Archive for April, 2015

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Franchise Four – Boston Red Sox

April 30, 2015

I have to admit, I’m quite fascinated by MLB.com’s Franchise Four campaign, in which people are encouraged to vote on the four players that best represent each franchise. Since I love baseball and I like sharing my opinion, I’ve decided to not only participate in the voting, but to share my thoughts on my blog. The aim here is to make my picks for one team a day for the next month, so stay tuned and we will see who the voters picked at the All-Star game in July.

Ted Williams

The Argument: Teddy Ballgame is quite easily the greatest Red Sox player of all-time and is always one of the first names you think of when you talk about the greatest hitters to ever play the game. Williams played his entire 19 year career with the Red Sox and slashed a ridiculous .344/.482/.634 and hit 521 homeruns and had 1839 RBI during his tenure, numbers that are even more mind-boggling considering he missed three full seasons during his prime while serving in the military during World War 2. His career OPS was 1.116 – a number no player has reached in a single season since Barry Bonds did it all the way back in 2004. His career .482 OBP is the highest of all-time and he’s also the last player to hit .400 for a full season. He won the AL MVP in 1946 and 1949, was a 17-time All-Star, and, of course, was inducted into the Hall Of Fame. The only thing missing from Williams’ sterling resume is a World Series title.

Carl Yastrzemski

The Argument: Thanks to Ted Williams’ three years in the war, Carl Yastrzemski is the Red Sox all-time leader in at bats, hits, runs, and RBI. He also slugged 452 HR and is the only player to rope over 3,000 hits in a Red Sox uniform. Yaz won the 1967 AL MVP when he hit for the Triple Crown by batting .326 and hitting 44 HR to go along with 121 RBI. Yaz is a Hall of Famer, 18-time All-Star, and won 7 Gold Gloves during his career.

Pedro Martinez

The Argument: Roger Clemens and Cy Young might have the most wins in Red Sox history and both pitched more innings, but Pedro Martinez is the best pitcher to ever wear a Boston uniform. Many would argue that Pedro’s 7 year stretch with the Red Sox is the most dominant by a starting pitcher in the history of baseball. Not just for the gaudy numbers – we’re talking 117 wins, 2.52 ERA, 5.44 K:BB ratio, 10.9 K/9 IP, .206 batting average against – but for the fact that he did it right smack dab in the middle of what we now call The Steroid Era in the brutal AL East where far more than half the games were being played at Fenway, Yankee Stadium, and the Sky Dome, all parks that heavily favor the hitter. He won four American League ERA titles and 3 strikeout titles. For his efforts, he was the recipient of two Cy Young Awards (and four more top 4 finishes) and was inducted into the Hall Of Fame in 2015.

David Ortiz

The Argument: David Ortiz has become so ingrained as the face of the Red Sox that most casual MLB fans would probably be stunned to learn that he actually played parts of six (6!) seasons for the Minnesota Twins. During his time with the BoSox Ortiz has clubbed 412 HR and posted a .289/.386/.566 triple slash line. Big Papi is a 9-time All-Star and has finished top 5 in the AL MVP voting five times. What probably endears Ortiz to Sox fans more than anything else is his role in their run to the 2004 World Series title, when he seemed to single-handedly will the Sox past the Yankees in the ALCS after losing the first three games to their hated rival. Not only did Ortiz play a huge role in ending one of the longest championship droughts in all of sports, but he also won rings in 2007 and 2013 and has hit .455 in the World Series for his career. After looking like he might be declining in his early 30s, Ortiz resurrected his career and has continued to bash well into his late 30s and should make a strong case for a Hall Of Fame DH when he becomes eligible within the next 10 years.

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The Stand by Stephen King

April 30, 2015

Note: I’m no book reviewer so I’m not going to dig too deep into this, but since I posted my thoughts on a separate website, I figured I might as well post them on my blog.

