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.
Tuesday, March 15. 2016
First off, congratulations England. In a match that should have had all the players fired up, for some reason the Welsh players didn't really turn up until the second half, at least in attack. Some of that is down to the England's back defensive speed and aggression, some is down to passes and off-loads that in other matches have tended to go to hand suddenly going awry. In the last 20 minutes as England made changes and the other players got more fatigued the situation changed and Wales suddenly clicked into gear and made a game of it. But, as a Wales fan the overall performance by the team in red was disappointing in the extreme.
Ireland showed up and, in a parallel to the other Saturday match, Italy really didn't. Some of that might be down to a swathe of new caps for the team in blue but some seems to be down a repeat of what happened last time against Scotland. The Irish scored early and scored often and Italian hearts and effort sank. Happily when the subs came on for both sides, the Italian subs lifted Italy and Ireland were so far ahead they took their foot of the Italian throat and Italy scored two good tries. There is some hope there. I saw, but didn't read, a piece where Parese defends Italy's place in the Six Nations. I don't think they deserve to be kicked out automatically, but I do think there is a place for the bottom team of the Six Nations and the top team of the shadow Six Nations to play off (home and away in the summer maybe) and the winner to be in next year's top-flight, the loser in next year's shadow tournament. I might go further and say the bottom two of the main tournament and the top two of the shadow tournament but that's probably too hard, logistically. It's also tempting to say "Ireland have rediscovered their mojo" but if they lose next week to Scotland - and there's a real chance of that - they will be 5th in this year's championship, so it's too early to say that I think.
Finally Scotland v France. Scotland proved that beating Italy really did let them rediscover their mojo. France had significant periods of the match where they played with verve, flair and passion. They created opportunities and although they're not the finished product by any stretch of the imagination this was also a huge step up from any performance we've seen so far this year. That said, Scotland always looked to have the beating of them. If Scotland had started the Six Nations like this, they could well be looking at a Grand Slam instead of England.
Coaching thoughts. Jones will be happy. England are on track for the Grand Slam in his first year. England are certainly in a better place than they were in October. Cotter is probably the next happiest. Scotland backed-up and improved after beating Italy. France have improved from their performance against Wales but Scotland still looked good. Then it's the hard to tell mix. Gatland, Noves and Schmidt. Schmidt should be the happiest - Ireland won and won well, but it was Italy at home so there's an element of it being a match they really should have won easily. Gatland should be frustrated - Wales beat England at Twickers in September/October, but the comeback from Wales in the last 20 was spectacular and but for one really good tackle the outcome could have been another stolen game, and the scoreline disguises the fact it was 3 tries to 1 in Wales' favour which is not bad. Noves should be somewhat happy - France have clearly improved from two weeks ago and improved over the course of the tournament. Clearly at the bottom is the departing Brunel - Italy got smacked again and while there are glimmers of hope for O'Shea they are only glimmers - coaches have to be optimists sometimes!
Finally, predictions for next week. It won't be the try fest of last year's closing weekend, well probably not, because England have already won so there's not the drive for points difference.
The easy one to call is Wales, who should stuff Italy playing back in Wales. Italy have been poor, Wales even at their worst have not been that bad, so Wales will win and sew up second spot (if only they'd beaten Ireland in week 1 there'd still be something to play for). This could be another runaway scoreline.
We've seen France have the capacity to be dangerous and creative but also dull and error-strewn. We've seen England can be dominant in defence but still not penetrating in attack. Grand Slams are hard to win. England should win this, England are playing well enough to win this but I wouldn't be surprised if they slip at the final hurdle in Paris and if they do it should be the game of the weekend.
The one that looks too close to call for me is Ireland v Scotland in Dublin. Scotland are clearly on the up. Are Ireland or was Italy just a case of papering over the cracks? If Ireland win and France lose the Irish end up in third place which isn't great but isn't a disaster. If Ireland lose they're in fifth which is appalling for a team that won last year. If Scotland win, they're in third (second if Italy beat Wales) which is excellent for the team that came bottom last year, and not bad for the team that looked best placed to get into the semi-finals of the RWC. I think Scotland are genuinely on the up, I think Ireland are still missing too many key players but Italy were just that poor it didn't matter. If I'm wrong about that, Scotland have the benefit of backing up their morale booster against Italy with a solid performance against France so they're a step further down the road to redemption. This could be close because Ireland ought to be starting to gel a bit more, but Scotland to win.
Sunday, February 28. 2016
Deadpool is not quite your normal superhero movie. For one thing I think it's better than most and for another it eschews the normal 12A rating going for a solid 15 with a mix of motor-mouth profanity, a young couple doing everything a young couple does together and a crazy level (for a superhero movie) of pretty bloody violence.
