Saturday, May 02, 2009

Music For A Saturday In May - Jazzy Version

Over the past few years I've added several collections of music which you can listen to on many of the posts I've made, mostly through a service called Seeqpod. Sadly, they have been sued by a couple of record lables - Warner and EMI to name a few. The result is the Seeqpod folks have had to file bankruptcy and suspend operations while they sort out this mess.

That also means all those posts which did have music you could listen to are all empty as the embeded music is just no longer there.

So I was working on adding some music for this fine day in May and have decided to try a new one service, called Imeem instead. Let's see if it works (and the return of Seeqpod will arrive soon, I hope). The music I picked for today is a sampling of some jazz tunes I really enjoy and hope you will too. I do listen to all types of music, new and old, I just liked the way all these sounded for this particular day in May.

One song I encountered recently is the first one, by a singer famous for her humor, her high girlish voice and her unique jazzy sound named Blossom Dearie. As a longtime fan of jazz singers and jazz music, I was a bit embarrased to discover I had never heard of her before. She passed away back in February and if you have never heard her before, I hope you like it enough to go in search of more from her, as I did. I found out while listening to the song I included that the modern singer Feist covered this tune too, but rather than repeat her version, I found another by Feist tune which I liked too. The others are just a taste of some other jazzy tunes, including one of my favorites from Louis Armstrong. Enjoy!

some jazz

Friday, May 01, 2009

Camera Obscura: Top 100 Movie Soundtracks; 'Straw Dogs' Remake

After the popularity of the recent post Top Ten Movie Characters, I was working on a Top Ten Movie Composers/Soundtracks idea and this week the Hollywood Reporter offered a list of the Top 100 film scores in honor of the fact that 2009 marks the 100th anniversary of music in the movies.

Soundtracks can make a mediocre movie so much better or a really good movie can be destroyed by bad music. And I've got more on this just below, but first a few quick takes on some movie news you should know.

Thanks to Newscoma, I learned about the upcoming release of the sci-fi movie "Moon", directed by singer David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones (formerly known as Zowie Bowie), which stars Sam Rockwell and is being featured in numerous film festivals at the moment. It looks great -- please check out the preview for it here at Newscoma's page.

Fox has been pumping out lots of promos for "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" into my email, and I have to say how much I don't like that the movie has lots of focus on the character of Sabertooth, but he is part of the origin story, even though the comics canon says he is not his brother and I just never liked that character. I was glad to hear they are using the very, very funny character of Deadpool, though again Hollywood is mangling that one too. At the least, you might enjoy the Wolverine mini-game you can play here at the official website and you can download it into your iPod too.

Worst Remake Idea of the Year: Plans are underway for an August start date for a remake of the still-controversial 1971 Sam Peckinpah movie "Straw Dogs". Woe unto anyone who tries to remake one of Peckinpah's near-perfect movies. It's a movie that can really annoy and disturb viewers, and there is immense ambiguity in the movie as it examines the themes of violence and revenge through the experiences of self-professed pacifist, played by Dustin Hoffman. Add in the sub-texts of the Vietnam War and a rape scene which seems more erotic than violent, and you have a movie which raised ruckus back in the day.

Plus, this remake changes a very key element to the original novel and movie -- the tale revolves around what happens when an American relocates to rural England with his new wife, but the remake instead moves the story to the South, and this entire project is a bad, bad idea.

Now let's talk about music in the movies.

To get an idea of how strange a young boy I was, the first soundtrack I bought when I was a kid was from "2001: A Space Odyssey". And I actually listened to it. A lot. It still stands as a very unique blend of classical music and modern filmmaking and the scenes of a space ship docking with a space station while the Blue Danube Waltz plays behind it all is still quite dazzling.

So - a question for you --- who are the best film composers of all time? Which soundtracks have become part of our own lives, which music lives far beyond the running time of the movie?

As I mentioned, the Hollywood Reporter has a list of the Top 100 Soundtracks right here, and their top pick is for Nina Rota's score for "The Godfather".