Just finished listening to The Stand. For what it is commonly considered the best Stephen King book ever, I have to say, I was a bit disappointed. Maybe it was the format – I do feel like I lose some the experience by listening to a book instead of reading it myself. Maybe I space out for a period. Maybe I have a more difficult time creating a picture in my head through the audio format. Maybe it just isn’t as good as people have made it out to be. I’m not sure.

lots of spoilers

I think my main concern is that it is supposed to be this epic battle of good versus evil and there is all this build up, but then the confrontation with Flagg is over before you even realize it. They show up in Vegas, briefly interact with Flagg, and then Trash Can Man nukes everybody. Game over. End of story. I didn’t think that could possibly be the end of it – but then it was. Also, when Nick Andros died, I felt like I was getting duped. Up to that point, I had viewed him as the main character and then I felt like he died before doing anything super important. In fact, after his death, I posted on Facebook: “If Nick Andros really just died in The Stand then I know nothing about writing.” Was his main purpose to send Tom Cullen out to be a spy? What exactly did Tom Cullen uncover anyway? I feel like the only critical thing that happened out of all that spy stuff was that Tom found Stu on his way back.

Obviously, at 48 hours of listening time, I had to enjoy the experience overall. I liked the characters and I was intrigued by the story, but in the end, I just felt incredibly let down. This would be a whole lot less surprising if The Stand wasn’t so highly lauded. In the Stephen King catalog alone, It is far, far superior.

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Franchise Four – Baltimore Orioles

April 28, 2015

I have to admit, I’m quite fascinated by MLB.com’s Franchise Four campaign, in which people are encouraged to vote on the four players that best represent each franchise. Since I love baseball and I like sharing my opinion, I’ve decided to not only participate in the voting, but to share my thoughts on my blog. The aim here is to make my picks for one team a day for the next month, so stay tuned and we will see who the voters picked at the All-Star game in July.

Cal Ripken Jr.

The Argument: No surprise here. Ripken is still the face of the Orioles franchise long after he has retired. A career Oriole and Hall Of Famer, he was the 1982 Rookie Of The Year, 1983 MVP, and 1991 MVP and helped the O’s win a World Series in ’83. He was also a 19-time All-Star and is the all-time leader in HR as a shortstop. He finished his career with over 3,000 hits and is the career leader for the Orioles in basically every offensive counting stat. Oh, and he also played in more consecutive games than anyone else in baseball history.

Brooks Robinson

The Argument: Another lifelong Oriole and Hall Of Famer, Brooks Robinson is widely considered as the best defensive third baseman of all-time – and his 16 Gold Glove awards would be hard to argue against. He also ranks 2nd to Ripken on the Orioles all-time list for hits, runs, and RBI. Robinson helped lead the O’s to titles in 1966 and 1970 and was named the MVP of the ’70 series. He was a 15-time All-Star and a league MVP in 1964.

Jim Palmer

The Argument: Palmer is another Hall Of Fame Oriole that never played for another team. During his tenure, he helped the Orioles reach the World Series six times and finished his career with three rings, something neither Ripken or Robinson can lay claim to. Palmer won three Cy Young Awards and was an All-Star six times, logging 268 wins and finishing his career with a ridiculous 2.86 ERA.

Frank Robinson

The Argument: It was such a tough call between Frank Robinson and Eddie Murray that I almost considered tossing a coin on it. Ultimately, while Murray played more years for the O’s and has the sexier counting stats, Robinson’s years in Baltimore were unquestionably better. Not only did Robinson post a .944 OPS as an Oriole (Murray had an .868 OPS) and win the Triple Crown in 1966, but his arrival in Baltimore seemed to trigger a run of perennial success that led to two titles and four appearances in the World Series during his six year tenure.

