Monday, March 28, 2011

NCAA Men's Hockey Championship: Frozen Four Set, Schedule Should Shift

If you spent the weekend glued to channels of the tube broadcasting basketball games, I don’t blame you. It’s been a great tournament.

What else have been great have been the first two rounds of the NCAA men’s ice hockey tournament, which, like men’s hoops, determined Sunday who the four finalists would be.

But more on that in a minute.

There are a ton of issues going on in the sports world right now, and honestly, you can take your pick of interesting stories: Will Floyd Mayweather, Jr. ever fight Manny Pacquiao? Can the Barry Bonds trial end in anything but a disaster? For how many more years will the what-to-do-with-the-BCS discussion continue? Will there be professional football this season, and if so, will it start on time? Could the impending expirations of the current NBA, MLB collective-bargaining agreements mean that those two sports are right behind? Will Tiger Woods ever get his moxie back?

These questions, and many more are tumbling through the minds of American sports fans on a daily basis, but I am here to pose the question that nobody’s asking: Why, if the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is so perfectly scheduled, so popular, and so much – right now – in the self-determined need for expansion, can the same collegiate association not put their heads together and figure out a better spacing system for the men’s hockey tournament?

After the jump, we’ll take a brief look at a few theorems.

Alright, got your turkey melt and your frosty glass of milk? Here goes:

A) Nobody cares. I pondered the different options in terms of when to list this, the easiest answer of them all, and my thought was: Let’s just get it out of the way. Of course I don’t really mean nobody, but when you calculate the number of sports fans in the country, and the television ratings/attendance numbers associated with them, hockey doesn’t just take the back seat, it takes the way-back seat. The seat that’s not really even a seat. And that’s the pro level. Start talking semi-pro and college hockey, and the numbers plummet. For the purposes of this discussion, however, we must focus on both those that do pay attention, those that one day might. So, if the numbers don’t necessitate a conversation proposing change, then that conversation’s simply not going to happen.

B) Everything Frozen Four-related must coincide with the presentation of the Hobey Baker Award ceremony. Nonsense. Change the award ceremony to either after the conclusion of the conference tournaments, or after the conclusion of the championship game.

C) It’s important to get these student-athletes back to their respective campuses and in the classroom so that they may focus on academics. It’s possible, but if they’re going to miss class (which they really don’t; all regular-season, conference tournaments, as well as the championship are played at night on weekends, with the exception of the Frozen Four semi-finals, which falls on a Thursday.

D) It doesn’t matter because, hey – look at football. Some of those teams have to wait four, five, and six weeks for their bowl games to roll around. Naw. Comparing football and hockey is clearly a case of apples/oranges, since there are tons more football programs throughout the country, and millions more dollars associated with those games, universities, television contracts, etc.

E) The most likely scenario is: They’re waiting for college hoops to wrap up. I would poo-poo this notion for two reasons: 1) Nobody is going to miss the Frozen Four because they’re enveloped in March Madness, which leads me to 2) The Final Four will be played this weekend. You’ll have two games Saturday evening, the winners of which will advance to the championship game on Monday, April 4. The Frozen Four has always – as far as I can remember – had the Thursday/Sunday format for their tournament, so if you’re going to stick with that, then why not schedule it the week following the first/second rounds of the tournament, and you can stagger the games and days with the basketball schedule.

My guess is that it’s neither of the above, and that it has to do with what will draw the best television ratings, but that’s also silly because I can’t imagine that ESPNU’s schedule is so packed that they can’t fit in the college hockey games in the same weekend that the Final Four is happening. I mean, this is the first year I can remember in a long time where an absolute ton of the March Madness contests are being broadcast, and the networks don’t have to jump back and forth in the middle of games to cover the one that’s the best matchup of the moment.

The NCAA men’s hockey tournament is one-fourth the size of its basketball counterpart, and exactly zero of the opening games were broadcast on a basic-cable channel. You could catch some on ESPNU, or online via, assuming your Internet provider supported. The point being that the hockey tournament did not interfere with televised hoops whatsoever. College basketball fans got to watch any and all games desired, and college hockey fans did the same, assuming they had the appropriate cable package or Internet provider, or were in a market that carried the coverage locally.

The point is this: For much of the college-basketball tournament, coaches, players, etc. are dealing with a schedule that closely resembles their regular season. They play one or two games a week, with just a few days off in between. The only difference is when this bracket goes from Elite Eight to Final Four; the four remaining programs suddenly have six days off. But six days off is, in my mind, a world of difference than 11 or 12. The men’s hockey tournament kicks off on a Friday. Half the teams play, the other half play on Saturday. The teams that play Friday and advance play again on Saturday. Conversely, if your first game isn’t until Saturday, and you win, you play again Sunday. Logic would suggest, then, that the two Frozen Four matchups happen four days later, on the subsequent Thursday, and the two winners play for all the marbles on Sunday.

Four days seems like plenty of time to get back to school, go to class, practice/prepare for your next opponent, and hit the road again. Okay, plenty might be stretching it, but I would be largely in favor of putting a condensed schedule together, and at least having the punch of your most-recent victory still a little fresh in your head. If you go the route they currently do, there’s zero chance of momentum carrying over, and you’ve got all of this time laying around to perhaps over-practice, and prepare in excess. It’s like the NFL format where the top-two seeds in each conference get a bye.

I’m not saying there’s a problem with the way the NFL goes about scheduling its post-season. It seems to work fine, and with professional football, you can probably benefit from the extra recovery time. But every year, inevitably, the discussion comes up with all four teams that got a bye: Will the week off hurt them? Will they be rusty? Are their opponents better off because they played last week, have emotional highs and momentum pulsing through their veins and locker rooms?

I’ve not looked at statistics for NFL clubs coming off that post-season bye, but I’m certain someone has, that it’s the right word combination of a Google search away. Consider that your homework. Dig up the win-loss record for NFL playoff teams after a first-round bye. My guess is that it’s probably going to be in the neighborhood of a 60/40 split in favor of teams that played in a Wildcard game. (Update: Don’t actually do that because it’s counter-productive to my point: In the last 10 NFL post-seasons, the team coming off of a first-round bye won 25 of the 40 Divisional-round games played, which is nearly 63 percent.)

Bad example, but I’m not straying from my thesis. I could argue that that’s professional, this is college. That that’s football, this is hockey. That the NFL, while doing a great job attempting to achieve league-wide parity, is about drafting, free-agent signing, and salary caps, while the NCAA can only offer scholarships, and only at the universities lucky enough to have a sanctioned program. And regardless, in this scenario, nobody’s getting a bye. Everybody in this tournament has exactly the same amount of post-season games, nearly the exact same amount of rest. So, the question remains: If teams work all year to have a successful regular season, compete and win some conference-tournament games, hope for a tournament berth, and fight for the requisite two wins to get to the Frozen Four, why are you making them wait a week and-a-half for a chance to play for it all?

Christmas being the only exception, these guys play 20 consecutive weeks of a regular season, go straight into a two-weekend conference tournament, straight into regionals, and then have to take a week off before the championship semi-finals? It doesn’t make any sense.

The way it should look, then, is that the semis should be happening this Thursday, the Hobey Baker ceremony on Friday. Saturday, then can be used for a light skate, and some rest, and your championship game on Sunday. Then you get the heck outta Dodge, get the kids back to school, and they can clamp down for papers, projects, finals, etc.

That’s how I’d do it, anyway. Allow the kids to keep their engines burning; instead of providing them with an opportunity to let some of the season’s steam dissipate, potentially resulting in a flat Frozen Four performance.

Anyway, Sunday’s two contests were hard-fought. Well, one of them was. The Denver Pioneers got trailblazed in their match against the two-seed Fighting Sioux of North Dakota. In the 6-1 route, they never even appeared partially in the game, but that’s more of a reflection of UND’s power than it is DU’s shortcomings. The final match of the weekend involved a more-defensive battle between the University of New Hampshire Wildcats and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Notre Dame took a one-goal lead early, and barely looked back. Up two headed into the third, they clamped down, and didn’t allow the lone UNH tally to find the back of the net until there were three minutes and change left in the contest. As the players began their on-ice celebration, television cameras panned to head coach Jeff Jackson on the bench, and if you’re able to read lips, you could see him say to the second assistant he hugged, “We’re going to the Frozen Four.”

And indeed they are. The matchups are set: The Irish square off against the University of Minnesota-Duluth at 4 pm Central, Thursday, April 7.

Three and-a-half hours later, it’ll be the Michigan Wolverines challenging the Fighting Sioux. Both games will be played in the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN. Both will be televised on ESPN@ HD, The two victors will go toe-to-toe Sunday the ninth at 6 pm, the NCAA hockey championship at stake.

Personally, I’m thrilled as can be that the Irish have advanced this far. I’m tempted to say that UMD will knock off the Irish, only to fall to North Dakota, but the homer in me says Notre Dame advances, only to become runner-up for the second time in three years. Either way, those games should be being played on the March 31, April 3, not the following weekend.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

NCAA Men's Hockey Championship: Sunday's Second-Round Games

Okay, so titling these games first and second rounds is a little tricky because the rounds have actually been split between days this weekend, but after today, it will be crystal clear, because we'll be able to officially call the next round the semi-finals, and, well, there'll only be four schools left. But that's what I've been doing, so, courses, mid-stream, etc. This tournament has been exciting to follow, even though my poor man's basic-cable package, and my non-supportive Internet provider have afforded me the opportunity to watch precisely zero games, and to listen to just as many. Being a hockey fan, I'm used to being in the red-headed stepchild sports class, but I've realized now that following college hockey is probably akin to being a double minority.

But that's cool. I've enjoyed it, and maybe next year, Daddy will've gotten a raise that affords him a broader cable package that includes ESPNU. Maybe.

Before we talk about today's matchups, it should be noted that, so far, this tournament has not been devoid of upsets. On Friday, defending champion Boston College got embarrassed by Colorado College, but on Saturday, it was the Tigers who tasted defeat, as they fell 2-1 to the Michigan Wolverines.

The big upset of the day, however, was number-one seed Yale getting downed by Minnesota-Duluth, courtesy of a 5-3 margin. So, as games get underway today, three of the top four seeds have been sent packing; only number-two North Dakota remains. The temptation -- not at all based just on seed -- is to say that the Fighting Sioux is the favorite to take home the hardware. I mean, they appear to be the most dominant club.

