Monday, 27 July 2015

Thoughts on Admission

This little seen film from 2013, Admission, directed by Paul Weitz, stars Tina Fey as Portia, a senior admissions officer at Princeton University, who whilst up for a big promotion is approached by a forthright head of a special school John, played by Paul Rudd, to consider a student of his he considers a prodigy but is beneath the expected societal and cultural acceptance of the lauded Princeton school. 

After meeting the student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), John tells Portia that he thinks Jeremiah is her son who she gave up for adoption 17 years before hand.  This coupled with the separation of her relationship with an English professor she has been with for ten years, throws Portia's personal and professional life into a tailspin.

On paper and in marketing the film should offer ample opportunity for romantic comedy conventions to take place between Portia and John who seem perfect for each other; yet Portia is indicative of recent female lead characters in American rom-coms of the new Millennium in that they have to balance between life (work and family commitments) and love (personal). 

Portia admits that maybe she should have kept the baby, and maybe been a better person for it. The leaving of her fiancé for someone he has got pregnant is a shock to her world order and leads to her admission.

This film makes all its characters have admission of something or other. Portia with her admission of pregnancy to her mother who did not know. Her mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin) admitting that the failure to name Portia's father is her biggest regret. John admitting he should stay in one place for the good of his adopted son, Nelson. 

All these admissions lead to an overall sense of confusion in the general tone of the film.  Is it making a comment on Portia's life balance or punishing her for giving up her newborn for adoption so promptly.  In romantic comedies there is generally a level of closure and finality embellished in the happy ending of stable home life or marriage. In this finale, a clever twist on the supposed new job interview leads to a celebration of Jeremiah's new step in his life whilst Portia is left on the wait list in reference to her only child.

Audiences are waiting for a film to better utilise the collective talent of Fey and Rudd together, who clearly have some good chemistry as evidenced in the dialogue scenes between the two. Weitz, the director, did a better job in terms of tone for In Good Company; here you get a feel that certain scenes are merely rushed or telegraphed to the detriment to the end product.

However, all in all, the film is still one that is entertaining and will not be a waste of your viewing time thanks to the cast on display more than the script.


Friday, 24 July 2015

Thoughts on Whiplash

Trying to catch up on the films you have missed can be stopped by many roadblocks. You may have work commitments, family problems, health issues. Or you might just not have enough hours in the day to watch everything you would like to. Or you might not have a DVD player. Thankfully I have an amazing girlfriend who purchased a new device and the first film she purchased was the Oscar winning film, Whiplash.

We proceeded to watch it late on a Tuesday night, knowing we wouldn't be up early and that the film was a tight 90 minute running time.

Whiplash tells the combative relationship between a young drum student, Andrew (Miles Teller) and his volatile teacher Fletcher (Oscar winner J. K. Simmons). Unlike other mentor and pupil films, the mentor and pupil meet from the outset, and the pupils aim to please he mentor is at the forefront throughout, even at the behest of the pupils writer father played by Paul Reiser.

Simmons' portrayal of Fletcher as this abrupt and bullying figure is the voice of the film, the way he bewitches his students into motivation for performance is paramount. Yet for all the grandiose of Simmons' role, a lot has to be said for Teller's role as Andrew.

Teller has a strange face, one that looks older than the age he is meant to be playing. Yet it looks like a face that has lived, one that can be calm and reflective in one scene, yet highly expressive and emotive in another such as when he gets passed up by another drummer; his impassioned face says it all. The strain he puts on himself to learn the pieces going to physical extremes is painful to watch.

You get the impression that Fletcher will never be pleased with any performance by his band, and the constant referrals to Charlie Parker and the legend of Bird is a little bit telegraphed somewhat by Damien Chazelle's screenplay. Yet in this day and age of seen it all before film, it is nice to see a film that is positive about the human spirit and capability it can achieve, and an alteration on a familiar movie sub-genre.

The ending has been much discussed as to what it means for both characters, is Fletcher pleased or not? For this reviewer it showed that anyone can wave their hand up there and conduct, it takes special musicians to play like Andrew does in the finale. In that sense, Andrew is reminiscent of Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes, sacrificing body and soul for the glory.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Moeen holds the key

After watching the first two days of the first Ashes test in Cardiff, it looks to this writer that the most important player in the England side this summer could well be batting all-rounder Moeen Ali.

