Monday, November 27, 2017

Critical Commentary - "Ali: A Life" by Jonathon Eig

On the sixth page of the preface to this fabulous book, author Jonathon Eig included this sentence about Muhammad Ali: "...he (had) become one of the most despised men in America and then, presto-change-o, one of the most beloved."  

Eig then proceeds to tell precisely how that happened.  Eig spent four years researching and writing this biography of perhaps the most dominant sporting and cultural figure of the twentieth century.  Maybe you already know the basic outline of his life....Cassius Clay was the great-grandson of a slave, his grandfather was a convicted murderer, he grew up in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, turned to boxing when someone stole his bicycle, and became an Olympic champion.   He then turned professional and he won and lost the heavyweight championship three times.  Along the way, he converted to Islam, refused induction into the military, lost three years of the prime of his career before the United States Supreme Court upheld his right to refuse military induction.  In retirement and battling numerous health issues resulting from hundreds of thousands of punches over the course of 25 year career in the boxing ring, Ali did become that beloved figure.

"Ali: A Life" tells this story in great detail that results from Eig's meticulous research that included interviews with over two hundred people closely associated with Ali over the years, including three of Ali's four wives, his children, high ranking members of the Nation of Islam, many of the hangers-on that comprised Ali's entourage over the years, and many of the people who dominated the fight game when Ali was the king of that game.  This is not a "puff piece" of a biography.  Eig specifically did not want this to be an "authorized" biography.  It shows Ali, warts and all.  In many instances, Ali was not necessarily a nice guy.  He could be unspeakably cruel and harsh when talking about his opponents, he was never a faithful husband, nor was he an involved father to his children.  The book doesn't shy away from any of that.  

Eig writes of the milestone fights of Ali's career.  The two Sonny Liston fights, the three Joe Frazier fights, the "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman.  Eig's description of the events that led to the Foreman fight being staged in Zaire is great storytelling, and the description of the Ali-Frazier III, the "Thrilla in Manilla", captures the brutality of that fight and the toll that it took on both Ali and Frazier.  It is terrific writing.

I knew, or felt that I knew, the story of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, but I learned a lot more in reading this book.  I learned a lot about the Nation of Islam and Malcom X.  I learned that the boxing game was even sleazier than I thought it was (Don King!!).  But mostly I learned about Muhammad Ali.  How naive he was in so many ways and how that trait cost him millions of dollars as he was fleeced by shady business deals and the practices of even his closest friends and advisers.  Eig also perfectly captures the history and the culture of the times - the 1960's and -70's - that were so much a part of Ali's story.

The book also captures the personality and the sheer amazing force that was Muhammad Ali.  The handsome braggart who declared himself the prettiest and the "Greatest of Allllll Timesss".  The person whose favorite topic was, of course, himself.  Yet in the final phase of his life a close friend and adviser to Ali (not one of the swindlers and crooks) rightfully described him as perhaps "one of the most humble people I ever knew".

As is often the case with biographies, the most fascinating part of the story comes after the subject leaves public life.  Ali fought his last fight - a loss to a pedestrian Trevor Berbick - in 1981.  What does a person with limited "book smarts" and marketable skills do once he leaves the limelight.  Eig spends about fifty or so pages, about ten percent of the book, describing this phase of Ali's life, and they may have been the best part of the book.  It is here that we see Ali devoting his life to humanitarian causes, to his religion, and to peaceful pursuits, and, yes, to things like doing product endorsements and selling his autograph and memorabilia.  It is in this phase of his life that Ali became that beloved figure. There is as story told in the book of a Tanzanian man and his grandson knocking on Ali's door one day  in 1982.  The man just wanted to meet "the great Ali".  What Ali did for that man, and his subsequent story of a "tallying angel" is a tale that equals or exceeds any sermon in any church, synagogue, or mosque that you will ever hear.

Ali's story is a great one, and how fortunate that a terrific writer like Jonathon Eig is the one who wrote it.  I suppose that one can never say that something is "definitive", and there will no doubt be other writers in years to come who will take a crack at writing the Muhammad Ali story, but I cannot imagine that they will be able to do a better job than Eig has done in this book.  It gets the full Four Stars from The Grandstander, and I would urge anyone to read it.

