Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Bouquets, Brickbats, and Other Observations

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

Saw the current Pittsburgh Public Theater's production of "Daddy Long Legs" on Sunday evening.  It might have been one of the very best shows we have ever seen at the PPT, and we have been attending productions there since the 1980's.

The show starred Danielle Bowen and Allan Snyder, both of whom were making their first appearance at the PPT.  One can only hope that they will be appearing there in many future productions.


Speaking of the PPT, it was announced a few weeks back that Managing Director Ted Pappas would be leaving that position at the end of the 2018 season.  Apparently, it was Pappas' decision to move on, and one can only wish him the best.  In his eighteen years in that position, he has made the PPT one of the true gems in the Pittsburgh cultural scene.  Good luck to the person that the PPT brings in to replace him.  He or she will have some HUGE shoes to fill.


"Feud: Bette and Jane" continues to be one of the most entertaining series on TV.  The scene on last Sunday's show wherein Joan Crawford, played by Jessica Lange, fires her William Morris Agency agents in one of the great scenes with one of the best lines ever delivered on series television, was an absolute classic.  

If you missed it, go to FX Network On Demand and click on Episode 4 of the series.  The scene I am talking about takes place in the first five minutes of the show - you'll know it when you hear it, believe me - so you won't have to invest a lot of time into it if you are not so inclined.

And while we are talking about TV series on FX, we are now three episodes into Season Four of "The Americans".  So far, I'm disappointed, and I fear that unless things pick up quickly, we could be talking shark-jumping for what has been a really good series for the first three seasons.

What was becoming a major embarrassment came to end last night when Duquesne University announced that Kevin Dambrot, late of Akron University, had accepted the position of Head Basketball Coach for the Dukes.  Apparently, Dambrot had originally turned down the job, and then so did everyone else the University approached about the job.  So, they went back to Dambrot and upped the ante considerably (seven years / $7 million), and he said yes.

For those of us who came of age when Duquesne was THE college basketball team in the city, and those of us who did are now all in our sixties and older now, we can only hope that, finally, things may turn around on The Bluff, and that Dukes basketball can be relevant once again.

So, the NFL lodge brothers approve the relocation of the Raiders from Oakland to Las Vegas by a note of 31-1. The Raiders then say that the actual move won't take place until 2019 or 2020, and that, by the way, the lame duck team will be raising ticket prices for the chumps in Oakland to attend their games.

(Oakland and the State of California would not cough up any public funds for a new stadium for the Raiders.  Vegas and Nevada is forking over $750 million of their residents' tax payments.  Just the way the NFL and other pro leagues like it.)

Mike Wilbon is right: the arrogance and greed of the NFL owners knows no bounds, and the sad part is that those suckers in Oakland will no doubt continue to pony up for tickets when it would serve the Raiders right to play in front of empty houses for their remaining years in the Bay area.

Has anything been more annoying than the  prominent role being sought out and granted to Lavar Ball, the father of UCLA basketball player Alonzo Ball, and two other hoops' prodigies.  The fact that the Bruins went down to Kentucky in the regional semis last week may have ruined a lot of peoples' bracket pools, but it spared the nation - for now, anyway - any further exposure to Lavar Ball.  By the way, Ball may well be the #1 pick in the NBA draft this summer, but in that game against Kentucky, he wasn't even the second best guard on the floor. Both of those kids from Kentucky were better, for that night at least.

I missed the Kentucky - North Carolina game on Sunday, but was somewhat surprised at the outcome.  I thought that Kentucky was the best team that I had seen play throughout the tournament up to that point.  Not completely surprised, though, because, after all, North Carolina IS North Carolina.

For what it's worth, I'm calling North Carolina to beat Gonzaga for the Championship come Monday night.  As always, watch but don't bet.  And for the record, the bracket pool that I submitted at the outset of the tournament had UCLA over Arizona in that game.  

Shows you what I know.


As for the movie scene, last week I pulled to favorites out of the DVD basket here at home, both from director and screenwriter Lawrence Kasden.  From 1981...

and from 1983...

