Monday, March 27. 2017
I should by saying that, although I’ve seen the animated version, it was only once or twice, and a long time ago. I can’t really do a direct comparison, so I’m not going to attempt it.
On to the film itself. One of the possible delights, or possible terrors, of seeing a well-known story converted to a film is that you have to cope with the adaptation process. Perhaps fairy tales are particularly good, or Disney are particularly good, or both but I felt this story moved along as it needed to and made its points. The heroine was suitably heroic, the villain kept just shy of moustache-twirling and the beast was suitably aggressive looking while mellowing from bitter to pleasant and plausibly lovable over time. The cast of additional roles, the singing clock, candelabra and so on all worked together and with the big three characters as well.
The songs, although this isn’t one of the classics that I, at least, have seen dozens of times, all worked well as I expected. There is a fair amount of razzmatazz added in several of the numbers, while others are smaller and almost intimate as befits what it ultimately a love story, and a story in which love conquers all.
The antiparallel story of the Beast, who is (supposedly) foul on the outside and pleasant within, and Gaston who is handsome on the outside and foul within it laid on very thick here. I appreciate it’s for a film aimed at children, and it’s live action so Pixar wouldn’t go near it, but I can’t help feel it would have been better handled by them. I’m guessing this is a throwback to the original and, although it’s not always true, often in musicals the villains are bigger and in harsher relief and perhaps that is what is going on here.
There has been quite a bit made in the press of LeFou being gay. I’m assuming, having seen it, they mean that he’s dancing with a man at the wedding. Honestly, that’s not the clearest indicator of being gay you could ever have. Ah well. The director says he’s meant to be gay and that’s the clearest signal for it I saw. If that signals being gay, the opening scene shows a hell of a lot of lesbians!
There are a few issues with the film. I think Emma Watson is pretty but we’re told Belle is hands-down the most beautiful woman in the village. There were quite a few attractive women in that village and depending on your tastes you might think she’s not even the prettiest of them. That might seem harsh, but when the entire village is telling you “she’s the prettiest one here but she’s odd” and she isn’t standing out in a rather beautiful village, it jarred a little. She was, however, clearly odd: she was the only one not to cover her hair as a demure maid should! She charges out of the castle into the middle of winter in a ball gown too. It looked spectacular but how did she not die of exposure? I’ve mentioned LeFou being gay (or not) and while I understand his role was prescribed by the film they were adapting, we have a frankly incompetent comic sidekick to the villain as the gay character. Would it have hurt to have made Cogswoth gay instead and have had, ok a rather prissy, somewhat cowardly character, but at least a good guy?
I’m not the only one of us that thought the Beast was far more attractive than the Prince (sorry Dan Stevens) but I was happy to see the thing that made Belle really start to fall for him (rather than pity him and be willing to look after him) was the size of his… library.
Beauty and the Beast won’t be for everyone. Unlike Pixar movies, this is aimed more squarely at children in the Disney tradition. But three of us over 50’s went to see it and I’m sure we’ll see far, far worse films this year and far less entertaining ones too.
Bechdel test: There are female characters who aren’t women and there are conversations (and sung interactions) but a lot of them are about male characters (well, the Beast). But Mrs. Potts and Belle have a conversation about Belle being brave and so on, so I’m going to say yes.
Russo test: My feeling is, in any other film, I’d say no. However, LeFou is clearly identified by the director as being gay and he passes the other parts of the test, so I’m going to grudgingly say yes.
Wednesday, March 22. 2017
Thinking ahead to the other side of the Lions tour, even without the tough schedule, I have to say I’m not optimistic. We’re four weeks into the Super Rugby season. Three sides are unbeaten. Two of them are from New Zealand. Of the three sides with 15 more more competition points all three are from New Zealand (there are five sides with between 10 and 14 points four are from South Africa, one of those the other unbeaten team, that’s had a bye) and, unsurprisingly, if they finals were held this weekend, we’d see four Kiwi teams in the finals again. More worryingly, perhaps, the only sides that have beaten any of the New Zealand sides are another New Zealand side. Even perennial slow starters The Crusaders (hardly anyone, even professional commentators, can remember when they last won their opening match, although they did, because they had a perfect season somewhen) won their opening match, beating one of the Aussie big guns and in a match where they struggled to field a team thanks to injuries they came from behind to beat another in the final few minutes, and currently have 4 wins and 16 points. That’s even more impressive when you realise that between surgeries, injuries and more, the team they fielded last weekend had one All Black instead of the scattering of 8-10 that they can usually field.
Evidence from Australian TV viewing figures suggests that the Aussie public are, in general, not watching their teams play but are turning on to watch the Kiwis play because the matches are more exciting and regarded as better. Even when it’s dry in Australia and pouring with rain all over New Zealand (as it was last weekend) the Kiwis are perceived as playing a better style and quality of rugby.
Now, there’s time from now to June for injuries to hamper the All Black selectors. There are places where they’re thin on quality in depth and while Super Rugby develops those players, if you take out Whitelock, Retallik and Romano they start to look a very thin in the second row. Taking nothing away from Ireland’s performance in Chicago, two of these three were absent and the All Blacks didn’t perform as expected. Coincidence? With Luatua off after the money, there’s no direct cover for Read if he’s injured. Several of the flankers could slide in there for the remainder of the match, and Super Rugby has some good Eights, but none with direct test experience. Likewise, with Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Smith both off, their depth at 9 and 10 looks a bit thin (although talent from Super Rugby will emerge there for sure as that seems, somehow, to be an easier transition that it is for a lock, I think the speed steps up, but the power demand doesn’t change, for forwards they have to perform faster but also harder all the time).
[If Read is injured, one approach that might scare the entire world would be playing Kaino, Cane and Savea, Cane is a decent jumper as is Kaino, Kaino is good on the back of the scrum and Savea could pack down on the blind side, and Cane and Savea both fetching, Kaino and Savea both carrying close, Cane roaming wider, it’s possibly not as good as Kaino, Savea, Read and it’s not as clear cut but it’s a scary thought.]