In a stalwart effort to defend their title, Boston College went 30-7-1 on the season, but they also went somewhere else yesterday: home. North Dakota's 31-8-3 record is, for my money, the most impressive record of the 16 berths, even though they lost one more, tied two more than B.C. But they also handled their assignment Saturday, even if it was Rensselaer.

Speaking of the Fighting Sioux, though, their game is the first on the Sunday slate, a 4:30 pm Central start against the Denver University Pioneers. Now Denver fended off Western Michigan yesterday, but they were down two goals early, and needed two overtime periods to get the win against a team over whom they were favored. At least I think they were. Nevertheless, it's Denver/North Dakota up in Green Bay, WI. Peep it on ESPNU HD or have yourself a listen on

For my money, however, the game of the weekend is our second dose of home-field advantage, and that would be the 7 pm start up in Manchester, NH between the University of New Hampshire Wildcats and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

Yes, that's right, the Irish held off Merrimack, but in fashion similar to Denver's victory. They fell behind 2-1 early on, and then were down 3-2 in the third, managed an equalizing tally late in the game, then helped themselves to a game-winning goal in overtime. This, of course, ruled. So, the Wildcats and the Irish will get after it to close out the weekend of college hockey.

Action will resume Thursday in St. Paul, MN. It'll be the winner of Notre Dame/New Hampshire taking on Minnesota-Duluth, and the other contest will pit the winner of Denver/North Dakota against those bastard Wolverines from Michigan.

Let's go Irish!
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Saturday, March 26, 2011

NCAA Men's Hockey Championship: Saturday's First-Round Games

The second half of the NCAA men’s ice hockey regionals get underway Saturday in both Manchester, NH, and Green Bay, WI, but before we get to the contests, note that, in yesterday’s games, Yale knocked off Air Force 2-1 in overtime; Minnesota-Duluth blanked Union 2-0; Colorado College crushed Boston College 8-4; and despite taking an early 2-0 lead, Nebraska-Omaha lost to Michigan by one goal.

Today’s first tilt features Rensselaer and the number-two seed North Dakota, which is slated to get underway at 12:30 Central in Green Bay’s Resch Center.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is an educational institution in Troy, NY that focuses, among others, on architecture, business, engineering, and information technology. And they have a hockey program. Guess anything’s possible in New York. They managed a 20-12-5 regular season, and although they were knocked out in the ECAC preliminaries by Colgate, the Engineers still managed to get their tournament number called, perhaps largely thanks to the play of two-time All-ECAC senior center Chase Polacek, who led the conference in points, tallying 21 goals, 28 assists.

This won’t be the first time the clubs have met: In 1985 -- one season removed from RPI’s second (the first came in 1954) national title -- the eighth-seed Fighting Sioux and the top-seed Engineers squared off in the opening round, which resulted in a North Dakota win. Although the Engineers haven’t made the tournament since 10 years after that match with the Fighting Sioux, they do have eight tournament appearances under their belt, along with five Frozen Fours.

In addition to Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist Polacek (Edina, MN), the Engineers have been led by junior netminder Allen York (Wetaskiwin, Alberta), who has compiled a .927 save percentage, and 2.05 goals-against average.

On the North Dakota end of things, there’s a touch more history. A touch coming in the form of: fifteen Western College Hockey Association titles and seven national championships. As if that’s not significant adversity for RPI, already, then this is: a 30-8-3 season for the Fighting Sioux, an unbeaten streak that goes back three months, all culminating in the WHCA title, earned last week in St. Paul via decisive wins over Michigan Tech, and narrower-margin wins over both Colorado College and Denver.

Like RPI has in Polacek, North Dakota has their own Hobey Baker finalist in Matt Frattin, senior forward out of Edmonton, Alberta, who tallied an amazing 35 goals and 22 assists. The Fighting Sioux have also witnessed some lights-out goaltending from sophomore Aaron Dell (Airdrie, Alberta) who delivered a solid season: 1.89 GAA/.921 save percentage.

Saturday’s second game pits the 21-10-6 New Hampshire Wildcats against the four-seed Miami (OH) RedHawks, 23-9-6. That action will get underway at 3 pm Central, and, for now, can be called the only true home-ice advantage in the tournament, even though New Hampshire is listed as the visiting team. This tilt will also feature to Hobey Baker finalists. They include: New Hampshire’s Paul Thompson (senior; Derry, NH (Editor’s Note: You better believe he’ll be the weekend fan favorite of all four venues.) 28 goals, 24 assists), and Miami’s Andy Miele (senior; Grosse Pointe Woods, MI; 21 goals, 44 assists).

New Hampshire looks to make the most of the energy that will be created from playing at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, and especially with NH native Thompson on the ice, especially considering their disappointing semi-final exit -- a 4-1 loss to Merrimack College -- from the Hockey East conference tournament one week ago. Miami, on the other hand, may already have momentum in their favor, having recently disposed of Michigan for the Central College Hockey Association championship in Detroit last week. In addition to the two Hobey Baker finalists that will square off on the offensive side of the puck, New Hampshire has enjoyed fine netminding from junior Matt Digirolamo (Amber, PA), who started all 37 contests for the Wildcats, totaling a 2.49 GAA, and a .921 save percentage, while the RedHawks have appreciated the goaltending of both Connor Knapp (junior; York, NY) and Cody Reichard (junior; Celina, OH).

Game three of the afternoon will take us back to Green Bay, and will feature Denver and Western Michigan. As mentioned, Denver lost to North Dakota last weekend in the WCHA championship, but don’t let that fool you; their 24-11-5 record still impresses, as they faced stellar team after stellar team all season, and managed to string together and eight-game win streak that stretched from mid-December through most of January.

Offensively for the Pioneers, Denver native, sophomore Drew Shore led the way with 23 goals, 22 assists, and freshman Sam Brittain (Calgary, Alberta) manned the pipes for most games, generating a .923 save percentage to go along with his 2.24 GAA. In fitting fashion, DU is tied with North Dakota in total national championships (seven) in program history, most recently netting back-to-back trophies in the 2004, 2005 campaigns. They also boast 15 WCHA tournament championships, 2008 being the last one they won.

Western Michigan hockey embodies an animal not at all unfamiliar to Denver; they’re the Broncos. WMU’s most recent action came courtesy of a loss in the CCHA championship at the hands of Miami (OH), but they knocked off in-state rival Michigan to get there one game prior. Patrolling the crease this season for the Broncos has been the tandem of Jerry Kuhn (senior; Southgate, MI) and Nick Pisellini (Itasca, Ill). On the offensive front, Max Campbell (senior; Strathroy, Ontario) and Chase Balisy (freshman; Rancho Santa Marga, CA) led the charge with 29 points apiece. The Broncos bring a 19-12-10 record to the fold, their fifth meeting in club history against Denver, but the first time the schools will meet in the tournament, and the first time they have played one another since 1983. Additionally, this is WMU’s fifth tournament (0-4) appearance, their first since 1996. The puck drops at 4 pm Central.

Our fourth and final contest of the first round finds the Merrimack College Warriors squaring off against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in a 6:30 start back up yonder in Manchester. Merrimack brings to the ice a 25-9-4 record, and look to rebound after a disappointing 5-3 loss to Boston College in last weekend’s Hockey East conference championship. They bring significant offensive firepower with six players totaling 30 or more points on the season, led by Stephane De Costa (sophomore; Paris, France), who lit the lamp 14 times and added 30 helpers to his point total. Their main man with all the heavy gear has been junior Joe Cannata (Wakefield, MA), who posted a 2.44 GAA, and a .921 save percentage.

On the Fighting Irish end, Notre Dame comes in with a 23-12-5 record, which was an impressive campaign, considering the tough schedule they faced throughout the year. In the CCHA playoffs, the South Bend ice squad took two of three from Lake Superior State, but had a disappointing championship round, losing to both Miami (OH), and Michigan, in somewhat-decisive fashion. The Irish have been led by T.J. Tynan, who put together a massive season, generating 52 points (22 goals, 30 assists), and Mike Johnson in net (2.62 GAA, .903 save percentage).

Historically speaking, Merrimack is making their second (2-2) tournament appearance, and has gone as far as the quarterfinals (where they lost to Lake Superior State in 1988). Notre Dame is making their fifth (4-4) tournament appearance, and has gone to the finals once (a 4-1 loss to Boston College in 2008).

The winners of today’s games square off tomorrow afternoon – DU/WMU winner vs. NDU/Rensselaer winner at 4:30 pm Central; Miami/NH winner vs. ND/Merrimack winner at 7 pm -- to determine who moves on to the semifinal on April 7. The championship will be played on Saturday, April 9.
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Friday, March 25, 2011

The HoG25: The 25 Best Actors of the Past 25 Years, Part II

What does the word "Hollywood" conjure for you? Hopes? Dreams? Fame? Your own star? For us here at the House of Georges, it means another category for us to write about.

This is part two of our actors installment, and in case you missed part one, you can find where I offered this intro -- "we draft the pieces of each category, fantasy-sports style, write a blurb about 'em (unless we don't feel like it), rank them (unless it's one of those rather lazy years), and post them. When we rank them, it's usually all three of us, but this time around, only two of us did, which is why you'll see the screwy numbering system..." here.

Some assorted version of our top 10, just past the jump.

12. (two-way tie) Morgan Freeman

I remember Morgan Freeman roles in three 1989 films: “Glory,” Driving Miss Daisy,” and “Lean on Me.” I also remember that a) This was most likely my first exposure to him, and b) he was solid in all three films. It’s entirely possible that Freeman’s Red was a better delivery than Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption,” and it’s entirely possible that that was one of the best three films of the 1990s. Freeman was great in “Seven,” fantastic in each “Batman” piece, charming in “The Bucket List,” and impressive in “Gone Baby Gone.”

He deserves credit for his part in “Million Dollar Baby,” applause for his efforts in “Outbreak” (even if it was a terrible film), and some serious cred’ for his role in “Unforgiven.”

But here’s the real thing about Morgan Freeman: He’s a mellow dude who does every role he plays justice, and he will always warm your heart with that unforgettable voice. Even in “Gone Baby Gone,” where Freeman took on a rare antagonist role, a part of you, the viewer, wants to root for him, because he’s that good. Freeman deserves more credit than this small write-up can generate. He’s been a touchstone in the world of cinema for a long time, and one could argue that his five Oscar nominations (one win for “Million Dollar Baby") are too few.

