Month: December 2015

Joe Strauss: One of a Kind Journalist

Joe Strauss/STL Today

Joe Strauss was late. Matt Holliday had just left the media room at the 2014 Winter Warmup and Strauss had wanted to ask him a question. It was a familiar question but the spin Strauss put on it was unique. Derrick Goold and Jenifer Langosch had asked him the same question but in a different way. It pertained to Holliday’s new teammate, Jhonny Peralta, and his past PED suspension. Strauss walked into the writers room, sat down and asked, “So did Holliday put up his usual moral police stance on PED?”

When I first heard it, I was mad. Enraged. I thought to myself, “What was Holliday supposed to do, tell General Manager John Mozeliak not to sign Peralta because Holliday was so Anti-PED?” I wanted to take a run at Strauss and challenge him. This is was what made Strauss so good at his job. He asked the uncomfortable questions other journalists only thought about afterwards.

Strauss challenged players, coaches, GM’s, his fellow writers and most importantly, fans, to see the other side of the spectrum. The dirty uneven side of an issue rarely talked about. He got me mad about his Holliday claim, but he also got me thinking real hard about my own stance on PED, Holliday’s comments and the future of the game in relation to this reputation. In that one moment, he did what he did best. He challenged me.

Strauss left us Sunday, at the young age of 54, from complications in his battle with leukemia. Like his late fellow colleague Bryan Burwell, Strauss didn’t make his fight with cancer a public one. He fought it behind closed doors, in an abandoned warehouse in his own space where he saw fit. He fought it since January and even survived long enough to write his best most hard hitting column last month about the Mizzou crisis. It was his final swing at a plate where he dominated for many years as a beat reporter and short period as a columnist.

I rarely agreed with Strauss but I respected him more than the people I often agreed with. Does that make sense? Often, Strauss kicked a leg out on the comfy bandwagon many fans rode on. He liked to spin the wheel like calling out young starter Carlos Martinez during a rough patch, discuss the possibility of a player using performance enhancing drugs or challenging popular thought. He did this so much that Albert Pujols nicknamed him “El Diablo”. You know what though…Pujols respected him. So did I.

Strauss didn’t dress flashy or bring an IPhone into media gatherings to take pics of players. It wasn’t required. Imagine Peter Falk’s Columbo dressing like a reporter, and that was Strauss. He had one goal and an initiative every time he entered the press box. He stood there and traded shots with Tony La Russa on many occasions. He made colleagues nervous. He got on Twitter and poked the Best Fans in Baseball with trivial observations. If narrative was water, Joe Strauss was oil. They didn’t mix and he liked it that way.

When I cover the Winter Warmup next month, I’ll miss Strauss. That’s the last thing I thought I would say this year but it’s true. I’ll miss his presence keeping every other scribe honest. I’ll miss his curveballs and verbal fastballs that made players do a double take before answering. I’ll miss seeing a Twitter notification from him rubbing people the wrong way and causing fellow journalism students to formulate a popular defense. I’ll miss the 140 character batches of tears he caused.

This has been a terribly drastic year of loss for the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Burwell passed away from cancer last December. Film critic Joe Williams died in a tragic car accident this past summer. Now Strauss is gone. I had the opportunity to talk to all three, debated with them and respected them. I learned from each of them. The world lost three different kinds of fire.

Young journalists should read Strauss’ work. Study it. Take the articles apart. Read them over and over again. There’s a world of knowledge in there. I doubt a hardcore fan can read more than two Strauss takes without feeling a fiery pull inside their heart and throat. A need to debate his point of view. It’s hard to not get fired up about his various stances over the years. His work will live on, growing legs that hopefully touch many up and coming scribes.

Joe Strauss was a journalist who would run towards a player or manager when others decided to retreat. He was never afraid of finding dirt. Sometimes, a writer(even myself) can struggle with that particular initiative. Do you write something that makes you the bad yet honorable scribe? Do you ask that question that may divide a room? Joe was that guy. I feel honored to have known him. Rest in peace Joe.

Cardinals: Mike Leake isn’t flashy but effective

Sometimes when you are walking along the buffet line, you fill your plate with the less than savory option. Pork steak instead of brisket. You have to eat something and don’t want to wait on the next serving. That’s what the St. Louis Cardinals did in signing free agent starting pitcher Mike Leake. They quenched their hunger for innings in the rotation with a dependable starter. The deal is five years and 80 million dollars, which comes out to an average annual income of 16 million. Thank Jeff Samardzija for that one but also understand market value moves in tricky ways. Most recently, up.

Leake split time in 2015 between the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants, faring worse in the spacious ballpark of AT&T Park than he did in the home run friendly confines of Great American Ballpark. Leake’s FIP(fielding independent pitching) was a nasty 4.83 with the Giants is the one true warning sign with Leake. He puts a lot of balls in play, which will keep Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong busy. His hits allowed per nine innings, 8.3, isn’t bad but he will require great infield defense to be effective. As my colleague Caesar McCruddy of The Roo pointed out, Leake is a Jeff Suppan type. He won’t overpower you but get plenty of contact, throw strikes, hit his marks and get outs.

Leake pitched well against the Cards in Busch Stadium, especially in 2015, compiling an ERA of 2.23 at the home ballpark. Leake was also exceptional on the road last year, posting an ERA of 2.91 in 102 innings with a 0.9 WHIP.

Mike Leake offers the Cards a dependable 3rd starter type, which is what the rotation needs with the loss of Lance Lynn and John Lackey. They need a guy who can give them 190-200 innings and produce quality starts throughout the season. A rotation with leaks bound to spring open(Waino’s age, Martinez’s shoulder, Garcia’s entire body) needs an ordinary yet effective innings guy like Leake.

Over his six year career, Leake has averaged over 200 innings, posted an ERA below four and a strikeouts to walks ration of 2.65:1. That isn’t Cy Young worthy or ulcer inducing worry. It’s middle of the pack effective and that is the what the Cards need.

