Sunday, February 05, 2017

January, 2017: HIghlights of a Bad Month

I am not going to rehearse the depredations and madness of this past month, nor complain about my personal problems, but instead try to find some joy. 

Clash of the Ages
I'm not saying they were "aged", but the combined ages of the four singles finalists in the Australian Open this year were 136 (average: 34) set all kinds of records. What's more, the combination of unexpected circumstances which brought the finalists together produced a renewal of two of the greatest rivalries in the sport's history, with matches will rank among their best--a sort of climax of the careers--and the comebacks--of each.

Venus (36 years) vs. Serena Williams (35) - The Williams sisters have played against each other many times, and many times in the finals, but I have never seen a better quality match between the two.  For Venus, reaching the final was a gigantic accomplishment, her first Grand Slam final since 2009, and a triumph over the immune condition which has limited her play for years.  Serena's comeback was not nearly so extreme; she had dropped all the way to #2 last year (she regained top ranking by winning the tournament) after a long reign on top, the decline mostly due to shoulder issues which dogged her last year.  Both were in fine form in the final, with Serena coming up with the edge in a few key points.

I should mention the contribution of unseeded Coco Vanderweghe, a third American in the semifinals, who helped make the Williams sisters' final possible by eliminating #1-ranked Angelique Kerber and Williams nemesis Garbine Muguruza before falling to Venus.

Roger Federer (35) vs. Rafael Nadal (30) - I am a fan of The Fed--the way he plays is so graceful, his behavior on the court is always respectful, and the things he says so intelligent--so it has been tough for me to watch his struggles in the Grand Slam events the past few years.  He has actually been mortal; he never goes down without a battle, but he has not been winning those battles (the last of the 17 Grand Slam titles he held was in 2012).  Novak Djokovic, in particular, seems to have his number in recent years, and there are others.   This time, though, both Djokovic and #2 Andy Murray went down unexpectedly in the early rounds, opening up the draw for these two veterans to face off once again in a final (not that the path was an easy one).

One who historically had the edge on him was Rafael Nadal, the youngster among these four, but one who has a lot of miles on his legs. It's true that many of those defeats Federer has had against Nadal in the majors came in the French Open, which we all know Nadal owns.   Federer had some back issues last year and took time off, and he came back with some improvement in his game, which is most impressive at his advanced age.  In particular, he addressed the vulnerability to the high-bouncing shot to his one-handed backhand with a new, low, flat shot down the line that won many key points.  The match was an interesting one, with a decent number of service breaks, momentum shifting back and forth, but no tie-breakers required.  Federer won 6-3 in the fifth; Nadal was clearly disappointed and grim-faced, but he is also returning from extended absence, and the French Open is coming up.

Chelsea! --  Jose Mourinho is dead to me (he suffers at Manchester United), while Antonio Conte rules--OK!  Conte comes from extended success leading Juventus in Italy, and he shows himself weekly to be both an emotional leader and a sound tactician.  After a slow start in September, the team turned itself around and shed the underperformance shown last year.  A string of victories followed, featuring a new playing formation (3-4-3, the three central defenders firming up the middle, with the four midfielders moving both forward and backward fluidly, and a potent attack), a couple of major new contributors (Kante, Alonso) and changes in the lineup, but really a very similar, potent, talented crew, just more motivated.

The Other Football-- I'm not that devoted of a fan, but I have to say I like any game that Alabama loses, and the fourth-quarter battle with Clemson was worth losing sleep for.  Similarly, the Green Bay-Dallas fourth-quarter battle brought back memories of their epic battles in the '60's, only a lot more dynamic these days.  Dallas lost, but the emergence of their two rookie stars at quarterback and running back, with a proficient supporting cast, suggests the Cowboys are finally back to having some claim to earning that overrated label they have had as "America's Team".  As for the Packers, their win didn't prove too significant in the grand scheme, as they were crushed the following week, but Aaron Rodgers showed once again his class.

