Monday, February 28, 2011

My Favorite Movies: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, made in 1949, is the second of three movies directed by John Ford often known as the Cavalry Trilogy.  The first, Fort Apache, stars John Wayne but features Henry Fonda with Shirley Temple as his daughter.  The third movie, Rio Grande, features Wayne with Maureen O'Hara.  The stories aren't connected, so watching them out of order isn't a problem; they are simply related in a thematic sense as they are about the U.S. Cavalry on the frontier.

 SWaYR is one dear to my heart because of the kind of character the Duke plays.  He gained about thirty pounds to portray a cavalry officer, Captain Nathan Brittles, nearing his final days of active duty and anticipating his retirement. Brittles, a Union Civil War veteran, is a fighter, but not a firebreathing Indian hater.  Rather he is a keeper of memories, whether they are of battlefields long ago, or friends who've passed away.  One example of this is the many visits he makes to his wife's gravesite on the post as he relates the day's news to her, whether it is the news of Custer's fall at Little Big Horn and the death of an old friend, Myles Keough, or that Miss Olivia Dandridge, the post's belle, reminds him of her.
Captain Brittles bears the news of Custer's defeat during their evening chat.
In many respects the movie is about Brittles' effort to keep his extended Cavalry family safe in the face of a potential Indian uprising.  Set against the news of the Little Bighorn disaster Wayne is tasked with leading the women of the fort, Allie Alshard (wife of the commanding officer) played by Mildred Natwick, and Miss Dandridge, played by Joanne Dru, to a safe evacuation point.  The escorting troop is forced to detour from its rendezvous with the stage line at Sutro's Wells, and arrive only after a short and sharp skirmish with the Indians that leave the Sutros dead and several casualties.  Brittles is forced to return to the fort, posting a rear guard in a dangerous situation.  Though technically his retirement occurs on the day after his return, he leads the troop out once again, relieving the exposed rearguard, and driving off the massive Indian pony herd in a daring night attack.  The story ends as Brittles is appointed chief of scouts, keeping him in the family so to speak.
Brittles questions Quincannon's sobriety-again.
 There is a lot I like about this movie.  Ford and Wayne avoid massive violence against the Indians.  More than anything it is about relationships rather than slaughter.  As with many of his movies, Ford depends on Wayne and a skilled supporting cast.  Natwick is superb as "Old Iron Pants" Allshard, Arthur Shields is wonderful as Dr. O' Laughlin, and the inimitable Victor McLaglen plays himself, er, Top Sergeant Quincannon-tough as nails, especially around a whiskey bottle. The always excellent Ben Johnson is unreconstructed rebel Sgt. Tyree. There are some touching scenes.  None more than the death and burial of "Private Smith," CSA brigadier Rome Clay, mortally wounded at Sutro's Wells. The movie is one of seven Ford filmed in Monument Valley, and in many respects the gorgeous scenery is the star of the show. 
The retirement gift.  Brittles receives a silver watch from his troop on his final inspection

There's definitely some dopey stuff too.  The belief that the Southern Cheyenne and Kiowa would combine with Sioux, Apache and Northern Cheyenne on the southern plains is someone's hallucination.  The love triangle between Dandridge, Lts. Pennell (Harry Carey, Jr.) and Cohill (John Agar) is just dumb and an excuse for some eye candy. 

Nonetheless, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a solid movie with fine performances by Wayne and others and worth a look.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hello to the Mariners, goodbye to the Duke of Flatbush

While I didn't have as much opportunity to listen to today's game as I would have liked to, it was still great the M's were able to come back and win the annual charity game against the Padres in the 10th inning.  I did catch a bit of the game on the radio as I was running errands, and there were definitely some high points.  The highest, of course, was that Eric Bedard pitched a perfect first inning on nine pitches.  The second was that the M's were able to score five runs in the second on a bunch of two out hits.  Does it mean anything?  Hell no.  Am I excited because the M's are playing games against someone besides each other?  Hell, yes. 