Julianne Moore

Here’s where things might get a touch off track. I’m of the opinion that, from time to time, heterosexual film-viewers are best-equipped to judge actors of their same gender. In short, you can rule out the attraction factor. Well, I mean, unless you’re a dude that’s just really into the DiCaprios, the Clooneys, the Pitts, etc. My point is that I can, or rather, have, judged a performance by a male actor with a greater cinematic-talent-related passion than I have for almost every actress I’ve seen on the big screen. Why? Probably because I have testosterone pumping through my veins and I either determine that she’s a) hot, b) not, c) annoying, d) not good, or e) any combination of the preceding, and probably in that order. I mean, I was bat-shit nuts for Transformers as a kid, but I wasn’t that interested in seeing the movie, save for the massive erection the words “Megan” and “Fox” tend to give when placed side-by-side. Or take Sally Field, for example. I’ve always dug her. “Places in the Heart,” Forrest Gump,” Mrs. Doubtfire,” etc. But I also happen to think that Sally Field is rather attractive. Always have. Thus, a dilemma. I’m sure there are more than one actress that applies to what I’m about to say, but Julianne Moore has always given me a nice ratio-y feeling of both tightness in the pants and standing ovation. It should be noted, however, that I’d probably go all middle school and refrain from participating in the latter were I experiencing the former.

But she’s dynamite. I don’t remember if I saw “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” but I seem to be recall it being a successful film. Dug her small role in “The Fugitive,” and I think anyone that starred in both “Boogie Nights” and “The Big Lebowski” deserves massive credit. And a roll in the hay with yours truly, but let’s not get sidetracked.

Julianne Moore has been in many films in the last decade, i.e. “Laws of Attraction,” “Blindness,” and “Hannibal,” but I’m forever moved by her role as Linda Partridge in “Magnolia.” Moore as Partridge in that movie makes me a little too squeamish to even write about it, so have a refresher on the House:

That’s all I can really say about her. She rocks, she’s hot as hell, and she’s been nominated for more -- and won a few -- awards than I care to look up.

11.5. Kevin Spacey

Rumor has it that there is something Kevin Spacey is…hiding, shall we say. A secret that, if it were to become common knowledge, would have serious implications for his future employment prospects and potentially change the way America thinks about this fine actor.

That particular secret, if I may use the phrase, has appeared to have “come out of the closet”: yes, it’s true, Kevin Spacey is a wicked asshole who treats waiters like garbage and flouts laws that are only in place to protect the health of the public at large. Also, he likes to fuck dudes.

And while those particular pieces of information might change some minds/confirm some suspicions, they certainly don’t lessen Spacey’s talent.

This, after all, is Keyser Soze. That part alone should secure him a lifetime of steady income, free drinks and exemption from local smoking laws. But there have been so many others: his Oscar turn in American Beauty, his bit as the flashy celebrity detective in "L.A. Confidential," as the killer in "Se7en," the murderer in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" -- hell, the late ‘90s were a pretty solid time for ol’ Kev.

He hasn’t done as much recently, evidently spending most of his artistic energies at London’s Old Vic Theatre Company, but when you have as many skins on the wall as he does, you can afford to tread the boards for a while. Kevin Spacey is a hell of an actor and indisputably one of the best of the last 25 years, but you may not want to wait on his table.

7.5. Johnny Depp

The thing about Johnny Depp is that the chicks love him. Admit it, especially if you are one. You know it’s true. Those aquiline features, that pouty mouth, that hair…good gravy, I better stop before I give myself a boner.

The other thing about Johnny Depp is that he is a great actor. A seriously committed, boundary -- destroying actor who fits as easily in a Hollywood blockbuster as he does in independent cinema. For every "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel, there’s an Ed Wood -- only one of the finest movies of the last 20 years -- or a "Chocolat", a "Donnie Brasco" or a "What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?"

Unlike some of the more recognizable big-banksters in the modern movie industry (looking at you, Jack Nicholson) Depp never got lazy and fell into the trap of just playing Johnny Depp in every movie. It would have been easy for him, especially early in his career; say, right after "Edward Scissorhands." But instead of taking such an easy, yet likely still extremely lucrative, way out, he stretched into everything from comedy to police procedural dramas to whacked-out indie fare that film students in clunky black glasses and argyle sweaters line up to watch at midnight showings countrywide. Hell, he’s even gone back to TV for a few voice parts. One of which, hilariously, was in a "SpongeBob SquarePants" episode.

Depp’s certainly got his flaws: his membership in the cult of Hunter S. Thompson has led him to help make Thompson’s widely panned "Rum Diaries" into a movie, for instance, and that isn’t likely to end well. He also supposedly smells really bad. But on the balance, there simply aren’t too many others like him. Remember how the Beastie Boys were in ’89, well-loved by seemingly everyone, regardless of taste or class -- Depp is the Gen X actor version of that, but with a lot more "Paul’s Boutique"s on his resume than "Holy Snappers."

9.5. Harvey Keitel

When I first visited Harvey Keitel’s IMDB page, I was shocked to see how busy the man had been in the last quarter century. Seriously? Ninety projects in the last 25 years? For reals? Without crunching any numbers, I’m mathematically qualified to say that I have not seen the majority of these productions. The ones I have, however, are A-1, top-notch quality. Allow me to mention that I have never seen “Thelma & Louise,” so I am unqualified to comment on the role of Hal in that film. I do, however, know that many a female cinema buff has lauded the project for its authenticity and spontaneity. Moving on. In 1992 a film by the name of “Reservoir Dogs” was released. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Harvey Keitel played Mr. White, and he played him well. He also co-produced the film.

If you have not seen this film, stop reading right now, and go watch it. It is the symbol of badassery, the archetype for studliness, and a how-to for being a cold-blooded killer. Not that I want you to learn how to be one. I’m just sayin’. If you don’t believe me, see exhibit A:

“When you're dealing with a store like this, they're insured up the ass. They're not supposed to give you any resistance whatsoever. If you get a customer, or an employee, who thinks he's Charles Bronson, take the butt of your gun and smash their nose in. Everybody jumps. He falls down screaming, blood squirts out of his nose, nobody says fucking shit after that. You might get some bitch talk shit to you, but give her a look like you're gonna smash her in the face next, watch her shut the fuck up. Now if it's a manager, that's a different story. Managers know better than to fuck around, so if you get one that's giving you static, he probably thinks he's a real cowboy, so you gotta break that son of a bitch in two. If you wanna know something and he won't tell you, cut off one of his fingers. The little one. Then tell him his thumb's next. After that he'll tell you if he wears ladies underwear. I'm hungry. Let's get a taco.”

For those desiring something briefer: “You shoot me in a dream, you’d better wake up and apologize.”

Obviously, Mr. Keitel did not write those lines, but the manner in which he delivered those gems, and many more, were nothing shy of stellar. Up next, though, is another little bad-ass project I like to call “Pulp Fiction.”

The purpose of this selection is not to debate whether “Reservoir Dogs” was better than “Pulp Fiction,” or the reverse. Both films still gleam with awesomeness, and that debate is for some other guy on some other job. The purpose of this transition, is to illustrate that Mr. Keitel’s role as Winston “The Wolf” Wolfe was a microcosm of his role in “Fiction”; If the Wolfe role is exacerbated to the level of White, the scales of intensity and intimidation balance.

Again, if you have not seen this film, stop reading this instant, and watch it. I doubt that’s necessary, however, as those who’ve not seen it are likely either younger than 15, or older than 60, and the chances of those age groups strolling through the front door of the House are non-existent. But, Wolfe makes his appearance in the storyline as an aces guy, your go-to guy when catastrophe strikes. His task is to facilitate the detailing of a car in which a guy’s head accidentally exploded. He’s got to move quickly, and he’s quick to alert Jules and Vincent who’s in charge:

“Now boys, listen up. We're going to a place called Monster Joe's Truck and Tow. I'll drive the tainted car. Jules, you ride with me. Vincent, you follow in my Acura. We run across the path of any John Q. Laws, nobody does a fucking thing unless I do it first. What did I just say?”

There’s easily 3000 more words we could say about this role, but we’re already into extra innings with Mr. Keitel, and there’s another project of his we must discuss: “Smoke.”

Just as it would be foolish of me to suggest that any of our readers have not viewed “Pulp Fiction” or “Reservoir Dogs,” it would be silly for me to think that all of you have seen “Smoke.” And since that’s the case, we won’t spend too much time on it. I will, however, offer this little nugget: “Smoke” successfully tackled to motif of lives comingling without intention before it became popular, and Keitel, along with fellow cast members Forest Whitaker, William Hurt, and Stockard Channing, made this a really rich piece. The line, “If you can’t share your secrets with your friends, then what kind of friend are you?” is one that succinctly touches on the movie’s theme.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Inglorious Basterds,” a picture in which Keitel had the smallest of roles. In fact, his face never even makes the screen, but in case you were wondering: Any film with Keitel in it is automatically better than it would’ve been without him.

6. Robert DeNiro

Writing a bit about Bobby DeNiro seems somehow unnecessary. What do you all need to be told? That’s he’s arguably the most important American actor of the last three decades? That his body of work is nearly untouchable, a seemingly limitless skein of Oscar-winning and otherwise critically masturbated-over films marred only by the occasional appearance of a Focker? That he and his filmic BFF Martin Scorsese carved what became an entire genre (which I will hereby name “the Rise & Fall of the American Mafioso” unless someone else has already) from the pages of a few tell -- all books and some New York sidewalk scenery?

I mean, yeah, I guess. I’ll get past that requirement by just typing "Goodfellas," "Casino," "Raging Bull," "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver." There you go. Oh, wait, forgot "Heat," "Godfather II," "A Bronx Tale," "The Untouchables," "Brazil," "Once Upon A Time in America," "Analyze This"…wait, what?

At this point, DeNiro’s greatness --his intense devotion to the Method, his willingness to subsume himself in his parts, his surprisingly genuine capacity for comedy -- seems old hat. We’ve all seen him be Jimmy the Gent in "Goodfellas" a hundred times, heard him as Travis Bickle say “are you…talking to me?” repeated in a thousand situations. It seems lazy to just throw him up near the top of our list, like telling a visitor to New York to see the Empire State Building, selecting whoever the Steelers’ starting center is for the Pro Bowl or claiming Ginger as your favorite Spice girl.

