Friday, July 15. 2016
So Theresa May has basically made her new cabinet and the major analysts all agree it's the most brutal reshuffle ever. Given Harold Macmillan had a reshuffle in 1962 dubbed the Night of the Long Knives and this is worse, that gives you some idea.
Some of the changes are not a surprise. Gove and May clashed repeatedly and he's gone. Cameron and Osborne were a team in harness, Osborne shot a lot of credibility with the Eurosceptics with how he handled Project Fear and the announcement of the need for an emergency budget if we voted for Brexit - something we may need but May and Hammond seem keen to avoid - so he's gone.
Some are a bit more of a surprise. Hunt was announced as being out, but stayed (another minister resigned after being offered an unspecified other post she didn't think she could take in the interim, the two might be related). I suspect the whole of the NHS cheered and then wished they hadn't and are now sucking it up, or digging out their poppet-making kits and sticking pins in the little dolls.
It's not a surprise that BoJo is back since Gove had to go but just how senior a role he's got, and the Foreign Office with his talent for opening his mouth and putting both feet in it... ouch. However, Johnson (Foreign Secretary), Davis (Brexit) and Fox (International Trade), a triumvirate of Brexiteers are clearly the unit responsible between them for leading on Brexit. It's hard for anyone to say May hasn't given serious weight to pushing Brexit forward with people devoted to the cause. Equally, if it goes wrong it's not clear that she has any particular loyalty to them personally and she can happily throw them under the bus.
You may have your own opinion on how much she's hoping it will go wrong, personally, I'd say she's more than half hoping they really fuck it up before the Article 50 button is pushed in such a way she can gracefully side-step the referendum result leaving BoJo holding the baby as she chucks it all out with the bathwater. However, she needs a plan that's clearly workable enough that if the button does get pushed, she's happy to see it through. Talk about a tightrope. Don't be surprised if "The Canada Model" or "Canada+" becomes something we hear a lot about in the coming weeks. If you want to know more read about CETA. A Canada+ model would include some provision for passporting in the financial sector and some quid pro quo for that. (The EU would probably be keen on keeping that too because setting up Berlin or Paris to rival London as a financial sector will take years so it's not improbable.) Other bits might well be added too but this is a basis for a workable and with the exception of passporting already agreed model - and although it includes visa-free movement it does not include passport-free movement so an element of border control is present which might satisfy that side of the Brexit camp.
There is, unsurprisingly to me, a nice juicy promotion for Andrea Leadsom. There are also, again not surprisingly, some nice promotions for other women. While being Home Secretary for 6 years is unlikely it will be interesting to see how the next incumbent handles it.
Although not outwardly shocking, there are three things that are going to be very interesting to see how they play out:
Everything is new and shiny and there's rhetoric without any actual structure or exercise of power at the moment. Our glorious leader has said this is what she wants to do but it was a two minute speech. A speech that, as many have said, would not have been out of place if Ed Milliband had made it just over a year ago, rather than a new Tory MP two days ago. We need to see some policies, and not just on Brexit, to see what this means. How is this government going to act on housing? What is it going to do about education, wages and taxes? Is there actually going to be action against the corporate fat-cats and an end to the appearance of cronyism between the Tories, the bankers and the FTSE 100 directors? Some of her appointments, like the first Tory Education Minister seem to support the rhetoric. Some like her fiscal hawk of a chancellor seem directly at odds with it. Some like the absence of a specific minister for housing seem somewhat odd. But after such a massive upheaval of both personnel and rhetoric we can only play the waiting game. The next Queen's Speech, and the various policy announcements between now and then, will certainly be interesting.
Tuesday, July 12. 2016
In the UK, if we're interested in political news, we're watching with some kind of emotion, the potential disintegration of the Labour Party while we're listening the rumours that the Conservative Party might soon follow suit, although they've disappeared for a while under the more recent news of our new glorious leader (more on her when we know the shape of the new cabinet). While this would be a massive restructuring of Britain's political landscape - terms like earthquake really wouldn't do it justice - all the blood being spilt is metaphorical, or measured only in terms of people's political careers and ambitions at the moment. (Yes, Jo Cox was murdered during the referendum campaign and her death was intimately linked to that campaign. That was tragic but, however brutal it may seem, this is the next phase of political life, even though it is directly linked to it.)
While that is obviously of interest to us here, the US is facing a much more serious fracturing of its society into a tribe of Black, a tribe in Blue, and probably some others as these two fight it out too. We have had two more African Americans shot by police officers, one of them while reaching into his pocket apparently to get his license (please see below for an update on this) as instructed by the officer who shot him. Then, in Dallas, five white police officers were shot in what appears to be direct retaliation for the cumulative impact of avoidable or innocent African-American deaths at the hands of the police.
The police in Dallas killed one of the snipers. At first glance that seems not unreasonable. Certainly if there was a sniper in the UK taking potshots at the police there's a pretty high chance he or she wouldn't get out of it alive. While the vast majority of our police aren't armed, every force has armed police available and they're trained like army snipers to shoot at the body which is effectively to shoot to kill if they have to shoot. However, it emerged on the news in the UK today (it may well have been on the news in the US for longer) that the Dallas police used a robot to deliver an explosive device to the sniper and blow him up. Things like that disturb me on the battlefield. That a police department can deploy it as a matter of routine seems really wrong at all kinds of levels to me.
While I respect the right of those in Blue to mourn those who were shot - and from what I know of it shot simply for doing their duty without any discrimination or abuse of their authority - overall the police have lost the trust of a really significant proportion of the US population. This isn't a case of not trusting the police not to harass you and abuse their powers - a situation a fair proportion of people in the UK find themselves in even if they in general support the police - this is a case of not trusting the police not to shoot you simply because you're Black. People are being seriously advised if you're stopped by the police start filming yourself with your phone and share the film live so there's a record of what happens. That reveals an incredible level of distrust but, sadly, not an unreasonable one. Mourning your dead while refusing to acknowledge your failings, the all too regular actions of your tribe in wrongfully killing members of another, refusing to acknowledge their right to mourn and express their anger and then using, quite likely abusing, your authority to arrest and imprison them is just inflaming the situation. Refusing to acknowledge there really is a problem is making it explosive.
It is clear not all members of the police do this. There was an African-American identified as a likely shooter carrying, perfectly legally under Dallas' laws, an assault rifle in the streets on the day of the shooting. He survived the experience because whichever police officers saw him didn't just gun him down. On a day when tensions were running as high as they doubtless were that day part of me feels they probably deserve some credit - except they really shouldn't. Everyone in the world should expect the police NOT to shoot innocent people who aren't breaking the law, even in high stress situations and even if laws I think are stupid makes the police officers' jobs more complicated. We shouldn't have to give credit to the police for doing their job properly. It's a sign of how far it feels that the situation has deteriorated, even from here, that I feel inclined to do so.
I'm not going to pretend the police in America will ever root out every racist: between all the different police forces they employ far too many people and any process, even if universally applied, will be flawed. Human processes are. However, equally clearly, it is too permissive of racism at the moment, it can be and should improved and a root and branch reform is necessary. Of course, from where I sit, in a country with very low rates of gun crime and very high levels of gun control - inspired by the one incident of someone taking a gun into a school and shooting children we've ever had at which point the public and the politicians united to say "Never again!" and while it happened in living memory (Andy Murray, the tennis player, was in the school when it happened) it has never happened again here - it's equally simple for me to say "The US needs to change it's gun control laws," and that doesn't seem likely. Reforming the police seems like it should be easier to be honest, there's no second amendment in the way for one thing. But in America, who can tell?
I've already commented I think that the police having technologies I consider dubious on the battlefield as part of their regular capability is also questionable. It seems to me that there needs to not only be a root and branch reform of the recruitment policies but the training and deployment and the roles of the police. It seems as if there is an attitude that criminals are the enemy and to be killed and the public are a nuisance that get in the way, possibly even potential criminals. A healthier, for society, attitude might be that criminals are to be arrested, brought to justice and, except in the most extreme circumstances, rehabilitated back into society and the public are there, not quite as shown on every TV show, to be served and protected (note the different word order, it matters). That us vs them and kill them all mindset, if mixed with any racism at all, would certainly explain why a subset of the police seem happy to keep killing people that they don't like and the rest of the police don't do anything about it.
