Thursday, July 31, 2008

Man oh Manny that's a Trade

[Last year at the trading deadline, I made it clear to anybody who would listen that the Red Sox had no use at all for Eric Gagne, but that the trade might not be a disaster because at least it kept Gagne away from the Yankees. That didn't exactly end up being the case. Really, putting Gagne on the Yankees would have been awesome for the Red Sox, but it wouldn't have made a difference because, heck, the Sox won the World Series. So today, at the trading deadline, the Red Sox traded Manny Ramirez and, well, I just wanna rant... As always, if you don't like the baseball postings, just skip by and there'll be something movie related in a day or two...]

What's the value for the best pure hitter of his generation and the best clutch hitter of the past 40 years?

Follow through after the bump for the answer...

Click through...

Turns out the answer to that question is: Manny Ramirez = Jason Bay - (Craig Hansen + Brandon Moss + $7 million)

The math of Thursday's (July 31) Red Sox fire sale just baffles me a little. Manny Ramirez's value appears to be so much less than a guy with a lower batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage that the Red Sox had to throw in two major league caliber players to sweeten the deal. Now, to be fair, Brandon Moss and Craig Hansen aren't *good* major league players, but they're on the 40-man roster and Hansen was, at one time, supposed to be the closer of the future for the Red Sox. But meanwhile, because Manny's value was apparently so low, not only did they have to throw two major league players into the pot, but they then had to add $7 million, or the value of Manny's remaining salary for the season.

And it's not like the Sox gave the $7 million to a small market team trying to make ends meet. No, they gave the money to the Dodgers, a team in baseball's second largest market, a franchise that's already apparently flush enough that they're going to pay the fat, bloated corpse of Andruw Jones $18 million to sit on the bench for the next two years. But now they're picking up $7 million from the Sox, just for fun. Gravy, as it were.

So after Thursday's trades, what can we say?

Well, the Dodgers obviously got better. They gave up a minor league pitcher and a third base prospect (already behind Casey Blake and Blake DeWitt on the depth chart) in exchange for the aforementioned best hitter of his generation. They didn't have to give up Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier or Jon Broxton and Chad Billingsley, any of whom could have been considered an acceptable price to pay to get back in the postseason picture and to regain some of the local spotlight from the California Angels. Should Manny help put the Dodgers into the postseason, and given the weakness of the NL West it sure seems plausible, the Dodgers will be able to reap the benefits of a player with 353 lifetime postseason at-bats, 24 postseason home runs and one World Series MVP award. In addition, if Manny leaves as a free agent in the off-season, that's two additional first round draft picks for the Dodgers. Plus, he's FREE, because the Sox are paying.

And the Pirates? Well, they're already a last-place team, but only barely, so they can't get any worse. They gave up a player they wanted to jettison anyway, making room for minor league outfield prospects who come with a lower price tag. Hansen and Moss can probably play right away and maybe Hansen's just gonna need a change of environment. And in Andy LaRoche, not only do they get a solid young third base prospect, but they unite the guy with brother Adam. VIVA LAROCHES! So they aren't a better team, but they aren't worse.

That leaves the Red Sox.

The deal makes sense to me in only one circumstance. If Tito Francona walked into Theo Epstein's office last night after the Angels finished sweeping the Sox and said, "This isn't worth it. I can't do this anymore and the team frankly agrees with me. We can't play with Manny for another day." If the manager demanded the trade, then it had to get made. If Francona decided, "I managed to hold this guy together long enough to get two World Series rings,but that's all I've got," then it was the right move. But it's hard to imagine it making the Red Sox better.

Bay's gonna have to learn to play the Green Monster, something Manny did very well despite his other defensive liabilities. He's also going to have to discover how to handle the Boston crowds and the Boston media, because heaven help him if his Red Sox career launches with a couple 0-5 games. Then, if the Red Sox managed to bounce back from their currently malaise, Bay's gonna have to show that he's been repressing an inner clutch hitter for all of those years he was shrouded in Pittsburgh. Jason Bay is a good baseball player. Don't get me wrong. But in his entirely big league career, he's never played a single INNING that meant anything, that had any pressure or urgency other than basic personal statistics. If it turns out that Jason Bay has The Eye of the Tiger, then Theo Epstein's gonna look like a genius. If Jason Bay runs hard, gets his uniform dirty and makes use of Fenway's peculiar dimensions, the Sox fans will love him. Golly, they've even learned how to love J.D. Drew this season.

