Tuesday, March 20, 2018

"The Party"

I saw a trailer for the movie "The Party" a few weeks ago, and I thought it looked interesting.  Then it got a four star review in the Post-Gazette.  So on a Monday afternoon with nothing better to do, Mrs. Grandstander and I sought his one out and saw it.

It has been described as movie in the "dinner-party-gone-wrong" genre, which I didn't realize was a movie genre until I started checking out online reviews of it.  Those reviews were of two extremes, some absolutely eviscerated it, others hailed it as the greatest thing since Bill Shakespeare started putting pen to paper.  

Here are my thoughts....
  • It was short, only 71 minutes long.
  • It was like watching a filmed stage play.  In fact, it would probably be better as a play.
  • It was filmed in black and white, and, in fact, the movie's tone was such that I do believe that it was best served by being black and white.
  • Two terrific performance by Kristin Scott Thomas and Patricia Clarkson.
  • Some very pithy and incisive dialog, particularly by Clarkson's character, but I don't believe that people actually talk that way in real life.
  • It had a terrific twist as an ending.  Made the whole movie worthwhile.
I thought it was an interesting movie.  I didn't love it like the Barry Paris of the PG did, but I didn't  hate it like the critic in the New York Time did either.   Worth seventy-one minutes of your time as rental when it starts showing up on the streaming services.

Two stars from The Grandstander.

Oh, and don't confuse it with the 1968 Blake Edwards-Peter Sellers-Claudine Longet movie of the same name.  That was also about a dinner-party-gone-wrong, but the tone of that one was entirely different, as you might imagine.

Monday, March 19, 2018

"Vertigo" on the Big Screen

So we venture out last night to watch Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958) on the Big Screen.  First of all, kudos once again to Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events for presenting this series.

Some quick thoughts and a question....
  • I have seen "Vertigo" many times, but this was the first time on a big screen in a movie theater.  Huge flat screen high def televisions and Blue-ray discs are great, but, trust me, any movie is better in an honest-to-God movie theater.
  • There are some film scholars and critics who will tell you that "Vertigo" is the greatest movie ever made, and certainly Hitchcock's greatest movie.  Yeah, it's a good movie, but I personally would rate "Rear Window", "Notorious", "Psycho", and "To Catch A Thief" ahead of it in the Hitchcock canon alone.
  • A measure of how great an actor James Stewart was can be seen in "Vertigo".  In the beginning of this movie, he mostly plays "Jimmy Stewart", but as the movie progresses, he goes against type, and becomes sort of weird and not all that likable, but it is totally believable.
  • Kim Novak sure was beautiful.
  • The character I feel really bad for is the one played by Barbara Bel Geddes.  A great performance by her.
  • The "green scene" in the hotel room between Stewart and Novak, and if you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about, is a spectacular piece of film making.
  • Perhaps the best "character" in this movie is the City of San Francisco.  As much as anything else, I enjoy watching this movie for the location scenes of that city throughout.

Okay, now for the question for those who have seen this movie.  You all know how it ends and the final shot of the movie (I'll say no more so as to avoid spoilers.)  If Hitchcock hadn't ended the movie where he did, what would have happened next?

Coming in May in the TCM Big Screen Classic series....."Sunset Boulevard".  Can't wait to see that one on a Big Screen.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Day In The Life....

Woke up, got out of bed,
Dragged a comb across my head....

And decided to clean out the Mental In-Box......

Regardless of what happens today or over the next two weekends, the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament will be forever defined and remembered for 16th seeded University of Maryland - Baltimore County's unprecedented win over #1 Seed and #1 ranked Virginia.  Did I say "win"?  I meant thoroughly convincing dismantling of the Cavaliers by UMBC.  There was nothing flukey about it.

Two days after the end of that game, it is still almost incomprehensible that what happened happened.  That game will be remembered long after Duke or Villanova or North Carolina or some other NCAA Blue-Blood cuts down the nets in two weeks.  It will easily be one of the Top Five sports stories of 2018.  A game like that is why you follow sports.

