Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Movie Reviews, Observations

Brain Bits for Late August

While the weather is spectacular and the sunlight has already turned that lovely golden color marking late summer, I’m all a-whimper watching the Mets get decimated by the Detroit Tigers. It’s like the mini-spacemen encountering Agnes Moorhead in that classic “Twilight Zone” episode—“They’re an incredible race of giants!” What a line-up, and with pitching to burn. I’d love to see Detroit cop it all in the post-season.

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Beats Me, Too
Beats me, too

And while we’re on the subject of baseball, I don’t know how much Ryan Braun pays his attorneys and public relations people, but the mea culpa that was cranked out this week on his behalf sure says he isn’t getting value for his money.

Braun’s lengthy statement begs so many questions, it’s hard to know where to begin. If he took PEDs simply to recover from an injury, why didn’t he just man up, admit what he did and take a 50-game suspension two years ago? Instead, with manufactured outrage, he acted like a man with something major to hide, i.e,, long-term PED use. So he gambled that the specimen collector’s failure to return the sample in timely fashion would resonate with the arbitrator, and evidently hoped that once he beat the rap, everything would just go away. That’s either the magical thinking of a six year-old, or the game plan of an ace manipulator. Or acting like Richard Nixon.

And this section of his statement stuck out like a sore thumb: “I sincerely apologize to everybody involved in the arbitration process, including the collector, Dino Laurenzi, Jr.” Son, if you really want to make amends, why didn’t that read: “….especially the collector, Dino Laurenzi, Jr.” Given Braun’s past remarks about Laurenzi and his more recent accusations that the collector was both anti-Semitic and a Cubs fan, he should have done far more for the man whose reputation he so cynically impugned.

What a guy.

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“The crew is on instruments!”

HBO is showing “Airplane!” this month, which is not only cause for celebration but an excellent excuse to pop a beer, flake out in front of the tube and howl like a banshee.  For a comedy released in 1980, it holds up spectacularly—only one or two topical references (to Gerald Ford and a particular coffee commercial) may be lost on younger viewers.

But what a great, hysterical riot it still is. Even the sight of “Zero Hour,”its source material, on Turner Classic Movies, is enough to induce a major case of the giggles (This 1957 drama starring Dana Andrews, who plays a pilot named—yes—Ted Stryker, is so bad it’s already a parody).  “Airplane!” just never stops:

“Don’t call me Shirley!”

“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”

“Stewardess, I speak Jive”

“Auntie Em, it’s a twister!”

Not to mention the battling Girls Scouts, the X-rated seat-back signs, and what happens to the kid’s IV during the communal sing-along (best faces of all time). But I have to say the following is my favorite bit. It’s the departing slap from Leslie Nielsen that just seals the deal:

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For people of my generation and older, the passing of Julie Harris is particularly poignant. Although she gave wonderful performances in now-classic films like “East of Eden” and “The Haunting,” for us her name was synonymous with “theater.”

I would have loved to have seen her on stage during the 1950’s, when she starred in “The Member of the Wedding.” “I am a Camera,” “The Lark,” and “The Country Wife,” among others. Fortunately some of her best work appeared on television—“Little Moon of Alban,” “A Doll’s House,” “The Belle of Amherst.” Her unique voice, which served her so well, made her perfectly cast as Mary Chestnut, one of the narrators in Ken Burns’ documentary series “The Civil War.”

I only saw her on stage once, in the comedy “Forty Carats,” when I was a teenager. The wonderful Murray Hamilton played her ex-husband, and even though this was the epitome of lightweight comedy, these two pros gave a virtual seminar on stage craft. Her comic timing and his ability to get the best out of a thrown away line turned a really brainless play into a memorable event.

A true artist. May she rest in peace.

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Posted in Books, Television

Just Teasing

One more morning after
One more morning after

Are you disappointed in a TV series you’re watching? I don’t mean a show you knew was utter tripe from Day One, or something you watch behind closed doors because you’re embarrassed to be found out. I’m talking about a series with real potential that just hasn’t bloomed the way it should have. I’m talking “Rizzoli & Isles.”