But he's going to have to make up for the intangible threat that Ramirez provided just by standing in the on-deck circle. He's going to have to make up for the swagger Ramirez brought to the team. He's going to have to prove that last year's .418 slugging percentage was a fluke. And he's going to have to make up for the fact that an already scattershot bullpen has just become thinner. I'm not sure how he'll pull off that last one.

Meanwhile here's the key thing I want to say: I'm not blaming Manny here. Not at all. Over the years, I mocked Manny over and over again for his defense, for failing to run out ground balls, for failing to even trot on home runs. But for a decade, the Red Sox enabled the guy and joked about Manny being Manny. His behavior was never censored or restricted and, probably as a direct result, he got two World Series titles for Boston, something unthinkable five years ago. If the Red Sox finally get sick of the behavior, well, they were the enablers in the first place. Whenever Manny returns to Boston, I hope he's treated with respect in perpetuity, rather than earning the "Cheer the first time up, then boos forever" treatment that Johnny Damon has received (and richly deserved). Unless Manny signs with the Yankees in the off-season, in which case...

But still... Thanks for the memories, Manny!

It will just be interesting to see if Manny is as toxic as the Red Sox seem to have believed him to be. Looking over the roster in the last week, Epstein was obviously able to skip over the flailing bullpen, to ignored that the franchise's beloved and iconic catcher/captain is swinging the bat like a pitcher. He looked at the lackluster play and said, "If we get rid of Manny, everything will improve." The hitting, the starting pitching, the defense? All related to Manny's open signs of apathy or even antipathy. If

Epstein's correct, that's some brilliant maneuvering. As it stands now? I'm on the record as being unconvinced.

But I'd be happy to owe Jason Bay a big ol' apology in three months.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The "Princess and the Frog" trailer is some shameful s***

Disney's already had some problems with civil rights activists about the upcoming 2-D animated musical "The Princess and the Frog." Turns out the advocates weren't just happy with Disney finally getting around to creating an African-American princess for the very first time. They also wanted the storyline to be, um, less offensive. Oh the nerve! A chronicle of the drama is here. But it seems that oodles of changes have already been made.

Well, the trailer's out and if it's not too late, perhaps they want to go back to the drawing board once more.

I'm only going to talk about two things...

1) The f***ing firefly. Sorry. We're talking about a kids movie here, so I shouldn't be swearing. But that's reflective of how visceral my reaction was to the last 10 seconds of the trailer. After 50 seconds of a pretty princess with at least vaguely racially specific features -- i.e. she isn't just Bella, Ariel or Amy Adams from "Enchanted" painted dark -- not smooching a frog, out of nowhere comes this jive-talking, toothless bug speaking with the thickest bayou accent imaginable. And I have to say that my instant reaction was "Oh my God, this is going to be like 'Song of the South' and this movie will have to be buried forever." My immediate read was that Disney was milking every imaginable stereotype of uneducated -- but inevitably WISE!!!! -- aged black masculinity imaginable. Give that fly a corncob pipe and a pimp walk and he could be Scarlett O'Hara's man-servant or one of the crows from "Dumbo." I mostly forgive the "Dumbo" stereotyping in that quaint "They didn't know any better, but at least they were trying" way. I went back and watched a second time and even though the firefly still looks like he's the sort of caricature of a cracked out bum Dave Chappelle might have parodied, I'm now figuring he's meant to just be Cajun, which may be just as inappropriate. Moreso, actually, because obviously Disney's people are cautious about offending African-American groups, but I'm skeptical the Cajuns have as strong a lobby. The character is [apparently] voiced by Jim Cummings, who is deservedly a huge star in the voiceover world. All respect to Jim Cummings. But Jim Cummings is also a white guy. Wikipedia tells me he spent extensive time in New Orleans, but again... I dunno if that makes it better. In fact, I'm pretty sure it doesn't. The problem here is the character and the direction, though, and not Cummings, who's just doing what he's being paid to do... We've just reached a point at which Disney should know better, particularly on a film on which they're so clearly trying to be progressive.

