Thursday, March 31, 2011

Winter lingers on Opening Day

Opening Day, baseball is back, spring has sprung.

So why is Marvin West lighting a fire?

The bank thermometer flashed 42 degrees as I drove through Maynardville in the pouring rain this morning. A freeze warning? Really? On Opening Day?

Welcome to East Tennessee, where they say the weather changes every 15 minutes. (It's supposed to be 70 on Saturday.)

"This is an inauspicious start to spring," I tell Sarah as I come through the door.

But today is a day to spring forward, so I put winter behind me anyway and get all giddy as Curtis Granderson makes a diving catch in center field. A quick check tells me that the weather is equally as bad in the Bronx as it is on Norris Lake. Guess that explains all the empty seats. At least the rain stays away...

Marvin tells me about the pleasantries he exchanged with Bob Knight, years ago, when he was president of the Basketball Writers Association. It seems Marvin was too busy to attend a luncheon. Which meant Knight didn't get to give Marvin an award. Which meant Knight also didn't get to beat up on a sports writer for two minutes.

Michael Kay and Ken Singleton repeat virtually everything Marvin and I notice about the game -- about three minutes later. It's not much better over on SportsSouth, where Joe Simpson actually says that the pitcher's job is to get balls over the plate. No kiddin'...

Marvin threw a log on the fire. I threw a candy bar in my mouth.

Ahh, yes. Opening Day. Baseball is back.

Even if spring has yet to sprung...

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

'Wunnerful! Wunnerful!'

OK, I'll admit it. I like Champagne Music.

And, by that, I mean that I like Lawrence Welk. And Ava Barber. And "Bubbles in the Wine." And all that cheese.

From time to time, I'll tune in to "Welk" re-runs on PBS. I'm not alone. As of 2004, "The Lawrence Welk Show" was the highest rated program on public television. Its three million viewers are higher than those watching MTV, VH-1 or BET at that hour, according to a great article in The New York Times.

I guess my favorite (not counting Ralna English) is Knoxville's own Ava Barber. She joined the Welk show in the early 1970s -- she chased him all over a golf course in Nashville to get a tryout, or so Welk used to tell it -- and stayed until production ceased in 1982.

Found a great clip of her singing "The Teddy Bear Song" better than Barbara Fairchild.

I sang with Ava once, up in Pigeon Forge, when she was appearing with Eddie Miles. She asked for volunteers. I jumped up and faked my way through "Y'all Come." It must have gone over well. People clapped. Somebody even stalked me into the bathroom to tell me I did a good job.

Ava runs the Powell location of Steamboat Sandwiches. Stop in and say howdy if you're out that way.

Welk's show was pure corn -- but a lot of fun. His band was solid, if stodgy. But that was by design and it worked. Welk's show ran nationally from 1955 to 1982.

Doc Severinsen hosted a clip show during PBS's recent pledge drive dedicated to Welk's tributes to the Big Band era. On and on it went -- Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, all the rest. In one clip, Doc even played his trumpet and Johnny Carson did the drums while the Welk band played "Johnny's Theme."

It's square and it's nerdy and, by god, I love it.

"Thank ya, thank ya, boys-a! Wunnerful! Wunnerful!"

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

My birthday wish to Tennessee Williams

Yesterday, between work appointments, I watched "The Night of the Iguana," my two dollar birthday wish to playwright Tennessee Williams on what would have been his 100th birthday.

Based on Williams' 1961 play (which was itself based on his 1948 short story), the film focuses on the breakdown of Episcopal minister T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) and his relationship with three different women (Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue "Lolita" Lyon) over one long night at a cheap Mexican hotel. It's a heck of a picture, also starring Grayson Hall, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of a sexually frustrated Baptist school vocal teacher.

Gardner is her usual sexy self. Hall gives the performance of her career. Lyon exudes sex appeal, maybe more so (and less creepily) than she did in "Lolita."