But it is clear that the system in America desperately needs to change and if it doesn't the streets are going to continue to run red with blood and it won't be just the blood of the African Americans shot by the police any longer. While there may or may not be an earthquake coming in British politics, if there isn't a massive reform in the American institutions of power there just may be another revolution.
While I relayed what I'd heard in the news, that one of the shootings was a young African-American reaching into his pocket for his license as instructed, in America it's being reported that he had actually informed the police officer he was armed and had a concealed carry permit. He was reaching for his permit as instructed. To my mind that makes it worse because it clearly suggests the situation was calm and the officer should not have been alarmed when he saw a gun. So why on Earth did he go from that to shooting the victim?
Monday, June 27. 2016
Saturday, officially, but later for me thanks to TiVo and recovering from my migraine, saw the final round of June tests.
The All-Blacks made sweeping changes and, as was entirely predictable, they all looked comfortable. In the second half, with substitutes, they basically had an all new back line and stretched their lead even more. Yet again Beauden Barrett ran the backs in a more creative fashion than Aaron Cruden has managed. His extra ability to attack the line as well as do the things Cruden does well to the same degree add an extra dimension. Sopoanga looked brighter than Cruden too, in his short time on the pitch. Wales, on the other hand, looked fatigued and bruised. Not all of them, but it was the same few heads that were held high come the end of the game and too many of those who had merely decent matches had a fairly anonymous one in this match. Give it a month, and some reflection, and Hansen will continue to be delighted. New Zealand look strong despite all those caps, all that experience, disappearing. Yes, they have questions to be answered about their best players in a few positions and their best combinations but this is always the headache when you're the All Blacks coach. Despite a poor last test, Gatland will also be happy. He's the likeliest candidate for Lions' coach next year and he's seen the All Blacks up close and personal. He's also seen his team go to New Zealand and perform in the toughest environment in the world. They didn't win, but several of them stood up and made a good impression against some of the best players in the world. Others, however disappointed they may feel, and I may feel about them right now, have shown distinct signs of improvement over the course of the tour and Wales' new attacking plan has shown strong signs of bearing fruit. It can fall apart under the pressure that the All Blacks can put it under but can anyone else apply that level of defensive pressure and that level of counterattacking precision?
Then, in a high-scoring, pulsating, lead-switching match, England completed their sweep of Australia. Foley, with a playmaker outside him in the New Zealand first and second five-eighth mould, suddenly looked like the Foley of the RWC. Folau was suddenly brought into play, both close and out wide and was dangerous. And England's strangling defence was breached for 40 points. However, some of the changes Australia made didn't work as well and Australia's defence wasn't as good as it had been (although their scrum was better) and England's previously lacklustre attack was allowed space and time that had been previously lacking and racked up 44 points. I realise it is common for me to be critical of the English but I don't think an unchanged England side can change from being largely unable to attack to scoring 44 points in a vacuum. Australia lost Fardy to injury and lost two fairly mobile locks who, while not in Itoje's class, contribute at the breakdown, to two big lumps who shored up the scrum but cost them at the breakdown. England got fast ball more consistently and the still mediocre attack could work that much better. Cheika has headaches, big headaches. Jones will be happy with the 3-0 series victory but he has to create a genuine attacking threat and faster ball from the breakdown still.
Finally Ireland lost to South Africa. This was a tense, close match. First, I think Le Roux was lucky to only get a yellow and I notice he's been cited, so it will be looked at again. However, while I think he was lucky at the same time I don't think it was a terrible decision. Rugby has a lot of blurry lines around dangerous tackles in the air and I think Le Roux's tackle was just over the line into a red card but still in the blurry zone and I can understand a referee (who is much more expert in these matters than me) making a different decision. After that, the match played out rather like a reverse of last week's. South Africa pretty much carried on from where they'd left off, then Ireland tried to fight back. But South Africa proved sufficiently resilient and Ireland's core skills deserted them at critical times and South Africa held on for the win. South Africa have reverted to the big, bish-bosh tactics, which will not scare New Zealand or Australia (although Australia have their own problems of course). Ireland still need a good alternate game plan to kicking the ball and relying on field position to do the work for them. As soon as the Boks tightened up their ability to retain the ball, they started to win the games. Against Wales, England, Australia and particularly New Zealand, but also against Scotland in decent weather and France, and in a RWC against Fiji, Samoa and more, they will struggle with this game plan.
I know the IRB world rankings say different things but following this round of tests I think it's clear New Zealand are still clearly on top of the world. Then I think there's a hard to tell group between England, Wales and possibly South Africa. Injuries, home field advantage and the like are likely to be the determining factor in who wins these clashes. South Africa might dangle off this group, losing regularly to them but regularly beating everyone in the next group down. Australia, with Pocock and Fardy and a good playmaker at 12 could climb back into contact with that group but at the moment they're in a group with Ireland, probably Argentina, France at their best, Scotland at their best. I say probably Argentina because the Argentina we've seen over the summer (or not seen actually) is not the Argentina we'll see in The Rugby Championship, and certainly not the Argentina we'll see come the next RWC in Japan. They could move up in the England, Wales and South Africa group. Then, under that, it gets messy. Italy, Georgia, Scotland at their worst and so on start being in the mix.
Last thoughts. I read a piece that suggested England are two years behind New Zealand. I disagree. Thinking you can coach your players to improve their skills and catch up to New Zealand makes the fatal mistake of assuming New Zealand won't change and improve. I don't know what the starting 10, 12, 13 combination will be for New Zealand in two years time but I'd guess at Barrett, SBW and Fekitoa. How much better will they be when Smith and Barrett have about 30 more games together to hone their understanding? When Barrett, Williams and Fekitoa have 30 games together as the All Blacks midfield to get both their defensive and attacking alignments perfected? And the All Blacks back three have an embarrassment of Savea, Smith, Dagg, Naholo and when he recovers from injury Milner-Skudder to squeeze in. That's five genuinely world class players who could all get into pretty much any team in the world and they've only got three places for them! In the mean time, when everyone else is wondering who the back-ups are in various positions following retirements, New Zealand are already blooding their third and fourth choice players in the front row so when injury strikes they've got some experience on the biggest stage.
Sunday, June 26. 2016
I managed to vote on Thursday, just. I got home and fell into bed with a migraine that gave me phantom smells (my last warning sign) as I was putting my X in the box but held off long enough that I made it home with much squinting. I'm pretty sure it's the only time in my life I've waited for the polling station to open to cast my vote. I did make it home safely and rolled into bed and wished the world would go away.
36 hours later, give or take, I woke up to the news that my country is 52% racist, gullible or stupid beyond belief and we've voted for Brexit. To those who say there aren't that many racist voters, I ask you to look at the reports in the upsurge in racial hate crimes in the UK in the last three days. The only Leave voters I feel any sympathy for are those who looked at Vote Remain's Project Fear and doubted anything could get worse for them after 6 years of Austerity Budgets and so voted in protest against Cameron and Osborne. I wish they hadn't while I sympathise with their urge to do so.
Speaking of our glorious leader, I also woke up to the news he has decided to throw in the towel early and although we don't know who his replacement will be, we're faced with either a mop in a suit who has spent the last eight weeks baldly lying to us in ways far beyond those that politicians usually dare to try, or Teresa "Big Brother" May who mouths off about democracy but wants to institute secret police powers that would make the Stasi have wet dreams. Joy.
When I have a really bad migraine, and my skin is super-sensitised and I can't bear anything touching it, I sometimes wish I were dead (not in the sense of wanting to commit suicide just dead so it stops hurting). I always wish the world would go away and stop being so bright and noisy. This is the first time I've got the end of a migraine and wished I was back in it and the world would go away again and change it's mind.