Also got the word that Duke Snider passed away yesterday.  Just a damn shame.  Snider played the game right at a time when he was the least well known of the Willie, Mickey and the Duke trio.  Good enough to play his way into the Hall of Fame, Snider played 18 seasons in the big leagues, mostly with the Dodgers in Brooklyn and LA, before wrapping up with the Mets and Giants.  Just a great ballplayer, far more low key than Willie and Mickey, he was a key member of all the great Dodgers teams of the late 40's, 50's and early 60's.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

My Favorite Movies: Coming to Grips with John Wayne and John Ford

It seems just yesterday my old college roommate Steve McLellan and I heard the news that John Wayne was dead. It was the week before my wedding, and we'd heard he was quite ill.  When he died, it somehow didn't have quite the same impact that Keith Moon's suicide had on us earlier in the year That was well over thirty years ago, and as all young folks growing up in the late 70's, we just didn't understand what all the fuss was about.  Star Wars was popular and The Rocky Horror Picture Show was all the rage.  John Wayne, pah!

Wayne played the lead in over 130 movies in a 50 year career (1926-1976.)  Let's be clear, the films of John Wayne will never pass for high art, nor do they conform well to our own time of cultural empowerment and political correctness, but the man made some movies I really enjoy, and like them or not I'd like to share a few with you anyway.

If you're not a John Wayne fan or don't know his movies well, there's good John Wayne, there's bad John Wayne and there's godawful John Wayne.  I tend to avoid a lot of the movies he did in the 60's that he produced and directed himself, and definitely stay away from his B-list cowboy movies prior to Stagecoach.  Some are better than others, but most are pretty boring shoot'em ups with the Duke bringing the heat down on some nasty bad guy.  No, my favorites tend to be movies he teamed up to make with John Ford.
John Wayne as Captain Nathan Brittles in the 1949 movie She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
John Ford directed over 140 movies between 1917-1966, from silent movies to the large westerns he is perhaps best known for.  In many respects Ford was considered the father of American movies, with his emphasis on narrative, location shooting, and the long shot of the individual character against a striking background.  He won six Best Director, and is credited for his influence by directors as diverse as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Martin Scorcese.  Ford is widely credited for providing John Wayne his breakthrough in the 1939 western Stagecoach in which Wayne starred as the Ringo Kid.
John Ford won four Best Director Oscars and two more for his work as a documentary filmmaker during World War II
They went on to work together in dozens of movies, and two of them are my favorites, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Quiet Man.  Though Wayne was highly regarded for his portrayal of Ethan Edwards in another Ford movie, The Searchers, and won an academy award for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 version of True Grit, my favorite Wayne characters are Captain Nathan Brittles from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the American boxer with a secret, Sean Thornton from The Quiet Man, and the aging gunslinger, J.B. Books, in The Shootist, looking for a quiet place to die.  In the coming days I'll review each of these movies.  In addition, I'll take a look at one of Ford's movies without Wayne, Sergeant Rutledge.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

My Favorite Movies: The Year of Living Dangerously

Back in 1982, Mel Gibson was not the angry, drunken stumblebum he is today.  He had not yet developed that sense of self that allows a rational human being reinterpret history and market it as the truth.  He had not yet thrown an interesting, promising career in the toilet.
Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson share steamy chemistry in the Year of Living Dangerously
In fact Gibson was relatively unknown in the United States and had not yet appeared in an American movie.  Though Americans might have known him for his two post apocalyptic Mad Max movies, I had already seen him in Peter Weir's Gallipoli, a World War I drama based on the tragic disaster in Turkey.  Gibson was fine as a young Australian soldier shipped off to the Dardanelles with his mates, only to share watch them share in the slaughter of the Great War.  Weir's movie is an effective antidote to any suggestion the First World War was properly managed and those who prosecuted it were simply victims of changing technology.

