Sunday, November 19, 2017

To Absent Friends - Ferdie Pacheco, "The Fight Doctor"

Dr. Ferdie Pacheco
With his most famous client

The news of the death of Dr. Ferdie Pacheco on Friday at the age of 89 arrived rather serendipitously, as I am about halfway through Jonathon Eig's terrific new biography of Muhammad Ali, "Ali: A Life". Pacheco, as you might expect, is a fairly large character in this particular book.

I found it to be an interesting factoid that Pacheco found his way to the gritty 5th Street Gym in Miami, run by Angelo Dundee, and offered his medical services to the trainers and boxers there for the simple reason that it would be a way for him to "get into see the fights for free."  It was this less than altruistic notion that allowed Pacheco to be swept into the entourage of Muhammad Ali and thus play a part in one of the greatest sports sideshows of the twentieth century.  In addition to working with Ali, Pacheco worked with and provided medical services to eleven other world champions trained by Dundee.

In the late 1970's, Pacheco advised that Ali quit boxing as he feared the damage that a lifetime of blows to the head was doing to the boxer.  When such advice went unheeded, Pacheco quit the Ali camp, yet he remained around the fringes of the sport, working as a fight analyst for various television networks.

His obituary in the New York Times ended with this observation and  quote from the Fight Doctor:

Dr. Pacheco became a vocal advocate for enhanced safety measures for boxers. He also had regrets, despite all his good moments in the world of the ring.
“Why was I, an ethical physician with a large charity practice, part of a sport that allowed death?” he once asked. “I never found a suitable answer.”
RIP Ferdie Pacheco

Thursday, November 16, 2017

"The Humans" at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

Trivia Question: What won the Tony Award for Best Play the year that "Hamilton" won Tony Awards for everything else?

Answer (which you can tell from the photo above): "The Humans" by Steven Karam.

"The Humans" is currently playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and Marilyn and I attended this show last night, and we both liked the play very much.

The concept of the play is not an unusual one for drama.  A family (a mother and father, a grandmother with dementia, two sisters, and one sister's live-in boyfriend) comes together for dinner, Thanksgiving dinner in this case, at the New York City apartment of the Brigid and Rich (the daughter and boyfriend).  All is light and jovial at first, but before long, animosities, some long-buried and some recent, come to the surface, followed by a  lot of "hey-she-knows-I'm-just-kidding" types of comments.  

It is a play that makes you laugh, makes you think, and sometimes makes you uncomfortable, which, I believe, is precisely what good drama is supposed to do.  As always, the production by the PPT is first rate, and the performances of the six actors are all terrific.

An interesting sidelight of this play revolves around the dinner itself.  One of the actors spends much of the time preparing the Thanksgiving meal itself...fixing and serving a vegetable tray, pouring drinks, and, finally, carving a fully cooked turkey.  Our seats were in the first balcony to the right of the stage, right above where the turkey was being carved, and I've got to tell you, it smelled really, really good!  Made us  really hungry as we watched.

"The Humans" at the PPT gets three stars from The Grandstander.

From Our Man on Broadway.....

A new musical, "The Band's Visit", opened on Broadway this week.  It is a show that, if you are inclined to pay attention to such things, we will be hearing a lot about over the next several months, especially when Tony Awards time rolls around in the Spring.

Friend Bill Montrose, the Official Broadway Correspondent to The Grandstander, was there this week to take in this big opening in New York, and I will turn the rest of this post over to him for a review of this new show.  You will recall that way back in the Fall of 2015, before it was known here in the hinterlands, Bill and his wife Joanne took in the new show "Hamilton" and predicted on the spot the place that this little show was to come to occupy in American theater culture, so his opinion is not to be taken lightly.

So, how was "The Band's Visit"?  Take it away, Bill....

You KNOW that I'm an "easy critic" when it comes to Broadway;  I love almost everything I see, so read on.

I had some concerns about "The Band's Visit" prior to Joanne and I attending this Musical in NYC the other night.   It opened last week to universal rave reviews; 
for example, "...Ravishing Musical that whispers with romance", "has emotional density" - NY Times ...and "Magic! Impossible to resist" - Variety.  My concerns centered on my wondering: 'What is the appeal of a show about an Egyptian Police Band taking the wrong bus, ending up in an Israeli desert town'?  Plus, it's being celebrated for its Non-Broadway like production: i.e., No big opening , no 11:00 o'clock number, 90 minutes - no intermission; (none of which, of course, is fatal to any show.)  Now, here is where you might expect me to say - after seeing the show - that these concerns were unwarranted and that I believe The Band's Visit to be a masterpiece!  Uh-uh, sorry,  my rating would be a 6 (out of 10). I liked 'The Band's Visit', did not love it.