Vote Leave are rapidly retracting their lies, particularly about the £350m/week that we never sent to the EU but they kept saying we did. But it's too fucking late now. They've won and it's clear they don't have a clue about what to do with it. Callmedave's resignation without triggering Article 50 has left BoJo, assuming he takes over, on the horns of a trilemma. He can either invoke Article 50, watch all those economist's forecasts he and the poison gnome told us were lies come true and be a short run PM even more reviled than Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He can try to wriggle out of invoking Article 50 and watch his parliamentary party explode and then his support at the polls rupture. Or he can realise it's a trap and not take up the mantle and watch his career implode. The gnome has neatly sidestepped this, being faster on his feet than BoJo, stepping aside to leave Boris in the
Almost 12 years ago today I should have been flying to New Zealand. In about 3 weeks time, 12 years ago I joined Second Life on the day I should have been starting a new life in the antipodes but couldn't because someone had messed up my paperwork. SL has brought me many fine things but I find myself for the first time in a long, long time wishing my paperwork had gone through and I hadn't found SL. I would have some major regrets, skills I've learnt, things I've learnt about myself, friends I've made and in particular my partner who I met through SL. But just today I find myself wishing my paperwork hadn't got messed up and I was a Kiwi.
For those that are too stupid to do the maths, I'm not a whining millennial, I'm in my 50's. I'm old enough I'm in a minority of my age group to have voted Remain, although when you take my education into account that flips over. And I'm ashamed of the selfish, the stupid, the Little Englanders, and the Racists that have won the day. I think it might be too old for me to emigrate but I'm seriously thinking about it once again, we are I mean.
Wednesday, June 22. 2016
Tomorrow is, finally, the big day. All the mud slinging and the "Blue on Blue" action in public will come to an end, although after the result is in, whatever the result, I think it's a pretty sure bet there will be blood-stained blue suits and ties by the end of June. Precisely which suits and ties will be covered in the metaphorical blood of their political careers will depend on the result of course.
While this is, to coin a phrase, a generational choice and I am, finally, interested again having been numbed by the campaigns because I believe the result matters, I am genuinely as interested in the size of the result and the opinion polls.
I have a feeling, a feeling I'm prepared to put into words in advance, that that pollsters are going to have another bad day. The polls are saying it's neck and neck, roughly 45% each - although with the proviso that there are still about 10% undecided. (The exact numbers depend on the precise poll but that's a pretty decent summary.) They'll go for 50% ± 3% as their result: too close to call. But, if we look at the bookies, the odds are 2:1 on for Remain, pretty much across the board, and somewhere around the flip of that (with a profit margin obviously) at about 1.5:1 for Brexit. Split the difference, call it 1.75:1 and I'd guess we'll see a Remain vote of about 64%.
Now, people who bet are not necessarily a representative sample. They self-select, a large bet carries more weight than a small one and so on. But people are honest to their bookies: who bets on a result they're not going to vote for? And the sample size is much larger than any opinion poll. Using this system has at least one other problem: Islam strongly disapproves of gambling, so the Muslim vote is going to be really under-represented. But despite what the Daily Mail would have you believe, British Muslims are still a very small proportion of the population at less than 5%. Because of these things, I'm going to give myself bigger error bars than the pollsters, and arbitrarily set them at 6%, twice the size of the pollsters (they use 3% for defensible reasons, my 6% is arbitrary), giving us between 58% and 70%.
I think the pollsters are failing to actually penetrate and reflect the British electorate. They did it at the general election last year with an outcome that we all know all too well. But looking at the bookies odds for this election there's a clear prediction that's distinct from the pollsters, even if it has arbitrary error bars. If the result is close to 50-50 (up to 53/47) then the pollsters will say it's within their error and the one-off nature of the referendum has given them a decent result. I will agree. If it's between 53% Remain and 58% Remain I'll stop and listen to the pollster's excuses. If we're over that, then I'll reiterate my opinion that the pollsters are losing touch, at least in political terms. For market research it's possibly different but for whatever reason their ability to connect to us as a political nation is fundamentally broken.
Sunday, June 19. 2016
I didn't get to post predictions this week as other things conspired to get in the way. However, I did get to watch the matches.
New Zealand improved, as everyone expected, but so did Wales. New Zealand are still irresistible at times and the team in the world to beat. They're not as good as they were winning the RWC last year but the dip in their form is small and is more about building understanding and new partnerships than anything more dramatic. They do have some questions to answer as they move forward. While I'm happy to hear Cruden's injury (purely accidental) is not too serious the All Blacks sparked to brighter play with Barrett rather than Cruden on the field. Should they move to him as their starter rather than a super-sub (although Barrett can cover a lot of the back line positions as a sub so he's an excellent choice as a super-sub)? Should they consider Sopoanga or even Mo'anga as the starting 10 next week? They also have a hard choice between Cane and Ardie Savea. They bring different things to the game but the younger Savea adds appreciably more than Cane in my opinion. Although Wales were comfortably beaten, they never gave up, and instead of the game getting away from them, they came back and scored two tries towards the end of the game. There are lessons Wales still need to learn - there are lessons everyone needs to learn from the All Blacks - but Wales are improving on this tour. Wales in particular need to improve their 5 metre attack efficiency and their support of breakaway attacks. The try Jonathan Davis scored relied too much on the fact Jamie Roberts is huge and strong and didn't go to ground for long enough to off-load to the only supporting player who was too far behind him. The All Blacks never have that situation unless it's a player bursting through in a half-break. Anyone more than about 5 metres behind the line has a choice on both sides in close support and once they more than about 10 metres behind the line they have a range of options for close and longer passes to really confound the remaining defence.
Then England beat Australia. There is no doubt this England side have improved under Jones. Their defence in particular is much better. In attack, I'm less sure. It's strong in flashes but against an organised defence or a side that slows the ball effectively they look staid, as they did this weekend. They looked better last weekend when Haskell had the match of his life and Barnes had a more Northern Hemisphere interpretation of the breakdown to whistle Pocock and Hooper away a lot. This week, although Haskell was still good he wasn't playing to that sublime standard (which isn't a criticism, last week was probably the best game of his career and no one backs up to the same level, however much they strive to) and Joubert looked more favourably on Macmannon and Hooper at the breakdown and England's attack looked quite ordinary. Not a coincidence. While England's defence has definitely improved, Australia look like a shadow of their team from last October. Where where their imaginative attacking lines? Their ball control? Yes, there were times that the rub of the green (and the referee's decisions) went against them - England were lucky to escape at least two, if not three, yellow cards IMO - but Australia still lined up to attack and ran straight lines almost every time which made numbering up and defending a relatively easy task albeit one that England kept lining up to do through phase after phase until Australia made a mistake.
If these two tours had been reversed, with England in New Zealand and Wales in Australia, I can't help thinking we'd be singing in the valleys and pondering the flash-in-the-pan nature of Eddie Jones' honeymoon period.
Finally South Africa beat Ireland. Given the way the match went, I can't help but agree with a summary I read that started with "Ireland lost thanks to the altitude". South Africa had improved in terms of their plan and their basic ideas since last week - or perhaps all the players were singing from the same hymn sheet - but one of the basic skills - ball retention - was still terrible. I didn't see a final figure for the number of times they spilled the ball but it was in the high teens by the end of the first half! Now, I've seen matches played in pouring rain and mud for pitches where a hippopotamus would love to wallow (and I wasn't sure the hippos wouldn't drown, let along the players) with those sorts of numbers for knock ons and felt sorry for the players - but the knock ons were more or less equal because it was down to the conditions and everyone knew it was going to happen. I don't know if the Ireland equipment coach swapped the glue for oil in the South Africa dressing room but Ireland hardly dropped the ball, South Africa could hardly keep hold of it! But, as time and altitude wore on, the Irish got tired, slid off tackles and the Boks had improved enough they were close and then scored enough late tries to steal the game.
For the best of reasons Hansen et al can seriously start to look ahead to The Rugby Championship, even though they'll be urging their players to focus on Wales in the Forsyth-Barr Stadium next weekend and they will doubtless put the time and effort into coaching them for that. I wouldn't be surprised to see some All Black rotation though, certainly in the pack, to blood new players with starting the game and maybe a bolter or even two on the subs bench. The All Blacks midfield is too new to tinker there, especially if Cruden is still out and they'll be starting a new player in the 10 shirt. That probably keeps Aaron Smith in his starting shirt - if Cruden had been fit, running out Peranara and having a new scrum half as a sub (perhaps Weber or Pulu from the Chiefs) might have been on the cards too. The All Blacks coaches will see nothing to worry them across the ditch, nor on the high veldt at the moment but they will have one eye on longer term development anyway. Cheika and Coetzee must still look much closer to home. I'm not really sure Cheika has a huge range of other options available. As I commented in my first post on these tours, Australia's Super Rugby teams are doing poorly while their star players are generally standing up and being counted. They're failing to be counted in the Green and Gold somewhat but there aren't a whole lot of other players to choose. Coetzee does have more choices but after smuggling a win he will think he can improve the ball retention which was really what was at fault and the plan will start to come good. If South Africa had kept hold of the ball more, it should have been a 20+ point margin to South Africa so there's probably not a lot of need to tinker.
