Posted in Baseball

‘Til Next Year…


What is there left to say?

Enough of the blaming, the hash and re-hash of dead bats, fielding bloopers, a feeble bull pen and questionable managerial decisions.

Thank you, my Mets, for a glorious August and September, an astonishing march to the World Series and the promise of many good things to come.

So let’s fire up that hot stove, debate who should stay, who should go and who we need to make it back to October baseball.

Let’s Go Mets!

Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for October’s End

Mets postseason

November looms and here we are, playing the summer game into mid-autumn. There’s something very wrong with this picture.

Don’t get me wrong—I so dearly love my Mets, and I’m thrilled they made it to the World Series. It’s “pinch me” time. Whoever would have believed back in early July that The Team That Couldn’t Score Runs would beat the Dodgers in the Division Series and go on to take four straight from the Cubs for the pennant?

But certain thoughts still nag. By the time the World Series rolled around, I was exhausted. And it wasn’t just because I had tuned into almost every regular season Mets game and was somewhat worn out emotionally by the postseason. Ever since Major League Baseball added the second wild card, thus creating three rounds of postseason playoffs, the World Series has become almost anti-climactic. With inter-league play throughout the regular season, we’ve lost some of that “Wow!” factor in seeing an American League team face off against the National League champ. I suppose you could argue that differences in team composition—traditionally, bat-heavy American League vs. the pitching and speed of the National League teams—always make for interesting match-ups, but by the time the leaves begin to fall, the novelty is gone.

The hype also bothers me. Baseball is a day-in, day-out game over a six-month regular season. It’s not an Event like Sunday (now Monday and Thursday, too) pro football, though Fox Sports dearly want it to be so. Every time I hear what I’ve come to identify as “football music” during World Series telecasts, I want to scream (And for the record, I’m a New York Giants fan as well as a Mets fan—Go Big Blue!). The graphics, the tenor of the coverage (though the extra slo-mo cameras are superb), special guest appearances by two ace cheaters masquerading as commentators—Pete Rose on the pre-game show and Alex Rodriguez, during—and worst of all, Joe Buck, Mr. Vapid, who seems to be paid by the uttered word.

The World Series is now aimed less at the die-hard fan than at newbies hopping on the bandwagon. It’s somewhat like the current state of New York’s Broadway theater district—a pricey haven for tourists. But the true beauty of the game lies in watching a team grind it out during an entire 162-game season, seeing unheralded players become heroes while others end up in the doghouse and in general, witnessing what seems to be a lifetime of successes and failures, all between April and October.

The current postseason set-up undermines the nature of what has made baseball the game it is. It seems to serve one purpose only, and that’s to line the pockets of the select few. Major League Baseball and Fox Sports, certainly, but also the manufacturers and retailers of sports attire and memorabilia. Each stage of the Mets’ trip to the World Series has been marked by the Modell’s sporting goods chain’s promotion of new team t-shirts, hoodies, caps and what-have-you in men’s, women’s and kids’ sizes, all bearing legends such as:

“We Take the East”

“New York Wants It More”

“The Pennant Rises”

“World Series!”

Enough already. As the late George Carlin observed, “Baseball is pastoral. It’s a 19th century game.”

[But I can assure you I’ll be first in line at “Gotta Go To Mo’s!” to buy my 21st century “World Series Champs” sweatshirt when the Mets win!]

Homeland Carrie and Quinn
Brunette Carrie and Quinn on the Run

“Homeland” is back in a big way.

Season 5 may prove to be its best yet. The showrunners have wisely opted for a change of locale, departing the Middle East for intrigue in Berlin, two years post-Season 4. Having left the CIA, Carrie Mathison is surprisingly settled down with her German attorney boyfriend and her daughter Franny and working as head of security for Otto Düring, industrialist, philanthropist and, I suspect, something a bit more sinister. Because it’s Carrie, events go off the rails rather early on. An assassination attempt is made, seemingly on Düring, when he visits a refugee camp in Beirut on a humanitarian mission; in short order the true target is revealed to have been Carrie, who earlier had warned her boss against making the trip. She’s frighteningly on her own; Saul Berenson, her mentor, has disowned her for leaving the CIA.