I hadn't watched either one in several years, and both hold up well after all these years and are still terrific movies to watch.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Fifth Starter

As is the case with any major league baseball team, the biggest question entering into any baseball season is "How is the pitching going to be?" because, as any cliche loving baseball fan knows, and say it with me now...

PITCHING IS (pick any number between 75% and 90%) OF THE GAME!!!!!

This is no less true of Your Pittsburgh Pirates.  Entering into the season, the first three slots in the rotation were ceded to these guys:

Ivan Nova - Gerritt Cole - Jameson Taillon

Performance thus far in Spring Training has borne this out.    The fourth spot, based largely on performance in 2016 belongs to Chad Kuhl, so one of the main discussion points of the Spring has centered upon who will grab that fifth spot in the rotation.

So how has ST gone for the Bucco Moundsmen?  (Stats are through March 24):

Gerritt Cole
Jameson Taillon
Ivan Nova
Chad Kuhl
Fifth starter:

Drew Hutchison
Tyler Glasnow
Trevor Williams
Steven Brault

As I mentioned above, Cole, Taillon, and Nova have been solid, and Kuhl looks pretty good as well.  Then there is that four-way battle for the fifth spot.  In the paper this morning, Clint Hurdle was quoted to the effect that each of the four have been given the chance to separate himself from the others, and none of them has.  I think that the team would have liked to have seen Hutchison earn the spot, if for no other reason than to justify that salary dump deal with Toronto that brought him here last summer.  Glasnow is the golden boy prospect, and 23 K's in 14.1 IP sure is eye-popping, but the ERA's for both guys seem to have earned them a ticket to Indianapolis to start the season.

That leaves Williams and Brault.  Brault is left handed, and would become the only lefty in the rotation, and that may give him an edge over Williams, who has the slightly better ERA and WHIP.  Flip a coin.

As always, keep in mind the following:
  • Spring Training stats mean almost nothing.  They may or may not be an indicator of regular season performance.
  • A fifth starter is just that - the fifth best guy you have.  More than one guy will no doubt fill that role throughout 2017.  If that guy, or the combination of that guy, can pitch past the sixth inning with regularity and be within two games of .500, plus or minus, I am guessing that the Pirates will sign on for it right now.
  • And what the fifth guy does will mean squadoosh unless (a) We get the the 2015 version of Cole, and not the 2016 version, (b) The two months performance we saw from Ivan Nova was NOT an aberration (his career ERA is over 4.00), and (c) Taillon and Kuhl continue to build upon progress from their pretty good rookie seasons.
I'll take a look at the everyday line-up and the bench later in the week.

Friday, March 24, 2017

World Baseball Classic, Part II

I stayed up on Wednesday night to watch the USA's 8-0 victory over Puerto Rico in the WBC championship game.  I found it and the previous night's semi-final game to be enjoyable and compelling to watch, and I was especially impressed by the joy of the USA players, and in fact of all players in the WBC, throughout the games.  

It seems that we have become accustomed to watching ballplayers treating a major league game with the same degree of ennui as a guy putting in eight hours at, say, an accounting firm, a bank, or a Highmark sales office.  Yes, it is their livelihood, but it is also a game.  It's supposed to  be fun.  The international players all showed how fun it can be, and it seemed that that sense of joy infected the USA players.  Did you hear Christian Yelich say in the post game interview that this tournament was "the most fun he ever had playing baseball"?

One exception of course was a grumpy statement from Ian Kinsler saying how those international players "don't know how the game should be played".   So, along with his WBC gold medal, give Kinsler a sour lemon to suck on in the clubhouse while he reads the Book of Unwritten Rules.  Too bad he couldn't have demonstrated the same sense of joy that Yelich, Adam Jones, Marcus Stroman and others appeared to have throughout the tournament.  

And then, of course, there were these two guys who rejoined their team in Bradenton today.  They look pretty happy don't they?

Jay-Hey and Cutch

Now that the USA has broken through and won one of these in their fourth try, I suspect that the quadrennial World Baseball Classic is here to stay.  I also suspect that guys like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and others may be less inclined to disdain the WBC when 2021 rolls around.

