Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"12 Years a Slave" is the One Film You Should See This Year

Sunday evening I went to see 12 Years a Slave, a new motion picture starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, two of the finest actors in film right now. Perhaps you've heard of this one. It's based on the true story a Solomon Northup, a free black man who had a family and lived in New York in the mid-1800s. A musician by trade, Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. For twelve years he worked on plantations and suffered under the cruelty of slave owners, After he was finally rescued and returned to his family, Northup wrote a firsthand account of his experience that was published in 1853. His book, Twelve Years a Slave, was a best seller and helped open the country's eyes to the horror of slavery. 

John Ridley, a screenwriter with credits as varied as U-Turn (1997), Undercover Brother (2002) and Red Tails (2012), adapted Northup's memoir, crafting an exceptional screenplay that uses beautiful language to capture a time in our history when being able to speak eloquently could cost a man his hide. Steve McQueen, the British born film director with only two other credits - Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), both starring Fassbender - tackled this historical drama with a mixture of eloquence and horror, and has made a flawless movie.
As I sat through the first half hour of 12 Years a slave, I felt I was watching an IMPORTANT film. You know these movies- ones like Schindler's List, Platoon and Gentleman's Agreement that are socially conscious stories that hope to change the way you, the viewer, see the world. Of course 12 Years a Slave is an important film, as it shows slavery in a way that I can't recall ever being depicted on film. If the unflinching brutality at this movie-and it is very brutal- does not cause you to become physically angry, I dare say you are lacking in some humanity.  

What I didn't expect from 12 Years a Slave was the beauty McQueen creates. Working with Director of Photography, Sean Bobbitt, there are many meditative moments throughout the film that record the wonder of Louisiana, where the film takes place. The quiet of the sky, gorgeous silhouettes of tall trees dripping with Spanish moss, the wondrous stars in the sky. All of these creations from God are the backdrop of degradation and evil. It's as if McQueen wanted us to acknowledge the dichotomy of good and evil, beauty and ugliness standing side by side.

While this film is full of misery I did feel some hope. Although Northup sinks to great depths of despair, he continues to takes risks to try and gain his freedom and return to home to his wife and children. 12 Years a Slave accomplishes what all movies try to do: it creates a strong protagonist in Northup and has you rooting for him throughout the story. Of course, I knew the outcome of the story, but McQueen is a gifted storyteller and managed to make me forget about the real life situations and become completely engrossed with the screen story.

Across the board the ensemble cast - which includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt and Alfre Woodard - are exceptional. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o gives a standout performance as Patsey, the victim of Fassbender's plantation owner's abuse and lust. This is one of the most stunning film debuts in years. I guarantee she will receive an Academy Award nomination. Likewise, Ejiofor and Fassbender should be locks for nominations, While you may see many great acting performances this year, none will top the work of these two men. 

As the final credits rolled and Hans Zimmer's remarkable score played, I openly sobbed at the "happy" ending. I wasn't alone. I was at a loss for words; not numb, but in awe.

 12 Years a Slave is an important film, that's true, but it's also a true work of art, from every aspect of the production. The acting, direction, cinematography, music, writing and especially the editing (by Joe Walker). Whether or not it wins the awards it deserves, this movie will be talked about for generations. It's strange to admit that I want to experience it again, but 12 years a Slave is that tremendous. It's one of the best moves I have seen. Ever. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Disturbed Podcast #7

Somehow we begin this episode with a prolonged conversation about Toto. It goes in strange directions from there. Witch and ghost sex. Zombie, zombie, live girl menage e trois. You have to check the latest podcast. I apologize now for the paper shuffling.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sophie, the Band and Dylan

This morning, as I backed the Jetta out of the driveway to drive Sophie to school, the Band's "Rag Mama Rag" was coming to an end on my favorite radio station, KCSN, 88.5.

"Ooh, this is a great song," I said, even before we began pulling away from the house. Sophie shrugged and let me listen to my song, for a change. Typically we listen to her station on the drive to school.