Kerr steals the picture with her quiet, dignified portrayal of the chaste artist Hannah Jelkes. Cyril Delevanti gives a meaningful turn as Nonno, Hannah's grandfather poet, who delivers the film's denouement with the reading of his final poem.

Burton's performance is more complicated, more difficult to critique. It's good -- not great -- but a bit overdone, almost distracted. That might be because his real-life lover and future wife, Elizabeth Taylor (who passed away last week), visited him on the set in Mexico -- while she was still married to Eddie Fisher. The paparazzi followed.

So, too, came Williams himself. Rather than causing a distraction to director John Huston, Williams made himself useful, rewriting part of the script that wasn't working. According to film historian Lawrence Grobel, Huston thought that what Williams created, the scene between Burton and Lyon in his hotel room involving the broken glass, "was genius" -- and went with it.

Williams has a connection to Knoxville. In his column this week, Jack Neely tells you all about it, about Williams' father's funeral, and about the playwright's meeting with the writer David Madden at the Andrew Johnson Hotel.

"The Night of the Iguana" doesn't get the attention that other Williams works, say "A Streetcar Named Desire" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," receive. Maybe it's because it's not as good a play.

But, it's a heck of a movie, one to see. I liked it much better than the film adaptation of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Williams biographer Donald Spoto says "The Night of the Iguana" is "a film that is unashamed to be a meditation on human need, and human frailty, and enduring a dark night. And all we have in this dark night, by God's grace, the great thing we have, is one another."

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

A little night music...

Isn't it rich? Are we a pair? Me here at last on the ground; you in midair.

Stayed home last night, while the thunder rolled and the lightning struck.

Watched Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," the 1990 revival, from Lincoln Center, starring Sally Ann Howes as Desiree.

I drank some Roncier. Smoked a La Seleza. Seemed the thing to do.

You know the song I love. "Send in the Clowns." Well, maybe next year...

I heard Sinatra do it, once for Reprise, again at Caesar's Palace. His is the definitive version, but Howes hits it, puts it in perspective, lamenting the lover that is no longer hers.

It's sad and it's poignant but it's wonderful and it's honest. Sondheim says he intended no existential imagery. The clowns are not from the circus. They are the jokes, the one-liners you use when the show stinks.

Don't bother, they're here...

I blew a smoke ring and thought about the past and was glad it was gone. And I thought about timing, how difficult the whole damn thing is, making a connection, finding a rhythm.

Just when I stopped opening doors; finally finding the one that I wanted was yours.

Who knows why we react to music? To a little night music. On a night when the thunder rolls and the lightning strikes.

Isn't it rich?

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Quote of the day

I'll save my thoughts on Bruce Pearl, UT and this coaching change mess on the Hill for another day, when passions have cooled, when we know more.

Meanwhile, I'll share a quote from former UT football coach Bill Battle.

"When they're running you out of town, make it look like you're leading the parade."

Battle, who was forced out in 1976, had the last laugh. He got into the licensing of collegiate products and is now a millionaire. Oh, and he's still a nice guy.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

My March Madness

It's beautiful outside, but I'm lying on the couch, sick, listening to Sinatra at the Meadowlands circa March '86, and watching a Duke shooter sink a three-pointer.

I guess this is my version of March Madness.

Sinatra is telling me to take it nice 'n' easy, and that's good advice. I'm headed down what I hope is the back stretch of the flu, frustrating, forgettable.

Jenn has gone to a bridal show. Shelton has gone to Bristol. I have gone from the bed to the sofa.

It's OK. It's been a long, long time since I've been this ill. Plus I heard yesterday that my good friend and A-Number One dobro player Phil Leadbetter may have lymphoma. Put it in perspective. And pray for Phil.

I've been feeling so good lately. I'm in love with a wonderful woman who will become my wife in six months. Work has never been better. The words and rhyme keep playing in time.

This is but a detour. I'll rest awhile then get back in the game.

Y'all excuse me now. I'm going to pull the covers closer and take a nap.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Mel mania and the last long, hot summer

In many ways, it was the last long, hot summer.

