“Man, what am I going to do to follow up the ‘Shaft’ LP? I know — let’s try something badass!”
— Isaac Hayes
Nearly a half-century after being released, Black Moses stands the test of time. It’s a meandering mishmash of disjointed instrumentation and unanticipated musical influences somehow welded together by a singular prophetical artist then at the pinnacle of his power and creativity.
Isaac Hayes’ fifth studio album was so highly anticipated that it was probably doomed from the start upon its original release, given the record company’s lofty expectations combined with insurmountable public demands in the towering shadow of the epic and groundbreaking Shaft movie soundtrack, still climbing the charts, which had been released during the summer five months earlier. Indeed, Shalf solidified Hayes’ presence as a musical monolith, netting him a well-deserved Oscar for its theme song, becoming the first Black Academy Award winner in history in a non-acting category. As the seeds of what would become a funk classic were airing on transistor radios and spinning on turntables everywhere, Hayes re-entered Memphis’ Stax studio pressured to rush-record what would be his second double-album released in the late half of 1971.
Think about that for a moment — Isaac Hayes recorded and released two double albums within a five-month stretch. That’s staggering.
A truly great album becomes transformative, ushering in a new sound reverberating into a vast cultural shockwave. Black Moses was not that album. It would be far more accurate to call it the third in Hayes’ soul trilogy, coming on the coattails of Shaft, which had followed up his breakout masterpiece album, Hot Buttered Soul, released in 1969.
Hot Buttered Soul had been that perfect storm of an album at the ideal time in urban contemporary recording history by a supremely self-confident artist fully prepared to swagger into the empty void left when Otis Redding died young. Hayes grabbed the soul baton and ran into the studio with it determined to create a new sound which became a shared musical holy trinity among his co-contemporaries, Curtis Mayfield and Barry White. But Hayes went beyond sound, morphing into both sytle and statement. His sound and appearance were both daring and deeply introspective. Ultimately, the fruit of Hayes’ three-album musical trifecta would become the soundtrack of the ’70s for millions of listeners, a creative amalgamation which inspired Soul Train (which debuted at precisely the same time of this album), enduring for another decade, and beyond.
Here’s a quick taste. Listen to Hayes interpretation of “Part-Time Love,” which as was so often the case with Hayes, a marked improvement on the original track (hey, give it a listen with headphones while reading this retrospective):
The songs on Black Moses aren’t original. Most of the 14 compositions running a total length of 96 minutes (averaging an unheard of 7 minutes per song, which undoubtedly hampered radio airplay and hurt sales on the singles market) were written and previously recorded by other artists. Nearly a half-century later, what gives this album such an evergreen quality that’s lacking in other collections is the seemingly discordant soundtrack laced so perfectly together with Hayes’ trademark baritone voice and interpretive adventurism, combined with an impeccable sense of musical timing.
By reinterpreting what were once known as songs from the “easy-listening” bin, cut originally by Burt Bachrach (The Carpenters’ #1 hit “Close to You”), Diane Warwick (“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”), and Kris Kristofferson (“For the Good Times”) — Hayes risked his badass reputation among his most loyal urban base. By doing his own thing, Hayes demonstrated just how cool risky musical genre crossover could become when performed with genuine affection and authenticity for the music and lyric. Only Hayes could get away with singing song lyrics made famous by Karen Carpenter and still be looked upon as the hippest guy on the block.
Black Moses was accompanied by considerable behind-the-scenes conflict and public controversy that began even before its release. The album title — “Black Moses” — was widely considered sacrilegious. Hayes had been tagged with the religious and racially-tinged nickname in the racy headline of a Jet magazine feature article, and the name stuck. Hayes, who was deeply religious, initially didn’t like it. Gradually, Hayes began to embrace the nickname, not so much for his own aggrandizement, but rather for the message of power and pride it conveyed. Years later, he said:
“Black men could finally stand up and be men because here’s Black Moses; he’s the epitome of black masculinity. Chains that once represented bondage and slavery now can be a sign of power and strength and sexuality and virility.”
If the album title raised eyebrows, then the cover design was downright scandalous. Many called it outrageous. Some fans who wore out copies of Hot Buttered Soul and Shaft refused to buy Black Moses.
We now forget that album covers were once bold statements, looked upon and works of art and pinnacles of photography. Now, “album covers” barely fit into a tiny square the size of a downloadable thumbnail. Liner notes all but disappeared. Artistry is gone. All the accessories that once made LP albums not merely something to be heard, but also to hold in your hands and fully absorb as a total sensory experience have been replaced by mouseclicks on iTunes. This is what masquerades as progress.
Black Moses took cover art and album design to the very extreme. On the cover, we see Hayes adorned in his Moses-like robe, his eyes shielded by Ray-Ban sunglasses, gazing up to the heavens. Those who first unwrapped the album were in for an even bigger surprise. The cover design opened into a shocking six-square inner fold which, when fully extended to four feet in length, transformed into the shape of a cross.
Not exactly subtle.
Then, there was the music. The sound has since become fertile fodder for parody, which unfortunately has distorted what was (then and now) unique blend of voice, instrumentation, and rhythm. Hayes performs all the lead vocals, frequently backed with a trio of female voices, a staple of late ’60’s R&B that came to define the Motown sound. Hayes also plays all piano and keyboards, including a Hammond organ — which is heard throughout.
It’s as though Hayes never wanted to chase the musical record books. He intentionally extended the lengths of his songs to unplayable lengths on commercial radio stations, going way beyond the conventional 3-minute hook designed to sell records. Every selection on Black Moses clocks in at 5 minutes or more, with some tracks approaching 10 minutes in duration. With Hayes, it was never about the money. It was about the music, one reason he declared bankruptcy a few years after this album was released to lackluster reviews, despite this third in a stellar trilogy of creativity.
Black Moses was panned when it came out. Rolling Stone trashed it (since then, they’ve regraded the album far more favorably). In retrospect, we’ve come to recognize this album’s enduring musical and cultural legacy, with its shattering of conventional expectations during an era of intense change and upheaval. It’s become a pillar of soul reflective of a coming out party for urban culture and ultimately an expression of self-identity.
