Monday, November 19, 2007

The Batman Franchise

In an effort to get caught up with the massive backlog of DVDs and DVD-Rs stacking up in a silently mocking fashion in the office and on the shelves downstairs, I am attempting to start watching these things at a more accelerated pace (say, more than one every few weeks) for as long as is feasible and writing about the ones I feel are worth passing along. Perhaps this way I'll keep myself writing and hopefully lose this nagging feeling that I am unwittingly turning this condominium into a museum full of pretty silver discs. I'll also try to keep the spoilers to a minimum. Promise.

The batsignal and its intended recipient, sometime late last week
I think it was due to a used copy of the current 2-DVD version appearing in the used bin at work that I decided to revisit Tim Burton's original blockbuster take on Batman. Watching that movie for the first time in well over a decade sparked a desire to re-experience his follow-up Batman Returns a bit later, and from there I got the rather masochistic notion that I should re-experience all of the films in the series (as well as the recent franchise "reload" project Batman Begins) for a review project. Obviously, there are times when I should stop listening to my brilliant creative impulses.

Yes, I knew in advance what I'd be getting myself into with those two mid-1990s entries in the series as I had seen them once apiece in the theater upon their release, and loathed them enough that I made the mistake of not even bothering with Batman Begins when it appeared in theaters a couple years back, despite the coaxing and protestations of friends (in meat-life and otherwise). What can I say? We all make mistakes.

Batman and The Joker have a difference in opinion.
To get in the frame of mind that people experienced Batman when it was new, you have to put yourself back into the early summer of 1989, which is the time period when that movie was the single biggest marketing power on the planet. Long before such things as viral campaigns and the modern 24-hour media news suite that is now the primary component in the entertainment promotion machine, Batman was perhaps the most anticipated movie event since Return Of The Jedi in that it was impossible to go anywhere without seeing something or someone sporting that ubiquitous "bat signal" logo. Even amongst such high-flying roman-numeral-heavy competition as Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Ghostbusters II, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, and Lethal Weapon 2, Batman was the movie event of that summer, and an unstoppable cultural juggernaut that squashed everything in its path.

This is hardly the first time anyone has said this of a summer blockbuster, but it's far more interesting to talk about Batman as a commercial/cultural powerhouse (not to mention how much shit hit the fan when Michael Keaton was announced as Bruce Wayne/Batman instead of, uh, I dunno, Sylvester Stallone or something) than it is to discuss it as a movie since there isn't an awful lot of substance to dive into here. That said, I have been informed by quite a few people over the years when drawn into discussions of comic book movies that Batman represents one of the all-time peaks of the genre. Mmmhmm. I'll respectfully disagree there. I will, however, allow that Batman was certainly the crowning "event movie" of that decade and the template for nearly all of the superhero films that were made in the years since ... but it sure hasn't aged very well.

Despite an attempted "love triangle" storyline and a drawn-out ending set piece atop an old clock tower, there is never a tangible feeling of tension built up during any point in this film. It's also impossible to take most of Batman seriously when it seems like Jack Nicholson's portions of the movie bend over backwards trying to be as screwy and over-the-top as possible. So, this is a comedy, right? Well, no ... Keaton's half of the movie is weighty and ponderous and has only Michael Gough's splendid interpretation of Alfred the butler to provide any kind of subtle (though no less welcome) relief. It's all so very complicated being a hero, you see ...

The plot of Batman, luckily(?), is far less complicated: The Joker appears, kills the crime boss of Gotham City, and then poisons some cosmetics products while Batman occasionally beats up his hired muscle. There is also a lot of forced exposition we have to sit through whenever Nicholson and Keaton are off screen, and we are left to deal instead with Big 80s Hair-wearing Kim Basinger and the woefully under-used Robert Wuhl. The other name actors spread about the flick in order to give this movie some kind of clout (Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Palance and, uh, Jerry Hall) are used so sparingly in window dressing roles as to almost be highly-paid cameos.

Like I said before, you have to put yourself in our shoes at that time to derive enjoyment out of this movie on any level. In 1989, we all believed the hype and convinced ourselves that Batman was, like, the bees knees. In retrospect, I'll stick with that Indiana Jones film instead, thanks very much.

Batman Returns
Everyone knew a sequel to Batman was inevitable from the instant it smashed its first opening day record, and when Batman Returns arrived three years later the anticipation for it was nearly as feverish as the mass jonesing that had greeted the first movie. This time, however, the results actually seemed worthy of the hype, though the overall tone of the film was perhaps a tad too bleak for Warner Bros. (not to mention thousands of freaked-out youngsters who were treated to one of the most relentlessly schizoid and melancholy superhero films ever created). Burton had been talked into returning to the director's chair once again only on the condition that he had free reign to make exactly the kind of Batman film he had wanted to make the first time around. Warners, seeing nothing but stacks of profits in their heads, said "Sure, yeah, whatever" and gave him the green-light with no strings attached. With Burton back on board, Keaton returned as well, and in an inspired bit of casting, Danny DeVito was announced as The Penguin.

Given a creative license to kill and pots of studio cash at his disposal, Burton may not have delivered the biggest movie of all time (as I'm sure was the idea from corporate), but he certainly made one of the most visually arresting films of his career. The exteriors, all of them reflecting the grim, obsidian metropolis of Gotham City plunged into wintertime (to reflect the movie's Christmas setting), look like a ravishing cross between Blade Runner and Edward Scissorhands. Whether or not you are into superheroes or action films, Batman Returns is impossible to take your eyes off of: the luxuriant amount of detail in the sets and costumes make this the most expensive piece of Gothic eye candy ever released.

