Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Rainy Saturday in LA

This past Saturday, I finally was in the mood to get to the movie theatre, especially with a plethora of movies on the slate that I wanted to see. With some careful planning, I was able to hit three features in a row AND with some luck, it actually rained in LA, so it made the atmosphere even better.

(I must rant quickly - while I LOVE assigned seating, which both the Landmark and the Arclight offer, having to deal with the elderly folks who can't figure it out immediately cancels any good that it causes. I can't even begin to tell you how many times I was told I was in the wrong seat, proceeded to just stare at the elderly person until they figured out their own mistake and then turned back my attention. One more quick rant - before my first movie started, I had to text my friend that I had left her ticket at the concierge, because she was running late. No sooner do I sit down and send this message, during the fully lit previews, mind you, the elderly lady next to me immediately snides "You're not gonna do that all movie are you?" SERIOUSLY? Forgive me for sending one text during the first minute of previews WITH THE LIGHTS on. I then had to listen to the old bag loudly chomp on her popcorn and struggle to breath. If you see me in a movie theatre, don't talk to me.)

Anyways, the first film I caught was Jonathan Demme's new flick, Rachel Getting Married. This has been pegged already as Oscar fodder for Anne Hathaway's performance, which is actually truly deserving. The film revolves a New England family gathered together at their home for their eldest daughter's (Rachel, played by RoseMarie DeWitt) wedding. Hathaway plays the younger daughter, Kym, who has released from rehab (for all drugs imaginable) for the weekend. Rachel is marrying Sidney (blandly played by Tunde Adebimpe), a musician-type with a large following of family and friends. While rehearsals and preparation surround the characters, Kym struggles to fit back into her old life and refind herself amongst this new dynamic.

What I found most interesting about this film is the strong performance of the ensemble versus Hathaway carrying it. We meet Kym first and watch her gradual "release back into the wild," as she so aptly states, but we then shift focus all over the family. We immediately sense frustration and even a hint of hostility from those at the house, which we eventually learn is deserved. After Hathaway establishes herself back in the house, we follow the supporting members through their routines - DeWitt as she and her controversial maid-of-honor and best friend Emma (Anisa George) perfect the smaller details and her father Paul (incredibly performed by Bill Irwin) as he basks in the bread-winner role. Hathaway graces the screen every so often immediately drawing the attention back to her character, which is what essentially has the family so on-edge with her. Past her verbose and stone cold self-deprecating character, we see the fragile outsider that she truly is during her rehab group visits. (In the movie's most touching moment, and by far Hathaway's best take, we learn why the family dynamic is the way it is and why her character is so self-deprecating. We never really feel bad for her from then on and tend to side with her in most situations.)

The film has a definite rapid stream of consciousness, scene-to-scene feel, paying homage to the late Robert Altman, and even Sidney Lumet, whose daughter Jenny, wrote the script. While the film is bogged down a bit in the third act by Demme's reluctance to trim the edit room, I can understand where is coming from, wanting to show as much of the wedding as he can since we've seen all the preparation. The performances throughout are truly amazing, going the entire range of personable to humiliating to heartwrenching. Hathaway does not steal the show, which I'm not saying with denotation, but rather, as a kudos to the rest of the ensemble. (Totally unmentioned thus far is Debra Winger's performance as the girl's divorced mother, who is absolutely commanding during her screentime.) This is a definite must see for all when it opens wider.

I then sat around for a while, grabbed a coffee and eventually made my way into Choke, a favorite at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Choke is the second major MP based upon a Chuck Palahniuk novel (Fight Club being the first). In helmer Clark Gregg's directorial debut, Sam Rockwell stars as the sex-addict, yet lovable loser Victor Mancini, who suffers from a definitive Oedipan complex with his mother (played by Angelica Huston). While he spends most of his time with her in the hospital (she suffers from Alzheimer's), he also works as a "historical re-enactor" at a local Pilgrim plantation. He then falls for his mother's doctor and must comes to terms with his muddled past and intricate relationship with his mother in order to finally be in control of his own life.