Black Moses ranks among my top 100 essential albums of all time, although it’s a flawed masterpiece. With each new album and interpretive take on a familiar song, we hear and see Hayes struggling to out-do himself from the one before. Even for Isaac Hayes, in the recording studio or performing live, he was an impossible act to follow.
Here’s Hayes’ recording of The Carpenters’ classic, “Close to You.”
Note: This is the first of a series of reviews and retrospectives of my 100 essential albums, expected to be posted here over the next year or so. Countdown #100: “Black Moses” by Isaac Hayes
I recently went to dinner with poker legend Doyle Brunson.
Prior to this interview, which took place at Roma Deli in Las Vegas in May 2018, I asked Doyle to come up with a list of his “20 favorite westerns.”
Doyle couldn’t contain himself. He not only came up with 20 great westerns. He tripled the request and listed more than 60 favorites. Doyle probably could have listed at least 100 movies and talked about every single one of them. Most incredible, without any notes or references, even at age 84, Doyle was able to remember and recite intricate details about each movie and shared with us why each film on his list meant something special to him.
Here is PART 1 of the series, which ranks Doyle’ favorite movie westerns — numbers #31 through #60. The video clip runs about 20 minutes. CLICK LINK HERE
You can also see the list of Doyle’s favorite westerns ranked at the 5th Street Sports website.
Last night, I almost walked out of my first movie the year.
But morbid curiosity kept my ass parked in the seat and my eyes fixated on the screen. This movie has to get better — I thought to myself. It just has to. So, I decided to stick it out until the very end.
Big mistake. It didn’t get better. It got worse. Way worse.
The two lead characters kill themselves in the final scene. They offed themselves by inhaling the poisonous exhaust fumes of a 1975 Winnebago. No folks, I didn’t make this up. Seriously. That’s how the movie ended — two lifeless bodies charred like day-old brisket locked in a smoker. Roll the credits!
Anyone up for some Lucille’s barbecue, afterward? Never mind, doggie bags. Two caskets, please.
Oh, and the movie was advertised as one of those light comedy-romance road trips supposedly filled with lots of wisdom and reflections of life. Buckle up! Start the engine! Pure joy!
Man, I wish I’d walked out.
On average, I see about 20 to 25 movies per year in theaters which comes to one film every two weeks. My walk-out frequency is about ten percent, which means I don’t fuck around, folks. Yes, I storm out of 2 to 3 movies per year. My departure rate would be much higher if I didn’t do some serious screening and filtering. I do read critics reviews and tend to see movies on subjects that interest me. I stay away from horror films and Adam Sandler movies, which for me is kinda’ the same thing.
Here’s a short list of ten well-known movies I remember walking out on. Obviously, I’ve stormed out of many lesser-known (now forgotten) movies. This list of ten movies includes some better-known and even widely popular films I couldn’t stomach until the end:
BIRD  — This was Clint Eastwood’s pet project for many years and for him a departure from the usual westerns and crime dramas. It’s an overly-long film biography based on the all-too-short life of jazz great Charlie Parker (a.k.a. “Bird”). This sure sounds like a compelling story. The soundtrack alone stacked with Parker’s original recordings and outtakes would seem to be more than enough to carry the film through to the end. But I made it only about midway. Every note is flat instead of sharp. Parker sure loved his dope. If he shared a few snorts, I might have lasted a bit longer. Congrats, Bird — you were my first walk out.
LA DOLCE VITA  — This Italian classic directed by Federico Fellini was made two years before I was born. I saw it much later on at a retro-cinema which played nothing but old movies. Wow. What heaping pile of shit. Yeah, sure. I get all the cinematic breakthroughs film students woo about that were abundant throughout this film, and I sure love European period pieces from this era. But holy spaghetti, couldn’t someone at least have written a decent script for starters? Unsure if perhaps my earlier impression was wrong, I tried watching this again on television many years later (perhaps my tastes had changed, or perhaps I even matured — wishful thinking, indeed). The second viewing, I didn’t make it as far as the first time. Don’t ask me how La Dolce Vita ends. I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I will never know. I don’t care. But if someone’s made it through to the end and can report it involves Winnebago exhaust fumes, please message me. I’d be delighted to give it a third try.
STAR WARS  — I forgot which Star Wars movie I hated. Well, just about all of them. But the one with Liam Neeson as a swordfighter with a giant man-bun where Natalie Portman plays a queen who looks like she has lip cancer was the worst of the worst. I kinda’ liked the first Star Wars movie, but everything made since then has been horrible (I’ve only seen three films to be fair — realizing this franchise with spaceships, special effects, and grunting gorillas isn’t suited to my taste). I made it through about an hour and 20 minutes of the Neeson-Portman Star Wars (Phantom Menace) but then gave up. It was playing at the $1 movie. I was tempted to ask for my buck back but the manager might have called the cops. Damn place was packed with geeks, many apparently seeing the movie for the up-teenth time, hanging on every word from Portman’s lip melanoma.
LORD OF THE RINGS  — I’m not into midgets, dancing ferries, and weird-looking old wise men with wild hair and long beards — although that last remark hits just a little too close to home. I bought a ticket to the first Peter Jackson movie (I hear this was a trilogy — but all it took for me was ONE STRIKE, and I was OUT). Beforehand, I was kicking and screaming and knew I’d hate it. But hey, it won “Best Picture,” so everyone’s right and I must be wrong. Well — I was right, again. About 40 minutes into a parade of waddling midgets and doddering old people, I turned to Marieta (wife) and said, “fuck it….we’re out of here.” She replied, “thank you!!!….I thought maybe it was just me. Let’s fucking go!!!” Great minds think alike.
MONSTER’S BALL — I had to see what all the hoopla was about surrounding Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning performance, even though from what I can tell she’s never made a decent movie — including this one. At one point, Berry screws hillbilly hunk Billy Bob Thorton, who plays a redneck racist (I know, so hard to buy into the casting). If the scene of Thorton banging Berry isn’t enough to make you squirm and storm out and head straight for a shower with a fresh bar of Lava, then nothing else will. Afterward, I felt as though I’d overdosed on a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken at a Ku Klux Klan rally. Bwwwwwaaaaah.
NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE  — Dumb as fuck. I lost IQ points inside the theater. Give me some credit, please. I gave it the old college try. I gave it my best shot. The movie theater was packed with pimply 14-year-olds all giggling like schoolgirls high on paint fumes. Looking back now, I think the scene of the suicidal Winnebago I witnessed last night was funnier than Napolean Dynamite. Total dreck. By the way, what happened to the actor who played the lead? Did he do a McCaulay Culkin? No one’s seen him sense. So, perhaps the film wasn’t totally without redeeming qualities.
THE BLACK DAHLIA  — Not exactly Brian De Palma’s best work. Wish I had a Full Metal Jacket because after seeing this I sure felt like Scarface. Pre-crazy Angelina Jolie stars in this movie about a true crime that happened in Los Angeles during the 1940’s. Josh Hartnett co-starred. Something about Josh Hartnett seriously creeps me out. I can’t stand the guy. Gawd, this movie sucked. Lasted about 40 minutes and then split the cinematic crime scene. De Palma should have been charged with pickpocketing in a mass class-action lawsuit for making this film.
CASINO ROYALE — I’ve seen just about all the James Bond films. This marks the downfall, the turning point where the franchise turned sour for me, which wasn’t entirely Daniel Craig’s fault (though he desperately lacks the panache and humor of his predecessors). Casino Royale was a dull remake of an earlier film that wasn’t very good to begin with. The Bond franchise has since become an extended 2-hour commercial, a shameless succession of product placements and little more than an excuse to squeeze every last dollar out of a corpse of creativity. Even the once-great villains in Bond movies are boring as fuck. Producer Barbara Broccoli, who inherited this film dynasty from her late father should not be allowed anywhere near a movie studio unless she’s holding a garden hose. And besides, the poker scenes were atrocious.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY  — Someone should have received an Oscar for somehow making writer-spymaster John le Carre so boring as to be utterly unwatchable. I thought such a thing would have been impossible. Hard to believe the great Gary Oldman couldn’t salvage this snoozefest that seemed to be shot through a cloudy camera lens that desperately needed a blast of Windex. This might be dullest, slowest-moving, most pointless movie I’ve ever attempted to stick through. I didn’t make it and surrendered to the Russians about an hour in. So dull, it makes the thought of attending an insurance seminar instead seem like a wild sex orgy.
ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES — I blame myself entirely. What in the hell was I thinking even remotely considering this would be something I’d enjoy? It can’t really be that bad, can it? Well, yeah — it was that bad. Holy shit — what an awful movie. A painful experience. Makes Mall Cop seem like Serpico. Of course, defying all human decency, Anchorman and Anchorman 2 earned millions at the box office and they’ll probably make a dozen more. The official title of this excruciating exercise in filmmaking is “The Legend Continues.” Please, dear god. Don’t let this legend continue. Makes Police Academy 6 look like Vertigo.
I’m not much of a baseball fan, that is, except when I gamble on the games. Then, I become a fanatic. I don’t have a favorite team. I cheer for whichever team I bet on.
Baseball is strange. Unlike football, baseball doesn’t come across particularly well on television. Yet for reasons I can’t explain, baseball is far superior when it comes to being the subject of movies. At least a dozen outstanding baseball movies and documentaries instantly come to mind, which you’ll read about shortly. Meanwhile, I struggle to come up with even a single great movie about football. Or, basketball. Or, most other sports. Go figure.
What follows are my all-time favorite movies about baseball.
First, let’s begin with my four “Honorable Mentions.” This means movies well worth seeing, but didn’t quite round all the bases and crack my top ten list:
Mickey Mantle carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders. He was the most popular athlete in America on the most storied franchise in sports history during an era when the country was at the height of its world power when nothing seemed impossible. Mantle’s towering home runs and infectious “aw-shucks” attitude masked deeply hidden insecurities. He played hard on the field and then partied much harder off of it. Was Mantle, as some insist, a tragic hero? That’s for us to decide in this mesmerizing film directed by George Roy, who produced several other terrific sports documentaries. Mantle steadfastly refuses to lionize the ex-New York Yankee great. Instead, this gripping hour-long biography from HBO Films provides an honest and revealing portrait of a shy country boy from rural Oklahoma who made it big in New York City and then slowly threw it all away one drink at a time. His story passionately told through surviving family members and several notable celebrities who grew up worshipping “the Mick.” The final scenes of a once-great Mantle reduced to a broken man overwhelmed with grief and consumed by regret is heartbreaking. “You talk about a role model….,” Mantle tearfully says during his dying final hours. “….Yeah, I’m a role model — don’t be like me.” This documentary can be watched in its entirety HERE.
A League of Their Own (1992)
Penny Marshall directed this fun caper about an all-ladies baseball team based on a real pro baseball league for women which existed during the 1940’s. Buoyed by a terrific script, an outstanding musical soundtrack, and excellent performances throughout from an all-star cast, A League of Their Own has become one of the most successful baseball movies of all time — both at the box office and by critical acclaim. Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Jon Lovitz, Rosie O’Donnell, David Strathairn, Garry Marshall, and Bill Pullman are each perfectly cast in a movie that will leave you laughing and cheering in equal measure. See the movie trailer — HERE.
For every multi-million dollar earning superstar who makes it big in the majors, unnamed thousands do not. Failing to make it as a pro is a tough reality for anyone to face. But it’s even more of a devastation to ballplayers born in the Caribbean, for which baseball has become one of the only exits out of a life of poverty. Over many decades, a vast number of “immigrant athletes” arrived in America dreaming of success. Each young man carried the longshot hopes of their families back at home. Most struggled in the minor leagues for a few years before eventually being cut by management. They return to the barren sandlots where the seeds of ambition first took to bloom and fade into oblivion. Sugar is a little-known movie (mostly in Spanish with English subtitles) about a once-gifted pitcher from the Dominican Republic. He’s determined to use his left arm and a wicked curveball to lift himself and his family out of the slums of Santo Domingo. He dreams of buying a Cadillac with his first paycheck. Then, upon arrival in the Midwest, reality sets in. Trapped in a foreign land, riding buses between ball fields, and lacking the language skills that might offer other alternatives, Sugar increasingly feels isolation and loneliness. The stress of making it to the majors and signing the big contract that can alter the lives of loved ones back at home is slowly corroded by the ticking time clock on every young ballplayer, leading to the depressing self-realization that for most people, dreams don’t come true. If this movie sounds sad, well it is sad — in parts. But it’s also surprisingly uplifting. I’ll leave it at that and let the suspense linger. Watch the movie trailer HERE.
Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush (2007)
No team meant more to the people of a place than the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Ghosts of Flatbush is the true story not just of a baseball team, but of neighborhoods otherwise segregated by race, class, ethnicity, and religion — which all unite as one community to cheer on the beloved team at Ebbets Field. This documentary does a terrific job explaining why the so-called Brooklyn “bums” were such an integral part of so many people’s lives. Oddly, the Dodgers weren’t popular because they were winners. To the contrary, the club struggled for a half-century — in glaring juxtaposition to their two snobby rivals across the East River — the glorious dynasty known as the Yankees up in the Bronx and the deep-rooted Giants who played in uptown Manhattan. Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue may have been just a subway ride away from Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds, but the working-class team and its loyal fans might as well have been from a different city on the other side of the planet. We learn why the great Jackie Robinson was such a transformative historical figure, not just in sports as the first Black man to break baseball’s longstanding color barrier, but as an icon for American culture. After spending decades near the bottom of the standings, by 1947 (Robinson’s first year) the Dodgers were every bit as talented as the hated Yankees. Then, just when Brooklyn finally beats the Yankees in the World Series for the first time which sends Flatbush into a frenzy, it all vanishes. The Dodgers break millions of hearts by packing up and moving to Los Angeles. The move wasn’t just a devastating blow to fans. The club’s abandonment came to symbolize an economic shift and cultural sunset on Brooklyn that plagued the borough for the next half-century. The full two-hour movie can be seen HERE.
Now, here’s my top ten countdown:
 Major League (1989)
Before Charlie Sheen went cocaine crazy, he starred in some really good movies — most notably Wall Street. However, Sheen is better known for playing “Wild Thing,” the erratic pitcher in the romp camp comedy Major League. Never to be taken too seriously, this fun movie features a rogue team of misfits who play for baseball’s perennial laughingstock (at the time) — the last-place Cleveland Indians. Comprised of by an ideal cast — including Tom Berenger, Rene Russo, Wesley Snipes, and Corbin Benson — Major League became an instant crowd-pleaser and grossed millions at the box office. Unfortunately, that massive success led to two awful sequels which followed. But later misfires don’t detract from our enjoyment of the original. Watch the movie trailer HERE.
 Bull Durham (1988)
I’ve heard several movie buffs insist Bull Durham is a woman’s movie. Are we allowed to say “Chick Flick?” I’m not sure about that. Writer-director Ronald Shelton based his film on real-life experiences when he was playing minor league baseball years earlier for the Durham Bulls (hence, the film’s unusual title). Susan Sarandon is caught in a love triangle between a rising baseball star (played by Tim Robbins) who is destined for the major leagues versus a fading has-been who’s aging fast and likely in the last months of his final season (played by Kevin Kostner). Bull Durham successfully blends drama, romance, baseball, and comedy into a film that’s established a lasting legacy with movie audiences. It’s often ranked among the best sports movies ever made. I don’t rate it quite so high, but it’s certainly a well-crafted film carried by excellent performances throughout. Bull Durham’s trailer can be seen HERE.
 Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
One year before Robert De Niro was cast in his breakthrough Academy-Award winning role in The Godfather: Part II, he played a struggling major league catcher with diminished mental capabilities. Adding to the challenges of trying to be a regular guy on the team and fit normally into society, he’s diagnosed with a terminal illness during a midseason pennant race. Fearful that his disease will create even more problems and quite possibly trigger a release from the team, with the help of his best friend (a pitcher played by Michael Moriarity), the duo tries to keep the catcher’s terminal illness a secret. Based on a book of the same title written 15 years earlier, Bang the Drum Slowly is sometimes referred to as baseball’s Brian’s Song. This mostly-forgotten film often gets overlooked in the broader pantheon of great sports movies. But it certainly merits a place. The chemistry between catcher De Niro and Moriarity, along with club manager Vincent Gardenia is often deeply moving. There are scenes which stick with me to this day, decades after seeing the movie. The film’s credibility is enhanced by being shot on location at old Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium during midseason while the respective pro teams were away on road trips. From the empty beer cups littering the outfield to the towels laying all over the locker room, everything looks and feels very real. This isn’t really a romanticized story about baseball. This isn’t a story about illness and death. It’s the story of friendship and the power of the human spirit. Watch the film trailer HERE.
 Eight Men Out (1988)
What really happened with the ill-fated 1919 Chicago White Sox? They were a great team which intentionally lost the baseball World Series to satisfy personal grievances with their tight-fisted owner and collect bribes from shady gamblers determined to bet on the fix. Why they did it and which specific players were involved and to what degree is one of the worst scandals in sports history remains a subject of lively speculation nearly a century later. This movie won’t reveal any hidden secrets, nor solve lingering mysteries. Still, Eight Men Out remains a thoroughly entertaining account of what made eight players on the very best team in baseball abandon their desire to win a championship in exchange for revenge and profit. Critical reception to this film was (and is) mixed, and I can appreciate both sides. Non-baseball fans may be underwhelmed by the story of corrupt ballplayers who were kicked out of the game and were given lifetime bans from baseball as a fitting punishment. Yet, most hard-core baseball fans love this film and many sympathize with the players as victims. As the umpire, my ruling is — Eight Men Out is a broken-bat lead-off stand-up triple. The official trailer can be seen HERE.
 The Natural (1984)
Every boy dreams at least once about being Roy Hobbs; stepping up to the plate in the bottom of the 9th; glaring at a mighty fastball; taking a backbreaking swing; then cracking a game-winning home run out of the park into the upper deck light towers. It’s the stuff boyhood dreams are made of. Director Barry Levinson completely understood this fantasy. Accordingly, he crafted one of the greatest baseball movies ever — The Natural. Robert Redford plays the aging ballplayer Hobbs with a mysterious past. Glenn Close plays his long-lost love interest and muse. Audiences will also recognize the rest of a stellar cast — which includes Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Barbara Hershey, Richard Farnsworth, Joe Don Baker, Darren McGavin, and Michael Madsen. However, the dramatic film score by the great songwriter-composer Randy Newman steals the film. Combined with mystifying visuals in the hands of a masterful filmmaker like Levinson, this makes for a cinematic grand slam. When old-fashioned filmgoers complain they don’t make movies like they used to — what they likely miss are movies like The Natural. This film is a throwback to a time when honesty, integrity, and a person’s character mattered most and baseball was looked to as the kettle of those noble virtues. Watch the final dramatic home run smash HERE.
