Friday, August 26, 2016

Movie Review - "Hell or High Water"

When I saw the trailer for this movie a few weeks back, and heard Jeff Bridges talking in a West Texas accent thicker than a prime t-bone steak, I knew that this was a movie that I just had to see.  The story concerns two brothers, one an ex-con, who take to robbing a string of small town west Texas banks, but perhaps their motive is a Robin Hood-esque one.  You know, take from the rich, give to the poor.  At least that what a bunch of the poor, down on their luck ranchers and town folk who have been getting screwed by the banks for all these years think.

Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, a crusty old Texas Ranger with that aforementioned accent who is soon to retire from the force, and he's not happy about it.  The outlaw brothers are played by Ben Foster, the way over-the-top ex-con, and Chris Pine, a handsome hunk of beefcake if ever there was one, who has made his bones in all these recent Star Trek movies.  Both were quite good in it, especially Pine, but it was the sixty-six year old Bridges who was the star, the guy who makes this one worth seeing.

In some ways this movie reminded me of "Fargo" with its mood setting scenes of a desolate landscape, and a bunch of quirky characters including the wild man outlaw, and the resolute lawman who talks with a funny accent.  That's a good thing.

We liked the movie, especially the final scene of the movie between....oops, I'm not going to tell you. That might be considered a spoiler.

Two and one-half stars from The Grandstander on this one (three and one-half stars to Jeff Bridges!).

Brian Wilson and "Pet Sounds"

This much anticipated concert date finally rolled around last night and what a night it was.  An authentic musical genius, Brian Wilson, founder of The Beach Boys, performing in it's entirety, one of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time, "Pet Sounds", to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of it's release.  Throw in the accompaniment of fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine, and a terrific ten piece band, and what you got was an evening that far exceeded every expectation that I had when I walked into the Benedum last night.

Brian Wilson's story is well known.  A founder and the musical master behind The Beach Boys, Wilson withdrew from touring with the band when he had an anxiety attack when traveling on an airplane.  He then went into the studio to create the masterpiece, Pet Sounds.  No one knew it at the time that it was masterpiece.  It was only a modest, if that, commercial success when it was released, but as the years went by, it became elevated in the pantheon of rock and roll albums.  (No less than Paul McCartney has called it perhaps the greatest album of all time.)  Wilson continued to withdraw, had artistic disagreements with his band mates, became drug dependent and paranoid, fell under the influence of a Svengali-like doctor, and became pretty much of a mess.  His story did have a happy ending and was well told in the 2015 movie, "Love and Mercy", which I highly recommend.

Anyway, the concert last night was tremendous.  Can Wilson sing like he did in his Beach Boys hey-day?  No, of course he can't, what seventy-four year old singer can?  Yet his singing of the entire Pet Sounds album last night was mesmerizing.  He would sing the songs, and when it came time for the trademark Beach Boys high notes and falsettos, those portions of the song were sung by vocalist  Matt Jardine, Al's son.  These trade offs were done seamlessly, and they contributed to the magic of the performance.  It was beautiful.

The night began with a one hour set that mixed some Beach Boys standards as well as some of the "Smile" songs, and featured a number of the individual band members.  Highlights included Matt Jardine singing "Don't Worry Baby", and Wilson singing "God Only Knows", which led to a mid-set standing ovation.  

The second set was the Pet Sounds performance, which, as I have stated, was simply amazing.

(Photo courtesy of Dan Bonk)

It was the encore, featuring Wilson and Jardine, that shook the rafters of the Benedum and had the crowd on its feet the entire time.  "Good Vibrations", "Help Me, Rhonda", "Surfin' USA", "Barbara Ann", and "Fun, Fun, Fun".  I mean, how could it get much better than that?

At the risk of sounding like a total fanboy, I don't think that I can overstate what it felt like to actually see and hear Brian Wilson perform live and person.  The term "genius" is passed around too easily and too often, but I think that it is totally appropriate to use it when speaking of Brian Wilson.  He has led a tortured life, and much of that is evident in his somewhat wooden stage presence.  He shuffles when he walks, and he talks very little between songs, but when the music plays and he begins to sing, even at the age of 74, the magic is there.  I feel very fortunate that I am now able to say that "Yeah, I saw Brian Wilson."

I will close this post the same way that Wilson closed his show last night: with  a remarkable performance of "Love and Mercy".

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Rio Post Mortem, Pirates, Hearst, and Other Topics

Cleaning out the Mental In-Box.....