In 1982, Weir undertook another movie with an Australian/East Asian theme, the last days of the Sukarno Regime in Indonesia in 1965.  Gibson was tapped to star in the movie as Guy Hamilton, a neophyte foreign reporter for Australian Broadcasting sent to report from Java without contacts, and without understanding the culture. Pitied but not aided by his European and American competitors, Hamilton is befriended by Billy Kwan, a half Asian,  half Australian, diminutive newsreel and still photographer.  Kwan uses his unique ability to connect Hamilton with important players on the volatile Indonesian political stage, including Jill Bryant, an assistant to the British military attache. As Hamilton's reporting gains respectability, Kwan also  shows him the poverty and inequity of Indonesian society.  In this complex story Hamilton becomes romantically involved with Bryant, who is scheduled to leave Indonesia for London soon.  As it were, fate takes a hand when the Indonesian Communist party stages a coup that is brutally suppressed by the forces of the right.  Revealing more would be spoiling.
Linda Hunt won a well deserved Academy Award for her role as Bill Kwan
Weir tells this story, an obscure, fascinating tale from complexity and watchers have to follow along carefully.  The story is supported by great performances.  Gibson is superb as Hamilton, a tall, dark and handsome go-getter, that is intelligent and charismatic.  Sigourney Weaver plays Bryant.  She is understated, mysterious and beautiful.  However the best perfornance is reserved for Linda Hunt and her portrayal of Bill Kwan.  Kwan's character is secretive, strangely androgynous, and demonstrates an appreciation for Sukarno's regime that is at once admiring and outraged at its inequity.  Hunt won a well deserved Academy Award for her role.   Michael Murphy, Noel Ferrier, and Bemol Roco, among others provide great supporting performances.  Maurice Jarre's electronic score is also particularly effective.  I often find myself oddly humming the exhilarating background to Jill and Guy's breakneck drive through a curfew checkpoint. 

The Year of Living Dangerously is an intelligent, interesting drama based on a real life incident.  It shows the kind of movies Mel Gibson made and could have continued making if his career had taken a different turn

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pitchers and Catchers Head to Peoria-What Next?

With spring training getting ready to open in Peoria next week, there's been lots of commentary on the blogs.  Some of it is hopeful, that 2011 is certainly going to be nothing to write home about.  The M's are likely to finish last in their division, but they are finally beginning their long needed rebuild the right way, with an emphasis on getting the kids ready to play at the major league level, while finally shedding some of their over-priced physically challenged veterans.  I put myself in this camp.

 Others have taken the view the M's are hopeless.  They didn't sign free agents who could help them win now, and the welcoming of the kiddie-corps is simply embraceing a losing-on-the-cheap mentality.  Further, the Mariners did nothing to ameliorate their most obvious weakness:  scoring runs.

While I think the Mariners will continue to have difficulty scoring runs, and that will continue to be a frustration all year long, I also believe anybody serious about a Mariner return to competitive play year in and year out must rebuild from the farm system.  This must be a year where the M's see what they have in this first year of farm production as more quality prospects are added to the system, and the second wave of kids emerges probably in 2013.

These are the key issues I see emerging this year:

 The $12 Million Elephant in the Room
 It looks like Milton Bradley will emerge relatively unscathed from his brush with the law in Los Angeles.  Good for him.  What does this mean for the Mariners?  Questions.  What kind of physical condition is he in?  Can he really play left field at Safeco?  Have his physical skills deteriorated too much to play?  What is his mental outlook?  Is he tradeable?  If the answer to any of these questions is negative (except the last one) I believe the M's must hold their noses and let Milton walk.  In a club house full of young players, Bradley and his contract cannot be allowed to block the development of Michael Saunders or any other youngster who might contribute to this team this year and beyond.  He also cannot be allowed to be a clubhouse cancer.  If, on the other hand, Bradley can be a teacher, if he can help win games, if he can be a leader on and off the field, by all means let him earn his keep.  But don't tell us how valuable he is then let him keep a 25th seat warm when we could use an extra left handed bat, or one more reliever in a shaky bullpen.  Call Milton Bradley exhibit A of what happens to teams when they sign middling players to stupid contracts.

 Will the Real Chone Figgins Please Stand Up
No other move in the 2010 off-season pleased me more than when the Mariners signed Chone Figgins.  I loved what he did for the Angels.  He was a guy who got on base and could run you ragged.  Played a solid 3b, not quite Adrian Beltre, but good.  Paired with Ichiro, I thought the M's would be second and third with no outs all the time.  Geez, was I wrong.  Figgins was the second biggest disappointment of the year for me, the first being Ken Griffey, Jr's implosion. But it's Figgins' performance that has the greatest long term effect for the M's.  Will his move back to third give him the confidence to repeat his second half performance, or will he continue to be the double-play inducing slap hitter that eviscerated rallies?  Figgins reminds me of a guy who came to Seattle fairly late in his career and had some very nice years with the M's, Mark McLemore.  Mac played a lot of positions, hit behind Ichiro, added a lot of speed and athleticism to the team, and could also be testy from time to time.  If Figgins could be that kind of player it could mean a lot to this young team that's going to struggle to score.  If he can't, I'd swear off free agents for life.