 Ken Burns: Baseball (1994)
Measured either by ambition or sheer volume, filmmaker Ken Burns’ nine-part film masterpiece on the history of baseball might convincingly be argued as the best movie of its kind ever made on the subject (I considered placing this artistic gem as my #1). I wasn’t sure it was fair to compare documentaries alongside mostly fictionalized stories, which comprise most of this list. But then I realized leaving them out would be a grave injustice. Ken Burns: Baseball originally aired on PBS back in 1994 over a two-week stretch. It became one of the most watched public television programs ever. Nearly 25 years later, it continues to stand the test of time. Baseball was a daring follow-up to Burns’ epic breakthrough documentary series on the American Civil War which had been completed a few years earlier. Taking on something so sacred as “the national pastime” seemed an impossible reach. However, Burns stepped up to the plate and whacked our most lofty expectations out of the park. This film isn’t just about baseball. It’s really the story of American culture’s coming of age during the 20th century, manifested in its most popular sport — baseball. Unapologetically patriotic, informative, riveting, inspirational, and downright poetic in parts, this is the quintessential duel-purpose documentary which somehow satisfies both general movie audiences and academic purists. Burn’s storytelling techniques influenced a whole genre of documentaries for decades to follow, which remain with us to this day. This opening monologue, running about three minutes long, is absolutely brilliant. Watch HERE and see if you agree.
 Pride of the Yankees (1942)
What’s not to love and admire about the heroic story of the great Lou Gehrig, played by movie legend Gary Cooper? One year to the day before the film’s release, the ex-New York Yankee great died tragically from ALS, a dreaded and debilitating disease which not only took Lou Gehrig’s life but also his name. Gehrig is aptly idolized in Pride of the Yankees, which became the first great sports movie. It received ten Oscar nominations (more than any other film on my list). His relationships with family, teammates, and fans are sentimentalized in a way that likely wouldn’t be believed today. It might even seem a bit hokey. But back then, Americans badly needed something to cheer for. America desperately needed heroes in those dark months after the attack on Pearl Harbor when the outbreak of the war wasn’t going well for the U.S. and its allies and the future of the world seemed in peril. Even in death, Gehrig was a lighthouse of life, exhibiting class and dignity until the very end. With hundreds of thousands of servicemen about to be shipped off to battles in the Pacific, the Atlantic, Europe, and North Africa Pride of the Yankees was a reminder of just what exactly they all were fighting for. I really liked this musical montage with clips from the movie — check it out HERE.
 Moneyball (2011)
Moneyball has the added intrigue of being a true story. Brad Pitt plays the role of Billy Beane, the former real-life general manager of the Oakland Athletics during a time when baseball’s playing field wasn’t level. Teams with fewer resources and small payrolls simply couldn’t compete with the far-richer mammoth franchises. Facing financial and competitive disadvantages, Beane (aided by a colleague perfectly portrayed by Jonah Hill) came up with an unorthodox idea that came to revolutionize baseball and later other sports too, focusing almost exclusively on the use of analytics. The book of the same title effectively explains the technical minutiae. But how does a movie intended to appeal to mass audiences make data-driven decisions in cramped offices seem interesting? Answer: Call in Aaron Sorkin to write the script. As is typical with most of Sorkin’s work, Moneyball’s snappy dialogue becomes almost rhythmic. Somehow, we begin to understand why spreadsheets create singles. It’s not bats that put curveballs down the third-base line. It’s calculations and percentages. Still, the purists continued to have their doubts. Even Beane begins to doubt himself and questions his own system. Then during the middle of 2002 regular season — lacking anyone on the roster who even remotely might be considered a superstar — Oakland goes on a 19-game winning streak, tying the American League record for most consecutive victories. Soon thereafter, every team in baseball wants to hire Beane. Even clubs that don’t offer contracts adapt his brilliant use of sabermetrics. Hence, baseball is a game changed forever. Unlike most of the other films on this list, there’s little sentimentality to Moneyball. It’s very likely the most accurate portrayal of what the game is today. See the trailer HERE.
 Field of Dreams (1989)
Field of Dreams has become so mythologized as a cinematic fairy tale that its most famous quote “If you build it, they will come” is now the motto of every believer carrying a dream. The film has come to symbolize the virtues of sticking with one’s own faith even when there’s compelling evidence to the contrary. Believe in yourself even with others may not. Kevin Costner plays an Iowa corn farmer with a wife and daughter. However, these are tough economic times in the American heartland. Costner’s family appears to have run out of options. Their crisis is worsened by a crazy idea inspired by a vision one evening, a voice from the sky which instructs Costner’s character to build a baseball field in the middle of a cornfield. The film seems preposterously implausible on the surface but somehow convinces us all that our subconscious gut instincts are both real and should even be pursued. Field of Dreams is made all the better by strong supporting roles played by Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, and Burt Lancaster (in what most fittingly was his final film appearance). It’s hard to convey the mesmerizing quality of this film without seeing it. Many critics consider it the best baseball movie ever made. Hard to disagree. But I think there’s one film that’s even better. Watch the official trailer HERE.
 The Bad News Bears (1976)
If there’s one film which perfectly captures the times in which it was made, it’s the 1976 baseball classic, The Bad News Bears. It’s cynical. It’s profane. It’s joyous. It’s a double-barrelled middle finger to the establishment. A scathing takedown of suburban American life in all its competitive-infested hypocrisies, the misfit Bears take a flamethrower and incinerate every common societal expectation. Against all odds, each individual, by working together as a team, manages to create his and her own self-identity. Incited by a heretical set of values preached but rarely followed, the film manages to incriminate what we normally define as success.
