single That's Alright Mama/Blue Moon of Kentucky. I was barely out of diapers at the time so I can't really say one way or the other. My earliest memory of Elvis happened a few years later when our family was driving through the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee on our way to our Florida vacation. It was kind of scary driving high up in the mountains. For my two brothers and me, the scenery was exhilarating and our ears kept popping and on the radio Elvis was singing I'm All Shook Up. We were certainly feeling a bit shaky as we looked down at the trees and river so far below.

John Lennon was quoted as saying, "Before Elvis there was nothing."

However, Elvis actually disagreed with Lennon, when he said, “A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock 'n' roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let's face it: I can't sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.”

He was right. The term rock 'n' roll was actually used by white radio disc jockeys at the time for white audiences to cover up the fact that this so called new music was actually rhythm and blues made popular by so many great black musicians in the late 1940's and early 1950's. For a detailed history of the origins of rock music, you can check out Wikipedia here: Rock and Roll

Three months before Elvis recorded That's Alright Mama, Bill Hailey & The Comets recorded Rock Around The Clock, a key milestone song that was not a major hit at the time. However, when the song was used in the opening sequence of the movie The Blackboard Jungle, it caught on big time with teenagers and set the rock 'n' roll craze in motion.

Chuck Berry
And so, early rock 'n' roll was actually rhythm and blues with a white face, but in time it integrated to include major innovators who pioneered the sound that would eventually break off into so many categories it makes your head spin. I still listen to those old rock 'n' rollers -- Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Dion, of course and many others. The music is as fresh and fun as it was the day it was released.

However, a new form of rock music invaded our society and culture in late 1963 that would change everything. More on that in Part 2 and how this "invasion" turned so many of us teenagers into guitar players, driving our parents, teachers and neighbors crazy.

Book Review: Sanctus by Simon Toyne

Once in awhile I buy a book on impulse, never having heard about the author or the book, but simply due to the cover art and the brief plot summary.

In the past, this impulse has led me to some great authors and books, including Relic, by Preston and Child as well as John Connelly's The Killing Kind.

If you're into reading thrillers, then standing in a book store skimming a copy of Sanctus will definitely get you excited. The art work is top notch and the plot summary is intriguing.

From the back cover:
In the oldest inhabited place on earth, atop a mountain known as the Citadel, a Vatican-like city-state towers above the city of Ruin in modern-day Turkey.

Now, thanks to media coverage of a climber's assent, the eyes of the whole world are on a group that has prized its secrets above all things. For the Sancti—the monks living inside the Citadel—this could mean the end of everything they have built and protected for millennia . . . and they will stop at nothing to keep what is theirs.

For American reporter Liv Adamsen, driven by the memory of a tragic loss, an earth-shaking discovery awaits that will change everything . . .

British author, Simon Toyne, was working in television previous to starting his writing career. He was getting restless and too comfortable in his job because his ambition had always been to write novels. In 2007 he finally left his career behind and moved to France for six months to work on his book. It takes a lot of confidence for anyone to make this commitment to yourself, and it has paid off as the novel has become a well deserved International Best Seller.

Sanctus has been compared to the DaVinci Code, which is a fictionalized version of historical facts. Sanctus, however, is totally fiction. The Citadel, the city of Ruin, the Sacraments, which are at the centre of the plot, the various religious factions and the historical background are all made up by the
author, Simon Toyne. This is a major accomplishment because every detail rings true and feels believable.

One excellent device Toyne uses throughout is to keep the chapters short, which encourages you to keep reading. Some chapters are only a page or two and this keeps the action flowing. You keep thinking, 'okay, I've got time for one more chapter' and before you know it, you've read fifty pages in no time at all.

Character development is as good as you would expect from this type of novel, and it's easy to get right into the flow of the action, which starts immediately and never lets up. At first, it's difficult to figure out who are the heroes and villains, which also keeps you reading until all becomes clear.

Another positive is the writing style which isn't overly descriptive, like some novelists who bore you with so many miniscule details you end up skipping over endless paragraphs that disrupt the flow of the story. The action is believable for the most part and speeds up nicely as the book gets closer to the
ending, which isn't really an ending since this is the first book in a three book trilogy.

Some may consider the ending to this first book in the trilogy a bit over the top and far fetched, but what the heck, this is fiction, anything is possible.

I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series. All three have now been published, so it's off to the book store to carry on with this excellent series.