Leake wasn’t my top choice because I didn’t want to give five years to a #3 type with Lynn returning and the young talent on the rise in Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, Austin Gomber coming up. Tim Cooney could be ready for MLB service and may be as competent as Leake sooner rather than later. I wrote Monday night that I preferred a stop gap type in Mark Buehrle for a year over five years of Leake. However, while I didn’t prefer Leake’s services, that doesn’t mean he is bad for the team. Once again, he’s pork steak.

Steamer projections at Fangraphs have Leake posting a record of 11-12 with a 4.22 FIP and 3.88 ERA to go with 193 innings and a 2.0 WAR. At an annual salary of 16 million, that doesn’t sound too exciting but unfortunately, in this market, that is what you get. Leake won’t blow anyone away but he’s durable and effective. A move to a pitcher’s park in Busch will only boost his numbers.

Leake is only 28 years old, so the contract will expire when he is 33 years old, which is reasonable. Due to the in season 2015 trade, Leake didn’t cost the Cards a compensation pick. They still have all three at their disposal. Leake, via Tom Ackerman, has shut down new Cub centerfielder Jason Heyward in his career, holding him to a .071 batting average(1-14) with three strikeouts.

A winter spending session that started with John Mozeliak looking at David Price has ended with Leake. There’s no denying it’s a disappointment but consider this. What the Cardinals needed in a free agent starter was a replacement for Lance Lynn.  In Leake, they got a #4 starter who could possibly pitch like a #3. While he doesn’t strike out as many as Lynn(and gives up an average of 21 home runs), Leake is a basic replacement pitcher for Lynn that down the road could be an excellent #5 at the very least.

The Leake signing will look especially tasty if the Cards can land a bat for the lineup. It won’t matter if they get Price or Lynn production out of Leake if the lineup can’t produce more than 2.9 runs per game(the Cardinals average for last two years combined). If you find a Leake, you need a strong patch to seal it folks. Simple as that.

So let’s recap to this point. 

The Cards have subtracted Pete Kozma, Peter Bourjos, Jon Jay, Tony Cruz, Mark Reynolds and Steve Cishek.

They added Leake, Jedd Gyorko, Brayan Pena and retained Jonathan Broxton and Brandon Moss.

They failed to sign David Price and Jason Heyward.

Chris Davis, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton and Alex Gordon are still out there. Each offer pop, versatility and something unique. Each have hazard labels attached. The Colorado Rockies have Carlos Gonzalez and Charlie Blackmon at their disposal for a trade.

What happens next, Cardinal Nation?  Sign Cespedes and it will be a Happy New Year if you ask me.

Christmas Vacation: The perfect holiday flick

Every patriarch knows the pain of Clark Griswold around the holidays. Trust me. The collision of family, responsibility of family, and the undeniable tension that comes with Christmas. One of John Hughes’ best scripts was Christmas Vacation and over 25 years later, it still has bite left in it. Some heat on its fastball. The movie still plays extremely well, all the jokes zinging like they were written yesterday and the actors buying in with great comic relief.

Warner Brothers Pictures

Most of the actors aren’t working much anymore. Chevy Chase was a movie star back then, but he has the occasional cameo or TV show these days. Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie still draws the best moments of the film, but the actor has gone cucko the past decade. Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecko(Big Bang Theory) aren’t exactly sleeping on the job, but they aren’t household names. That’s the jewel of some films. The movie undoubtedly outlasts the cast when it comes to value.

While The Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life carry a certain special place in many movie fans hearts(and for good reason), Christmas Vacation is my gem and go to holiday film. I remember watching it with my dad many times as a kid, reveling in the awkward yet hilarious scenes between Quaid and Chase that draw the true laughs. As I have grown older and started a family of my own, the film has gained reverence and stature. Some things you just don’t understand when you are a kid. Meeting your parents’ expectations. Being a hero to your kids. Having the best house on the block. I see parts of Clark in myself and a lot of him in my dad. At their best, movies are mirror images of real life, especially when you watch them a few times.

The best part about Christmas Vacation was the honesty it depicted in family gatherings. The people you don’t look forward to seeing and the ones that cause your blood pressure to rise. Hughes didn’t sidestep the messy aspects of holiday dinners. It didn’t overdo the sap in the end either, involving cutthroat corporate policies with the strains it puts on certain families and the employees who hang their year end happiness on a bonus and not a jelly of the month membership. Without intention, Hughes created a classic that my son will be able to enjoy.

While Cousin Eddie’s raucous behavior will garner the most laughs, it’s the quiet moments with Clark and his family looking for trees, his comments to his co-workers at the end of a work day and an old man lighting a match next to a large tree with a squirrel in it that resonate. Every time I watch it, I pick up something different and unique.

This weekend, gather the family around and watch Christmas Vacation. Sure, your grandmother will talk about Chase’s roles in other films. Your uncle will register with Eddie’s thought process while he pops open his 15th beer. Your mother won’t understand why a man has to wear a hockey mask to trim a tree trunk. Your son will tell Clark to watch his language. Your dad won’t be able to take his eyes off the supermodel lingerie clerk and guess what, Julie Louise-Dreyfus gets attacked by a squirrel and a dog.

In the end, people will laugh and be glad they took it in. That’s Christmas. Flawed happiness that’s wholesome. That’s this movie. It’s perfect. It has bite, an edge and just enough warmth to keep your eyes from rolling.

One more thing. Don’t watch it on ABC Family. Get the unedited version. Spend the ten bucks at Target. The jokes land hard and right without a blanket attached for landing.


The Hateful Eight: QT’s best?

Quentin Tarantino was born to make movies. His latest, The Hateful Eight, is another example of how great he truly is and how he was born to make flicks. Sometimes, it happens like that in the make believe business. A master storyteller’s own life is a great story. Tarantino worked at a video rental shop while watching tons of movies and talking up Kung Fu flicks with anybody who would listen. He was a freak of film. Someone who needed it and craved it. Unlike millions of other, Tarantino had a vision. He wanted to make these things. Write and direct. Or nothing else.

Weinstein Company

Later on, he made a couple of groundbreaking films. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Movies with stunning violence, iconic characters, lots of profanity and extended unbroken takes of dialogue. Lots of talking. Philosophical. Direct. Poignant at times. Tarantino hasn’t shown the ability to hit the bullseye every time(Jackie Brown) but he’s never made a bad movie.