Rockwell truly carries this film, as every other character is simply a player in the theatre that is his day-to-day life. Gregg, who also wrote the script, lets Palahniuk's character shine through most lucidly and does not get tricky with the camera, letting the dramedy play out. We feel for Rockwell and his trials, though we enjoy the voyeurism a great deal as well. When this chapter of his life ends, we're not sure if he's any different than when he started, but we're glad to have been part of the experience. Overall, I didn't see this film as anything great, but was appeased and found myself laughing at several moments. I won't fully recommend it, but I won't tell people not to see it.

Lastly, having to drive across town for free tickets (a perk, I know..), I saw Fernando Meirelles' new flick, Blindness, which I read way when it was making the initial rounds. Reading it then, I loved the script - I loved its originality and courage to make assertions about today's society, I loved its grittiness and especially its third act, which I won't reveal. When Meirelles attached himself, I felt even more drawn to this, knowing he would kill it visually, as his last two features are two of the most beautifully shot films I've seen.

With all this said, I wasn't pleased with the film. The story follows a couple, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, who are put in a containment facility along with hundreds of others that are suffering from an epidemic that has caused white blindness. Moore's character is not blind, but lies to all others so as to not to create a stir. When the facility becomes overrun and supplies run low, the prisoners become hostile and all societal rules vanish. When I mentioned earlier that I loved the grittiness, I guess I loved reading it, but I certainly did not love seeing it. The environment, both in mood and visuals, that Meirelles creates becomes almost unbearably unwatchable. Many audience members were disgusted, and rightly so, but this is not a fault, just something that is staying true to the detail given in the pages.

Visually, this was tough to watch as well, as Meirelles intentionally overexposed the film to accentuate the whiteness and blinding nature. What this creates is an experience for the audience who must continually refocus their eyes in order to avoid blindness themselves. I totally understand Meirelles decision to do this - you can either have the audience experience what the characters are to a degree, or sit there and just watch the characters struggle being blind.
While the film still captures many of societial reflections put forth in the script, the film begins to feel a lot more like I Am Legend towards the end than what it read like. The performances are decent, maybe a little above average considering the task of almost all the actors playing blind.

I don't want to recommend this film to the masses due to its content and more so, the fact that it's just not the terrific story I initially read.

For this week, I'm going to attempt to see Keira Knightley as The Duchess, Vantage's peroid piece and maybe Happy-Go-Lucky. We'll see.

On to the LCS

October baseball... there isn't anything like it. Until, you know, the following October.

(Immediate side note - anyone else disagree with the "There's only one October" campaign? Isn't that disproven exactly 334 days later?)
So after less than a week (really, one of the faster LDS rounds I can remember), we're down to four teams. The best four teams? Maybe. The most deserving four teams? As of right now, certainly. And, with the exception of Tampa Bay, we some of the biggest market teams left, so there's definitely a surplus of baseball fans still very interested throughout the country.

Of the four LD series, three went four games and one was a sweep. For those GMs that argue a five game series isn't a fair assessment of a team's ability, I beg to differ. Who really thinks that the Angels and Cubs, owners of the best record in their respective league, would suddenly bounce back from their short series troubles and win their series in seven games? Sure the Angels began to show more life in the latter two games, but the same problems that hounded them all series (bad defense, inability to hit with RISP) again cost them their last game, and it should have cost them the game before, if it weren't for the Red Sox offense returning serve.

Of those four series, the Dodgers had to have looked the most convincing, with the Rays pretty close behind. I think if you put a gun to my head, I'd take these two to meet for the Fall Classic right now. While I'd love to put the short series with Cubs on their choke artist offense, credit must be given to the Dodgers pitching staff, who clearly entered the series with a gameplan and executed it almost flawlessly. Derek Lowe, who is most certainly pitching for another contract in the same way he did in 2004, was highly effective, save for his mistake to DeRosa. Billingsley, finally getting some national attention, made the Cub hitters look overmatched on practically every pitch and Kuroda just continued his season-long dominance over the opposing club. Having to deal with those starters (and still having rookie-phenom Clayton Kershaw and 350 game winner Greg Maddux waiting in the wings) and then having to deal with their bullpen proved far too difficult for the Cubbies' offense and will be difficult for any upcoming offense.