Now non-stop swearing can grate on my nerves in a movie but in this one I think it works really well. In part that's because on reflection it's not really non-stop. Deadpool has anger issues but they're pretty understandable and he vents and swears at the targets of his anger. You might not swear at the people that really piss you off, and I spent long enough as a teacher I learnt to control it, but most of us behave quite like that - even if the language might not be quite the same. There is a scattering of swearing through the rest of his speech - a pattern that makes sense for the character and that I could see and kept me onside with it. The young couple enjoying their healthy, sometimes kinky sex life I could have seen more of to be honest, but I understand why it was played as it was and it was never likely to offend me. Violence in a movie can sometimes be too much for me but it was established early what the tone was going to be and it stayed there and it's not hugely higher than you might see in a war movie or a cop movie. Dredd was certainly bloodier. I find it's more often a shock when it comes out of nowhere or if it's significantly bloodier and gorier than this so I was OK with it. However, YMMV so be warned!
In Deadpool, on one side we've got what looks like a superhero movie but is actually a classic, adult-skewed, action-romance. The story hits all the tropes: man meets woman, they fall in love, they find out about a life-changing event that puts a barrier between them, he fights to get his girl back against overwhelming odds. On the other hand, it doesn't quite look like a superhero movie, not because it's a romance in disguise, but because it's definitely not written for the kiddies. It hits all of those tropes too, set piece action sequences, the origin of the conflict, the gradual escalation and so on. To this, Deadpool adds a post-modern, fourth wall-breaking self-commentary.
All of this could make it seem incredibly busy and confused. It's certainly a film where you don't want to be trying to do anything else at the same time! Ryan Reynolds, thankfully, can talk quickly but clearly and manages to keep all the verbal balls in the air that the script demands of him. It doesn't hurt that in most of his scenes he's got actors around him that I certainly recognise, none moreso than Morena Baccarin as his love interest but his foe (who it turns out I didn't recognise as well as I thought) is the lead from the rebooted Transporter franchise so is up on his action chops and the rest of the cast pull their weight too.
This is a surprisingly fun movie and better than any of the superhero movies I've seen in the last couple of years (Avengers: Age of Ultron, X-Men: Days of Future Past). Although it's not a widely held view, I really liked Thor: The Dark World (it was 6th in my end of year list in 2013) and at the moment Deadpool is up there with that in my estimation. I don't imagine they'll use this as the template for all their superhero movies and I hope they don't to be honest but when it works it works surprisingly well. I don't know enough titles to suggest what will be next off the blocks but I know both Marvel and DC have adult imprints, so I imagine we'll see more 15-rated superhero movies as Hollywood tries to cash in on Deadpool's success..
Bechdel test: There are five named female characters and Vanessa and Negasonic Teenage Warhead exchange words very briefly but it isn't a conversation, so no. The question of significant female characters is interesting in this film - the villain's sidekick, the love interest and the hero's ally. They all stand a chance of being considered as significant, and Morena Baccarin is a big star and was on the poster and the publicity. But they all have pretty small amounts of screen time. I'm going to say all three were significant female characters to the plot but were incredibly shallowly drawn in the film.
Russo test: Perhaps surprisingly, given all the other more adult content than more superhero movies, no.
Character numbers: There are only those five named female characters and there are 13 named male characters. The director is male.
Sunday, February 28. 2016
Another weekend of the Six Nations and it feels like I'm going to be writing the same things.
Wales and England are clearly the class sides of this year's championship. Despite still lacking precision with their new attacking patterns I can see both sides are making progress and the defensive patterns of the Welsh against the French were much better too. It seems completely fair to say their clash in two weeks will decide the winner of the 2016 Six Nations.
By the same token, their matches revealed how far the French still have to come and just how far the Irish have fallen. Guy Noves will still be happier than Joe Schmidt though. His side didn't succeed in attack but did put Wales under pressure for extended periods and performed admirably in defence apart from one mad moment. Despite that, Wales played in the right areas for most of the match and the result was never in doubt. They're not ready to take on the top 3 sides in the world yet, the finishing precision isn't there, but apart from that watching that match reminded me of watching New Zealand in their pomp. Even when it was close, the result was never in doubt. At Twickenham, the Irish also had their time of pressure and were perhaps unlucky not to get rewarded on two occasions - which will give Gatland and the Welsh hope and the England staff plenty to work on - but the Irish defence was hammered so hard for so long it was simply a matter of time before they cracked and once they did, England poured through and were so comfortably ahead within minutes that the match was completely out of reach.
In Rome, Scotland finally got their win and looked good. Unlike England they scored fast, twice, against Italy and although the Italian heads didn't fall as they might have in years gone by, they never really fought their way back into contention.