Leading up to the publication of "Ali: A Life", Jonathon Eig did a podcast called "Chasing Ali" this past summer.  It was a limited series, only twelve episodes, each about 10-12 minutes in length.  If you are reluctant to tackle a 500 page book, you might want to give this podcast a try.  It may change your mind and really encourage you to read the book.

"Ali: A Life" is Eig's fifth book.  I had read two previous ones, "Luckiest Man", a biography of Lou Gehrig written in 2005, and "Opening Day" from 2007, the story of Jackie Robinson's rookie season in the major leagues.  Both were excellent, and I recommend those as well.  His other two books include one about Al Capone, and another the development and marketing of the birth control pill.  I'm thinking that I need to read the Capone book sooner rather than later.

Cannot write a post about Muhammad Ali without including this famous photo from the first Sonny Liston fight, when Cassius Clay won the heavyweight championship....

...this photo of Marilyn and I at the Ali center in Louisville from 2016....

...and this photo, which is self-explanatory....

Friday, November 24, 2017

Pitt 24 - Miami 14

This is why you follow sports.

Pitt was 4-7.  They had just lost two consecutive games that were there for the taking.  The third year head coach was for the first time in his tenure coming under fire, and there were reports that he was sniping at the new Athletic Director (the one who didn't hire him), and the team would not be going to a bowl game.  Now, on the day after Thanksgiving, they would be playing out the string in a half empty stadium against the University of Miami.

Yes, Miami, who was 11-0, ranked #2 in the CFP, were headed to the ACC Championship game, and who would be a serious threat to win it all in the College Football Playoff.  The same Miami who had dismantled the third ranked team in the CFP on national television just two weeks ago.  The same Miami that had everything to play for against a team that, if you called them an "also ran", you would be being kind to them.

Nope, no way that Pitt was going to win this one or even hang close to Miami.  The only question would be just how large the margin of victory would be.  Hell, if the weather had been bad today, I might have opted to just skip this one and stay home.

You know what happened.  Pitt, with freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett making his first start for the Panthers, led 10-7 at half, bumped it to 17-7 in the third quarter, and seemingly sealed the the deal with an amazing 22 yard naked bootleg run for a TD by Pickett with under three minutes to play that made it 24-7. I say "seemingly" because, of course, Pitt never makes it easy for the fans, as they allowed a long TD pass and then saw Miami recover an onside kick when the ball took a one-chance-in-a-hundred bounce.  However, a fumble recovery two plays later gave Pitt the ball and THAT sealed the deal.  There were no fluke or freaky plays involved in this one.  It was complete and thorough Pitt victory, and it ended what has been a fairly sour season on a very sweet note.

Miami may still make it into the CFP, and if they do, they could very well win the whole thing.  And there are still questions hanging over a lackluster season-long performance by Pitt.  However, neither of those circumstances take away the euphoria experience by Pitt's players and coaches, and fans, especially this rowdy bunch in Section 535.

Yep, a game like this one is why you follow sports.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Movie Review - "Wonder"

On the surface, "Wonder" would not be a movie that I would be inclined to see, but am I glad that I did.

The story concerns a ten year old boy, Augie, who was born with a genetic condition that necessitated over twenty surgeries in his young life, and those surgeries have left him with some facial deformities.  He has been home schooled by his mother, but it is now time for him to be mainstreamed into a regular middle school with other kids.  Both he and his parents are terrified at the prospect.

How Augie takes to going to a regular school, how he is treated by the other kids, in both good and bad ways, and how the rest  of his family respond, including his older sister,  who has had to take a back seat to Augie all of her life, is what the movie is all about.  

Sounds like a formulaic, Hallmark-type movie of the week to you?  That's what I thought, but it is so much more than that. It turns out to be a wonderful story about love, family, friendship, respect, growing up.  I can't recommend it highly enough, but be sure to bring a hankie or two or lots of Kleenex.  You'll definitely cry at this one, but in a good way.

The movie stars young Jacob Tremblay as Augie, Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts as his parents, and Izabela Vidovic as his older sister.  Also featured are Mandy Patinkin as the school principal and for all you "Hamilton" fans out there, Daveed Diggs as one of Augie's teachers.