2) If I'm telling a story about the African-American 1920s New Orleans and I want somebody to do the score and songs, you know who I'm NOT going to? Randy Newman. Yes, nobody does cornball Americana like Randy Newman, but might this have been a good time to, you know, hire a musician actually FROM New Orleans? I seem to recall New Orleans having a tradition with indigenous -- i.e. not written by a nice rich guy from Los Angeles -- music. Or was I misinformed? Even if you were bound and determined to have the story of a black girl in New Orleans musically transcribed by a white dude, couldn't you have at least hired Harry Connick, Jr.? He's at least born and raised and somewhat trained in New Orleans. He's middlebrow and mainstream, but I've seen his commercials for the city post-Katrina. I buy him singing the song of New Orleans. He wouldn't be my top choice. But still..

Am I being hyper-sensitive? Maybe?

And I over-reacting just to get a blog post up since I haven't posted anything in a couple weeks? Possibly...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

MovieWatch: "The Dark Knight"

"The Dark Knight"
Director: Christopher Nolan
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 86
In a Nutshell: [I begin this posting with a polite apology for my absence of bloggage over the past week. I have, however, Twittered nearly 150 times at my Zap2it-affiliated Press Tour Twitter feed (Follow that feed now), which will continue to be glutted over the next two weeks by Press Tour and Comic-Con. Anywho... On to the review...]

Regular readers of this blog don't need the reminder that the Fien Print ratings scale is absurd. Friends have certainly mocked me for the proliferation of ratings in the mid-60s that have filled the summer months so far.

My response? I wasn't going to over-praise a mediocrity like "Iron Man" or "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" just to expand my ratings limits.

The reality is that Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" is more than 20 mythical ratings points better than those two movies I listed or, for that matter, better than any other movie I've seen so far this year. The risk with a movie this good is overhyping it to the degree that people come out saying, "I was expecting cinema and all I got was a comic book movie."

So I'll say that I'm prepared to call "The Dark Knight" the finest comic book movie ever made and I would expect with some confidence to find it in my overall Top Five at the end of the year.

Quite simply: While "The Dark Knight" isn't without flaws, it is what you hope it will be.

But enough puffery. A review of measured substance after the bump...

Click through...

[There certainly will be spoilers here. That's unavoidable. They won't detailed spoilers and I sure as heck won't give away any of the most major plotpoints. But the fresher you want to be when you see the movie, the more you want to hold off on reading this review until after you've seen the movie. That, I guess, makes it less of a "review" and more of, as I've said before, an evaluative essay on the movie. So be it.]

The problem with Nolan's "Batman Begins," a movie that I quite enjoyed at the time, was that it seemed to go on forever. There was a lengthy origin story, followed by a loose series of short films in which Batman battled the Gotham mob, then Scarecrow, then Ra's Al Ghul. Within each of those movies, I found much to praise, but with no thematic or narrative throughline joining them, "Batman Begins" couldn't sustain itself for 140 minutes, at least not for repeat viewings.

So Nolan and co-writing brother Jonathan solved the problem.

"The Dark Knight" runs even longer than "Batman Begins," but its duration is justified by the fact that from the first to last scene, there's an arc unfolding, an arc that follows in the storied tradition of middle installments of cinematic trilogies. In Chapter One, we meet our hero and are awed by his superhuman status. In Chapter Two, we discover the limits of our hero and face his relative humanity.

Nolan make movies with a common undercurrent. Whether we're looking at "Memento" or "Insomnia" or "The Dark Knight" or "The Prestige," his heroes are men whose obsessions straddle the barrier between noble/productive and disturbing and self-consuming.