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Nightcrawler (2014)

April 28, 2015

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed
Director: Dan Gilroy

Bottom Line: Nightcrawler is one of the best films of 2014. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a knockout performance as Louis Bloom, a sociopath that has absolutely no moral compass and will go to any length to reach his goals. In this case, the goal is to become Los Angeles’ most prominent nightcrawler – a job that requires him to listen to police scanners so he can be the first person on the scene with a video camera in order to take exclusive footage he can sell off to local news stations. And what do they want? White people in good neighborhoods – dead – and preferably killed by minorities. Or gruesome accidents. It’s a perfectly sleazy job for a seedy person like Louis Bloom. It’s amusing watching him flounder while figuring out the ropes of nightcrawling, but he’s sharp, so he quickly becomes adept at it. Of course, he needs just a little bit of help, which he gets by hiring a homeless man named Rick (Ahmed) for $30 a night to help him navigate to crime scenes. And it’s his relationship with Rick that best illustrates exactly how self-centered Louis is – this is a man that has no friends and truly cares about no one other than himself. Rene Russo checks in as the graveyard news editor for Channel 6, the company Louis exclusively sells his material to. Although it’s more subtle, she’s no less despicable than Louis – she cares more about putting out product than her own self-respect and she also appears to have no line she won’t cross for a scoop. And she’s certainly willing to air whatever Louis shoots no matter how questionable it may be. It’s a decent performance from Russo, but the character is more interesting than the acting is.

Director Dan Gilroy does a great job in his directorial debut. Watching Louis and Rick navigate the streets of L.A. really brings you into the city and almost makes it a character all of its own. He keeps Nightcrawler intriguing before reaching one of the most intensely suspenseful climaxes I’ve seen in quite some time. Nightcrawler really pulled me in from the opening scene and didn’t let me loose until the end credits. It was probably the most riveting film I saw in all of 2014. I think it’s borderline criminal that Gyllenhaal didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for his acting work here. While I haven’t seen some of the nominated performances (soon!), it’s pretty clear that he does better work here than Bradley Cooper does in American Sniper. He’s creepy. He’s unsettling. He’s a sociopath to the T. It’s truly great work from Jake here.

Nightcrawler is a great film with a stunning performance from Gyllenhaal. It’s as entertaining as any film I saw in 2014 and the climax is breath-stoppingly awesome. Much like the car crashes and murders Louis films, it’s a film so grimy you just can’t take your eyes off it.

Replay Value: Seen it twice… it’s probably worth owning. I loved it, but it does lose some of its suspense the second time around.
Sequel Potential: Not the kind of film that should have a sequel.
Oscar Potential: Nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but Gyllenhaal probably should have gotten an acting nom and I have seen Best Picture noms I liked less than this movie.

Grade: 8/10 (Excellent)

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Ex Machina (2015)

April 27, 2015

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac
Director: Alex Garland

Bottom Line: Ex Machina is a strong sci-fi film that will keep you interested even though it lacks action and is slowly paced. Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander are excellent in their roles. Isaac plays a passive-aggressive and manipulative CEO that has created a revolutionary human-like AI named Ava. Gleeson is well cast as Caleb, an expert computer programmer summoned to interact with Ava and see if she can pass a Turing Test, which is essentially a test to see how the AI reacts to human interaction – whether she is adapting on her own or just doing what she is programmed to do.

It’s a small film, set in a secluded fortress in Alaska, that features only four principle characters, but it works well in its contained atmosphere. Certainly, Isaac’s billionaire appears to be the kind of person that would be better off programming humanoids than actually interacting with real ones. He’s not a likable person, even if his accomplishments may provoke admiration – a realization that Caleb has shortly after arriving. It’s a film that is centered around Caleb’s interactions with the icy, yet unquestionably sexy Ava and his attraction to her creates the core dilemma of the film: is she genuinely fond of Caleb or is she just behaving how she is programmed to behave.

There is little to complain about concerning Ex Machina but, for me, it lacked the “wow factor” that many seemed to take away from the film. Still, it’s a solid film with quality performances that should leave audiences feeling satisfied afterwards.

Replay Value: I might watch it again some day but it doesn’t feel like a movie I’m anxious to see again.
Sequel Potential: I don’t think so, but it’s certainly possible.
Oscar Potential: With an April release, it’s highly unlikely the Academy will remember it come Oscar season – and it’s hard to compare it to what hasn’t been released yet – but Isaac’s performance is strong enough to keep in mind and Vikander is also really good. There may also be some Visual Effects appreciation for this film.