All the actors are good in "Wonder", but a word about Julia Roberts.  She is good, really good, in this movie.  She may be one of the best actresses around these days, but she doesn't seem to me to be the "big star" that she should be.  The last time I saw her was last year in the George Clooney movie "Money Monster" and her performance in that one was perhaps the best part of that movie.  She turned 50 years old in 2017, and I wonder if she is the victim of the Hollywood system that makes it harder and harder for actresses to get great roles in great movies as they get older (unless, of course, you're Meryl Streep).  That is really shame if that's the case because she really is a terrific actress.

Three and one-half stars from The Grandstander  for "Wonder".

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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Bob Dylan In Concert

Back in 2015, Marilyn and I began, although we didn't realize it at the time, what we have come to call the "Geezer Rock Concert Tour".  It began when we went to see Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, and it has gone on to include Tom Jones, Brian Wilson, and Huey Lewis and the News.  Last night, the Tour expanded to include perhaps the greatest American musical icon of the last fifty years, Bob Dylan.

Dylan has been touring and performing for going on sixty years, and in fact, he calls his performances the "Never Ending World Tour", but we had never seen him live, and when this concert at Heinz Hall was announced, I figured that I was going to jump on the chance to see him perform, because, hey, this is BOB DYLAN we are talking about here, and how many more chances am I going to get to see him?

From reading about Dylan's concerts in recent years, you have to know what you are going to get going are not going to get a "greatest hits" show, he'll sing what he wants to sing, and he will "rework" some of those classics to the point where they will sound different, and in some cases, a lot different from the recorded versions with which you are familiar.  You also know that you will get no snappy banter or interaction with the audience.  Finally, we've all heard Bob Dylan in recent years, and the voice is now raspy from 76 years worth of cigarettes and God knows what else.

So, how was it at Heinz Hall last night?

Dylan performed with a five piece band and no back up singers.  He did all the singing himself.  In some instances, I was surprised at how well his voice did sound, but in many cases, the often imitated Dylan voice was rough and raspy to the point that it was hard to understand.  He performed a number of his Dylan standards, but all of them were reworked in a way that they were almost unrecognizable, and he was almost halfway through the song before you realized what song it was (examples: Tangled Up In Blue, Desolation Row).  Others, while they may not have been just like the originals, were more recognizable (It Ain't Me, Babe, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blown' In The Wind).  

He also performed a five Sinatra-type, Great American Songbook numbers, which he has been recording in recent years.  Kudos to him for trying something different, and while Bob Dylan is many things, one thing he is not is a Frank Sinatra/Tony Bennett style crooner.

Over his lifetime as a performer, it has been the WORDS of Bob Dylan that have won him acclaim, and, incidentally, a Nobel Prize for Literature, but I also love the MUSIC of Bob Dylan.  The beats and rhythms of his songs are wonderful, and to that end, his five piece band last night was terrific.  Even when it was hard to understand Dylan's voice, the music that the band (with Dylan on piano; he never touched a guitar or a harmonica last night) was producing was wonderful.

I am not sure what I expected last night.  For sure, Dylan is not a young man, and he was never one to give bombastic Springsteen-style concerts.  In some respects, the performance last night was somewhat workmanlike - sing a song, change the lighting, sing another song, punch the clock and get out of there.  As Scott Mervis said in his Post-Gazette review this morning "Dylan does what Dylan does - he has earned that right - and God knows he loves to mess with us."

It certainly was not the greatest concert I ever attended, but it wasn't like watching Willie Mays With The Mets either.  From a personal point of view, my biggest thrill of the night was hearing Bob Dylan sing It Ain't Me, Babe and Blowin' In The Wind.  No matter how it sounded, watching an honest-to-God icon performing two of his most iconic songs was worth the price of admission.

Much of our Geezer Rock Tour has been in the company of friends Dan and Susan Bonk, and that was the case last night as well.  Back in the days of our youth, none of us probably ever imagined that a Bob Dylan concert would be preceded by dinner at a linen tablecloth downtown restaurant, and take place in a posh place like Heinz Hall.  

The times, they have indeed a-changed.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Lousy Teams in the News

What I am about to write about falls in to the category of Old News, but I just can't resist.  At the NFL trade deadline last week, the League's two lousiest teams were very much in the news.