In "The Dark Knight," there are two sides to the coin. Newly introduced Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is driven by a legal and ethical imperative. He's determined to clean Gotham up by any legitimate means necessary. He's absolutely selfless in his quest, but he's limited by his status as a public figure and by rules and regulations that don't apply to Gotham's criminals. Batman (Christian Bale) is driven by a moral imperative. He's a vigilante and thus cares only about good versus evil. And thanks to his wealth and his assortment of awesome toys, he has no limitations. Except for his moral code, which places restricts the amount of wrong he's prepared to do right.

The "Dark Knight" script follows what happens to these two very good men when they face a man who has no limitations whatsoever. Heath Ledger's Joker is pure and malevolent id. He doesn't care about money or power, only chaos. He has none of the motivations or pathologies that Dent or Batman understand and none of the fears or weaknesses that they're accustomed to battling. If "Batman Begins" burdened Bruce Wayne/Batman with excessive origin and backstory, Joker has been gifted by the opposite. The Joker's purple suits and face-paint are what they are -- his sartorial choices go unexplained, as do his clown fetish and reluctance to wash his hair -- and the explanation for the gruesome scars that make his hideous smile are used as protean punchlines. We don't see his lair. We don't get to know his henchmen. He doesn't waste time brooding. He doesn't become romantically devoted to Vicky Vale. As much baggage as The Joker is doubtlessly packing on a psychological level, he doesn't burden the movie with it.

And that's the core of the movie. And it's a solid one. How do you do good if you live in a world where it's easier to do evil and where even the best of intentions and ideals inspire more wickedness than virtue?

To turn things over, as I love to do, to Yeats, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity."

I have to confess that I only fully appreciated the marvelous complexity that Nolan achieves in addressing this conundrum after watching the infantile lack of pragmatism in "Wanted." Because no, Nolan doesn't perfectly face the dueling journeys for Dent and Bruce Wayne and there certainly are times that you wish for more of the Joker and less internal struggle for the heroes. But much of that is caused by the excellence of Ledger's final completed screen role.

Those who are less enamored of "The Dark Knight" -- people who, in advance, make me sad -- will ask a very cynical question: Would Ledger's performance here be getting this same attention if he hadn't died this January? I wondered the same thing, albeit not in print, about Adrienne Shelly when "Waitress" came out to rave reviews. My cynicism was wrong there and the Ledger doubters will also be wrong.

Keep in mind that Jack Nicholson received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as The Joker in the Tim Burton "Batman" and that he was at least somewhat in the Oscar discussion that year. It's just a showy roll. And Young Daniel was a huge fan of the Nicholson performance and even today I can reflect on it with much pleasure. The gist of the performance was that The Joker was a fun-house mirror version of Batman. As The Joker reflected, looking a the local newspaper, "Winged Freak Terrorizes [Gotham City]... Wait'll they get a load of me!"

But that quote meant one thing: That The Joker was *weirder* than Batman.

In "The Dark Knight," Ledger's Joker, looking at Batman, matter-of-factly observes, "You complete me!" The meaning is completely different. Batman's over-reasoned sense of order is just the other side of the coin to Joker's over-reasoned sense of anarchy.

And Ledger is quite awesome, giving a performance that's both mannered and actorly and completely off-the-rails in its sense of improvisation.

Want my comparison? Ledger's performance is like John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things." In the background there's a recognizable actor and an oft-played character and you can see occasional hints of previous Ledger performances and even of previous Joker interpretations. But those moments, as well-delivered as the are, are rare compared to the moments where he's just jamming by himself, doing whatever insane thing he and Nolan concocted together.

There are the hunched shoulders, the raw and flat and accent-free voice, the licking of the lips, the way he rarely seems to be looking straight-on at anybody (and when he does, it becomes even scarier). Those are all things that were carefully delivered and prepared. But Ledger's every line reading feels like it's coming from another planet. That mixture of calculation and free-wheeling is what Ledger's Joker is all about. Ledger is scary, frequently funny and impossible to take your eyes off of. The movie's energy flags when he's absent, but that's unavoidable.