But I didn't stop with just telling her that I loved the song. I began a 7 minute lesson on the Band (who they were, how they became known as the Band, etc), Bob Dylan (his accident, how being Dylan in the 60s was close to being like a prophet), depression and how some musicians dealt with it, how the members of the Band became acrimonious, and finally, I ended my lecture by singing her some Dylan songs that I thought she might know, but didn't. I was proud of myself for knowing the lyrics to "Blowin' in the Wind," "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower." As anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm not very good with the lyrics.

I was more proud at Sophie for tolerating my long winded narrative and actually asking questions. Not once did she check her phone or ask to change the radio station (at this point, Band of Horses "The Funeral" had begun).

Man, Sophie is such a cool girl. She's smart, intuitive and sometimes just a lot of fun to be around. This weekend, I'm going to play her all of "Rag Mama Rag" and Adele's version of Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love."

For you... here's the Band.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Disturbed Podcast #6 is live

I have to admit, I was a little tired when we recorded this on Saturday morning. But Jeff was patient and let me go off some tangents that didn't have much to do with American Horror Story. Still, it was another lively discussion. If you haven't checked out the Southgate Media Group site in a while, they have a lot of podcasts and they've started to make the site look really fun.  Here's the link to the latest podcast for episode six of American Horror Story: Coven, "The Axeman Cometh."


Friday, November 15, 2013

Chapter Preview: The Beatles, "Here Comes the Sun"

It's been awhile since I posted a chapter of the book. Readership of the blog has had a bit of an uptick, so for those of you who are curious about the content of Basement Songs, here is the chapter I wrote about my son, Jacob. I hope you enjoy it.  Aloha.

The phone rang sometime in the middle of the day.  I was at my desk prepping materials for an upcoming record session at the animation company where I worked.  It was busywork to keep my mind occupied while I awaited this call from Julie.  She had taken our son, Jacob, then under a month old, to see the pediatrician. Jacob’s failure to thrive had been a cause for concern, and the doctor wanted to rule out the disease cystic fibrosis as the cause of his lack of growth.  It was early December 2001.

When I answered, I could hear it in Julie’s voice that she was fighting back tears.  What we had feared was confirmed…

Jacob did indeed have cystic fibrosis.

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is an inherited chronic disease that affects approximately 30,000 children and adults in the United States (70,000 worldwide).  Due to a defective gene and the protein it produces, a CF patient’s body produces thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and obstructs the pancreas.  This mucus can lead to life-threatening lung infections that must be combated daily with a regimen of medicines inhaled via a nebulizer machine, as well as percussive vibrations on the chest and back, usually performed with a device called the Vest.  Because the pancreas is obstructed, the natural enzymes used to help the body break down and absorb food are ineffective.  A CF patient must take supplemental enzymes with each meal and snack.

The CF gene was discovered in the late ’80s, leading to advancements in treating the disease.  While medications have bettered and prolonged the lives of people who live with the disease, it is still a daily battle to stay both physically and emotionally healthy.

Julie and I were familiar with some of this CF information following the dramatic events of Jacob’s birth.  He was delivered at thirty-six weeks and immediately placed in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the same Burbank hospital where Sophie was delivered and had her own stay in the NICU.  After he was born, it was determined that Jacob’s intestines were blocked by a meconium plug which was preventing him from having a bowel movement.  The NICU doctor wanted to operate and remove the obstruction, but when no operating room was available the morning of the scheduled procedure, our tiny infant son was loaded onto a helicopter and flown to UCLA Medical Center where a different doctor would do the operation.

We packed up our things, and even though Julie was still recovering from a C-section, prepared to relocate.  Sophie was placed in the care of her aunt and uncle while we drove across town to UCLA.  Maybe it was the altitude from the helicopter ride, or perhaps it was some higher power stepping it to stop an unneeded medical procedure, but Jacob finally passed the meconium and the operation was put on hold.  Two days later, we were discharged from the hospital.  This incident seemed just a bump in the road, and we were on our way home to become the typical American family.