Thinking about who the Lions players will be is interesting, and it will occupy many fans and pundits thoughts until the official announcement and then until they fly off. But stacking them up against their opponents - New Zealand is always a daunting place to go. This year at least as much as any other. You can ask, in all seriousness, who you’d replace in the All Blacks squad with a member of the Lions squad. You can argue, with justification, that since Nonu and Smith retired the coaches haven’t quite settled on their best 12 and 13. They’re going to be working out combinations of Sonny-Bill Williams, Fekitoa, Lienert-Brown, Moala, probably Jordie Barrett (Beauden’s larger but younger brother) and Tamanivalu. I haven’t seen them all play yet but if they’re all fit and well, I’d tentatively pick Williams and Lienert-Brown from that list. They both seem to have time, be able to make metres, make plays for others, certainly make their tackles. I think the younger Barrett offers more of a second kicking option if that’s wanted. But, would you pick any potential Lions 12 or 13 over any of those? You might pick Farrell to go with Barrett at 10 for his kicking (although Barrett has got better this season) but otherwise no. Moriaty at his best is really impressive, but better than Read? Not yet. Warburton is highly respected in New Zealand, but not necessarily better than Cane or Savea. And so it keeps going. Add to that the fact that buy and large this is a settled team and I have a feeling it could easily be another blackwash and possibly a hiding.
Wednesday, March 22. 2017
Sorry for the delay in posting this, if anyone was waiting with baited breath - I had it mostly written then a migraine came along.
As expected Scotland bounced back. Their defence coach will be particularly happy after last week’s drubbing to have not conceded any points, even against Italy. In attack Scotland didn’t shine, only creating 5 real attacking moments, but scored four tries which is good. How much of Scotland’s failure to shine in attack was due to missing key players, how much due to the weather and how much due to improved Italian play is hard to judge but I think all three played a part.
And it has to be said, although Italy are still, by some margin, the weakest of the Six Nations and, in my opinion, should play off against Romania (who won the Shadow Six Nations, knocking Georgia off the top spot for the first time in over a decade) to keep their place, they are improving under Conor O’Shea. They still have a long way to go though.
To my surprise, and chagrin, France beat Wales. I think France gamed the HIA rules, leaving Barnes with no choice but to accept a substitution even though he (and probably everyone else) might well have thought it was just to get a better scrummaging prop back on. Once a doctor has told the referee a player needs an HIA, the player has to be substituted for that HIA, and with a prop, a suitable prop has to be brought on if one is available. The ref bows to the medical opinion on the grounds of player safety, which has to be right, although it does assume the doctor isn’t going to lie. Although Barnes called the scrums the way most refs would, it was clear on several occasions when he awarded a penalty to France (who were going forward) their hooker was also going up first (which is a penalty to Wales). This was another brutal match but, unlike last week’s match against Ireland, the quality never showed through from either side, at least not consistently. Again the conditions were poor, I think the combination of the intensity and the rain combined here, plus the fact that both teams are - for different reasons - struggling to get their passes to stick. Wales at home, and against a smaller Irish side, managed to do it but away and against the bigger French side didn’t.
Finally, Ireland beat England, denying them a grand slam and beating the All Black’s tier 1 winning streak record. This was a match played with an odd atmosphere on the pitch. With a different referee, Itoje could have been yellow carded and at various points nearly every player on both sides seemed more interested in the physical confrontation than actually playing the game. Haskell and Wood continued Itoje’s edge of yellow card play as well. But it spread wider than that. I’ve been critical that England haven’t really played well throughout this 6N, the exception being against Scotland. I would also say they’ve played worse away from home than at Twickenham which is bad considering Lions selection. They have played well enough to win their other matches, but it has to be said that they’ve really played well in patches against sides that are poor (Italy), rebuilding (France) or completely changing their style of play (Wales) but not well. The exception to that being Scotland where England really clicked. Against Ireland - away again note - they showed the other side of the coin and they actually played poorly - yes Ireland were as physical in defence as they were against Wales, but England dropped passes, dropped kicks and were generally sloppy. The Irish were playing in the same conditions and kept their hands on the ball much better, which resulted in them having 75% of the ball over the match! English commentators are saying a lot of men in white will be wearing Lions red come the summer, but I’m really left wondering. England have been dull, mentally, as they showed against both Italy and Ireland, and generally played poorly. New Zealand, all the Kiwi sides, will play to the highest standard we’ve seen here, or higher, all the time and it’s not clear many of the men in white are up to the challenge based on yesterday’s performance.
This 6N will have given Gatland a headache. Really only a very small number of players have had consistently good performances in all their games. Webb, Owens, Tipuric, Warburton, Alun-Wyn Jones, Grey, Hogg, possibly Liam Williams. One off game would add some more to the mix: Moriaty, Farrell, Biggar, possibly North, Stander, Murray, Barclay, maybe Huw Jones and the Welsh and Irish centres (Davies, Williams, Henshaw and Ringrose), Heaslip and Jamie George. In some positions, like prop, no one really stood out, in either direction to my mind.
Normally at this point I have a pretty solid idea of who I’d have as most of Lions squad. I probably can’t even take all 22 of those I’ve named because there are too many competing for the same positions!
I think, given the intensity of matches and the need for complete replacements for the front row, Gatland will take 3 of each of tight head, loose head and hooker. I think he’ll take the Welsh and Irish starting front rows intact, the English starting props and probably Jamie George (although the Scottish hooker might get the nod). Second row Jones, the Gray brothers. I suspect Itoje will get on as cover for second row and back row although I might take Launchbury as a specialist. I’d take Tipuric, Warburton, Moriaty, Faletau, Stander and maybe Heaslip as my back row. There will be howls that Vunipola should get in to the side, but I’m still not impressed. He does one thing brilliantly - the best in the world - which is pick the ball up in a bad position and make hard metres, and it looks good on the stats sheet. But he will need to take the ball at lineout, tackle hard against fast moving players and ideally link well and we haven’t seen those skills from him consistently. All of Moriaty, Faletau and Heaslip bring the rounded game of a great 8 to the table. Webb, Murray and one of Care or Laidlaw as scrum halves. I’d probably pick Care over Laidlaw because I think Laidlaw’s X-factor is the kicking. Sexton and Biggar at 10. I don’t like Farrell as a 12, I think he’s there for his kicking rather than his play making but he does offer a good second kicking option if Gatland decides on that strategy, I’d take 5 centres, Davies, Williams, Henshaw, Ringrose and Huw Jones. I’d be open to Joseph but I don’t think he’s had enough good games to force his way on - but I’m not a good judge of centre play. This leaves a back three. Hogg I think, Kearney, Williams, probably North, and Zebo.