Even Praying for Rain Won't Help  
Spahn and Sain and pray for rain was the mantra of the Braves in the 50's as they morphed into the World Series champs of '57. With the roof, of course, praying for rain won't help Felix Hernandez, and Jason Vargas and Doug Fister as the three known likely starters heading into spring training.  However a healthy Eric Bedard would.  With the M's unlikely to add Michael Pineda to the big club until June or so to preserve his years of service, a healthy Bedard would go a long way toward filling out the rotation, with a (choose one) Luke French/ David Pauley/Nate Robertson filling in on the back end.  This rotation is very shaky after Felix and Bedard would give it just a little more stability-if he's legit and can give 'em at least six innings an outing. With Bedard and adding Pineda, the M's have a much more formidable looking rotation.

Hope We Can't Believe In-Yet
There are two youngsters, as much as any, that are tied to the success of the Mariners in the near future.  Michael Saunders in left field and Justin Smoak at 1b have both had stints in the major leagues and need to demonstrate they can produce at the major league level.  Saunders is a gifted athlete, perfect for roaming the roomy pasture that is left field at Safeco Field.  A potential 25 homer guy, his line last year was .211/.295/.367.  A home grown ballplayer, Saunders must show improvement this year if he is to become an answer in left for the M's.  Entering his third year with the big club, Saunders must be a consistent hitter.  If any of the young players is on the hot seat, it's Saunders.  Coming over in the Cliff Lee trade Justin Smoak really struggled with M's in July and went to Tacoma to work on things.  When he returned for ten games in September, Smoak was a changed hitter.  Hitting for power and average, he showed more patience and struck out less.  But it was September, when the quality of pitching with expanded rosters is usually less demanding, so we'll have to wait and see.  The M's, given Smoak's limited time in the minors, will almost certainly be patient, but the team is unlikely to move ahead if Smoak is not the real deal.

Pieces of a Puzzle
Perhaps the most interesting moves were made in the infield.  With Lopez traded  and Figgins moved back to third, what happens at shortstop and second?  One answer could be Jack Wilson.  When healthy, he's a guy who can really pick it, a throw-back, dirt-in-the mouth ballplayer that is just a joy for defensive junkies like me to watch.  His bat won't let us forget A-Rod, Tejada, or Jeter (.269/.309/.349), but is more useful than say Mark Belanger.  The M's somehow managed to steal Brendan Ryan from the Cardinals who is a  younger, somewhat healthier version of Jack Wilson.  He's slated to be second baseman on opening day, sort of.  Again, not much of a hitter-not much power (career .259/.314/.344), struggled to overcome wrist surgery last year, but a great defender, he could easily be moved to short stop when Wilson shreds his hammies again.  In his place the M's can insert Adam Kennedy.  Kennedy is a veteran player and a guy I've always liked.  He makes the plays at second and could also fill in at third.  No spring chicken at age 35, Kennedy has a decent glove and useful bat.  Two years ago with Oakland, filling in for an injured Mark Ellis Kennedy had over 500 at bats with .289/.348/.410.  Kennedy is a lefty hitter, and a threat to steal, and brings some tasty hops to add to the brew.  It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out in ST.

The Ackley Factor
We all know Dustin Ackley is waiting in the wings.  He is the star of the future-we hope.  He's spent exactly one year in pro ball, faced some adversity, and overcome it, and was absolutely devastating in the Arizona Fall League.  What does that guarantee in the big leagues?  Absolutely nothing.  However, the kind of hitting skills he's shown are absolutely the kinds of skills the M's need.  Gap power with some occasional pop, lefty hitter, speed and athleticism, those should be the hallmarks of Mariner players in this ballpark.  What's holding the M's back from bringing him up from Peoria?  Apparently, keeping Ackley in Tacoma until June gives them another year of control over his services.  I guess I understand this unless the Mariners get off to such a horrible start that the clubhouse becomes poisonous.  Real fans will watch baseball just to see the young kids, the future of the franchise.  They'll stay away from uninspired, crappy ball night in and night out.

Question--what if Saunders spends two months stinking it up?  Would the M's consider moving Ackley out to left, a natural position for him that requires far less learning than second base.  With other guys in place to hold that spot, would the M's be interested in taking advantage of his experience and athleticism to inject his bat into the lineup?  Dunno.  Just a question I feel needs to be asked.