First off, the San Francisco 49'ers, now 0-9, made a trade with the New England Patriots and obtained quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.  Interesting deal, and God knows, the Niners needed a QB, but then coach Kyle Shanahan announced that Garoppolo would not be starting right away, and, in fact, it was highly possible that Garoppolo might not even play until NEXT season.

I will remind you that the 49'ers were 0-8 at the time of Shanahan's pronouncement, and are now 0-9.  Can anyone explain the HC's logic in this matter?  Can anyone explain why anyone would actually buy a ticket to see the 49'ers play?

Then there are the Cleveland Browns.  The quarterback travails of the Browns since they came back into the NFL in 1999 are well documented.  In an effort to improve themselves, the Browns had apparently made trade with the Bengals to obtain Cincy's back-up QB, A.J. McCarron.  Word is that the folks in the Browns front office and football staff were celebrating this deal and congratulating themselves over be able to pull this off, except for one minor detail.  They neglected to file the necessary paperwork with the League office prior to the deadline, so....No Deal.

As Bryce Harper might put it, that is a clown franchise, bro.

Of course, one might wonder just how good McCarron would have been anyway since the Bengals were willing to send him to a division opponent, but of course, these are the Bengals we are talking about.  In the end, you might say that the big winner in all of this was McCarron, since he doesn't have to go to Cleveland and play for the Browns, but, on the other hand, he is still stuck with the Bengals.

Let me end with this little proposition wager.  If I set the Over/Under for combined wins for the Browns and 49'ers at 1.5 for the rest of the season, how would you bet?  I would bet the Over because it is hard to go 0-16.  However, if I set it at 2.5, I would definitely go Under.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Old Movie Time: "Notorious" (1946)

Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" opens in a Miami courtroom in 1946 and the conviction of an American man for being a Nazi spy.  Shortly thereafter, the spy's daughter, promiscuous and drunken Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is recruited by American agent (FBI? CIA?; Hitchcock never makes that detail clear) T.J. Devlin (Cary Grant) to spy on some of her father's old associates who are still up to no good down in Brazil.  Despite her bitterness about her father's conviction, it seems that Alicia is a patriotic American, plus, she's fallen in love with Devlin, and she'll do anything for him.  Devlin also loves Alicia, but duty calls, and he must ask her to do something very distasteful for the good of the country.  However, if only she would say no, or if only Devlin would tell her not to do it.....but then if either of those things happened, we'd have no movie.

Anyway,  Bergman and Grant get down to Rio, where they manage to bump into her father's acquaintance Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who at one time was in love with Alicia.  Before you know it, not only is Alicia insinuated inside off Sebastian's house - remember, she was promiscuous, and Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht lets you know it despite Hollywood production code mores that forbid such things being spelled out on screen - and before you know it, she's married to the guy!

Despite all this melodrama, this movie is one of Hitchcock's more suspenseful efforts despite there being absolutely no on screen violence or mayhem.   Hitchcock manages to wring tension and suspense out of the following elements:
  • A key in Bergman's hands
  • A wine bottle tippling on a shelf
  • The steadily reducing inventory of champagne bottles behind a bar at a party
  • Two coffee cups on an end table
  • An ending sequence involving Bergman, Grant, and Rains walking down a set of stairs
I'd like to tell you more about that final bullet point, but if I did, it would really spoil the movie for you.

This movie contains one of Hitchcock's most famous shots.  The scene opens with a wide view from the top of stairway upon an elegant house party.  The camera then slowly zooms in one take to a close-up of Bergman's hand behind her back as she clutches the aforementioned key.  This two sentence summary of the scene and the shot does not do it justice.  You really need to see it.

It is a movie that is also somewhat famous for a three minute scene of Grant and Bergman kissing.  The production code at the time did not allow for screen kisses in excess of three seconds.  In this scene, the two of them stare into each others eyes, coyly converse, move from a balcony, to a kitchen, to the doorway, and, while Grant makes a phone call, to the doorway of the apartment, all the time in each others' arms while taking those sub-three second kisses.  Kind of a foreshadowing of what Hitch did with Grant and Eva Marie Saint on a train car in "North By Northwest" a dozen of so years later.