Walter Matthau plays an alcoholic loser and emotionally distant loner tasked with the undesirable role no one else wants — managing a last-place little league baseball team that’s terrible. The Bad News Bears works completely because it treats the kids (all ballplayers) as real people worthy of respect, instead of cute muppet-like caricatures often portrayed in similar movies. It’s hard to appreciate just how scandalous the anti-PC script and characters were 42 years ago when this movie was released. Yet instead of a movie degraded by bratty kids cursing gratuitously and even being subject to several instances of emotional abuse, what we see instead is the very first movie which shows how most kids growing up in America really talk and behave. Rolling Stone wrote in its review: “These pre-teens are unwashed, obnoxious, cynical, fractious, gleefully profane, unrepentantly juvenile, and deeply untrusting of any sort of authority — in other words, just like the kids you probably played team sports with.”
There numerous metaphors throughout the film — some obvious, others more subtle — intended as a stinging social commentary. Yet oddly enough, The Bad News Bears is still often classified as a kids’ movie, when it’s really a blistering revelation of misbehaving adults. The movie also has an unusual and little-known connection to Field of Dreams — Burt Lancaster’s last movie. His son, Bill Lancaster wrote the script for The Bad News Bears. It’s often been said that baseball’s history is the story of America. If so, then this the chapter where we’re all forced to gaze into the mirror and decide whether or not we like what we see.
By the way, Chico’s Bail Bonds (which really did sponsor the team and branded the Bears’ uniforms) is a real company based in the San Fernando Valley, where the movie was shot on location.
WATCH MORE HERE: Here’s a one-minute clip which highlights the majesty of this movie.
SEE MORE HERE: Watch this 3-minute clip of a film critic who explains more about the genius of The Bad News Bears.
Note: Do not be confused by the horrid 2005 remake of this movie, starring Billy Bob Thorton, which is unwatchable. Also, skip the two sequels missing Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal.
Finally, if you’d like to see what movies didn’t get on base, here’s a link to the IMDB WEBSITE PAGE with a nearly-complete list of all the films made about baseball.
I love classic French cooking but hate nouveau cuisine. I love cheap local eateries but loathe fast food. I adore butter bombs, spices, onions, and garlic and garlic and more garlic, but won’t touch a green pea or a mushroom. I drink wine daily but never order wine in restaurants. I demand everything to be fresh and try to avoid frozen or processed foods, but I can devour a half gallon of ice cream in a single sitting. I go through spells where I eat strict vegetarian and then turn into a werewolf the next week.
I’m willing to spend good money on fine food. But I’m always cost-conscious. In fact, every culinary decision I make is based on value. Is this worth the money? Do I feel like I got the best end of the bargain? If so, that’s a restaurant I’ll return to many times. You can always find a good meal for $50. You can always find a great meal for $100. But find me a fantastic meal for $20. That’s where I want to go.
Yesterday in PART 1, I listed five great comfort meals in Las Vegas — priced at less than $20. Continuing on with PART 2 here are five more recommended lunches and dinners….and then some:
Wherever I go, I’ve discovered great barbecue joints are often located in the shittiest areas of town. Las Vegas is no exception.
Rollin’ Smoke is off Industrial Road, on Highland Drive, two arteries in the bowels the casino district. Nestled in dingy strip mall beneath a busy expressway, Rollin’ Smoke opened for business about ten years ago and has since become one of those hidden food havens everyone seeks out. It’s now a locals’ favorite. This isn’t a hangout where you’ll find tourists.
Instead, expect to see casino executives and construction workers lining up faithfully at a busy lunch counter to place their orders. Rollin’ Smoke offers the standard barbecue options — consisting of pork, beef, chicken, sausage. Drinks are serve-yourself, with the added southern charm of pre-sweetened ice tea. Lunch/dinner platters are served on metal trays with wax paper. Seating is mostly picnic tables, with thick rolls of paper towels at the centerpiece. The floors are concrete. Not a great place for a first date, unless you’re from Little Rock. But what great barbecue.
Rollin’ Smoke serves meats cooked up Texas-style, although ownership would bristle at the slanderous classification. Indeed, restaurant walls are saturated with Arkansas memorabilia, including a giant state flag and trophies of real (dead) Razorbacks. A Razorback is a feral pig and the proud nickname of the University of Arkansas football team.
I’ve sung the “pig sooie” battle cry many times after eating at Rollin’ Smoke. My favorite entre is the Sliced Smoked Beef Brisket, priced at $10.99 for a half pound of heaven. The full pound costs $18.99. Each entre includes a side dish and the baked beans make for the perfect kicker. Rollin’ Smoke’s brisket is unique in taste because it’s given a dry rub of peppery spices before many hours of slow heat and smoke. After it’s been sliced and served, the peppery edges make a merely good barbecue divine. It’s one of the best beef briskets I’ve ever enjoyed. You’ll be picking peppercorns out of your teeth two hours later. Ah, the memories.
The rest of the menu (including ribs) is a very good show, but not quite at the pinnacle of the brisket, which is the undeniable superstar.
Overall, this a joint where you go to eat and expect nothing else. A deliciously-satisfying meal with a drink plus tax rounds up to about $17, and that’s with a buck tip to the nice young man who takes away your tray and wipes down the picnic table for the next hungry customer.
[Note: Rollin’ Smoke took over Billy’s Barbecue on West Tropicana, which was also very good. I have not had the chance to try this location since Rollin’ Smoke bought them out, but I presume it’s equal to what’s served at the flagship location next to The Strip]
Khoury’s Mediterranean is a popular Lebanese restaurant in Village Square, at the corner of West Sahara and Fort Apache. This location has been open slightly more than a year after spending a decade hidden away in the far southwest corner of Las Vegas. This is another local gem, virtually unknown by tourists.
Khoury is one of the most popular surnames in Lebanon. The Khoury’s are a local Las Vegas family and can often be seen them working side by side in the kitchen or running the floor. Pictures of the smiling Khoury family decorate the walls. This isn’t just a restaurant. It is a display of pride.
Marieta and I have dined at Khoury’s 60-70 times over the past decade, including celebratory New Years Eve dinners. We’ve enjoyed just about everything listed on the menu. For those unfamiliar with Lebanese cooking, two highly-recommended dishes are the Kafta Kabob and/or the Kafta sandwich served with fresh cut fries.