But here’s the thing: there’s no real choice involved. Fact is, you do want to see the Empire State Building. Because it is the motherfucking Empire State Building. The Steelers are always guaranteed to have a badass, potential HoFer at center and what, you were going to choose that toothless chav Sporty? No matter how many Stiller-generated carcasses he throws into the ocean from here on out, there’s simply no denying that we couldn’t make this list without putting DeNiro near the top.

4.5. Denzel Washington

Old No. 7:
Good things about Denzel: He’s really good. Strong, forceful presence in every role. Teamed up with Spike Lee to make a series of groundbreaking, powerful films. Seems like a likeable guy.

Bad things about Denzel: He makes a lot of crappy movies, especially lately. Doesn’t have a ton of range, plays a similar guy quite often. Never takes supporting roles, with the exception of his cool turn in Inside Man, which is a pretty awesome film. Lakers fan.

My fun story that’s only tangentially about Denzel Washington goes like this: I was in Canton, Ohio for John Elway’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004. Before the Hall of Fame Game between the Broncos and Redskins, I parked next to a group of older African-American gentlemen with Virginia plates, decked out in 'Skins gear. In talking to them, I noticed they all had official-looking VIP badges. Turns out the guy I was haggling with, trying to sell an Elway T-shirt to, was the real life Herman Boone -- the coach Denzel played in "Remember The Titans." He told a fun yarn about being on the sideline for a game at the University of Minnesota when Brad Van Pelt, whose son Bradlee and I concurrently matriculated at Colorado State and who was a the time a rookie QB for the Broncos, tore his jersey. Coach Boone picked up the scrap of Spartan jersey fabric, which said, “Van Pelt,” and hung it on the wall of his workshop at home. I served many a beer to Bradlee Van Pelt when I bartended in college. This is all a roundabout way to say that Denzel Washington is a fine thespian.

4. (two-way tie) Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks was my number-one pick, and trying to summarize his career in a blip of a blog post is a bit of a daunting task. Once, in a graduate-school writers workshop, I made this comment about a colleague’s story: “I really like” that character “because Everyman can relate to him.” My professor killed me, inquiring what “relate” meant, and asking my definition to go into more detail, and the answer to my definition into further detail, and so forth, until he pointed out that, in his opinion, we can’t really “relate” to anyone. We can only have similar experiences, and identify clusters of emotions associated with those particular experiences. At the end of the class, I left the room having appreciated the exercise, feeling like I learned something. I still value his points, but I don’t think humanity is that bleak.

I can relate to the characters -- or at least I think I can -- that Tom Hanks plays, and he plays them well.

We’ll start with “Splash.” We’ve all known love. We’ve known a love that inflated our minds to an expansion we never thought possible. Many of us are familiar with a love so powerful that, when, confronted with the reality of an impossibility within that love, the world literally seems to stop moving. And maybe some of us have pined over the impossibility, ultimately deciding that a plunge into the sea, regardless of science and anatomy is the only logical choice acceptable.

How about “Big”? Not every small boy has wanted to be big, but I’d guess that the majority of us have. I know I did. I also think, were you to tweak a few details, that most girls could relate to this very phenomenon, too. We’ve all seen the film a hundred times, but it’s worth mentioning the scenes where he checks his drawers, where he is presented with unfamiliar foods, where he touches his first boob, or where he remembers again -- and maybe values for the first time -- what it means to be a boy.
I don’t think we need to spend much time on “Sleepless in Seattle.” The whole cast was great in that one. And Hanks killed it in “Philadelphia,” portraying a controversial role in a questionable time. I’ve talked at length about “Forrest Gump,” but will say once more that it’s top three on my all-time-favorite list, and I don’t know that it lands such a high spot if someone else is Gump.

The world of animated films has grown immeasurably in the last 25 years, and there’s something special about being able to identify an inanimate character’s face with the voice of the actor speaking the lines. Woody from “Toy Story” might be the best example out there.

“Saving Private Ryan” might be one of the best films of the century. Hanks gets a ton of that credit, just as he does for his role as Paul Edgecomb in “The Green Mile.” Way underrated film, spectacular performance that delivers an example of the beauty of life, the unidentifiable thing associated with the concept of a miracle.

There are a hundred other things you could say about Hanks, and dozens of projects he’s given us. I enjoyed “Bachelor Party.” Where would such a rite of passage be without the film? “The Man with One Red Shoe” was entertaining, and “The Money Pit” was comical. “The burbs” was an odd role for Hanks, albeit entertaining, and “Turner and Hooch” was easily the best pet-love flick of the generation.

So what is it about him? Does he have the gift of perfect-role selection? Is he a good actor in great slots? Is he a great actor in good slots? Did he become what he became because there was a cinematic void to be filled? I’d argue that it’s a combination of all of it, and that, in the end, the deliveries with which he’s graced Hollywood, are relatable on a very real, very human level.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Old No. 7:
Let’s just call Hoffman the Peyton Manning of actors, only he chokes far less regularly in the postseason. In terms of technical skill, technique and mastery of craft, no other performer can match Hoffman’s body of work. I’m not sure of what their final rankings will be, but the only reason I personally ranked DiCaprio ahead of Hoffman was that Leo has that leading-man “it” quality that Hoffman lacks. The Brady gene to Hoffman’s Manning chromosome, if you will.

Phil started out like a lot of these guys, doing bit parts and TV roles before making the big leagues. I’ll go ahead and select his appearance in "Boogie Nights" as his first major role in my eyes. As the sort-of-gay Scotty hanging on in the porn world, Hoffman nailed a sweet-yet-uncomfortable persona that was to become a trademark. He took another comic turn in the Coen Brothers’ "The Big Lebowski" before getting all serious with his first run of heavy drama and Oscar nominations ("Magnolia," "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Flawless").

Does he play a lot of gay dudes? Sure. Am I, paradoxically, both defiantly homophobic and a proud social liberal who supports gay marriage? Absolutely. And so I’m just as on board with Hoffman as I would be if Alex Rodriguez or Tony Gonzalez finally emerged from their closets of shame. If you’re great at what you do, I could care less whose stool you push in.

Luckily, for a more casual stoner film fan like myself, he anchored Cameron Crowe’s "Almost Famous" as rock critic Lester Bangs. That movie could have been terrible, as the rest of the cast was comprised of hacks, but Hoffman essentially made it watchable all by himself. He had kick-ass roles in any number of other praiseworthy movies, like "Punch Drunk Love," "25th Hour", "Cold Mountain," and "Capote." But in my mind, the pinnacle of Philip Seymour Hoffman greatness is "Doubt." He goes toe to toe with fellow legend Meryl Streep, and the quality of both actors’ performances is such that by the end you still don’t know if Hoffman’s Father Flynn is a great guy or a slimy pedophile. Watch it again and again, you still don’t know. That, friends, is good actin’ there. I’m rarely able to convince people that I may not be a child molester.

Also, Hoffman plays Art Howe in the "Moneyball" movie. Uh, sure.

3. Daniel Day-Lewis

Daniel Day-Lewis could be the largest man-crush I’ve ever had. It might’ve been my age, or whatever was going on in my life at the time, but I fell in love with “The Last of the Mohicans” the first time I saw it, and DDL promptly became one of my favorites of the big screen. It would be foolish to attempt to analyze the awards for which he’s been nominated, won, so we won’t. We’ll just pick a few of his roles that fall within our window.

The natural starting point would be “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” but I can’t really get into that film because I’ve only seen it once. It’s nearly three hours long, fairly intense, and far too historical to adequately cover after one viewing. I think it was one of those loved-it/hated-it, divisive-type films, but I’ll just say I recommend it.

Up next is “My Left Foot,” and, in my estimation, that picture cannot be adequately summarized in either 1000, or 5000 words. Perhaps somewhere in the middle. The picture, though, is amazingly intense and slow at the same time. The way Day-Lewis immersed himself in that role (won Oscar for best actor) is commendable, and something I’ll touch on momentarily. I’ve spent plenty of time discussing “The Last of the Mohicans,” so I’ll move on to “In the Name of the Father,” which might be my all-time favorite DDL role. A largely underrated film, one that wasn’t too successful in the box office, the story behind it is fantastic, DDL’s role (nominated for Oscar, best actor) a can’t miss.

I won’t spend any time on “The Boxer,” because it was way too slow, but DDL delivers another noteworthy performance in it, which brings us to “Gangs of New York.” Historically, Old No. 7 and I almost never agree on anything cinema-related, but we’ve made a couple recent strides. If you put all of our movie talks into a pie chart, “Gangs” would embody the Pac-Man-shaped portion, everything else the open mouth. He hates most everything about it, save DDL, and Leo, I think. He has a much keener eye for all of the inner workings that go into a production. I, on the other hand, can see a performance like Day-Lewis’ in “Gangs,” which was phenomenal we both agree, and determine that such a display of acting thereby makes the film superb.

Bill the Butcher scared the ever-loving snot out of me, and I felt comfortable with my fear. Mind-blowing performance (Oscar-nominated, best actor), bar none.

This leaves us with “There Will Be Blood.” He’s obviously been in other pictures and projects, but that’s not the point. The point centers on this conversation I had with my mother-in-law. She doesn’t like DDL because she “can tell that he gets into his role and stays in it until the picture’s done.” I say that’s the work of pure genius. I didn’t think I’d ever be as intimidated by another role like I was Bill Cutting, let alone a character portrayed by the same actor. DDL’s portrayal of Bill Plainview, however, was disturbing, powerful, and deservedly so, earned him the Oscar for best actor. For my money, Day-Lewis has been one of the top three actors of my lifetime, and I doubt that’ll change anytime soon.

...drum roll, please...

Your number, uh, two-point-five actor in the last 25 years is...

2.5. Leonardo DiCaprio

Old No. 7:
I am of the opinion that DiCaprio is the reigning pound-for-pound champ in this gay actor business. Among all the fellows currently drawing checks from studios, he has the title belt. Once derided as the teeny-bopper pretty boy from "Titanic," DiCaprio’s recent run of fucking killing a series of monster roles pushes him to the front of the line.