Bette, Joan, and Baby Jane

I have been watching and greatly enjoying the FX series "Feud: Bette and Joan" these last several weeks.

The series centers around the long standing rivalry (to use a polite word) between actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the filming of the 1962 movie "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?"  The TV series stars Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Davis and Crawford, respectively. We are now three weeks into this eight week series, and it has been a real hoot to watch Sarandon and Lange chew the scenery while portraying two legendary divas chewing scenery.

Anyway, by an amazing bit of serendipity, earlier this week Turner Classic Movies showed the movie that is the subject of the TV series.

I think  that I saw this movie back in the 1960's when it finally appeared on television, but I had little memory of it, so I was anxious to see it, and it was interesting to watch, and see  Crawford and Davis, especially Davis, have at it in this movie, which has become a Camp Classic.

One of the real values of the Internet is that you can delve into it and find any number of articles and commentaries on just about any subject, and this movie and its stars are no exceptions.  It's as no secret in Hollywood that Davis and Crawford loathed each other.  It was also no secret that by 1962, neither had had a hit movie in years and were considered washed up by both the movie studios and the movie audiences.

It was director Robert Aldrich's idea to offer the roles of sisters Blanch and "Baby" Jane Hudson to Crawford and Davis.  The studios balked, but both actresses expressed interest and Aldrich figured that it would work because both actresses would work harder than hell to assure that the other  actress wouldn't steal the show from her.

From a 2008 essay ion the movie from critic Roger Ebert:

...it's possible that each agreed to do the picture only because she was jealous of the other's starring role. In the event, it was Davis who emerged on top, winning an Oscar nomination as the former child star who was now a shrill gargoyle with makeup pancaked all over her face. Davis was nothing if not courageous, as she abandoned all shreds of vanity and overacted her heart out. Crawford plays the quieter, kinder, more reasonable sister -- and, it must be said, the less interesting.

Ebert went on to make another interesting observation:

The impact of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" was considerable in 1962. Today's audiences, perhaps not familiar with the stars, don't fully realize how thoroughly Crawford, and especially Davis, trashed their screen images with the coaching of Aldrich. Imagine two contemporary great beauties -- Julia Roberts and Cate Blanchett, say -- as aged crones. The personal dislike between Crawford and Davis no doubt deepened the power of their onscreen relationship; the critic Richard Scheib observes: "The irony that only came out in later years is that the roles were uncommonly close to the truth upon the parts of both actresses -- Crawford and Davis were both utterly vain, particularly when it came to their own celebrity, both abused their own family members and both had daughters who wrote books about the cruelty of their parents."

In his review of the movie at the time, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wasn't enthusiastic, and while he did praise both Davis and Crawford, he also used the term "scenery chewing" not once, but twice, in his review.

I enjoyed watching this movie very much in light of watching the "Feud" TV series.  

Lange and Sarandon
Crawford and Davis

 Crawford and Davis
The "Originals"
The movie, by the way, was in
glorious black & white

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The World Baseball Classic

Like most Americans, I assume, I have been paying very little attention to the World Baseball Classic.  Up until last night, I had probably not seen more than a half dozen or so innings of the game, but I was aware of a few things.

One of those things was the intensity of the crowds, particularly the fans of the teams from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and the intensity that had stadiums filled and rocking with cheering unlike what we are used to seeing at MLB games here.  Also, from what little I did see, I was taken with the fervor with which the teams are playing, including the highly paid and supposedly entitled MLB players on Team USA.

So it was that I settled in to watch last night's semi-final game between the USA and Japan.  What I saw was a highly skilled and entertaining ballgame, won by the USA, 2-1, a win that puts the USA, for the first time in the brief history of the WBC, into the championship game tonight.

Yeah, I know about the big name Americans who are NOT playing (Kershaw, Trout, Harper among others), but the American team is just stacked with good players....Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones, Buster Posey, Eric Hosmer, and many others.  When you watch these guys playing, and hear them being interviewed during and after the games, these players are really into it and really loving the experience.  It's pretty cool, actually.