If the rich production design alone made this film worth a look, the performances and more character-intensive script helped sealed the deal. Batman Returns also sets up the pattern of a revolving love interest for Batman that would continue throughout the rest of the series to date, with Basinger replaced by the infinitely-more talented Michelle Pfeiffer (who, by the way, looks absolutely delicious in skintight PVC). Portraying Selina Kyle, the harried secreta ... sorry, executive assistant to Wayne's corporate adversary Max Schreck (points for those who spotted the reference the first time they saw the flick), and also the double-identity of Catwoman, the newest semi-crazed anti-hero in town. As expected, DeVito's Penguin chews scenery every bit as loudly as Nicholson's Joker did, but this time there is a second villain to counter weigh his showboating in the form of the icy smooth Schreck. Brought to life by a hilariously deadpan Christopher Walken, Schreck is the true villain of Batman Returns, seeking to play Batman, Gotham City, and the victimized and misguided Penguin against each other for his own future gain, all other priorities rescinded.

Commercially, Batman Returns did pretty good bank over the summer of 1992, but "pretty good" was not the kind of box office cume that Warner Bros. had in mind following the utter world domination that the first film had managed three years before. While Burton's vision was certainly guaranteed of drawing a hip and devoted following, Warners decided that they really wanted someone with a far more "safe" and crowd-pleasing approach to helm the Batman series for a while, and they eventually settled on none other than Joel Schumacher ...

The Riddler and Two-Face attempt a ''subtle'' emotional scene.
Batman Forever marked a turning point in the franchise as the stars and creators of the first two films were successfully replaced with more marketable personnel (and Tommy Lee Jones). To his credit, Val Kilmer makes a surprisingly good Bruce Wayne/Batman (being much younger and more energetic, though somehow less charming, than Keaton's haunted recluse), and could have easily made the part his own if he had stuck around for longer than one movie. Along with the new Bat comes a new love interest: Nicole Kidman plays a criminal psychologist named Chase Meridian, and she lays it on hot and heavy right from the start, doing her utmost to make even Vicki Vale look like a prude.

I'll be totally honest here, Batman Forever was nowhere near as awful as I'd remembered, though it certainly is no monument to bravura film making. Despite Burton's name seen in an executive producer's capacity during the opening credits (I guess this was a kind of symbolic passing-of-the-torch), the feel of this movie couldn't be any more different from the previous two. Schumacher takes wheel and puts the pedal firmly to the metal in a blatant attempt to create a Batman movie that appeals to nearly every possible target audience. Cranked to eleven, stuffed with crowd-pleasing jokes and double entendres, and possessed of a sense of breathless momentum throughout, Forever makes the first two films in the series seem like Masterpiece Theater in comparison.

Now here is the weird thing: somehow, this almost works. But it's with the twin villains (or perhaps just the villains themselves) that Batman Forever starts to come apart at the seams. I suppose these new baddies were a direct reaction to the truly creepy Penguin from Returns; instead of a true sense of twisted, psychotic menace, Jones plays Two-Face as a complete bumbling idiot (or at least a hapless buffoon with a .45 and a hair trigger) while Jim Carrey taps into an even more obnoxious version of his usual shtick as Edward Nygma/The Riddler. These two are supposed to represent a challenge for Batman? Hell, they're no more than cartoons, as safe as milk and never posing any kind of real threat to anyone or anything aside from their henchmen. Considering how kiddie-friendly this movie was, it's somewhat startling that ancillary characters still manage to die onscreen (though nearly always in utterly bloodless fashion), which apparently was one of the biggest issues parents had with the first two movies. It appears, though, that this particular issue more of that had to do with the depictions of death more than anything else. Surprise.

Gotham City itself is also noticeably transformed by the change in directors. While Tim Burton's vision was pretty much what you might expect from a sad-sack, black-clad college art student type, Schumacher's tendencies seem to come straight from modern Broadway extravaganzas, particularly his penchant for utilizing gaudy, brightly colored lights to fit different moods in different scenes. In Batman Forever, Gotham City is a garish, day-glo cityscape so MTV-like in appearance that you're almost expecting characters to start singing (or packs of choreographed dancers to spring from every doorway along the strangely de-populated looking streets). The neon lights and lasers flashing about randomly in the background look pretty silly on their own, but things get really over the top when we reach the Riddler's hideout at the movie's climax, where so many VariLites are twirling about in programmed unison that it feels like we just wandered into a Pink Floyd concert by mistake.

Another remarkable change Schumacher institutes in Forever is the daring use of daylight once in a while: we are actually shown exterior shots of the city and Wayne Manor basking in the sun, which somehow makes them even more surreal than they were under Burton's watch (now that we can actually see it, Gotham City looks a hell of lot more like New York City by way of ancient Rome with phallic columns and statues of beaten, slumped figures scattered hither and yon). We also get a redesigned, blue-lit, one-seater Batmobile with a silly mohawk-like fin on top: watching this flytrap on wheels taking curves during chase scenes gave me the distinct impression that it handled more like a box kite than an armored car.

