Friday, 21 April 2017

New England Patriots 2017 Schedule Breakdown

Yesterday, the 2017 schedule was released and much like that day in June when we salivate over the EPL fixture release in England, here the NFL release all the schedule including Monday Night match ups.

Teams can decipher the short weeks, the quick turnarounds, Thanksgiving and Christmas battles. For New England you look at the trips away in the division, as well as match ups that include journeys to Mexico to face the Oakland Raiders as well as trips away to Pittsburgh and Denver.

The breakdown
Week 1 - 7th Sept, v Kansas City
The league's official kick off as the reigning Super Bowl champions host a pretender in the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday 7th September. Likely you see the champs win out with a fit again Gronkowski and new toys for Brady to play with, whilst Stefan Gilmore starts shutting down Jeremy Maclin (not hard).
Prediction : Win, 1-0

Which team will Butler being playing for in Week 2?

Week 2 - 17th Sept, @ New Orleans
The Malcolm Butler derby, but will he be wearing the black of the Saints or the white of the Patriots. Either way Butler would love to make a statement but we also have Brandin Cooks returning to the Superdome and with our offensive superiority you cannot see a Saints side admittedly still in transition winning, although they are wasting the twilight years of Drew Brees.
Prediction: Win, 2-0

Week 3 - 24th Sept, v Houston
This was a Week 3 victory last year with Jacoby Brissett getting his win. Houston will be a different side with J. J. Watt returning and the Texans did give the Patriots a scare in the playoffs and this could well be a banana skin, but this is dependent upon what continuity and productivity the Texans have at quarterback be it Tom Savage or someone else. The Patriots lay an egg once a season, this may be it.
Prediction: Loss, 2-1

Week 4 - 1st Oct, v Carolina
The Panthers whilst they have the game changer in Cam Newton, they are about their front 7 on defence against our O-line. This turf war is where Blount may come to the fore, whilst the Panthers may not have enough weapons on outside to worry the secondary.
Prediction: Win, 3-1

Week 5 - 5th Oct, @ Tampa Bay
A short week against a bristling Bucs side who look to kick on and this should be an entertaining game for the neutral, however, the experience and dominance of Patriots will be too much although the speed of their wide receivers may provide match up problems for Gilmore and Butler (if he remains).
Prediction: Win, 4-1

Week 6 - 15th Oct, @ New York Jets
The first divisional game is against the weakest side of the division, an ageing side with no identity on offense and is ear marked to be one of the favourites for wooden spoon and Number 1 seed in 2018 draft.
Prediction: Win, 5-1

SuperBowl 51 rematch in October

Week 7 - 22nd Oct, v Atlanta
The Superbowl rematch where the Falcons will want redemption for blowing a 28-3 lead before Brady turned on his after burners and led the Patriots to his and their 5th Super Bowl. Again a high scoring affair but the Patriots won without Gronk, and they will find a way to win again but could be one of the regular season games of the year.
Prediction: Win, 6-1

Week 8 - 29th Oct, v LA Chargers
This could be a tricky game, the Chargers will be playing with a bit of a chip on their shoulder searching for their identity in their new home. But for all their injuries sustained last year they might have made the play offs in a competitive division, but if they can maintain a healthy roster they still have Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon will only get better and the defence is one of the more under-rated units in the NFL.
Prediction: Win, 7-1

Week 9 - Bye Week

Week 10 - 12th Nov, @ Denver
A week off is followed by a week up at altitude in Mile High. The Broncos are far removed from the defensive class that won the Super Bowl led by Von Miller. A lot of that team remain but on offense they are a question mark with one of Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch under centre. A week off leads to the Patriots triumphing again.
Prediction: Win, 8-1

Can Derek Carr bounce back from broken leg?

