Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Movie Review: "Spotlight"

Few movies have had more buzz prior to its release as has "Spotlight".  Critics have been fairly unanimous in their praise, and it is a dead certain cinch to be nominated for a passel of Academy Awards, and may well be the odds on favorite for the Best Picture of the Year.  It has also been called the best movie EVER about the newspaper business, something that might be hard for fans of "All the President's Men" to accept.  In fact, so much has been made about that opinion, that I had cause to wonder, "Do newspaper critics love this movie because it is a great movie, or do they love it because it is a great movie about newspapers?"

The movie takes place in 2001-02 when the special investigative reporting team of the Boston Globe undertakes an investigation into the sexual abuse scandals that were occurring over a period of decades in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.  Specifically, the investigation's focus centered on the institutional cover up by the Archdiocese and the legal community in Boston.

The subject matter is such that I suspect that many people will choose not to see this movie.  Fine.  However, it needs to be noted that this, tragically, is a true story.  These events really did take place.  

That aside, is this a good movie?  It absolutely is.  It depicts the work that goes into reporters cultivating sources, digging for the facts, hitting dead ends, wearing out shoe leather, and making sure that the story gets told and told correctly.  It is a thriller, and the very nature of the story is such that you are moved and deeply affected by the story.  As a piece of motion picture art, this is a terrific movie.  Any awards that this movie garners in the awards season ahead will be well deserved.

Directed by Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the script with Josh Singer, "Spotlight" includes a terrific ensemble cast....Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci.  Not sure if any one actor will dominate the Oscars.  Surely Ruffalo and Keaton will receive acting nominations, and I wouldn't be upset if Tucci received one either.  The Oscars do not have an award for Best Ensemble Cast (as the Screen Actors Guild does), but if it did, the "Spotlight" would be a cinch for it.

Lots of good lines in this movie, but the one that was a real grabber to me was "If it takes a village to raise a child, then it also takes a village to abuse one."

Four stars all the way for this one.

A Great CD From An Unlikely Duo

I received an early Christmas present yesterday from some old friends.  It is the newly released CD "Cheek to Cheek" by the unlikely (to me, anyway) duo of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, and let me tell you, it is one terrific album.  Yes, I still call them albums!  As you can see from the play list above, it is a collection of standards from Cole Porter to Duke Ellington to Sonny Bono.

Tony Bennett is 89 years old and has released over 70 albums (there's that word again) in a career that began during the Harry Truman Administration.  Listen to him on this CD and he sounds as smooth and good as ever.  

As for Lady Gaga, if you think that she is nothing but a gimmicky pop singer getting by with outrageous costumes and too many tattoos, think again.  If her performance on last year's Academy Awards show didn't convince you that she is a terrific and serious musical talent, then listening to this CD certainly will.  If you think "Ella Fitzgerald" as you listen to the tunes on "Cheek to Cheek", you would not be off base.

Pop this into your car CD player or plug in your iPod earbuds and enjoy some real listening pleasure.

"A Servant To Two Masters" at the PPT

We took in the second play of the Pittsburgh Public Theater's 2015-16 season the other night.  It is "A Servant to Two Masters".  It is a comedy written in 1764 in Italy by a playwright named Carlo Goldoni.  It is an example of the type pf theatrical production called commedia dell'arte, a term that I remember from college literature classes, but which I could certainly not define today.  Anyway, if the idea of a European play written 251 years ago is turning you off, don't let it do so.  (The PPT program describes Carlo Goldoni as "a sort of 18th century Judd Apatow", so that should give you an idea of what you are in for.)

The plot of the play is kind of hard to summarize - mistaken identity, double dealing, sexual innuendo, and farce are just a few concepts that spring to mind.  The Sproule jury offered a split decision on the play.  Marilyn thought that it was "just okay". I thought it was very funny.  In fact, I was laughing out loud in several parts of the show.

As is usual with the PPT, this is excellently staged with a lively and attractive cast.  The central character, the "servant" of the title, is Truffaldino, as played by Jimmy Kieffer,

is loud, boisterous, funny, and a wonderful character.  This was Kieffer's first appearance with the PPT, and I hope that he will become a regular there in future productions.  He was really good in the role.