Finally, Batman Forever heralded the introduction of Robin to the franchise at last (Burton, who was no fan of the character, delayed this development for as long as he was in the director's chair). Of course, having another poseable action figure to license must have pleased the Warners shareholders, but casting the nearly charmless Chris O'Donnell in this role was probably not the greatest idea ever. At first, we sympathize with the character: the scene in which we are introduced to young Dick Grayson just before we get to see Two-Face kill his entire heroic family in one fell swoop is handled better than could have been expected. It doesn't take long to figure out why: O'Donnell has hardly any dialogue in it. Once he starts snapping and whining, our good faith sours in a hurry. I never figured I'd miss Burt Ward as Boy Wonder, but I sure do now ...

(Incidentally, I'm guessing that the above murders are considered as "lighter" in tone than anything in the Burton films since none of the deceased are ever seen spitting black and green fluid out of their mouths, but if I'm wrong on this, lemme know. )

Batman & Robin.
Released a lightning-quick two years later, Batman & Robin starts off in very unpromising fashion: we get to watch the Dynamic Duo suiting up for their next mission in a series of whoosh-y, tightly-edited flashes that make sure we get a very close look at their chests, asses and crotches (all encased in rubber, thankfully). From there, we're off and running with the film that killed the whole franchise for nearly a decade.

As dopey and silly as Batman Forever was, Batman & Robin was a thousand times worse in every possible category. Serving up two hours of extreme audience punishment that should have resulted in a class action lawsuit, Batman & Robin is a true freak of cinematic nature: the kind of unbelievably atrocious product that only a large multinational entertainment corporation can create with an unlimited budget, a callous attitude towards their audience, and a belief that simply throwing money around willy-nilly will result in box office gold (and that will then translate into a half-dozen highly successful satellite revenue streams from action figures, breakfast cereal, "music from and inspired by" soundtrack albums, fast-food promotions, et cetera). Sadly, of course, this kind of movie making actually works once in a while, but every now and again a stinker as ruthlessly calculated as this one falls on its face and restores, however briefly, a sense of faith in the American moviegoer.

The chief characteristic of a truly dumb digital-age blockbuster is to function like a kind of theme park "thrill ride," which is to say that the object of the film is to entertain the audience by continually assaulting them where they sit. Once beaten into submission, some ancient reptilian part of the human brain makes the audience believe they are having the time of their lives when all they're really doing is watching buildings and vehicles exploding while characters yell lines at the top of their lungs at each other in order to artificially raise the level of tension. Finally, movies like these must have at least one sequence, ideally in the third act, where the heroes race against the Countdown Clock Of Doom and save the day with only seconds (or less) to spare.

If this, dear reader, sounds like your ideal movie experience (or if you have a terrible case of Attention Deficit Disorder), then grab a copy of Batman & Robin and enjoy the ride. Here's the best of what lies in store ...

*Just about every moving object in this movie that does not respire will either explode, sprout wings, or turn into a rocket ship. A chase sequence of some kind usually ensues shortly afterward.

*Lights in Gotham City (whether in the streets or indoors) are always twirling or twinkling busily away and never standing still.

*The music (whether the score or a song by whatever Warners artist's manager begged the most for screen time) utterly dominates the mix when there aren't sound effects aren't going off cannon-like all around us.

*The Batmobile looks even more like a flimsy fiber-optic toy than the last one did.

*Something, or someone is always flying through the air (and making noise while doing so).

The whole effect of this complete overload is a feeling of odd dislocation when we break away from the cacaphony to see how weak Alfred is looking and how worried Bruce Wayne is becoming over his father figure's worsening condition. The drama of these scenes is leavened somewhat by our knowledge that Alfred's death in this movie is about as likely as Fred Durst winning the Nobel Science Prize for biochemistry.

The character overload factor that became a real problem in Forever was actually upped in Batman & Robin: Batgirl is added late into the mix almost as an afterthought in order to help our heroes face two more idiotic and incompetent villains in the monstrously irritating form of Poison Ivy, (played by Uma Thurman as the retarded offspring of Mae West and Emo Phillips), with Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his kinder, gentler post-Terminator 2 form) portraying the gullible, blue-skinned moron Dr. Victor Freeze.

If these new villains weren't lame enough, George Clooney's Bruce Wayne/Batman is so detached and phoned-in that one wonders if he was channelling Dean Martin for inspiration. This was at a time when Clooney was still busy playing variations on his Doug Ross character from ER, and he makes perhaps the least-believable Bruce Wayne yet. Meanwhile, O'Donnell is, if possible, even more irritating than he was in Forever, while dependably pouty Alicia Silverstone plays the rebellious, motorcycle-lovin' Batgirl whose biggest contribution to the movie is being in the obligatory "catfight" scene with Poison Ivy. All of this leaves Michael Gough as the only actor to come out of the last two films with his dignity intact (Kilmer had a few too many silly lines during his turn as Batman to qualify for this award), though it might have been more fitting if Alfred had been allowed to expire instead, as Goat knows the entire rest of the franchise did after this dog was over.

Random thought that popped to mind while Batman & Robin was blaring continuously in front of me: it certainly seems like a lot of people in the comic book universe must be privy to Bruce Wayne's dual identity. Consider that one of the first things we see in this movie is a brand new, gleaming Batcave (which had been pretty well trashed at the end of Forever). Sure, Alfred, Bruce and Dick have loads of free time and swimming pools full of money to spend whenever the mood strikes, but I just don't see this kind of large-scale rebuilding and refurbishing happening without an awful lot of farmed-out handiwork, and unless it was a bunch of illegal immigrants installing all the computer systems, dressing rooms, and cutting-edge electronic hardware (not to mention building a new Batmobile fer crissakes), these workers had to know exactly what they were building underneath that big ol' mansion on the hill.