Sunday, March 12. 2017
So, although the defensive efforts from both sides were massive, and Wales need to think about how to cope with a very flat, very fast defensive line if they’re going to continue with a flat attacking line - although in fairness they adapted on the field fairly quickly unlike England against Italy and the intercepts went away. But, although Wales scrambled well and Ireland didn’t convert their opportunities against the All Blacks in the summer they’d have been 21-0 down. It’s fairly obvious that, for whatever reason, Wales and their back row in particular had an off day in Scotland. They were back with a vengeance on Friday forcing Ireland onto the back foot for most of the game. Ireland didn’t help themselves with an unfortunate offside that chalked off their only real try scoring opportunity. While Wales still have room to improve, against that quality of defence they will be happy, as will their fans, to have scored three tries. There will be some worries that they relied on North and Roberts but overall they will be happy. A lot of the familiar names will hold their hands up again, Owens was unspectacular but totally solid and played over 70 minutes, AW Jones, Tipuric, Warburton, Webb and of course North. There’s a lot of competition for wingers and full backs, but Williams and Halfpenny both had good games as well, and after that torrid first 15 minutes Biggar looked good in the face of ferocious defence. On the other side, Stander looked efficient as always, Sexton looked fairly composed but gave up an unnecessary yellow card. Scott Williams seemed to me to stand up well against Henshaw on both sides of the ball, which is not a bad recommendation. I would pick him ahead of Farrell, but it does depend on who Gatland picks at 10 and 15 - there are plenty of players in those positions who are in Farrell’s class (or better) as a place kicker and in his other skills at 12 I don’t think he’s up there. There’s a lot of scrambling for the 13 jersey, and Davies is in that mix, although not my favourite from the weekend.
In Rome, poor Italy got off to a good start, then roused the French who romped away. Picamoles was unlucky, in my opinion, with the try the TMO called back for a foot in touch, and Italy were lucky the score line wasn’t more one-sided. That said, although they did fall off at times, their last minute try proved that Italy are getting better in some aspects at least. Ben O’Keeffe was the referee for his first test match (he’s been an assistant a few times before) and seemed to have a decent game.
Finally, England stuff Scotland. Scotland really didn’t help themselves with an early yellow card, and Hogg being injured after 15 minutes or so added to their woes. A scrum where Scotland had turned over England’s driving maul 5 metres from the line being overturned for Barclay being a hot-head - that’s Scotland’s captain - resulting in a penalty, another lineout, maul and this time a try didn’t help at all, although the match was long gone by then. Hartley played 60 minutes or so, but still doesn’t look like a Lions hooker to me. On this performance Ford, Joseph, and his opposite number Jones all looked good. Chunks of the England pack held their hand up. The problem is, for three games that’s not been true of England and playing well against a dispirited and disjointed Scotland at home is very different to what will be demanded of them playing for the Lions. Jones seems more likely to get a shout because he played well in a side that was performing badly - and it wasn’t a case of standing out from a bad bunch, he genuinely played well.
I haven’t particularly picked a prop on either side of the scrum - in their core jobs I don’t think any props are particularly standing out this year to be honest. No scrum is dominating and no one is having the impact that, in years gone by, the like of Jenkins had in the loose.
Next weekend - Wales, Ireland and Scotland to win.
Friday, March 10. 2017
I have other things that are more important in my life, but one of the things that is important to me is some of the TV shows I watch. Some I enjoy and probably never think of again once they’re done and dusted, while others linger for years. Dr Who is one, aided by the fact it’s run for as long as I’ve been alive I guess. Xena: Warrior Princess is another. Orphan Black will be another I’m sure. But, to make me feel old, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is 20 today, at least in America, it took a bit longer to get broadcast over here.
In America it’s being lauded for the firsts it achieved. While some of those don’t ring true here because some of our attitudes are different, and although there was only two years between them, part of me wonders if Buffy would have seen the light of day without the success of Xena, Buffy is still held up as the standard not just for fantasy/horror shows but for a huge range of female-led TV shows and their storylines. It’s a sad reflection that, 20 years on, most are found sadly wanting.
Whilst the writers of Buffy were guilty of some truly horrible bits of writing they came together and produced some of the most compelling, moving and dramatic bits of television, at least for the fans, as well. If you want to start a fight ask whether Hush or The Body is the best episode of TV ever. There are shows I’ve watched this week where I can’t tell you what the episodes are called. There are shows on my list above where I can’t tell you what happened in many named episodes from the last 4 years. But I can remember huge chunks of those two episodes - although admittedly I’ve seen them a lot more recently than the 16 years or so they first aired.
A silly memory of it all, I used to rewatch multiple episodes on DVD with Heidi on quiet Sundays. The first time we arranged we arranged to do that she warned me “I’m likely to turn up early.” She did, a whole week early! But we still watched four or five episodes.
TV isn’t always art, but sometimes it’s incredibly important. Probably no one will read this, and BtVS didn’t change my life as much as it did some people whose stories I’ve read today but it still had a big impact. So a big thank you to the hundreds or thousands of people who were involved in bringing the Scoobies to my screen and my home for seven years.
Friday, March 10. 2017
This week got away from me so I'll be brief since the match starts soon.
Wales v Ireland. This depends on which Welsh side show up, and if their passes stick really. Wales can play really well, and are creating more chances than anyone else, but spilling the ball in critical places too. I think they'll show up at home. Sometime those balls will stick and someone will get hammered. I don't know if it will click for Wales tonight but I think they'll be good enough to win.
Italy v France. Italy are innovative, as we saw in the last round, but not good yet. France are not a great side but they are a good and improving side. It's really a case of how big the scoreline is.
England v Scotland. The big one. I know Scotland haven't won at Twickers for ages, but Scotland are more effective in attack than Wales (they attack less, but they convert more often when they do attack) and they are defending and turning over better than Wales, who out-performed England in that department. Scotland to win.
Wednesday, March 1. 2017
Despite the calls for a change in the laws to rucks, I’m here to say no. The problem on Saturday was that the England players and crowd are obviously too stupid to understand what was going and adapt (and perhaps angry that their expectations of a cricket score were being spoiled by some smart play).
As I hinted in my previous post on the topic, there are several ways to counter the refusal to commit to the ruck.
Obviously without committing players there, the defenders have, in theory, up to seven extra players but a typical defensive ruck is usually actually only four or five strong. There are exceptions to that (if there’s a good chance of a turnover, if the attackers pile a lot of extra players in, if it’s right by the try line for example), but you usually see the defenders have the tackler, one or two extra players forming the ruck, then a guard close on each side, sort of ‘half bound’ to the ruck for a total of five. These guards can lean in to stop a drive up the middle or step out to stop a quick pick and drive. There will be two players (usually forwards) a bit more detached as the next line of close defenders for the pop pass but are too detached for attacking ruckers to drag in and try and create a ruck, unlike the guards, and Italy had these looser players at most tackles so they created four or five extra defenders, not seven.
Then, however, they put several of these players on the England side of the tackle, preventing easy passes and disrupting lines of sight. So their net gain is possibly two defenders, and probably two front row forwards, who are not typically the most mobile players on the park.