The Rays blew through the really-shouldn't-have-been-there White Sox with their 2008 M.O. - great starting pitching and situational offense. Each starter went at least 5.1 innings and three of the four gave up three runs or less. Garza was the lone culprit, who walked too many (four, three of which came around to score) and couldn't save himself. Some quick numbers to keep in mind - each of the three games the Rays won, they scored six runs and each Rays starter recorded exactly four strikeouts... a little weird, but it happened. The back end of their bullpen sure hasn't missed a beat being without a pure closer. Grant Balfour, the emotion-on-the-sleeve pitcher he is, has looked terrific, literally blowing his opponents away with gas and a slider that's been above average over his last several outings.

Their offense though has been, in a word, pesky. Other than BJ Upton's power resurgence and Evan Longoria's opening day, the Rays offense consistently rallied runs across the plate. All but three Rays drove in a run, and two of those players weren't even starters. They had four guys tally five or more hits in the series and they successfully swiped seven bags in eight attempts. That, ladies and gentlemen, is getting it done.

As for the series with the Red Sox, they seemingly have advantages in almost every facet. Their starting pitching is deeper, though not as shutdown dominant at the top (which Josh Beckett shows up will be a major key for this series), statiscally speaking, they had a much better bullpen, and their offense was much better in their short LDS. However, the Red Sox have been here before (four times in the last six years, actually). They know what it takes (starting pitching and defense, really) to win in October and have become very very good at it.

I see this series coming down to these three important things:

1) The health of Josh Beckett
We know what Jon Lester can and will do when he's given the ball in the postseason. We know what to expect from Dice-K (though the overall result is still up in the air). But with Josh Beckett, can he return to any sort of the form he was in during last year's postseason? After his one start versus the Angels, it certainly doesn't look promising. Beckett labored in every inning, surviving many situations where the Angels threatened to break the game open. He was fooling any batters, either, especially Mike Napoli. What made Beckett so unhittable last year was his dominant fastball setting up his breaking pitches that froze batter after batter. In Game 3, he had poor command of the breaking pitches and was only able to dial his fastball up to 93, maybe 94, not the 97-98 he had last postseason. Now, a 80% Josh Beckett is still better than any starter the Rays can throw, but my estimate from Game 3 had Beckett at about 60-65% of his normal self (not maxing out on velocity, missing location, being slow to cover first base). If the Red Sox can get 80% Josh Beckett, they have two studs at the top of their rotation that are almost certain to win at least three games. Without good Beckett, the pressure is back on Lester to win both of his, or else.

2) The Rays bullpen
The Rays bullpen, as I mentioned before, is really, really good. They have four capable relievers that have been getting it done night after night. They gave up exactly 1 (one) run in their four postseason games, while posting a 0.69 WHIP. Easily put, they are dominating batters late, which doesn't bode well for the Red Sox. Against the Angels, the Sox put five runs (of 18 total) on the board after the seventh inning, with three of those proving to be the winning runs. Also, the Sox enter the series with the knowledge that this bullpen has had their number all year -- a complete turnaround from the mentality they had against the Angels (Scott Shields and Francisco Rodriguez, in particular). If the Rays are able to get the quality starts from their starting pitchers they got all year against the Red Sox, this bullpen, even without the typical shutdown postseason closer, is going to be next-to-impossible to come back against.

3) The Red Sox 2-3-4

Remember Dustin Pedroia vying for the American League MVP? Seems like ages ago now, especially with his 1-17 showing against the Angels. Pedroia, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis combined to go 9-52 (.173) in those four games, each driving in one run a piece. If the Sox have any hopes of returning to the main October stage, these three need to pick it up and do so quickly. During the regular season, they accounted for almost half the runs scored against the Rays (35 RBIs). JD Drew, Jason Bay and Jed Lowrie each had a great series, but they cannot be expected to carry this team again. Jacoby Ellsbury has been everything the Sox could have hoped he'd be in the postseason (mainly, his October '07 form), continually setting the plate for a big inning, but he's been stranded more often than not thus far. Much like the question with Beckett, if the Sox don't get the normal production from these guys, it could be a quick series.