Here’s the Decade of DiCaprio, from which I’ve excluded such drivel as "Revolutionary Road," "Gangs Of New York," "Catch Me If You Can," "The Aviator," "The Departed," "Blood Diamond," "Shutter Island," "Inception." And even though I’ve argued endlessly with Banky about whether "Gangs" sucks or not (it does), Leo straight smoked every role. If you’re apprehensive about taking your girl to the movies and dropping $50 for uncomfortable seats and some stale popcorn, hold out for a DiCaprio pic. At least you know he’ll bring the goods. Plus your lady might be up for a little action later, I hear the females like the Leo.

Now most of DiCaprio’s streak has occurred under the direction of Martin Scorsese, although Spielberg and Nolan drafted his services as well. I was of the impression that Scorcese was washed up after Casino, but in DiCaprio Marty obviously found the outlet for his genius he’d lacked since he made about 70 pictures with Robert DeNiro. DiCaprio isn’t as much of an intimidating badass as DeNiro was, although his Billy Costigan in The Departed will fuck your shit up twice. But Leo brings an emotional depth and subtlety to his roles that is unmatched.
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The HoG25: The 25 Best Actors of the Past 25 Years, Part I

So this series has taken us the better part of a month -- give or take 18 months -- to get completed, but listen to me now/believe me later when I say we will get it done.

If you're interested, you can browse each of the previous nine two-parters here. If you're not, just know that we draft the pieces of each category, fantasy-sports style, write a blurb about 'em (unless we don't feel like it), rank them (unless it's one of those rather lazy years), and post them. When we rank them, it's usually all three of us, but this time around, only two of us did, which is why you'll see the screwy numbering system. Nevertheless, part one is just past the jump.

24.5: Sissy Spacek

I have no goddamned clue what the thought process was behind my selection of Sissy Spacek as one of the Top 25 Actors of the Last 25 Years. None. We did our draft early in the day, so I don’t think I was drunk, but you never know. I mean…really. Sissy Spacek.

I’m not trying to bag on ol’ Sissy unreasonably. She’s a fine actress who has appeared in a shitload of movies, some of which I have even seen. Like "Coal Miner’s Daughter," for instance. I’ve seen that. She really sells the whole “Loretta Lynn was the daughter of a coal miner” thing. She was also in a film called "‘night Mother," which was supposedly really good. Never saw that one. She was in "Carrie," of course, where she did crazy shit with her mind and got pig blood dumped on her and I only know this because my wife’s seen it and told me what happened. (By the by, only one of those movies was made in the last 25 years.)

Uhm…so…ur…well, she played a ruthless political player on "Big Love" a couple of seasons ago. That was pretty swell. And I once interviewed her daughter -— alongside Tom Hanks’ son, which was weird -— who seemed a perfectly fine young lady, if a bit shy. And she’s got red hair. And her name is Sissy. And she probably doesn’t belong on this list.

22. (two-way tie) Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood is the fucking man. There. If you need to know more, go to the Netflix contraption and fetch yourself "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly," "High Plains Drifter," "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "Unforgiven" and "The Enforcer." I don’t care that all but one (the best one, it should be said) of those movies are outside of our timeline; Clint Eastwood’s greatness transcends your prosaic concept of time.

Clint Eastwood was so badass in the ‘70s that he could cast his girlfriend, a woman with all of the charisma and set presence of a Big-Eyed Loris, in every one of his movies and no one would say boo to him about it. He starred with a chimpanzee in at least one film and yet went on to still be Clint Eastwood. He made a biopic about Charlie Parker and everyone was like, yeah, sure he did that, he is CLINT EASTWOOD.

Clint Eastwood would have been Chuck Norris before Chuck Norris was if Chuck Norris wasn’t such a fucking pussy. If Clint Eastwood had played Roy Hobbs in "The Natural," he would have caught that final ball with his bare hands, thrown it straight through the pitcher’s chest and then stared at his side until it stopped bleeding out of pure fear. Additionally, Clint Eastwood coined a phrase that, to this day, brings to mind the heady mid-‘80s far, far more than any “Where’s the beef?” bullshit. Fuck you, old lady. (Clint Eastwood probably did.)

So, when you queue up those Clint Eastwood films later, make sure you pay attention to the scene toward the end of Drifter, where his Man With No Name stands silhouetted against the burning building, whipping the villain to death while the townsfolk cower, and remember: that really happened. To the last guy that talked shit about Clint Eastwood.

Gary Oldman

: So I was looking up movies that Gary Oldman had starred in for this blurb I’m writing about how great an actor Gary Oldman is, and I realize that I haven’t seen most of them. The vast majority, in fact.

No, I never saw "Nil By Mouth," the man’s debut as a director/writer, even though it got fantastic reviews and is evidently just the kind of dark, drugged-up chunk of filmic sociopathy which I’d normally seek out. I never saw "JFK," never saw "Dracula," never even saw "The Fifth Element." I’ve seen "Basquiat," which he was evidently in, but the only thing I recall about it, aside from the titular character pouring syrup all over a table and not cleaning up after, was that David Bowie had a role. Old Gary (see what I did there) played Commissioner Gordon in "The Dark Knight," but all anyone remembers about that movie is Heath Ledger and Why so serious? For that matter, and this might surprise those who have met me, I’ve never even seen his turn as Sid Vicious in "Sid & Nancy." Yes, yes, I know. The barrel for me, stat.

But somewhere in the mid ‘90s, around the time of his turns as Drexl Spivey in "True Romance" (“I know I’m pretty, but I ain’t as pretty as no titty”) and as the silent, milk-chugging assassin in "The Professional," both movies I’d actually seen, I assigned him Great Actor Status. Maybe that was just because everyone told me he was one beforehand and I was all like, OK whatevs y’all, you’re the ones with the remote and the drugs…but I don’t think so. I think it was because he actually is one.

Take, for instance, his recurring role as Sirius Black in the "Harry Potter" movies, which after an initial burst of candyassed rainbow-fucking (thanks, Chris Columbus) have tracked the novels in their steadily increasing darkness. Oldman’s Black is one constant strained grimace, a man whose wrongful imprisonment and personal losses are etched permanently upon even his occasional, pained smile. If you can stand out in a collection of talent that includes Alan Rickman, Dame Maggie Smith and Ralph Fiennes without relentlessly chomping scenery, then you win a prize from the HoG, and that prize is this blurb. Why, it’s almost as if it were White Boy Day (it ain’t White Boy Day, is it?)

21. Will Ferrell

Old No. 7:
It’s hard to make a great comedy, and some would argue that it’s much harder than making a great drama. As someone who has tried unsuccessfully to make people laugh my entire life, the idea of attempting a career in comedy is terrifying. If you can pull it off, you have my infinite respect.

I understand that Will Ferrell is not a “great” actor per se. But our standards for measuring greatness in acting talent are drawn almost exclusively from judging dramas. Oscars go to dramas and dramatic actors, while comic actors such as Ferrell are seen as goofballs. Tell me a joke, clown. But I felt that we needed representation on this list from someone who manufactures the funny, and to me Ferrell has had a better career than Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, Chris Farley, Robin Williams, Ben Stiller, Mike Myers or Robin Williams.

"Anchorman" is quite simply a masterpiece, and Ron Burgundy is one of the finest characters ever created. "Old School" and "Talladega Nights" are pretty classic, and Ferrell did a ton of great work on "Saturday Night Live" and an endless string of funny cameos. Just like Sandler, he made his single requisite drama. Although "Punch Drunk Love" is a better movie, Ferrell himself turned in a finer performance in "Stranger Than Fiction." He’s made some shit, of course -- "Kicking And Screaming" is a God-awful movie. He can be abrasive and annoying. But all in all Will Ferrell gets it done.

18. (two-way tie) Glenn Close

Glenn Close is a hell of an actress and seems like the kinda lady who’d enjoy slamming back a few whiskey sours. This is important: much like the President of the United States must always be an individual that every American man wants to drink a beer, go duck hunting and then Eiffel Tower a high-priced escort with, my definition of what makes a great actress is heavily reliant on the “would she go out to the bar with me?” factor.

So, for instance: Angelina Jolie is not a great actress. She’d order a bottled water, glance around for any unattended brown children and then, quite possibly, stab me. Cate Blanchett, not a great actress. She’d sip Earl Grey, regard me with a steely contempt, leave without saying a word and then return a few minutes later to stab me. Nicole Kidman, not a great actress. Straight to the stabbing. Plus she’s Australian so she’s probably carrying a motherfucker of a knife.

Now, Dame Judi Dench? Imperial pints of cider in the afternoon. Kathie Bates? Shots of bourbon in a biker bar followed by a spirited game of darts. Meryl Streep? A six-pack of wine coolers beneath the school bleachers, some tonsil hockey and then an unfortunate oh-no-you-just-puked-on-my-new-British Knights. You know, actresses.

Glenn Close fits that bill. Her screen work has been relatively low-key over the last few years -- her biggest star turns were in the mid-to-late ‘80s, in big box fare like "Dangerous Liaisons" and "Fatal Attraction" -- as she’s clearly chosen to do more voice-overs and television (and raunchy Navy videos) but she’s still a five-time Oscar nominee who has embodied some of the more memorable characters in recent film history and is unquestionably deserving of her place on this list. That, and I think she might wanna hoist one after the awards ceremony.

Tim Robbins

If there’s some continuity with my picks in this category, it’d be this: Of all my picks, the actors I’ve selected have really not played a role I’ve seen that I disliked. Tim Robbins is no exception. Boring tidbit about my cognitive capacities: I think it took most of 15 years before I no longer confused the last names and spellings of Tom Robbins the author, and the actor I’m about to discuss. Huh?, you might ask. But…they’re spelled the same. Yeah. I know. Took me 15 years to remember that.

We’ll start, though, with a film that severely messed with my mind—Wait a minute: Time. Out. Tim Robbins was Merlin in “Top Gun?” Well, screw me gently with a chainsaw. Never knew it. (Side note: He was also in “Howard the Duck,” “Bull Durham,” and “Jungle Fever,” if that “Top Gun thing caught you off guard.) (Side note to side note: Dude was also in “St. Elsewhere,” “Hardcastle & McCormick,” “The Love Boat,” “Hill Street Blues,” and “Moonlighting” on the TVs.) But back to my forever-scarred brain: “Jacob’s Ladder.” Side note to side note to side note: How in Christ’s heav’n’above did we leave Top Gun out of our HoG25 movies installment? The horror…

I’m no film expert, but I’d guess that this might’ve been his first major leading role. And he crushed it. I won’t get into plot specifics because I might wind up like old boy from “Fire in the Sky” just thinking about it, but Jacob Singer was in Vietnam. The U.S. government had a chemist create some form of acid that would bring out immeasurably aggressive tendencies in soldiers. They took it in an experiment, and there were a few adverse effects. This film is about Singer feeling the aftermath of said of said effects, and it is wicked, frightening, and unnerving. I can’t imagine a more perfect actor to play Singer than Robbins.