Choosing my favorite composer is a tough call, and I end up picking two - Bernard Hermann and Ennio Morricone. Hermann is the creator of those incredible stabbing strings during the shower scene of "Psycho", and he made all of director Alfred Hitchcock's best movies so much better, like "North By Northwest", "Vertigo", "The Birds" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much". He also made the music for "Citizen Kane", "The Day The Earth Stood Still", "Cape Fear", and "Taxi Driver". His music is often re-worked today, and was featured in "Kill Bill" and "The Sporanos".

Ennio Morricone is also a favorite, even if only for one soundtrack, for "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly". In addition to all the Leone/Eastwood westerns he scored, he worked with Italy's horror masters Dario Argento and Mario Bava, and picked up his most recent Grammy Award in 2008. Often using unusual instruments (like Hermann), his music is always adds to the movie you're watching. And like Hermann, his scores often get re-worked into new movies and soundtracks all the time. He's scored 500 film and TV soundtracks - so far.

Mention too must be made of the one man who has won more Oscars for Best Original Score than anyone else - 45 nominations, 5 wins and 21 Grammy awards. Can you name him?

Shame on you if you claim to be a movie fan and cannot name this prolific musician. Some hints? Think "Star Wars", "Jaws", "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or the Harry Potter movies. It's John Williams. Just about everyone can do that ominous shark music from "Jaws" and his Star Wars themes likewise are very familiar. I've always been impressed with his work for Lucas and Spielberg, and the operatic music titled "Duel of the Fates" which Williams created for the three prequel movies in the Star Wars series is my favorite of all of his works. It soars and thrills and echoes with the great battles ever put onto film. Here's a clip of the final light saber battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan with the "Duel of the Fates" composition that's just about perfect:

Lucas also helped to establish the most current trend in movie soundtracks, using pop songs behind the action of the film, starting with the huge popularity of "American Graffiti", and the best-selling soundtrack album. Today, the King of that method is director Quentin Tarantino who selects pitch-perfect songs for his films. Here is a fan-made mashup of video from his movies and the music from the movies too.
(CAUTION: adult language and lots of violence. what? it's Tarantino!):

Eclectic Method - The Tarantino Mixtape from Eclectic Method on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Will We Need License Plates In Heaven?

Specialty license plates used to be an annoying indicator of the hubris and pride of a car owner. Now, like so much else today, these plates are yet another annoying indicator of how narrow-minded and useless some elected officials have become.

In Tennessee, politicos are mingling license plates with religion and politics and social issues into another weapon of mass distraction in the pointless game of posturing and posing in a culture war, foisted onto a culture which needs less war and could really use some peace.

Kleinheider notes the commotion in his post:

Praise the Lord!” exclaimed Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis, when the House Public Safety Subcommittee gave its approval to HB2196 late Tuesday.

The bill would create a special license plate for the Church of God in Christ, which Camper said has a 102-year history and a national headquarters in Memphis where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have been to the mountaintop” speech."

I suppose it could be worse. Like in Florida, where elected officials are pushing for a Jesus license plate.

Since everybody these days claims to know What Jesus Would Do, let me ask a question. Do you think he would want to be mass-produced by Caesar's state, sold for money and displayed on the public streets to gratify an act of pandering political piety?"

Why are politicians intent on making religious beliefs a way to divide us?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

State Workers Using Tobacco Must Pay More or Quit Smoking

Huron Indian myth has it that in ancient times, when the land was barren and the people were starving, the Great Spirit sent forth a woman to save humanity. As she traveled over the world, everywhere her right hand touched the soil, there grew potatoes. And everywhere her left hand touched the soil, there grew corn. And when the world was rich and fertile, she sat down and rested. When she arose, there grew tobacco...

The love-hate relationship with tobacco, the Bright Leaf, the Sot-Weed, endures.

State workers - and their spouses - in Tennessee will see a $50 a month increase in health insurance if they smoke, according to new regulations set to go into effect at year's end.

A report in today's Tennessean notes the intention is better health and saving money, but the costs of state-sponsored programs to help workers quit are also quite high:

To help smokers quit before the deadline, the state will offer sharp discounts on prescriptions and over-the-counter products like nicotine gum and patches starting May 1.