Gatland I think will not be disheartened, unless Wales get thumped next week. Losing 3-0 to New Zealand in New Zealand was always likely and everyone in the world knew it. But the team has improved, even the senior players are showing distinct signs of improvement. Even if England lose next week (and I don't think they will now) Jones will be delighted. Success in sport often builds on success, and although the England team will now disperse until November, he's got a successful tour of Australia under the belt to build on. Schmidt, win or lose will be happy that his team has found some leaders. He'll be delighted if they win of course, but Ireland have made progress on this tour whatever the eventual outcome.
Sunday, June 12. 2016
Fortunately for Wales Wayne Barnes blew a big, albeit not critical this time, call, yet again, and disallowed a try that kept them within 20. However, as I said in my predictions, being within 20 would be a positive for Wales and as anyone who watched the match would tell you this was a great game and Wales thoroughly deserved their lead at half-time. In fact, from the way the two sides played, I would say the margin of victory flattered the All Blacks, and the 11 point margin it would have been without the last minute try would have been a fairer reflection of the match - and appreciably better than I predicted.
Both sides will take positives from this match, as well as having things to improve. Wales proved they can play against the All Blacks and score and lead against the All Blacks. They need to improve their line out, and as always their last 20 minutes and their attack from set piece near the try line is suspect. But, despite the scoreline their defence is good, their scrum is good and their breakdown is on a par with the All Blacks throughout the match, all of which is excellent news. The new-look All Blacks do most of the things you'd expect but with the new back line they are defensively more frail (not that surprising, it's the first time this back line has played together, the systems and communication won't be second nature yet) but, worryingly for the rest of the world although they might currently give up 7-10 more points than you'd expect, they also create 10-14 more points than you might expect. The chances are, assuming this is basically the settled team going forward barring injuries (and perhaps Cruden swapping out if his goal kicking doesn't improve) that defence will improve as they get used to playing together and perhaps they'll be 3-7 points worse than Carter, Nonu, Smith et al. but if they stay 10-14 points better in attack they'll still be a lot harder to beat. For anyone that wondered why I picked Falatau over Vunipola at 8 in my Six Nations team of the tournament, you should watch this match. He carried tirelessly, he tackled tirelessly, he turned the ball over, he was efficient at many aspects of the line-out. But, when Wales were in trouble after a quick line-out throw he tracked back on the far side of the pitch some large number of metres at speed to offer an outlet option and trucked the ball up, beating several players before setting up a ruck that Wales won: turning potential disaster into success. Then, in the last couple of minutes he had the energy to chase a kick 50 metres to score a try. Yes, he was offside and it was rightly disallowed, but he was still the first player there, beating out the All Blacks backs over that distance. His all-round play was fantastic.
England v Australia was a game of two parts really, not quite two halves. The turning point was the substitution of Burrell by Ford and the reshuffling of the England backs. Whoever thinks coaches don't have an impact needs to watch this game. Australia had been rampant and while England were starting to claw their way back into the match, Australia's attack still looked unstoppable. Suddenly a notionally weaker defender strengthened England's overall defensive system as everyone played the system fully. Based on that, England gradually grew in confidence and gained the upper hand in other facets of their game. particularly the scrum and to a lesser extent the line-out. However, Australia, despite losing ground and not looking able to penetrate offensively for large parts of the game were never really out of it until the last minute and England certainly need the creativity that Ford brings as well as the increased stability that Farrell at 12 offers to their defensive systems. Interesting times ahead here.
South Africa v Ireland should have been a one-way contest from about the 23rd minute but the sending off of Stander seemed to have less impact on Ireland than the loss of Lambie did on South Africa. Normally slow motion makes a hit look worse, in this case, in slow motion I was thinking that's probably yellow, at full speed I full concurred with the referee's decision to go red: it looked a lot less like an attempt at a charge down, a lot more like an attempt to take Lambie out. But South Africa just lost their way when they lost their play maker while Ireland's leaders I wasn't sure were there stepped up and were counted all over the park. If I'd been more prescient in my predictions, rather than commenting (accurately) on how New Zealand's sides all play in the same way I would instead have commented on the fact that the Lions (the South African Super Rugby franchise, not the British and Irish touring side), for all they are doing magnificently in Super Rugby, do not play like the Springboks and Elton Jantjes, the Lions' fly-half, is an odd replacement for Patrick Lambie. So it proved, to Ireland's delight. If the Springboks want to commit to a new style of play, which is the way they are talking, they need more new players, not fewer and to actually play differently. That looked more like a Bulls side with a Lions fly-half, not a marriage made in heaven. That should not be taken as criticism of Jantjes: the Lions have beaten the Bulls in Pretoria this season, so a new style of play can work in South Africa and could work for South Africa. But it needs the right personnel.
I didn't see the Argentina v Italy match. I'm pleased to see Italy scored some points at least.
Thursday, June 9. 2016
In 1976 US TV viewers, well some subset of them, watched something startling. For the first time a woman character unequivocally had sexual feelings for another woman. Julie's love interest had just realised she was returned these feelings, had walked into traffic and Julie ran after her only to be run over. In this single action Julie became the mother of not one but two rather invidious TV Tropes.
Before I discuss them, I have to say I find 1976 quite late for this. But when I was trying to verify it, it turns out this was on an imported show and it was 15 years later that US TV would have it's first canonical non-hetrosexual female character in a home-grown show, a bisexual lawyer in LA Law, although Prisoner Cell Block H had had it's share of lesbian characters over the years before that on broadcast TV in the States. I'm sure someone knows the date of the first lesbian characters on UK TV but the one that's seared on the public's consciousness is Brookside in 1994 with the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss - the first time it was broadcast in a show that children (although not really very young ones) could reasonably expect to watch, however, one of the US deaths is in Casualty which is, or was back then, imported from the UK, in 1987.
The first trope that developed and that was back-dated to her death was the Dead/Evil Lesbian. Basically this trope states that lesbians and, specifically lesbian couples, can never find happiness and always meet tragic ends. One of the most repeated scenarios is that one lesbian dies horribly and her lover goes crazy-evil, killing others and sometimes ultimately herself. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, in the scene in which Tara gets shot completely by accident, which prompts Willow to turn evil and nearly break the world while they're getting shot after make-up sex is the epitome of this (if you want the full breakdown you should read the linked article).
However, time, and the representation of LGBT people in the media has changed and while the Dead/Evil Lesbian still pertains too often, there is a more general trope that has replaced it: Bury Your Gays which doesn't have the evil option and tends to count the death of all LGBT characters regardless, whereas the Dead/Evil Lesbians tied their death (or transformation to evil) to their sexuality specifically. For example, Delphine Cormier, in Orphan Black is counted in Bury Your Gays because she's a bisexual character who is apparently killed (although SPOILER ALERT now she may not be dead!) but is not a Dead/Evil Lesbian because her death is tied to her job and her political missteps there (her previous, male, boss was also hounded out would have been killed for the same thing - glad I don't work there! - in an Anyone Can Die environment) rather than her sexuality. (He ended up dead in a somewhat shocking scene while on the run and his death that has led to a number of great comedy scenes in later episodes.)
Why does all of this matter?
Well the good people at Autostraddle compiled a list of all the dead lesbian and bisexual characters on US TV. Sadly, depending on when you look, it's probably incomplete - 2015-16 has been brutal and the last time I checked the list it ended with Mayfair from Blindspot but there's at least one more character to add already and there's like to be at least one more in the next few weeks. One quick bit of analysis from their list, 16 characters have died in 2016 on that list - incomplete though it already is. It took 22 years for the first 16 characters on the list to appear. So in that sense there is a lot more representation recently.