Looking ahead, even though it's not necessarily going to be the best match, the most important match of the championship is going to be England v Wales. Most interesting might be Scotland v France: have Scotland finally rediscovered their mojo? Can France start to pull it together? Most desperate will be Ireland v Italy. Sorry Ireland, but you are playing badly enough that you could lose this one, although you'll be back in the Aviva and you shouldn't. On the other hand, if Italy play as well as they have at their best in this year's 6N, they are playing well enough to win this match and potentially relegate Ireland to the wooden spoon.
In terms of happy coaches: Gatland and Edwards will be the happiest. Wales' precision on attack isn't completely there but it is getting better match by match, it's now more a case of final passes than the whole move, and Lydiate's pass in the 70th minute was poor but with the work he does, he is allowed to be tired. Their defensive solidity is back too. I think it will be a close call between Cotter and Jones for who is next. They both won, reasonably comfortably. Jones will know there was some luck and some huge individual efforts in defence that made the gap as wide as it was. Cotter will think his troops basically went out and executed the game plan pretty close to perfectly - although there are definitely some areas that need work still! After that I think we'll have Noves - the solid pressure from the French was impressive, then Schmidt, then Brunel. Ireland looked poor but tried. Italy just looked poor.
It's hard to predict without team sheets, but at this distance, Wales, Scotland and Ireland are my tips, the last of those is the least confident.
Thursday, February 25. 2016
Before we dive into this, I should say I'm inclined to vote to stay in the EU but I am willing to listen to the arguments about leaving. I just haven't heard a compelling one yet.
Part of the reason I'm pro-EU is actually the same as many of the reasons the anti-camp are so vehemently anti, or so it appears. When it comes to things like human rights, I think it's important to have as many checks as possible that a person's human rights are being upheld. Equally, all the people saying "We should be outside, but allied, like Norway but we'd have our sovereignty, our parliament would not simply rubber-stamp EU laws" need to look at the Norwegian experience. While we're on the inside, we get to negotiate for the changes and rules we want and, if you look at the Euro-Zone and the Schengen Agreement as two obvious examples, we get to clearly opt-out. The rules that we are "forced" to adopt are the best rules our politicians and civil servants can negotiate for us while we're in the negotiations. Norway still has to adopt all the trading rules to be allowed to trade as a preferred partner but has no voice in the negotiations. How is that an improvement?
Then we have every single "Leave" campaigner telling me (well telling us but failing to convince me as I write this post) that "If we leave, the EU will make agreements to carry on trading/researching/farming/etc with us, just like before" combined with "and the money we save from the EU payments can be spent on the subsidies we receive from the EU." I'm not sure of the first, and if it's so good, why are throwing the bathwater out, let alone risking the baby too? (I'm inclined to think on balance it's positive, not good - we win more than we lose. But that's enough to make me not want to throw the bathwater and the baby out unless there's a compelling reason.) I'm really not sure of the second. If we had a Corbyn-led Labour Government I would imagine it could happen, he seems willing to spend government money on supporting industries. But since Thatcher's time at least we haven't had a government that has had that policy, none of Thatcher, Blair, Brown or Cameron have. And the Cameron-Osborn governments are particularly keen on NOT doing that and implementing massive cuts in most sectors of government spending. If they suddenly don't have to spend some £billions on the EU subsidy every year, it's a real stretch to say they're going to spend any significant proportion of it any industry or region afterwards. Saying "Oh, we can just spend it all on the NHS" as, I think it was Michael Gove did yesterday, should ring loud warning bells to any "leave" campaigner that thinks their special interest group will get money from the pot that currently goes to the EU to replace the money that they get from the EU in subsidies. It might have been a throw-away line in an interview rather than a seriously thought through policy statement but support for the regions, support for agriculture, research and so on that we clearly do get back from the EU - not high on the agenda.
It strikes me that there is a lot of Little Britain anti-EU feeling, being stoked up by the usual suspects. It won't surprise many people I'm going to vote against that if that's a strong part of reasoning that's put forward.
I'm pretty sure the actual financial figures are so hard to unpack it's probably too close to call. The headline figures are not, we pay £x to the EU directly and get £y back directly. No one disagrees that x > y, so on the headline figures, we are a net contributor to the EU. But how much does £y add to the economy in extra jobs, less benefits and so on? Beyond that, how much does just being IN the EU add? There are international companies who have made it clear they're based here just because we're part of the EU, so the answer is greater than 0 but how much greater than 0 isn't easy to determine. Unless someone comes up with a good answer this isn't going to be the winning argument - for either side.
I don't know whether a winning argument is out there - winning in the sense of going to make me change my vote, whenever it comes to it. But I can tell you the "leave" campaign is really not doing anything to convert me at the moment. I suspect the "stay" campaign is not doing anything either, to those convinced to leave.