Grade: 7.5/10 (Recommended/Must See)

Edit: Upon further reflection, I have raised my grade for this movie a full point. The more I think about the movie, the more I realize how riveting it was. It’s absurdly suspenseful, but it’s so subtle you barely even notice.

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The Raid 2 (2014)

April 26, 2015

Starring: Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra, Yayan Ruhian
Director: Gareth Evans (The Raid: Redemption)

Bottom Line: Honestly, I feel like that poster says it all. The Raid 2 deserves any and all praise heaped upon it. Gareth Evans – who already wrote and directed the excellent original – has now established himself as the premiere action director in the industry – at least for anyone paying attention. While stars Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian deserve a lot of the credit for the phenomenal fight choreography, Evans’ ability to make everything look stunningly real is nothing short of amazing. I can assure you, you have never seen fight scenes as awesome as the ones in The Raid series.

The Raid 2 continues the story of Rama (Uwais), a rookie police officer in Indonesia that is now being recruited by a secret task force to go undercover as a prisoner and befriend the son (Putra) of a known crime lord in order to infiltrate their organization and gather evidence against dirty cops. What results is an action epic with a surprisingly swift 2.5 hour run time that rarely takes a breather from its astonishing action sequences – we’re talking prison mud fights, baseball bat and hammer action, and possibly the best car chase scene ever captured on film. Gareth Evans is a true master of his craft. How his films haven’t attracted more mainstream attention boggles my mind.

The Raid 2 is every bit as good as the original when it comes to action, but packs significantly more substance. The more I ponder it, the more I think it might be one of the greatest action movies of all-time. It’s a clear classic in its genre and one of the best and most overlooked movies of 2014. A clear must see and probably a future classic. I can say with confidence that I’m eagerly looking forward to anything Gareth Evans has planned in the future and if Iko Uwais is really in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as he is rumored to be, I have a feeling people are going to be talking about his character afterwards.

Replay Value: I had to watch it twice before I sent it back to Netflix. Possibly a must own film.
Sequel Potential: The Raid 3 has been announced (directed by Evans but Iko Uwais is not attached) and an American remake is on its way.
Oscar Potential: None.

Grade: 9/10 (Potential Classic)

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The Babadook (2014)

April 19, 2015

Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
Director: Jennifer Kent

Bottom Line: The Babadook is an extremely strong horror film from first time director Jennifer Kent. It’s a story about a mother and her young, troubled son dealing with grief several years after her husband died in a car accident driving her to the hospital to give birth. In the midst of the mother struggling to keep her son from acting out in basically any public setting – particularly school – a mysterious children’s book appears in their home, filled with disturbing pop out pictures and a sinister message. Soon after, the son becomes obsessed with The Babadook and the mother begins to unravel as the book’s monster begins to haunt their home.

Kent utilizes atmosphere and a slow build to create scares and tension in The Babadook and the result is quite easily the best horror film of 2014 and one of the better movies overall. The film feels like a cross between A Nightmare On Elm Street and Jumanji, but back when Freddy Krueger was still scary and a bit of a mystery. The monster is pretty unique but, although it gets title billing, mostly takes a back seat to the relationship between son and mother and Essie Davis’ remarkable transformation. Davis was so good in The Babadook that I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better performance in a horror movie. In fact, I was so impressed that I kept thinking about how much her acting reminded me of Ellen Burstyn’s work in Requiem For A Dream, which is one of my all-time favorite performances. Davis genuinely steals the show.

The Babadook is smart, unique, and genuinely scary. It ranks up there with The Conjuring and It Follows as the best horror movies of the past five years or so. Complete with a knockout performance from its lead actress, it’s a must see film for horror fans and highly recommended for all but the most squeamish filmgoers.

Replay Value: I’d watch it again.
Sequel Potential: This is the kind of strong film that typically launches a franchise that eventually becomes completely watered down.
Oscar Potential: No Oscar attention, but lots of accolades from everywhere else – particularly as a debut film and for Davis’ acting.

Grade: 7/10 (Must See)