I’m a huge fan of author Tess Gerritsen’s novels featuring Boston Homicide Detective Jane Rizzoli and Medical Examiner Maura Isles. I devoured the entire R&I series in sequence one summer when I was unemployed between projects. At that time there were eight books with “Ice Cold,” an excellent suspense novel, as the most recent. So when TNT announced that a series was in the offing, I couldn’t wait to see that caliber of mystery on the tube.

The reality, of course, proved to be somewhat different. TNT isn’t CBS, let alone HBO, so production values weren’t the greatest. More than that, what we saw on the screen bore little resemblance to the literary versions of Jane and Maura. When we first meet Tess Gerritsen’s Detective Rizzoli, she’s really a supporting character, though she ends up saving the life of her partner’s love interest at some cost to her own psychological and physical well-being. If memory serves, Maura Isles doesn’t show up until the third novel in the series, and at first, these two have only a work relationship. Several books later, while their mutual regard is quite high and they’re friends of a sort, they’re not exactly the type to sit down over a beer, unlike their TV counterparts. Their personal lives have diverged during the course of the series—Jane marries and has a daughter, Maura is divorced. As written by Gerritsen, Dr. Isles is by far the more interesting character due to her family history, her work (not surprisingly, since Gerritsen is a physician by trade) and the intriguing people we see in her life: that rat of an ex-husband; her lover, a Catholic priest; the teen-age boy who becomes her ward; and most of all, her mysterious millionaire friend, whose motives are still somewhat ambiguous, even after several books.

While I appreciate that the TV show and the books are two separate worlds, I’m not exactly thrilled with some of the choices made by the show runners. The leads are basically cartoon versions of the literary characters—Jane as blue-collar tomboy, Maura as brainy but socially challenged fashion plate—and their respective families soak up entirely too much air time. But what I find irritating are the usually ridiculous whodunits, generally solvable by three year-olds or beyond implausible; as a result, it’s not surprising that the suspense level frequently suffers from low blood pressure. It seems the producers are finally getting some heat about this, because the last two episodes have perked up a bit, the most recent heavily borrowing from characters originally created by Gerritsen (Hoyt and the psychiatrist).

I prefer it when an author’s intentions are better realized, which is why the British show “Wire in the Blood,” based on Val McDermid’s novels featuring psychologist Tony Hill, is among my all-time favorites.  Robson Green (be still my heart!) was the power behind that show, and he and the creative team did a wonderful job maintaining the tone established by McDermid. Not to mention the fact that Green, who played Hill, and Hermione Norris, as DCI Carol Jordan, had superlative chemistry. While “Wire in the Blood” came down a notch when Norris left the show after three seasons, the quality remained.

Speaking of chemistry, I see Angie Harmon’s knickers are yet again in a twist over fans thinking that Jane and Maura are gay and/or they should get it on already. Frankly, I think she ought to chill out. Between Jane and Maura’s sleepovers, the flirting, the clothes swapping, the constant togetherness and the fact that their dates invariably turn out to be serial killers or plain old duds, how can she be surprised? The tease between leading characters, especially in detective stories, has been around forever, and it was a smart move on the producer’s part to play it up, given the lag on the mystery score. Why complain that a Nick and Nora Charles routine has resulted in a hit show, especially since Sasha Alexander, your co-star, effortlessly makes you look so good in the part? It sure beats serving time as yet another A.D.A. on “Law & Order.”

The end result is that “Rizzoli & Isles” is still viewable, especially as a summer show when your brain is rarely engaged anyway. But if you’d like to see what this series could have been, pick up any one of Tess Gerritsen’s novels (“The Mephisto Club” and “Ice Cold” are my favorites) and have a great read. Enjoy!

Note: I began this post the day before Lee Thompson Young, who played Detective Barry Frost on the show, committed suicide. By all accounts he was a sweet guy, and he’ll be missed. May he rest in peace.

Posted in Television

Orange is the New Black

orange-is-the-new-black-season-2-cast

Watch out, cable TV. Netflix is in the house.