Week 11 - 19th Nov, @ Oakland (in Mexico)
Arriba! A road trip to Mexico versus perhaps one of the main challengers to the Patriots AFC dominance. Derek Carr back from a broken leg, a returning Marshawn Lynch as well as Amari Cooper and that defence that swallowed up offensive lines. Another game at altitude but having played there the week before, you can imagine the Patriots being more prepared than the 'home' team. A great game nonetheless but the Patriots might have too much.
Prediction: Win, 9-1

Week 12 - 26th Nov, v Miami
Home for Thanksgiving, the Patriots do not lose to the Dolphins at home. It will be very cold and Tannehill will freeze again in the spotlight against Brady.
Prediction:  Win, 10-1

Week 13 - 3rd Dec, @ Buffalo
The Bills are like the Jets a bit of a mess, this is one of the more hostile atmospheres the Patriots will face throughout the season but we have Gilmore returning and he will pick off Tyrod Taylor once in this game. By this point you imagine the offensive juggernaut rolling into Buffalo for another W.
Prediction: Win, 11-1

Week 14 - 11th Dec, @ Miami
Monday Night Football in South Beach. A glamour game for sure but the Patriots have a bad history in Florida recently as if the Patriots are aware of this record and the Dolphins elevate their game for this with good reason. Could be one of those games where that extra 5% from the Fins may undo the Pats.
Prediction: Loss, 11-2

Big Ben provides opposition to No. 1 seed

Week 15 - 17th Dec, @ Pittsburgh
Twas the week before Christmas and all through the Burgh, not a creature was stirring as Le'Veon Bell ran for 150 yards on a Patriots side that could not contain the offensive weapons that Pittsburgh have. Sometimes you have road games you look at the schedule and mark out as difficult venues to go to. The Steelers away is one of those and a loss is nothing to be sad about although two in a row is not something Bill Belichick does.
Prediction: Loss, 11-3

Week 16  - 24th Dec, v Buffalo
Merry Christmas New England. You get one of the weaker offences at home on Christmas Eve and the chance to perhaps wrap up home field advantage by then throughout the play offs. Happy Holidays Mr. Kraft
Prediction: Win, 12-3

Week 17 - 31st Dec, v New York Jets
The year and the season end at home against another weak division rival who may well be tanking for the overall pick. Perhaps this will be Jimmy Garrapollo's final snaps in a Patriots jersey or Tom Brady further cements his regular season wins records. Another division title. Another 12+ win season. The dynasty continues to reign and another deep play off run begins.
Prediction: Win, 13-3

Will it be Lombard Trophy #6 for Brady?

Other notes:
Predict the other AFC divisions belong to Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans
Wild cards: Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

What Alice Knew

This intriguing novel by T. A. Cotterell tells the story of Alice, a faithful wife, whose love for her husband is sorely tested by his indiscretions one night.  Set in the Bristol area, it follows on the footsteps of other novels I have read this year set outside of the Metropolitan hub-bub of London such as Oxford for We All Start As Strangers and the grim drabness of Manchester in Sirens.

Alice is a portrait artist, married with two children beloved in the area and a model of maternal nature. This is put to the test by her husband's may or may not be adulterous behaviour which may or may not have led to the death of a flirtatious admirer.

The novel hopes to be a gripping thriller in the same vein of keystone texts such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and yet this was a book this reader found hard to get through.  The combination of somewhat implausible plotting, the hysterical nature of the faithful wife losing her mind and sometimes unnecessary art history lessons.

By the final 70 pages when Alice goes to visit her mother do you understand the psychology of Alice fully in that she wants to please everyone and people take advantage of her grace from her bitter mother to her awful siblings who live far away from her as well as the home in Scotland.

The ending felt a bit contrived and rushed unfortunately, but then again the plodding nature of the plot to begin with perhaps the writer wanted to get away from these characters he created. A potential pivotal standoff with an old school mate for Alice when she paints her portrait is handled muddily and instead makes Alice even more vulnerable and this weakness does not enforce our sympathy but instead pity; not something you ever want to extend to someone.

At times the book felt like it wanted to say so much, but was unable to due to the weakness of the protagonist and the ending where she attempts to fall on her husband's sword is both ill timed and messy.

A shame after a strong opening that this book could not maintain the focus nor the attention of this reader.