Wednesday, February 24. 2016
Although Pride and Prejudice and Zombies it not a hugely faithful adaptation of the book it is so true to the spirit of the book that I honestly don't care. It's one of those occasions where fitting it to the different medium and the different time you have with the characters has been well, I would go so far as to say brilliantly, worked out. And, just as the book is a loving and wonderfully crafted mashup of the original and the zombie story, it is fair to say this film retains both of those but adds strong elements of some of the TV adaptations as well.
Just as Austen's original and Grahame-Smith's mash-up, the film retains the cutting and deep observations on British class and manners. It also has the zombie fighting added in sometimes subtle and sometimes dominating ways but always ways that work their way through the narrative seamlessly and lead to some scenes that you might never have known you wanted to see but I certainly found I really did in both the book and the film.
It must be said, alongside the excellent script, whoever cast the various leads and did their fight training did an excellent job. All of the cast looked completely comfortable in their roles throughout the film. Of course a crowd of British actors look pretty comfortable in the Regency Pride and Prejudice costume drama part of the film, and although they were young rather than a lot of the normal suspects, they were all Brits I think. However, they were all equally comfortable in the zombie fighting scenes and that helped make the film work so well.
Lily James and Sam Riley as Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. James has to do most of the emotional heavy lifting of course, while Riley largely plays very stiff upper lip and concerned by status and the like, but he pulls of the cracks in his armour well and she pulls off the myriad emotions and pushes and pulls wonderfully. Although it's a relatively minor role Matt Smith plays Pastor Collins in a far more light relief role than he has in Pride and Prejudice but which I feel is needed with the horror notes in this story. I also wonder just how much fun they had filming some of his scenes given he plays the bumbling buffoon of a suitor who is later rejected by his actual partner. At various points he compares her unfavourably to her sister and forgets her name and the like.
Overall this is a film I really can't recommend highly enough and it is likely to be near the top of my list come the end of the year.
Bechdel test: As fans of the original will tell you, there are many conversations between Mrs. Bennet and the various sisters but many of them are about men and their estates. However, there are bitchy conversations about understanding Japanese or not, less bitchy conversations about the difference between pride and vanity and how easy it is to confuse them, and a conversation about a carriage or riding a horse and the zombies coming out quickly in the rain. So, an easy pass. I think in terms of the big female characters we're really talking Elizabeth, Jane and Mrs. Bennet. The rest are all more peripheral, even if they're rather imposing, but as with the source material even there they're clearly and strongly drawn - even flighty Lydia is a strongly drawn character. It's impossible not to describe any of the three of them as strongly drawn and portrayed. This is one film where characters called Mr. X and Mrs. Y certainly count: Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Bennet for example!
Russo test: No. It's based on a Regency period drama after all. You can certainly read one character as being not very in the closet, but no.
Character count: There are 19 named female roles (1 uncredited) and 11 named male roles (1 uncredited). The director is male.
Wednesday, February 17. 2016
Week 2 brought us a win for Wales with some controversy, a big win for England and another win for France.
First, Wales and Scotland. And first up, that try. While all the TV pundits are right, and Wales' first try was scored by a player in an offside position, the TMO was asked to look for a knock-on and players offside at the kick. He clearly didn't notice the scrum-half: he was looking - quite sensibly some might say - for players immediately involved in the next element of play, that is offside at the kick and competing for the ball in the air, and for some reason didn't check on the number 9 who was involved in the rather important next but one element - that is scoring the try from the knock-back in the air. He almost certainly should have, but he simply didn't. There is no protocol that will ever completely prevent human error - sorry Scotland supporters.
On to happier matters. It's pretty clear that Wales are moving towards a more expansive game plan. Pundits claiming Wales' tries come from reverting to old-style Gatland-ball need to think about the angles and diversions that were run. Roberts' try was scored when he came from an position that would normally be somewhere between outside centre and wing, not inside centre, and he scored in a position between the 10 and 12 channel. The Roberts of old was famous, infamous even, for trucking the ball straight ahead - which made space for players to run angles off him - but hardly ever seeing and running angles himself. Setting up and running that angle is a change. Likewise, the origin of the North try is a lift straight out of the Brumbies and the Wallabies playbook. A standard looking backline, and then a quick pass back inside. Yes, the speed and size of North helped, as did the fact that all of Scotland's back row bit on the deception so he was running behind their ability to tackle, but the Wales of a year ago would not have run that play, and it's a classic of the Southern Hemisphere.
Scotland looked better when the weather was better, or not a factor inside a Principality Stadium with the roof shut. I think they're likely to win at least against Italy, maybe against Ireland and France so their bad start is probably just that. If Scotland can get two wins from those three matches they will turn a corner, start to believe in themselves and their systems and be much better placed to move ahead.