I was still in school, crowding in on my last year at UT, working at a book store to pay what few bills I had then, and taking a jazz history course -- for credit! Those were the days.

Seems like I heard the news, appropriately enough, on the radio. Mel Torme, the Velvet Fog, was dead.

I had found him through, of all people, Harry Anderson, and "Night Court." Being the weirdo kid I was, I bought a cassette tape of Mel's classic "Swings Shubert Alley" when I was in the 5th or 6th grade, while the other kids were into rap or Wilson Phillips or whatever.

Man, could that cat scat. Like somebody once said, "Shubert Alley" swings with a power that rock and roll never could.

I found the tape and played it in the car the morning Mel died.

Too close, too close for comfort, now...

Keith Brown played a cut or two of Mel's music in class. I've forgotten what, but I think it was from the Shubert album. Of course. What else?

After I graduated, I shot up into a Mel mania, buying a pristine copy of his peerless autobiography, "It Wasn't All Velvet," on eBay, along with several CDs and a rare VHS copy of Mel's 1982 TV special. There he is, scatting and swinging, knocking out "Here's That Rainy Day" and "New York State of Mind." Yeah, baby.

I stumbled across the tape earlier and slipped it in the dust-covered VHS player to forget about the flu. It made me think of that last long, hot summer, and about an era long gone with the wind, at Shubert Alley, or "On the Street Where You Live."

Here is a link to a Torme tale I like very much.

By the way, I am on a quixotic quest to find Mel's cover version of "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues." Shoot me an e-mail if you have it or know where I can get it.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hag twangs at the Time Warp

I was the first customer to darken the doors of the Time Warp Tea Room late this morning.

I was meeting a source for coffee and conversation, doing research for an upcoming column. I spot the joint as I creep along North Central, pulling into a place just past the front door.

I go in, make sure my cell phone is on silent, and order an espresso. I laugh at the note on the counter. Those talking on cell phones won't be served until the conversation is ceased, it says.

"That's one of my pet peeves," I say.

The man behind the bar laughs and nods.

"It (the sign) doesn't work," the server says.

I say I'm not surprised.

I grab an alternative weekly I didn't know existed off the news rack. I look at the photos placed here and yon on the walls. I sip my espresso. I wait.

Country music, the real, good ol' classic kind, starts to play. I recognize the first song, but can't now remember what it was. Too busy talking. A bit later, the Hag begins to twang.

"I'd like to hold my head up, and be proud of who I am," Hag sings, a Branded Man, out in the cold.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Losing it with Garbo and Gilbert

Did something quite special for my birthday yesterday.

Jenn and I traveled through time, back to the '20s, thanks to Ron Carter, Clarence Brown, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert and the Tennessee Theatre.

Knoxville's grand old movie palace is hosting an excellent Silent Film Sundays series, honoring Brown, our fair city's most famous director. Today's picture was "Flesh and the Devil" (1926), a good ol' good one, starring John Gilbert and the stunning, sensuous Greta Garbo.

The movie alone would have been enough to get me there, but the icing on the cake was Carter, a renowned organist and retired Georgia law enforcement official, who played the silent film's original score on the Tennessee's Mighty Wurlitzer. What a treat.

They showed a digital print, which I normally hate. Call me crazy, but movies on the big screen are meant to be seen in 35 millimeter. In this case, however, it was perfect. The digital print had been restored. It looked fantastic.

"Flesh and the Devil" was the first picture to pair Gilbert and Garbo, two of Hollywood's biggest stars during the Roaring Twenties. And it's easy to see why they were so hot. Their onscreen chemistry is palpable enough to cut with a knife.

Both were destined for lonely lives. Garbo successfully made the transition from silents to talkies, but became more and more reclusive. She retired for good in 1941, having made only 27 films, and lived in seclusion until her death in 1990.