The morning Jacob was released from UCLA, the surgeon spoke to us, the first and only time we met him.  It was a routine exchange of information, and although I tried to focus on everything he said, I really just wanted to go home.  Then he made a comment that pricked my ears: he said that he believed a cystic fibrosis test had been administered and that he’d forward the results to our pediatrician.  Those two words registered somewhere in the corner of my memory.  Wasn’t cystic fibrosis the disease my cousin Kenny’s son had?  Wasn’t that the disease that took his son’s life when he was just a boy?

I tabled those thoughts for the time being.  Jacob was coming home, that’s what mattered.  “Everything is fine,” we thought.  

Obviously, it wasn't.

On that December afternoon, when I hung up the phone with Julie, my initial thought was, “I should have been there.”  Julie shouldn’t have been alone to receive this news.  But deep down we didn’t believe it was CF.  It had to be a virus or something easily treatable.  The optimist in me was certain Jacob would be fine, because everything always seemed to work out for us.  

Damn it, I was so wrong.  I should have been there.

I told my boss the news, and as I spoke those words, “cystic fibrosis,” I felt removed from my body, as if watching myself in a movie.  This unreal feeling continued for the next hour as I left work and drove home.  I could only imagine what Julie had experienced. She described the room beginning to spin and the doctor’s words swirling around her head, try as she might to remain composed.  

I should have been there.

Information I’d picked up from the Internet ran through my head.  Clogged lungs?  Malnutrition?  One fact cut the deepest: Statistics had the average life expectancy of a CF patient living into his/her early 30’s.  Dear Christ, I was 32 years old.  Was it possible that my precious boy would not make it to his 32nd birthday?  How could that be?

When I arrived home, I walked in the front door and found Julie.  I just wanted to hold her and the kids.  I felt like if we curled up in a ball, this dream would end and we would awaken the next day to a different test result.  You become a parent with an understanding that there will be challenges every single day, but the challenges will be worth it because of the love you get in return from your child.  It was difficult to wrap my head around this bigger challenge.  Yes, I would never waver from being there for my son, but what did the future hold?  Was I a weaker father for even questioning these things?  That’s how I felt.

The rest of the evening was spent making phone calls.  Our friends and family offered encouragement along with promises to be there whenever we needed them.  My mom said she would drive out from Tucson at the drop of a hat while Julie’s mother was ready to hop on a plane.  When I called my friend Matt, he was speechless. Normally a man full of an unabridged dictionary of words, he suddenly had none.  Of all the conversations I had that night, I won’t forget the call I got from my cousin Kenny, telephoning from his home in Alabama.  Even though Kenny’s beloved son had lost the battle with CF, Kenny was the most hopeful person I spoke to that night.  He told me of the advances made to prolong the lives of people with CF and better their quality of life.  This man, who had suffered so much, was trying to lift Julie and me up.

It took some time for me to realize how gracious it was for Kenny to make that call.  Julie and I soon learned that all CF families support each other, and the day Jacob was diagnosed we had instantly become members of a much larger family.  Sadly, it’s one we wish we weren’t a part of.

2001 crawled to an end. Whatever holiday cheer we mustered was dampened by the news about Jacob.  Thank God for Sophie and her cousins to remind us of the joy and love of the holiday season. We didn’t travel to Ohio that year and spent our first Christmas in the new house.  I tried to hold on to my optimism, to counter our fears with a determination to make sure Jacob would outlive everyone.  Throughout this period, I found myself humming George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” from the Beatles album, Abbey Road.  Harrison was in the news as he’d succumbed to cancer in late November which is perhaps why I found myself with the song on my mind.  Or perhaps it was because my brother, Budd, had latched on to the song, sometimes saying to me, “Hey, bro, here comes the son,” when referring to Jacob.  At other times, I know he was expressing the hopefulness of the composition.