And the show ends with a rousing cast and audience sing-along of a song that will make you leave the theater feeling good. 

The play runs through December 6 at he O'Reilly Theater, and I would recommend it with three stars (out of four).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Men in Green" by Michael Bamberger

If you are a golfer, watch professional golf on television, or if you're just a golf nerd who  appreciates the history of the game, I cannot recommend to you highly enough that you read "Men in Green" by Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger.  As teenager in the 1970's, when the PGA Tour was, and he puts it, in it's "Sansabelt-and-persimmon heyday", Bamberger fell in love with the game. He supported himself through college and in his early sports writing days as a Tour caddy, and went on to write about the game in various newspapers, as a freelancer for golf magazines, and, now, with Sports Illustrated.  He has also written a number of books on the subject.

For "Men in Green", he drew up a list of nine of golf's Living Legends, and nine of what he calls his own Secret Legends.  The Living Legends are whom you would expect - Palmer, Nicklaus, Venturi, Watson etc.  The Secret Legends are some folks you may never have heard of - a couple of caddies, a TV executive, a retired USGA official, an instructor, a sportswriter, and one golfer, Mike Donald.  He then sets out to interview all of these legends to try to find what he calls the soul of golf.  He is accompanied for most of his journey by Secret Legend Mike Donald, who he characterizes as the ultimate Tour grinder.

A word or two about Mike Donald.  Golf nerds will remember Donald as a thirty-five year old guy who came out of nowhere in 1990 to finish in a tie for the lead at the US Open.  He lost in an 18 hole playoff with a 19th sudden death hole to Hale Irwin.  It was the highlight of Donald's career.  In a career that spanned thirty-some years, Donald played in 550 PGA Tour events, made 296 cuts, won once, and earned $1.97 million (or about what Jordan Speith earned in any two given weeks on Tour in 2015).  He played thirty to thirty-five events every year and never finished higher than 22nd on the money list.  As Bamberger put it, while players like Tiger and Phil and Rory can drop in and drop out on tour events as it suits them, it is guys like Donald who are at the very heart and soul of the Tour, and Donald's insights are very much a key part of this book.

Two members of Bamberger's Legends list emerge as the featured players in this book.  One of them, as you might guess, is Arnold Palmer, and the other is Ken Venturi, whose careers managed to intertwine on the twelfth hole of the final round at the 1958 Masters.  Palmer invoked a rule that allowed him to play a second ball when he felt tat he was not granted relief from an embedded ball.  (As is often the case with the sometimes arcane Rules of Golf, the details are too lengthy to go into here, so just trust me on this.) The invocation of this rule, which was ultimately upheld by the Masters Rules officials, allowed Palmer to score a three rather than a five on the hole.  He finished ahead of Venturi by one stroke in winning his first Masters.  Venturi thought that Palmer was wrong and that he, Venturi, got jobbed by the Augusta National officials.

Palmer went on from that first Major Championship win to become, well, Arnold Palmer, and while Venturi went on to have pretty good life (multiple tour wins, a US Open win in 1964, a storied career as broadcaster on CBS, and a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame), he never had the life that he envisioned for himself, the life that that Masters win would have brought him, and he became a pretty bitter guy over it.  Bamberger interviewed him not long before he died in 2013, and the anger and bitterness towards Palmer and the folks at Augusta National (which stems from something that happened to him at the 1956 Masters, but that is a whole 'nother story, as they say), was with him to the very end.  And that same story ultimately came up with many of the other "legends" that Bamberger encountered in gathering material for the book.  He even spoke to Venturi's first wife, and that was one of the more eye-opening parts of the book.

Another part that I found interesting was Palmer talking about "the edge" that all top level golfers have to have in order to continually succeed on the Tour.  Palmer himself says that winning a US Open was an obsession with him, and that after he won it in 1960, he was never the same. "After you win it, you have to stay aggressive, stay the way you were when you won it.  And it's difficult to do."  In other words, he had lost his "edge".  Strange when you consider that after that 1960 Open, Palmer went on the win dozens of other Tour events, including two British Opens and two more Masters.  However, he never won another Open, although he seriously contended for the Championship five more times over the years, and lost two of them in playoffs.  

