Monday, September 29, 2008

Fifty-four years ago today ...

As we suffer through yet another day of financial anxiety - and wait for the baseball playoffs to begin - here's a welcome flashback to those days of yesterday. Come, children, gather around the computer screen and watch the greatest catch in baseball history, courtesy of one Willie Howard Mays Jr. in the 1954 World Series.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

He Was Legend ...

"There is a point where feelings go beyond words. I have lost a real friend. My life — and this country — is better for his being in it." — Robert Redford

In a week dominated by the increasingly tense presidential election - and, oh yeah, the American financial system coming to the brink of collapse - the death of a movie star would seem to pale by comparison. But Paul Newman, who passed away yesterday of cancer at the age of 83, was not just a movie star. He wasn't even just the movie star of his generation, though he most certainly was. Newman was indeed a superlative actor, as evidenced by his three Academy Awards and numerous other honors and accolades. And no one - not even straight men - could discount his potency as a male sex symbol, perhaps because he was much more than a pair of piercing blue eyes. And he was much more than that. It is telling that his death is getting major play on ESPN because of his longtime passion for auto racing, including his partial ownership in an IndyCar team and his own prowess behind the wheel, much of that done after he turned 60. He was one of the leading philanthrapists in Hollywood, before it was the "trendy" thing for stars to do. Newman raised more than $250 million for charity through his Newman's Own line of food products and established the Hole in the Wall Camp for seriously ill kids. Indeed, one of his three Oscars was a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his charitable endeavors. (One of his most treasured fan letters was from a man who complimented him - for his tomato sauce. "My girlfriend mentioned that you were a movie star," the foodie wrote. "If you act as well as you cook, your movies should be worth watching.") And Newman was a political activist before it was trendy for stars to do that sort of thing. He often said that one of his greatest personal achievements was ending up on Richard Nixon's enemies list. Throw in his 50-year marriage to Joanne Woodward, and Newman's was a life well lived.

Newman's resume - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Exodus, The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Slap Shot, Absence of Malice, The Verdict, Nobody's Fool, Road to Perdition, and on and on - wasn't half-bad, either. Go out and rent one or five of them this weekend.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

One down ...

... three to go.

Congratulations, Cubbies, Now get back to work. You guys aren't done yet.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Wha' happened?

And so we appear to be close to it. (You know what I'm talking about - or at least you should at this point. Actually, maybe not. After all, in the universe of the Chicago Cubs fan, there are so many "its", and not all of them are positive. But you're smart people, so you'll figure it out.) Just a few days ago, many a Cubs fan, yours truly included, was - well, panicking, to be fair. The team, after a season of near-dominance, seemed to be running out of gas at the worst possible time, with a plethora of losses piling up and the club's two best pitchers, Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden, on the bench with arm issues. The only thing keeping Cubbie faithful from hurling themselves off of their collective balconies was the convenient fact that the team that was closest to Chicago's blood trail, the Milwaukee Brewers, was going through its own meltdown. Indeed, the Cubs had actually picked up a half-game on Milwaukee despite its troubles.

And now ...

Thanks to some not-always-welcome quirks of fate, the landscape has changed, to say the least. Because Hurricane Ike turned Houston into a waterlogged wasteland and left half the city either underwater or powerless (or both), the three-game series between the Cubs and the resurgent Astros was postponed. Then, over the (justifiable) protests of the Astro management, Major League Baseball shifted two of the games to a "neutral" location. Of course, this being Bud Selig's version of Major League Baseball that we're dealing with, said location was determined to be Milwaukee's Miller Park - also know, affectionally, as Wrigley North. So the bedraggled Astros, many of whom have bigger things on their mind than a pennant race - even their own - flew into Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon with hours to spare and, despite the team's red-hot streak, got no-hit by Zambrano, returning for his first start in almost two weeks. Oh, and the crowd? More than 25,000 people, about 99.95 percent of whom were rabid Cubs fans.

And today? Today the Astros managed to get one hit off of Cubs pitching before losing again 6-1, giving the North Siders a quick four-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the Brewers were getting the suds blown off their head by the Phillies, who swept them in four straight in Philadelphia over the weekend, in the process changing the complexion of the playoff chase. Now the Cubs are ahead of Milwaukee by eight games, the Brewers are tied with the Phillies for the NL wild card with Houston still just two-and-a-half games behind, and Brewers management made the Palin-esque move this afternoon of firing manager Ned Yost with just 12 games left to play, including three against the Cubs at the real Wrigley starting tomorrow.