During that sad, tearful Christmas season, one moment remains frozen in my memory.  It was this night that “Here Comes the Sun” played on the stereo in our living room while Budd held Jacob up in the air, my son’s tiny frame swimming in a onesie.  Budd stared at him with such intensity, as if he might be able to will the illness out of Jacob’s body, before handing Jacob off and leaving the room to collect himself, away from the rest of us.  It was only one of a couple occasions that I’ve ever seen Budd tear up.

“Here Comes the Sun” quickly became one of Jacob’s anthems. The same optimism that Harrison sang about is the same optimism that our family has that a cure for CF is just over the horizon.  Since Jacob was diagnosed, our family of friends and relatives have been involved with many fundraisers, from our yearly participation in the national CF Foundation fundraiser, Great Strides, to running marathons, climbing stairs, selling hats and even holding a couple screenings of King’s Highway, the feature movie that I wrote and directed.  Our efforts may sound like a lot of work, but it never feels that way.  

When your child has an illness, especially one that seems so close to a cure, you willingly do anything you can to make sure that he will see many, many more sunrises in his lifetime.

(I love this remix of "Here Comes the Sun" almost as much as the original).

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Happy Birthday to Jacob!

Jacob is 12 years old today. This "tweener" (as he likes to remind us) is one of the bravest, strongest and most righteous guys I know. When I think of all that he endures, I feel like half a man.

Each day when I get home from work, he comes up to me and has an enormous hug. When I was his age I rarely hugged my parents like that. I'm so glad that he can express his love so openly.  Those hugs often lift my days up and restore my hope.

Happy Birthday, Jacob. I'm a blessed man to have a son as wonderful as you are. May this year be filled with joy and great things.


(this picture was taken 6 years ago!)

Now here's one of the songs that will always remind me of my boy!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

An Actual Nice Review for "King's Highway"

If you venture over to the King's Highway page on Netflix, you'll find some pretty scathing reviews. Some people are actually pissed off at me for making the movie. A part of me would like to reply to their comments, but after 10 years there's no point. We made a feature length digital movie for $5000, before there was a digital revolution! Is it perfect? No. But it's still a quality project with some great performances and some exceptional behind the scenes work. I stand by that as the writer/director and one of the producers.

If you haven't seen King's Highway, you can get it in the mail from Netflix (like anyone does that anymore), or you can stream it through Amazon Prime. The movie stars Geoff Stults, a sincere and talented actor who has a new sitcom that premieres on FOX in January.

Occasionally I'll check to see if anyone leaves their two cents, and it's on Amazon Prime that I found this really nice review:

"Did not know the actors and had never heard of the movie, but was pleasantly surprised by the touching story, and eccentrically real characters dealing with life's unexpected challenges. This one's definitely worth your time and will leave you feeling glad you experienced it. Enjoy!"
The review was written by "Anonymous." Thank you, Anonymous! Hopefully you'll inspire someone else to check out the movie.
And hey, if you want to own your own physical DVD of King's Highway, drop me a line. I have a box of them in my garage. Unless your name is Bob Bellamy. I already owe him one.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Veterans Day 2013

I've never served in the military, so I don't understand what it takes to place your life on the line for your country. That doesn't mean that I'm not moved by the sacrifices the men and women of our military, past and present, have made for our freedoms. Today we salute all veterans, those who lived through the hell of war and came home and those who did not make it back alive.

Take a moment to listen to this majestic theme from the HBO miniseries, The Pacific. This music captures everything I wish I could say about how much I respect the men and women of our armed forces.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Goin' Country: The CMA Awards

In case you missed it, I posted a new Goin' Country column at Popdose, the best damn pop culture site on the Internet. This week I discuss the Country Music Association Awards that were handed out on Wednesday (the same night as American Horror Story: Coven- it was a very eclectic evening).

The CMA Awards are a night of celebration of country music. If the show was just handing out awards, it would be over in an hour. To fill the other two hours, country music stars play some pretty great music.

Here's a link to my column. If you have a couple of minutes, please check it out!



Distrubed Podcast #5 is Live

The latest Disturbed Podcast has just gone live. Jeff and I breakdown last week's American Horror Story: Coven episode, "Burn, Witch Burn." Happy to say that I'm feeling a lot better and I don't cough as much in this week's installment. Please check it out, and if you like it, the LIKE us at the Disturbed Podcast Facebook page... or send money. You can always send money.