There are a number of simple counters which will almost always work.
Tuesday, February 28. 2017
So, having downplayed the Scottish back row for the last two weeks, it’s time to hold my hand up and say congratulations, they were better than the Welsh on Saturday, and the Welsh have, so far, been the best back row we’ve seen. That wasn’t the only reason the Scots won - too many Welsh players dropped the ball at key moments as well (sometimes that was their fault, sometimes that was brutal Scottish tackling, sometimes it was an offload that was too hard, but the end result was always points going begging). We all know backing up huge matches with another huge match is a big ask and Moriarty wasn’t likely to do the same as he did against England but the whole Welsh back row were still dominated in most breakdowns, and that’s not good. Alan-Wyn Jones and the Gray brothers slugged it out for lock and while I wouldn’t like to guess who will be the starting pair, they look like good bets to be going to New Zealand. Wales still played well, except for the ball dropping, and while there’s certainly competition at 10, Webb and Biggar are my stand out players in that position. Warburton, Tipuric and Moriarty will still be in contention, but Barclay, Hardie and Wilson will have pushed their way into contention. Sam Davies might be a serious threat to Biggar’s for next year but doesn’t quite have what it takes yet, not at test level. If Barclay, Hardie and Wilson can perform like that again, England could be seriously troubled in two weeks’ time. Ken Owens carries on having a totally solid performance at hooker too. He’s not as dynamic around the field as some but his core skills seem better than anyone else’s. That’s not just the throwing in and scrummaging on both sides, but his carrying in the tight and defensive work are both solid. It might sound like I’m down on Wales (and I am disappointed) but they’re changing from Jamie Roberts (who I liked and admired) as a huge crash ball carrier with surprisingly soft hands, to Scott Williams who I also like who is a smaller, more touch player and a more “commit the tackler and offload” style of play. This is certainly a viable form of play but it requires more alertness and better decision making and softer hands and those passes to stick. At the moment, it’s not quite working - Wales are creating the chances, more than any other side in the 6N if you look at the stats, but not closing them out. That will change as the players adapt and with a bit of luck and if they keep playing this way, Wales could well seriously challenge all the Southern Hemisphere teams by 2019, but it’s painful right now.
France v Ireland was brutal, no surprises there, but Ireland are bigger than Scotland, took their hits and could still keep going and scoring. To me, Ireland seem to play as well with Sexton or Jackson on the field but neither of them seem to have quite that X-factor that the Sexton of 4 years ago had. Here, the Irish front row all looked good, and a shout must go out to CJ Stander as well. That 6 shirt looks very competitive.
The biggest talking point of the weekend, however, is England v Italy. It relies on a simple understanding of the laws: to form a ruck requires at least two players from each team, the tackler, the tackled player then one more from each team to engage over the ball. Only at the point a ruck is formed is an offside line drawn. If the tackler holds the player up, a maul is formed with the same criteria for the extra players (referees are bad about calling a maul from a tackle as they tend to wait a bit to see if the tackled player can get to ground, which they shouldn’t really) but again, once they call maul, an offside line is drawn, before that, there is no offside line.
Italy didn’t put players into the breakdown, so, no matter how many players England put there, it was not a ruck, it was a tackle, there was no offside line, and they could stand wherever they liked, such as right by the fly-half, perfectly legally. I’ve seen this tactic before, used occasionally, but it’s an occasional thing simply because good teams adjust to it. England’s inability to understand what was going on, to have to have the laws explained, to then ask the referee how they could counter it, prompting a reply of “I am the referee, not a coach” is a massive indictment of the England players’ understand of the laws of the game and the senior players and their ability to think on their feet. While I understand Eddie Jones frustration and embarrassment, attacking Connor O’Shea for outthinking him but playing completely with the laws is not the right response. What we saw is not the normal way rugby is played, but it is rugby. England finally came up with the simplest and most boring of responses to the tactic, forcing Italy players to ruck them in order to prevent the pick and drive, running out comfortable winners. There are other options here too, although applying them in a half-time break might be a challenge for any team.
Anyway, thanks to their inability to adapt, none of the English forwards, nor the half-backs really covered themselves in glory with this display. Nowell certainly attracted the eye though. A lot of people are strongly touting Farrell too. I’m less convinced - I think he forces his way into contention as a kicker but if Gatland doesn’t want the second five eighth role that England are playing with, there are better options, and unless he starts with Ford at 10, all the other 10’s are high quality kickers in their own right. There are several potential picks, like Halfpenny who are better kickers as well.
This might sound harsh on England but, while O’Shea coached them well for this match, Italy are still not a great team. New Zealand will pose a much, much sterner challenge and it won’t be just in terms of the fitness, physicality and speed but their thinking, their attitude and their understanding of the laws as well.
Monday, February 27. 2017
Hidden Figures makes no bones in trailer what it’s about. It’s the story of three women of colour who were employed by NASA as computers - that is talented mathematicians who ran the calculations while the men did the thinking and the abstract mathematics - before electronic computing devices were really available.
The film actually shows the installation of the NASA computer that everyone says “your digital watch has more computing power than the computer that landed men on the moon had available” so you start to see the death of the human computer within the film.
It should be noted the film is a drama, not a historically accurate biopic. For example, it pulls together the real life stories of Dorothy Vaughn (who was the first woman of colour to be a supervisor at NASA), Mary Jackson, the first woman of colour to become an engineer at NASA and Katherine Johnson who was permanently assigned to the Flight Research Division and simply moved to the Space Task Group with everyone else when that was formed. These all happened before the time the film is set and not how it is shown, although they did happen and the film makes a celebration of it and is stronger for the rewriting that we see. However, one of the on-going themes of the film, Katherine’s co-authoring a paper is completely true. Although it’s hard to be sure, many of the other small incidents are, I strongly suspect, true as well - they’re the kind of thing you can imagine happening and they enliven the film.
This film pulls off a number of quite tricky things.
First and foremost, it’s a film about the early years of the space race in which doing the maths is the core part of the story. Now I’m not a mathematician, although I like maths, but they manage to make watching someone doing calculations tense and gripping - which even to someone like me is not normally a fun thing to watch!
Second, this is a film set absolutely in segregated Virginia. It doesn’t hide from that at all and some of the moments are heartbreaking to be honest, although others are empowering or uplifting, even to a white person like me. (A white person like Donald Trump might disagree, he’s far closer to being a racist than me.) One or two are absolutely hilarious. In America this might play very differently, heck the three women this film is about are all alive so they might well see it differently, but from my white privilege it felt as if they did “show don’t tell” for what life was like for them without it being preachy. I think that’s far more likely to make just about everyone think that segregation was a major blot of America’s recent, still in living memory, past and racism continues to be a blot on every country’s present than any other approach.
