Monday, April 30, 2012

The Hunger Games: Merely an Appetizer

Over the weekend I went to see the much hyped and anticipated movie, The Hunger Games at Loews Waterfront Theater. I was expecting a packed house even though the movie has been out for a few weeks and being at 10:40 on a Saturday night. Surprisingly, I was one of 12 in the theater. Regardless, I was eager for the movie to begin. The Hunger Games is based on the book by Suzanne Collins and from what I was told previously, "you should read the series of books before seeing the movies."  I am not sure if I was fortunate or not, but I did not invest the time in the books simply because I wanted to see what the brew-ha-ha was about.

I can separate The Hunger Games into 3 distinct parts:

Part I: The Set-up: Through a few short readings the viewer was put up to speed with the background of what the Hunger Games are, how and why they are played, and how "tributes are selected."  I always like any movie that begins or ends with a reading of the background or what happens after a movie finished so my hopes were high. Following this, the main characters emerge and we are quickly brought into the training for the games and the characters concerns. At this point I was very excited and getting into the movie.

Part II: The Hunger Games: This is where the movie lost me. The Hunger Games are played in an "arena" for all people in the Hunger Games world to view and cheer on their "tribute."  This part contained little to no meaningful dialogue and really frustrated and bored me. I really dislike extended fight scenes and I grew tired and choose to close my eyes and hope to take a snooze. I asked my wife to wake me when any dialogue began. She did and I was glad that we moved on. Although, I did watch some of the fighting I was disappointed that there was no killing actually shown and most people seemed to die of events not related to the Hunger Games. Also, the arena was strikingly similar to where the vampires and werewolves meet to fight in the Twilight saga.

Part III: The Conclusion and Love Story: This is where I really lost all hope for this movie. I can't stand when good stories (or bad stories) needlessly turn into love stories. The movie had a chance to salvage itself, but alas teen love blossoms and becomes the focal point of the movie. Now I know why high school girls were so in love with a post-apocalyptic society with fighting to the death. Enough is enough.

I went into The Hunger Games with very high expectations and that may have been why I was so disappointed with this movie or it could have been that I am not a 16 year old girl. I am also glad that I did not spend time on the books after this flop.

Pills gives The Hunger Games 2/6 Irons.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Restaurant Reviews: NOLA on the Square

Trying to figure out a place to meet someone on a first date is sometimes tricky for a Pittsburgher on a chilly spring evening.  Do you play it safe and go somewhere everyone has been? Or try one of the newer trendier spots that have been sprouting up throughout revitalized Pittsburgh neighborhoods?  Well, I chose the latter and suggested NOLA on the Square located in Market Square.  Market Square has undergone some major work over the last couple of years and this work has led to the transformation of the square into a European style piazza.  The $5.1 million renovation project that was completed in the fall of 2010 consists of new restaurants mixed with classics like Primanti’s and the Oyster House, facelifts to existing buildings, and the rerouting of vehicle traffic to promote outdoor seating and social gatherings.  NOLA is just one of the many recent additions to the historic square.
NOLA on the Square is a New Orleans themed restaurant that opened during the summer of 2011.  Features of the restaurant include outdoor patio seating, spacious bar area, and quieter dining room.  My date and I decided to go for drinks and chose the bar area to converse.  The bar was very lively, a jazz band was playing and Downtown Pittsburgh was surprisingly crowded on a Wednesday evening.  The drink menu was very diverse.  Bourbon St inspired cocktails made for an interesting and fun activity.  My date went with a Hurricane to start then went with the Bourbon Street Blues.  The bar service was exceptional, upon noticing her dislike for the strong flavor of bourbon the manager took it back and removed it from our bill.  I on the other hand selected beer from their large selection of draft and bottled beers.  We did not order meals, but we did notice Crispy Fried Alligator listed on NOLA’s appetizer menu.  Upon seeing this we immediately decided to order a plate.   The appetizer of alligator was very good with a different taste and texture that was foreign to me; it did not just “taste like chicken.”  The taste is difficult to describe; it was a bit chewy and sauce made it a little spicy.  Louisiana style entrees make up the remainder of the menu and curiosity in this cuisine is making me want to go back for a full meal. (For reviews of food click here)  NOLA is a bit on the pricey side but is on par with other trendy restaurants located in the Cultural District and Market Square.

Crispy Fried Alligator
NOLA on the Square is a nice compliment to the new-look Market Square and is a place I’d be willing to try again sometime.  I really enjoyed the atmosphere and design of the restaurant.   It was also nice to see a bustling Market Square on a weeknight.  Is the image of Downtown Pittsburgh as a ghost town after 6pm now a memory?  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves but additions like NOLA are a good start to resuscitate downtown nightlife.
Cheers! Hurricane, pickle and all

Pittsburgh Craft Brew Week!