QT’s movies take place in the present day, the 90’s, during World War II or in latest case, after the American Civil War in the late 1800’s. No matter where they happen, it’s a QT joint. His signature touch exists in all of his films. You ask me the goal should be for every director in Hollywood and it’s the recognition an audience has when they see your film. They sit down and immediately know this is a Tarantino film.

The Hateful Eight carries that stamp early on, with the Ennio Morricone score, the Panavision powered opening, and the heavy hitting cast.

Every QT joint has three things:

*Lots of F-Bombs.

*Samuel L. Jackson in a great role that people will quote afterwards.

*Unusual kill scenes.

What’s it about? A group of bounty hunters, prisoners, killers, former soldiers and some of the most overall untrustworthy folks in the world meet in a cabin during a terribly brutal blizzard. Kurt Russell’s bounty hunter is transporting a prisoner, Daisy(Jennifer Jason Leigh) to be hanged. He picks up a fellow bounty hunter/ex-soldier(Jackson) and appointed sheriff(Walter Goggins) along the way. When they get to the cabin, something seems off. Mysterious men(Tim Roth, Demian Bichir, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern) are stuck in this same cabin. There are eight people total. Some people know others. Some do not.

Russell, nicknamed Hangman because he doesn’t kill people that are wanted dead or alive but takes them to hang because “other people have to make money too”, thinks they are there to stop Daisy from hanging. Jackson’s drifter is the opposite. He kills(a lot) but is civilized about it. It’s a treat to see the actor have another good time in a QT film. Jackson works a lot, too much if you ask me, and three of every four films he makes end up sucking. However, in Tarantino’s hands speaking a hypnotic brand of dialogue, Jackson shines like a brand new penny. The Jackson-Tarantino film relationship may not be as potent as Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, but five films in there hasn’t been a less than stellar performance.

Russell had one of his best roles in the last decade with Tarantino, playing Stunt Man Mike in Death Proof. Here, his ruthlessly violent John Ruth is a fair measure of good, bad and ugly. He isn’t the most evil but when he slugs Leigh’s Daisy a few times too many, it’s hard to stay sided with him. Goggins, a celebrated TV performer, also makes himself at home in Tarantino’s world here. He always plays men who are hard to trust yet impossible to take your eyes off him as he works. These three easily fare the best of the celebrated cast, and viewers won’t soon forget another legendary Jackson speech right around the 90 minute mark that sets off the furious action.

That’s right, folks, H8 is talky. Very talky. All Tarantino films involve extended dialogue scenes, verbal foreplay before the subplots and main plot are submerged together and people die. Full of characters who are either despicable or extra deadly or capable of the wrong things, it doesn’t take long before bad things happen. Oh, and Channing Tatum shows up and makes a brilliant entrance.

For my money, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained had great moments but were both uneven films. They weren’t complete pleasures. They weren’t the usual QT masterpiece(Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill 2 setting that table). Far from average but a half mile short of greatness, those two films didn’t come close to the high mark that Hateful Eight achieves in one setting, eight main characters and a simple story line. No World War II villains needed. No slavery aided push. Just a group of gunslingers.

If you are a QT fan, you will love this film. It has all the trimmings one would expect in a Tarantino turkey. No one writes dialogue like this man. It’s realistic while carrying a graphic novel flair for the dramatic. The actors, handpicked gems like Madsen, all eat up the material like pros. Madsen is a unique breed of actor. He’s made over 245 films in his career but every time he hooks up with Quentin, a great character is formed. His Joe Cage is no different. Don’t trust him!

If you are not a QT fan, then this will shock you and ultimately, seduce you. If you appreciate original stories with no superheroes involved and crave an unsettling feel to a movie, Hateful Eight is your best dish available. I had a lot of fun with it and would watch the two hour and 47 minute film again. Once again, it’s a different kind of film and not for everybody. If QT made films for everybody, they’d be called The Hunger Games(come to think of it, I’d love to see him direct the prequels).

Is The Hateful Eight Tarantino’s best? Right now, it is not. Pulp Fiction is still his most assured, shocking, most funny and hypnotic slice of pie. This latest wild affair does come pretty close. Make a pot of coffee and bring it to the movie theater.

“Concussion”reconfigured my view of football

Concussion/Columbia Pictures

The tale of the new film Concussion is simple. Dr. Bennet Omalu(Will Smith) didn’t want to destroy America’s game, football. He simply wanted to protect the players who take the field and absorb the thousands of hits. He wanted players to know what they were getting into. Peter Landesman’s new film isn’t fancy or covered in Oscar worthy ways from head to toe but its message will live on beyond our lifetimes. Football isn’t just a dangerous sport. It’s a deadly one.

The worst thing people will do when seeing this movie is wave it off as nonsense. They will go to their Sunday games, cheer on the big hit, and make short vines of football players getting rocked so hard that they are carried off the field afterwards. People will watch these over and over again. On Youtube, Sportscenter and NFL Network. Violence on any level fascinates the human brain. People hate to admit it, but it does. They will say the graceful aspect of the game pulls them in. Same for boxing fans who say the sweet science is the main allure, when in actuality it’s the hard knockouts they love. That’s why Mike Tyson was a stud and he couldn’t even box. People love violence so they will overlook this important film.

Omalu was a forensic neuropathologist. He’d cut open dead bodies and root out the cause of death, even talking to them before hand, like a corpse whisperer. He came upon an ex-NFL football legend, Mike Webster and found brain bleeds and swelling that would suggest Alzheimer’s but that wasn’t it. It was what he would later call Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy(CTE). If it sounds like a handful, imagine being an former pro football player under 50 years old who pulled his teeth out and used super glue to put them back. As Omalu tells a room full of skeptics towards the end of the film, “A football player should know he may break a bone or two. He shouldn’t know he would lose his mind.”