Gilbert notoriously crashed and burned during his first talkie, "His Glorious Night." Audiences reportedly laughed out loud upon hearing his voice. Here is a clip. Judge for yourself. (I don't think it's all that bad.)

Some swear his decline had nothing to do with his voice. He reportedly feuded for years with Louis B. Mayer, even by one account going so far as to hit the MGM boss during Gilbert's aborted marriage ceremony to Garbo (who didn't show). Gilbert died, of complications from alcoholism, at age 38 in 1936.

The surprising thing about "Flesh and the Devil" is that Gilbert's acting outshines even the great Garbo. She was one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen, but Gilbert had everything it took to be a silent film star. His emotive and inspired performance needed no words.

Carter pointed out before the picture that Brown's trademark was getting natural performances out of his actors, even during the silent era. Silent film acting almost by definition is melodramatic (one has to make up for the lack of sound) but Brown's style was such that the performances in "Flesh and the Devil" are as realistic as a silent film is going to get. (Compare them to, say, those in "The Birth of a Nation.")

Carter did a masterful job on the Mighty Wurlitzer. Ten minutes into the picture, I forgot he was there.

It was a trip to yesteryear, a memorable moment, a perfect period to a perfect birthday weekend. Like Pauline Kael, I lost it at the movies a long time ago, anyway.

With Garbo and Gilbert, it's easy to get lost.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Nuggets of New York

I am thinking now of the Italian joint on Restaurant Row, in the city of right angles and tough, damaged people.

I stole that line from Pete Hamill, so you know I'm talking about New York. The City. Manhattan.

We were there on a cold and clear Tuesday in February. The sommelier brought his list, but I knew I wanted Pinot. And ravioli. And garlic.

The service was superb, as it must be, and the food was fine. I can remember the two women, out for the evening perhaps, and the man in the black coat and the child who didn't chatter.

I have forgotten the conversation. But I want to go back. I want to feel the pulse of the pavement, the staccato of the sidewalk, the rhythm of the ride.

I want to see James Earl Jones "Driving Miss Daisy." I want to awaken in Times Square and sip an espresso at the cheesecake factory. I want to buy a Daily News from the guy behind the glass and hope that Denis Hamill has written today about the borough of Brooklyn.

I want to give my regards to Broadway and remember me to Herald Square. I want to hum "Harlem Nocturne" as the sun slumbers. I want to fall asleep in my room at the Milford and dream of the day to come.

I want to do a lot of things, but instead here I sit, in my chair, living vicariously through the poet's pen, dreaming of the Italian joint on Restaurant Row, in Pete Hamill's city of right angles and tough, damaged people.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

To be Daniel Okrent for a week...

OK, I've finally found another job I want. At least for a week.

If you've seen the incomparable Ken Burns "Baseball" documentary or read the New York Times the last few years, you know the name Daniel Okrent. And if you've ever played fantasy baseball, you owe him thanks.

Okrent created Rotisserie League Baseball back in the late 1970s. He was one of the best talking heads on Burns' ode to our national pastime. More importantly he is an accomplished writer and editor.

He has written a blog this week for Paris Review's website. As if I needed yet another reason to want to be back in Manhattan...

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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Godspeed to David Broder

Godspeed to longtime Washington Post political columnist (and big baseball fan) David S. Broder, who has passed away at age 81.

The Washington Post obit is here.

And here is Broder's last column, which ran in the Post on Feb. 6.

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Music brings back memories

Funny thing, music.

Sometimes I think it, and thus hearing, can conjure up memories much quicker than the other senses. You can have your smells. I'll take my tunes.

Woke up about an hour early this rainy Wednesday morning. Had some time to kill, time to contemplate. So I grabbed my iPod and clicked on "top rated" tunes.

Up popped the Oak Ridge Boys, "Ozark Mountain Jubilee," from 1983. Suddenly, I was 5 again, back in the house on Norris Freeway, back in my bedroom, playing that single on my Fischer Price record player.

Let me get on the Frisco Silver Dollar Line, take my time, to see all I can see...