Tonight, it will be the USA vs. Puerto Rico for the WBC Championship.  I will be at the set watching.  If you are a baseball fan, you should be, too.  It promises to be a pretty good and exciting game.

I will leave you with what has no doubt been the signature play of this WBC - Adam Jones robbing his Orioles teammate, Manny Machado, of a home run in the pivotal win-or-go-home game against the Dominican Republic on Saturday.  

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Want To Help A Great Cause?

Regular readers and other friends of mine have often seen and heard me reference our good friend, Patti Nelson.  Marilyn and I got to know Patti as a fellow volunteer at the Highmark Caring Place in Warrendale.  Patti succumbed to cancer in 2015, and those of us who knew her, worked with her, and loved her miss her very much.

Shortly after her death, her family organized the Patti J. Nelson Foundation as a means to ensure that Patti's never ending "contributions to the community will continue in her honor".  To that end, the Foundation is sponsoring the 2nd Annual Patti Nelson 5K Fun Run/Walk on April 22, 2017 in Evans City, PA.  Proceeds of this event will benefit the Evans City Library, where Patti also served as volunteer.  Did I tell you that Patti always described herself as a "professional volunteer"?

If you are a runner - or even if you are not - looking to support a great cause and honor a terrific person, please consider taking part in this event.  Details can be found at the Foundation's website:

Many thanks.

Monday, March 20, 2017

To Absent Friends - Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy Breslin
1928 - 2017

Legendary, and I suppose it is acceptable to use that term, New York City newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin died yesterday at the age of 88.  I suppose that it is also acceptable to say that Breslin, a hard drinking (although he was sober for the last thirty years of his life), hard hitting, shoot from the hip newspaper guy was among the last types of newspapermen of his kind, right out of "The Front Page".  

I first became aware of Breslin when I was barely a teenager and read his book about the hapless 1962 New York Mets, "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?".  Over the years, I read a couple of other of Breslin's books, including his comic Mob novel, "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight", and, a few years ago, his biography of Branch Rickey titled, simply enough, "Branch Rickey".  As I say in the post cited below,  it should be read "if for no other reason, the book is worth reading just to appreciate the way Jimmy Breslin writes."

Breslin was best known for his stories about New York City and the people who lived there.  The column cited in most of the obituaries today, however, is one that I never read, but is somewhat famous, known mainly as "the Gravedigger column".  Here it is, and I highly recommend that you read it.  From the New York Herald Tribune in November, 1963:

RIP Jimmy Breslin.

"Beauty And The Beast"

Judging by the record box office jackpot of this weekend, half the country, if not the world, saw Disney's new production of "Beauty And The Beast" this weekend.  We waited until this morning to see it, and if you have NOT seen it as yet, don't deprive yourself of the pleasure by waiting much longer.  This was a terrific movie.  A wonderfully told story, beautifully filmed, great to look at, good music and songs, and a great performance by the lovely and wonderful Emma Watson as Belle, the spunky peasant girl who becomes a princess when she captures the heart of the Beast.

I will not expend a lot off words here about this movie other than to say what I said above - A TERRIFIC Movie! Oh, and I will also tell you that I teared up when Belle and the Beast danced to the title song.  How could anyone not?

Added bonus - at least it was for Mrs. Grandstander and me - was seeing Kevin Kline in the role of Belle's father.  We both really like Kevin Kline.  And for Downton Abbey fans, there was of course Dan "Matthew Crawley" Stevens in the role of the Beast.  I guess he likes parts that have him living in castles!

Four Stars all the way from The Grandstander.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

To Absent Friends - Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

I heard the news today, oh, boy, that Chuck Berry died earlier today at the age of 90.  What can I, or anybody, really, say about Chuck Berry?  I mean honestly, what can you say?

Back in 2013, The Grandstander posted what I had hoped would be a fun little exercise of commissioning a new Mt. Rushmore for American Rock & Roll.