  • The Rio Olympics ended this past Sunday amidst much pomp, ceremony, and overproduction.  Marilyn and I found ourselves watching much more of the games than we anticipated ahead of time, and we enjoyed them immensely.
  • Everyone will have their own "Olympic Moments" to savor in their memories.  For me, however, the most enduring memories of these Olympics will be as follows:
  • The complete domination of the sprints by Jamaica's Usain Bolt.  In particular, I will remember his anchor leg in the 4x100 event.  When he took the baton, the sprinters from Japan and the USA were almost dead even with him, and he proceeded to leave them in the dust.  Simply amazing.
  • The dominance in the swimming pool, for the FOURTH OLYMPIAD, of Michael Phelps.
  • The dominance in the swimming pool by Katie Ladecky, and at only 19 years of age, I suspect that she will still dominate in 2020, and quite possibly 2024.
Moving away from the Olympics....
  • What do you make of the Pittsburgh Pirates?  In the month of August, they went 5-4 in a stretch against bottom feeders Atlanta, Cincinnati, and San Diego.  They then go an improbable 5-1 against the Dodgers and Giants on the West Coast, only to return home to face critical series against the Marlons and the Astros and go 1-5 and look completely impotent in doing so.  You just can't figure them out, or, as Yogi Berra once put it "In baseball, you don't know nothin'."
  • The Steelers.  They are 0-2 in the practice games, have looked awful (or so I'm told; I think I've watched a total of about a half dozen plays in the two games, total).  What I think is happening is that Mike Tomlin is using these games as a coach should use them.  To look at newer and marginal players, to avoid injuries to key players (Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, to name only two key players, have not played a down), to practice.  These are PRACTICE GAMES, people.  What a concept for a coach to follow.
  • Of course, this doesn't stop the Steelers and their 31 NFL lodge brothers from charging full boat for the tickets and making purchase of these tickets mandatory in all season ticket packages.  Shameful.
  • I have just started reading this recently released and current best seller...
  • It's hard to believe, but you pretty much have to be over fifty years old to have a first hand memory of the Patty Hearst Kidnapping and the amazing and bizarre story that followed it.  I am only about forty pages into it, but it promises to be an interesting and fascinating book.  Rest assured that The Grandstander will be providing a full review upon completion.
  • My mentioning of this book on Facebook yesterday prompted some comments along the lines of "Whatever became of Steven Weed?"  Anyone under age fifty reading this know who Steven Weed is/was?  Anyway, a Google search reveals surprisingly little about him. Google will show a successful realtor in Menlo Park, CA named Steven Weed, that is about the right age, but no indication if he is THE Steven Weed.  Perhaps Toobin's book will reveal the answer.
The Happy Couple

  • Speaking of Usain Bolt, look what has been turning up on various golf courses western Pennsylvania of late:
  • What a legacy, huh?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Book Review - "Better Dead" by Max Allan Collins

Back in March, I touted you all to the news that Max Allan Collins would be releasing a new Nate Heller novel this spring, "Better Dead".

I just finished reading this newest Heller "memoir", and I am happy to report that Collins and Heller have teamed up for another terrific story;

As in all of the past Heller chronicles, our hero gets himself involved with real historical figures and real historical crimes.  "Better Dead" takes place in 1950, and among the people that Heller encounters in this one are Senator Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Robert Kennedy, Drew Pearson, Dashiell Hammett, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Senator Estes Kefauver, Bettie Page, and Frank Olson.

The thrust of the book concerns the case of Frank Olson, a real life person with whom I was unfamiliar.  He was a scientist who worked for the CIA back in the post-WWII era in the development of biological and chemical weapons. I the course of these events, Olson was "slipped a mickey" one night at a CIA retreat that contained LSD, a relatively new and unknown drug at the time.  Olson reacted badly to the drug, and developed paranoia and mental illness.  One night, while the CIA was attempting to get treatment for him, Olson committed suicide by leaping from the 18th floor of his hotel in New York.

Or did he?  There is a lot I could write here about the Frank Olson case, but I will not do so.  No spoilers. Better you should read "Better Dead" and other resources on this case.  It is really quite fascinating.

That is the thrust of the second half of the book, and Collins wraps things up nicely in the final chapter with a sort of "whatever became of..." segment about what happened to everyone, how each of the strands of the story worked out, and how Collins' alternate theories of  history actually could have been true.  Even the names of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield pop up in here.

I don't know how many, if any, more Heller stories Collins has left in him, but I sure hope that there will be more.  "Better Dead" proves that Collins has not lost a thing off of his metaphorical fast ball when it comes to the Memoirs of PI Nathan Heller.

Oh, I mentioned Bettie Page.  Yes, Collins always seems to include a real life pretty dame in these stories, and yes, as with all of the others, Miss Page and Nate become an "item" in this one.

Yep, that is the famous 1950's pin-up model Bettie Page above in one of her, ahem, more inhibited poses.  Why am I including it in this post?  Well, why not!!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The H.A. Citations - Olympics Edition

It has been some time since The Grandstander has bestowed a not-so-coveted H.A. Citation, but the soon to be completed Rio Olympics has given me ample opportunity to bestow these things left and right, so let's do it with an Olympic theme, shall we.  In case any readers may not know what "H.A." stands for this glance at the Citation should clear up all doubts...