I may have had a bit of fun pissing all over this movie, but please don't get the idea that watching it was enjoyable on any level. Seriously, Batman & Robin is really bad, people. We're talking Mystery Science Theater 3000 minus-the-robots kind of bad. Even for standard summer action movie fare, this is an aggressively stupid and annoying movie that will either damage your brain or partially dissolve your soul. Move along, folks. Nothing to see here ...

Batman Begins
For nearly half a decade after Batman & Robin, no one dared attempt another Batman film, as the stink left behind from that fiasco lingered for years. Eventually, enough time must have passed, for Warners decided to return to the well once again. This time, however, the company took an interesting approach by forgoing A-list action directors in favor of a more intellectual, measured approach. Ultimately, Christopher Nolan (a man with meager box office clout) was selected for the directing job, and the studio allowing him to pursue his idea of a prequel/"origin film" instead of a chronological "follow-up" to Batman & Robin.

While technically a prequel in that most of the film takes place years before the events in the original Burton movie, Batman Begins is actually a "reboot." Unlike in the Superman series, where we were asked to simply believe that the third and fourth movies never happened (and believe me, that was something the audience was all too happy to do), Batman Begins wipes the entire damn series out and starts all over again from Bruce Wayne's childhood. While such a complete revamp might be a bit confusing to people who might only know the character from the previous films themselves, such bewilderment shouldn't last long, as Nolan does a smashing job re-establishing the Wayne backstory with situations both familiar and previously untold (particularly in regards to the years between the death of Wayne's parents and the public debut of his alter-ego).

While not entirely bereft of humor, Begins restores the reverent, graphic novel tone that Burton drew upon during his tenure. That said, Nolan also cuts sharply back on the sleek, technological sheen that Schumacher inflated to ridiculous proportions: gone is the sleek, electronics-laden Batcave, replaced with something far more inherently believable (and fitting of the character). Gotham City still resembles a tricked-out Manhattan, but the lines have been blurred and the silly circus lights tossed out to achieve something not terribly far off what Burton had in mind, though far less fanciful and far more run-down and forbidding. The same can be said for the Batmobile, which has been replaced by something so completely counter to our expectations that I'm not even sure we can use that familiar name on this vehicle: it seems too imposing and deadly to be saddled with a flippant sounding suffix as "-mobile."

If all of that weren't enough, the cast of Batman Begins is incredible, with the magnetic Christian Bale now in the title role and allowing Bruce Wayne a biting, urbane wit (and Batman a glowering, nearly unhinged rage) unlike anything previously seen in the series. Also shining brightly in a cast brimming with big names, the always-dependable Michael Caine brings his usual charm as a less-grandfatherly Alfred, Morgan Freeman plays Lucius Fox as a sly and not-unwitting corporate partner to Bruce Waynes' crime-fighting ambitions, and Gary Oldman plays very against type as the someday-to-be Commissioner Gordon.

While I was fairly liberal with dispensing plot details to the previous Batman films, it's really for the best that not I not go too far into the plot machinations behind this entry, many of which are plainly hinted at as the movie progresses, yet tied together beautifully by the time it's all over. I sorely regret skipping Batman Begins at the theater, but you can consider my ticket punched for the next chapter (especially since Nolan and Bale are both returning for a second round).

Batman Begins is, without reservation, the best film of the series and, despite the hugely different tone and overall aura of versimilitude, is also quite possibly the equal or superior to Superman and Spider-Man 2 as the best superhero film in the history of the genre. Even for those who normally avoid these kind of movies, I would recommend a viewing of this remarkable film without hestitation: it really is that good.

Batman rating 2/5

Batman Returns rating 4/5

Batman Forever rating 2/5

Batman & Robin rating 1/5

Batman Begins rating 5/5

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Prestige

"Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called 'The Pledge.' The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called 'The Turn.' The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call 'The Prestige.'" -- Cutter (Michael Caine)

When it comes to movies, I love being surprised, and it's stumbling across such unassuming-looking features as The Prestige that makes movie going such a pleasure. It also doesn't hurt that this intense, intricate film packs enough plot twists and unexpected developments for three movies during its two-hour running time.

We're somewhere in the late 19th century when we meet Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), two apprentice magicians about to split up forever after a performance of a standard illusion goes horribly wrong. Worse, the fallout from that night eventually entwines Angier and Borden together in a kind of eternal rivalry, with each man utterly comsumed with besting the other by whatever means necessary. Before long, the ever-increasing fits of vengeance and jealousy between the two men threaten to spiral completely out of control, especially after one of them develops and stages "The Transported Man," the greatest stage illusion of all.

Those who enjoy seeing revenge served up with true panache by two excellent actors at the top of their craft will find much to like here, as the mind games and one-upsmanship between the two magicians grow ever more diabolical (and just plain mean). Playing itself out with all of the theater and suspense a great showman brings to his magic act on stage, The Prestige is a wickedly fun ride that aims to keep you on your toes right up to the climax.

There is, however, one small catch to this experience: a point is reached in the narrative where the movie suddenly veers into the realm of the fantastical, and whether or not you allow yourself to make that leap with the characters will greatly impact on which side of the fence you'll be sitting when the credits roll (which is the only reason I docked this film a star). Personally, what allowed this startling development to work is that "magic" isn't really what The Prestige is about to begin with: this is a story about two men so consumed by jealousy and hatred that they're willing to sacrifice everything in their desire to ultimately "win" their personal contest.

I'm not going to talk about or hint any more about what happens during The Prestige for fear of wrecking the surprises awaiting you in this dark and fascinating film. Y'all are just gonna have to trust me on this one.