Just follow this LINK .

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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bruce Springsteen - New York City Serenade (Rome 7/11/13)

My love affair with Springsteen's music really began in the mid-90s, as I dug deeper into his back catalog. I stumbled across some bootlegs from his early years, one of which contained an alternate version of "New York Serenade" that is just as good as the released version on The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. I've never heard "New York Serenade" in concert; it's one of those rarities (like "The Price You Pay") that I pray will show up each time I see the boss, but never does.

Now I can say I've heard a live version, at least.

This is my favorite song from Springsteen's sophomore effort (which he released in late 1973... 40 years ago!). There are more popular tracks on the album, and others that have more complex lyrics, but "New York Serenade" tugs at my heart like none of those other songs. When the rest of the band fades out at the end and it's just David Sancious's piano and strings there are always tears in my eyes.

This video, shot in Italy this past July, is sublime. Watch the string section (man what a nice touch) and they way their faces light up during the pivotal moments of the song. The joy on their faces to be playing this classic song and to be on stage with Springsteen is a sight to behold.


Monday, November 4, 2013

November Experiment #'s 2 & 3

Okay, my second and third experiments for the month of November go hand in hand and they're a little daunting.

Did you know that November is National Novel Writing Month? I didn't either until a couple of years ago, when a friend introduced me to this special time when budding novelists try to cram 50,000 words into 30 days. Two years ago I toyed with trying to start a new book; this year I'm ready.

My very first novel, an unpublished YA romantic comedy called Legendary, was written very fast. Well, the first draft was written fast, and then I began revising for a year. But getting that first draft out is the most important step, at least it is for me. So, if I can get into a rhythm and write 50,000 words by the end of November, I could have novel #2 under my belt (again, just the first draft).

I'm cheating, a little, by adapting an old screenplay. The structure of the book is kind of in place, although I'm going to focus on just one character instead of the two from the original script. Still, writing is writing and I'll be happy if I can finally get this story out of my system.

The second part of this experiment involves a special tool that I discovered a few weeks ago. It's the
Livescribe Echo Smartpen. This magical device allows me to write freehand on sheets of special paper and the pen records what I've written. I can then upload the text to my computer and another program should be able to convert my handwriting to a Word document.

Anyone who knows me knows that I prefer to write with pen and paper. There's something about the feel of a pen in my hand and the tactile experience of pressing ink to paper. It's how I learned to write and I still feel that my ideas flow much better when I'm working this way (much better than this blog entry, that's for sure). The pen is heavier than what I'm accustomed to, but if I can get used to it I may have found the most magical device in the world.

Wish me luck. 

Oh, and if you're interested in reading my first novel, Legendary, drop me a line and I'll send you a copy. If you want to read Basement Songs, well, look to the right, dear traveller, and you'll find the links to where to buy the book.


November Experiment #1

The month is still fresh and I feel I should tell you about the first of my three experiments this month. It's the easier of the three and I'm doing it thanks to this video:

One of my Facebook friends introduced me to the video for the Dollar Shave Club and the video was so well done - it's funny, informative and made me want to try their product - that I couldn't resist. I wish I knew someone who could market like this so I could get Basement Songs into more hands. Maybe I should try something with the same tone as they have. Hmm.

Anyway, I joined the club and the first pack of razors arrived on November 1st, appropriately enough. So far so good. I'm supposed to change the razor each week, which is revolutionary for me, as I've been known to go a whole month before tossing out one of the Bic disposables I'm used to shaving with. I'll keep you updated.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Disturbed Podcast #4 is Live

Jeff and I break down the latest episode of American Horror Story: Coven, as I try not to hack up a loogie during the recording. TMI? Man, if that grosses you out, what does the voodoo snake slicing zombie ritual from the show do to you?

Here's the link to this week's Disturbed Podcast.  You can also download it from iTunes.


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