Finally, it takes a less in-depth look at the sexism inherent in the system. That’s less strongly touched on and it’s tempting to question whether that’s because sexism is still so embedded in US society, if they felt it would take away from the rest of the film or if they felt celebrating the life of three women of colour in this way, while essentially sidelining the men, made the point strongly enough. My inclination, given how strongly the deal with the racism, is to assume they didn’t want to detract from that. Whichever it may be, the really overt sexism is held up and challenged in several places, while in others it is let slide.
This film is different to my normal fare but both the story of maths behind the space race and particularly the women of colour that underpin that and the lives they lead in a segregated America shortly before I was born combine to make a compelling story and a film that is well worth seeing. It’s not vital to see it on the big screen really, there are no special effects or similar, but you should see it.
Bechdel test: There was a computer scientist, a mathematician and an engineer in a car… they certainly do talk about men, but they talk about maths, fixing their car, their job prospects and all kinds of things. There are multiple scenes that pass the Bechdel test.
Russo test: It’s unlikely that there isn’t an LGBT person in the whole of NASA at this time but we don’t see anyone who is out and proud. 0/3. I’m not surprised by that, even if NASA was ahead of America in being a meritocracy, gay rights was really not a thing in 1961, being out in a place that dealt with military secrets, not a good career move.
Saturday, February 25. 2017
La La Land is one of those movies which is surprisingly hard to review because the bits that I think make it truly brilliant, and make me think it really is likely to grab an bucket load of Oscars on Sunday, aren’t in the trailer.
But, I will stick to my rules. So, from what we can tell from the trailer, there are the obvious two parts that make up this film.
First this is a huge song and dance musical in the old Hollywood tradition, in fact in multiple Hollywood director traditions. I had fun playing spot the influence but if you aren’t keen on old school Hollywood song and dance shows, you probably want to avoid La La Land because while it’s not the subject matter of this film it is the skeleton of the film, even though there is a distinctly new shine and modern sensibility layered on top of it. This isn’t the post-modern deconstruction of the genre that the Scream movies were for teen horror, it is more an update, a reboot, Hollywood song and dance 2.0. However, if you’re not familiar with the Hollywood song and dance 1.0 I’m not sure how much sense the update will make.
Second, there is the core love story we see. Two crazy, young people with a dream that fall in love and, as we do see in the trailer, encourage each other to follow their dreams. The trailer doesn’t specify exactly what Mia’s arc is, so I won’t go into detail but it is clear enough she dreams of becoming a Hollywood star which, in some ways, of course, this is the ultimate Hollywood story. Sebastian’s dream (Ryan Gosling) isn’t a Hollywood dream per se - he’s the jazz pianist and his dreams centre around music but he is just as supported and supportive.
Any song and dance musical relies on the ability of the leads to actually sing and dance. Emma Stone was good enough to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway for several months, and in my opinion it shows here. She may not have the range of a full-time singer, but she can carry a tune and has a clear, sweet voice and can dance. Ryan Gosling is a surprisingly great dancer. I think his voice will divide people, It actually carries the tune, but it’s quite husky and I think it’s better suited to belting out the lyrics than singing quietly which he does here. But for this role, I think it works well - I’m not seriously comparing him to Louis Armstrong as a musician, but if you think of Satchmo’s voice there was that gravelly quality to it, and Gosling’s voice reminded me of that several times. For the role of “the jazz pianist” that’s not a bad comparison to spring to mind. So, I was comfortable with both of them but you may not be, particularly if you don’t like Gosling’s singing voice.
Likewise, any film that is based around a romance requires you believe in the leads as a couple. I found that relatively easy. I didn’t realise just how many movies Stone and Gosling have been in together before La La Land but it turns out to be several. It doesn’t follow that they’re friends, but they looked relaxed, comfortable and happy around each other and certainly worked as couple for me.
There are, as I’ve said above, scenes that constitute spoilers that raise this from one I regard as “merely” a very good film to an exceptional film. I sometimes wonder why a particular film gets the nod for an Oscar nomination (or, more often, I wonder not at the racial discrimination but the genre discrimination that remains in the Oscars where great horror, SciFi, Fantasy and Action films are all too rarely nominated in the big categories) but in this case I’m in no doubt that La La Land is truly deserving. Although I haven’t seen all the competition, I think Emma Stone will win too best actress too, this role as Mia just seems to leap from the screen into slightly larger than life yellow dress-clad brilliance. Part of that is the script and the cinematography of course, but part of that is her acting. I saw a comment in an Oscar’s preview column that said, more or less, with her role as Mia in La La Land, Emma Stone has proven herself as the ingénue for the current generation of Hollywood actresses. I’m not sure she’ll be happy with that label as it generally relies on appearing young and pretty, as well as innocent, so it’s time-limited and needs an out in a career plan to another set of roles, but there is a gap in the market for an ingénue at the moment, so perhaps she’ll enjoy it for a few years before thinking about that, then move sideways into something else, who knows. She certainly does fill that role wonderfully in this film, although she’s played other such stock roles (notably soubrettes) in other films so certainly has the range, and it’s generally easier to move from soubrette to character actor for a woman.
I’ve laid out my provisos above. Personally I think this is a wonderful film. If you’re not keen on musicals you won’t. If you don’t like Hollywood song and dance films you might not. Ryan Gosling doesn’t sing that much, but if you can’t cope with his voice, you won’t. And if you don’t like his voice you won’t come away with a song on your lips… but I can’t get it out of my head, so it’s embedded below so you can decide for yourself.
Bechdel test: Yes. There are quite a few short conversations between Mia and other named female characters, most of which are not about men. Several are about a refund for non-gluten free buns for example. Reading the cast list on IMDB is quite interesting - there are a lot of minor characters (male and female) who would normally be a role-name, such as gluten-free woman, who have a character name which makes for the easy pass, although there would be other conservations than the one I’ve highlighted above that would make for a pass.
Russo test: No, 0/3. I can’t decide if I’m disappointed by this or not. On one hand, with such a rebooted Hollywood story I feel there ought to be an LGBT presence, On the other hand we don’t really see characters have relationships other than Mia’s, and Sebastian’s with her, nor indeed significant characters other than those two, so I think it’s inevitable - if there were LGBT characters present, you still wouldn’t get them passing the Russo test, unless Mia or Sebastian was bi.
