Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Red Sox Regular Season Wrap-up

When you end up tied for the best record in baseball it's fair to say you had a pretty good year. Well that's just what the 2007 AL East Champion Boston Red Sox did this season. While things got a little dicey there at the end (sorry Sox fans who got that one, I'm addicted to puns) with the yankmees playing insanely great ball after the all-star break and whittling down the Sox game lead in the east from 14 and a half to just a couple, the old towne team pulled through. We also clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Not too shabby. In fact, one may say it's pissah (if one was a Masshole).

As someone who followed them quite closely, watched about half of their games, and attended half a dozen of them in person, I feel somewhat qualified to state a few observations and thoughts on some of the players this season. Here are the starting nine...

1) Daisuke Matsuzaka - I called it when I told many fellow friends that he would end up with about 15 wins and an ERA around four and a half (15-12 with a 4.40 ERA). I have to pat myself on the back on this prediction as I'm usually mediocre at best in that department. I was at his first game he pitched at Fenway where he had decent stuff but the performance was overshadowed by Felix Hernandez of Seattle throwing a one-hitter in the match-up (the best live pitching performance I've ever seen at the major league level). Dice-K obviously had some serious consistency problems this season as his walks (80) and giving up the long ball (25) seemed to be confined to a particular inning during each start. The rest of the start he would pitch anywhere between pretty well to lights out. I think that the numerous adjustments to pitching in the U.S. (along with the many cultural and language challenges) perhaps had more to do with his numbers than anything else. I believe he also hit a wall at the end of the season where his endurance ran out. He was acclimated to a shorter schedule and six days between games in Japan. That must have played a significant part. The Sox were apparently quite hands off with his physical training and workout regime; the Sox brass allowed him near full autonomy in that department. I imagine that will change next year to prevent the abysmal last month and a half he had (with the exception of the night they clinched the East on Friday the 28th when he went 8 full innings, giving up only two runs). I think he will improve next year, but I don't think he will be an ace or anything more than a solid number three or possibly two starter. Over 200 innings and 15 wins this year is nothing to sneeze at however.

2) Josh Beckett - Should win the Cy Young Award if that tells you anything.

3) Mike Lowell - You'd have to be a serious douche-bag (yes I have a Bachelor's in English) not to love this guy. Not only has he torn the cover off the ball all season long, but especially in the second half quieting the naysayers that expected another late season drop off in production. He's been clutch, a leader, a producer, defensively solid (although with an anomalous year for this former gold glover with 15 errors) and a liaison between the English and Spanish speaking players with his bilingual fluency. Mike Lowell is also a very articulate and class-act. My favorite Mike Lowell moment from this year were his thoughts about the inside-the-park home run Ichiro hit in the All-Star game. A reporter asked him to comment on it and Lowell said something to the effect of "He got out of the box pretty quickly but when he rounded second he really poured it on and was blazing down the paths the rest of the way to home plate...it reminded me of a young Mike Lowell." Hilarious. I'm secure enough in my heterosexual masculinity to admit that I have a huge man-crush on the guy.

4) Julian Tavarez - I was not a Tavarez fan before this year. I couldn't stand the guy with his Freddy Kruger rugged looks, psycho temper, and proclivity toward self-destructing (although I didn't mind his punching the dugout phone in 2004). Last year he seemed to blow every game he was put in. However, the first three months of the season this year he really came through with some great wins and strong outings that picked up the club when Beckett had his blister and was out for a couple of weeks. He was 5-5 during those three months with a 4.60 ERA. The Sox were also 3-1 in his no-decisions he pitched in that span giving generally solid outings. His contributions seem to be overlooked because of his 7-11 record with a 5.15 ERA for the season. He took the ball and the mound when asked and was glad to do so. He also made me laugh with his candlepin bowling looking technique of getting the ball to first base for the out on one occasion.

5) Hideki Okajima - Anybody think we should pick up his third year option for less than two million?

6) Jacoby Ellsbury - Hands down the fastest Red Sox player I've ever seen. I believe it was one of his first games he was called up for in the beginning of July against Texas where he singled, stole second, and then scored from second on a wild pitch. Did I mention it was from second base? I was a mouth breather for a minute straight after that play. My boss Sully says that Ellis Burks was the fastest Sox player back when he first debuted in 1987 and before he bulked up. While he has a legit argument there, Ellsbury seems quicker out of the box and around the base paths. Interestingly enough both men were/are Sox centerfielders and have the same birthday of September 11th (I sometimes can retain the most irrelevant of knowledge.)

7) J.D. Drew - Like one more person needs to bitch about this guy. He's been super hot the past several weeks so if he continues to hit like he has in that span, during the playoffs...it still won't make up for this first season in Boston. A walkoff and two dozen RBIs in the playoffs may lessen the sting of his atrocious 1st year with the Sox. The bar has been set J.D.!!!