The doctor pulled a rug out from under people’s normal thought process. Millions of people figured football players knew or were at least informed about the long term effects of concussions. They weren’t. Players had no idea their brain was being slammed, dislodged and slowly releasing protein on every big hit like a racquetball being juggled inside a small jar.

Smith is amazing as Omalu, adapting the accent, mannerisms and imbuing the part with strength. This may be his finest work yet, and he has been nominated for Oscars before. I had my doubts going into the film, but Smith did the role great justice. Without his conviction, the story wouldn’t resonate.

Omalu was threatened by the NFL. The government came down on his boss’ practice and tried to derail him. As a fellow doctor tells him, he gave the league’s biggest Boogeyman a name. America dedicated a day of the week to football and here was this doctor, who wasn’t even a citizen of the United States, trying to tell them football is bad for the brain like smoking is on the lungs. No one wanted to believe it until former players started dropping like flies to suicide and their brains had no other answers. How do you define madness if you don’t register or appreciate the science behind it?

You will be shocked at this film. It will reconfigure your thought process on football. I may not stop watching the game, but I will never look at it the same again. You can’t unsee what is shown to you in this film. If Landesman’s film doesn’t come off as Oscar worthy, it’s only because it plays for the most part like a documentary, albeit with great performances. Its effect won’t fully land for years. There are rumblings though.

Chris Borland, San Francisco 49ers running back, retired this year after one season in the NFL, giving up three million. Patrick Willis gave up 7.8 million dollars at the age of 30. Jake Locker retired as a free agent at 26 after making 12.6 million. Jason Worilds retired even though every team wanted him. He was 27 years old. They are getting out early, due to the effects of CTE. Maybe they all won’t admit that, but it’s true. You can read more about that here.

The NFL won’t do a thing. They will keep trying to read a book with the lights turned off. They want nothing to do with the 16 million being donated to CTE research. Recently, former player Eric Winston pledged to donate his brain to research. Everybody is taking action except for the NFL. High School coaches are teaching new methods of tackling, but the hits are still hard and the effects are excessive. At least now players know what can happen. That is all Dr. Omalu wanted to do. Raise awareness for football players about the dangers of entering into this game.

Sorry if this review started off as a “should you see this or not” practice and devolved into an expose, but sometimes the morals and meanings of particular films take a hold of you in unexpected ways. While it isn’t memorable in how it was made or feature brilliant direction, Concussion hits hard enough as it is delivered. It doesn’t need the extra cute trimmings. It’s got the truth and an Oscar worthy Will Smith.

Imagine walking up to a door. The person outside the door says, “Go in, participate, you may get hurt initially but there are no long term effects, oh and do this for 8-10 years.” So you walk in and absorb more punishment than ever thought. You are paid handsomely but were unaware of the cost of the game. Welcome to the NFL.

Do me a favor and the next time you watch a game and see a big hit, register how you first react. Don’t look around too much. Don’t think. Just react. You know how I will react now when I see a helmet to helmet hit between a helpless ball carrier and another man leaving his feet to take out that other guy…I will be nauseous. Unsettled. I’m not sure how passionately I will follow this game. It won’t be easy. Hypocritical behavior will follow because I am one of those people who claim to love the beautiful pass or methodical movement of an offense downfield. I will struggle at times with this game. There is beauty in it but ridiculous amounts of danger. What if players knew 30-40 years ago what we knew now?

Concussion begs you to consider that question. Is this a great overall movie? That is debatable. Should it get your attention? Absolutely. It will have mine for decades. When my son asks about football, Concussion will be on my mind.  One of those rare instances where movies aren’t just entertainment. They are transcendent.

Concussion/Columbia Pictures

Movie Reviews: 200 words or less

Let’s try something new. Movie reviews in less than 250 words. When people look for movie reviews, they don’t want to worn down with prose. It’s not a best selling novel on their agenda. Give the goods and do it quick. So let me run over some recent films I have watched in 200 words or less.

Digging For Fire(directed by Joe Swanberg)-On Demand/Redbox/ITunes

Lucky Coffee Productions

Drinking Buddies > Digging for Fire. Swanberg’s last(Olivia Wilde’s best performance) was so much better that this new indie barely registers.

This isn’t a bad movie but so little happens. A group of friends find buried bones and a gun, go digging and search for themselves amidst marriage and relationship issues.  A film where the characters in the movie are so realistic that it’s boring to watch them do ordinary things. How do you make 80 minutes seem so long?

Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt and the rest of the cast are good actors but they can’t save a script that is bland and ultimately a lackluster attempt at hipster cool. Orlando Bloom shows up and may be the best part of the movie. That’s not a good thing.

The Intern(directed by Nancy Meyers)-Hits DVD on January 19th

This is a sweet film, a Meyers special. She makes sweetly romantic comedies that go down like a fine lager on a fall evening. Anne Hathaway and Robert DeNiro have perfect chemistry as the CEO of a fashion website and a senior intern who changes her life.

You may see what’s coming or you may not, but this comedy is so easy moving and confident that it won’t matter. Great acting tromps original scripts in the right film. You’ll appreciate the change of pace turn from DeNiro and Hathaway’s maturation as an actress comes off like a 20 foot jump shoot here.

The Intern is a perfect film to watch with the relatives gathered into your home so find it in a theater somewhere or look for it in the coming weeks.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens(directed by J.J. Abrams) In Theaters

Whatever you hated about the prequels, you will love about J.J. Abrams kickback to the Return of the Jedi days here. By bringing back old legends like Han Solo(Harrison Ford having a lot of fun) and Leia(Carrie Fisher) and introducing new heroes like Rey and Finn(Daisy Ridley and John Boyega), Abrams is spreading the appeal of the franchise to all ages. Don’t be surprised when it shatters all box office records Monday. When you pick up a popular piece of fiction and do it right with some respect, greatness can happen. The Force Awakens is a nostalgic blast.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation(directed by Christopher McQuarrie) New release on Redbox/DVD/ITunes

The best spy film in 2015 wasn’t Spectre or Kingsman. It was Tom Cruise’s fifth stop as Ethan Hunt, the death defying super agent who won’t quit until everyone in the audience is satisfied.