Saturday, February 18. 2017
Lets start with the most obvious thing: if you’re looking at the title and thinking “I missed the theatrical release of this, where can I see it?” you didn’t. This is, however, the first film I’ve seen which really wouldn’t look out of place in a cinema with a general release despite being a film that could be described as a fan film or perhaps the ultimate indy movie: it was written by a couple of people who run a YouTube channel and funded through a Kickstarter campaign. You can rent or buy it through iTunes , Google Play, Vimeo On Demand, Amazon and other places via their site.
With that out of the way, lets talk about the things I normally talk about in a review so you might judge for yourself if you want to see it. OK, I don’t really write these reviews for that, I write them for my pleasure, but if you read them, you can judge for yourself based on this still.
The film is, as you might guess from the title, and can quickly tell from the trailer, a coming of age movie. It looks at two young women, in the final year at university (or college, since they’re in America) who have been best friends since they were seven but are growing apart as they are thinking about entering the world of work. While there are quite a lot of bits that contribute (most of those are not in the trailer, so constitute spoilers) to this the really big one that forms the centre of the film is that one of the characters realises she’s gay but really struggles to come out to the other, coming out to quite a few other people first because it’s easier.
There’s obviously grounds for angst and conflict there, and it’s mined thoroughly but there’s a surprising amount of humour as well. The writers and quite a lot of the cast have been through this themselves but have enough distance from it to write some of it with humour about what were doubtless very embarrassing moments at the time - and it’s usually easy to laugh at someone else’s embarrassment if it’s well presented as comedically as this is. The fact it watches with that sense of truth that having lived through it gives the stories also makes the film run smoothly - this is a clear example where “write what you know” works.
For those of you expecting to perv over nubile young lesbians, you’ll have to watch something else. There are various, short, shots of young women in mostly unflattering sports bras. The only nipples you get to see are on the GBF. Actually, this film would get a PG rating in the UK for the sex, although for the language and drinking it would probably get pulled up to a 12A or maybe just a 15. It’s not OTT but they’re 20-somethings and they drink and swear at times. I suspect US censors would be far stricter - we see two women in bed even if they stay covered up, for example, which seems to get them hot under the collar.
Although this film skews young for me, I was thoroughly entertained by it. I’m not going to say what bits I identified with, what bits I laughed at, what bits I laughed with and what bits I struggled with because I was just never a millennial dating for the first time but there were definitely some of each. Overall, however, I still have no regrets at forking out the money to watch it and I will probably watch it again (a benefit over seeing it at the cinema and there’s nothing that needs that big screen experience here). While it is a coming out and coming of age drama, it blends in the humour and the romance in too (without hitting the rom com structure) that there’s enough there to make me feel I’d enjoy watching it again.
EDIT: Although Almost Adults isn't really a heavy enough hitter to make me think about it too much, as I was having lunch today I realised, despite my previous comments, it is actually a rom com, just not a traditionally structured one. The central romance the comedy is built around is the non-sexual pairing of Mack and Cassie and in typical rom com fashion it follows the (somewhat silly) challenges to their relationship following a sudden change (in this case Mack realising and coming out as gay). It's non-traditional because, of course, both Mack and Cassie have other, romantic and sexual, relationships but the central relationship is certainly one of agape love and it gives you the rom com structure.
A quick technical note: I didn’t really register it at the time but, presumably to save costs, a lot of this was shot as a single camera and single takes - two, three or four actors sitting on a sofa and talking to each other and being shot across the room or similar. It’s well staged and well framed and didn’t look odd to me while I was watching it - it’s quite theatrical and I felt comfortable with that - but having watched more “normal” TV since, which multiple cuts of scenes and switching POV shots over the shoulder of the person being spoken to and the like I suddenly realised it was a little odd compared to the normal film/TV presentation. It wasn’t all like this, and like I said it didn’t register at the time, but quite a lot was and might seem odd to you.
Bechdel test: In a film with two young woman best friends as the leads, one of them coming out as a lesbian, there are lots of conversations between named female characters and lots of them don’t involve talking about men. An easy pass. Actually, given that, there are a surprising number of scenes that don’t pass the Bechdel test individually but, at a rough guess, at least half the scenes do.
Russo test: Well lets see… there’s the lesbian co-star of the film and her girlfriend. So they’re definitely clearly lesbian and core to the story. There is, beyond these two, a GBF to the two best friends who is shown in the trailer. Arguing if two of these three are well characterised beyond “being gay/lesbian” is certainly possible, but Mack is as well developed as you’d expect for a co-star, she’s far from just ‘the lesbian one” so it’s definitely a pass. For what it’s worth, I think her girlfriend passes (she’s better characterised than Cassie’s ex) but I’m on the fence about the GBF. But the film overall clearly passes.
Friday, February 17. 2017
“Hollywood” is on odd beast. In many ways it’s diverse and individual: directors, producers, actors and so on come together, make their film or their show, then go their separate ways. There are great pairings of directors with actors, actors with actors and so on, but this is relatively rare. Yet, ultimately, making a Hollywood movie is an expensive prospect and there are a relatively small number of, predominantly, white men that hold the purse strings and decide which projects get green-lit and so what we see.
While the projects are starting to get more diverse, there’s not really a lot of doubt that films led by men, and probably in particular white men, have an easier time of it.
One of the things we hear, from the Hollywood machine at a level that makes me think it’s the money men, is a practically rotating series of doubts about the future of the film industry.
We have “OMG, X will stop people going to the movies” - in my memory that’s been VCRs, DVDs and now Netflix (as the embodiment of streaming movies). While cinema attendance hasn’t been inexorably upwards, year on year, the overall trend has been ever upwards despite this complaint.
The one I want to think about in a bit more detail though is the common alternate complaint, the “lack of the sure fire movie star.” That’s not an actor whose name is in a starring role, but an actor who makes audiences show up and puts bums on seats and thus dollars through the box office, and in this modern world dollars back through the DVD and possibly the action figure and other merchandising too. If you listen to, or think of, the names you hear trotted out: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Gary Cooper, John Wayne and so on, they’re all male and white. Hollywood would have us believe there are no stars like this any more and although they have more data than me I wonder if their preconceptions, their sexist and racist assumptions, are blinding them to the truth, or at least a partial truth.
The thing is, I don’t know there are any stars for whom I will go and see anything and everything they do. To that extent I do fall into the “no true guaranteed bums on seats” moan of the money men. However, there is a small list of stars where their involvement will certainly pique my interest and tip it from a maybe into a likely, a likely into a yes. A small number of those are white men. Tom Hiddleston, the late Alan Rickman. Some are men of colour. Denzel Washington, Vin Diesel, Morgan Freeman. Several are women: Eva Green, Emily Blunt, Jennifer Lawrence and Gemma Arterton. One is a woman of colour: Michelle Rodriguez. I might add Ruth Negga to that list in years to come, she’s certainly coming to my attention recently.