France v Ireland was a dour game. Some of that was the conditions. Some of that is the fact that France seemed intent of at least borderline illegally targeting Johnny Sexton. I would be surprised if there's not at least one visit to the citing commissioner for un Bleu this week (it happened and he was warned because it was 'just short of a red card'). But France seemed, when they remembered they were meant to be playing rugby, more willing to try and play, Ireland - ironically given their weather at home - seemed to just close down completely and think they'd win with an incredibly conservative game plan in the rain. France's forwards look poor compared to previous years but that might just be inexperienced. Their backs look pretty sharp though, and generally kept the ball far enough away from their try line that Sexton couldn't kick his points and were confident enough that it seemed almost inevitable they would string enough passes together despite the slippery ball to score a try and so it proved. France are definitely a work in progress and Noves won't be happy with a lot of areas but as a team they will be growing in confidence and self-belief after winning their first two matches under Noves. Schmidt and Ireland on the other hand won't be in an happy place. They've gone backwards since their RWC quarter-final, which was backwards from the pool stage matches.
England v Italy, if you look at the score line looks like the thumping that Eddie Jones wanted. But for 30s of panic from Italy's back three it might have been a very different story. If they hadn't taken the quick throw in, hadn't attempted to run against the good defensive line but booted the ball down the park or hadn't attempted the suicide pass that led to the intercept try then who knows? England's heads lifted and Italy's heads fell in that instant, and the scoreline became very one sided from being practically level. Jones will be happy that England are making progress while, at least privately, driving the troops hard. Like a lot of commentators I was happy to see some of the young guns get on during the match but I think they have to get more game time against bigger and better opponents than an Italian side whose heads had already dropped. Jones obviously has other ideas though.
Although England and France are currently in the driving seat in the Six Nations according to the table, both have to play Wales in Wales. There are already signs the Welsh are buying into new patterns and playing smoothly together, more smoothly than both England and France. That is probably not surprising given there is a large scale stability of players and stability of coaching staff. Even though there is a new attacking system being attempted, there is a lot of trust and a good working relationship between the players out on the pitch during the match and between the players and the coaches during training sessions. All of that should make it easier to achieve the end results.
I think Noves and Jones will both be quite happy too as they both have two wins and certainly in France's case could easily have two loses. Neither of them will be thinking they're the finished article yet but things are much, much better than they could be.
Then, possibly surprisingly, I think Cotter will be the most content of the remaining three. Yes, Scotland have two losses compared to a draw and a loss for Ireland, but Scotland are playing well but losing, Ireland are playing poorly.
Brunel might even feel happier than Schmidt. His side are not playing really well but they are making progress and they have some clear teachable moments that should lead to substantial improvements. They also have some decent emerging talent. It might be early days but Cana looks like a name for the future.
I know Ireland are suffering with injuries and retirements but international sport is brutal and the young guns are not performing, the established players are not showing leadership and they look like a shadow of their recent selves. There doesn't appear to be a quick fix for this. Obviously the retired players won't be coming back and the injured players won't be coming back during the Six Nations either, or not in significant numbers. It's hard to see them beating England in 12 days time and while I think Scotland have the beating of Italy on the same day, if Italy do win that match as Scotland continue to conspire to lose matches they can win, it's not impossible that Ireland could lose to Italy a fortnight later, despite playing back in the Aviva. Ireland really are that poor at the moment.
It's hard to be sure, and injuries could radically change these outcomes, but I think Wales will beat both France and England playing in their renamed home stadium. Playing away to Italy is no longer a potential banana skin, and four wins and a draw will be more than enough to carry the championship, even if that draw has already broken their potential hat-trick of grand slams the year after the RWC.
Monday, February 8. 2016
There are a few interesting points from the opening round of the Six Nations I think. For some nations of course (particularly France with a new coach and a lot of changes in their team as well) we're seeing the start of a new rebuilding phase towards the next world cup, although all of the sides are doing this. Wales and Scotland, with the coach and much of the team remaining are the least affected, Italy with coaching continuity and a chunk of players remaining, Ireland with coaching continuity but a bigger player turnover and England with a lot of player continuity but a new coaching staff are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
So, while it is early days, what do I think we might have learnt?
Overall I'm disappointed. I suspect Noves and Jones are relieved rather than happy at their wins. (England's often delusional fans will doubtless be much happier.) I'm sure both Gatland and Schmidt are disappointed at the chances that got away to win in Dublin, while relieved they didn't lose. But the points largely came from the boot, not tries and the weather wasn't that bad for any of the matches. Not a promising start although a few glimmers.
Monday, February 1. 2016
If you will forgive a terrible, and ungrammatical, play on words, Spooks: The Greater Good fails to live up to its name: it is neither Greater nor Gooder than a typical episode of Spooks the TV show, although it is longer despite the presumably larger budget. (It's not lesser or worse either mind you.) If you want to look this up on IMDB, it's listed as MI5 by the way.