Contrast that with the Patriots, the team America has learned to hate. If I cared more, I would hate them, too, the way I used to hate the Yankees and Celtics in my childhood. They win--consistently--and arrogantly, and let's face it, somewhat dishonestly.  So it will be my great pleasure if the offensive brilliance of the Atlanta Falcons and their quarterback Matt Ryan (just named MVP) continues today. Frankly, I do not expect it.  Despite some injuries and setbacks, the Patriots have lost nothing; they even won most of the games when Tom Brady was forced to sit out his suspension early in the season.  They are three-point favorites, which I think is a small spread for this team which has proven itself with four titles already, against a team that has never won.  I am expecting the usual pattern--one not present so much in recent years--in which a couple early breaks go for the team that has its head together, then it's playing catch-up and often goes downhill fast. I'm predicting the hated Patriots will win, Super Bowl-li, by  20 points or more, and I will be switching channels by the third quarter. I hope I'm wrong.

Late-Season Films 
I don't like the strategy of limited release in December with a broad release in the new year, trying to avoid the crowded schedules of the holidays but still getting Oscar consideration.  And I don't even think it works that well, either at the box office, or, maybe even in the Oscars themselves--the full release between Thanksgiving and Christmas seems to be the winning route, if you've got the vehicle.

This does not mean that we should discount those that chose to release late, though, just because of that dubious strategy.  I would like to praise a couple of films that gave me no chance to review before January:  "Lion" and "Hidden Figures".  They have in common certain elements:  true inspirational stories that were remarkable but not well-known, particularly effective capture of their time and place (both India and Australia, in the case of "Lion"), a strong ensemble cast, and the classic triumph over adversity. One quibble about each:  Dev Patel is a versatile actor and a rising star, but does he have a problem breathing through his nose?  He should occasionally close his mouth--it makes one seem more serious if you can.  With regard to "Figures", the wrong person got nominated for Oscar:  it should have been Taraji Henson for the lead role, not Octavia Spencer (who's won already).

One late release about which I have little positive to say is "Silence"--in keeping with my general intention for this post, I will just say those two things:  the filming of the scenery (and the sets in China) were striking, worthy of the nomination for cinematography, and the role and performance of the actor who plays the Japanese inquisitor (Issei Ogata) was a highlight.  Otherwise, though, I thought it was rather painful to watch.  Somewhat predictable, with none of the three male leads well used; I thought "The Mission" (1986) did a similar kind of story better.  Sorry, Martin!

I still have some work to do to complete my viewing of worthy films released late (if I can still find them):  "Manchester by the Sea",  "Fences", and "20th Century Women" are still on my must-see-if-possible list, while   "Jackie" and "La La Land", on the other hand, are on the other one: will-see-eventually-but-choose-not-to-pay.

Post-Inauguration Post-Mortem--
Sorry to end on a down note, but let's celebrate their achievements: 

Mary Tyler Moore - She made it after all!  Her acting career can be defined by three greatly different roles:  her loving mother and homemaker Mary Petrie, wife of the character played by the titular star in the "Dick Van Dyke Show";  Mary Richards, news director for a news station in Minneapolis (Note:  both named "Mary", both TV shows--the second, of course, was "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"--centered on TV, both boasting superior ensemble casts); and a very different role as the nasty, overbearing mother who made all the problems in "Ordinary People".  I didn't enjoy the last of these (looking at, I rated it a 5 out of 10), in this case reflecting my own difficulty accepting an entertainment centered around a distasteful character, but I credit her for taking on a role out of her comfort zone and playing it to the hilt.
John Hurt - An extremely versatile actor who featured his characters, not himself.  I will remember him chiefly for his starring role in "Elephant Man" and for having the eponymous character erupt from his chest in "Alien", though he had many, many others.
John Wetton - Like Greg Lake, who died the previous month, Wetton was a talented musician who learned that, in King Crimson, you can be the front man and still be second fiddle.   He did a lot later, helping found Asia and playing with many others.  Still, I like his work with Crimson ("Larks Tongue in Aspic", "Starless and Bible Black", and "Red") best; in fact, there's a good argument that those were the band's best three albums ever.
Yordano Ventura - An extremely promising, already accomplished (two World Series, one championship ring from 2015), 25-year old pitcher for the Kansas City Royals who died in a car accident in the Dominican Republic.  Sorry, but this is happening too often with baseball players--more than PED's, I'd like a little more attention to getting word out through the players association to take steps toward ending drunk driving (in cars, boats, motorcycles, etc.) amongst the membership.

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