The University of Pittsburgh is looking to weasel out of the $9 million contractually agreed upon buyout that they owe Kevin Stallings after giving him the paper key last week.  It has been reported that they are claiming that an exchange between Stallings and a spectator in Louisville is "cause" for firing Stallings and not paying him the full amount of the buyout.  If that is the case, I have two questions:
  1. If the incident in January is "cause", why not fire him then?  The University, in fact, publicly brushed off the incident and supported Stallings.  And it's not like firing him in January would have caused a distraction for a team that was on its way than 0-19 conference record.
  2. Again, if the Louisville incident is "cause", then why cut the buyout in half (as has been reported) and offer Stallings anything at all?  Why not just say, "You're fired, you're getting bupkis from us, and if you don't like it, we'll see you in court."?
And I have stated many times, this has nothing to do with whether Stallings should or should not have been fired.  His record clearly indicated that he should have been.  This is all about standing up to what you contractually agreed to do when you hired the guy in the first place.  


At one point yesterday afternoon I tuned into he telecast of the Pirates-Twins Grapefruit League game, and watched the Pirates score nine runs in a half inning wherein the Twins committed a couple of errors, a couple of others that weren't scored as such, threw over sixty pitches, and took over thirty minutes to complete.  About half of the players on both teams are guys who will certainly not play in the majors leagues this season, if they ever make it at all.  The regular guys who were playing (Francisco Cervelli for the Pirates and Dee Gordon for the Twins to name two of them) had to be thinking "What do I have to do to get out of this game?"

It's fun to tune into a Spring Training game on a cold wintry day, but those games can also be unbelievably tedious.  I'm ready for the real thing to start eleven days.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Two Movies and a Book About Movies

First the book....

Thanks to my movie maven pal Barb Vancheri for recommending and then lending me the book you see to your left. It was published in 2005, but it is not all that dated, and it tells, as its ponderous subtitle indicates, about high times and dirty dealings backstage at the Academy Awards (whew!).

I enjoyed this book a lot because you do get a lot of inside scoop about the people that you see when you go to the movies and watch the Academy Awards show.

One name mentioned throughout the book was that of Harvey Weinstein.  The first significant mention of Weinstein in the book refers to him thusly: "The (Weinstein) brothers, particularly the corpulent, flamboyant Harvey, were known for abusing staffers, bullying filmmakers, throwing tantrums, driving hard bargains, and a host of other sins both common and uncommon in the movie business...."  Other mentions of Harvey throughout the book are usually made with reference to his bullying tactics and borderline shady business dealings in the industry that we generically define as "Hollywood".  Not mentioned in the book were the now very well known sexual proclivities of Weinstein, which have been reported to run the gamut of sexual harassment to full on sexual assault.  I am guessing that Weinstein's sexual appetites were well known at the time this book was written, but for some reason were not mentioned in the book.

Anyway, as I said, lots of fun inside stuff in here.  A few takeaways of mine:
  • The egos of the "talent" in the movie business are beyond belief.  How the production people, who probably have some large egos themselves, deal with it is beyond me.
  • The Academy Awards show is just that - a show, more specifically, a TV show.  The money that ABC pays for the rights to televise that show finances much of what the Academy does.
  • In the eleven Academy Awards shows covered in this book, five different producers ran the show, each vowing to bring a "different" look to the show, to make it snappier, more relevant, and, above all, shorter.  In the end, all the shows ended up looking pretty much the same.  In the fourteen years that have happened since this book was published, the show still looks pretty much the same.
  • In the end, what makes the show memorable are the moments that can't be planned or scripted: Jack Palance doing one armed push ups, Michael Moore making an overtly political speech and getting booed off the stage, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry winning Oscars the same night, or, more recently, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway being given the wrong envelope and announcing the wrong Best Picture winner.
Three Stars from The Grandstander.

Now, the movies....

Woody Allen's 2017 release, "Wonder Wheel", was generally panned by critics.  If it even opened in Pittsburgh at all, it was here and gone in about five minutes, so we finally caught up with it via streaming (I feel so hip when I say that!) last Saturday.