8) Dustin Pedroia - isn't big, fast, powerful or intimidating. But he can play ball really, really well. He's gutsy and attacks the game with fire and determination. How can you not root for the guy? When I saw the Sox play a few games at Fenway against Kansas City in July, I was sitting pretty close on the first base side and saw Pedroia and David Ortiz stretching and talking next to each other before the game. I haven't seen that kind of size discrepancy side by side since Billy Crystal and Gheorghe Muresan teamed up to not make me laugh. Pedroia has proved everyone wrong his entire life before this season that said a 5'6" guy couldn't play ball . This year was no exception either. He will most likely win the Rookie of the Year with his .317 batting average and great defense. My favorie Pedroia moment of the season was the amazing diving stop and throw to first in the 7th inning during Clay Bucholtz's no-hitter. The play itself was phenomenal; robbing Tejada and saving the no hitter. But I loved the slow-mo replay where they zoomed in on Pedroia when Miggy was called out at first. You didn't have to be a lipreader to see when he got the call, he slapped his glove against his hand and yelled "FUCK YEA!" Fuck yea indeed Dustin.

9) Manny Ramirez - Is he back yet? I'm even more convinced now that Manny is not chewing tobacco but a giant cud of hashish instead. What else would explain him hocking his neighbor's grill on ebay?

More Soxtober comments to come as the playoffs get underway but until then just a few stats to think about...

...Jared Weaver's ERA facing the Sox is 6.97 this year and over 12 at Fenway, and he starts game 3 of the ALDS. The only thing worse if you're an Angels fan is John Lackey is 0-2 against the Sox this season with a 8.38 ERA, and from 2004-2006 he was 1-2 with a 5.60 ERA versus them. Oh, and he's your game 1 starter Wednesday...at Fenway. Have fun playing golf next week Angels.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Narrow Margin (1952)

Landscapes and environment were undeniably integral aspects of many classic film noirs. They seemed nearly as important in conveying the crucial noir elements of suspense and dread as the actors starring in them. From the cobblestone streets of Vienna in The Third Man, the seedy underworld of London in Night and the City, the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, and of course the concrete jungle of Manhattan in Scarlett Street, The Naked City and Pickup on South Street are just few of the numerous possible match-ups. These environments breathed aesthetic life into these films and literally set the stage for the players to interact, investigate, pursue, be chased, live and die on their streets.

But what if our film noir protagonist didn’t have the streets of New York City to hide from his pursuers? What if he was a cop, who had no expansive boulevards of Los Angeles to elude the mob trying to rub out his star witness he was assigned to protect? What if our cop and his witness were confined to small, narrow compartments in a passenger train speeding along at 60 mph? What if that same mob had goons, bent on killing the witness, inside that same train and outside keeping pace with them in a car traveling alongside on the highway? If you’re that cop the preceding picture sounds about as appealing as being a diver in a shark cage during a feeding frenzy. Only these sharks are inside the cage with the diver. In The Narrow Margin this scenario comes to life in this expertly executed thriller, with even more twists piled onto the wonderfully contorted premise (warning, spoilers are a comin’).

Our film opens with a pair of L.A. detectives arriving in Chicago with an assignment to protect a widowed mob wife. She’s holding a list of names and the knowledge to put away L.A. Mafia heavies in a graft investigation. The detectives, Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) arrive at the Chicago safe house (which is a not so safe, nor private, boarding house) where the mob widow Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor) is being protected by the local cops. Brown and Forbes must get Mrs. Neall back to L.A. safely so she can deliver the incendiary list of names and testify to the grand jury awaiting her arrival. The transfer goes awry as one of the mob button men kills Forbes and flees before Brown can apprehend him. Brown grabs Mrs. Neall and makes a b-line to the train station with two, one-way tickets to L.A.

Mrs. Neall turns out to be a real firecracker of a shrew. Previously, on the cab ride from the train station to the safe-house, Forbes and Brown wonder what kind of a woman would become a mobster’s wife also adding the crucial (yet implausible) plot element that “nobody’s seen her.” Brown interjects a profile of the unseen moll, speculating that she “is a dish… a 60 cent special. Cheap, flashy and strictly poison under the gravy.” Forbes counters with foreshadowing insight that “all kinds” of women could potentially marry a Mafia racketeer, not just the stereotypical portrait Brown has painted. However, Marie Windsor’s Mrs. Neall seems to be closer to Brown’s estimate with her sharp tongue and curvaceous body. After their harrowing escape and during the cab ride to the train station with Brown, Windsor expresses zero sympathy for Forbes and the bullet he just took for her. She even begins to flirt with Brown mere minutes after his partner of six years takes the big one for the team. Brown puts the kibosh on her advances saying that she is just a job in his eyes and she quickly backs off by snarling, “I wouldn’t want any of that nobility to rub off on me.”