The Prestige rating 4/5

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

We Now Return You To Our Regularly Scheduled Programming


Hello again and welcome to real life circa fall 2007, which is just getting back underway as I write this. Let's do some updating of where things are at this moment in time, shall we?

After three months of dicking and dallying around with two different dentists getting bite molds done, a root canal performed, a few cavities (re)filled, and my roots scraped so deeply I thought I might lose an eye or get a hole in my chin, I have a crown at last, and it feels awful. Huzzah!

That is the good news.

The bad news? I am also right back to square one again in a monetary sense after having burned up all of my carefully-maintained emergency funds over this ongoing dental adventure (the costs of which I greatly underestimated at the outset, apparently). So, in addition to maintaining minty oral freshness, I am now back to performing breathtaking feats of financial gymnastics as I seek to sprint through the next two months keeping bills caught up, setting aside some more money for an cleaning appointment in three weeks and getting a Christmas shopping plan ready for a few weeks after that.

The situation at work is still cautiously optimistic, though we took a punch in the mouth in September figures-wise. While we were against a freakishly busy month, this still knocks us back from being flat with the year-to-date 2006 figures a bit and we're hoping to make that up by the time the holidays roll around ... though with October coming in as underwhelming at is has been, we're now looking at long odds of having another "up" year. Not helping matters much is an absolutely anemic fourth-quarter release schedule and, perhaps, some increased competition in the form of a shiny new Target location that opened a few miles down the road from us.

Lastly, in the category of "any publicity = good publicity," the store had a backhandedly positive mention in a recent "Best Of Cleveland" poll run by Scene magazine. Apparently, our most notable feature at the store is our amazing cassette tape selection! This is tantamount to handing Best Buy an achievement award for their magazine rack. Even funnier still, we were just talking a few months ago about finally ridding ourselves of these things once and for all, and now we're actually selling them too well to do so, thanks to this article. Life remains chock full of surprises ...

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Last Look Back At The 2007 Season

For the first time since Sunday night, I managed to make it through a whole day without wanting to deck someone or curl up all fetal-style under my desk ... though if the everfucking Boston Red Sox manage to sweep the suddenly stale Colorado Rockies, as it looks like they just might, that might change in a big ol' hurry.

Anyway, the point to be made here is that life does indeed go on. So, before it does, here is a recounting of my favorite memories of this past season (in order of their occurrence) ...

  • Watching C.C. Sabathia pitch a full game against the Oakland Athletics on June 25 (my birthday gift from Sarah) from killer seats behind home plate.

  • That late-June/pre-Break stretch of exhilarating come-from-behind wins. Watching these guys finding ways to win (in generally dramatic last-minute fashion) made me start to believe that anything was possible once again and managed to lock me in for the rest of the season.

  • July 2. My first Fausto Carmona game at the Jake. Almost overshadowing the brilliance of the Icy Cold One was Rafael Perez's eye-opening performance: summoned into a bases-loaded-and-no-one-out situation, Raffy-L not only got 3 outs in a row, but didn't allow a single runner to cross home plate while doing so. Oh yeah, Grady Sizemore also belted a grand slam an inning or so later. Bonus.

  • July 25. Fausto vs. Josh Beckett in a white-knuckler 1-0 game, which followed a 0-1 loss to the Red Sox the previous night. Probably my favorite regular season game of the year right there. Just about any time Carmona pitched this year was not to be missed: you were always wondering if this would be the night he'd pull off a no hitter (or perhaps something even grander).

  • July 16. Seeing Jensen Lewis pitch in his first major league appearance (a shoot-out against the Chicago White Sox).

  • THA BEER GUY!!! He makes The Upper Deck Experience that much richer.

  • July 27. Kenny Lofton comes home and promptly reminds everyone why we missed him so much over the years since he was last around. At the time of this move, I was a bit apprehensive of what could happen to this club as I remembered Lofton as a brooder and therefore a possible disruptive influence on this close-knit bunch. Now, I'm wishing he wasn't leaving again. :(

  • That hilariously craptastic "Let's Go Tribe!" song. Kinda like an unholy fusion of Toni Basil and Def Leppard.

  • August 27. The Triple Play. We saw this at the game and I fairly rocketed out of my chair at the end. WOW! I still watch that clip every week or so, and it never gets old.

  • We got to the Jake early enough on 8/27 to catch the team taking batting practice. A whole bunch of kids around us were chirping "FAUSTO!! FAUSTO!!! FAUSTO!! FAUSTO!!" every single time Carmona had a ball in his hand as he paced center field, chatting with another player. At one point, Fausto, without turning around, barked a faux-irritated "NO!" to shut them up. That gave us a good laugh.

  • Listening to ninth innings on the way home from work nearly every night and cracking up as Tom Hamilton riffed on such pitchers as Mike MacDougal: "You could stand at the plate without a bat and he'd walk you!" and Rick White: "He hasn't changed a bit!"

  • September 2. The Jake (both the venue and the pitcher) was buzzed by jets from the lakefront air show all afternoon, which was really about the only cool part of an otherwise gorgeous Sunday afternoon spent watching the Tribe getting completely wiped out by the freakin' White Sox.

  • C0mpl3+3l7 pwn1ng the great Johan Santana all season long.

  • The statue of Bob Feller in front of The Jake wearing the "IT'S TRIBE TIME NOW" t-shirt.