It is a movie that also makes "good guy" Grant kind of a rotter, while "bad guy" Rains, who really does love Alicia, becomes  an almost sympathetic figure.  And the final line of line of dialog and scene of the movie is especially chilling.

Movies don't get much better than when Alfred Hitchcock was at his best, and he was definitely at his best with "Notorious". 

Four stars all the way on this one.

A No Football Weekend

No Pitt football yesterday, no Steelers football today.  Talk about a lost weekend, but it prompts some Random Thoughts from The Grandstander.....

At the beginning of the season, you would certainly signed up for a 6-2 first half of the season from the Steelers, although you would have never predicted that those two losses would be to the Bears and the Jaguars.  Still, with five of the remaining games at home, the schedule looks to be much in the Steelers favor, to the extent that a twelve win season looks to be attainable.

One thing that needs to be reversed in this second half is better, and I hate to use this term, Red Zone Production.  How many times have the Steelers been in First and Goal situations and have had to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns?  Seems like about a million times, right?  That trend really needs to change.

I am also concerned about Ben Roethlisberger's performance this year.  It's not that he's been bad (throw out that freak five interception game aberration against Jacksonville), but he has just appeared to be just a bit "off" from his past seasons' capabilities.  One can hope that he can shake it off, but there is a fine line between being great and being ordinary, and perhaps at age 35 and in his 14th NFL season, Ben has come up to that line.  He spoke of retirement after last season, and maybe the end is coming.  Steelers fans can hope that both he and the team can summon in all up over these last eight games and make a run to the Super Bowl, which I predicted and I will stand by that prediction here at the halfway mark.

Pitt now sits at 4-6 and needs to go 2-1 (North Carolina, @Virginia Tech, Miami) in order to go 6-6 and be bowl eligible.  Personally, at this point in the Narduzzi Era, I was hoping for more than merely scraping to go 6-6 and getting an invitation to some WhoCares Bowl.  I was also disappointed to see that Pat Narduzzi found it necessary to take a shot via Twitter last week after Penn State's loss to Ohio State last week.  Seems that HCPN should be tending to his own team, and at least contending for the championship of his own conference  before engaging in such schoolyard behavior.

As for that bowl eligibility, I see a win over NorthCarolina and loss to Virginia Tech.  It will all come down to that final home game against currently undefeated Miami.  I'm thinking that Pitt does not go bowling this year.  There goes those vitally important 15 extra practice sessions that coached love so much.


Speaking of boorish behavior among coaches, Penn State got dealt a dose of humility with its second consecutive loss yesterday, this time to Michigan State.  I see in the paper this morning that James Franklin stated that perhaps his team was too concerned with things like national rankings and getting into the College Football Playoffs, and that maybe they weren't "mature enough" to handle things.  Since he, Franklin, was foremost in voicing such opinions, I hope that he was including himself among those not being mature enough to handle it, but he probably wasn't.

Franklin has convinced me that he is a pretty good football coach, but like many such coaches, he's not an easy guy to like, unless he coaches "your" team.  As such, not a lot of people outside of central Pennsylvania are going to feel too bad about this sudden two game losing streak for Franklin's Lions.

And speaking of unlikeable coaches, how about Urban Meyer and  Ohio State getting pasted in Iowa yesterday?  With this second loss of the season, this should take Ohio State out of any talk of being one of the four teams in the CFP this year.   The Committee seemed to automatically include Ohio State int e Playoff last year, and that was wrong (and, yes, the team that should have been there was Penn State).  It is not Ohio State's birthright to be there, and it looks like they won't be this year.  Although, I guess that the Buckeyes could still win the Big Ten Championship, so who knows?


Right now it appears that all signs are pointing to the SEC Championship Game, most likely between Alabama and Georgia, as the Game of the Year.  Both are undefeated and are ranked 1 and 2.  Unless that game is a rout for the winner, it is likely that both teams will make the CFP, and a rematch will be possible in the playoffs.  That never usually works out well.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Congratulations, Astros!

Earlier this morning, at 12:27 AM to be precise, I, The Grandstander, went LIVE!! on Facebook (channelling my inner Antonio Brown) to give my immediate thoughts on the Astros 5-1 Game 7 win last night.  You can find it on my Facebook timeline if you missed it and if you are interested.  Having done that, let me just give some final thoughts on the 2017 World Series and MLB Post-Season.