As Allen movies go, it was not that great, but it had some things going for it, mainly Kate Winslet and some photography and lighting that was just gorgeous.  Working against it was Jim Belushi as one of the male leads.  Justin Timberlake and Juno Temple as secondary leads were okay. It was no comedy, and was a bit dark in tone.  Like I say, I don't think it was as bad as some critics said, but you do expect more from Woody Allen.

Kate Winslet

Oh, and for fans of "The Sopranos" also appearing in the cast were Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts) and Steven Schirripa (Bobby Bacala).  They played, not surprisingly, a couple of Mafia hoods.

Two and one-half stars.

The second movie is the current "Red Sparrow".

This is a rather convoluted set-in-the-present spy thriller.  It has some rather gruesome scenes involving Russian interrogation techniques that are hard to watch, and at 139 minutes, it is about thirty minutes too long, and I am still not sure which side Jennifer Lawrence ends up being on, so this was no great shakes.  

However, it does star the aforementioned Jennifer Lawrence,

as Dominika, the Russian prima ballerina turned spy, who is trained to use her beauty and powers of seduction to become a "sparrow", a spy who will get all sorts of secrets from those bastard Americans.  All so her mother can continue to receive proper health care from the Russian government (told you it was convoluted).  Anyway, Lawrence is terrific given the part she had to play in this potboiler.  She's a wonderful actress, and she does kinda sorta make it worth seeing the movie.  But that's about it.

And be prepared to turn your head away from the screen during the interrogation scenes (there are at least three of them in the movie).  Don't say I didn't warn you.

Two stars.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Axe Falls in Oakland.....

The news came about an hour ago that was unsurprising and inevitable.  Kevin Stallings has been fired as Head Men's Basketball Coach at Pitt.   After a season in which Pitt went 0-19 in conference play this move was, as I said, inevitable.    Pitt probably had no other practical choice.  It brings to a close a two year coaching tenure that was, to me, almost unprecedented in my sixty years (yes, sixty, as in 60, as in Six Zero;  I'm old) of following sports in Pittsburgh.

The Panthers Hoops fan base never accepted Stallings as their coach.  There were calls for his head almost from Day One and certainly before he ever coached a game at Pitt.  Yeah, I get it that the Athletic Director Scott Barnes  probably botched the entire hiring process, and he was soon gone to greener pastures, and the people then took there wrath out on Stallings, whose biggest crime at the time of his hiring was that he wasn't Sean Miller, Archie Miller, or a resurrected John Wooden.  Over the years, even such Pittsburgh coaching failures as Bill Austin, John Russell, and any number of Pitt football coaches had honeymoons with the public.  Stallings never did.

Whenever a coach gets fired, I always recall one of Myron Cope's personal rules over the years when he conducted his talk show.  Whenever a caller would ask "Do you think the Pirates/Steelers/Penguins/Pitt ought to fire (insert coach's name here)?", Myron would always respond with words to the effect "I don't fire coaches on my show.  I've come to learn that these are guys with families and bills to pay just like me. If you want to call and say so-and-so should be fired, I won't stop you, but I'm not going to be the guy to make such demands."  It was kinder, gentler time in the sports talk radio biz then.  

Like I said, Pitt had probably had no other choice, and coaching on this level is a cruel business, and no one knows that better than Stallings himself, but I am also guessing that people who take such glee in demanding that someone be fired, and who rejoice when someone does lose his job,  as  Stallings did today, are people who never in their lives had the misfortune to be told by their employer that their services were no longer needed.  It is a devastating thing to have happen to you.  Trust me on that.

(As an aside, I also feel bad for Pirates catcher Jacob Stallings, Kevin's son.  Jacob has had a couple of call ups in the past two seasons, and will probably have others in seasons ahead.  I can picture him being called up again, being announced into a game at PNC Park and getting showered with boos from any Pitt fans who might be in attendance that night.  How fair will that be?)

So now another coaching search begins, and I can't wait to hear the speculation that will ensue among the Panthers fans.  Hey, Rick Pittino is available.  Pat Gallagher and Heather Lyke should go after him, whaddaya think?