With a serious story, I prefer to see some character(s) that I can relate to, or identify with. Here, I did not. Each member of the band from Egypt and each of the Israeli townspeople manifests loneliness and unhappiness.  They all get along with each other, and there's no mention of the Arab-Israeli conflict; just quiet conversation (and song) about their unfulfilled lives. (I was waiting for something).  

The cast is headed by Tony Shalhoub (TV Series - Monk; Movie - The Big Night)  as leader of the band, and Katrina Lenk as the owner of the desert cafĂ©, who suggests that the band spend the one night in the local homes, then catch the bus the following day.  Their performances are first rate, especially Ms Lenk whose few sultry song numbers were my musical highlights. Shalhoub's a pro, yet his broken English reminded me somewhat of 'Antonio', his character from the 90's sitcom - "Wings"; a little stuttering and tentative. 

OK, about the music. A lot of instrumental  middle eastern melodies (meh), the high points being Ms Lenk's songs, which demonstrate the genius of this Musical's composer, David Yazbek. I do believe that he is a lyrical genius, having seen his three prior Broadway productions:  The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.  As a Broadway junkie, I listen to these cast recordings often, so I feel qualified to rank Mr. Yazbek in that "Genius" category.  Accordingly, I'm guessing that he'll be celebrated (award-wise) for The Band's Visit.  

So what could have improved (in my humble opinion) this show?  I suggest that it could have added a second act.  As a 90 minute piece that begins with lonely,unhappy people, then ends with lonely unfulfilled people ... why not use Act 2 to provide some fulfillment?  some resolution or redemption to their lonely lives?
Well, as one critic wrote, "...Allow the simplicity to wash over you". I guess they're saying Keep it real, or, Keep it understated.  

Having said all that,  look for The Band's Visit to win many TONY Awards.  Because, what the hell do I know?

So there you are, Grandstander readers.  You heard it here first!

Thanks, Bill.

Monday, November 13, 2017

"Casablanca" On The Big Screen

Last  night we had the treat of seeing the 1942 classic motion picture, "Casablanca" in  movie theater on a Big Screen.  Thanks to Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events for continuing this excellent service to movie lovers everywhere. In his opening remarks, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz said that even if you are seeing "Casablanca' for the fiftieth time, chances are, you have never seen it in a movie theater in company with other movie goers, and that will surely add to the enjoyment of the movie.  He was right!

I'm not going to go on and on about he movie - most of you  all know what it is about - other than to say what I have often said:  If there is such a thing as perfect movie, "Casablanca" is probably it.

Thanks to the Google Machine, though, I was able to go back in time and read the review of the movie written by critic Bosley Crowther of the New York Times from November 27, 1942.  I part, this is what Crowther had to say:

Against the electric background of a sleek cafe in a North African port, through which swirls a backwash of connivers, crooks and fleeing European refugees, the Warner Brothers are telling a rich, suave, exciting and moving tale in their new film, "Casablanca,".....

Yes, indeed, the Warners here have a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap...... they have turned the incisive trick of draping a tender love story within the folds of a tight topical theme.

Like the film itself, Crowther's review has pretty much held up seventy-five years later.

Here is a link to the Times review in its entirety.

As we have learned from these TCM events, there is nothing like seeing a movie on a Big Screen  in an honest-to-God movie theater.

Here's looking at you, kid.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Movie Review: "Muder On The Orient Express" (no spoilers)

One of the big movies of the season opening today is a new version of Agatha Christie's classic mystery thriller, "Murder On The Orient Express".  This version was was directed by and stars Kenneth Branagh as detective Hercule Poirot.

Before getting into the subject of remakes, let me concentrate on this movie.  As indicated in the title, there will be no spoilers.

The story, and there may be some of you out there who are not familiar is this:  Poirot finds himself boarding, at the last minute, the Istanbul-to-Calais Orient Express for a three day train ride across Europe.  Because of the last minute nature of his boarding, he is squeezed in among an assortment of passengers all brought together, seemingly at random, for this particular train ride.  During the second night of the trip two things occur.  An avalanche takes place and stalls the train in the somewhere middle of the Balkans, and one of the passengers is brutally murdered.  A railroad official implores Poirot to investigate and solve this mystery before the tracks are cleared so that the police officials can be presented both a victim and a perpetrator.  The killer had to be someone on the Calais Coach, but who  among them could have wanted this guy, Mr. Ratchett, dead? 

Such is the tale of one of Christie's most renowned novels, and Branagh tells the story in a stylish and very entertaining manner.  I'm not going to say any more about the mystery and its solution.  See the movie yourself and enjoy it.