My favorite dish is the Kibbi platter. This classic recipe consists of spiced ground beef rolled into a golf ball-sized clump sprinkled with fresh pine nuts. Next, an outer cask of bulger wheat engulfs the tasty treat inside and then the entire fist-sized ball is deep fried. The wheat, pine nuts, beef, and spices blend to absolute perfection. If that’s not enough flavor, then a house-made yogurt side sauce makes for dipping.
Kibbi platters are served with a side of whole grain rice, with a tinge of olive oil and a fresh salad of your choice. The Tabbouleh is marvelous here, but I usually opt instead for the house Khoury’s salad, which is ecstasy for garlic lovers. This is a tongue-burning joy. All entrees also include a generous pie-dough sized portion of Lebanese pita, which is freshly-baked in a brick oven. The bread always comes out piping hot and is puffed out like a balloon. Khoury’s even serves fresh butter (no cheap margarine). Add a tall glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade as the perfect topper.
Incredibly, the Kibbi platter with all the accompaniments is priced at a marvelously affordable $13 for lunch and $18 for dinner (which consists of a much larger portion). Either option is a slam dunk bargain and a great meal. You will become a regular, for sure. Give Khoury’s a try.
Trout Almondine is my favorite dish. I’ve had it hundreds of times in far too many restaurants to count. The best Trout Almondine is served in the very finest restaurants in New Orleans, and I’ve been to every one of them (some multiple time). If I have a foodie fetish, you can probably tell — it’s for Trout Almondine.
[Note: Almondine is also commonly spelled “Amandine” or “Almandine”]
The classic French-Louisiana recipe calls for fresh rainbow trout (commonly shipped from Idaho in this part of the country). The fish is seasoned, then doused in flour (or cornmeal), and then pan seared in olive oil and sprinkled with toasted almonds (sometimes it’s fried). Finally, the fully cooked boneless trout filet is basted in a Beurre Blanc sauce, which means “white butter.”
The downside to being a hopeless food snob Trout Almondine aficionado is maturing into a spoiled-rotten brat. Guilty as charged. There are many unacceptable Trout Almondine options around the country, and Las Vegas offers only a few choices which I grade as passable. Put this way, I can count them on one hand.
The very best Trout Almondine priced at less than $20 is served at King’s Fish House, in the Green Vally Ranch retail district, next to the casino in Henderson. Large and often noisy, with optional outdoor patio seating, King’s appeals to just about everyone.
Coastal dwellers won’t be impressed, perhaps. But given we’re in the middle of the desert, it’s tough to find fresh fish and decent seafood, unless you’re willing to shell out $100 someplace on The Strip. King’s is the far more accessible and affordable option, which includes the widest variety of foods from the sea.
King’s does Trout Almondine right. It’s the best recipe (for the money) I’ve tasted outside of New Orleans. For $18 (lunch), a nice portion of fresh fish is served, along with the two side dishes (no ala carte here — nice to see a restaurant refusing to nickel and dime guests for the extras). My favorite accompaniments include the buttered corn, which is sliced right off the cob and then seasoned, along with garlic spinach served in a small iron ramekin. That way, I can order the spinach and brag that I tried to eat a healthy meal.
King’s also offers the best San Francisco-style sourdough bread in the city, which is airy fresh and served with real butter. I’m also quite fond of their house specialty drinks, best of all the Agave Sting — silver tequila, fresh lime, Jalapeño, basil, and pineapple….poured on the rocks with a chili salt rim. It’s amazing.
El Segundo Sol is the creative brainchild of master chef Terry Lynch, responsible for making Mon Ami Gabi (Paris Casino) one of the most popular restaurants in Las Vegas. Lynch’s attention to the slightest detail is self-evident in every drink or bite or taste. I’ve listened to Lynch talk affectionately about food for hours, going into painstaking detail as to why he selected a specific type of rice to accompany a dish. His cooking classes aren’t just fun foodie events. They are spiritually-infused sermons, transformational experiences filled with culinary and cultural enrichment.
Lynch departed Las Vegas about a year ago to launch a new restaurant in Japan, but his mark remains indelible. El Segundo Sol is a Mexican restaurant located right underneath Maggiono’s, at Fashion Show Mall across the street from the Wynn/Encore. But don’t look for Tex-Mex and margaritas made with an industrial powder mixer. Instead, El Segundo Sol uses classic recipes and natural ingredients popular in Jalisco and Yucatan.
I remember Lynch once ranting about the depreciated peppers grown in the United States and served in most traditional Mexican restaurants. So, his kitchen insisted on the far zestier peppers imported from central Mexico shipped to flag-plant authenticity. Homemade cheeses and sauces served here don’t rely on the cheapest local dairy. This restaurant relies on a fresh supply of superior products from the great Straus Dairy in Sonoma (California). Yes, you can taste the difference.
Everything on the menu is excellent. For $7.95, two homemade corn tamales with a creme fraiche sauce nearly lifts the bar of expectation to an impossible height. However, if forced to pick and chose, I’d go with any enchilada dish (cheese, chicken breast, or slow-braised beef), which offers a spectacular combination of flavors at a reasonable cost of $17.95.
Enchiladas are served on an oval-shaped platter and come with an original black bean recipe combined with their signature cilantro rice — which is the best rice I’ve ever tasted. Thanks again, Terry Lynch for sampling 40 different rice varieties first before settling on this gem of a taste. What really pushes this dish over the top are the two sauces, one red and one green. They are served in small tin cups and can be applied sparingly or generously, according to taste. It’s a waltz for the taste buds.
If enchiladas aren’t your thing, then go for the tacos instead, which are served roll-your-own style. It’s just about as good.
El Segundo Sol is the best Mexican-themed restaurant in Las Vegas and a definite reason to drive down to The Strip. Parking beneath the mall is free and just steps away from the front entrance. Moreover, the restaurant continues its tradition of monthly cooking classes (Saturday mornings) and special dinners, which are a bargain since a four-course meal and multiple margaritas are always included.
One more helpful hint: Request a table inside, since the music can be loud on the terrace and it gets hot in the summer. It’s much nicer in the back.
Addendum: This dish would be my favorite, but it’s not regularly on the menu. It’s shrimp basted in achiote, with rice, beans, and homemade corn tortillas. Read more about El Segundo Sol in my review with lots more photos I took, published in 2014: Restaurant Review: El Segundo Sol
I can hear the laughter now. I’m recommending a visit to famed chef André Rochat’s restaurant — and suggesting a hamburger?