That memory merged into another one, from about a year later. Mom and Dad had divorced by then and we were living in an apartment in Halls Heights. It is a credit to both my parents that what could have been a difficult development wasn't.

Dad dropped by one night to bring me the Oak Ridge Boys' full-length LP, "Deliver!" I can still remember running to the record player (I had upgraded from the Fischer Price) and ever so gently easing the needle over to the correct track.

Fiddler rosin up your bow; we'll have our own, Ozark Mountain Jubilee...

I lay there at first light, lost in my music, lost in my memories.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Maybe he needed some protein...

Stupidity strikes again.

It seems some wayward soul with nothing to do decided to rob the new feeders at Fountain City Lake. (Yeah, I still call it the duck pond, too.)

The thief managed to get away with the top half of the feeder. But all he got for his trouble was a bunch of protein pellets. Todd Howard, who installs and maintains the feeders, was smart enough to store the coins in concrete.

Times are tough. Maybe the moron needed the protein to balance his diet.

Photo is a Shopper-News file photo of Fountain City Lions Club member Mark Campen checking out the feeder shortly after its installment.

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'Gatsby' house to be razed

Too bad I don't have $30 million lying around.

Read today here that Land's End, the Long Island mansion rumored to have inspired Daisy Buchanan's estate in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," is scheduled to be razed.

When I heard the news, I immediately thought of that big house in the 1974 film. But it was actually a set at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, England. Scenes at Gatsby's cinematic home, by the way, were shot at the Rosecliff and Marble House mansions in Newport, R.I.

I am an unapologetic fan of the 1974 film. It goes without saying that I love the novel.

I still think about that blinking green light on occasion. It stirs memories from long ago that are best left behind.

How would Fitzgerald put it?

"And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

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Monday, March 07, 2011

Snow on Sunday

Thought spring was just around the corner. After all, March 20 is now just 13 days away.

Woke up Saturday morning to 70-degree, if rainy, weather. The Red Sox and Marlins were playing on MLB TV.

Woke up Sunday morning to snow. Forty degree temp drop in 24 hours.

Well, it is East Tennessee, after all. Remember that 10-inch snowstorm on April Fools Day?

But it was nice to lie on the couch in my robe and pajamas and hear Don and Jerry break down this year's Sox. Seeing Dustin Pedroia slam a single was a sight for sore eyes.

If gas keeps going up, I'll be spending more and more spring and summer afternoons on the couch. Won't be able to hit the road and fill up that Xterra.

Which is fine. Baseball is my balm. Plus, I'm getting married this fall. I need to save all the pennies I can.

But snow? Really?

Send me sunny Sundays. I'm ready for spring.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Iwo Jima: 'It was slaughter'

In this week's column on page A-6, World War II Marine Ralph Lewis recalls the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Says Ralph, "It was slaughter."

He also recalls seeing the raising of the first, smaller American flag on Mount Suribachi.

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Deadline day

A little experiment with stream of consciousness. Contains a little adult language.

Where the hell is my tie?

I want to wear it with the "Bear Bryant" shirt. The crimson one. Bought it at the evil Walmart, the old one, the one that sits empty now. Apt metaphor. Low prices, my ass.

Can't find it in all this clutter. How does a room get so ridiculous? Whose clothes are these?

Pull out the hanger. Throw the ties on the bed. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

It's gone. Hell. My favorite tie.

Figured the red would go well at the Honor Society thing. School colors and all. Fifteen years removed and I'm still there. Or here. Whatever.

I'm late. OK, I'll just wear the white shirt with the other black tie.

Too much starch. Damn dry cleaners. Hell.

It's falling apart. Don't dare pull that thread. The whole thing'll go.

OK, where's the tie clasp? With the coins. Penny. Penny. Nickle. Dime. Quarter, quarter, penny, nickle, dime. There it is.

Not too big. Not too small. Balance to the belt. OK. Close enough. I'm gone.

One last story. Don't forget to spell check the man's name. It's not Lindbergh, like the fascist flier. No H.