And that doesn't mean that the film's other performances are lacking. Bale is still at his best when contrasting Bruce Wayne's actual agita with his playboy front, though there's much less of the latter persona in this movie. I'm still waiting, though, on a scripted explanation for the gravel-voiced rumble he affects as Batman.

Eckhart has less time to develop Harvey Dent's arc and even if he did, it would have been upstaged by Ledger at every turn. He's fine. And his make-up/effects in the last act are icky-awesome.

The other major new addition to the cast is Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. The character doesn't have a whole heap to do in the movie, but for what's required of her, Gyllenhaal is better suited than Holmes would have been.

The star-studded supporting cast is again superb. I want to, once again, single out Gary Oldman as Not-Yet-Commissioner Gordon. It's predictable for Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine to successfully embody decency and rectitude, but I remain genuinely amazed by how Nolan has steered the always grandiose Oldman into a performance this understated. He's gone two movies in this franchise without an iota of ham.

Two weeks ago, before this Press Tour onslaught began, I went back and rewatched "Insomnia," the only one of Nolan's post-"Following" movies I can't get completely behind. I just wanted to see if I'm missing something. I wasn't. It's still a movie of moments that doesn't add up, but on a second viewing I'm ready to put the blame for "Insomnia" completely Al Pacino, or rather Nolan's inability to direct Pacino into anything other than a Pacino performance.

Anyway... "Insomnia" aside, Nolan need prove nothing else to me and as good as "Memento" and "The Prestige" were, "The Dark Knight" is his pinnacle. If you look at the actors and at their performances and at the writing that guides them, you could argue that "The Dark Knight" is an intimate character drama.

But it's really a $200 million -- give or take -- summer blockbuster and there's absolutely no precedent for a director working on this scale to concentrate so equally and successfully on both the nuances of performance and absolute spectacle. That's a pretty big statement, I know.

Ledger *will* get his awards recognition -- be it inevitable nominations or even actual wins -- come the end-of-the-year and Nolan will deserve the same kind of honor, but the below-the-line talent will hopefully be remembered as well. Wally Pfister got Oscar nods for "Batman Begins" and "The Prestige" and he should expect another here. His use of Chicago in creating Gotham City is excellent, as the city is both recognizable for what it really is, but also pleasantly alien. Pfister shoots Chicago the way Chicago's mayor and City Council wish the city actually were. And in "Dark Knight," he does the same for Hong Kong in the movie's best Ledger-free sequence.

I can't emphasize this enough, kids: SEE "THE DARK KNIGHT" IN IMAX. SERIOUSLY!!!

Nolan and Pfister shot establishing shots and core action sequences in 65mm for the purpose of IMAX presentation and the IMAX-ready material is breathtaking from the movie's very first frame. Literally breathtaking. And there more than a half-dozen additional shots in the movie that produced a similar reaction, where my mouth was absolutely agape at the amount of information and clarity being delivered. There are occasional moments where the IMAX screen produced a sensory overload, but it's not overload in a Michael Bay way, which is a tribute to how Nolan shot the action scenes and how Lee Smith (the former Cubs closer?!?!?) edited them. The action scenes are taut and muscular and rely on expert stunt work and second unit photography rather than computer effects and post-"Matrix" whizbang. These are John Frankheimer/Don Siegel/John Sturges action scenes, paced out by a score featuring as much heroic bombast as Hans Zimmer can muster.

There. That's more than 2000 words to say that "The Dark Knight" is a superb movie, the year's best to date.

I probably should have just said that and saved us all some time!

[Finally, as I like to say, if you haven't read "Uncharted," go do that!!!!]

Friday, July 04, 2008

Fourth of July Reflections: Splattering food and shattering bats

Happy 4th of July, dear readers.

I've gotta say that there are certain things for which high definition television was clearly designed. Those things include:

1) "So You Think You Can Dance." Where the graceful, athletic and generally smoking hot dancers only look more graceful, more athletic and more smoking hot on my 42" TV.