One other, last note -- it will be interesting to see how home-field shakes out. The Rays were the best home team during the regular season, with the Red Sox right behind them. In the playoffs, however, the Sox threatened to lose both home games, while Tampa steamrolled. The two teams traded home-field sweeps of the opposition until September, when the Rays eeked out two wins in Fenway with clutch hitting.

This series, right now, is tough to assess without knowing the pitching matchups, as Sox skipper Terry Francona has many options and variables in play. In my initial preview, I took the Sox over the Rays, because I'm a homer, so I'll stick to my guns on that, but I'll go more in depth once the matchups are posted.

For the National League, the Phillies did exactly what I had expected and came through with big hits - that is, except Ryan Howard and Chase Utley (combined 4-26) having now been here before. For the Phillies to even have a chance in this series, their hitters need to become even more aggressive at the plate. The Dodgers pitching staff hardly walks anybody and is boasting a 24:6 K/BB ratio in the playoffs, which does not bode well for the Utley-Howard-Burrell 3-4-5. Cole Hamels was simply brilliant in his only start (8 ip, 2h - could have gone the complete game if Manuel didn't have a man crush on Brad Lidge). The rest of the Phillies staff needs to continue to pound the strike zone and not issues walks, as the Dodgers offense, as I'm sure you've seen, makes walks count.

From the early outset, I like the Dodgers in this series in 6 games; however, the big game is Game 2. With Hamels no doubt pitching the first game, if Brett Myers can shutdown the Dodgers offense and send them back to LA in an 0-2 hole, the pressure builds on the young squad, something they really haven't dealt with in a while, or dealt well with in the past.

For now, let's let the terrific LD round settle and enjoy this, because, there's only one October.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Welcome (back) to Postseason Baseball

What a great finish to a great regular season last night.

After blogging about the White Sox pitching, in my mind, being mediocre, Jon Danks stepped up huge, devising a terrific game plan against the Twins, holding them to a meager two hits. The M&M brothers went 0-fer. Ozzie couldn't have asked for a better performance - he only needed one inning of relief and Jenks was his '05 overpowering self. Even on the final out, which Brian Anderson made a great catch on, Jenks hit 100 mph. That's sick.

Amazing stat about the White Sox being the first team in history to finish a season with three wins against three different teams, in three straight days nonetheless. Does this change my mind about their series with Rays, which I blogged about yesterday? No. Makes me think they might take one game, but that would certainly be it.
Despite almost all of ESPN liking the Angels in five games, I still stick to my Rays -Red Sox ALCS that I predicted yesterday. If this does come to fruition, it would be the fifth all AL East ALCS since 1997. Now, onto the National League:

Chicago CUBS (97-64) vs. Los Angeles DODGERS (84-78)

2008 Regular Season Series: Cubs, 5-2

This is one of those perfect October baseball matchups. The best team in the league pitted against the hottest. Sure, the Dodgers emerged from the scrap heap that is the NL West to get into the playoffs with the least amount of wins since 2006. But remember, much like these Dodgers, that 2006 Cardinals team got hot at the right time and rode it to a championship. What makes this matchup so intriguing are the numerous matchups that will take place and I'm not even including Greg Maddux's triumphant return to the Windy City.

Let's start with the Cubbies. They are the American League shaped team misplaced in the National League. They boast several power hitters and have a middle of the order that drastically change a game in one inning. Staring down an inning where Soriano, Lee and Ramirez are expected is not an enviable position. In addition to these guys, the Cubs picked up a revujinated Jim Edmonds from the scrap heap, who went on to be his early 90s self, and they got a playing-beyond-his-years season from their rookie catcher, Geovany Soto, the sure-fire candidate for Rookie of the Year. Offensively, they ranked first in the NL in runs scored, total bases and OPS (1st for both slugging and OBP, respectively). They have average to slightly above average speed on the bases as well.