In speaking about the hard to define edge, Palmer went on to say "It's so fine.  You have to get in there and you have to stay in there, and once you get out, it's very hard to get back in.  It's happened to every golfer. Hogan, Nicklaus. Every golfer. It's just a question of when."

Interestingly, when Bamberger talked to Jack Nicklaus about that 1960 Open, a tournament that Jack, then a twenty year old amateur, led for a brief point during the final round, Nicklaus said that not winning that Open was the best thing that ever happened to him. He was too young and had he won, he would have felt that his game was ready for anything, when, by not winning, he knew that it was not.  The rest of the Nicklaus Story is history.

Anyway, I would say that this book is 260 pages of must reading for any golf fan.  Really good stuff that I could write on and on about, but read it, because, trust me, Bamberger is a much better writer than I.  However, I will leave you with one more comment about Palmer, this one from the guy who may know him the best, Jack Nicklaus.  Nicklaus, who says that "Arnold is as close a friend as I've got" was making a reference about how good Palmer is in a crowd  and at golf course openings, something with which both of them have spent much of their post-playing days doing.  This is Nickalus' quote:

"I don't want to cut the ribbon or do the cocktail party. Arnold wants to cut the ribbon. He wants to do the cocktail party. We were always different that way. I'd invite Arnold to dinner, but Arnold would rather go to a party with forty people he didn't know than go to dinner with one friend. That's the difference between the two of us. I'm not criticizing Arnold. We're just different."

Terrific book.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Revisiting A Classic

Any list of all-time great mystery novels will probably include Agatha Christie's 1933 novel,"Murder on the Orient Express".  The novel was written when Agatha Christie was at her prime and it featured her famous fictional detective, Hercule Poirot.

Most people, I would suppose, are more familiar with this story as a result of the 1974 movie version of this story.  This movie was directed by Sidney Lumet, and it starred Albert Finney as Poirot, a role for which he was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, and an all-star cast that included Ingrid Bergman, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in this movie.

In the story, Poirot finds himself a passenger on a filled to capacity passenger coach on the Istanbul-to-Calais Orient Express on a three day trip across Europe.  On the first might out, two significant events take place.  The train hits a snowdrift and and is stranded somewhere in the middle of the Balkans, and one of the passengers is brutally murdered in his compartment, which is right next to Poirot's compartment.

The murdered man's compartment is locked from the inside, the victim's watch is broken so the time of death can be firmly established, a pipe cleaner is found on the floor of the compartment, as is a conductor's uniform button, but no one on the Calais Coach had any motive or reason to murder the dead man.  Or did they?  A railroad official also traveling on the train asks Poirot to take on the case and determine a solution before the tracks are cleared and the local police can reach the train.

The solution to the mystery is what has made this one of Christie's most famous books and why it occupies so many "Best Mysteries" lists. However, this may be one case where the movie that was made from this novel actually outshines the book.  I have read this book several times over the years, but it has probably been at least thirty-five or so years since I last read it, and what I read this time did not hold up to my memory of my enjoyment of the book the first time that I read (which I did well before the movie was produced).  How Poirot reached his conclusions involved some seemingly incomprehensible leaps of reasoning at times.  I also thought that the phrasing sometimes seemed arcane, and Poirot's frequent use of French phrases was a bit annoying.

If you have neither read this book nor seen the movie, I would highly recommend that you do both, but read the book first.  For someone who knows only the 1974 film version of this story, the book might prove to be a disappointment.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday Morning Football Thoughts

Pitt's 31-13 victory over Pitt yesterday was an impressive one and an important one.  It boosted their record to 7-3 and kept their hopes alive, however dim they may be, to capture the ACC Coastal Division and getting a chance to play in the ACC Championship Game.  It also proved that they could beat a pretty good team on the road, and do it in fairly convincing fashion.  With two home games remaining, it is not unreasonable to think that Pitt can fashion and 8-4 or even a 9-3 season, and a chance to play in an upper echelon Between-Christmas-and-New-Year's-Day bowl game.