We’ve mentioned “Jungle Fever,” and covered the “Hudsucker Proxy," but perhaps his most famous role came as one Andy Dufresne. Yes, we’ve all seen that one. It’s on the TVs eight times a week, and I’ll go on record as saying it’s one of those films I never turn the channel away from. And I freaking own a copy of it. Great story. Rock-solid delivery. There are numerous other Robbins roles to cover, but for the sake of brevity, we’ll note performances in “Arlington Road” and “High Fidelity,” and we’ll move on to “Mystic River,” where I think is a recent enough point that we -- at least us semi-regular movie-goers -- can all agree that we’ve seen it and remember it fairly well.

The trio of Sean Penn, Robbins, and Kevin Bacon in this film deliver a punch-packed dynamic I doubt any other three actors could replicate. Naturally, Robbins’ role is the confused character, the guy who cannot, in an effort to try and understand his circumstances, possibly exert another ounce of mental energy without collapse. His performance as Dave Boyle is spot-on, and, as it turns out, he won an Oscar for it.

17.5. Patrick Swayze

Old No. 7:
In recognizing The Swayze on this list we are not building a monument to his talent. This is The Swayze we’re talking about here, not Brando or Olivier. Nor are we overvaluing him out of sentimentality due to his untimely death. If that were the case this list would be littered with the likes of Christopher Reeve and Michael Landon, and I didn’t wait in line to buy tickets for those dudes before they croaked. No, in honoring The Swayze we honor watchably bad cinema of the highest low caliber.

And when it comes to good-bad movies, it’s difficult to surpass "Road House" and "Point Break." This award could have just as easily gone to Keanu Reeves, except "Bill & Ted.." was actually awesome and some would say that "The Matrix" saga is as well. Plus, with Keanu it’s a little bit hard to tell if he understands just how awful he is or when he’s immersed in a completely craptastic movie.

I guess this is always the question, are people like The Swayze or those that help make his movies aware of their awfulness? I was listening to some radio program a while back, I’d give credit if I remembered to whom to give it. The hosts discussed Nicolas Cage in general and "Con Air" in specific, wondering if Cage and the filmmakers are in on the joke. If you haven’t seen it, "Con Air" is stupendously, spectacularly, literally laughably bad, and the consensus was that, yes, the guys that made it know it.

I don’t know if The Swayze acted in "Road House" with the knowledge that it would become a classic for all the wrong reasons. If you held a gun to my head, I’d say that he was sincere, that he honestly tried to make Dalton the most bad-ass bouncer in Hollywood history, and I think that’s totally awesome.

17. (two-way tie) George Clooney

Old No. 7:
I was derisively mocked by my colleagues for selecting Clooney (and later Brad Pitt) after DiCaprio. These guys, obviously, are widely seen as hunks first and seriously talented actors second. But if you’ll allow me to craft my spirited defense of the thespian skill of one George Clooney, I’ll deliver you both a spot-on analysis of his worth and a reason to believe Cecil and Bank don’t know beans about the film game.

Clooney, you see, is a throwback to another age in cinema. A time when Cary Grant, Clark Gable and John Fucking Wayne took no shit and dictated to the world what an American man was. Smoking, banging broads and littering were required, and no killjoy wet blanket fun police were around to send everyone home.

What’s wrong with an old-fashioned leading man? A guy’s guy? I say nothing. And Clooney plays that part as well as anyone. But I don’t think this highly of him simply because he can function as Daniel Ocean in a tuxedo and swill Scotch. Uh, I can do that, and at weddings across America I have. No, Clooney sold me on his actual chops in a pair of Coen Brothers’ pics, "Oh brother Where Art Thou?" and "Intolerable Cruelty." In these, Clooney showed he can do musical and slapstick comedy, genres outside the range of many actors on our list. He’s not just a pretty face, you cynical jerks.

Samuel L. Jackson

Lemme just say that it’s probably a shame that I was able to nab Samuel Leroy with the 11th pick in the 12th round of this HoG25 buffoonery. My colleagues are superior wordsmiths, and would’ve assuredly done the man better justice. Having said that is Ess Elle Jay really that elite of an actor, or has he simply been chosen for some remarkable roles, and really delivered on them? We’ve talked about Harvey Keitel’s role in “Pulp Fiction,” and it would be a sin to omit a sermon of equal praise for Jackson’s stunning part in the film, but we can’t spend too much time on one piece, so we’ll actually leave Jules out of this write-up. He played Carl Lee Haley in “A Time to Kill,” which was a good movie, even if we were made to suffer through Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock. Jackson’s role was key to the storyline, but since he spent the bulk of it in the can, there’s not a ton we can say about it.

I’ve also discussed episodes I, II, and III of the "Star Wars" sextet, and it would be silly to rehash those films, even though I thought it cool of Jackson to take interest in a series whose original three parts predated his prime. Also, it sucks that he had to be another black guy in another film that gets killed off, but let’s not pick nits. I didn’t see “Shaft,” but I know it had a small cult following, so I can assume his Pulp Fictionesque mentality was similar, only heavier on the pimp juice. “Kill Bill Volume II” featured Jackson in a miniscule role, and then there was “Coach Carter,” which I’ll refrain from commenting on.

“Snakes on a Plane” was a God-damn abortion. Period. Like Keitel, he had an off-screen role in “Inglorious Basterds,” and beyond that, I didn’t see “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” or “Unbreakable.” I will give him props for “True Romance,” “Menace II Society,” “Juice,” “Do the Right Thing,” and of course, “Goodfellas,” but none of those roles were, by any means, massive. Hell, I’ll even give him some for “Coming to America.”
What remains, though, is either a question or a statement. If it’s the latter, it’s this: Someone more qualified on Jackson’s big-screen career should’ve written this, and if it’s the former, then: Does Samuel L. Jackson belong in this category?

15.5. Steve Buscemi

Mere words aren’t enough to communicate the man-love I have for Mr. Steve Buscemi, which blows for me because I don’t have another way to get this information across to you. Semaphore flags or hand signals might work, I guess, but I’m not on a ship and you’re still tied to the sofa. So, anyway.

Giving Steve Buscemi the credit that Steve Buscemi deserves should be the business of the United States Government, not all this foreign entanglement bric-a-brac with the Libya and the Wikileaks and the Godless Japanese. We should be praying to Steve Buscemi’s image five times daily, orienting ourselves toward "Fargo" at each. Forget the fact that he’s really only a featured performer in a handful of films, that’s a handful we should be celebrating: "Reservoir Dogs," "Fargo" (see what I did a sentence earlier? Eh?), "The Big Lebowski." Brilliant cameos too numerous to count. So much voice work that it’s easy to forget that syrupy kid-animation you’re dozing off to is being voiced by Mr. Pink. Several seasons of "The Sopranos," currently Nucky Thompson on Scorsese’s excellent "Boardwalk Empire," even a spot on "The Equalizer" in 1987. Fuck, I loved that show.

Steve Buscemi, for all of the instant physical picture the name paints, with the teeth and the sallow and the murderous smile, doesn’t get his just desserts as an actor. This list is heavy on pretty people with long strings of box office smashes on their resumes: let’s make room for an odd-looking dude who steals every film he appears in.

14.5. Brad Pitt

Old No. 7:
Brad Pitt I've liked most of the movies that Brad Pitt has made, particularly what he's done with David Fincher. Fincher's right up there among the greatest directors working right now, and for a while he and Pitt collaborated closely, like Martin Scorcese did with Robert DeNiro and then Leonardo DiCaprio. Benjamin Button was no great shakes, but "Se7en" and particularly "Fight Club" were excellent. I don't get too deep into what the most "important" movie of any particular generation might be, but in my movie-watching life I can think of three contenders: "Fight Club," "The Social Network" (both by Fincher) and Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction."

Pitt did his turn with Tarantino too, of course, in "Inglorious Basterds." Like most all of Pitt's films, it's pretty funny, pretty interesting, and pretty cool. Pitt's not the funniest comic actor, but he's not bad. He's not the most bad ass villain or most heroic good guy either, but he's competent and gives enough weight to each performance to make you feel like you're not wasting time watching it.

14. Harrison Ford

Drafting Harrison Ford for this installment was tough because, if you stick with the 25-year window, you’re not allowed to include episodes four, five, and six of “Star Wars.” Nor are you allowed to include “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” These are serious handicaps.” Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was not a good movie. I mean, we all loved Short Round, and we were all creeped out by the heart-removal scene, but it was pretty bad. I’m also a bit handicapped because I haven’t seen a fair amount of his films, but the ones I have are good enough to warrant placement in this group.

Let’s start with “The Mosquito Coast.” A bit of a different role for Ford in some senses in that it did not receive the accolades that many of Ford’s projects did, it was called boring by some, and at the same time, it rode high on emotion, which will sell the tickets to the heavy-hearted. “Regarding Henry.” Great flic. A little sappy, and maybe slow in parts, but who better an actor would you nab to portray a selfish, semi-egomaniacal doctor who gets shot, and must relearn to live his life in, basically, its entirety. Lots of good life lessons, the catchphrase “gotta get me some o’ that,” and really, just a feel-good story, for which I will always be first in the hook-the-sap line.

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” restored the Jones trilogy to the level it deserved with the initial installment, and Ford, along with co-star Sean Connery, was nothing shy of fantastic in it. Ford delivered compelling roles in both “Presumed Innocent” and “What Lies Beneath,” and some would argue his bits in the Tom Clancy novels-turned-films were above-average, but it is the role of Dr. Richard Kimble that warrants ultimate inclusion for Ford on this list. Yes, “The Fugitive.” One of the greatest films of the last quarter century. If you haven’t seen it a solid half-dozen times, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

13. (two-way tie) John Cusack

John Cusack didn’t start out as a great actor, he started out as a nerd in John Hughes movies and as the star of Savage Steve Holland vehicles ("One Crazy Summer," "Better Off Dead") that, while idealized by tousle-headed geeks such as myself, were hardly cinematic triumphs. Sure, his role as Hoops McCann in "Summer" was poignant and reminiscent of the best of Olivier, but Bobcat Goldthwaite was in that movie. Sir Laurence never had to work with Bobcat Goldthwaite.