Complementing their offense, their starting pitching was also the best in the league, leading in ERA (3.75) and batting average against (.237). With the excellent mid-season trade for Rich Harden, their starters go four deep, and five when Jason Marquis decides to show up. In this series, they plan to start Ryan Dempster (17-6, 2.96 ERA) followed by Carlos Zambrano (14-6, 3.91), Rich Harden (5-1, 1.78 in 12 starts w/ CHC) and then Ted Lilly (17-9 4.09) if needed. That's three power arms to start a series. Dempster has actually been the best of bunch, overpowering hitters and mixing his pitches (plus-fastball, plus-slider, changeup) well. Zambrano has incredible stuff (witnessed in his no-hitter), but can be absolutely erratic, which affects his mental make-up and then loses it. I think Harden is going to the be key for this pitching staff in the postseason. He has experience with the Athletics and can have unhittable stuff. Last year, after Zambrano was faulty in Game 1, the Cubs were reeling. This year the depth will provide much more confidence for the squad. Middle relief is big concern for this team, but the backend of their bullpen has been lights out all season with Carlos Marmol, closer of the future, and Kerry Wood.

Now, the Dodgers. They entered the season with their usual blend of young talent and aging veterans, but were selling high on the idea of Joe Torre coming to manage them. Through the first half of the season, they rode their surplus of arms and sat one game back of the Diamondbacks before they reshaped their team completely. Acquiring Manny Ramirez provided them with easily the best offensive player in the NL West since Barry was cast away. And Manny provided them with more than they ever could have expected, hitting .396 with 17 home runs and over 50 RBIs (2nd player in MLB history to have 50+ RBIs with two teams in one season). With Manny now in their middle of their lineup, every other batter sees better pitches and becomes more selective. There's a reason the Dodgers went from being 13th in the NL in OBP before August to first in the league by far in September. Also aiding their offense for this series is the return of Rafael Furcal, who will bat leadoff. This adds to their already above average speed on the bases. Offensively, this team is very similar to recent Angels teams, where they have quick and capable batters that able to manufacture runs surrounding a slugger in the middle. Their biggest weakness offensively at this point is inexperience outside of Manny. Pitchers need to able to get the outs that they should and face Ramirez with no one on to limit the damage.

Getting back to the Dodgers' arms, they have a very formidable 1-2-3 in Derek Lowe (14-11, 3.24, 2004 postseason warrior), Chad Billingsley (16-10, 3.14) and Hiroki Kuroda (9-10, 3.73). As a team, the Dodgers lead the league in ERA (3.68) and were second only to the Cubs in batting average against (.251). Lowe and Billingsley alone could win a short series, while Kuroda limited the Cubs to only one earned run over 15.1 innings against him this season (Manny-less, mind you). Unlike the Cubs, the Dodgers only need 5-6 good innings from their starters, as they bullpen is one of the best in the entire league. They boast several great arms in Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, closer Takashi Saito and rookie Clayton Kershaw, if they don't choose to start him in Game 4. To be effective against their arms, the Cubs need to go with Lowe's pitches and not try to place/pull them, or else it will be ground ball/double play city. To beat Billingsley, they need to jump on him early, as he is erratic starting most of his games; if they let him settle in, kiss the game goodbye. Kuroda seemingly is a smoke-and-mirrors guy, so the Cubs just need to be patient.

My analysis: If the Dodgers can continue to be patient with their at bats and get people on for Manny, he can carry them to the next round alone. However, I worry about their inexperience, especially against the Cubs' rotation depth. I expect the Cubs to actually split in Chicago, losing Zambrano's game, but then come back and sweep through Los Angeles on the arms of Harden and Lilly.

My prediction: Cubs in 4

Philadelphia PHILLIES (92-70) vs. Milwaukee BREWERS (90-72)

2008 Regular Season Series: 5-1

Welcome back to the postseason, Milwaukee. In one of the best stories of the year, the Brewers are finally in the postseason field for the first time since 1982, the second-longest such streak. The Brewers, riding the mid-season acquired arm of C.C. Sabathia surged past the Mets in the final two series to claim rights to the NL wild card, and thus, a date with the twice-reigning NL East champion Phillies. The last time these clubs met, the Brewers needed wins badly, but were swept out of Philadelphia in four games, outscored 26-7.