  • September 17. Watching Casey Blake bean walk-off home run #2 of the weekend against the Detroit Tigers. My first walk-off victory game. When that was over, you could feel the post-season oh so very close indeed. What a total rush.

  • September 23. We went down and watched the AL-C clinching game against Oakland. One of the most joyous experiences I can remember: an equal dose of beauty, bedlam and nirvana.

  • ALDS Game 2. Carmona 3-hits the god damned New York Yankees, allowing one run in nine solid innings of work. Sadly, this was the last time in 2007 we were to see Fausto in his outstanding regular season form.

  • The appearance of the midges during ALDS Game 2, if for no other reason than the near-supernatural timing of their arrival. I was listening to the radio broadcast of that game over the 'net while at work and literally could not believe what I was hearing. It was even better to watch it later. What a remarkable, weird and most unexpected comeback.

  • Trot freakin' Nixon goes yard on Roger Clemens in ALDS Game 3. Ha ha ha ha ha haaaaaaa. You couldn't make up a more poetic end to The Drama Queen's pitching career if you tried.

  • Paul Byrd in Game 4 of the ALDS. I was part of the "oh shit, pitch C.C.!!" bandwagon for this game and Byrdie proved me and everyone else dead wrong. I just hope that the news that broke a week later won't end up staining this game in my memory.

  • Torching the god damned Yankees 3-1 in the playoffs ... and in their stadium. Yessssss!!! Thuuuuuuuuuh Yankees lose!!

  • Hamilton on Dustin Pedroia: "A very easy player to dislike."

  • The 10th and 11th innings of ALCS Game 2. During the 10th, Tom Mastny took on the heart of the Red Sox batting order and gave up nothing. As someone on Let's Go Tribe wrote, "this is like setting your puppy against an SUV" and, somehow, the puppy won. An inning later, the Tribe went on a scoring tear and blew this sucker wiiiiide open, grabbing the road split they so desperately needed.

  • Kenny Lofton's home run off of Daisuke Matsuzaka in ALCS Game 3. It was like 1995 all over again.

  • Rafael Betancourt for an entire season of badass setup pitching, but especially for the superhuman performance he gave while was systematically defanging the heaviest hitters of the Detroit Tigers, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

  • Aaron Laffey's flawless relief outing in ALCS Game 6 after Fausto and Perez went straight down the tubes (again).

  • Jake Westbrook in ALCS Games 3 and (especially) 7. I can't say enough about this guy during Game 7: he wasn't perfect out of the starting gate, but as that awful night dragged on, he just got stronger and kept us in the game every second he was on the mound. I have not given Westbrook his due most of the year, but he truly earned my respect with that performance. A true hero when we needed one the most.

Thanks for indulging me. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog programming, already in progress.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The 2007 Cleveland Indians: A Gallery

Though the ache is still fresh from another Game 7 gone bad, it's time to move on from baseball and back into normal life as we know it.

Before we continuing onward, though, here's the active roster in pictures of my favorite baseball team, the 2007 Cleveland Indians.

Thanks for the best summer of baseball Cleveland has seen in years, guys. Go Tribe in '08!

Josh Barfield

Josh Barfield

Rafael Betancourt

Rafael Betancourt

Casey Blake

Casey Blake

Joe Borowski

Joe Borowski

Paul Byrd

Paul Byrd

Asdrubal Cabrera

Asdrubal Cabrera

Fausto Carmona

Fausto Carmona

Aaron Fultz

Aaron Fultz

Ryan Garko

Ryan Garko

Chris Gomez

Chris Gomez

Franklin Gutierrez

Franklin Gutierrez

Travis Hafner

Travis Hafner

Aaron Laffey

Aaron Laffey

Jensen Lewis

Jensen Lewis

Kenny Lofton

Kenny Lofton

Victor Martinez

Victor Martinez

Tom Mastny

Tom Mastny

Jason Michaels

Jason Michaels

Trot Nixon

Trot Nixon

Jhonny Peralta

Jhonny Peralta

Rafael Perez

Rafael Perez

C.C. Sabathia

C.C. Sabathia

Kelly Shoppach

Kelly Shoppach

Grady Sizemore

Grady Sizemore

Eric Wedge

Eric Wedge

Jake Westbrook

Jake Westbrook

Monday, October 22, 2007

ALCS Game 7: Boston 11, Cleveland 2

Endgame.So I guess that's what they mean by "home field advantage."

It's now official: there will be no World Series in Ohio this year, or even an American League title. Just three days ago, it looked like Cleveland had a real shot at a sports championship for the first time in over four decades. This morning, a brilliant sun shone cruelly down on Northeast Ohio: the perfect summery conditions a mockery of the darkened mood that has fallen over the Cleveland area over the last two days. As I type this post now, the weather is more appropriately cold and rainy as I join in with other sports fans around the area wondering what the hell just happened here.

Unlike many other sports, Major League Baseball employs extra officials in the postseason to make sure calls like this one get made.One thing I am not going to start in on is this "God Hates Cleveland Sports"/Curse Of Rocky Colavito shit (though I half-jokingly alluded to the former in the Game 6 post) because that is just engaging in sheer denial. Five reasons why ...

1. It has been recently documented that Rocky Colavito has never wished a curse upon the team that traded him nearly fifty years ago.

2. We can be fairly certain that God (or whatever supreme omnipotent being you may or may not believe in) had far better things to do than make sure third base coach Joel Skinner held up Kenny Lofton ninety feet from tying the game in the seventh inning instead of sending him home to almost certainly beat a throw to the plate from Manny Ramirez.