But there’s so much more going on with “Homeland” this season: hackers inadvertently breaching the CIA database and downloading key documents; one altruistic hacker looking to play Edward Snowden by giving the documents gratis to a journalist, the other wanting to get rich by offering to sell the information to the Russians; Allison Carr, the CIA’s Bureau Chief in Berlin, on the hot seat for the data breach; Saul Berenson, now head of CIA operations in Europe, directing a one-man assassination bureau on behalf of the agency with Peter Quinn as the dedicated hit man; Dar Adal, now in Saul’s old slot at the CIA, pulling strings all the way from Washington to persuade a Syrian general to overthrow President Assad; and—surprise, surprise—Carrie going off her meds once more, this time to try to figure out who’s gunning for her.

It’s quite a stew.

All of this makes for a very tasty dish indeed. It’s wonderful to have Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) back. Oh, Quinn—how do I love thee? Having been blackmailed pressed back into service by Dar Adal only to endure two years in Syria, he’s a hollow shell of himself during the first few episodes of this season, as he robotically goes about his business eliminating enemies designated by the CIA. It’s not until he draws Carrie’s name as his next target that he returns to being the Peter Quinn we knew. Severely damaged? Yes, but still devastating—in a good way.

“Homeland” has a major genius for casting, and this season is no different. Miranda Otto, a stellar Elizabeth Bishop in “Reaching for the Moon,” expertly plays Allison Carr as one part ambitious CIA lifer, one part seductress (Oh, Saul, you dog!) and one part very shady lady. Each supporting actor is better than the next: Igal Naor as General Youssef, Allan Corduner as the Israeli ambassador, Atheer Adel as Numan, the idealistic hacker, Sarah Sokolovic as the reporter, Laura Sutton (it’s a measure of how effective her performance is that you want to throttle her) and Nina Hoss as Astrid, the sarcastic German security agent, whom I hope returns.

The storytelling is as taut as it can get. The wheels never stop turning. How “Homeland” was it to reveal two major plot twists in the last 30 seconds of the most recent episode? If you didn’t fall over when Allison Carr answered Quinn’s call on the dead assassin’s cell phone (and in Russian yet), the explosion of the plane carrying the CIA’s candidate to replace Assad should have made you do so.

I can’t wait to see where we go from here.

Posted in Baseball, Books, Movie Reviews, Music

Brain Bits on a Summer Sunday

Urban Shocker (Photo by Charles Conlon)

We’re in the midst of our second heat wave of this still-young summer, but the iced tea is flowing and the baseball is plentiful. It’s a great time to delve into a wonderful new book, “The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs” by Neal McCabe and Constance McCabe. Conlon was a newspaper printer and proofreader whose photography yielded some of the most memorable baseball images ever created. Not just that iconic photo of Ty Cobb sliding into third, dirt spraying from his spikes, that we’ve all seen, but portraits and action poses of the famous and the forgotten—and in many cases, the “never wases”. As you turn the pages, you’re constantly reminded of Norma Desmond’s line in “Sunset Boulevard”—“We had faces then!”—and these players surely did. Neal McCabe, baseball historian, supplies the accompanying text discussing each player’s career and personality; his sister Constance, head of the Photograph Conservation Department at the National Gallery of Art, saw to the arresting appearance of these images in printed form. Covering the years from the turn of the century to the early 1940’s, “The Big Show” reminds us how hard baseball life used to be. Many of the players Conlon photographed lasted only a season or two in the majors before blowing their arms out, ruining themselves with booze, or just turning out to be one-note wonders. Although a surprising number of these players were college men, for the majority this was still a time when their baseball pay was awful and an off-season job, no matter how dangerous, was essential to feed themselves and their families. In an age of multi-year, multimillion dollar contracts, it’s good to remember how things once were. Whether as baseball history or photography collection, “The Big Show” is a wonderful experience—I can’t recommend it more highly.