On paper, this series looks like a complete mismatch, sans Game 2 when the big man will be on the mound for the Brew Crew. They boast a ton of young talent, but as you can put together, none have postseason experience. The Milwaukee nine will be relying on the reigning AL Cy Young for everything he can give them. Rookie phenom Yovani Gallardo, who normally has great stuff, will be pitching Game 1 - just his second start since May 1 - followed by Sabathia and then anyone's guess. Some combination of pu-pu platter of Dave Bush / Jeff Suppan / Manny Parra / Seth McClung will go until CC can come back. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that the Brewers' pitching staff has only one reliable option at this point in Sabathia. Their closer, Salmon Torres, has been horrific over the last month and no one else from the bullpen has really cemented themselves as the first one out of the pen. There's a reason the Brewers rode Sabathia on three days rest and nine innnings each time.

For the Brew Crew to be successful, they absolutely need to score runs. One run games do not suit them whatsoever. Ryan Braun has been everything the team could ask, delivering big hit after big hit. The Phillies will approach him very cautiously. Prince Fielder, on the other hand, has delivered big (both clutch and mammoth) hits all season, but has become very impatient in the waning weeks. Corey Hart, an Allstar this season, has become very inept, chasing slider-away pitch after pitch. While Ray Durham has provided incredible leadership and Craig Counsell provides experience, this lineup has too many weaknesses that will be exploited.

The Phillies, on the other hand, look unstoppable right now. Sure, they stumbled at the end a bit, but they have all the elements to be successful in October: potent offense, legitimate ace starter and closer and terrific speed. Also under their belt is the terrible postseason showing they had last year, where Howard, Utley and Rollins all looked overmatched. That experience allows them to expect and anticipate at-bats better. You better believe the Brewers are watching video of the Rockies' staff from last year on repeat. With Shane Victorino also being a cog in that offense, Howard was able to rake over the month of September (342, .848 slugging, 10 HR and 28 RBIs). One major weakness that does trouble this Phillies offense is that most of their power comes from the left side. This will aid Sabathia tremendously, as if he needed any more help.

Philadelphia's pitching is good, not great, and dependent upon major conditionals. Cole Hamels (14-10, 3.09) is the rock of the staff and will give Prince Fielder fits. After Game 1, things become interesting. The Phils definitely have the talent to make this a short series, with Brett Myers (10-13, 4.55), Joe Blanton (4-0, 4.20 in 13 starts for PHL) and Jamie Moyer (16-7, 3.71) following. All three pitchers have postseason experience and can be extremely effective. Unfortunately, the exact opposite is also true. The Phillies get the Brett Myers they saw immediately following his mid-season promotion to the majors (six wins in nine outings), then they'll have a dominant 1-2 punch with a formidable 3-4 following them. If not, then the Brewers will be pesky. Another major question lies in the backend of their bullpen. Brad Lidge has returned to the elite this season, posting an insane 41-for-41 mark in save opportunities; howevever, everyone remembers what made him drop from the elite in the first place. Lidges' postseasons have not been a strong point and his mental makeup has to be called into question here. The real question is how much the change of scenery will affect him come the ninth inning in Game 5 in a one run game, 2-on, no outs.

My analysis: Philadelphia getting the quick bounce last year will help them tremendously this year, as their offense will settle in and continue to rake. Hamels will be the only game they win with pitching. I like Sabathia in Game 2, but can't picture the Brewers platter of starters escaping the Phillies' offense alive.

My prediction: Phillies in 4

So for those keeping track, I have a Rays-Red Sox ALCS and a Cubs-Phillies NLCS.

From there, I have to be a homer and continue to like the Red Sox, as their starting pitching and experience will lift them past the Rays in 6. I think the Cubs have too much pitching and that's what wins championships. I'll take the Cubs in 5.
Sox-Cubs World Series ... hell would have frozen over 5 years ago. Since the Red Sox don't lose to the National League in the World Series anymore, I'll take the Stockings in 4 with Kevin Youkilis taking the MVP. I'm such a homer.