Sunday, August 31, 2008

Catching Up: Tell No One

Yes, it's in French, and yes, it has subtitles. Don't let those things scare you away from Tell No One, a film that has at its heart a very American sensibility, as betrayed by its taut chase scenes and the English pop tunes that dot the soundtrack. The story, based on an American novel, is simple: a doctor (Francois Cluzet) and his wife go skinny dipping in a country lake; they are attacked and the wife dies. Years later, the doctor receives a mysterious email, featuring a video of a woman who looks like his wife. As the doctor's obsession with getting to the heart of the mystery grows, unknown forces fixate on him, and on the unidentified person who is sending the messages.

Cluzet, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a slightly younger Dustin Hoffman, sells us on the obsession without losing our sympathy. Kristin Scott Thomas and Gilles Lellouche stand out as two friends who stand by him even as it looks like he's going over the bend. Even though the story is a bit convoluted--OK, more than a bit--this is a fine opportunity to get credit for taking your date to a foreign arthouse film, that happens to be, in most respects, a commercial American film. A very good commercial American film. Highly recommended.

Movies: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

If you read the Scott Tobias's interview with Woody Allen, you'll find out that Vicky Cristina Barcelona was basically a situation where the financing came in search of a project. He was asked if he would make a movie in Barcelona if someone else picked up the freight, and he said "sure." To fit the bill, he confected a fairly simple story of two American twentysomethings on holiday in an exotic European city. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is the uptight one, who craves stability and is set to marry a dullish but moneyed man; Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is the artistic one, who's a little more adventurous, but is never happy with her creations or her relationships. We know all this a few minutes in because an omniscient narrator tells us, which is a bit of a problem with the movie. We're sometimes told things we could easily have been shown, or worse, told things, then have those same things explained through dialog by the characters on screen, then--in addition--the same things are shown to us in flashback.

Vicky and Cristina meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter whose explosive relationship with his ex-wife made waves in the Barcelona art scene years before. Bardem, who starts off playing a stock role of the tall dark stranger who challenges the Americans to live life to the fullest, reminds us that before he stole Pete Rose's haircut to play death incarnate in No Country for Old Men, he was considered more sexy than scary. In their first meeting, he propositions both Vicky and Cristina, simultaneously, to go away with him for a romantic getaway. He delivers his lines of seduction in such a way that even as we're rolling our eyes at the corniness, we understand why a girl would go with him.

Even with Bardem's considerable talents, the story to this point is pretty rote, and as the focus falls more on Cristina than Vicky, you might find yourself checking your watch. But then Penelope Cruz shows up as Juan Antonio's ex, Maria Elena, and saves Woody's movie. Cruz doesn't just give the best female performance I've seen all year, but Maria Elena may be the most interesting female character in any Woody Allen movie. She sweeps through her scenes, all rage and manic energy, buoyed by the twin qualities of being as mad as a hatter and of always being right. She's part muse, part oracle, part raving psychotic.

While not everything in the film rises to the level of Bardem and Cruz's strange relationship, the acting--with one exception--is extremely fine. Hall, who'd previously played Christian Bale's wife in The Prestige, is a discovery; she holds her own given the most Woody-like dialog, but also shows great ambiguity torn between exotic Barcelona and her not-so-exotic fiance (well played by Chris Messina). Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn are great in small roles as Vicky and Cristina's hosts in Spain. Um, who does that leave?

Oh. Johansson. She might be the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, but her acting is weak enough that it's even commented on in the movie itself. This is the second time Woody has cast Scarlett as a less-than-convincing actress--maybe this is a clue? She's not as wooden here as she was in Match Point, but limits of her skills, plus a role that could best be described as the "vaguely dissatisfied girl" make her stick out in an outstanding cast. Regardless, this film rates a pretty strong recommended.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Game 135: Painful

There are bad ways to lose; we've seen some of them this season. But I'm not sure that any loss so far has hurt as much as this one did. This was a game the Yanks needed, and had, and just let slip away.

The breakdown came with the Yankees up 6-2, and Joe Girardi trying to squeeze one last inning--the seventh--out of Darrell Rasner. With no outs and a man on first, Rasner got a double play ball to Robinson Cano, who tried an awkward lateral-flip move that skittered away from Derek Jeter. The runner wound up taking third, which was left empty when Alex Rodriguez came out to back up the play. The Blue Jays would score three times in the inning, then take the lead the following inning touching up three pitchers--Brian Bruney, who pitched well given bases loaded and no outs in the seventh; Damaso Marte, who may or may not still be hurt; and Edwar Ramirez, who's had a brutal August.

The Yanks had their chances to strike back, particularly when the Yanks got two men on in the ninth inning with no outs for Alex Rodriguez. Alex hit into a DP, keeping up the bizarre record that Brother Joe noted in his Friday column: A-Rod only has 3 RBI all season after the seventh inning. The box score would short Rodriguez some credit here--the ball was hit extremely hard down the third base line, and it took a great reaction play by Jose Bautista to turn a 5-unassisted-3 double killing. Still, an out's an out, and it's been a week of boo-birds for the highest paid man in the baseball business (well, the baseball-playing business, at least).