Who saw that coming last December when yet another Pitt coach was fleeing Oakland to take yet another dream job, and the new guy would be coming in and reaping a less than complete recruiting class for his first season?  I should probably wait until the after the final game to see this, but I say that Pat Narduzzi now becomes one of the leading candidates for the Dapper Dan Man of the Year Award for 2015.


On the Pro Side of the House, the Steelers take on the Hated Browns today.  By all rights, this one should be an easy W for Rooney U., but for the following reasons, it could also end up in disaster.  First and foremost, Ben Roethlisberger will be sitting out this one due to that injured foot, and secondly, the Steelers in recent years have shown an uncanny ability to lose to crummy teams, including these same Browns last year.  If you haven't already done so, I recommend Gene Collier's column in this morning's Post-Gazette, who spells out, in his usual entertaining manner, how this could be one big pitfall for the Steelers.

We will see how it unfolds on the Heinz Field greensward this afternoon.  In any event, the annual tilts with the Brownies are always fun to watch.


Speaking of the Browns, for even the most hardened Steelers fans who harbor a lifelong dislike for the Cleveland football team, I am guessing that most of those people would concede that the Browns always had a classic uniform, as modeled by this guy:

As has become the case these days throughout  all sports, especially in the NCAA and now the NFL, the Browns went to new uniforms for 2015, and can we all agree that they are absolutely hideous?

I know it's all about marketing, and selling jerseys to the suckers fans who continue to put down big bucks for these rags.  The Steelers get criticized all the time for those bumblebee throwbacks that they wear, but at least they only pull those out for two games a year, and  the classic Black-and-Gold uni remains unchanged, although I do wish that they would go back to the "block" font for the numerals ("Hey, you kids, get off my lawn!")  Lifelong, die-hard Browns fans, and I know many of them, after having watched years of incompetence since the franchise came back into the NFL, have to really be sickened by this aesthetic nightmare of a uniform.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Notre Dame 42 - Pitt 30

I will leave the debate as to exactly where the Notre Dame Fighting Irish belong in the national rankings.  Going into the weekend, the wire service polls had them at #8, the Committee with Condoleezza Rice On It had them at #5, and after yesterday's game at Heinz field, who's going to argue?  

I suppose that many Pitt fans hearkened back to 2013 when Pitt upset Notre Dame at Heinz Field,  It was the only upset win and the only signature victory for the Panthers in the Paul Chryst Era.  Could it happen again in 2015?  Well, those thoughts were pretty much dispelled when ND gained 19, 9, and 47 yards on their first three plays from scrimmage and took a 7-0 lead.  It was pretty much downhill from there for Pitt.  The twelve point margin reflected by the 42-30 final score is not indicative of the dominance of Notre Dame over Pitt.

So, what are Pitt fans to make of this?  Pat Narduzzi won't be, and, really, he cannot be, totally honest when evaluating his team in public, but when he talks to himself in the shaving mirror each morning, I am sure that he has been saying ever since he took this job, that the level of talent currently at Pitt cannot measure up with the "big boys" of college football, and that was sure evident yesterday, and by arriving at his position late, he was only able to recruit 15 players for this year's team.  However, despite all of that, Pitt still is in a position where they are competing and still in the hunt for their division lead in the ACC, which would put them in a position to play Clemson in the ACC title game.  Give Narduzzi and his staff a couple full years of recruiting, and it would appear that Pitt will be competitive in the ACC in the years ahead.  The fact that Pitt is 6-3 at this point would indicate that Narduzzi knows how to coach 'em up come game day.

Remaining for Pitt is a road game at Duke and home games with Louisville and Miami.  I am thinking that Pitt could be competitive in all of those games.  I would gladly settle for two of three and an 8-4 record and a trip to between-Christmas-and-New-Year's-Day-bowl game.  That would be a major step forward from the three season 19-19 record of mediocrity of the Chryst Era.