It will be exciting to see some real baseball soon.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Baseball Movies Worth Watching

One of the best gifts I've ever received is Netflix, the streaming version of Netflix.  A couple years ago, while I was away studying journalism in Ohio, Lorri bought me a blue-ray player with an internet access point.  We added the LAN device a few months later and voila, I was off to the races. As a movie lover-most movies of most genres with notable exception of horror I love-this was a huge boon.  Netflix streams about 15,000 movies from its collection, a number that continues to increase.  However, it is limited by contractual agreements with the various studios and distributors, so there are lots of flicks I can't get.  Even so it has had two very positive values for me: 1) I was a regular purchaser of movies.  Now I don't do that so much.  I'm not saying I never buy a movie, but now it's maybe six or seven a year instead of 50.  2) I'm exposed to many more movies. I probably watch four or five movies on Netflix per week (less during baseball season.) I've watched foreign films, documentaries, classics, and movies I would never have seen as well as those I missed in the theaters.  Highly recommended.

With the Mariners off-season action over, and spring training still a ways off, I've contented myself with watching some baseball movies on Netflix.  A couple I've streamed, a couple were only available on DVD.  These are very documentaryish, so not your basic TheNaturalFieldofDreamsFortheLoveoftheGame meets MajorLeagueII movies.

First on my list is The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.  This is probably the best known of the four movies I'll share.  It examines the life of the great Detroit slugger.  It's made in a documentary style biography, but it is also social history.  As the first towering Jewish baseball figure, the movie examines the effect of Greenberg's success on the Jewish Americans, particularly as the country entered the war years.  It also portrays the centrality of his religion on Greenberg's life.  Director Aviva Kempner did a fabulous job of producing the the movie in the Ken Burns style, including wonderful footage and mixing it with talking heads that knew Greenberg or were affected by him.  It is a super movie and not to be missed.  Available as streaming or on disc through Netlfix or on line at watchfreemoviesonline .  Five stars

Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey is one of those quirky movies about a baseball original, Bill "Spaceman" Lee. Lee made headlines this summer when he became the oldest player, at 63, to pitch in a professional game, winning with the Brockton Rox on September 10, 2010.  The movie depicts Lee's life, not only as a major leaguer  with Boston and Montreal, but is told very much through his eyes  as he took a group of semi-pro players on a barnstorming trip to Cuba in 2003. Lee's effort on the ballfield at age 57 reveals his competitive spirit and his interaction with the Cuban fans show his humanity.  Lee is very much as you'd imagine: smart, principled, iconoclastic, cynical and funny.  It's an interesting story of a man who truly loves the game, even if the owners didn't necessarily love him back.  Available through Netflix on disc only.  Four stars.
Bill Lee walks off the field after pitching the Brockton Rox to victory

A Player to Be Named Later is a great little movie about the 2004 season with the AAA Indianapolis Indians. It's an interesting look at the kinds of players one finds on such teams.  The most recognizable name is Marco Scutaro, who was a young Venezuelan with his stock very much on the rise, clearly the star of the team.  There were also the borderline major league players who could fill a role but couldn't stick with the parent Brewers.  Micah Franklin was an older player who was hanging on to the game, hoping to provide some power to the big club late in the season.  Kyle Peterson was a young pitcher trying to recover from major shoulder surgery.  The movie does a super job of looking at the strain of a long season, a losing season, and reveals the basic courage and humanity of players and their families as they struggle to achieve their dreams in baseball, a very difficult dream to achieve.  Available on Netflix streaming and disc.  Four stars.

Richie Ashburn:  A Baseball Life is a biopic made by the Phillies on the life of the great centerfielder and longtime baseball analyst.  The movie does a great job of reviewing Ashburn's life and career.  Narrated by Ashburn's partner, the late Harry Kalas in 2008, following Ashburn's death in 1997, it was clearly made for a Phillies fan following to honor the loss of the guy they invited into their homes 162 days a year.  I get that, having just loss Dave Niehaus.  For me the movie at 1 hr 35 minutes was about 30 minutes too long.  There is some good stuff here, but just a little too homerish for my taste.  Again, if you are lifetime Phillies fan, I can see the draw. Available through Netflix on disc only.  Three stars.