After spending the last week absorbed in, by and around “Orange is the New Black,” I can tell you this show has earned every word of praise that’s come its way (and how). Netflix’s latest series reinvents the “women in prison” genre, but it’s miles removed from old classics like “Caged” and even newer versions like the excellent British show”Bad Girls.” Like the best premium cable has to offer, “Orange is the New Black” juxtaposes its dark humor with some slap-in-the-face drama. One minute you’re laughing hysterically, only to be cut short when you’re forced to witness yet another indignity, yet another deprivation of humanity. It’s quite a brew.

At the outset we meet Piper Chapman, seemingly your typical soon-to-be newlywed, but in reality, one with a Past, capital “P.” You see, ten years before, when our Pipes was young, dumb and in love, she was a drug courier for her then-girlfriend, the charismatic Alex Vause. But it seems the law, having caught up with Alex and her associates, wants Piper behind bars for her role in the heroin trafficking enterprise. So dear, sweet Piper, now engaged to a clueless Larry Bloom, is on her way to a federal pen for 15 months. And who does she encounter? Alex, who may or may not have ratted her out to the feds. We’re not quite sure how to take all this—comedy or tragedy?— and indeed, the tone of the first episode is uncertain. But the series almost immediately shifts into gear with the second episode, and from then on, it just gets better and better. Yes, there’s one clinker of an episode (the one with the chicken), but fortunately with a cast this large and about eight different plots percolating simultaneously, you barely feel the bump in the road.

My favorite aspect of the series is its manner of storytelling. We only learn about Piper and her fellow inmates incrementally—what crimes they committed, what their backgrounds were, how they related to their significant others and parents—through brief flashbacks. Not all is revealed in any one episode, and in fact, some of these plots were barely under way by the end of the season (I’m intrigued by what put Red, who seemingly joined a cadre of Russian Mafia types, behind bars). But perhaps the most riveting back story is revealed the old-fashioned way, in a monologue delivered by Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman), who describes to a fellow inmate exactly how she ended up killing an eight year-old boy. And wonder of wonders, there’s follow-through. When Piper tells a young participant in a “Scared Straight” program that the most frightening person she’d meet in prison is herself, the season’s conclusion proves her words—and then some.

It goes without saying that the acting is extraordinary. The supporting cast is just this side of phenomenal, though Natasha Lyonne as ex-junkie and rehab veteran Nicky Nichols may be in a class by herself. She has the crumpled voice and sarcastic demeanor of the great broads of classic Hollywood films—Iris Adrian, of “Roxie Hart” fame (“Got a butt, buddy?”) must be her spiritual grandmother. As Piper, Taylor Schilling is that rare bird: a very pretty girl with superb comic timing. She’s easily matched by Laura Prepon as Alex in both the light and dark aspects of the story, and their chemistry is undeniable (aka, “Yeah, they’re really hot together”).

“Orange is the New Black” could easily fall into cliché, but it hasn’t done so yet. The show runners have been very smart in resisting the obvious in their various story lines: Daya’s pregnancy, Pennsatucky’s holy roller band of renown, Taystee’s willing return to jail, Miss Claudette’s failed appeal (I hope she gets out of max soon, because Michelle Hurst is terrific in the part). My only complaint is that the men, with the sole exception of Piper’s brother Scott, are fairly one-dimensional. Prison Officer Mendez, known as Pornstache, is a drug-dealing bastard, Officer Bennett is naive, Prison Administrator Caputo is just wrong about everything, Officer Healy is a homophobe and Larry, Piper’s fiancé, is a nebbish. As to Healy, though, I did feel a distant pang over his being set up by his mail-order Russian bride who’s only in it for the citizenship. The scene in his office, with Red (the formidable Kate Mulgrew) acting as both translator and marriage counselor, is a riot (“He’s got a government job, dummy”), Only Scott, whom I adore, sounds a different note. Living in a trailer in the woods, miles away from Manhattan madness and family drama, he’s a breath of fresh air—his scenes are all too few.

The beauty of watching this on Netflix is that the option is yours—you can binge watch or take your time, but in either case, go back to savor some brilliance.  Have fun—it’s the best show around.