Game over? Hardly. The Brewers are starting their ace pitcher, CC Sabathia, tomorrow night. He hasn't lost since being traded to Milwaukee in July. And Cubs fans know never to look at a gift goat, er, horse in the mouth. (Yogi Berra is a prophet. Think about that.) But let's just say that the panic has been lessened somewhat. Sure, it came in part from forces beyond our control, maybe even through circumstances we wish could have been different. But it's happened, and now it's up to our lovable "losers" to take advantage and shut the door. Now's the time on Sprockets when we dance.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Suddenly, Ocean's Fourteen Doesn't Seem Like Such a Bad Idea ...

Far be it for any of us, particularly a puny little media critic like me, to judge what an acclaimed Oscar-winning filmmaker can do with his street cred. But one does have to wonder if Steven Soderbergh knows what he's getting himself into. Variety is reporting that the director known for such wide-ranging projects as Sex, Lies and Videotape, Traffic, Erin Brockovich and the Ocean's Eleven flicks, is developing a biopic on no less than Liberace.

Yes, that Liberace.

Wait, it gets better (or worse). Soderbergh wants Michael Douglas to play the understated pianist, with Matt Damon in talks to portray one of Liberace's paramours, Scott Thorson - you know, the one who sued Lee (as he was known to his friends) for palimony.

Of course, Soderbergh has proven that he knows what he's doing when it comes to directing films, so maybe it's unfair to poo-poo his Liberace film as mere folly or pure camp. And after devoting himself to a five-hour epic on Che Guevera, one really can't begrudge him for pulling a 180 for one of his next motion pictures. But Liberace? Michael Douglas as Liberace? I'll believe it when I see it - and even then, I may choose not to believe it.

Remember ...

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

(No longer) in a world ...

With four months to go until the end of 2008, the entertainment world has been hit pretty hard in death pool terms. Heath Ledger, George Carlin, Bernie Mac, Isaac Hayes, Sydney Pollack ... those are just five top-notch performers who have left us - at times, quite suddenly. And now, Don LaFontaine.

Don LaFontaine? You may be wondering, "Who the crap is Don LaFontaine?" Well, son, I'll tell you who he was. Don LaFontaine is - or was - one of the most prolific voiceover artists in Hollywood. When you go to the cinema to catch a film and end up watching about a hundred trailers in the process, a good chunk of them will be narrated by Don LaFontaine. He was the voice behind more than 5,000 trailers during his career, from The Godfather, Part II to Borat, and in the process made the phrase "In a world ...," well, world famous. You know, as in "In a world where money was king ..." or "In a world where love had a price ..." or "In a world where big-ass lizards ate anything ...". (One wonders why he didn't copyright those three words a la Michael Buffer and "Let's get ready to rumble".) Other people do voiceovers on trailers, of course, but LaFontaine's was one of the very few that was instantly familiar to audiences - even if they never knew what his name was.

LaFontaine also gave voice to 350,000 commercials (!) and worked directly with many broadcast and cable networks, including the Big Four. It was a GEICO commercial, however, that gave LaFontaine his biggest full-on exposure, as people could finally put a face with the voice. ("This spot has changed my life," he wrote on his Web site. "There goes any anonymity I might have had.")

LaFontaine, who was 68, died yesterday in Los Angeles of complications of a collapsed lung, he apparently had been dealing with lung problems since last year. Nevertheless, it's likely are that he can be heard on trailers that have yet to be released; if so, let's hope the producers don't scrap his work. And let's hope that LaFontaine takes his rightful place among the other fallen performers in next year's Oscar memorial reel. In a world that he entertained for more than 40 years, it's only fair.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Three in a row? Oh crap ...

So the Cubs have lost three in a row ... at home. Not the best time to hit the skids, as the season enters the final month and the North Side Nine continue to fend off a ferocious effort by the Brewers to the north. Sure, the Cubs still lead the division by 4 1/2 games. And sure, Milwaukee did the favor of losing to the Mets today, so no ground was lost. Still, these are the type of stretches that has Cub fans like myself chewing our bottom lips a little more, having nightmares about 1969 and billy goats and marauding Bartmen chasing us through a swarm of black cats. So if I look a little ... panicked ... forgive me. I'm worrying. Sue me, I'm my mother's child.