What Alice Knew is released in Hardback/Paperback by Black Swan (Goldsboro Books) on 4th May

Monday, 10 April 2017

A Monster by Violet

The debut novel by Laura Wake is a gritty to the bones drama about a young girl, the eponymous heroine who we follow on a week in her life.

Violet has abducted her best friend's baby, Maria. Her friend is an addict and the child would likely have died in her care, so doing what she thinks is best for the child and perhaps hopeful of starting afresh herself, Violet takes the child and withdraws what money she has in her account and heads for the Isle of Wight.

We follow Violet as she becomes a born again person doting on Maria and her feeds, looking after her and realising that she has to leave the temptations of drugs and addiction behind if she is too care for the child.

Violet thinks she can have the best of both worlds taking Maria to a house party that goes wrong when a snake is thrown into the mix and she has sexual contact with some other girl's boyfriend.

These dark episodes are merely the lead narrative, running parallel is the flashback to Violet as a ten year old and how she become a troubled teen and young adult; her home life is good but following the cot death of her younger brother she starts to rebel and her parents marriage hits the rocks.  There is also the unsettling storyline of a female teacher attempting to make Violet good again, which could have been construed as grooming in another plot.

However, Wake is better when following Violet and Maria on their journey around IoW yet the novel does somewhat lose its way nearer the novel's conclusion when they abscond a boat and head for France with a Portugese waiter, Sergio for company. On the boat, Violet's demons come to the fore and her paranoia regarding being possibly followed nearer brings down here downfall.

The book has good moments, especially as you see Violet becoming more maternal and the blossoming friendship between her and Sergio is nicely handled; yet the flashback storyline is dropped somewhat abruptly and does not fully explain her addictive future nor what her relationship with her parents is.

Some critics feel she is an abhorrent lead character, I think of her as reminiscent of the lead character Lily, Agyness Deyn played in the little seen film Electricity.  A smart girl who has her own mental demons to overcome, and is lost in the big bad world and is always attempting to run away from it.

A Monster By Violet is out now from Urbane Publications

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Final Four 2017 Breakdown

March Madness reaches its crescendo this weekend. 68 teams started on the road to Phoenix, and now four remain. Of these four we have two number one seeds, two surprises and yet three teams competing in their first Final Four ever and one blue blood, blue chip program.

In this piece I will be breaking down the Final Four teams and the match ups albeit in brief, but if you like what you are reading, please comment and let me know.

On Saturday night we have the two semi-final matchups; South Carolina (7) v Gonzaga (1) followed by Oregon (3) v North Carolina (1).

South Carolina Gamecocks
(SEC, 26-10)

The lowest ranked seed and the best story of the tournament, an embattled head coach whose behaviour on the sidelines sometimes draws more headlines than his teams play. Frank Martin led the Gamecocks to the tournament on a bad run of only three wins in their last 9 games, the last two being defeats to Ole Miss and Alabama - two teams who did not make the tournament.

However, Martin can coach defence and in the same vein of Rick Pitino's Louisville national title winning side of recent years, defence can get you further in a single-elimination format. They have defeated Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida, all teams with powerful offences that they have slowed down by being physical. Can they slow down Gonzaga who are as big and as powerful in a good match-up contest. Their own offensive efficiency despite Sindarius Thornwell's heroics might mean this is one game too far; yet they have showed that there is more to the SEC than just John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats.

Gonzaga Bulldogs
(WCC, 36-1)

The King of the mid-majors finally made the Final Four after numerous falls following numerous seedings as No.1. This year, Mark Few has garnered his best team full of versatility owing to the nine-man rotation Few employs. Led by Polish senior guard Przemek Karnowski and junior guard Nigel Williams-Ross; the Bulldogs can mix it up defensively in a low scoring game such as the press versus West Virginia or dominant with their size as they did against Xavier in that 24 point victory in the Elite 8.

The thing to fear of the Bulldogs is the stage itself, this is the first time these players would have played in a venue this size and the same applies to Few also. This is a stage Few and his team were made for, now he has to fulfil all the promise and handle the expectation, firstly to overcome the stellar South Carolina defence then who knows.