Pittsburgh Craft Brew Week
Celebrate with some suds -- It's the beginning of Pittsburgh's craft brew week

Stretching from April 20th to the 28th, there's plenty to do including beer tastings and tasty meals.

Make sure to add the calendar of events to your schdule, it's sure to offer many fun times to the newcomer and the grizzled 'brew week' veteran alike.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Pirates Season Preview

Coming of last year's surprise run to first place in July and subsequent epic collapse to a typical 4th place finish, this year's season looks to be a pretty pivotol point for the current era of Pirates baseball.

On the one hand, there is still some lingering excitement over last year. McCutchen is locked up until at least 2017 and seems like the safest option for buying a jersey since Jason Bay. And the additions of A.J. Burnett, Erik Bedard, Clint Barmes, Nate McLouth, Casey McGehee, and Rod Barajas offer the most tangible example I can remember of actual offseason upgrades.

On the other hand, the 2011 collapse was pretty impressive and only reinforced much of the entrenched cynicism in the minds of many could-be fans. Pedro Alvarez, who desperately needs to work out if a postseason run into August or September is going to happen any time soon, is walking a perilously thin line between potential breakout candidate and certified bust. And, the arrival of the best prospects in the system still look to be a few years down the road.

In my mind, the Pirates season is going to be defined by whether or not they can avoid looking like a joke at any point. While last year's run was great and was the perfect spark plug for re-igniting the interest of lot of people in the city, I think a lot of people look at the 19-42 record after the devastating loss to the Braves on a bad call in the 19th inning as more representative of the "real" Pirates. Even if the Pirates could just equal last season's 72-90 record via a more balanced path, I think the perception in the city would be that of a maturing team that is on the right path. An early stumble that puts them immediately out of contention or a late season collapse that undermines the reast of the season could kill any goodwill that's been built up with the local fan base since Clint Hurdle's arrival.

With that said, here's my quick take on how the season could go:

If things go right:
  • The additions of Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett allows the staff to maintain through September. When things were clicking last season for the starters, the Pirates were at their best. It was their inability to stay good that ultimately killed us last season. Injuries, fatigue and inexperience ultimately proved too much in the last third of the season. While Bedard is a Pirate only because of his inability to stay healthy, if those two can be the steadying presences that were lacking late last year, you have to like our chances of winning more than 8 games in August. Plus, by exchanging those two for Maholm, the Pirates have a seven-deep rotation of Bedard-Burnett-McDonald-Morton-Karstens-Correia-Lincoln, not to mention a few promising candidates at AAA Indianapolis.
  • McLouth and McGehee give the Pirates the luxury of depth. Depth is one of those underrated factors that the Pirates have been missing for years. Recently, if a starter went out with injury for even just the minimum 15-day stint on the DL, that pretty much spelled doom. There was no competent option waiting in the wings. So while Barmes and Barajas may or may not be upgrades over Cedeno and Doumit/Snyder, having better spare parts may be the more meaningful upgrade.
  • Pedro is at least competent at the plate. Since Pedro was drafted, he's been counted on to become the slugger the Pirates need him to be. A majorly disappointing 2011, however, has a lot of people ready to write him off. Maybe he's not destined for superstardom, but he can't be a strikeout machine and liability defensively at third base. If he can just become a competent hitter in '12 with the ability to go deep at any time, the added depth to the lineup alone that he represents would be a boon to the team's chances to win on any given day. Turn it around completely and become the middle-of-the-lineup power hitter we so desperately lack, and the Pirates chances at .500+ and late season contention become that much closer to a reality.
If things go wrong:
  • Pedro is a black hole in the lineup. I may have only listed him third amongst the keys to success, but his potential for failure could be the most significant factor in a season flop. If Pedro can't hit and can't field, the team is eventually going to have to do something about it, most likely by starting McGehee. Not only does this scenario mean our lineup is just as impotent as always, it significantly downgrades the depth that is so key to success.
  • Presley-McCutchen-Tabata don't take another step forward. The starting outfield looks to be the one area that this team might actually be ahead of the MLB curve. If those three starters mature, plus McLouth as the fourth outfielder, and prospect Starling Marte waiting for a late season call up, the Pirates suddenly find themselves with a position of strength. Include Gorkys Hernandez in that equation and maybe there's even an opportunity to exploit another team's OF need to win a trade, a la the Penguins flipping Goligoski for Neal last year. However, if Presley and Tabata in particular can't take the next step into real major leaguers, and we're still just mediocre everywhere.
  • Neither Morton nor McDonald emerges. Both have potential to be a top three starter, but neither have shown they can do it for more than brief flashes of time. You gotta think that at least one of them needs to really take a step forward if the staff is going to be asset that it can be. If both flounder, things could unravel quickly.
Other things to look for this season:
  • With a new collective bargaining agreement constraining draft spending, do the Pirates lose the one edge they've had over the past five years? We'll find out in June.
  • With Pujols and Fielder gone and the division's biggest douche, Ryan Braun, possibly off the juice, does a weaker division possibly mean a few extra wins just based on strength of competition? That'd be nice.
  • With as promising of a top 10 prospects list that we've had in years, can the organization actually develop talent? I know I'll be keeping an eye out on the farm system, particularly last year's top two picks Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell and the other potential top-of-the-rotation talents Jameson Taillong and Luis Heredia.
So there's a look at the 2012 Pirates season. I'm a big believer in depth and that's where I think the Pirates finally have done something meaningful for the short term prospects of the big league team. That, and some optimism that McCutchen, Pedro, Morton, McDonald, Presley, and Tabata can be better in aggregate in 2012 than in 2011, and I think the team exceeds last year's win total of 72 wins. And if I'm in for a penny, I might as well go in for a pound. I'll say the Pirates finish the 83-79, finally break the 20 year losing streak and finish just ahead of the fourth-place Brewers, just behind the Wild Card winning Reds.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Van Halen 2012