There were two stipulations in my little exercise.  One, was that it applied to American artists only, and two, was that two of the faces on this Mt. Rushmore were Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry.  Argue all you want about the third and fourth faces, but Presley and Berry were indisputable.

How about just these four songs: "Johnny B. Goode", "Maybellene", "Rock and Roll Music", "Roll Over Beethoven".  Do they define "Rock & Roll", or what?  And that is just scratching the surface.  Two British teenagers, Mick Jagger and Kieth Richards, became friends and bonded over the music of Berry.  So did John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  When The Beatles and The Rolling Stones cite Chuck Berry as one of their major influences, what more need be said?Throw in The Beach Boys and that only adds to Berry's legacy.

Berry was no saint, to be sure.  A Mann Act conviction and trouble with the IRS led to prison time over the years, and the rock & roll landscape is littered with stories from promoters and fellow artists about Berry's, shall we say, prickly nature.  Still, his legacy is his music.  Do yourself a favor over the next few days.  Go to YouTube, type in "Chuck Berry" and watch some of Berry's 1950's and 1960's era performances, sit back and enjoy.  Better yet, next time you have a long drive on the interstate ahead of you, put some Chuck Berry on your car's music system and turn it up full blast.  That will make those miles just fly by.  And whenever you enjoy any rock & roll music by one of your favorite artists, know that both they and you owe a debt of gratitude to Chuck Berry.

RIP Chuck Berry, and Hail, Hail Rock and Roll

Enjoy this classic:

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Movie Time - Kong, Jackie, and Bette

Watched three movies in recent days.....

I was there for the first performance on Friday of the new biggie, "Kong: Skull Island".  Yet another adventure featuring the most lovable movie monster ever, King Kong.  As the title suggests, this one takes place on Kong's home turf, Skull Island. Yes, adventurers come to the small uncharted island in hopes of finding, well, I'm not sure what, but who cares?  There are prehistoric beasts, a giant ape, and, yes, a pretty girl.  

Kudos to this movie for the amazing technological processes that produces these amazing creatures, and it is fun seeing these Creature vs. Creature, Man vs. Beast contests.  As for the intricacies of the plot, well, forget about it.   About a quarter of the way through the movie, I began preparing a mental check list that went something like..."this guy is going to die, this guy is going to die in a really grisly manner, this guy will make it...", and I was pretty much on target.

As for the acting, lots of scenery chewing.  John Goodman chews scenery in the Carl Denham-type role, Brie Larson (she won't win an Oscar for this one) looks good in a tank top, and Samuel L. Jackson plays, well, Samuel L. Jackson.

Two and one-half stars from The Grandstander.

Last night we watched "Jackie", a biopic of sorts about the former First Lady, Jackie Kennedy.  Natalie Portman is excellent in her portrayal of Mrs. Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of her husband.  The movie centers around an interview that she gave within a week of her husband's death and how she used that interview to control and establish her husband's legacy and, to a lesser extent, her own.

If you are old enough to remember the Kennedy assassination, it is no doubt one of the seminal memories of your life.  You probably also have a warm memory of the First Lady, and this movie may make you a bit uncomfortable and maybe even resentful of how it portrays Mrs. Kennedy.

It is also a movie, not a documentary, and the fine print in the credits makes the requisite statement that some of the events depicted have been altered for "dramatic purposes". So for me, anyway, I wasn't real crazy about some of the things portrayed in this one.

Two stars from The Grandstander for the movie, but four stars all the way for Natalie Portman in her terrific performance as Jacqueline Kennedy.

And speaking of terrific performances, they don't come any better (five acting Oscar nominations) than the multiple Oscar winner "All About Eve" (1950), which we saw on the big screen earlier in the week as a part of the TCM/Fathom Events series.  I first wrote about this movie two years ago, and I will refer you to that write-up for a fuller commentary:

I will say once again, however, what an absolutely knock out performance Bette Davis delivers in the role of Margo Channing.  She was completely and totally mesmerizing in the role.  Just a great performance and a terrific movie.

Four stars from The Grandstander on this one.