Like the Sidney Lumet version of the story from 1974, this one has the requisite all-star cast that includes in addition to Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom, Jr., Willem Dafoe and others.  Going in, I wasn't sure that I was going to like Branagh as Poirot, but he was quite good as it turned out.  Also good in their roles were Depp (is he ever not good?) and Pfeiffer.  The movie is also beautifully filmed and  gorgeous to look at.  A very entertaining hour and fifty-four minutes, and it gets a solid Three Stars from The Grandstander.

Now, when I checked in on Facebook that I was seeing this movie today, I got a number of comments along the lines of "I saw the Albert Finney version in 1974, so I'm not going to bother with this one" or "Why bother remaking this one" or "Why should I see this one when I saw the other one. Isn't it the same story?"

The subject of remakes is one that I have written about before 
and there is no one-size-fits-all answer.  In the case of MOTOE, I had read that the Agatha Christie estate was in full support of the making of this movie because it might expose new generations of readers to Christie's works, generations of moviegoers and readers who would have no inclination to look up and watch a forty year old movie. Fair enough.

I grant you that a lot of remakes have been ill-advised and just plain bad (see what I had to say about that in the post linked above), but some of them can be quite good and can stand on their on merits alongside and even improve upon the originals.  As far as "Murder On The Orient Express" is concerned, I can say that I liked both this one and Lumet's 1974 version equally.  It's a good story, and the studios and the film makers did not skimp in making sure that they gave the public a quality production.  And isn't conversations of who was better, Albert Finney or Kenneth Branagh, Lauren Bacall or Michelle Pfeiffer, Richard Widmark or Johnny Depp, Ingrid Bergman or Penelope Cruz (for the record, I'll vote for Branagh, Depp and Bergman and call it a draw between Bacall and Pfeiffer) all part of the fun, kind of like arguing about Willie, Mickey, and The Duke?

Movie goers can decide how they want to spend their money, of course, but I hope that you not rule this version of "Murder On The Orient Express" out simply because you saw the same story done forty-three years ago.  That was a good movie, but so is this one. 

Oh, true Christie-philes will have noted that the door was left open just a crack at the end of this one for additional Branagh-as-Poirot films.  Not sure if that is what Branagh wants, but the opportunity is certainly there.

Again, Three Stars from The Grandstander.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

"Casablanca" Is Coming To The Big Screen

A couple of years ago, my pal David Cicotello surprised me with a copy of this book....

As the title self-explains, it contains the complete script of the classic 1942 film, "Casablanca" as well as several essays with fascinating behind the scenes stuff from co-screenwriter Howard Koch and others.  Many of the essays in the book expound upon the popularity of "Casablanca", and how it continues to find new life in younger generations who are always flocking to see it when it was shown in revival houses.  What was interesting about that was that this book was published in 1973.  

Think about that for a minute.  In 1973, the video cassette recorder did not exist, which means that there were no video cassettes that could be rented or purchased, and things such as dedicated classic movie cable channels, DVD's and DVD players, Blue-Ray discs, and video streaming were probably not even figments of the imaginations of anyone.  In 1973, the only way that you could see "Casablanca" was either waiting for some college campus revival theater to run it, or catch it in a chopped up version on the late, late show on your local television station.  Yet, despite all of that, "Casablanca" had already established itself as a classic, must-see film.  In 2017, anyone who remotely cares no doubt owns a copy of "Casablanca" on DVD, and Turner Classic Movies runs it at least a half dozen time a year, so we can watch it pretty much any time we want to do so.

However, how many of us have actually seen "Casablanca" in an actual movie theater on a big screen?  Not me, and probably not may of us under the age of seventy or so, but in the coming week, we have the opportunity to change that.  To mark the 75th anniversary of its release, the TCM/Fathom Events Big Screen Classics series will be showing "Casablanca" in theaters nationwide on Sunday, November 12 and Wednesday, November 15.  In Pittsburgh, this will be shown at the Cinemark Theaters.  

Mrs. Grandstander and I plan on being there at one of these showings, most likely Sunday evening.  Yes, we will know every line of dialog before it is spoken on screen, and we'll probably be reciting some of those classic lines right along with Rick and Ilsa, but how can we pass up this chance to see this in all of its wide screen black-and-white glory?

I hope that we'll see a lot of friends there as well, and if not, well....

To Absent Friends - Roy Halladay

Toronto Blue Jays 1998-2009
Philadelphia Phillies 2010-2013
203-105, 3.38
Eight time All-Star
Cy Young Award, 2003, 2010

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

    - from "To An Athlete Dying Young" by A.E. Housman

RIP Roy Halladay