The second part of the trilogy, The Key, was released on April 12, 2012 and the third part, The Tower, was released on April 13, 2013.

You can visit the author's website for a preview of each book here: Simon Toyne

Random Thoughts - Shadows

We live in a world of shadows. Shadows of our ancestors. Shadows of ourselves. Shadows of lost loves and crossroads never taken.

Within these shadows lay secrets and dreams that haunt and mystify.

During the darkness of night, shadows blend into and invade our dreams. Thoughts become like shooting stars bouncing around in our brain. Shadows capture our
thoughts, infiltrate and inflate our desires and secretly transform what might be into what will be.

In our waking hours we become puppets of the shadows of time that guides us through the waves of thoughts and emotions floating through our steely defences.

Dark shadows extract consequences. The darker the shadow, the deeper the plunge into shadow land, a place where darkness pretends to turn into light, beaming its dark glow throughout our existence.

Beware when shadows turn into light.

Damages: The Face of Evil?

This is the face of evil. Take a close look. Glenn Close plays super lawyer Patty Hewes in the series Damages and this is the final shot of the series finale which ended in 2012. The camera lingers on her face for a full 40 seconds, and it's quite fascinating to watch since those viewers of all five seasons of Damages know without a doubt that she really is the personification of evil.

Glenn Close has one of those scary faces that just screams "WITCH" don't you think? The hair and makeup and that mouth! Evil, for sure.

What else can you see in that face? Arrogance. Of course. During the course of 59 episodes, this character has done everything possible to win her court cases. Manipulate judges, have rivals murdered, lie whenever it benefited her case as well as pull off some slick manoeuvring that allowed her to always come out on top. Corruption at the highest level of the law. And yet, no one in authority ever takes action against her. In fact, during the fifth and last season she's asked to consider becoming a judge on the Supreme Court. What is even more scary is that she showed no genuine remorse or guilt for all her evil doing throughout the entire five seasons.

If there truly are people and lawyers in the world like this character, then all I can say is, no wonder the world we live in is so messed up.

Herein lies the main problem with Damages. The writers have created a really nasty villain, but there is never any truly strong character to oppose her. Patty's main rival is Ellen Parsons, played by Australian actress Rose Byrne. Ellen is supposed to be an ambitious, up and coming, hot shot lawyer, but she is so meek and almost ditzy when up against Patty Hewes, it plays out like one of those nature films that show a big, rambling lion taking down a frantic gazelle in the plains of Africa. This is especially true during the final season when Ellen and Patty go head to head in a court battle over a Wikileaks type of web site that accidently leaked personal information that lead to the (supposed) suicide of one of their whistleblowers.

Watching Ellen Parsons stumble through the season trying to outwit Patty Hewes was, at times, difficult to watch. Lack of a strong character to oppose such complete evil was so frustrating, I'm not sure why I bothered to watch to the very end. I guess I wanted to believe the writers would finally create a situation that allowed Ellen to shine, but the opposite eventually played out.

My initial attraction to Damages was the way the storylines throughout each season were based on real current events, from the Enron scandal to a Bernie Madoff Ponzi Scheme situation and so on. Unfortunately, the writing throughout was under par for the most part. The use of constant flashbacks as a device to manipulate and trick the viewer never really worked because the clues given were often totally misleading. This is especially true of the 5th season series finale, where the flashback implies something that is so sneaky, when the truth was revealed I wanted to throw my shoe at the TV screen.

Flashbacks can be a good device when handled with care, but this show used this technique in almost every episode to the point where it got to be a bore and it didn't take long to figure out after a season or two what was going on. When laying down clues, a good mystery plays fair with the audience. Not so with Damages.

Finally, I hate shows that seem to have scenes that do little to move the story forward. It's like the writer's are just killing time so they can fill the 42 minutes of each episode without having to work too hard. There were many scenes like this throughout Damages, where I thought, "Move on! I don't care about this sideshow!"

Is there anything positive to say about Damages? Yes, one season had a character played by Timothy Oliphant. I was so taken by him, that I started searching out other shows he's been on. This led to HBO's Deadwood, and his current show, Justified, both excellent dramas and Justified has quickly become one of my favorite shows of all time.

Damages (2007–2012 )
TV Series

Glenn Close  ...  Patty Hewes 
Rose Byrne  ...  Ellen Parsons