When Van Halen comes to Pittsburgh, it's more than just a concert. It's a rare event that, alongside stadium implosions and any day at Kennywood, allows for a fully immersive experience within true Yinzer culture. With that in mind, let's recap the Blast Furnace experience attending Van Halen 2012 this past weekend.

The scene is set at Shale's Cafe on 5th, just across the street from Consol. The bar is packed, the bartendering service is lousy, and most people are paying $3 for Coors Light instead of taking advantage of $2 Duquesnes and PBRs. Van Halen classics are playing loud (with the occasional Kool and the Gang hit mixed in) and the buzz is building. In addition to a girl wearing a VH-branded racing jumpsuit, a guy in a Pittsburgh Polish T, and a table of very guidoish-looking types, there was this guy:
Wearing a mesh belly shirt and performing constant air guitar, this was exactly the guy you'd hope to encounter at Van Halen. By the time we decided to move over to Consol, he had managed to end up on some guy's shoulders, taken the pit guard off of our friend's crutch and used it as a fake penis, and got yelled at by the bar tender for using the crutch to smack the ceiling fan.

As for the show itself, it was mostly what you'd hope for. We were entering the area just as Kool and the Gang were wrapping up their set, so our timing was pretty impeccable. Van Halen rocked loud and hard through a set of mostly just their hits, with a few songs from their new album thrown in for good measure. Nothing from the Van Hagar era.

I'd venture to guess that if you were going to see Van Halen for the first time in the post-Hagar era, now was as good as any time to do it. Eddie Van Halen is apparently still on the wagon and the reviews say this tour is more polished than their previous reunion tour in 2007.

The show may have been the loudest concert I've ever experienced. I think that's typically a badge of honor for both the band and the fans, though I think I prefer the volume down just a notch if it means I can hear the guitar just a little bit clearer. After all, seeing Eddie play live is the real attraction. For audience members such as myself, who appreciate Van Halen, but aren't the biggest fans in the world, we mostly wanted to be able to say we've seen one of the greatest guitar players of all time perform live. And in that regard, the show did not disappoint.

Highlights for me mostly revolved around the guitar moments: an opening of Unchained followed by Runnin' With the Devil, well-known hits You Really Got Me and Hot for Teacher, and the culminating moment, EVH's Eruption guitar solo into Ain't Talkin' Bout Love and Jump. Eruption alone was worth the price of admission.

Lowlights included a 10 minute interlude in which David Lee Roth strummed acoustinc guitar and narrated home video of himself training his dogs (really) and just the overall feeling that the show is very tightly scripted, best highlighted by the quick run off at the end and immediate raising of the lights to let you know that there would be no encore.

All in all, seeing Van Halen live in town is something every self-respecting, rock-n-roll loving Pittsburgher should take the opportunity to do the next chance they get. And don't forget to wear you concert tee and denim jacket.

For a more nuanced, musically-appreciative look at the concert, make sure you check out Scott Mervis's review in the PG.