The genius of Cusack’s career has been that he didn’t just grow out of those movies, he grew upward -- he’s notorious for not taking big money crap roles (uh, you leave "Con Air" and "2012" out of this) over the smaller, artier stuff, and his personal canon reflects that: "The Grifters," "Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil," "Being John Malkovich," "High Fidelity." He started honing that outsider/everyman persona as early as 1989’s "Say Anything" --a movie that will still drop the panties of most any straight woman in her mid-to-late ‘30s -- and by the time of "Fidelity" he could teach a master class on it. More than any other actor on this list, with the exception of DeNiro, Cusack’s work evokes a certain type.

Even when his movies are bad -- and lately, they have been -- John Cusack is almost always the best thing in them.

Meryl Streep

Old No. 7:
I'm not trying to make some sort of social statement by selecting Meryl Streep on a list that's dominated by dudes. She's no Jackie Robinson, just a damn fine actor. While she's taken some goofy roles in a few chick flics, all in all she just flat out kicks ass in dramas with immaculate preparation, intense manipulation of dialogue, and an underrated knack for comedic timing.

Meryl Streep has been nominated for 16 Academy Awards in the last 22 years, which is kind of incomprehensible. Her finest role was probably in "Sophie's Choice," but she's fantastic in her more recent efforts: "Julie & Julia," "Doubt" and "The Devil Wears Prada." And with that, I'm pretty sure I qualify as a full-fledged homosexual.

There's our first installment. Next up: The top ten. I mean, 11.
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Thursday, March 24, 2011

NCAA Men's Hockey Championship: Friday's First-Round Games

We’re three weeks into March, and that means a number of things, most notably that everywhere you look, folks are talking brackets. There’s the revamped tournament of Phish songs, Playboy usually does a thing, and of course there’s the college basketball tournament. The one I’d like to focus on, however, is NCAA men’s hockey, the 16-game tournament that leads to the Frozen Four.

It all gets underway tomorrow with four (two in Bridgeport, CT; two in St. Louis, MO) contests, and the second half on Saturday (two in Manchester, NH; two in Green Bay, WI). The two days comprise the first round, and the winners of each contest will play the second round the following day in the same venue in which they logged a round-one victory. The two semi-final tilts will take place in St. Paul, MN on Thursday, April 7, as will the championship, slated for Sunday the 9th. Let’s have a look at this year’s clubs.

The first Friday game gets underway at 2 pm Central at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, and features Union College out of Schenectady, NY and the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

The Union Dutchmen have a mixed plate of sorts on their hands, as this is their first tournament appearance since moving up to Division I hockey some 20 years ago. They posted a 26-9-4 regular-season record, and claimed their first Eastern College Athletic Association championship. While those stats might make up the meat and potatoes of their entrée, the seldom-favored vegetable portion, if you will, comes in the form of their winless seven-game history against the UMD Bulldogs, who went 22-10-6 in the regular season, and fell to Bemidji State in the quarterfinal round of the Western College Hockey Association tournament.

Union was led in scoring by junior forward Kelly Zajac (Winnipeg, Manitoba) ,who tallied 13 goals and 29 assists on the season. Dutchmen sophomore netminder Keith Kinkaid (Farmingville, NY) compiled a 1.98 goals-against average, a .920 save percentage through 37 games.

This is UMD’s second tournament berth in three years, their seventh in program history. On three of those seven appearances, they made the Frozen Four.

This year the Bulldogs were led by Duluth-native junior center Jack Connolly (Duluth, MN), who lit the lamp 16 times, and dished out 39 helpers en route to being named a Hobey Baker Memorial Award top 10 finalist. Between the pipes for UMD is junior Kenny Reiter (Pittsburgh, PA), whose season included a 2.36 GAA, a 9.11 save percentage.

Friday’s second puck drop (Scottrade Center, St. Louis) will occur at 4:30, and pits the University of Michigan against the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

The Michigan Wolverines make their 21st consecutive tournament appearance and boast a record 34 total berths. Additionally, they hold the record for Frozen Four (23) appearances, as well as national titles (nine). Michigan went 26-18-1 in the 2010-11 campaign, and placed third in the Central College Hockey Association tournament.

The Wolverines are led by senior forward Carl Hagelin (Sodertalje, Sweden), who scored 18 goals, 30 assists on the season, and goalie Shawn Hunwick (Sterling Heights, MI), whose numbers included a 2.31 GAA, and a .921 save percentage.

The UNO Mavericks put together a 21-15-2 regular season, and were eliminated from the Western College Hockey Association tournament courtesy of a loss to Bemidji State.

This is UNO’s second appearance in the tournament, and will be their third contest against Michigan (a 10/22 4-2 win, and a 10/23 6-1 loss) this season. Senior forwards Matt Ambroz (New Prague, MN) and Joey Martin (Thorold, Ontario) led the Mavericks this year with 34 points a piece, while goaltender John Faulkner (posted a 2.55 GAA, saved .967 percent of shots faced.

At 5:30 tomorrow evening, once the Union/UMD ice dust has settled, college hockey fans can see the number-one seed Yale University take on Air Force.

The YU Bulldogs come into Bridgeport with a head of steam having won 27 contests while only dropping six on the season. The final four of those wins came consecutively, culminating in an ECAC championship victory. This will be Yale’s third straight tournament appearance, although, in their previous meeting with the Falcons, the Bulldogs coughed up a three-goal lead and fell 4-3. Yale does, however, own the serious lead over Air Force, nine games to four.

Junior forward Brian O’Neill (Yardley, PA) and sophomore forward Andrew Miller (Bloomfield Hills, MI) led the offensive charges for Yale this season, compiling combined totals of 29 goals and 57 assists. The Bulldog defense was shored by senior goaltender Ryan Rondeau (Carvel, Alberta), who finished the season with an impressive 1.79 GAA, a .933 save percentage.

Air Force finds themselves in the tourney for the fourth time in program history, their berth coming on the heels of a 20-11-6 regular season, which wrapped up last weekend via a 1-0 win over Rochester Institute of Technology (Editor's Note: How a school of technology not only has an athletic program, but one with a hockey team good enough to reach its conference championship game is beyond me.) to give the Falcons their fourth Atlantic Hockey Association championship in five years.

Senior forward Jacques Lamoureux (Grand Forks, ND) led Air Force with 20 goals, 24 assists on the season, while freshman goalie Jason Torf (Hermosa Beach, CA) manned the pipes, posting a 2.90 GAA, a .908 save percentage.

Friday’s final game, the second of the day in St. Louis, will feature the number-three seed Boston College Eagles and the Colorado College Tigers.

Colorado College earned its 20th berth to the tournament by posting a 22-18-3 regular season record, but falling short in the WCHA tournament when they were downed by the University of North Dakota. This is their first tournament bid in three years, and four wins would get them their third national title, their first two coming in 1950 and 1957.

Leading the Tigers this season are senior winger Stephen Schultz (Westbury, NY), who scored 16 times and added 27 assists to his point total, and sophomore goaltender Joe Howe (Plymouth, MN) saved .901 percent of shots faced while compiling a 2.94 GAA.

Defending-champion Boston College enters the tournament as a three seed, recent winners of their second straight (10th overall) Hockey East title.

Junior forward Cam Atkinson (Greenwich, CT) and senior forward Brian Gibbons (Braintree, MA) provided the Eagles with a ton of offense in the regular season, combining for 48 goals and 53 assists. Senior netminder John Muse (East Falmouth, MA) manned the crease for BC, posting a 2.13 GAA, and a .926 save percentage.

The two winners of Friday’s games will meet Saturday at 5:30 in Bridgeport, 8:00 in St. Louis. Victors of games slated for Saturday (Note: Check back tomorrow!) meet on Sunday. Three of tomorrow’s contests will air on ESPNU HD, and on, save the Michigan/UNO match, which will air in the Omaha market on Cox Communications.
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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review of The Mike Gordon Band, Ides of March, 2011 @ The Bottleneck, Lawrence, KS

When yesterday rolled around, it occurred to me that the Mike Gordon Band show at the Bottleneck in Lawrence, KS had snuck up on me. The wife had procured tickets several weeks ago, and we’d immediately dialed in a babysitter. I remember seeing the tour-date announcement, and thinking, This could be fun, or I could get mentally wrapped up in those show expectations -– Will it be good without Leo Kottke? Will I leave bitter that TAB (Trey Anastasio Band) didn’t come anywhere near Kansas City? Then Tuesday was upon us, and I felt like I was heading into the evening with a somewhat calmer shore of the mind, but still apprehensive about going to a show in which I’d, potentially, not know the majority of the tunes. This presented as exceptionally troubling considering all of the diligent work I’ve put in in recent years in terms of bringing the wife up to Phish (studio, live favorites, solo projects) speed. That is, it’s one thing if she doesn’t know the bulk of the tracks at a show, but it’s another animal – meaning the number of in-show questions unloaded on me increases exponentially, potentially diminishing enjoyment for both of us -– if neither of us do.

I don’t really have a stake in categorization of my show-going self, but since there’s an abundance of online discourse regarding such a concept, I’ll pencil myself in as somewhere in the middle of the jaded-vet/noob spectrum; I’ve seen 30 Phish shows and four (TAB, Red Rocks 2001, both nights; Gordon/Kottke, Red Rocks 2005, Big Summer Classic; and last night) sidecar projects. Never caught Vida Blue, Pork Tornado, Jazz Mandolin Project, etc. That spans 17 years, and my show-going modality has evolved on numerous occasions, leading up to its current form: I want a solid effort from the musicians, and minimal personal-space respect from my fellow ‘heads.

Anyway, we hit the road, bellied up to the bar at Free State Brewing Company, had a couple of pints, and some dinner. As we were settling our tab, we were told Mike had been dining solo three stools down from us, which was both hilarious, and so very Mike. Outside, we ran into a few acquaintances that informed us they were in no hurry to get to the venue, as they knew Mike was not yet there. When asked how such information had been procured, we were told: “Because he’s sitting right there in that coffee shop, fiddling around on his laptop.”