Employees will be allowed to take part in six-week smoking cessation seminars on state time. The state held its first stop-smoking seminar Monday — a 6:30 a.m. gathering at one of Nashville's correctional facilities. Similar seminars will be held in every county and at every agency, with online stop-smoking "webinars"

It's not yet known how much it will cost the state to help its workers and retirees kick the habit, but Haile estimated it could cost several hundred thousand dollars.

These workers - one of the few groups in Tennessee allowed to operate under a union - will also be subject to random testing to check on whether or not they are smoking.

Meanwhile, a report earlier this month quotes Vanderbilt economist Kip Viscusi, who has worked as a "litigation expert" for the tobacco industry, and he says the costs of smoking actually saves the nation money and that those who don't smoke impact insurance rates because they live longer:

However, smokers die some 10 years earlier than nonsmokers, according to the CDC, and those premature deaths provide a savings to Medicare, Social Security, private pensions and other programs.

Vanderbilt University economist Kip Viscusi studied the net costs of smoking-related spending and savings and found that for every pack of cigarettes smoked, the country reaps a net cost savings of 32 cents.

"It looks unpleasant or ghoulish to look at the cost savings as well as the cost increases and it's not a good thing that smoking kills people," Viscusi said in an interview. "But if you're going to follow this health-cost train all the way, you have to take into account all the effects, not just the ones you like in terms of getting your bill passed."

Viscusi worked as a litigation expert for the tobacco industry in lawsuits by states but said that his research, which has been published in peer-reviewed journals, has never been funded by industry.

Other researchers have reached similar conclusions.

A Dutch study published last year in the Public Library of Science Medicine journal said that health care costs for smokers were about $326,000 from age 20 on, compared to about $417,000 for thin and healthy people.

The reason: The thin, healthy people lived much longer."

Ah, tobacco, what are we to do with you?

--DISCLAIMER - The writer of the above was using tobacco during the writing of this article, but might alter that habit were he to be fortunate enough to become a unionized state worker.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Rep. Litz Offers Standards For Red Light Cameras

Appearing on Legislative Chat on public television, state representative John Litz of Morristown talked about his bill to establish statewide guides in how red light traffic camera intersections operate:

We are going to amend my bill that after the (caution) light, there is going to be a three-second all-red (signal) at that intersection,” Litz said of the legislation’s pending amendment. “After that three-second all-red, if you are still in that intersection, then you are going to be tagged with a citation. The reasoning behind this ... we wanted it to be uniform across the entire state. This gives us a chance to do that.”

To give an example of what impact the bill might have, Litz used this scenario: “If you’re coming up on an intersection, and you’re in a tractor-trailer, and you’re driving the speed limit if it is 45 miles per hour, there’s a point of no return whenever you get past the point where you can’t safely stop. What we want to do is give that vehicle a chance to get through there if they are at that point of no return without getting a $50 citation.”

Litz admitted one thing traffic light cameras have done for local governments is make money.

“There is a lot of argument and dissension in our area in Morristown. ... The agreement that (city officials) have made with the red light camera people is they get half the money,” Litz explained."

While it is notable that Rep. Litz is attempting to establish a state standard for these cameras, most people remain opposed to them. Rather than legislate a bad idea, it would serve the state better to outlaw the devices and put more emphasis on how we design intersections and roads in general.

The report also notes Rep. Litz's response to a plan to eliminate the stand-alone Ethics Commission and fold it into the Election Finance office. He also spoke about the current status of the state's Democratic Party, saying:

"I would consider myself a moderate conservative. ... I don’t think the Tennessee Democratic Party that I’m a part of is like a California Democrat. We’re not baby-killing, gun-stealing tree huggers."

I hope he isn't saying that such wingnuttery actually applies to some Democrats. Is he? The topic gets some debate in the comments at PostPolitics.

Rep. Litz serves as Assistant Democratic Leader for the House, as well as a member of the House Rules Committee, House Agriculture Committee, House State and Local Government Committee, and the Joint Veterans' Affairs Committee. John also serves on the House State Subcommittee and is Vice Chairman of the House General Subcommittee on Agriculture. His
website is here and it tracks the current legislation he is sponsoring.