However, there is also an infographic regarding all these deaths. A few things leap out from the morass of information there. 1/3 of all the shows that feature a lesbian or bisexual character kill them off - that seems incredibly high compared to all the shows out there. You don't expect 1/3 of women characters on TV where you know they are heterosexual to die for example. Now, you can argue that shows that canonically depict lesbians in the US might skew adult. There was quite a lot of hot air but very low numbers of actual complaints about the lesbian interracial kiss on Doctor Who, a children's show in the UK, which Ofcom just dismissed out of hand. In the US that might not be the same. And, of course, that's a single data point. However, of those shows where such a death occurs, only half also have the Anyone Can Die trope in effect and they kill the lesbian/bisexual character 3x more (35 to 12) often than a male character of equivalent weight. Likewise lesbian/bisexual characters are more than 3x (31% to 10%) more likely to die than have a happy ending.
Now, of course, just totting up those sorts of numbers doesn't appease everyone. They will point to characters - and I freely admit they do exist: however painful Root's death is, it's 100% appropriate for her - where it is the right narrative move for that character's arc. There are times where it might not be the only narrative move but it is certainly an acceptable one despite the Dead/Evil Lesbian and Bury Your Gays stigma that is hanging over it. But there are far, far more where some scriptwriter or team of scriptwriters has gone through and clearly said "WTH, lets make her a lesbian too" for no good reason other than it signals how evil she is or that's she's going to die or both. Almost all the female characters in Blindspot, for example, are morally ambiguous at best (there's another bad trope for you) while two of the men are pretty much pure-as-the-driven-snow, in particular the white man (hey look, another lazy trope). But the one who is so bad she certainly deserves a trial, maybe imprisonment, and in this show gets death is randomly made a lesbian - and a very token one at that. If the show wanted a token lesbian the character who deserves to be sacked for gambling (which you may think is evil or immoral but is really not up there in the Dead/Evil Lesbian stakes which require going on a killing spree) would be just as token and not trigger Bury Your Gays. (Something makes me think, although Blindspot made good braindead TV, I won't be watching next year now I've engaged my brain a little. It was fun because it burnt plot at an incredible rate but it did it by being very, very lazy in many other respects.)
Now I'm not, and never have been a big fan of direct causality between a specific media/video game portrayal and how we act or behave. I've never seen evidence that clearly supports it. I don't believe playing Grand Theft Auto V or whatever makes you violent, or more likely to be a criminal (I should say I've not played the game I'm basing the claims I don't believe on it's name and a few press reports and publicity shots). I don't think playing Call of Duty makes you more likely to join the armed forces. And so on.
But here we're not talking about a single portrayal. US TV shows kill more than 30% of their lesbian and bisexual woman while only 10% get a happy ending. Most of the rest just disappear without trace for various reasons, mostly because they're minor characters whose stories aren't followed to completion - which happens to characters of all sexualities and that's OK. Vastra and Jenny, from Doctor Who may never appear again because the show-runners decide not to bring them back. It would be a shame because they're fun but they are a minor part of a huge canon and these things happen. But if they never bring back the Ice Warriors say, or the other Silurians, then those things happen too. And unlike a lot of shows, Doctor Who has showed a happy, lesbian couple over a number of episodes.
However, what kind of message does this 3x more likely to die than have a happy ending send to people in America and people that consume their TV shows? It's not just one lesbian couple you see, it's lots and lots of them. How would you feel if you were young woman, going through puberty and suddenly realising you weren't like the other girls - you were into the other girls instead? And then everywhere you look on the TV, when you can actually find a show that shows someone like you, boom, they die? How would you feel as a parent of a young lesbian (assuming you didn't just throw her out because your preacher told you to) when you saw those same shows? Sure, they're dramas, you tell yourself it's not like that in reality, but when it's time after time after time? The suicide and self-harm statistics for LGBT teens are terribly, frighteningly high. As are the numbers for violent crime against them. Again, I'm not drawing a direct causal link here but I can't help but wonder given the prevalence of these tropes on the TV just how much that contributes to these statistics. Even if you're older when you realise your sexuality it's not good, although the suicide and self-harm numbers are lower, thankfully.
Ultimately writers should be free to write whatever they want, within the guidelines of the broadcast laws. But the TV industry in the US needs to stop and look at itself. I think it needs a moratorium on writing dead lesbian and bisexual characters for at least two years - yes even the well written and deserved ones - so they get out of the habit of just doing it all the time. There are lots of other things you can do, writers do it all the time for other sorts of characters after all! Let the tropes fade away into history and give some hope to lesbians and bisexual women, especially the young ones. It will also get them to stretch their creative muscles a little - it's part of what they're paid for after all!
Thursday, June 9. 2016
This weekend sees the first of the June tests, where the big beasts - the teams that finished first to fourth in the Rugby World Cup - unleash their new look test teams for the first time since then.
New Zealand, shorn of McCaw, Carter, Nonu and Conrad Smith, and to a lesser extent Mealamu who was past his prime but still excellent from the subs bench face Wales. Then Australia, missing several of their key RWC components face an England who seemed rampant in the Six Nations and under Eddie Jones. Then South Africa, again missing many big names for various reasons, face an equally depleted Ireland. Finally Argentina, depleted through both retirement and not picking players in Europe, face Italy.
In chronological order, both Wales and New Zealand seem weaker than in October. In Wales' case that's primarily through injury. New Zealand are missing Nene Milder-Skudder through injury but the real focus is on the mid-field line up of Cruden-Crotty-Fekitoa which looks relatively young, fresh and unused to each other. For the first time in a long time, the opposition centres will have a more established partnership than the All Blacks, in fact I think they'll have played together more often than their opponent's total caps! But all these players have played together at the highest level and are tearing up Super Rugby for their franchises. And it's important to note, although there are small differences thanks to personnel essentially "New Zealand Rugby" is a brand that is played by the All Blacks, the Super Rugby franchises and the NPC franchises too - these players slot in and know the game plan and what's expected of them. The All Blacks do it faster, better and under more pressure and put extra frills in to put more pressure on their opponents but the new players are generally comfortable with the demands of the team and their role in it in a way that is not true for any other nation. Put Naholo, Savea and Ben Smith behind them and a pack which has basically swapped McCaw for his understudy and has no other changes and a 9 that Cruden has an established international partnership with and Wales are really going to struggle. Add in New Zealand's proud history at Eden Park and I'm afraid this is damage limitation for the men in red. If Wales turn up, they'll score and should be within 20 come the final whistle: that will be the mark of their success or failure, whatever the pre-match press conferences say.
Then the intriguing match. Have England really progressed as far as it seemed in March? Or was it the bounce of a poor RWC compared to a rather good RWC for Wales and the fatigue that seems to go with that, plus wanting to do well for the new coach? Touring Australia with fast, hard pitches, the heat and the high tempo game is not the same as playing in England in October, even in a mild October. It's certainly a huge difference to slogging through a Spring campaign in England, Scotland and France! Australia did well in England last October; I expect them to do even better at home despite the absence of Giteau et al. The Aussie franchises are not doing well in Super Rugby, but their star players are. Expect England's lack of a fetcher to be ruthlessly exploited again and while England may attempt to dominate in other facets of play, the green and gold tight five are no longer the push overs the one-eyed journalists in the Northern Hemisphere would have you believe. I can see this being within 10 and I wouldn't be shocked if England win this first test as Australia might be rusty but I'd be a bit surprised.
Ireland played poorly in the Six Nations and honestly I can't see them recovering. South Africa, however new their squad looks (and it really does) at home is always tough. The boys from the Emerald Isle are bereft of their leaders and talismans and the next generation have not stepped up to the mark. Some of that might legitimately be excused by key injuries but it is still more than a little worrying. You would hope this tour would start to make those new leaders appear and things might turn around for Ireland otherwise that golden generation will linger long in the memory. But leaders emerging touring South Africa does not make for a winning tour, or even winning any matches. South Africa by over 25.