So, yes, there might not be a small number of stars who will ensure I see your film, but if you’re only looking for the white men who get me to the movies you’re actually looking at less than 1/4 of the people who are likely to get me to see your film. If you only look at the men, you’re looking at under half of them.
Despite Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez both appearing on my list, I still haven’t watched any of The Fast and The Furious movies and probably won’t. It really isn’t a guarantee of me going to see your film. Story and things like that really matter too.
My taste, in movies and stars, is obviously personal and idiosyncratic. The money men are interested in the big picture - how much of a film’s taking is due to the stars rather than the plot, the special effects and so on? The Bankabilty Index attempts to determine this, but does so really badly - for example franchise movies aren’t counted so Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t show on their base list despite being (by a long way) apparently the highest grossing star at worldwide and (US) domestic box office. However, if you poke the numbers in their highest grossing star list, she is #1, but her movies apparently took no money internationally - so I didn’t see the last 2 Hunger Games, X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse which are all in the list of films that count for her earnings. In addition, this list is based on scoring the movies on box office ranking too, Tom Hanks actually starred in more movies (39 to 15), in movies that took more money (~$9bn to ~$5b), but in movies that, on average did less well at the box office, so he comes in at #20 on the list, way below Chris Pratt who was only in 9 movies that grossed less than $1bn between them, but who had a lot of highly placed hits in those 9 (including Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy) and so is rewarded for that. There may be good reasons for how the list is structured but see what I mean about assumptions biasing your results?
Until the money-men become money-people, men and women, and a mix of openly gay and straight, people of colour as well as white, just how well will Hollywood do with representing the world in which we live? I’m not denying it’s got better. Part of me feels under Trump and Pence it might push Hollywood to move faster, in reaction to their bigotry.
In the meantime, the movie industry overall is democratising. Hollywood is not the only fruit, so to speak. Tangerine, which I must admit I still have to watch, is somewhere between an Indy and a Hollywood movie but is a high quality movie. Its subject matter is trans prostitutes, so not really Hollywood material, but it is perhaps unique for being shot entirely on iPhones and yet still getting cinematic release. The quality is high enough the camera shouldn’t be regarded as a gimmick, just a tool like any other camera. I recently watched Almost Adults, which I will review properly soon, which has a storyline that Hollywood might touch but the script writers run a Youtube channel and funded it through a Kickstarter campaign. The stars were not paid Hollywood kind of money, but are both successful enough they’re full-time actors. The film is available to buy through various streaming outlets and, whether or not you like the story, in terms of the production it wouldn’t look out of place as a Hollywood movie. Just because of the money required for the big blockbusters and their special effects it might take longer, but if Hollywood doesn’t change it might really have something to scream about.
The music industry has already done this, as streaming music has replaced vinyl and the CD for most consumers, and the traditional scout, agent and producer is becoming less and less important in the music that reaches our ears, as the artist can literally record in their garage, or their basement, and distribute for themselves. The same is kind of true for the publishing industry - there is heated debate about whether you’re better off self-publishing or working with a publisher, and many of those tied in to the publisher side of the debate admit if they were starting now they’d look seriously at self-publishing instead.
More and more films about subjects Hollywood is bad at handling seem to be appearing by non-traditional routes and it won’t be long before that really bites into mainstream “Hollywood” too. Big “indy” festivals like Sundance already attract A-list stars away for ‘good’ projects that don’t pay so well. Kevin Linklater is an auteur on the fringes of Hollywood perhaps but Boyhood broke the rules, was a damn fine movie, and attracted maybe not an A-list star but still an Oscar winner and a string of familiar faces to it. How long, I wonder, before a Patricia Arquette or Ethan Hawke star in a Kickstarter funded movie that appeals because it’s just a really good project and the walls of Hollywood really do tumble down?
Monday, February 13. 2017
So the week 2 results are in and it’s review time.
Italy v Ireland was even more one-sided than I expected. Ireland were angry and ruthless while Italy seemed to have taken a step backwards after last week. Ireland easily made history by earning the first bonus point for scoring four tries, in the first half in fact, which really says all it needs to - yes, New Zealand can do that to other test nations but in the 6N it’s rare to see such a thumping, even of Italy. There is a body of opinion doing the rounds that we shouldn’t have promotion and relegation from the 6N because every nation has languished at the bottom. Whether it’s a play-off with the top of the shadow six nations or a straight promotion/relegation, so what? Lets have six competitive sides and let the bad sides, when they’re having a bad year or two, drop down and build confidence and come back up more confidence. Italy (at the moment) will learn more by winning some games and gaining confidence than anything else. As with last week and Wales, lots of Irish impressed this week. Stander and Zebo in particular shone for me. Connor Murray was, again, not as standout as you might expect given the circumstances. Last week I put that down to Scotland’s backrow being all over him, now I wonder if he’s carrying an injury or, cruellest fate of all in a year like this, his time as one of the truly greatest in the world was shorter than most.
Wales v England, by every stat bar the one that really matters, had the wrong result. Wales were less penalised, applied more pressure, had more turnovers and so on. However, although the English players had confidence in their attacking patterns according to an interview I saw, really their defence coach and their defensive work must take more credit. Wales kept attacking and the English held them out, often during the first half (although England attacked often then and were repulsed too) and throughout the second half, when England barely mounted an attack but almost every time they did they came away with points, albeit mostly penalties. It’s worth noting that a lot of the features of the previous week were absent for both sides. Wales played at a high level throughout the match. England’s subs didn’t have the dramatic impact of last week. In addition those who doubted Biggar were silenced as he had an enormous impact on the match in attack and defence, likewise those who doubted Warburton have had their criticisms silenced. He was immense, and while last year and the year before his partnership with Tipuric wasn’t good, in the two matches so far this year they have worked well together a Lions backrow of Tipuric, Moriarty and Warbuton is not impossible against the All Blacks on yesterday’s performance - I know Faletau is recovering from an injury but it says something when the opponents are pleased to see him come onto the pitch because the tackling and ball carry is less intense! Alan Wyn Jones and Joe Launchbury would probably be the locking pair in front of them, although the Gray brothers might have something to say about that, and Ball had a fine game too. Hartley still has time to get back to full match fitness but based on this week’s performance still has a way to go. I think Webb continues his impressive form. Of the four hookers in this game, only Jamie George really looked at all likely to be wearing a red jersey in New Zealand this summer, although Owens made few mistakes and forced Hartley off appreciably earlier than the Irish managed which can’t really be overlooked and might be more of a positive than I’m giving it - if he’s seen as able to keep Coles in check that would be a huge plus for him.