Just like Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation did what MI flicks do best. Breathtaking action sequences, versatile casts with a few new faces, and Cruise dominating the entire operation by putting his neck and soul into the role. Ask me and this is his best character. A place where he is most at home in. Action and adventure. If Furious 7 had a brain, it would be called Mission Impossible.

The Ref(directed by Ted Demme) ITunes/Amazon for 2.99

Underrated Christmas movie. When the kids go to bed this holiday week, get the grownups together and watch the marvel Denis Leary work a script like a boxer does an overmatched opponent for 12 rounds. The comedy maestro plays a thief who kidnaps a couple and runs into the night of his life when they turn out to be bickering maniacs and their family is even worse.

The late director Ted Demme had a gift with actors and could create a tone that slowly boiled over into laugh out comedy. Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis are perfect foils for Leary’s maniac type hilarity and the film doesn’t need to stop when the credits roll. In the middle of the dark comedy clouds, you get a few well timed sentimental moments that Grandma will appreciate. This is a film to watch during the holidays.

Touchstone Pictures

That’s it. Short to the point movie reviews that can be read in the same amount of time it takes to check an email or have half a cup of coffee. Come back next week for five more movie reviews in 200 words or less.





The Perfect Nap

The bed is right there, literally asking you to dance. It’s 65 degrees outside so the air conditioning isn’t needed but the heat won’t help you either if you get too chilly. You open the windows and let the sounds of the outside world carry you into a relaxed state. It’s nap time.

That time where everything stops. Slows down for a moment. The brain can recharge or brainstorm erratic futures via the dream stage. Some of the best parts of my life have been those exhausted moments right before you crawl into a warm bed and wrap yourself up in the covers. Or you collapse on the couch and roll into it. It takes a few adjustments but eventually the pilot in your cerebral cortex nods at you that comfortable has been found. This is the best. You realize you will actually get to sleep.

The cell phone is set down. The bills that you owe stay folded in the office, locked up because they don’t have legs. The kids are either at daycare, asleep themselves or losing themselves in a movie. The door is bolted and the kid is trusted. It’s better if they are being watched because this will deter from a good nap. Worry and tension aren’t welcome in a warm bed. They are assholes who hold your mind ransom for hours. Let’s say the kid is gone and in good care. It’s just you, the remote, and the cell phone with the bed calling your name.

I have often thought of humans as flawed manually operated computers or cell phones. We can run for a long time but sooner or later a charge will be needed. A rest. I am not talking black coffee or a red bull. I am talking sleep. Shut eye. A snooze. Take the shoes and socks off, get horizontal and drift for a bit. Our minds can only go for so long before they start to fry. Headaches, itchy eyes and blurred vision are all signs of stop fucking around and sleep.

I get 4-5 hours on average per night/day. Sometimes 7-8. It depends. The feeling of sleep deprivation is an apparent one with me. I am a writer, tireless in subjects that I can reach. I have a kid. A wife. I am a stay at home dad. Parents don’t get days off. At least good ones don’t. I cook, clean, care for, write, and clean some more. I drink a lot of coffee. I don’t like sugar but we sleep with each other on occasion via a box of Boston Baked Beans or Skittles. I work out and find fitness wherever I can, like a dog chasing its own reflection on a wall. I don’t stop so when I finally do, it’s epic.

The bed commands my attention. It doesn’t talk back. It just wants to stay warm and a body is needed for that. Like two things coming together for shelter in a storm. You lay down, and attempt to watch something, like 13 minutes of an hour long television show. It’s hopeless but like a child’s bedtime book being acted out by very good looking people. Or you just listen to the outside sounds. Car horns, birds, kids playing close by or the wind whipping around the building. Soundtracks aren’t hard to find once you open the windows. The best writers work with the windows open. The best sleep happens then too. You shouldn’t get too comfortable though. There needs to be an edge in your slumber. So when you do fall, you fall hard and sudden.

You wake up and it could be the year 2030 with World War III going on outside. Whatever it is, you’ll deal with it after your first cup of coffee is being downloaded into your system, like a computer taking time to reboot after an improper shutdown sequence.

No matter what happens, you will feel better. The body is charged. The mood is improving. You may want more sleep, but the more you do the more awake you will feel. There will be a push in your steps. Energy is stored so you can access it easily. Water is good. Exercise is fine. Freedom of speech is eternal. Sleep is required to fully function. It could be a small or large amount. When you get it, you know it. There’s good sleep and there’s tossing and turning.


Do yourself and the others around you a favor and find some good sleep. Take the perfect nap.

At The Knick: This is all we are review

the-knick-god-has-a-rivalThis is all we are. Damaged. Hungry. In need. Constantly scrapping our elbows to get more. That was always Thack’s message and the idea of Cinemax’x The Knick. He said it in the pilot. God is undefeated. Humans are on borrowed time and unless you want to mean little to the ultimate outcome, one must seek out ways to change the world. From the beginning, that was Thack’s tormented and selfless ambition. And we followed him all the way to the end.

If you expected a happy or optimistic end for Doctor John Thackery and this show, you haven’t really been watching or have dulled your pain with a strong anesthetic. Director Steven Soderbergh, along with creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, aimed to be as ambitiously ignorant of normal television drama stipulations in telling their story of practicing medicine in the early 1900’s. Instead of adding melodrama to take away from the pain of how grisly life saving was in the beginning, they took a full swing at the coldness of it all. How mortality constantly runs into brick walls of ill fated doom. How the end is always waiting no matter how hard you rage against the darkness.

If the Season 2 finale taught us anything, it was depravity had many faces and masks.

There was the inglorious bastard of them all, Herman Barrow. Right when you thought the man would be caught by his wife and exposed, he maneuvered away and got her to stay quiet for a good life. This hour started by putting a detective hot on Barrow’s tail, thinking he caused the fire at the new Knick(he didn’t). Instead of gaining from a new build and plan, Henry Robertson surprises Barrow by telling him that there are no new plans to rebuild the hospital. A settlement was reached from the fire, the money is going back to the donors, land is being returned to its original owner and the city is going to be put in charge of the old Knick. All of this means Barrow is out of luck with bringing in new funds to pay his wife off and keep his new life going.