Then the one that is even easier than New Zealand v Wales. I'm a Wales fan and I can't see them winning a match. Being within 20 would be a result tbh. But Wales will play and should score. Argentina are weaker than they were this time last year but Italy are dreadful. New coach Connor O'Shea has had next to time with a decimated, demoralised squad facing a team ranked 9 places above them. Ouch. The gap in their ranking points is the same as England to Georgia. That's not always a truly fair reflection on the team's merits but it's not a completely terrible one either. If you want to go by gap on the table positions, it's like Japan beating the All Blacks for Italy to be Argentina. Remember what a shock it was when Japan beat South Africa, just imagine if they'd beaten the All Blacks instead! Italy might genuinely score no points in this match. I don't know enough about Argentina to be 100% sure but it could be 40-0 kind of lop-sided.
So, there you go. Much though it pains me to say it, Australia v England should be the match of the day. New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina should all win comfortably, with at least two blowouts. England could stay close but I think Australia will win by at least 10.
Thursday, May 26. 2016
It is pretty clear my complaints about the EU debate have metaphorically fallen on deaf ears: I don't expect them to actually read my blog - they've been completely ignored in the grand strategies of the various sides of this Tory slugfest. So have the oft-repeated pleas for clear facts when the TV and radio do a vox pop. Actually, whether the member of the general public they speak to is pro-remain, pro-exit or, especially, undecided there is a very strong sense of dissatisfaction with the campaign and the lack of clear information to enable decision making.
I have to say, while some of the Remain forecasts I've found reasonably credible, some of them I've found bordering on risible. The overall impact, well to steal a name from the Brexit campaign, Project Fear works well. I'm starting to tune out the details to be honest because it's clear what the message is and it's not only unchanging, it's unrelenting.
However, the Leave campaigners still have to present a clear picture of what they're going to do. All we hear, or all I hear anyway and I listen to the news pretty much every day, is them saying "OMG, they're so wrong, they're biased," about anything produced by anyone that isn't whole-heartedly in favour of a Leave position. But they never articulate anything beyond 'it will all be wonderful if we leave.' To be honest, I've reached the point I listen mostly for the comedy histrionics. Yesterday's example, a simple meta-analysis from the IFS, has them accusing the body that, for everything else, is regarded as the gold standard for impartiality and integrity of being biased because some funding on other projects comes from the EU. Yeah, right. There was, later on a more rational argument that went "That is the wrong approach. They are not biased, they are a highly reputable organisation but they are not always right. In this instance, I happen to think they are wrong." But by then the damage was done - and to be honest, all the big names roll out the histrionics every time. It is the characteristic of the Leave campaign. When they're not doing that, it's that they been nobbled by Downing Street. That's not entirely true: BoJo proved Godwin's Law can extend to the real world too, and proved he's a racist Eton toff just for <sarcasm>light relief.</sarcasm>
I appreciate to some extent it's hard for the Remain campaign to articulate a clear picture because the picture is essentially "more of the same" but while there is a case to be made for saying 'these are the bad things about leaving' with less than a month to go no one seems at all inclined to add to that 'and these are the good things about staying,' beyond a leaflet that was printed and distributed so long ago practically everyone's forgotten it.
For the Leave campaign, it seems the opposite is true. They articulate all these terrible things that being in the EU does, which seems fair as a tactic. However, many of the things they raise are factually inaccurate or hot topics for a small number of people (mostly Tory backbenchers and UKIP activists it appears, even in the vox pops they're not often the issues that those intending to vote leave raise as their reasons). Then, when asked what their vision of the future is, they promise smoke and mirrors. I'm not talking the normal political doublespeak. For example, in this campaign they won't say where they'll spend the money they say they're saving from not contributing to the EU. Why? Because they know they can't commit it because they'll likely have to spend it and more in the trade agreements because the rebate their hero Maggie Thatcher negotiated will have gone. They say they'll magically create trade deals because everyone will want to have them but disregard how long negotiating these things actually takes and what will happen in the interim. (There is one economist who says get rid of them all, but doesn't count the cost of the massive change in the UK employment base that a load of other economists think would follow as significant as 'it's not long term'. He may be right but his definition is not more than 20 years!) There is literally no substance. Some of the people behind them have more substance and it includes things like "more free movement of labour" as a requirement to get the economy working post-Brexit which is anathema since immigration control is one of the hot topics and so it never gets spoken aloud - and will probably never get adopted either.
I came into this referendum with an opinion of how was I likely to vote. I was hoping for a campaign from both sides to inform my opinion. I feel horribly let down by both of them. I'm going to vote with my opinion unless in the next four weeks they suddenly change campaigns massively which seems about as likely as me winning big on my premium bonds (which I do have - I would have said winning the lottery, but I don't buy tickets).
What I do find interesting is a more recent development. It seems that the leave campaigners, at least those within the Conservative party, are readying for a loss. And they're signalling, win or lose, that Cameron's days could well be numbered. There are public voices (bloggers and the like rather than professional commentators) who believe this referendum is forcing even those of us who have never voted Conservative into a situation where we're effectively having a vote of confidence in Cameron's leadership of the Tory party. As you might guess, they're not happy about it. Unless the Remain vote wins by a huge margin - and the latest polls suggest that might happen as core demographics are starting to shift that way, but those same polls predicted a Lab/SNP alliance government not a Tory majority - it's possible there will be a leadership challenge anyway. Prime Minister May anyone?
Saturday, May 21. 2016
X-Men: Apocalypse is in my opinion by some distance the weakest of the new run of X-Men movies. However, it is also in my opinion by some distance better than Captain America: Civil War.
Part of this is my increasing perspective on Captain America: Civil War as basically a story about two privileged, powerful, white men having a pissing contest to see who is the best and trying to resolve it by having a fist fight. It's more complex than that, pulls all their friends in and demolishes an airport or two amongst other things but it's ultimately two guys smacking crap out of each because one wants more government regulation and the other is a Libertarian.
X-Men: Apocalypse doesn't pretend to get into deep story telling. If you've seen the trailer, or the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past you pretty much know the outline of the plot. Apocalypse, a really powerful mutant from ancient times, most recently ancient Egypt comes back to life in modern times (well the 1980's) and the X-Men unite to take him down. As far as plot goes that pretty much is it, so if you demand twisty plot you'll be disappointed. The complexity, such as it is, comes from character beats many of which require you to be at least passingly familiar with the franchise. That said, there are enough reminders of those earlier films to give you some nudges if, like me, you haven't watched them since you see them at the cinema, almost exactly two years ago in the case of Days of Future Past. Whether those character beats work for you will define a lot of the film's success away from the spectacle. For me they did, for my companions less so and so we have very different opinions of this movie.
One thing that didn't immediately bother me but has more and more as time has gone by is the appearance of Apocalypse himself. I wasn't that bothered at first because my reaction was tempered, I think, by too much Stargate. An Egyptian God (or someone pretending to be one) with high-tech armour and circuitry and so on makes sense for Stargate and is visually familiar territory for me. But, that's not Apocalypse's story - he's the first mutant (or one of the first) on Earth and should have technology suitable to the time. A quick google suggests he's pretty close to the original comics look and that predates Stargate (both the film and the TV series) but that still doesn't explain why he's wearing what looks like high-impact plastics and looks more like a cyborg than a mutant.
Although one thing that continues through this movie that we've seen in the earlier films of this franchise is the best of frenemies bromance between Professor X and Magneto. However Mystique has a really strong role in this movie and although I didn't like the retcon of her arc in the set of movies nor the Deus ex machina aspect of the ending, Jean Grey is a significant presence through the film and at the end too, albeit a lot of her presence has her playing the role of whiny teenager. That's not to say this film does well by all it's characters, of whom there are a barrel full. Young Storm and Nightcrawler at least get a solid few minutes each. Psylocke gets about 3 lines as Caliban's sidekick in one costume, changes boss and then becomes Apocalypse's sidekick where stands around looking like she's escaped from a latex fetishist's wet dream for the rest of the film. I don't think she says a thing so, if it wasn't for the dominant look that goes with the boots, sword and whip, she might as well have been wearing a gag too. Quicksilver gets two really solid sections and his big set piece is both pretty and funny as well as spectacular.
This film is decidedly flawed and the writing at the end felt lazy to all of us: we all had alternate endings to the showdown that we felt would have been at least as spectacular and had less of the Deus ex about them. But, unlike Captain America: Civil War I thought it had more spectacle and more fun. It might have had less ambition too but by and large it delivered what it was meant to deliver without the meanderings of its stable mate.