Oregon Ducks
(Pac-12, 33-5)

These mighty Ducks have had to overcome the most adversity following the loss of Chris Boucher to an ACL injury before the tournament started, and yet the play of three guys Tyler Dorsey, Dillon Brooks, Jordan Bell have taken turns to dominant games. Against Kansas they dominated the paint owing to Bell's size and favourable matchup versus the Jayhawks smaller guards; this might not happen against the North Carolina Tar Heels who won the battle of the paint versus Kentucky.

The Ducks can have offensive nights and can stop teams but can they do so against the Tar Heels who have modified their tempo from game to game, and who matchup well in the paint with them.

North Carolina Tar Heels
(ACC, 31-7)

The Tar Heels have been here before, Roy Williams has been here before. They are probably the favourites to win it all, and it is the versatility of their line up and potential to alter their game to the opponent. Against Kentucky they took Justin Jackson and his offensive potential and instead told him to go man-to-man on Malik Monk prompting Jackson to shoot less and getting more points from Theo Pinson and game-winner Luke Maye. 

The Tar Heels have other game changers in Kennedy Meeks and Stilman White, while questions remain over the full fitness of Joel Berry who has an ankle injury.  The Tar Heels unlike the other teams in the field, have more answers than questions hanging over them. If Jackson can be unleashed from defensive duties will the Ducks be able to handle a team that can easily score 70+, can the Ducks match that.

Final Four predictions
Gonzaga over South Carolina; North Carolina over Oregon

Title match
North Carolina defeat Gonzaga in a classic and Roy Williams is cutting down the nets.

Image result for roy williams dancing gif

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Girl on the Train

Following in the footsteps of recent cultural trends to adapt big selling novels to the big screen such as Gone Girl (2014) and Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), we have a film that embodies the vogue of female empowerment within the thriller genre.

Written by Paula Hawkins, adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson and directed by Tate Taylor, the story revolves around the intertwining lives of three women - Rachel, Megan and Anna - who all encounter each other and how the men in their lives intersect.

Rachel (Emily Blunt) is an alcoholic who travels the train everyday to New York City passing the old house she used to live in with her now ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).  Rachel is estranged and bitter towards this new union, as they have a newborn daughter, Evie, something Rachel and Tom were unable to have together.

This has driven Rachel to drink and she regularly calls the newlyweds to the point of prompting Anna to complain to police. Tom tries to be civil yet Rachel will not go away.  Two doors down lives Megan (Haley Bennett) and her husband Scott. Scott wants to start a family whilst Megan is reluctant to, this reluctance only becomes clearer the further along in the story we go.

From the outset, the question of family is prevalent. Rachel and Tom want a family they cannot prompting a separation, Tom has a family with Anna which drives Rachel crazy and their neighbour Scott would love to have a baby with Megan but she will not.

One day travelling to work, Rachel sees Megan embracing another man on her porch prompting her to confront Megan in a drunken rage one Friday night.  That same night Megan disappears leading to a missing person's investigation led by the feisty cynical Detective Riley (Alison Janney).

More twists and turns abound in the narrative as we learn the truth and full extent of Rachel's alcoholism, Tom's real character and why Megan goes missing.

Ultimately comparisons will be made with Gone Girl which is always unfair but it follows the same thread of all men are bad and women must bond together themes, whereas in Gone Girl, Ben Affleck's character was a shit he was outdone by the mad as a hatter Rosamund Pike. 

In this film, we have at the start three unsympathetic female characters, only when Rachel learns the truth of her relationship with Tom, do we gain sympathy because she has been mentally abused in contrast to the sad alcoholic at the film's outset.  This does not do credit to the work Blunt does at Rachel, her stirring downward spiral into the darkness of drink dependency is some of the best work she has ever done and rightly gained acclaim upon the film's release.

It is a shame that the rest of the film could not raise to her high standard of performance apart from Janney's all too brief cameo as Det. Riley, whose breakdown of the exposition towards Rachel after their first conversation is a fitting swipe at both the preposterousness of the plot and the melodramatic feel of the piece.