$3.35 a gallon for gas? You've got to be kidding me. If this keeps up, I'll just go to work and come home. Maybe I'll buy a horse. Hay and oats. Hall and Oates. "You can rely on the old man's money; you can rely on the old man's money."

Have to dump those photos before Carol gets here. Good. There's Ruth's car. Good.

Where the hell is my tie?

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Elvis comes home!

It was on this date in 1960 that Elvis Aron Presley was discharged from the U.S. Army. In honor of the anniversary, here is my favorite song from his return LP, "Elvis Is Back." It's called "I Will Be Home Again" and is a duet with the late, great Charlie Hodge.

Have a good Saturday! Thankyouverymuch!

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Friday, March 04, 2011

Song of the day...

...from the great, underrated Johnny Rodriguez, here.

'Cause I believe in happy endings, too.

Have a good day, y'all.

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Moonlight Beethoven and a star spangled song

March 3 holds a special place in musical moments.

According to Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, on this date in 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven published his Moonlight Sonata (No. 14 in C Sharp Minor). Have a listen here.

And, on this date in 1931, Congress passed and President Herbert Hoover signed into a law a declaration making "The Star Spangled Banner" the official National Anthem of the United States.

Two of my favorite versions are unorthodox.

Here is Jose Feliciano's performance of the song during the 1968 World Series.

And here is Marvin Gaye's stunning soulful version at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.

Finally, here is what is considered to be the best performance of the song, sung by Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. A single version was later sold to raise money for soldiers fighting in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and their families.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Long live 'The King's Speech'

Jennifer and I took in "The King's Speech" last night after a fine dinner.

I'd been wanting to see it even before Sunday's big buzz. Didn't make it. I rarely get to the cinema anymore. By the time I turn around the bloody picture's on DVD anyway.

With "The King's Speech," director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler have crafted a good film. Stirring and thrilling and all of that. I admit to feeling a few chills run up my spine. Whether it was by manipulation or merit is moot. They were there. That is enough.

I cannot tell you whether this is the Best Picture of the year. I haven't seen "The Social Network." (It's in my Netflix queue, but the entire country must be renting it, because it keeps slipping into second place.)

But it is a solid piece of a storytelling with fine acting by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. To tell you the truth I liked Rush the best. Firth was fine, though. He deserves his Oscar.

I'm not going to bother with synopsis. You either know the plot already or can find it elsewhere. Short and sweet, "The King's Speech" is about a stutterer who happens to be King George VI and the elocutionist who assists him.

Yes, the film has the added attraction of being true, more or less. It's a movie, which means it takes liberties with history. For some reason, this has driven Christopher Hitchens nuts. He's right, but then again, he's an ass. An intelligent ass, but an ass nevertheless.

Word surfaced this week that an edited version of the film is being planned to cash in on the Oscar glow. From what I understand, the new cut would remove a scene or two involving the f-word in order to downgrade the MPAA rating from R to PG-13.

This is a travesty on a number of tiers, the main one of which is that the f-bomb scene is one of the film's best. The crowd at Regal Cinema Downtown West laughed loudly, and appreciatively, at it. To cut it in order to make more money is shameful. This film has already proven it can stand on its own. Leave it alone.

Speaking of the crowd, I'd almost forgotten how pleasant it is to see a good movie on the big screen with a group of adults. Nobody talked. Nobody texted. Such behavior has kept me at home in recent years and that's too bad. Movies are meant to be experienced, together, on a big screen.

My friend Matt and I plan to watch "The Social Network" on Sunday after the NASCAR race. I will let you know what I think about it.

For now I'll say that this film is grand indeed. It's a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood in the sense that it offers a solid story and awesome acting and an ending that will make you feel, well, like a king.

Long live the King.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

This one's for the Duke

In honor of the passing of the legendary Duke Snider, here is a 2005 New York Daily News piece by the peerless Pete Hamill on the Boys of Summer and their big finish in '55.

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