(Photo courtesy of Dan Bonk Enterprises)

Okay, ready?  Here we go....

H.A. Citation Honorable Mention

This Honorable Mention goes out to Patrick Hickey, a 71 year old Irishman who is a member of that wonderful group of folks, the International Olympic Committee.  Mr. Hickey was arrested this past Wednesday at the IOC hotel in Rio and is facing , according to the Associated Press "charges of conspiracy, ticket scalping, and ambush marketing after allegations by Brazilian authorities that he was part of a plot to make $3 million by illegally selling Rio Games tickets above face value."  Upon his arrest, Hickey complained of chest pains and was taken to the hospital, but he has since been cleared, health-wise, and now stands before the bar of Brazilian justice.  

For helping to maintain the high (low?) standards of corruption, graft, and bribery that has characterized the true spirit of the IOC for lo these many years, this one's for you, Patrick!

Bronze Medal

This one goes out to Katinka Hosszu's Husband/Coach.  As the lovely and talented Hungarian swimmer was winning medal after medal in the Olympic swimming pool, the television viewers were treated to shot-after-sideline-shot of this guy behaving in a manner that would even embarrass SEC football coaches.  The guy was a complete and total jackass from the top if his top-knotted head down to his green t-shirt that he never appeared to change.  Why did NBC subject us to this guy?  By the way, his name is Shane Tusup, but who really cares?

Silver Medal

This one goes to the goalkeeper of the US Women's soccer team, Hope Solo, for her incredibly crass and unsportsmanlike comments against the Swedish team after the Swedes defeated and eliminated from the tournament the heavily favored American team.  You will recall that Solo called the Swedish team "cowards" for employing tactics that would help to neutralize the more talented USA squad, and defeat them, which they did.  That is called smart, not cowardly, play.  "The better team didn't win tonight", Solo groused.  Probably true, but that happens a lot in sports when smart coaches come up with a smart game plan that smart, albeit less talented, players can execute.  Combine this with Solo's  history of DUI incidents and domestic violence charges (with she being the perpetrator), and one can only hope that this is the last time we see Hope Solo on a big stage again, but I wouldn't worry about her.  There's always the WWE or MMA.

Gold Medal

To be honest with you, I thought that Hope Solo had the Gold Medal H.A. all sewed up, but you have to wait things out, as swimmer Ryan Lochte proved so well early in the second week of the Games.  Claiming that he and three fellow American swimmers were robbed at gunpoint by robbers impersonating Brazilian police, the story had a bit of a fishy ring to it from the start, and those suspicions have all been proven to be accurate.

So, why does Lochte secure the Gold? Well....
  1. The alleged incident occurred at 4:00 AM.  Nothing good ever happens after midnight.
  2. Lochte admitted he was drunk.  Drunk at the age of 32 while out partying with three guys ten years younger than he is.  To steal a great movie line, but "drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son."
  3. Lochte then flies out of Brazil to home leaving his three fellow partiers holding the bag and answering questions from the cops.
  4. Several days after the fact, Lochte tweets out one of those great "Athlete Apologies", no doubt written by his agent or lawyer that had all the sincerity of a, well, an entitled athlete's apology that was written by his agent.
So there you have it.  I realize that there is still one more day of competition in Rio, but I am going to risk that no one will do anything to topple these three from the H.A. Podium.

And because the race for Gold and Silver was so close between Lochte and Solo, I bestow a special citation, the first ever DRHA (Dual River Horses Asses) Citation to the USA Olympic teammates, who revitalized the term "Ugly American".

(Photo courtesy of Bill Montrose)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Movie Review - "Florence Foster Jenkins"

From the time I saw the first commercial for "Florence Foster Jenkins", and looked at a trailer for it online, I knew that this was going to be a movie I wanted to see.  It looked like it would be funny, and it starred Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, and it even included Simon Helberg, the guy who plays Howard Walowitz on "The Big Bang Theory".  It was directed by Stephen Frears, the guy who made "The Queen". I mean, how could you go wrong?

Then the reviews came in, and word of month from friends, and it confirmed everything.  Streep was great, everyone said, and will probably earn her twentieth Oscar nomination from this one, but the guy who steals the movie is Helberg, and he, too, will probably score an Oscar nomination as a result of his part in this one.  Like to see Sheldon Cooper top that!

The movie takes place in 1944 in New York City.  Streep plays the title character, a wealthy patron of the arts who loves music and has a desire to sing in public.  In Carnegie Hall, no less.  Grant is her devoted husband, and Helberg plays the pianist that Grant hires to accompany his wife as she takes to the stage.  I will say that the scene when Jenkins/Streep first sings with Helberg accompanying her in a rehearsal in Jenkins' apartment is positively hilarious.  If Helberg does score that Oscar nomination, it will be because of those few minutes of the movie.  