Which he was.

The wife thought coffee sounded like a good plan, so she grabbed us each a to-go cup, and Mike made his way to the can to dispose of his dinner (evidenced by hist extensive stay in there), which, naturally, resulted in a far-too-lengthy conversation regarding the alleged coolness of entering the men’s room post-Mike-dump and wafting the fragrances of this genius musician, as if consumption of the odors of his evacuations could somehow inspire. Mike left, and walked alone down to The Bottleneck, furthering the coolness of his being, simply due to the fact that the was rolling around Larryville alone and on foot.

We entered the venue, pleased that no eyebrows were raised at our java vessels, perused the merchandise, and purchased a copy of The Green Sparrow (2008)and a little notebook that had the refrain to “Sugar Shack” printed on the front, and made our way to the floor. For one last moment, I stressed over my lack of solo-Gordon knowledge (only own Outside Out (2003) and the two Kottke albums), and the band took the stage.

The band –- Gordon on bass, Scott Murawski on guitar, Todd Isler on drums, Tom Cleary on keys, Craig Myers on percussion -– opened with “Can’t Stand Still,” and I was pleased that I knew that tune, and stoked for the sound they put out. The group took it up a notch with “Flashback,” and then lit the place on fire with the funky, rockin’ “Just a Rose” which featured some screamin’ lead vocals from Murawski. Suffice to say: Three songs in, I was really impressed: Murawski seemed to be having fun from start to finish; Isler plugged along impressively throughout the course of the evening; Craig Myers has an incredible rig and fills the tiny gaps of negative space quite nicely.

It was with the opening of song four, though, that, perhaps, answered a few questions: Yes, there will be an occasional Phish song. Before we get to that, however, it should be noted that Mike had some really great crowd-interaction conversation moments. Early in the set, he asked, “How you feeling?” then promptly mentioned that he made a vow to himself 20 years ago that he would never ask a crowd that, but that now, at that particular moment, it seemed genuine because, “We’re all in this together.”

And it wouldn’t be a show if there weren’t folks in the crowd hollering thoughts, offering questions, and demanding requests. One such stub-holder asked how Colorado was, to which Mike responded, “Colorado was great. There’s nothing like coming over an 11,000-foot pass at five in the morning. And we’re still kinda ridin’ that wave.”

Song four, it should be noted, was “Access Me,” a delightful tune from Phish’s 2004 release entitled Undermind. It should be mentioned that, in all of my efforts to delicately spoon-feed Phish’s studios to the wife, I left out Round Room and Undermind, but we definitely have listened to Undermind together in the car. We’ve got a few tunes from that album we enjoy, and we’ve definitely shared a laugh over the lines:
“You could tell me all about all the things you did at work, The guy who sits beside you and how he’s acting like a jerk.”

So hearing “Access Me” was a nice treat, and perhaps apropos of some more crowd-conversation humor, such as, “We’re now going to take requests from you guys, so please request whatever it is you want us to play, and we’ll play whatever we want.” It also planted the seed of a theme the night might adopt in terms of the few Phish covers selected.

“What Things Seem” was next, and “Nobody Home” followed, which was really solid, as it was perhaps the first opportunity of the evening for Cleary to showcase his rock and ragtime, but his vocals, too. Afterwards, Mike acknowledged a birthday for someone in the crowd, and admitted that they were not going to play the song the birthday celebrator was requesting, but rather the song that inspired the song requested, “the embryo, as it were.” The result was “Swamp Music-> Possum-> Swamp Music,” which just lit the place on fire.

I think maybe I’ve heard some “Swamp Music” on tape at some point in the past. Maybe not, but the point is that it’s got the same bass line and vocal feel as “Possum,” and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the crowd really dug it. Great energy to lead into the first-set closer “Babylon Baby,” which was one of only two or three jams of a healthy length in the opening frame. Mike closed the set by mentioning that the tune was on his latest album Moss, which was for sale in the corner, and that the band would be hanging out in the merchandise corner at the evening’s conclusion. He encouraged show-goers to stop by for a chat and a drink.

The intermission chat was, to my ears, relatively unanimous: That set was surprisingly smokin’. What will second set bring?

As a whole, second set was fantastic, but here’s one of several instances in the evening where I showed my age: “Traveled Too Far” kicked things back off around midnight, and it almost floored me. It was evident in the first couple minutes of the tune that set two was building off of the first, and perhaps evolving the evening into two separate mini-shows. It was an uber-intense jam of noteworthy duration, and it almost crushed me in a way that really tested my mentality of the moment. I can’t say I recognized the track in what I could parcel to be its original form, based on what I was hearing live, but I know I’ve heard that style of jam before, and it’s a style that brings up the notion of “smooth, atonal sound.”

To me, there’s nothing smooth about an atonal sound. It’s uncomfortable. It could potentially send a sober person walking from the venue, or put a less-sober listener in a straight jacket. So, the suggestion of a “smooth, atonal sound” has always been a joke to me. A joke that’s funny for the band, a joke that affords them some opportunity of the experimental variety, but a joke that has a very unfunny punchline for the absorbing ear. I won’t spend any more time on this version of “Traveled Too Far,” except to say that there were several around me that seemed to be feeling blown away by the ferocious audacity of the jam, whereas I was feeling a little cracked about the skull, vulnerable in the chest once it drew to a close.

“Couch Lady” came next, and it thankfully served the purpose of getting me to a calmer place, which, based on the third song of set two, made me think it was all by design. I’ll go out on a limb here, and perhaps open myself up for insult opportunity, because I seriously did not go to this show hoping to hear nothing but Phish covers, but the “Meat” that followed “Couch Lady” might’ve been the highlight of the evening.

It. Was. Sick. When you listen to the studio version of “Meat,” it leaves you with a feeling of, Oh, that’s a pretty fun song. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard Phish perform it live, but I’m extremely thankful for having heard this band perform it last night. The only way to describe it is this: The funk-slappin’ grooves these guys laid down during this song made the room feel like everyone in it was in one of those water-park wave pools, only, in place of water was a nice, warm, meaty gravy. And we were all swimmin’ in it. Happily. Incredible jam that fostered the growth of the theme of selected Phish tunes.

The second set continued with “Walls of Time,” which “Meat” went straight into, “Cruel World,” “Skin It Back,” and “Middle of the Road,” and, save the occasional bluegrass-y feel of one number, the vibe of thick, heavy, groove-oriented jam-rock tabled by "Meat" directed the remainder of the set. That was until the band took a moment to chat amongst themselves, and allow for Mike to offer thanks to the crowd for rocking with the band all night.

“We’ve been going for 10 straight nights, now,” he said. “And we’re just getting warmed up.” He again reminded the crowd to come by the merch’ corner for a drink and some chat. “I don’t usually drink at these things, but I am tonight.” He had earlier indicated that he didn’t want fans to let him drink alone over there, that maybe he’d have a glass of milk, maybe he wouldn’t.

Oh, and I’d be doing the band a disservice if I didn’t showcase how Mike set up each member’s token introduction/solo. This happened during one song that took place late in the second set, and it started with Murawski’s solo, as Mike said, “Take us to school!” Up next was Myers’ chance, and Gordon hollered, “Take us to church!” Cleary’s moment followed with Mike exclaiming, “Take us to the bathroom!” Finally, it was “Take us to the insurance company meeting!” for Isler. Murawski returned the favor asking Mike to “Take us to outer space!” Mike, in true Mike fashion offered only the briefest of limelight moments.

It was after Mike’s drink reminder, however, that the highlight runner-up moment took place, and that came in the form of an Alanis Morrisette cover. And, no: That’s not a typo. It was “Hand in Pocket,” and my wife might’ve been the first person in the room to identify it. Here’s where I’m frank: I don’t hate Morrisette. Never have. She wrote a few decent songs. She was cute in “Dogma.” But this cover was freaking awesome. It really was. And it led right into “Sugar Shack,” allowing that Phish-cover theme to flourish.

The theme, if you haven’t figured it out, was this: There were four Phish tunes played, and they were all tracks that, no surprise, can be or have been identified with Mike. “Access Me” is a track he wrote. “Possum” was written by Jeff Holdsworth, but is often identified as a Mike tune because of the funky bass groove, signature Gordon vocals associated with it. “Meat” was written collectively by Gordon, the rest of Phish, and longtime band lyricist Tom Marshall. And “Sugar Shack,” a Gordon-penned track from Phish’s 2009 Joy album, closed the thing out.

Here’s what was beautiful about said theme: The performances of these tunes were clearly not intended to sound like the live versions fans get from Phish, and I can’t emphasize this enough: That is a really, really good thing. This is Mike’s band. Their tour is flying somewhat under the proverbial radar, while TAB’s, which just wrapped up, basically received all of the hype and attention that a typical Phish tour would. The difference is that Mike’s band –- and, again, for the record, I haven’t seen a TAB show in a decade –- is absolutely killing it on a feel-good, root-down level. For cheap, too, I might add.

They got together to rehearse three months ago, and have played quite a few gigs. They are occasionally sloppy when closing out a number, but they lit The Bottleneck on fire last night, and the “Sugar Shack” to finish set two somewhat resembled the Joy version, but it also had a very significant Mike-band feel to it. It was clear that there was absolutely zero pressure for Murawski to mimic Trey in tone or style, and the fact that he, and the rest of the band definitely did not attempt to produce the Phish sound made this show all the more amazing.

So, the band leaves the stage, comes back for your textbook encore, and what do they drop? Some freaking Doobie Brothers? Yeah. Some freaking Doobie Brothers. “Takin’ it to the Streets,” to be exact, which has, thanks to the immortal life of radio-classic-rock overkill, become a terrible song. I’m not even certain that it was ever anything other than a terrible song, but these guys made it great, if only for a moment. An epic show, one of the best I’ve seen in some time, and as of a few moments ago, it’s been announced that tomorrow night’s show in St. Louis (with Galactic) will be streamed live for free. And it would be lame of me to not mention thanks to Mike for signing our little “Sugar Shack” book for our three-month-old daughter. Walked out of there electric, drove home on a wave that started 10 days ago, and made its way to the plains, courtesy of the Rocky Mountains.

Peep remaining tour dates here, a review of the previous evening's show in Denver here, and a comparison between The Mike Gordon Band and TAB here.
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