“Bully for you”

Seeing Barrow throw a Hail Mary towards Thack, worshiping at his feet and trying to make him think the new Knick was his cathedral, is quite humorous. Thack wants nothing to do with him. He’s smelt dirt on the guy from the beginning. He failed with the addiction experiment and just wants to move into the next breakthrough.

At wits end, Barrow loses a source of income but finds a way to pivot and stay above water. He uses his power at the club to squash the detective and gets his feeble minded girlfriend to sign documents giving him the ability to take out a loan against the apartment in her name. She thinks he is helping her, when in reality she is giving the man another vessel of cash. Even when Barrow is down, he is far from out.

“I’m angry for you.”-Edwards

Dr. Algernon Edwards is once again left broken and slowly losing sight in his eye. While one could figure Dr. Gallinger knocked the light out of his future of being a surgeon, the eye was going bad anyway. All Everett did was speed it up. Beat Edwards at his own game. Used his biggest rage, a black man trying to become a king in a white man’s world, against him. In the end, Edwards sits on a step at August’s funeral only to be comforted by his father. It is here that Algernon finally explains his inner rage. He is angry all the time because of his father. The man he looks up to the most has been a servant to the white families all these years even though he is the smartest man he knows. That set a fire in Edwards long ago. That is the chip on his shoulder that makes him rage against Gallinger, Thackery and society.

The Ballad of Tom Cleary and Harriet gets interesting. When she thinks he stole money for some stupid investment idea, he pulls out a ring and proposes. Big Cleary is in love with the one woman he can’t have. When she turns him down, he goes to the priest to confess.

In the most hurtful yet painfully romantic part of the finale, Cleary madness comes full circle. We find out via confession that he set her up in order to free her from the church. He snitched on her that night when he supposedly got too drunk and left her to get caught. It was on purpose. That way a woman he always had feelings for could be his own. He didn’t think the courts and sisters would drop the hammer that hard but in the end she was freed and he got his shot.

Out of options, Cleary is here asking the priest to help him get the woman he got locked up so he could eventually call her his own. Ladies and gents only on The Knick does depravity come with a ring and handcuffs. This would be the only true happy ending Knick fans would get. A happy Harriet sitting down for dinner with her new fiancé, who had her locked up. When she smiled, I somehow felt better about what Big Tom Cleary did.

“A circus stunt?” If it is worth saving lives, why not take a shot?” Instead of letting a doctor perform the surgery, Thack wants to do it himself and NOT be sedated. Thack may be a perpetual drug addict but he is first and foremost a life saver. Always has been. The drug addicted genius renegade. Someone who doesn’t just clock in and try to save people. He wants to discover and conquer what seemingly the human body can only begin to fight. It’s Thackery against mortality. While Bertie develops adrenaline and Gallinger rids the world of stupidity one vasectomy at a time, Thack aims big. He always has. Why would he aim lower when trying to save himself? Of course his colleagues don’t understand. They are comfortable being mortals. Thack wants to be something else.

Why? Thack is raging against the use of ether, the anesthetic he gave Abby and what may have contributed to her death. Instead of filling people with ether, Thack wants to show people you can numb them from pain without being fully put under. How? Cocaine! What else?!

Poor Cornelia. She decides to go to Cleveland with her husband and start a family. Right when she thinks the simple life lies ahead of her, she finds out that it was Henry and not her father who was in charge of the cargo ships and schedules that brought tons of sick people into the city. This took me back to episode 5, Whiplash, where Henry told his father that when there is blood in the streets, that was the time to invest.

When Cornelia confronts her brother he doesn’t play innocent for long. He says his father was driving the family into debt. Bad debt. He had to do something. He was the one that had the inspector killed. He was the one who brought those people in. He wanted the subway and not the new Knick. Last but not least, he started the fire that ended up killing his own father. There’s ice rolling through this kid’s veins. The entire season has played Henry off as a quietly hungry seemingly good person.

Evil Henry Robertson. Sometimes the monster takes off his mask in front of his own blood. Seeing him hold Cornelia at the top of the steps had to be the most chilling part of the season. Right then Lucy shows up. She is moving in with Henry, cementing her rise from innocent nurse to powerful wife of the new Rothstein in town. This whole time, Henry has been the master schemer. He could teach Barrow how it’s truly done.

Finally Thackery’s surgery is upon us. High praise to Cliff Martinez’s score, setting up the procedure like a U2 concert. The theater is full. Gallinger and Bertie washing their hands in the prep room looking at each other like they are about to let a man kill himself. Thack, full of nerves, pacing his office looking for a way to relax. Well, why not a little drug concoction to get the hands ready to operate on his own stomach.

This is Clive Owen’s finest hour. He rolls into the theater in a gown, looking like a doctor and magician rolled into one, about to make the bad bowel in his stomach disappear and for the world to realize how the impossible is possible. Right here and then, I knew he was a goner. A man’s ambition running faster than his actual talent will allow him. He tosses the gown, gets the cocaine into his spine, and cuts himself open. He actually removes one part of the bad bowel, but finds it is in worse shape than he initially thought.

As Gallinger and Bertie plead to rethink the surgery or let them step in, he refuses. He has come this far, so why let logical thinking enter his train of thought. He ends up nicking the abdominal aorta, which starts a bleed that can’t be fixed. Edwards jumps over the wall into the area to grab his legs, as Gallinger sews him up and Bertie makes a desperate sprint for adrenaline. The only one who knows the outcome is Thack himself. Losing feeling and going cold, he looks at the theater and simply says, “this is all we are,” before his head collapses. He’s gone. Fallen at the mercy of the limitations of medicine and from the strength and pull of his need to be the best.