The movie is more than that, though. It's a love story that is incredibly touching, but one with a few complicated twists and turns to it.  The scenes of New York City in 1944 are really beautiful to look at, too.  As for pure film making, there is a scene in the latter part of the movie where Streep reads a newspaper on a New York City street where the camera backs up and away that is just a terrific scene.  And Streep's final line of dialog in the movie is really great.  It hits the perfect note (no pun intended).

This movie is also based on a true story.  There really was a Florence Foster Jenkins, who really did give a performance at Carnegie Hall in 1944.  You can look it up!

As I said, Streep is terrific, but that's no surprise.  Is she ever not great in a movie?  So is Helberg, but not mentioned much in the reviews is the work of Hugh Grant.  Personal prejudice:  I really like Hugh Grant.  He can be serious, he can be funny (he is both in this movie), and he is good looking.  I have always said that there was only one Cary Grant in the movies, and he will never be duplicated, but Hugh Grant comes the closest to it of any contemporary actor.  He gives a wonderful performance in "Florence Foster Jenkins", but it is one that will probably get lost amidst the work of Streep and Helberg.

Three and one-half stars from The Grandstander for "Florence Foster Jenkins".

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ron Necciai - A Cautionary Tale

Among the (many) things that long time baseball fans gripe and complain about "baseball today" is that pitchers, and particularly young pitchers, are held to strict limits in regard to innings pitched and even to the number of pitches that they throw in any given game.

"By, God", they say, "Warren Spahn/Bob Feller/Robin Roberts/Fill In the Blank never worried about how many innings they pitched or how many pitches they threw.  They'd throw thirty or more complete games a year and they're in the Hall of Fame."

Well, yeah, they are, but I wonder that for every Bob Gibson and Bob Friend there were, how many contemporary pitchers of theirs were there that we have never heard of because their arms were shot by the time they got to Class C baseball because they were told to pitch 'til their arms fell off.  Ten, twenty, fifty?  No way to know, but that brings me to the tale of Ron Necciai.

If you are a really, really, REALLY longtime Pirates fan, you know the story.  As a nineteen year old phee-nom out of Monongahela High School in 1952, Necciai pitched back-to-back games for the Bristol Twins, the Pirates Class D affiliate in the Appalachian League, where he struck out 27 batters and threw a no-hitter, followed by a two-hitter where he stuck out 24 batters.  He was then promoted to the Carolina League, where he recorded 172 strikeouts in 126 innings pitched.  The numbers are not available to me, but God only knows how many pitches Necciai threw in those 27 and 24 strike out games.

In August of that year, the now twenty year old Necciai was promoted to the Pirates (who stunk and would lose 112 games that season) where he went 1-6 with a 7.08 ERA and had 31 strike outs in 54.2 IP.  He went into the military in 1953, where he was soon released with a medical discharge.  He never pitched in the majors again, kicked around the minors for a few years, dealt with a torn rotator cuff, and was out of baseball after 1955.

The long time Bucco fans look at that 27 K's game of Necciai's and say, "Man, what if he never got injured?  Think of how great he'd have been for the Pirates."

Here's some other points that they should be asking:
  • Instead of leaving him in those games to strike out 27 and 24 batters, what if Pirates management, in the person of no less than Branch Rickey, the Old Mahatma himself, had said "Make sure that that boy never throws more that 75-80 pitches in any game"?
  • Instead of promoting him to a higher league, what if they kept him at Bristol, reduced his workload, and promoted him to a higher league in 1953 with some expanded IP limits?
  • What if they did that to make sure that Necciai was properly prepared for the big leagues when he was, say, 25 years old, in 1957, and he could have joined a staff that included Bob Friend and Vernon Law?
I wonder if Ron Necciai, still alive and 84 years of age, ever wonders the same things.

Of course, maybe Necciai never would have made it, and the medical science of the time when it came to things like torn rotator cuffs was no doubt worlds behind what it is today, but we'll never know what precise damage that heavy workload put on a 19 year old arm back in 1952, nor will we know how many other "Ron Necciais" there were that are now lost in the dust bins of baseball history, but I'll bet there were a lot more of them than there were "Warren Spahns".

The point I am trying to make, I think, is that there is a reason that the Pirates and every team is protecting assets like Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Chan Kuhl when they keep them in the minors for too long (according to all of us experts) or monitor their pitch counts.  We all need to remember that.

Of course, another aspect is the investment that teams have in these guys.  The Pirates invested millions of dollars in guys like Taillon and Gerrit Cole before they ever threw a professional pitch.  Rickey probably signed Necciai for a couple of thousand bucks, if that.  But that is another subject for us Old-Timers to rail about.