3. It seems to me beneath God's style to flinch out Casey Blake (the real goat of this game, by the way) with an "AYYYYYBATTABATTABATTASWING!!!" during the very first pitch of the next at-bat.

4. I'd also put pretty good money on the idea that God did not whisper into Dustin Pedroia's ear to swing for the fences on the next 0-1 count that squawking half-orc midget got from Rafael Betancourt. In fact, nowhere in any scripture is it even hinted at that He is a member of the Red Sox Nation, or has grounds to hold any kind of supernatural bias against the Cleveland Indians.

5. It's possibly reasonably to assume that God isn't even a baseball fan at all (it's likely He finds entertainment in more graceful and "pure" human pastimes like Curling and Smear The Queer).
No, what we had over the last week was kind of like the last two weeks of the 2005 season in three-game microcosm. Call it a "choke" of epic proportions if you must (and judging as how the Indians somehow went from outplaying the rest of the league on Wednesday to playing their worst baseball of the year starting on Friday, I might allow the term to be used), but it appears that not only was the Tribe finally bested by the better overall team, but they were quite clearly running on fumes to boot.

Asdrubal looks on as the whole year heads into the shitter once and for all.During what little of the victory celebration I managed to endure after this latest heartbreaking disaster, Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona mentioned that the lopsided scores of these games (particularly those of Games 2, 6 and 7) belied how close these contests really were, and he was largely correct as during four of the seven games in the ALCS, the damage was largely compressed to a bad inning or two on either side. The rest of the time, these teams grappled over a tie or 1-2 run advantage, and those occasions made for some dynamite baseball, which makes this collapse even more frustrating.

Jake steps up. Pity only one other starter could do the same.While Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd turned in sterling games (particularly the former's gutsy performance last night which kept the Indians well within striking range until his removal at the bottom of the sixth inning), theirs were the only remarkable performances Cleveland would see from their starting rotation. Incredibly, four games of this series were marred by a sickening pitching horror show of epic proportions (the nadir of which arrived during Game 6), as the Tribe's twin 19-game-winning/Cy Young Award-nominated starters imploded to an extent never before seen in baseball playoff history (those performances, from C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona accounted for 3 of the 4 series losses). Making matters worse, the once-humming Indians offense stalled under the merciless curveball of Josh Beckett and never fully recovered. Defense began to misfire all around the horn as what should have been basic fielding exercises were blown at the worst possible times. Finally, the vaunted Indians bullpen began to completely come apart, with Betancourt's unwatchable eighth inning meltdown last night in particular putting the final nails in the coffin.

Betancourt gets the hook.While credit must be awarded to the Red Sox for never letting up in the face of near-certain doom after Wednesday (they appear to be practiced at this kind of thing, I'm told), the Indians for whatever reason seemed to lose the will to put this series away overnight. I find it almost impossible to believe that one loss after 3 wins in a row could suddenly derail this entire postseason, but that is almost exactly what happened. Though much had been made of the Tribe's run of 1-run victories and losses during July and August serving to "toughen up" the squad and prepare them for the pressure of postseason play, it apparently didn't do enough. What seems likely here (and Sabathia has admitted this was the case as far as we was concerned) is that the rest of the club wanted a title so badly that they played "tight" instead of staying loose: in other words, they were so afraid of screwing up that they lost sight of winning the freakin' games instead, as they had done during the first four games. If that was indeed the case, then what a terrible time they picked to learn such a simple, bitter lesson the hard way.

How striking it is to realize now that a week ago many Tribe fans were thanking their lucky stars that the team had drawn a seven game series with Boston instead of New York (had Cleveland been playing this as a 5-game series, Boston would have been eliminated after Game 4). Perhaps the most ironic revelation of this series: remember how grown men trembled, women fainted and atheists crossed themselves at the idea of Joe Borowski on the mound trying for a save a game in a clinching situation ... and look what happened instead with the man everyone wanted as series closer instead. The realities of the past three days have been a cruel surprise, almost diametrically opposed to reasonable probability ... and that's baseball for ya.

Franklin, the last Cleveland batter of the 2007 season, just after flying out to Coco Crisp.So, Cleveland will have to wait until next year once again. Those of us who let this team into their hearts will be hurting pretty good for a while, but eventually that ache will fade as we focus instead on the wild, joyous ride that the Indians embarked upon in the regular season: outperforming all expectations and having the time of their lives while doing so. Perhaps the new year will bring greater glories, but we'll have to wait a while to find out. This is a young, talented, and refreshingly ego-free club, and I want that particular aspect left unchanged above all else. While some long-suffering fans are now screaming for more payroll and more free-agents on next year's roster, I want this club to remain as homegrown as possible, with a veteran (maybe Lofton again?) or two around to shepherd the youngsters and help keep their heads and emotions in check when it counts the most. Most of all, I hope the 2008 version of this club remembers to bring the magic to the field once again.

Here's to next spring. Cheers.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

ALCS Game 6: Boston 12, Cleveland 2

Oh dear... *sigh*

I am getting really tired of using this intro, but here we go again:

At times you may hear me refer to what I call the "the beauty and the horror" of baseball: barring a rain out or some kind of natural calamity, a ball game isn't over until the 27th out is recorded. There is no time limit on innings or on the game itself as a whole, and there is no "shot clock" on individual at-bats. Therefore, anything can and does happen.