By the way, the month of April will bring us two more TCM/Fathom Events movies on the local big screens - Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" and one of my all time personal favorites, Mike Nichols' "The Graduate", and, by the way, can you believe that "The Graduate" is now a FIFTY YEAR OLD MOVIE????

Be there!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

To Absent Friends - Dakota James

Dakota James

I didn't know Dakota James, the 23 year old Duquesne University grad student who went missing in late January, and whose body was recovered from the Ohio River yesterday, but like most people in the area, I was captivated by the story and of the efforts made by so many people to find him.  The story came to a predictable end yesterday, and in many ways, it is a story that is just beginning as authorities attempt to discover just how James died and what happened to him.

It was just an overwhelmingly sad story to read about in the paper this morning.  It is easy for any of us to say something like "at least his family has closure now", but they never really will, and the thought of just what this young man might have accomplished in the lifetime that was before him is a story that will never be told.

RIP Dakota James, and Peace to his family.

To Absent Friends - Robert Osborne

Robert Osborne
1932 - 2017

Movie lovers everywhere had to be saddened to learn of the death yesterday of Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne at the age of 84.

Comments made by fans on various social media yesterday had a common theme.  Everyone loved Osborne's introductory and closing remarks when he presented TCM's prime time features, "The Essentials" series, and his one-on-one interviews with Hollywood greats.  Like many, I often would tune in just to hear what Osborne had to say about a movie, even if I had no intention of watching the movie itself, and oft times, those remarks would make me watch the movie anyway.  Similarly, there were any number of times when a movie that I had seen a million times would be showing ("The Graduate", "Double Indemnity", "Sunset Boulevard", "The Music Man"...you get the idea), and I'd say to myself, "well, I am not going to watch this again right now, but I want to hear what Robert Osborne is going to say about it", and, yes, as often as not, I'd end up watching the movie.

It seems that I always learned something and was always entertained by Robert Osborne.  He was away from his regular hosting chores at TCM for the past several months, so perhaps this news was not a surprise, but that doesn't mean that classic movie fans and fans of TCM are going to miss him any less. TCM has some really big shoes to fill.

I read several obits and tributes to Osborne yesterday, but perhaps the best one came from the Hollywood Reporter, and it was written by his fellow TCM host and heir apparent, Ben Mankiewicz, and I recommend it to you:

RIP Robert Osborne.

To Absent Friends - Dr. Thomas Starzl

Dr. Thomas Starzl

Dr. Thomas E. Starzl died this past Sunday, one week shy of his 91st birthday.  With the possible exception of Dr. Jonas Salk, perhaps no one associated with the City of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh has ever done more to save lives and advance the the greater health and welfare of human beings the world over than has Thomas Starzl and his work to advance the science of human organ transplantation.  

I, myself, am personally acquainted with two individuals who are alive and well as a result of organ transplants. They and thousands like them owe their lives, if not directly, then indirectly, to the work of Thomas Starzl.  In addition to performing the transplant surgeries themselves, Starzl was instrumental in the development of anti-rejection drugs that have made such surgeries and the long term survival of recipients almost routine.

Starzl retired as an active surgeon in 1991, but his work lives on, not only at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, but in hospitals and in surgeons around the world.  Perhaps this final paragraph in an editorial in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says it best:

Nearly 690,000 transplants, about 149,000 of them involving livers, have occurred in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 1988, according to UNOS. It is impossible to say how many of the recipients owed their second chances in one way or another to Dr. Starzl, but the raw numbers wouldn’t do him justice anyway. The truer measure of his impact is the individual stories of recipients who were able to resume normal lives, of parents who saw their dying children reborn through transplantation and of families who donated loved ones’ organs because they realized — in the midst of their own sorrow — that Dr. Starzl’s science would allow others to live on.

In Pittsburgh, we build statues of athletes and politicians, but if anyone deserves a statue in this town, it's Tom Starzl (and Jonas Salk).

And if you have not done so already, the best tribute you can pay to Dr. Starzl is surely the simplest and most selfless thing that you can do: Sign up to be an Organ Donor.

RIP Dr. Thomas E. Starzl.