Soderbergh’s direction is perfect throughout but the final few scenes and wrap are extremely assured. Right as Bertie plunges the needle into Thack’s chest, the scene closes and reloads. The theater is empty and ready for another surgery. The sinks are clean. Edwards sits alone in the late doctor’s office and finds Abby’s notebooks. Her work on psychology is unfinished and with Henry’s(yeah, he’s in charge and living the high life) wishes and funding, Edwards will continue Abby’s work as a final wish and nod to Thack. Since he lost the use of his eye, the doctor turns to a different kind of healing. Clinical psychology. The birth of the shrink. It was in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that Lightner Witmer founded the scientific theory of clinical psychology. After two seasons of cutting and opening up bodies, the creators take a stab at the mind. What a way to end the season and possibly the series.

Cinemax hasn’t green lit a third season and I personally find it hard to fathom without Owen. A show like Game of Thrones can lose its most well known star(Sean Bean) and keep going because there are so many characters, but Owen’s Thackery was the heart valve of this operation. With premium cable shows, it has to do less with ratings and more to do wiht the creators. I doubt Soderbergh wants to come back for a third round and it won’t go on without him. In 20 hours, The Knick revolutionized what a drama series can do and where it can go with the right minds behind it and actors. It flipped the script on what to expect out of a hospital series. Sorry Chicago Med. This is the real deal. Sadly, I find it hard to believe that a third season happens with the closure several characters got.

Think about it? Thack is gone. Gallinger is going abroad to preach the need to snip snip the mentally unfortunate. Edwards is settling into a new practice but one that lacks drama. Cornelia is running away. Barrow and Henry have schemed their way into success. Cleary and Harriet are happy. Bertie has an adrenaline practice to complete. There aren’t enough loose ends to bring the gang back. The production isn’t cheap for a period piece, with the need to transform a modern city into a set that takes place over 100 years ago. Cinemax may have delayed the announcement until the finale aired and audiences saw the supposed closure.

Never say never but I think The Knick is closed. Hat tip to Soderbergh, Amiel and Begler. They did more in two seasons what some do in six. A lesser show would have seen Edwards get the best of Gallinger, Thackery would have lived and Barrow and Henry go to jail. That was never the intention. The creators intention here was producing a visceral dose of history that was convincing and realistic without smashing us over the head too often. If it will be remembered for anything, the show will go down as an innovative launch into unknown territory for drama. The spectacle it created along with the fearless approach. Bravo! Let’s go back down and watch it all again. This is the best history lesson on TV.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a beast

Thank you, J.J. Abrams.

LucasFilm/Bad Robot Productions

Star Wars: The Force Awakens can be appreciated and beloved by movie fans, young, middle aged and old.

The renegade director who just can’t fail(seriously, he hasn’t made a bad flick) has successfully rejuvenated another lost franchise. After throwing a fresh coat of cool hipster paint on Star Trek by carving out an origin tale, Abrams has rebooted the Star Wars saga with a fresh exciting dose of old fashioned cinematic entertainment.

Look at Harrison Ford, throwing on the leather coat and slipping easily back into the role that helped put him on the map(sorry Indiana Jones but no thanks). Han Solo is back and better than ever, giving the 70+ year old fresh sea legs on the big screen and delivering nostalgic goosebumps to older fans like myself who grew up watching him make a ship travel at 12 parsecs. It’s invigorating watching the actor revisit one of his finest roles.

Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill make shorter yet still potent returns to Princess(now General) Leia and the missing in action Luke Skywalker. While sprinkling small tributes to the original three films, Abrams also introduces a new fleet of players to the universe.

Rey(Daisy Ridley) is the new Luke, a young scavenger looking for life, money and a purpose on her desolate home planet before a BB8(think younger brother type of R2D2) finds her and throws her into an adventure that eventually links her up with jaded former Storm tropper Finn(John Boyega). They join forces with Leia’s new hotshot pilot Poe(Oscar Isaac, having a ton of fun and injecting some finely timed humor into a hero role) to take on Kylo Ren(Adam Driver, cutting a menacing Vader like figure) and the new First Order, basically Death Star 2.0. Rey and company side with the Resistance(keeping names simple here) to battle Ren and the bad guys. Pretty simply good, bad and funny cool going on here.

I didn’t know much about Ridley and Boyega but they cut memorable impressions here as young heroes thrust into a life changing situation. A scene near the end with Ren in a forest will raise the blood pressure and bring it back down before jacking it up again. This movie does that over and over again. For new fans, it will be a cool action flick with weird creatures and humans clashing. For older fans, it’s a fully realized return to the 80’s when Star Wars was the freshest thing on the cinematic street.

Force Awakens cuts a more serious tone throughout the film, with legendary characters falling and others rising. There are as many chilling moments as the ones that will wrap a smile around your face. Abrams is building a new trilogy after all and this the official kickoff. John Williams’ score couldn’t have been remastered any better, the sound of the opening credits hitting your senses like a bolt of lightning.

The standout player here is Driver, bringing back harsh and sinister memories of Darth Vader and his cold blooded dealings. When he enters the first scene in the film and unleashes that voice, the fear is instant. The man has been good before, in lighter fare like HBO’s Girls and This is Where I Leave You, but here he truly creates something that will stick with you. When the mask comes off later in the film, Driver’s performance kicks up a notch and lands on a whole new level of great. A scene with Ren and Solo will undoubtedly make fans clinch their seats in anticipation.

In the end, Abrams doesn’t just acquit himself. He makes the story and franchise his own, the same way he did a few years ago with Star Trek. The moment the sequel got put in his hands, a sigh of relief entered my mind. Star Wars fanatic or not, you could appreciate what Abrams was going to bring to the flick. He may not win an Oscar, but he gets an “Atta boy” from millions of people across the world.

SWTFA will easily smash box office records and for good reason. A film hyped as the second coming of greatness comes pretty close to matching that anticipation by having some real fun. Without overdoing the drama or forgetting about the well timed humor(Ford and Boyega have some great moments), Abrams(which he co-wrote with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt) has made an old classic cool and hip again, good enough for any crowd during the holidays.

If you find the time, go see Star Wars VII. Fanatic or not, it’s a true cinematic experience.

Heat: Sizzling 20 years later

20 years after it came out guns blazing in theaters, I can still spot Michael Mann’s Heat around the corner. It’s my favorite movie of all time and let me tell you why.