Gentleman’s Agreement

I treated myself to a 20th Century Fox Studio Classics multi-pack from my local Costco this week in order to enjoy several films I hadn’t seen in a very long time—“Gentleman’s Agreement”, “Anastasia”, “The Ox-Bow Incident” and “The Snake Pit”. I’ve already revisited the first two and they’re both still worth watching.

“Gentleman’s Agreement”, based on the novel by Laura Z. Hobson, was one of the great message movies of the 1940’s. It won Oscars in 1947 for Best Picture, Director (Elia Kazan) and Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm), yet the mechanism by which the plot turned (journalist Gregory Peck masquerades as a Jew for eight weeks to expose antisemitism) makes the story creak. Nevertheless, despite the Nuremberg Trials and the death camps, it was the one non-Jewish studio boss, Darryl Zanuck, who insisted on making the picture.  Yes, it’s preachy as all get-out, but there’s a surprising amount of meat on those bones. John Garfield can’t be better as Gregory Peck’s boyhood friend, who finds himself on the verge of losing the civilian job of a lifetime because restricted housing makes it impossible for him to relocate. The restaurant scene where he’s insulted by a drunk (“I can’t stand officers…’specially when they’re Yids”) brings some welcome heat to the film, as does the classic sequence at the oh-so tony Flume Inn, where Peck, confronting the resort’s manager, demands to know whether the place is restricted. June Havoc absolutely knocks it out of the park as Peck’s secretary, Miss Wales, the former Estelle Wilensky, who pridefully passes herself off as a WASP.  While Dorothy McGuire has the thankless job of playing Peck’s continually preached-to fiancée, Jane Wyatt fortunately gets the leeway to give a wonderfully subtle performance as her politely bigoted sister.  It’s fun to see some vintage New York location shots, accompanied by Alfred Newman’s “Street Scene” theme, and to recognize a young Gene Nelson, sans tap shoes, as the antisemitic drunk’s pal. For the fashion-conscious, the New Look is in full bloom here—Celeste Holm wears the most alarming shoulder pads I’ve ever seen in my life (check the photo). And the manners! People were polite in 1947. They actually addressed each other as  “Mr.” and “Miss”. All the time! At present, when every phone solicitor and 10-year-old routinely first-names even the oldest senior citizens, this alone makes “Gentleman’s Agreement” refreshing indeed.

“Anastasia” is still the height of movie romance, even after the discovery of Romanov remains and the discrediting of Anna Anderson as the surviving Grand Duchess. A woman who doesn’t know who she is is rescued by a shady bunch of White Russians eager to find someone whom they can pass off as the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II in order to obtain a piece of the £10 million Romanov inheritance. While Anna Anderson is the springboard of the story, the liveliest aspects of the film are pure invention—Yul Brynner’s commanding Bounine; Akim Tamiroff and Sacha Pitoeff as his committee of “investors”; and Martita Hunt as the giddy lady-in-waiting, Baroness von Livenbaum. I had forgotten that Arthur Laurents did the script, based on a play by Marcelle Maurette; only he could have written one of the best put-downs in screen history, when the Dowager Empress (wonderfully played by Helen Hayes) rebukes her lady-in-waiting’s too-obvious fancy of Bounine with “Livenbaum, at your age sex should mean nothing more than gender.” But this is Ingrid Bergman’s show (her performance won the 1956 Best Actress Oscar), and she brilliantly plays the ambiguity of her character’s identity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor display a mix of emotions as convincingly as she does when she ends this scene with “And I’m the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicolaevna!”

Unfortunately, “Gentleman’s Agreement” does not have a commentary track. But the “Anastasia” DVD does, and it’s terrific— Arthur Laurents; James MacArthur; John Burlingame on Alfred Newman’s wonderful score and the source music in the film; and Sylvia Stoddard on Anna Anderson, Romanov history and the production of the movie. One thing to keep in mind: the commentary was apparently recorded between the discovery of the first and second graves containing the remains of the Tsar’s family. Since then DNA testing has accounted for all four Grand Duchesses, the Tsarevich and their parents. Somehow, though, the world seems poorer with this bit of romance gone and the mystery solved.