Broadway Pittsburgh: "Waitress"

Last night we once again visited the Benedum Center to see the touring production of the Tony Award nominated musical, "Waitress".  I am not going into a full blown review of the show other than to say that it was funny, had great music and dance numbers, and terrific performances by Desi Oakley in the lead role of Jenna, and also by Charity Angel Dawson and Lenna Klingaman as her best friends and fellow waitresses at Joe's Pie Diner.

We attended as a part of a group of friends of ours, there were fourteen of us in all, and that made for a really fun evening.  This is the second time that we've done this, and I have to say that the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust really makes it easy and simple to put a group together and do this.  It was also our good luck that the PCT put on a "Know the Show Before You Go" event one hour before curtain time last night.  They only do this for one performance during the run of the show, which, luckily, was the performance for which we had tickets.  Who knew that was going to happen when I ordered the tickets back in September?  So we attended that and were fortunate enough that three of the male cast members appeared and did a Q & A with the audience.  It was very interesting and it really added to the enjoyment of the show.  So, kudos to the Cultural Trust all around.

As I said, a fun show and one that, if you like live theater, you should really try to see at some point.  It's run in Pittsburgh concludes on Sunday.

Three Stars from The Grandstander.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

To Absent Friends - Roger Bannister

Roger Bannister
1929 -2018
Breaking the four minute mile

The obituary for Sir Roger Bannister that appeared in last Saturday's New York Times began as follows:

On the morning of May 6, 1954, a Thursday, Roger Bannister, 25, a medical student in London, worked his usual shift at St. Mary’s Hospital and took an early afternoon train to Oxford. He had lunch with some old friends, then met a couple of his track teammates, Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher. As members of an amateur all-star team, they were preparing to run against Oxford University.
About 1,200 people showed up at Oxford’s unprepossessing Iffley Road track to watch, and though the day was blustery and damp — inauspicious conditions for a record-setting effort — a record is what they saw. Paced by Chataway and Brasher and powered by an explosive kick, his signature, Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes — 3:59.4, to be exact — becoming the first man ever to do so, breaking through a mystical barrier and creating a seminal moment in sports history.
The obit goes on to describe how Bannister accomplished what was thought up until that time to be beyond human capability - run a mile in under four minutes.  I don't suppose that people living today, and I include myself in this, can truly comprehend the enormity of what Bannister accomplished in Oxford on that 1954 afternoon.  However, if you followed sport back in those days, and I can remember my Dad talking of this over the years, you certainly appreciated the enormity of what Bannister had done, which was The Impossible.

I can imagine that most of the current day world had no idea of who Sir Roger Bannister was when news of his death at age 88 was announced over the weekend.  Such is the nature of the passage of time, and 24 hour news cycles of the 21st century.   If the name meant nothing to you, look up and read an obituary for Roger Bannister that appeared in any number of sources of the weekend.  The NYT piece from which I quoted above is a good one, but there are others.  It makes for extraordinary reading.

In 1955, not long after his history making run, Bannister announced his retirement from competitive racing to pursue his medical education and career, and it was indeed an extraordinary career, as further described in that Times obit:

In addition to his medical career — he became director of the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London — Bannister, from 1971 to 1974, served as the unpaid chairman of the British Sports Council, a government-sponsored organization that helped build and maintain sports facilities, and from 1976 to 1983 he was president of the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Recreation, an umbrella group, founded in 1958, dedicated to disseminating new findings in sport science and promoting their applications.
From 1985 to 1993, he was the head of Pembroke College, Oxford.
It was a distinguished life, all the rest of it, however, in the shadow of a single moment, shortly after 6 p.m. on May 6, 1954, when an Oxford public address announcer delivered news of a just-completed race to 1,200 apprehensive spectators.
One can almost hear the words of Moonlight Graham, as played by Burt Lancaster in "Field of Dreams", being paraphrased by Bannister: "Suppose I'd only have been a doctor for four minutes.  That would have been a tragedy."

The four minute mile began to fall with some regularity one Bannister did it, but he was the first, and that makes him special and historic.  For the record, the current record for the mile is held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco with a time of 3:43.13, a pace that would have put him 100 meters ahead of Bannister in that 1954 race.  That record has stood since 1999.  

RIP Sir Roger Bannister.