Yes, I am.
The trick is to visit Andre’s between 3 pm and 6 pm on Monday through Friday, which is the Happy Hour. Many outstanding dinner items are discounted, some as low as half price. Specialty cocktails are also discounted.
We’ve enjoyed Andre’s only a handful of times (it’s still relatively new) and came away on each occasion with the satisfaction we received first-class food and service at economy prices. It’s like dining at one of the snooty rip-off restaurants on The Strip at a fraction of the price, and with smiling waiters sans all the attitude.
The Cheese & Charcuterie Board normally priced at $22 is discounted to $15 during Happy Hour and is an exceptional appetizer to share. This is a smorgasbord of tastes to be experienced. In fact, everything we tasted here was either very good or great. Presumably, excellence is consistent throughout.
Oh, but back the hamburger. We ordered two burgers on the shiny brioche bun, topped with imported swiss cheese, red onion marmalade, and truffle mayonnaise. We each inhaled our own small basket of duck fat fries (a house salad can be substituted instead). The burgers were delicious. Especially after scarfing down everything on the Cheese & Charcuterie Board.
The price of the Andre’s Burger, as shown in the photograph above? Try this: $7
It’s half-priced from the usual dinner cost — which is $14. I asked the waiter what’s the difference between the $7 burger and fries and the $14 burger and fries. He replied: “Nothing — except $7.”
Obviously, Chef Andre makes almost no money on this deal. But one expects that we loyal guests will order something else with a higher profit margin. I’m certainly willing to oblige the generosity, by trying out and ordering more menu items, visiting repeatedly, and giving this new establishment my highest recommendation.
Also worth trying — for dessert, I strongly recommend the Chocolate Walnut Gateau which is a chocolate-glazed caramel walnut torte, with crème anglaise for $8.
I have some concerns about Andre’s due to its far-out location, in the same mall area where Khoury’s Mediterranean used to be. This is a drive for most of us, even for those living in the southwest area of Las Vegas. That said, Andre’s Bistro and Bar is worth driving the extra mile.
Note to Self: In a future series of articles, make a list of the best Happy Hour bargains in Las Vegas.
Foodie Lovers Encore: Five More Great Comfort Meals in Las Vegas worth trying at least once:
Lola’s is the most authentic Creole-Cajon restaurant in Las Vegas (don’t be fooled by Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House at MGM-Grand, which is twice as expensive and not nearly as good). A big bowl of hearty Gumbo ($12) with a side of hot Leidenheimer’s Garlic Bread ($2.50) is the very definition of the perfect comfort meal. If you want to go a little spicier, then the Jambalaya will certainly make you return for more. Top of the experience with Lola’s homemade banana pudding, which is made fresh daily ($5). The perfect way to spend $20. Note: Lola’s opened a second location a few years ago, on Town Center in Summerlin. I’ve been there once and the menu appeared to be identical.
Chicken Francese (Northern Italian Style) at Pasta Mia
One of my favorite dishes is Chicken Francese which is served widely around the country and in most traditional Italian restaurants. What most places miss, however, is the ideal pairing for the breaded chicken cutlet, which is atop capellini (angel hair) pasta. Do not order this dish any other way! It must be served “Northen Italian Style.” I’m spending myself broke trying to educate America on how to make this dish correctly. The unique blend of flavor and texture comes from the egg batter around the cutlet, which absorbs the tangy lemon and butter sauce. When the cutlet is layered across the angel hair as the base, the cutlet remains firm (not soggy). Moreover, the nest of angel hair absorbs all the flavors of the sauce and becomes a symphonic culmination of aroma, texture, and taste. Pasta Mia, in the corner of a strip mall on Flamingo across from the Rio gets it right. But give the waiter strict instructions so no mistakes are made. The house salad with a thick garlic dressing is fabulous. When I die, I want to be embalmed in that dressing.
I wanted to include at least one restaurant which is ideal for carryout. Zaytoon’s is a market and deli with a small restaurant attached, consisting of about ten tables. The interior is pleasant, but it’s better suited for to go orders. It’s located in the middle of a strip mall near the corner of Durango and Spring Mountain.
Zaytoon’s is Persian/Iranian. Even though the kitchen is small, the menu is quite extensive, consisting of most classic Persian dishes. Non-Middle Easterners are likely to opt for the beef kabob, known as Kubideh. This popular specialty is served with two 10-inch ribbons of pressed and seasoned ground beef with parsley, after being skewered on metal rods over an open flame. The kabobs are blanketed across a heaping pile of rice, with is slightly buttered and texturally ideal. The charcoal-colored Persian seasoning sprinkled over the beef is highly recommended. A half grilled tomato and a quarter onion are served on the side. All meals come with pita bread. Kubideh costs $10.99. Also recommended to order a Shirazi Salad, which is a delicious mix of cold cucumbers, fresh tomatoes, and parsley marinated in lemon and olive oil. One of the best take-out meals in the city for around $15.
Where should you go when you’re not really hungry, but still want something good to eat? So far, I’ve tried to avoid chains and casino restaurants because they’re usually unoriginal and pricey. One notable exception is The Chart House, an ideal Downtown Las Vegas seafood destination inside the Golden Nugget Casino. Take a seat at the bar and order a big bowl of New England Clam Chowder, especially if you’re not too hungry but still want something filling. The chowder is priced at just $7 at lunch — and $9 at dinner. It’s a delight. For me, great chowders are all about the three “T’s” — taste, temperature, and texture. This classic New England specialty fires on all cylinders. The diced potatoes are slightly firm. The clam count is generous. The broth isn’t too thick (often the sign of a cheap chowder). It’s also slightly peppery. I have no idea of this is by design, but each time I’ve ordered the chowder here, it seemed to contain tiny specs of sand, as if to subliminally suggest to diners — this is fresh right out of the sea! It’s also a generous portion served steamy hot. This is the best clam chowder in a city not known for many affordable seafood options.
That leaves just one more restaurant meal to chose, and I’m having a tough time making a decision because there are still quite a few great places to enjoy. Maybe I’ll do a follow-up article later.
So, what did I miss? What do you recommend? Post your comments below or join the lively discussion on Facebook.