Anyway, I'll be in the crowd tomorrow to cheer the team in the rubber game of the series. It's my next-to-last ticket to the Stadium, and Brother Joe (that's Sheehan, for those of you who didn't check out the linked article) will be my guest in box 342. Hope to see some of you there.


Hopefully, the "Catching Up" posts will continue tomorrow, along with the day's Game Story later on in the evening.

In other news, Jay Mariotti, of TV, radio, and, until recently, of the Chicago Sun-Times, has long been a mystery to me. I've never met anyone who would cop to being a fan of his, and every time I've read or heard his work, I've wondered how he could be so popular. Is it just that he doesn't write baseball well? Is he a crackerjack at other sports? Maybe people just like when a guy with a mullet condescends to them?

As a writer, his columns give off such powerful pretension, it's as if he can't believe he has to write about anything so trivial as sports. He tends to put himself at the center of the story, as when Ozzie Guillen hurled a sexual slur at him. Although Guillen's words were unacceptable, Mariotti's reaction was so over-the-top that it made you wonder if Guillen had outed him, rather than just insulting him (apparently, he hadn't).

Anyway, this comes up because of Roger Ebert's open letter to Mariotti, on the issue of his leaving the Sun-Times. It's great when a writer as good as Ebert takes the gloves off to take someone to the woodshed, and defend something he loves (in this case, the newspaper business).

Monday, August 25, 2008

Catching Up: Iron Man

No, not Lou Gehrig or Cal Ripken, the movie. Had every reason to think it would suck: I was thoroughly unimpressed by the trailer; the director, while a nice enough actor, was no one's idea of an A-lister; and the character is, in terms of public recognition, a second-string type. Tony Stark doesn't command the mindshare that SpiderMan, or the Hulk, or the X-Men do. Still, it was a nice surprise, near perfect for its intended purpose. The film is accessible, brisk and fun, and Robert Downey Jr. does a great job of both having a good time with the role, and leveraging his own history as a troubled but extremely talented person to bring to life the genius inventor who builds a suit of armor with which to fight evil. Like his summer superhero competition, Bruce Wayne, Stark is a multimillionaire (billionaire?) crimefighter. But unlike Wayne, he isn't pretending to drink too much and womanize as a cover for his crimefighting activities--he's actually drinking and womanizing, as well as inventing things, running a Fortune 500 company, and, um, fighting crime. Oscar winner Gwynneth Paltrow and multiple-Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges do fine work as Stark's assistant/love interest and mentor/enemy; Terrence Howard (another Academy Award nominee) is a bit wasted in a rote "responsible best friend" role.

Catching Up: Bye-Bye Manny

The Red Sox give up Manny Ramirez (OF) and cash to the Dodgers, get Jason Bay (OF), the Pirates get a refugee raft of prospects.

Beyond X, Marte, and Pudge, the good news of the July trade deadline was Manny Ramirez heading off to Joe Torre's Dodgers, and out of the Yankee's lives barring an extremely unlikely World Series confrontation. The Sox had a million reasons to make this trade: Ramirez had gone into a modified version of Derek Bell's Operation Shutdown, his demands were completely unreasonable, Bay's younger, a better defender, and under contract for next year at a bargain price. The trade made sense for them. But.

Bay, for all his good qualities, is closer to the JD Drew/Mike Lowell level of player than the David Ortiz/Manny Ramirez level. The former are really good players, who can hurt you in a tight spot. The latter were forces of nature who who filled Yankee fans with terror when the game went into the late innings. So I'm glad to see Manny being Manny in Chavez Ravine, rather than in the AL East, if only for the remainder of this season.

Catching Up: Pudge for Blockhead Kyle

Yanks get Ivan Rodriguez (C), give Kyle Farnsworth (RHP) to the Tigers.

This trade was basically obligatory once Jorge Posada elected to have shoulder surgery, and Jose Molina (.581 OPS when the trade was made) made it abundantly clear that his bat wasn't ready for prime time. Cashman was basically waiting for two years for Farnsworth to have an effective six-week stretch so that he could send Blockhead Kyle away; he got it (Kyle had a 2.25 ERA and 18 Ks in 16 innings from June 11 to the date of the trade) and now Kyle's gone. Considering the number of times the club contemplated giving him away or releasing him, getting a major league player--much less one that fit the club's needs--in return was pure gravy. Could they have done better than Pudge Rodriguez behind the plate? He's basically a better version of Molina, not a complementary player. But you can't beat the price: any of the catchers who were better fits (guys like Greg Zaun or Jarrod Saltamacchia) would have cost the Yanks prospects, and meant that Kyle remained on the roster. We wouldn't want that, would we?