Fausto: possibly wondering what the hell is going on lately.This was the most probably disheartening baseball game I've seen since a certain recently-dispatched New York ball club swept a horribly scuffling Tribe in three games back in August. What else can I say? You can look the score and easily guess out how this fiasco went. Who screwed the pooch (and when and how) is immaterial right now ... all that matters is that ALCS Game 7 has been forced, and what was once Cleveland's series to lose two days ago has now become a complete toss-up with one game left to decide who advances to the Fall Classic and who spends a long winter playing golf and wondering what could have been. Unbelievable.

The Cleveland Indians: now out of second chances.I'll speak frankly here: for the first time since that awful stretch in the weeks after the All-Star Break, my confidence is not high (in fact, I feel pretty sick to my stomach typing this out right now). Even though I don't believe much in things like "momentum" and "karma," it is impossible to not sense the World Series slipping out of Cleveland's grasp. Game 6 represented the Cleveland Indians' last shot at putting the Boston Red Sox away once for all, but instead the fans were witness to a complete disaster on just about every imaginable level of play. Yes, I wrote over a week ago that this series would likely stretch the entire seven games, but being up 3-1 and then falling to pieces afterward is not quite what I'd had in mind when I wrote that.

Fausto sent to the dugout. Again.So, what in the samhell is going on around here? Put simply, the last two weeks have seen the near-complete collapse of half the Indians' starting rotation (as well as a crucial cog in the team's once-impenetrable bullpen), while the last two games have seen large portions of the Tribe offense gone AWOL. While the team has been able to get around the former problem until three days ago, the second issue is now rearing its ugly head at the worst possible time. A few reasons for these events swim to mind:

1. Wear and tear from 200+ innings of work catching up to Fausto Carmona and C.C. Sabathia at last.
2. A horrendous group of umpires, a few of whom enforce a moving strike zone that is apparently shaped like a live amoeba.
3. That lack of all-important "post season experience" I keep hearing about whenever I happen to walk by a TV set broadcasting the game.
4. "The Fix" is on.
5. John Farrell, Boston's pitching coach, was in charge of Indians player development from 2001-2006, which gives him an uncomfortable amount of insight into Indians pitching.
6. A flummoxed God realizes that Cleveland might have actually have a realistic shot at winning the World Series for the first time in 59 years and is hurriedly correcting that little problem.
Rafael Perez is not having a good day. Again.So, here it comes, Cleveland fans, ready or not. Either tonight's ALCS Game 7 will represent the most cathartic (not to mention miraculous) postseason Indians comeback since the 1997 ALDS or it will be the hardest (and cruellest) punch in the gut this team has suffered since at least the final week of 2005 (if not the end October 1997).

What do you do, Cleveland? What do you do?
Fenway Park. Damn that place to hell.

Friday, October 19, 2007

ALCS Game 5: Boston 7, Cleveland 1

The Pronk: still missing since Game 1.Well, we finally got our Game 1 pitcher's duel at last ... and while the game itself was different, the end result was pretty much the same, if marginally less humiliating. D'ohhh.

Rather than doing so in enemy territory (as had been the case in 1995 and 1997), the Cleveland Indians wanted to take the American League title in front of a packed house at Jacobs' Field on another unseasonably warm and breezy October evening. Already up 3 games to 1 over the Boston Red Sox, it may have been a bit much to expect a fourth consecutive win against this club, particularly with Josh Beckett on the mound once again. Much as he did in a shortened performance in the series opener, the boyish Texan completely dominated the proceedings: effortlessly sawing down Tribe batters all night long. Really, there really isn't much more to say than that: in Internet parlance, we got ourselves +o+4lly pwn3d.

(Gosh, that intro sounded an awful lot like this one, eh?)

C.C. pitches a tad closer to form.If there was any good news to be had on this night, it was that C.C. Sabathia pitched far better than he did in Game 1 (while still never quite attaining his regular-season form). Until the 7th inning (which is when Boston started to pull away), the beseiged Cleveland ace had only allowed 2 runs to score, using luck and his defense to smash down multiple Red Sox threats. Problem is, when you're facing Beckett, handing him any kind of lead is never a good idea, and a humbled Cleveland offense scored only once in the entire evening when a badly scuffling Travis Hafner knocked in Grady Sizemore while batting into a double play. Barring that lone instance, the night belonged entirely to Beantown.

Victor attempts to chill out Raffy-LTo the horror of the sold-out crowd, things got worse in the 8th inning. A possibly shell-shocked Rafael Perez, making his first appearance since his Game 2 debacle, couldn't find the strike zone and managed to boost his ALCS ERA even higher into the stratosphere than it already was (holy crap, 45.00!?!?), creating a mess that Game 2 hero Tom Mastny did his best to clean up. By the time that frame had mercifully ended, the contest was well beyond lost. With slightly rusty BoSox closer Jonathan Papelbon showing up in the ninth to finish off the proceedings (and get in an inning of needed work), this game could only have been beautiful to a Red Sox fan.

The bench is not impressed.And so, another travel day follows, with the series moving back to cramped Fenway Park for a Game 2 rematch of Fausto Carmona and Curt Schilling. For the Indians, they can tell everyone that Game 6 isn't a "must-win" situation as much as they like, but for them to allow Boston to force a Game 7 free-for-all is something no one rooting for the Indians wants to see happen. Assuming Carmona can revert to at least a semblance of his season caliber, this series is still well within Cleveland's reach at this moment in time, but the idea of another loss begetting a sudden death toss-up on Sunday night instills more than a glimmer of anxiety in my chest.

Bah, we'll worry about that when and if the time comes. For today, all either side and their millions of fans can do is wait.