December 15th, 1995. My dad and I attended the film on a chilly night at Esquire on Clayton Rd. They didn’t put Heat in the big auditorium. Something less was. I couldn’t wait for the film. Al Pacino. Robert DeNiro. Trading cinematic punches over a nearly three hour crime drama about cops and robbers. You couldn’t draw it up better.

My dad and I were cinephiles. We were addicts who always needed an escape from the real world. Every week, we’d see at least two films. Maybe three. I’ve learned some of the greatest lessons in life from the thousands of questions I have asked my dad after a show. Heat was no different.

DeNiro’s Neal McCauley was the world’s greatest bank robber. He had an impeccable crew of imperfect men. Val Kilmer, in one of his past truly great roles, as Chris Shiherlis, the gambling junkie who could crack a safe and fire a semi automatic gun like no other. Tom Sizemore, before the crazy fallout and direct to DVD redundancy, as Michael Cheritto(I pronounce it just like Tone Loc does). Danny Trejo as the driver. Dennis Haysbert, known to many as the All State guy or Pedro Cerrano, as the second getaway and doomed driver.

Pacino’s up all night bloodhound detective Vincent Hanna and his team of badge carrying jackals go after McCauley and his crew. Among them, Wes Studi’s Casals, Mykelti Williamson(aka Bubba from Forrest Gump) as Drucker and the unforgettable voice of Ted Levine as Bosko. Four suits chasing four thieves in the night.

Each crew had internal imperfections. DeNiro chases the simple life with Amy Brenneman’s artist and pays for it. Kilmer’s Chris can’t stop gambling away everything, including his wife(Ashley Judd). All of them have either wives or kids attached to their madness. Housewives who don’t know any better.

Pacino is on his third wife(Diane Venora) who has a troublesome kid(Natalie Portman) and their relationship is rocky at best. Bosko, Casals and Drucker all have wives. Everybody carries a certain amount of juice with them on the job but as Pacino deftly points out, he keeps it all at an arms distance.

“I told you, when we hooked up, baby, that you were gonna have to share me with all the bad people and all the ugly events on this planet.”-Hanna

Hanna’s life is that way because he spends all of his time chasing McCauley around. His drug is chasing these bad men around the city. Going home is a breather. A letdown. Something that doesn’t equal the thrill of the hunt.

Mann’s film is a classic and sets itself apart from the other hundred cops and robbers films because it’s authentic and feels real at every moment. There are zero special effects. All the guns are real and sometimes, the bullets are even real. For a gunfight that still thrills during every viewing, Mann unleashed over 2,000 squibs on downtown Los Angeles.

Filming a scene where Hanna’s crew ambushes McCauley’s crew’s escape, hell is truly unleashed. M-4 assault rifles, shotguns and various handguns are fired. Several cars are destroyed. It’s a riveting scene and stands out among action scenes from the past 20 years. Maybe 50 years. Watch it and everything sounds brutally realistic. The guns seem to ring off the corner of the room you are sitting in. Guns are actually reloaded and jam too, making the scene even more real. The damage they do stops men and doesn’t just hinder their movement. Everything is real and done honestly.

Mann’s Heat influenced other filmmakers like Christopher Nolan’s opening bank scene in The Dark Knight(fun fact, William Fichtner is in both films). His action scenes are always mentioned in other commentaries because if how visceral they are filmed and are portrayed on any television set across the world. Mann expertise in crime films goes all the way back to Manhunter, but Heat is his masterpiece.

The film holds up so well over the years due to the well thought out story lines in between the action. The plot had muscle on it. For all the acclaim it gathers(and for good reason), the action only takes up about 25-30 minutes of the film. Everything else details the messy and honest lives of cops and high level criminals. How marriages fall due to overly dedicated detectives staring into the abyss of tragedy and violence. How hopeless a criminal’s engagement with a woman or his kids can be with jail or death right around the corner. No one in the film is evil. Well, everyone except for Kevin Gage’s Waingro, a despicable killer who helps bring Neal’s crew down.

The Hall of Fame coffee shop scene between Pacino and DeNiro, which represented the first time the two titans of film shared the big screen, is so well played and scripted. The actors don’t try to chew the scenery. They just let the dialogue dance right off their tongue and allow their eyes and gestures to do the rest.

Vincent telling Neal, “You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do. If I’m there and I gotta put you away, I won’t like it. But I tell you, if it’s between you and some poor (guy) whose wife you’re gonna turn into a widow, brother, you are going down.”

And Neal responding with, “There is a flip side to that coin. What if you do got me boxed in and I gotta put you down? Cause no matter what, you will not get in my way. We’ve been face to face, yeah. But I will not hesitate. Not for a second.”

Hearing those words make the hair on my neck stand up to attention and applaud. They still dazzle with conviction after all these years.

In the end, Heat taught me that good and bad people can have respect for each other, even when they are forced to face off. They may have chosen a different walk in life, but they can understand what makes the other tick and decide how to fight it or avoid it. All the while, these two men also fought themselves in a way. How your decisions in life mold your future or destroy it, like a rock going through a window.

The final scene, supported perfectly by Moby’s earth shattering score, still brings a tear to my eye because it follows through on everything the rest of the film taught you and led you to. It doesn’t make these men perfect or immovable. In the end, they were simply humans making choices. Sometimes, deadly ones.

You’ll never see another cast like this either. Pacino, DeNiro, Kilmer, Sizemore, Judd, Venora, Portman, Studi, Williamson, Levine, Trejo, and Brenneman. Jon Voight as McCauley’s partner in crime, the man who set him up with guys like Tom Noonan’s Kelso. Fichtner and Henry Rollins. Jeremy Piven as the doctor who helps out McCauley by giving him the shirt his daughter bought him. Hank Azaria as Judd’s lover and the man who created one of Pacino’s greatest funny moments. Haysbert as the ex-con who put his life in McCauley’s hands.  A hitter’s list of actors who were at the top of their game and brought it. Everybody brought something unique to their performance.

Watch Heat. Do it for me and yourself. Show some self respect. Movie addict or not, you will find something in it you love or cherish. You will respect it or be blown away by it.