  • It was a terrific Series.  Certainly one of the best and most exciting ones in my lifetime.  The Astros victory was well deserved and well earned.
  • I was rooting for the Astros in the Series for many reasons, but one reason that I am glad it happened was that it will assure that that crazy and memorable Game 5 extra innings win will remain in memory as perhaps the best and most exciting baseball games ever.  Certainly in the Top Three to Five of such contests.  Ad the Astros lost the Series, it would soon have receded to just an interesting footnote in baseball history.
  • For the most part, the Series included spectacular flame outs by the bullpens of both teams, and Houston manager AJ Hinch seemed to lose confidence in most if not all of his relievers.  But you manage a bullpen differently in a Game 7, and Hinch's use of season long relievers early, and starter Charlie Morton late in the game last night worked to perfection.
  • Speaking of Hinch, throughout this entire post season, which included two Games Seven, Hinch at all times seemed to be the calmest man in the ball park, and Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts wasn't far behind him.  I can only imagine how many packs of cigarettes Jim Leyland would have gone through in just that fifth game, let alone the entire Series.
  • And speaking of Charlie Morton, beginning in that Game Seven against the Yankees in the ALCS, and that four inning relief job in Game Seven of the WS, I found myself  rooting for him and being unbelievably, inexplicably happy for him.

  • In seven seasons with the Pirates, Morton went 41-62 with a 4.41 ERA and a 1.427 WHIP.  While he showed signs at times of being a good pitcher, he was a general disappointment, and there was no hue and cry of disappointment when he was traded after the 2015 season to Philadelphia (for David Whitehead, and whatever happened to him?).  However, he always came across as a good guy, and he ran into hard luck (nine trips to the DL over the years), and I confess to being completely unaware to his resurgence with the Astros this season (14-7, 3.62).  When I saw him start Game 7 against the Yankees, I just wanted him to win, and seeing him go four innings and being on the mound to get the 27th out last night, well, it just felt good.  I can't explain it.
  • Speaking of relief pitchers and Dave Roberts, I wonder how many people in LA are asking, "Why didn't Clayton Kershaw start Game Seven?"  I know that hindsight is 20/20, but when you saw what Kershaw did in relief last night, and when you know there was no "next game" until next April, and if this guy is supposed to be the "next Koufax", well, it's a question that has to be asked.
  • And on the subject of ex-Pirates, it needs to be noted that Tony Watson was the winning pitcher in two of the Dodgers three wins.  And Francisco Liriano also pitched in Game Seven for the winning Astros.
  • Jose Altuve is a great player, no question about it, but the ballplayer with whom I was most impressed throughout this Post Season was Astros outfielder George Springer.
  • We all know what he did in the Series: five home runs, and every one of them seemed to be critical ones.  He also impressed me as a fabulous outfielder, and, yes, he did make one bad mistake in judgment in that fifth game out there in center field, but, man, do I wish he played for the Pirates.  The Series MVP is my newest baseball Mancrush.
  • The television coverage of the WS by Fox was great, and, yes, I am including Joe Buck in that evaluation, despite the fact that at one point he made the serious grammatical error when he said "between the three of them..."  Color analyst John Smoltz was positively terrific,  maybe the best there is right now, and I can even forgive him for reminding us on more that one occasion that during his career he was called upon to start in three different Games Seven.  If I had something like that on my resume, I'd drop it onto the conversation as often as I could.
I will end his post by stealing from pal Joe Risacher an observation that he made on Facebook late last night.  One could - could -  say that in 2015, after winning 98 games, the Pirates and the Astros were in the same relative positions, baseball-wise. After that season, the Pirates elected to, if not blow up, then certainly not build upon that season's success.  The Astros continued to build and when the opportunity came two seasons later to really "go for it", the Astros did, spent money (the Justin Verlander deal being the most obvious example, but there were others), and today they are World Series Champions.  The Pirates are coming off of back-to-back losing seasons.  Too simplistic a comparison?  Perhaps, but it is hard not to draw some very bad conclusions if you are a Bucco fan.

It was a really bad year for the City of Houston, Texas.  I am glad that they now have the chance to celebrate their baseball team.