Bechdel test: Yes. There's a fairly short conversation but definitely several back-and-forth exchanges between Jean Grey and Mystique, talking about being afraid on missions. There are 12 named female characters and 18 named male characters (1 uncredited - Hugh Jackman if you can believe it). Of the female characters, I think Storm, Mystique, Jean and Moira all count as strongly drawn. We had enough about Storm to understand where she came from, why she acted as she did through the film and although she could have been as much of a silent, wicked side-kick as both Angel and Psylocke (they didn't only have women as a random voiceless objects of desire in 2016) she was drawn in enough detail we understood why she eventually joins the X-Men as, of course, we know she does. Mystique is, perhaps, harder because this is the third outing for Jennifer Lawrence's version and the ninth overall Mystique. However, and apologies for going back to Captain America: Civil War again, unlike that film they give her quite a chunk of time of doing things away from the X-Men on her own, they establish how the younger mutants look up to her as a hero and how she feels about that. Finally, very reminiscent of Katniss Everdeen, she has a war-leader role which she certainly doesn't want but she turns out to be rather good at. I've already commented on Jean Grey as much as I really can without spoilers. Moira comes back from the first of this reboot set of movies and we get to see her as older, having lived a life but still a trusted and competent, more experienced, CIA officer. Again she gets a pretty solid five-plus minutes of screen time to herself as well as explaining who Apocalypse is. She does get the inglorious 'get away' driver role at the end but as the only normal human in a fight of mutant super-powers that's not unreasonable.
Russo test: Perhaps surprisingly given how many other boxes they ticked here, no. Not in the slightest.
Wednesday, May 11. 2016
The real issue with this film is that there are (at least) three films squeezed into over two hours and really it leaves none of them working particularly well.
One of these films, and the one I think works best, is the showdown between the Avengers where the film forgets the rest of what's going on and lets loose with the action sequences between them. The quips, special effects and stunts fly and the spectacle level is high.
This element isn't perfect. There are issues with Vision and Scarlet Witch in particular because even through the course of this film their powers are odd: they fluctuate in strength, and in the case of Scarlet Witch in what they can actually do, quite dramatically to serve the needs of the plot. It's hard to get into specifics without spoilers, but it's hard to imagine with a variation of the power she uses at first how the airport fight continues without her just knocking everyone on the other side unconscious by sucking all the oxygen away from them. But that aside from the opening fight to the big set piece at the airport I found these scenes fun. The final showdown is less good - it's a Captain America film so a fight between Captain America and Iron Man can only have one outcome really, which kind of spoils the tension.
Another film, that is supposedly tied to the first, is basically Jason Bourne x Mission Impossible tries to bring down the Avengers, but it's mostly shot from the side of the Avengers. The problem for me with this section was that they tried to be clever about the villain's motives and overall plan. This can work well if you have an obvious foe - Bourne has "the government and the CIA" - and you follow the person who is trying to bring them down, or if you follow (however tenuously) some form of investigation - the MI and Bond films allegedly do this. The problem here is that the investigating force is mostly the Avengers but they're at war with themselves rather than really investigating (the villain phones in the clue that leads them to him, quite literally) and we never see enough of the villain and ultimately I didn't care about him. They tried really hard to tie him in to the story and the backstory and that part worked. I understood why he would do it but the big reveal was two hours too late for me, I was already bored by the nebbish character and his stupid, complicated plot.
The final film, that I'm not sure will ever really make a good film but might make a good arc in a TV show, is a musing on the ethics of Superhero activity. Are they vigilantes and criminals or forces for good? Should they follow their own conscience ("With great power comes great responsibility") or accept oversight for their actions, and allow others to say where and when they can act? Less well articulated, should they take a clear responsibility for the aftermath of their actions and help clear up the mess they leave behind? In terms of the verbal exchanges there were basically a couple of chances for the main proponents of the two stances to articulate their position and restate it and explain it when challenged. There were some subtler issues raised about an all-white, virtually all-American team zooming around the world and imposing their will on the non-white people of the world too. That was then flipped on it's head when Tony Stark put The Scarlet Witch under house arrest because "She's not American, I'm doing the best I can" despite the overwatch being from the UN not the USA. Splendid continuity. The reason I've said this makes up a whole film is that although verbally it's not that much, there are quite a few other scenes that play out that I think make it clear where the film expects your sympathies to lie. And, ultimately, it's clear that if you don't get them all, you can't keep them locked up. (If you think it's a spoiler that most of the Avengers don't exactly languish in prison, I'm sorry.)
This film is better than Avengers: Age of Ultron although it works for the opposite reasons. I'm sure it will do great box-office. The spectacle is good enough you probably want to see it on a big screen. This is a film that's better than meh. I'm going to reach for that ultimately damning accolade and say "It's ok." I feel like I should be more positive than this because I found airport scene lots of fun and the opening fight was pretty good too. But I find it hard to really be more glowing about a movie that's almost 2½ hours long on the strength of two scenes, however good they were.
Bechdel Test: No. There are several named women but there's no conversation between them. There's a tiny exchange between Black Widow and an unnamed female character but it's one line each and not a conversation, and they're not both named characters any way. This film does an incredible job of segregating its female characters, even those that ought to be able to chat to each other hardly share screen time. There are 6 named female characters (mostly operating independently of each other) and 18 named male characters. Of the named female characters it's an interesting point to consider which are strongly drawn. I'm going to say the only one that really counts is Miriam, the State Department HR worker who has a tiny role (certainly in terms of screen time) but quite a profound impact on Tony Stark. There's no real character work on any of the recurring characters (I will note that's pretty much true of the men, except Tony Stark, too). In some ways, as it's so even-handed, I'm pleased by that, this film is already way too bloated.
Russo Test: Again no. Not even a hint.
Tuesday, May 3. 2016
The Huntsman: Winter's War pulls the same trick that Snow White and the Huntsman pulled earlier (and Mad Max: Fury Road for that matter) and gave us a film where the obvious main character is, in essence, a supporting character in the movie.
It has to be said Chris Hemsworth as Eric, the titular huntsman, seems to content to sit back and let Emily Blunt as Freya, Jessica Chastain as Sara (his wife), and Charlize Theron (as Ravenna, the evil queen from Snow White) do a lot of the heavy work while his character is the thread that loosely binds the story into a coherent whole. Blunt and in particular Theron also excel at chewing the scenery and his understated performance, mixed with elements of humour at the right times when they're not around is certainly not out of place and probably helps make the film work as well as it does.
Where Snow White and the Huntsman advanced, and ultimately refuted, the concept that the only form of power for a woman is beauty, The Huntsman: Winter's War goes for more Fairy Tale classic: love conquers all. There is a plot that twists and turns suitably to be entertaining, although I was recovering from a migraine it wasn't complex enough to fool me, but it was still satisfying rather than just simple. There are definitely moments where it's far from clear that they're going to say yes, love conquers all at the end of the movie.
And in a film where it would be incredibly easy to have it dominated by men, this is a film predominantly about the women with the women making virtually all of the powerful choices and often taking any agency away from the men. Sometimes they take agency away from the other women too.
This is a thoroughly decent fantasy film and a fun film in it's own right. Its possible you need to well versed in your fantasy classics to really appreciate it. Forest goblins have never been so scary nor female dwarves quite so foul-mouthed.
In Snow White and the Huntsman part of the reason the huntsman stole the show was the unexpectedly dark character beats. Those have pretty much gone here, as Eric has found peace for his past. That's important because although the film appears to start as a prequel, there is a time-jump in the middle and we end up after the events of Snow White and the Huntsman and so we avoid any issues of being in a prequel and feeling "Oh, he's going to live" or "She's going to die" that could have dogged it.
And having said Eric has lost his personal demons is not to say there is not darkness but the character beats of darkness are shifted onto the female characters (who all deal with it admirably as you would expect with Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain picking it up) but there are also some really dark beats of the story itself when you stop to think about it - infanticide, child soldiers, torture and more - which are no worse than most fairy tales but there are some modern themes in the mix.