Brown gets Windsor on the train unseen but moments later on the platform, is spotted by mob goon Joseph Kemp (David Clarke). Kemp follows Brown on the train and the wheels are set in motion for this claustrophobic cat and mouse chase about to take place on a passenger locomotive. Brown has bought two compartments on the train for him and Mrs. Neall and they initially elude Kemp’s snooping around both rooms. But Kemp knows Brown has her stashed somewhere on the train. In addition to Kemp, a mafia liaison by the name of Vincent Yost is also on the train. He confronts and attempts to bribe Brown for the list and the whereabouts on the train of Mrs. Neall (remember the mafia apparently doesn’t know what she looks like). Brown is momentarily tempted, but he can’t be bought and also can’t arrest Yost as he has a squeaky clean record as a sales executive for one of the mob’s legitimate company fronts. Windsor’s Mrs. Neal eavesdrops at the door from the adjoining compartment to the attempted bribery by Yost. She later tells Brown that he is a sucker for not taking the bribe and tells him that they could split the money and take off. Brown tells Windsor she makes him sick to his stomach to which she replies, “Well use your own sink, and let me know when the target practice starts.”

While the cat and mouse goes on between him and Kemp, Brown keeps bumping into the attractive, Mrs. Sinclair (Jacqueline White) and her son Tommy around the train. She looks the part of a wholesome woman with a precocious boy who if Ritalin was around in the early 50s, I’m sure he would be receiving the maximum daily dose. It’s no coincidence (kind of) however that Mrs. Sinclair and Brown keep meeting up. As it turns out she is the real Mrs. Neall, traveling clandestinely (as much as one can with a hyperactive eight-year old child and nanny in tow) after the D.A. instructed her to get to the coast undetected. This twist is revealed shockingly after Marie Windsor’s character is finally discovered and bumped off by Kemp and another hit man who boarded the train in Albuquerque named Densel. Equally surprising is Windsor was an internal affairs policewoman, posing as Mrs. Neall and trying to ensnare the seemingly un-bribable Brown in a payoff from the mob.

Now that the tables have been turned the tension is ratcheted up as McGraw’s Detective Brown must protect the real Mrs. Neall (who didn’t know her husband was tied to the mob and turned state’s evidence once she found out), her son Tommy and thwart Kemp and Densel (who we learn is also his partner Forbes’s killer). All of that on a speeding train with the only possible stops left on the line being death or Los Angeles.

While there are some suspect plot holes one could drive a-you-know-what through, director Richard Fleischer keeps the pace moving so quickly that time to dwell on them is not allotted. Clocking in at a lean 71minutes, there isn’t a trace of gristle in this thriller that’s as juicy and satisfying as a thick sirloin steak. Fleischer made a beautiful looking film with near perfect lighting and camera work. The latter aspect comes into play in many scenes but especially the fantastic fistfight between Kemp and Brown in a train washroom. Using a handheld camera (unusual for the time and especially fist fights), the principle actors, low angles and tight shots, make for an amazingly gritty scene of fisticuffs in such a confined, ‘narrow’ space. Fleischer expertly plays with the claustrophobic and restricted space of the train throughout the film and as the tension increases, the shots seem to get tighter and tighter. Another extraordinary aspect and bold choice on Fleischer’s part is the omission of a music soundtrack. In place of a score, Fleischer prominently features the sounds of the train and its workings to audibly add to the mood. From the loud banging together of boxcars forewarning gunplay, to a nice sound match scene transition between Windsor nervously filing her nails and the wheels of the train rhythmically churning, the film is full of these interesting plays of sound and story.

The cast is a well-assembled one, each giving superb performances. Charles McGraw’s Detective Brown is the quintessential hard-nosed cop; played so tough by McGraw he could sleep on kegs and spit nails as my grandfather used to say. He convincingly conveys the fallibility of temptation (when offered the bribe) adding a nice dimension to the role he’s perfectly suited to play. The scene-stealer however is undoubtedly Marie Windsor. Not only is she easy on the eyes, as hers are strictly bedroom, but Windsor executes the role with moxie and flair, without overdoing it. It also helps that she gets the best lines in a dynamite script by Earl Felton from a story by Martin (Detour) Goldsmith. The Narrow Margin isn’t a perfect film but once conductor Fleischer takes your ticket, it’s a trip you won’t regret riding right to the end of the line.

NOTE: “The Narrow Margin” is being shown tomorrow (10/01/07) at 6:45 pm on TCM.