The gripping moments do not grip and when the real bad guy is revealed, it happens too swiftly and smacks of an 'of course it is' moment and the red herrings laid out for us such as Scott (Luke Evans) as an abusive husband who really just wants to start a family with the woman he loves is a herring does not hang out there long enough.

All in all the film could have been better if it focused on better performances rather than relying on a plot that must have gripped on the page but failed to grip on the screen.

Monday, 20 March 2017

We All Begin As Strangers

The debut novel from journalist, Harriet Cummings, is a piece of historical fiction set around the year 1984, a hot summer when a burglar universally referred to as 'The Fox' is terrorising the small village of Heathcote near Oxford.  Cummings' novel tells the story from four differing viewpoints - opening with Deloris, the policeman Robert, vicar and nice guy Simon.

The problem I had with the book was the difficult opening of Deloris, a character who is unhappy in her marriage and sets about leaving her husband, Harvey, including taking a job in a hotel in London.  Apart from mere mentions of the Fox breaking into neighbour's properties, the story focuses on her plight and it comes across as a bit needy and unnecessary to the plot.  When Deloris appears later in the book, she is better on the periphery.

The four differing viewpoints is something we have seen in all manner of popular culture, most famously Akira Kurosawa's 1951 film Rashomon, where the differing viewpoints alter the narrative and who is telling the truth when all people claim ownership of the truth.

In this novel, the truth is not fully revealed until the last viewpoint entwined with Simon's personal problems of identity, this leaves the reveal of the Fox as almost secondary and when it was revealed, it was somewhat out of nowhere and underwhelming.

This is a shame as I had high hopes for this novel with it's beautiful book cover and the setting of 1984 for social and political context.

In conclusion, this is a novel that will garner critical attention, but may struggle to capture the imagination of the mainstream reader.

We All Begin As Strangers is published by Orion Publishing on 20th April 2016

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Olive Tree

Image result for the olive tree film

Iciar Bollain, the acclaimed director from Spain, returns with a poignant story about a determined young woman on a journey. With a screenplay written  by her partner Paul Laverty (Sweet Sixteen, The Wind that Shakes the Barley); El Olive (The Olive Tree) tells the story of tenacious Alma (Anna Castillo) who embarks on a journey from her home town near Valencia on the East Coast of Spain to Germany in order to retrieve an ancient olive tree precious to her ailing grandfather.

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Encountering new acquaintances and with the help of two valuable friends, Alma learns a lot about herself and the virtue of honesty and the consequences that arise from with-holding the truth to those you love.

Bollain shoots with a vibrancy to match her leading lady, Spain looks gorgeous in the sunshine throughout in contrast to the gloomier grey of Germany upon arrival where they discover the tree in the lobby of a big energy firm that has used the tree as their company logo.  Laverty writes this as a David v Goliath clash reminiscent of the work he has done with Ken Loach, and there is a hint of Bread and Roses (2000) here.

However, like many films, the story is not about the end result of the journey but how you got there and who with; Alma learns a lot more about her family especially her uncle Alcachofa (Javier Gutierrez) and finds love with selfless Rafa (Pep Ambros).  

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Bollain is lucky in that she has three capable actors at her disposal, the scenes involving the three in the cab of the truck they take to Germany are vital to the flow and spirit of the film (there is a great dialogue scene when the penny drops on the two men outside of the energy company and Alcachofa asks Rafa, 'So this is our fault?' a token line but delievered impeccably); there is no over-sentimental streak fighting to get out, there is a naturalness to proceedings that combines with the lightness.

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Other films may have used an overbearing soundtrack for a crucial phone call near the film's end, instead Bollain rightly utilises the look in the eyes between Gutierrez and Castillo to speak volumes and garner the universal message.

A film that is fleeting in its message but nevertheless has universal themes that will steal your heart and stay with you long after you hear the last greenfinch.

The Olive Tree is released from Eureka Entertainment on Friday 17th March. 
My thanks to Eureka Entertainment for the screener.