The reason for this is actually quite simple to identify. As a TV show each episode of Spooks had an identifiable enemy that, right or not from a real life MI5 perspective, is reasonable from a spy fiction perspective: we had tensions between MI5 and MI6, tensions between MI5 and the CIA, sleeper agents within MI5 from the KGB/FSB, and then over the many years it ran on the BBC various other MOTW-type baddies from the IRA to Islamic extremists to Russian nuclear terrorists to anarchists to animal rights activists to a 1% clique that wanted to depose the government to... well you name it, they were probably there. The length of the run also typically gave it a season-long big bad too, which varied as the geopolitical situation changed, the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians, Al-Qaeda and more were the big bad for various seasons. Being a spy series, the secret war was on-going and the victories were always temporary.
In the course of the film they picked up a number of these standard tropes from the series, tossed them together and made a plot. Now, in all fairness, they made a perfectly serviceable plot but not something that was really better than the plot for any of the episodes. They stretched the plot to make extra steps in the unravelling of it, extra complications to make this movie length rather than TV episode length. If you were a fan of the show, you'll probably enjoy watching the film. If you didn't know the show I think it stands alone well enough to be a spy thriller as a sort of modern The Spy Who Came In From The Cold style rather than the James Bond style so if you like dark, paranoid, fairly downbeat spy movies you'll probably enjoy it.
Bechdel test: There are five named women roles and at least three of them have chances for a conversation but I don't remember them ever actually talking. Two of them do, briefly, interact on screen but you can't hear a conversation, you just see them together and see they're meant to be saying something but over the alarms etc. you can't hear anything. There are 17 named male characters (1 uncredited). The director was male. Quite a few of the female characters are strong in the door-kicking sense (they're MI5 agents in the Spooks world) but they shuffle on and off the screen like good little soldiers in this very male-dominated movie and none of them leave a lasting presence beyond "Oh, that's her from..." which is a shame because some of the 'her from's are really good as are the actors portraying them. But none of the named female roles are actually big enough to really consider how strongly drawn they are. That's quite an indictment given that one of the female characters appears in every scene that Tim McInnerny's character does, plus one more, yet he is a much more clearly drawn character than her.
Russo test: No, it's not even hinted at. In fairness we don't see anyone's sexuality portrayed, although we hear mention of the death of Harry's wife and the baddie's wife is a key plot token.
Tuesday, January 19. 2016
The first thing to say about The Hateful Eight is that it is a long movie, made longer by an interval that is an integral part of the film. Door to door for me, for a short journey each way, it was pretty much four hours. For my companion, who gives me a lift, it was certainly over 4.5 hours. Fortunately the interval means old fogeys like us can get up and move around so unlike some other long movies it wasn't bone-crunchingly, bum-numbingly long.
The next thing to say is that even if you didn't know what you were watching, this was incredibly obviously a Quentin Tarantino film, even before the mayhem inevitably ensues. Not only, like so many of his films, could this easily be adapted to be a stage-play, you have distinct chapter titles (very Kill Bill), the film messes with the timelines (hello Pulp Fiction) and has a storyline with a group of killers and confused allegiances in confined space with them trapped together by circumstances (more than shades of Reservoir Dogs) as well as looking at the same sorts of idea of race as Django Unchained albeit with a different eye and a from a later period. Add in a scattering of Tarantino favourite actors and you really would be in no doubt.
Having pointed out all those similarities it is worth pointing out that, unlike The Force Awakens, these are thematic and structural similarities, little nods and quirks that Tarantino uses rather than a full-scale lifting of any of them. And having said The Hateful Eight could easily be staged as a play, there are a lot of points where his cinematic eye comes to the fore and there are lovely wide shots of landscapes as well as some beautifully framed tighter shots which the stage version could never achieve: I have no regrets about having been allowed to see the cinematic version of this show first. It could be performed on the stage quite easily though.
The story itself is quite simple. John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a famous bounty hunter, is taking Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to face justice and probably be hanged. He is famous amongst other things for taking in his bounties alive to hang. They are racing a blizzard but stop to pick up another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and later the future sheriff of Red Rock who is a former rebel marauder (basically a Confederate who didn't surrender) and still a good ole pro-slavery racist. Because of the blizzard they can't reach Red Rock but have to hole up at Molly's Haberdashery, where they find Molly and Sweet Dave (the owners) gone but Bob (a Mexican that Warren instantly distrusts) is running the place for them, a retired confederate general, an English hangman (Tim Roth) and a wandering cowboy (Michael Madsen) are already there. The only other player is O.B. the driver of the coach. The blizzard closes in and the events unfold as the various players get to know each other and then, this being a Tarantino movie, kill each other in various bloody ways.