Bechdel test: Given Chris Hemsworth is the first named star he is in the film a lot, even though my review says he's the support to a lot of the story. But there are a number of scenes without him between Ravenna and Freya, Sara and Freya and Mrs. Bromwyn and Doreena (the dwarves) several of which pass the test. There are eight named women's roles and eight named men's roles. Of the eight named women's roles five are count as significant in my book (Freya, Ravenna, Sara, Mrs. Bromwyn and Doreena). The first three are certainly strongly drawn characters (Ravenna probably benefits from having backstory from the previous film and the original Snow White as she doesn't get a whole lot of time in this film but you know who she is and she is too significant and clear a character to say she isn't strongly drawn). Mrs. Bromwen and Doreena could be really light but they're partly, at least, there for comedy value without doing slapstick and stand-up, so they're fairly well rounded out so they can have character comedy moments that work.
Russo test: Not so much as a hint of it. This is a 12A action fest about someone trying to extinguish love and true love winning through. Apart from a joke about fancying dwarves, there's nothing to even hint outside heteronormativity here.
Overall I've come away overall much more impressed with this film than the original, although I think you might struggle to make sense of all of the beats without seeing Snow White and the Huntsman that film stays close enough to Snow White that you can work most of it out. Well worth your time if you're a fantasy fan and probably worth it if you're not
Wednesday, April 20. 2016
Although there is still far, far too long to go (just over nine weeks as I write, HELP!!!) the tone of the EU referendum debate seems clear.
The Remain campaign will put out statements which will be rubbished by the leave campaign. It doesn't matter what they say, they will be rubbished. Anyone who dares to speak in favour of staying in Europe will be called a hypocrite, a patsy or a fool.
The Leave campaign will say it's piece and there will be (another) dismissal of whatever the latest Remain statement is although with a lack of actual vision of what things will be like - there's plenty of what's currently wrong, less about what will be improved - mixed with, if we're charitably "politician statistics" and if we're not, lies.
One of the big ones, that keeps coming up, is "Every week, we send the EU £350M." No. The gross figure is £18.8B pa, or ~£360M/week, however, the Thatcher government negotiated a rebate so we only actually pay £14.4B pa or £277M/week. However, we directly get back just under £5B pa in direct payments administered by the government - under the common agricultural policy, support for poor regions etc. So the easiest net figure to calculate for 2014 (the last year for which there are complete figures) is £9.8B or £188.5M/week. (Source)
There is also money that doesn't flow directly through the government that we get from being in the EU. Universities and businesses get grants for research for example. The IFS, again for 2014, estimates this brings the UK's net contribution to the EU down to £5.7B pa or a bit under £110M/week.
Now, you can argue about the different net figures and whether they meet our spending priorities or not. But the gross figure you hear quoted of around £355M/week is absolutely, definitely, wrong. Thanks to the rebate, we send less than £280M/week. We get back to the government, unarguably, about £90M/week and in other grants, more arguably, about another £75-80M/week.
You may still think that's too much of course. But the Leave campaigners are lying about how much it costs - every single one I've heard. I'm sure the Remain folks are shading the truth too but they're being far more subtle about it than this.
Tuesday, March 22. 2016
First the matches.
Wales turned up and put on a show. Italy looked as miserable as they have for most of this tournament, certainly since injuries have forced their first choice 15 away from starting. There isn't much more to say about this. Wales played well and poor Parisse looked like he was carrying the whole team. In years gone by he's had a few others around him standing up and helping him but age and injuries have forced them aside (or in the case of Castrogiovanni weakened their impact) and he looked forlorn and like living proof that rugby is a team sport and one superstar cannot lift the whole team. At 32 I'm starting to wonder for how much longer he'll want to carry on doing this.
In Dublin, Scotland gave the appearance of believing in their own hype while Ireland were clearly willing to throw the kitchen sink at it and try to salvage something. Add in a couple of yellow cards (both deserved despite the commentators stupid thoughts, you would think they don't watch modern rugby from year to year) and Scotland really didn't deserve to win.
And in Paris, despite a brave and actually much improved performance from the French, England proved good enough. Not really good - perhaps that was a function of a couple of changes plus playing away from home but I think France are starting to click as well, I hope it doesn't go away now they're back to Top 14 duties.
Obviously Jones, Gatland and Schmidt will be various degrees of happy this week, probably in that order, but Noves should be happy because France have improved over the course of the Six Nations and genuinely gave England a match which many people wondered if they would be able to do. Cotter is probably tearing his hair out because Scotland are still really inconsistent. And Brunel is probably happy to be leaving Italy behind.
On to my team of the tournament. My normal rules are grand slam winners get a place unless there's a good reason not to, and ideally players who played all the matches and starters only get the nod.
Now, Marler didn't start all the matches which allows me not to select him. I'm going to take Sampson Lee over Marler as the only one of the people involved in that came out with any credit. Nel was also in the running but Scotland's scrum didn't dominate against England or Wales so he didn't make it for me, although in a Lions' squad he'd certainly be one of my props. Other than that my front row is lily-white, as are my locks. Guirado is the player who is probably unluckiest here, although the Welsh line-out operated best over the tournament and if AWJ had played all the matches he might have displaced Kruis.
At 6 Lydiate is probably the best blind-side but suffered with Wales' little experiment (Tipuric profited though, as we'll come to later). Stander and Robshaw are the two names of note left to consider. Stander had outstanding moments but Robshaw played consistently well so I'm giving him the nod.
At 7 I'm going to pick Tipuric over Haskell because Haskell doesn't play as a 7 and England relied on Itoje to get them turn-overs (he also gets the nod at Lock on the Grand Slam rule despite not starting all the matches). Barclay was in the running here but suffered with Scotland's poor finish. Tipuric gets to nod over Warburton because he played better than Warburton in the seven role when they both played.
Picking Tipuric lets me pick Faletau at 8 over Vunipola too for balance. These two had enormous tournaments but to my mind Faletau is a more complete 8, Vunipola is a great ball carrier but merely a good tackler and to my mind misses the other nuances of the position. Heaslip and Parisse were also in the running here.
At 9 I'm tempted by Connor Murray and Laidlaw. However, Webb and Youngs both outplayed both of them head-to-head and I'm going to pick Youngs on the Grand Slam rule.
At 10 I'm torn between Ford and Biggar. Ford should be up for this as the Grand Slam winner but I wouldn't pick Ford for my Lions squad - England's backs didn't fire often enough and he wasn't kicking the goals either - so, despite the Grand Slam rule, and because he just brings so much more to the table I'm going with Biggar. In the one game he didn't shine, the whole of the Welsh team failed to show up for 40+ minutes so it's not really fair to blame him (which didn't prevent the Welsh public from doing just that).
At 11 it's hard to ignore George North, with his tries in 4 consecutive matches feat, including against England.
In the 12 and 13 jerseys there's a case for quite a few players, certainly Roberts deserves a shout - some think he should be in the running for player of the tournament. However, the England centres, even though they lacked in making attacking opportunities, stifled everyone else thoroughly enough that, again, they won that grand slam. Of France's backs, Fofana is a quality player and although not many French backs shone, he did.
I'm picking Nowell at 14, he impressed me more than Watson. Watson looks like a good winger but Nowell has that X-factor and looks like he might score every time he touches the ball and looks sound in defence - both attractive qualities in a winger. Vakatawa is not yet the finished article but in patches he was brilliant too, and if he'd stayed in bounds more often he might have pushed Nowell out.
At 15 I wasn't impressed by Brown but I was impressed by Williams so I'm slipping him in at 15. Hogg was in the running here and is getting the shout from a lot of pundits. I was more impressed by Williams and I think Hogg stood out in part because he was sometimes Scotland's only potent threat in the back three, while Williams to my mind looked stronger in defence and potent in attack even with North's presence, which says something about his quality. Ireland will be happy with how Zebo played, and he is good but for me it was Williams and Hogg over the rest with Williams edging it.
Although this is a white and red team - not surprising if you look at the table where England and Wales were comfortably clear of the rest - because of the grand slam I didn't consider too hard for a lot of the positions if the England players had decent tournaments and the others didn't have an amazing one (like North). There are players of all nations (although I've mentioned the only Italian) who would have been considered had England not won the slam and many who I would pick ahead of their England counterparts if the Lions tour was this summer. But winning a grand slam has its rewards in my team of of the tournament too.
So my team sheet reads:
Itoje is my new player and North the player of the tournament for me.
Syndicate This Blog
Last entry: 2016-07-15 16:32
907 entries written
238 comments have been made