2) Boxing. Because you haven't lived til you've seen the sweat flying off a boxer's face in high definition, nor can you appreciate pugilism's brutality until you've watched a highly trained cut-man struggle to close a glistening gash in a tight close-up.

3) "Gossip Girl." There are lots of scripted shows that inexplicably improve in high definition, including "Eli Stone," a show I probably would have stopped watching entirely if not for high def. But the opulence of "Gossip Girl" is just made for hi-def, though millions of iTunes using teenyboppers disagree.

There are also, though, certain things for which high definition television was clearly not designed. Those things include:

1)Porn. Duh.

2)Competitive eating.

More thoughts on that, plus quick thoughts maple bats in baseball, after the bump.

Click though...

I've decided to impose a five hot dog Eat-Off for any moment of dispute in my own life.

That's how Friday morning's Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating contest ended. For 10 minutes, Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut slummed franks down their gullets and, after the elapsed time was concluded, both master masticators had devoured 59 frankfurters. But they don't believe in ties at this event, thus a lifetime of training had to be distilled to a simple task: Which man was capable of ramming a handful of five squished, water-damped wieners down their throats fastest.

In the Eat-Off, the judges ruled that Chestnut had won, but I'm looking at my TV and I'm seeing gigantic hunks of unswallowed, beverage-bloated bun adhered to Chestnut's sweat-covered face. I don't necessarily want to see these details, but my TV gives me no choice. Yes, I could have watched on ESPN's low-def channel, but if Lot's wife taught me anything, it's that you should never look back. Actually, that's what Satchel Paige taught me. Same difference in the long-run. My point? How could Chestnut possibly have been ruled the winner with half of a hot dog still oozing down his jowel? For his part, Kobayashi was slower, but clean. In my mind, he's the true champion, even if that makes me look like a half-hearted patriot.

It was a disappointing end to a back-and-forth showdown that nearly rivaled last year's war, even if the announcer whipped out the priceless bon mot, "The passion is raw, but the hot dog is cooked," simultaneously evoking both the Fine Young Cannibals and Claude Levi-Strauss.

And really, this whole thing was just an excuse for me to link to last year's blog post on the competition.

And speaking of food flying everywhere -- Sepinwall says I could have done a small blog post just on this, but I view my blog more as a collection of essays than just short snippets ... subscribe to my Twitter Feed for the snippets -- what's up with maple bats in baseball?

I was watching the Sox-Rays the other night and in the course of nine innings, there were at least three or four shattered maple bats, including one that soared into the stands. Orel Hershiser, whose announcing work I find simultaneously annoying and informative, tells me that younger players like that the weight balance in maple bats are closer to the feel of the aluminum bats they used in high school and college, but they aren't structurally viable.

It's getting to the point where every game features one or more situation in which a pitcher or infielder or umpire dodges a shard of sharp splintered wood. It used to be that a broken bat was a sign of making poor contact with a specific kind of pitch, but now bats just break. And eventually something horrifying is going to happen. Last month ump Brian O'Nora had to go to the hospital to have a cut treated after a bat cut his face. He was OK, but eventually something worse will happen.

Baseball responds oddly in these circumstances. In all of my time watching the game, I've seen at least a dozen pitchers get hit in the head by batted balls, but I'd never seen a first or third base coach get hit by a foul ball. Last summer, though, Mike Coolbaugh, a minor league coach was tragically killed by a line drive. Statistically speaking, it was a totally isolated incident, but now you'll notice that major league first and third base coaches have to wear batting helmets like they're John Olerud (one of the greatest pure hitters of my lifetime, but not a Hall of Famer, if you're curious).

Why do I get the feeling that Major League Baseball isn't going to act on these shattering maple bats until a shard seriously injures a player or a fan? To me, this is a no-brainer. If baseball players survived just fine for 100 years with bats made of different woods that were more structurally sound and didn't shatter with nearly the same regularity, why not go back to that? I'm not sure how a baseball team is going to avoid a franchise crushing lawsuit when the first fan loses an ear or an eye or worse. Is that what it's going to take to make the change?

Now back to my pre-Press Tour screeners...