Catching Up: The Nady/Marte Trade

Yanks give: Jose Tabata (OF), Ross Ohlendorf (RHP), Jeff Karstens (RHP), and Dan McCutchen (RHP). Yanks get: Xavier Nady (OF), Damaso Marte (LHP)

The Yankees dealt Jose Tabata at the rock-bottom of his value, after a bad season in AA and a host of disciplinary problems that had resulted in suspensions; the Pirates dealt Nady at the absolute top of his value (the X-man was leading the Pirates in EqA at the time of the trade). The fact that this trade comes out looking pretty even is a minor miracle--the Yanks had been in need of a righthanded outfielder and a lefty reliever for quite a while, and aside from Tabata, the Pittsburgh package is pretty low-ceiling. Folks love Ohlendorf's stuff, but it didn't translate to results this year or last. Karsten's looked pretty good over the past month in the steel city, but that's an illusion created by an incredibly low batting average on balls in play (.218 BABIP). The Yanks just need to keep Nady's career season in perspective--sure, he could be a Luis Gonzalez or Raul Ibanez-style late bloomer, but do you really want to bet on it?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Notes from a Baltimore Sweep

The Can't Pitch Carl Experience--I had a bit of criticism to levy on the Yanks' broadcast team over on BP: Unfiltered this morning, over a bit of medical misinformation. Here's a taste:

I was watching last night’s Carl Pavano start–his third Major League start in the last three years–on replay, when, in the first inning, the YES Network broadcast team hit upon a huge pet peeve. They were explaining Tommy John surgery to the audience, and Ken Singleton claimed that pitchers throw harder after the elbow reconstruction surgery because “they use a tendon that is actually stronger than the ligament that was replaced.”

I don’t mean to single Singleton out–he’s a quality broadcaster, and often the voice of reason in the Yankees‘ booth–but the myth that Tommy John surgery turns pitchers into supermen is a bit dangerous. Technically, what Singleton said was right: the tendon is better than the ligament being replaced (or overlaid), but only because the ulnar collateral ligament that requires surgery as a result of being torn or ruptured, while the replacement tendon is intact.
As for the start itself, Pavano's pitching line (1 walk and 5 strikeouts in 5 innings) belied the lack of command he showed (2 hit batters, lots of deep counts). This is normal for guys coming back from Tommy John surgery, particularly those who come back relatively quickly (Pavano's surgery was about 14 months ago, if I recall correctly). Of course, if he's able to be effective past this first start, that just raises stakes as to when he'll get hurt again. Will it be tomorrow? The second inning of his next scheduled start, against the Blue Jays? How can you keep Can't Pitch Carl's fragile body protected from the cold, harsh world. Bubble wrap? Styrofoam packing peanuts?

On to Today's Game--It says a lot that after today's game, despite all the injury concerns and questions, Pavano's likely passed Darrell Rasner on the rotation depth chart. Since May, Rasner hasn't had any luck at all trying to string a pair of quality starts together. The wounded look on his face when Girardi pulled him in the fourth was brutal.

Pornstache Wars--What exactly is the mustache look that O's firstbaseman Kevin Millar is going for? Is it Oliver Hardy? Hitler?

Sometimes I Wonder if This is On the Up and Up--Yesterday's YES promos were touting Robinson Cano against the Orioles today. There didn't seem to be much reason for this: he doesn't hit particularly well at Camden Yards, or against the Orioles. Wasn't on a hot streak either. But in today's game, he clouts four hits, including two doubles and a go-ahead solo homer. Weird, huh?

Catching Up

The season has been slipping away, both from me in terms of the blog and from the Yankees in terms of their hopes of sending the House that Ruth Built to its great slumber in October rather than in September. The former couldn't be helped--I have some seismic changes going on in my life that made regular posting pretty hard to manage. The latter? They say luck is the residue of design, and there's been a lot of criticism of the design Brian Cashman brought into this season. Everyone knew the path the Yanks chose--leaning on a trio of young pitchers and a lineup larded with elder statesmen--was risky, but it was also part of a larger plan by which the Yankees rebuild from within. Sadly, larger plans don't carry much weight in the Yankees' universe; at least, no one wants to hear the excuse that we can't win now because we want to set up to win in the future. In those terms, this season is likely a bust.

I haven't written the Yankees off--after seeing what the Rockies (and, conversely, the Mets) did last season, writing anyone with an over .500 record in August seems silly--but the hope that the Yanks will pass the Sox (both Red and White) and Twins for the Wild Card is coming out of my heart, not my head. My head sees the lower than 5% chance on the Playoff Odds Report and gives a shrug and a sigh.

In the meantime, as far as the blog goes, I'm relaunching things for the stretch run. We'll be fiddling with new looks for the WTDB, new links, and for the immediate future, very short entries (fewer than 200 words each) to catch us up on the various and sundry topics I missed over the last month.