My biggest complaint about this film is that all of the characters feel like pawns - you might notice a lack of names above, that's because the names failed to stick because the characters are such ciphers (I had to look most of those up and decided not to list them all from IMDB). I actually feel like I know more about Minnie and Sweet Dave (whose names did stick, along with Bob, O.B. and Domergue's surname) than most of the characters who were present throughout the film. There are reasons for that in some cases that might excuse this but when that is applied to the top three characters by actor's name on the bill (Warren, Ruth and Domergue) and actors of the stature of Jackson, Russell and Jason Leigh you have to think it's a function of the script. They're written as caricatures or plot tokens more than characters and it shows. There is also a lot of violence towards the main female character but it's not clear that this means the characters are violent towards all women - they view her as a violent criminal worth $10,000 rather than a woman. There is, later some other violence towards women, but there are an equal number of men killed, and the particularly brutal killing is saved for one of the men - it is pretty clear this is not because they are women but because they are in the way and they would be killed whoever they are.
My complaint about the poor character development aside, this is a very pretty film in the beginning and although the parts aren't well drawn they way they interact actually works surprisingly well, perhaps because there is no depth so I found myself willing to believe each of the twists and turns because there was nothing to make me say "Hang on, that's out of character!"
I suspect if you like Tarantino movies, you'll like this one. If you don't, particularly if you find them too violent, you won't.
Bechdel test: Perhaps surprisingly yes. There is a flashback scene I haven't discussed because of spoilers, and I won't discuss now but there is, for example, a long discussion about how good the coffee is and putting it on to brew that certainly counts. It was part of the normal flow of the scene, so an organic pass. There are 4 named female roles and 13 named male roles. Only 1 of the females is significant enough to be considered and I'm going to say I'm unsure if she's strongly drawn. I want to say no, because in any other movie I would say she's really not strongly drawn, but none of the men in this movie feel more strongly drawn than Daisy, so I don't think I can say she's unfairly weakly drawn in the context of this movie. Hence I'm unsure. The director is male.
Russo test: There is a description of a gay sex scene but nothing about the character's actual sexuality - it is used for humiliation and it is quite possibly a lie, designed to provoke a violent reaction. This is pointed out within the film by one of the other characters. One of the other characters is shown to be married. For the rest, it doesn't really come up.
Saturday, January 16. 2016
Monday, January 11. 2016
Sunday, January 10. 2016
There is one massive issue some people will have about The Diary of a Teenage Girl that needs to be addressed first. That is the fact that it depicts sex between a 15-year old girl, Minnie, and a man, Monroe, old enough to be her mother's age-appropriate boyfriend.
Now, the film is based on a semi-autobiographical book and makes it clear that not only is Minnie willing but she initiated it. Whatever the law says about her ability to consent she knew what she was after and actively sought it out. That doesn't mean it was appropriate: there is a lot of ick-factor when your mum's boyfriend becomes your lover and he really should have better boundaries and self-control but it could have been a lot worse.
After that, the film becomes either a daring exploration of a teenaged girl exploring her own sexuality and her transition from being a girl into being a young woman (a statement I'm not basing on her losing her virginity, although she explicitly says that at some point, but on shifts in her attitudes:- more on that later) or, not quite fairly, the updated and gender-bent remake of The Graduate.
There are at least two things that distinguish The Diary of a Teenage Girl from The Graduate. First of these is that in both it is the woman that is the initiator of the sexual activity, but if this was simply a gender-bent remake, Minnie would be the passive vessel, the seduced rather than the seducer, just as Dustin Hoffman's Ben was almost 50 years ago. There is one occasion when Minnie is slightly hesitant because they skinny dip before sex and she's convinced she's ugly, but she then takes the lead during sex and one where she is seduced - by another woman. Second, and perhaps this is a change in cinema over 50 years, this is much more a warts and all film. I never completely forgot it was a film, but there were times it drifted more towards feeling like a fly-on-the-wall documentary. With The Graduate there's always a sense of a story unfolding, this film usually feels much more like slices of a person's life, in some ways much more than Boyhood ever managed which was actually much more slices out of several people growing older together than this film was a slice of truth.
Having said how real the film felt, which is probably not surprising given it's semi-autobiographical source, occasionally I found myself wondering, just a little. The book was published in 2002, when the author turned 42. A lot of the growing up, a lot of the events she experienced rang absolutely true and I don't doubt them. Every now and again Minnie's internal dialogue sounded more like a 40-year old than a 15-year old speaking. Maybe she was incredibly precocious and wise for her years - she certainly went through a lot of things as a teen that I never did. But maybe she put the thoughts she was having remembering those experiences into her younger self. Which is not a bad thing, a lot of the things she was saying were things that it's probably good for a 15 year old to hear, ideas it would be good for them to consider, but watching it as a 52 year old, it just rang slightly off occasionally. It did seem like there's a heck of a lot of sex, a few random thoughts about how ugly Minnie thought she was and not much else: this is definitely her erotic diary (there are a few other scenes, but they mostly actually relate back to her mother's sexual behaviour, plus a bit about her desire to become an artist) which make it seem like she gets a hell of a lot of sex but there are a few hints that more time passes than it appears in the compressed nature of the film.