Scotland v France was a bruising encounter but France were unlucky not to win by a bigger margin (the TMO blew that call IMO). Scotland were incisive but bent and buckled under the big French ball carriers time and again. That will be worrying considering playing against the All Blacks where you’ll be facing size combined with pace and skill beyond that shown by France. Eventually the size told over the course of the match. I did say the Scots needed to be good enough to withstand the big ball carriers and sadly they weren’t. Hogg is still playing well but he stands out because he’s Scotland’s main attacking weapon from the backs. Russell looked good too, but only in patches really.
It’s too early to really pick a Lions squad yet, and if Ireland and Scotland stand up against the Welsh and English it could change, but at the moment it’s looking to me like there are likely to be a lot of Welsh and English players and a sprinkling of Irish and Scottish players.
It’s also worth pointing out that, unlike last weekend where really only the Scotland v Ireland match was a decent match, this weekend Wales v England was a bruising, high intensity match that was balanced on a knife’s edge, and France v Scotland was also a gripping match with two different styles of play clashing and trying to come to grips with each other. The outcome was clear further for longer, despite a reasonably narrow margin of victory, but it was still a good game.
Wednesday, February 8. 2017
The world of rugby, players and fans alike, is saying goodbye to Joost van der Westhuizen, who died two days ago aged 45 of ALS or motor neurone disease.
ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) is in many ways the opposite of Alzheimer’s - instead of your brain giving up and stealing your memories and personality the nerves that trigger your muscles die which leads to an inability to move properly, then an inability to swallow, speak and finally to breath, which is what ultimately results in death. While this is tragic for every sufferer, old fogeys like me remember van der Westhuizen as a template for the big (he was 1m88 tall), fast scrum halves we see in the modern game (although there are exceptions who play right at the highest level, Aaron Smith is only 1m71 for example) and was the scrum half for the 1995 ‘Rainbow Nation’ side that won South Africa’s first RWC in front of Nelson Mandela after the repeal of apartheid. He used his name to raise awareness of ALS through the J9 foundation, a throwback to his old shirt number.
The sight and sound of him struggling to walk and talk as his ALS progressed was shocking because my memories of him are of him at his peak, as probably the best scrum half in the world for 4 years or more. It’s with memories of those times I’d like to leave you.
Tuesday, February 7. 2017
So the 6N got off to a start that upset quite a few of the pundits, as Ireland lost to Scotland and the final weekend’s potential grand slam decider is already out of the window.
In all fairness, Scotland were good value for their win and we really shouldn’t be surprised - yes, Ireland beat the All Blacks albeit an understrength All Blacks in November, but Scotland had a very impressive set of November results too and the 6N is not always about recent form because national rivalries and so on come to the fore every year.
Under Vern Cotter Scotland have rediscovered their ability to score tries, which their main problem in recent years, while under Joe Schmidt Ireland seem inconsistent and that showed again here. Ireland are not traditionally slow starters, but perhaps it was that instead as they certainly improved in the second half but, by then, it was really too late. Both Hogg and Maitland certainly raised their hands for Gatland’s Lions squad. Conor Murray, who many felt would have been written in (barring injury) must now be pencilled in a lighter shade as he was outplayed by Laidlaw and Scotland were all over him all day.
In Twickenham, England were supposed to sweep France aside. In the end some brave play from their substitutes saved English blushes and pulled a frankly undeserved victory out in the last few minutes. Brian Moore is fond of saying you however well you play you don’t deserve to win in sport, but I think he might agree England did not play well enough to win that game and got lucky. They lacked cohesion, direction and basic skills far too often and played a lot of the game on the back foot. Throughout the game the French dominated the collisions and dominated a lot of the skill situations too. England were shorn of the big ball carriers and others through injury and it really, really showed. Eddie Jones has not been here long but does not have the strength in depth and the flexibility to cope with three or four missing players yet. In all honesty, although there will be English players on the Lions tour, none really held their hands up this weekend. Haskell, Teo and Nowell, who all came off the substitutes’ bench were their most impressive players on Saturday.
In Rome the final match was, to some extent, spoiled by a massive downpour before kick-off and rain during the first half. We all know the typical commentary that Italy are competitive for 50 minutes and then fall off the pace. We can add to that the years’ old commentary that Wales are slow starters. Both of those seemed to be on show here, but in all honesty, the first half was pretty turgid and that could have been thanks to the weather. In the second half, Wales let rip and were unlucky not to score four or five tries and get the first four try bonus point of the 6N. Parese, for so long the only star in azure is starting to look old rather than stellar. He is still Italy’s star player but he is no longer the dominant force on the rugby pitch that he used to be. As a commentator there is the proviso that “they were playing against Italy” but all the Welsh players in the second half looked a step or two or three sharper than their opponents and based on this performance alone could be donning a red shirt with a different badge come the summer. There will be sterner tests to come but Wales often do really well in Lions’ years and this year might be no exception. Webb, North, Williams, Wyn Jones, Davies (both of them), Warburton, Tipuric, Moriarty and Halfpenny are all ones to watch based on this week’s performance. The Welsh public’s desire to see Sam Davies start at 10 seems likely to be met following what seemed to be rib injuries to Dan Biggar.
The week to come
Wales v England is clearly the big one (and not just because I’m biased). Wales started to play well in the second half, and generally play better after their first match, play better at home and play better against England. England seriously need to play better to stand a chance and generally play worse in Wales than in any other match. I would expect some shuffling of the starting XV of the men in white, but I think Wales will win.
France v Scotland is the next big one. France played a lot better and have the beating of Scotland, particularly in Paris, but Scotland are confident and playing well - if they can cope with all those huge players. I think this will be brutal but Scotland have the precision and self belief to win this as long as there aren’t too many injuries against the huge French players. This sets up a potential Slam decider in week 3 against Wales!
Italy v Ireland. Ireland will be stung, and although in 12 months time Connor O’Shea’s plan might be taking shape, at the moment it’s a plan his players are working towards rather than executing. For all his comments that the referee had it in mind that Italy were offending more than Wales, that’s because they were. (His mantra of ‘don’t follow a mistake with another mistake’ requires comments like that, so he can say to his players they’re improving.) The conditions will dictate whether Italy comes away with a bonus point or not, but I expect a match quite like last week’s, with Italy staying close for 50+ minutes and then Ireland pulling away.
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