A lot is made of The Diary of a Teenage Girl being "a daring portrayal of female sexuality." In 2015 (when it was released) I have to ask why? I know the answer of course: women in film are rarely allowed to be sexual creatures, particularly younger women, in their own right. They're sex objects for the boys, or they're pure and innocent. Minnie is neither and she is interested in sex for her pleasure. In that sense, for a movie, it absolutely is daring (although it really shouldn't be).
I have to say I also consider this film to be a fairly daring exploration of teenage sexual awakening. It's not pornography, there's little sexually explicit material despite an incredible amount of sex and a bit of nudity, but while I'm sure someone has done one or more similar serious films with a teenaged male protagonist I honestly can't think of one. There are silly ones, like the American Pie films. That's not a call for one to be made - this film does too powerful a service to the case that women are sexual beings in their own right to be overshadowed but parents need to consider the hormonal time-bombs that are ticking away beneath their roofs as well.
This is one of those odd films where I think everyone should probably see it once and while I think it's good, I don't feel the need to see it again.
Bechdel test: While there are seven named female roles it's surprisingly hard to find a good clear example of a conversation that isn't about a man: there are a lot of conversations about sex which shouldn't come as a surprise and since Minnie most has sex with men and this is very much her erotic diary as noted above, those conversations are about men. However, there's a conversation with Charlotte (Minnie's mum) about shopping for dinner which clearly qualifies so the film passes. There's a conversation with Minnie's imagined Aline Kominsky (I think, I'm not sure who the drawn woman is, it could be a sort of inner Minnie instead) about drawing too. The drawing one is certainly organic. There are 7 named female roles and 9 named male roles (1 uncredited). The film is so centred around Minnie she's the only truly significant female role, the others are all in the background to her. Having commented that this feels at times like a fly-on-the-wall documentary it's impossible for Minnie not to be strongly drawn: we see her, warts and all (thankfully not of the genital variety) and a lot of her inner dialogue too. The director is female.
Russo test: Minnie experiments with a three-some and a short lesbian relationship. I'm not sure that makes her bi really, it seems more like an experiment, something she tried but she's really straight. Tabatha seems more like she is bi or lesbian. She appears for more than just "Minnie's experimental lesbian phase" so I'll say yes, it passes all three steps.
Sunday, January 3. 2016
Hysteria is an approximate retelling of the invention of the vibrator.
It's not exactly clear how many of the details are right and how many are invented but it is broadly correct. It was a Victorian invention, intended to cure hysteria as a medical condition, and quite a lot of the other things, like the vulvar massage to relieve hysteria by inducing paroxysms that it replaced is also correct, as is the idea that having your clitoris stimulated couldn't possibly bring pleasure to the woman - they required penetration by the penis for pleasure! Yes, really. I was most surprised by how long ago they invented it rather than any of the crap the Victorians believed about sex to be honest.
That said, some quick fact checking suggests that they've got those facts right. It's the surrounding items I'm less sure about. They've bedded the story of Dr. Granville and his invention in an interesting setting. He is working as a junior partner with Dr. Dalrymple and they've come to an understanding about marrying Emily, Dr. Dalrymple's dutiful daughter. However, Charlotte, the more rebellious daughter, who is a suffragette, works with the poor and the like and is a far more sympathetic character to modern eyes: she is almost your archetypal feisty woman but she's also a much more modern woman. Such people certainly existed and came from backgrounds like this, it just feels like this is a film where the marketers will expect a largely female audience and they've written a modern woman into the story for them to identify with. That might be entirely unfair but she was certainly the character I identified with throughout and I wondered just how true to the reality of the situation is was.
The film could go in many ways: it's essentially a film in which Victorian attitudes to women, and women's mental health and sexuality are front and centre. While not strictly antediluvian or prehistoric or barbaric, those are the sorts of words that come most strongly to my mind. The film makes it clear enough what those attitudes were, while alleviating what could be a horror-show with large doses of humour to make it watchable in the 21st Century.
This isn't a film I think most people will watch more than once, unless you're a huge Maggie Gyllenhaal fan, but I think it's a perfectly good dramedy and a thoroughly enjoyable movie.
Bechdel test: Yes. There are several named female characters, but Charlotte and Emily have a conversation with each other, albeit that's part of a larger group with their father and Dr. Granville. But there's a significant exchange between just the two of them. Charlotte and Molly have several exchanges as well. Each of them make sense and feel organic. There are four significant female characters. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the subject matter all four are strong drawn. In fact, even the bit part female characters tend to have more personality than you might expect in a typical movie. There are 17 named women (1 uncredited) and 9 named men.
Russo test: No. Not even hinted at.
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