His occupation of the crease on the first night and the second morning helped England get past the benchmark of 400 and a personal score of 77. These were valuable runs for a batsman who despite one Test century already has only an average of nearly 28. There was undoubtedly pressure on Ali coming in at 8 in the order where he will have to firstly shepherd the tail and face the new ball versus the left handed pace of Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc.

The reason Ali needs the runs is to validate his inclusion in the side as our front line spinner until England come across a pitch that warrants the inclusion of both he and Adil Rashid, whose prominence in the one day series versus New Zealand.

England's positioning of Ali so low in the order is because of his security and responsibility with tail enders, but there is a distinct possibility that Ali may well be elevated up the order should the continued drought of runs for Ian Bell persist.

Bell, currently at four, has struggled to get into double figures of late and looks most likely to be dropped should England go behind in the series. Ali would likely go to five with first innings centurion Joe Root going to four in Bell's place, hence the need for runs for Ali before a promotion up the order.  This would allow England to position Rashid at eight or a fast bowling alternative like Chris Jordan or Chris Woakes, an individual who can score vital lower order runs against the Australian attack.

Ali also needs to take wickets and his dismissal of Steve Smith has warranted inclusion yet much like Australia destroyed the end of Graeme Swann's career by attacking him out of he test side, Ali has also been targeted by Smith and Chris Rogers on the second day. This has always been a negative of Ali as he does not yet have the control to stop the flow of runs at one end of the innings like Swann was capable of, perhaps Rashid with his greater experience of bowling may provide the resolution but who is to say the Australians will not treat his leg spin with the same disdain.

Whilst captain Alastair Cook cited Ben Stokes as the possible difference maker for this Ashes series with his gusto and fiery brand of play reminiscent of Botham and Flintoff past, perhaps it will be the mild-mannered unassuming professional from Birmingham who will hold the key to the urn.

Moeen with his lower order runs and wicket taking knack could change various innings in this series this summer.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

How to win at Fantasy Football

I am a huge NFL fan, I have watched it for over 15 years and I have been lucky enough to see my team, New England Patriots win the Super Bowl four times. Yet it was only three years ago I started playing NFL Fantasy Football along with my friends from north of the border in Dundee and Dan Ferdinand.

This has led to a better appreciation of the NFL and a better understanding of the game by paying more attention to the stats and figures of the game based on individual performances from week to week. It was this statistical analysis and love of numbers that first drew me to the game, the yards per carry, per reception, pass completion, win percentage and so on.

Personally, I have been fortuitous in my leagues, I have been to the final of one league two years running and been competitive with others regularly. So to make the game better and spread the word, I am going to give a breakdown of how to do well in leagues and how to enjoy it.

Take it seriously, but enjoy it
It is a fantasy football league, it is not real. Succeeding does not make you a potential GM of your favourite team, but it shows you are capable of understanding players strengths and teams weaknesses by selecting a certain player against this team to another. Yet enjoy it, yes cheer when your player makes a big grab but don't forget it is fun, so best to avoid leagues that involve money at first these will come along in time. Bragging rights and Twitter traffic are what you play for at first.

Play in different leagues
Try different varieties of leagues from Dynasty and keeper league, to straight draft selection to 2QB leagues. Personally I have not enjoyed 2QB leagues due to the nature of picking the bottom of the heap due to draft order or having bad luck with player injury and form, this guy picked Matt Schaub when he threw a pick six every week seemingly and I got the awful post-Super Bowl season of Joe Flacco.

Research 
You have to do your research. Read injury reports so you don't have a scratch player on your starting team. Don't pick players with the same bye weeks as this will leave you short handed against your week's opponent. Pick players who are sometimes consistent and not necessarily productive, you need a 16 game player not one who sits out, for example, the walking concussion Wes Welker is someone to avoid.

Listen to specific podcasts
The ESPN Fantasy Football podcast is my go to for chat and discussion and good tips such as handcuffing your QB and RB or WR such as Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson, as is the combination of Frank Gore in Indianapolis with Andrew Luck, Gore is one of those trusted backs who plays every week and will have much success in Indy making Luck a better player if that offensive line has improved.

Watch the first two weeks
Pay attention to teams stats, do they spread the offence or is Matthew Stafford still aiming at Calvin Johnson 25 times. This is where you find your potential sleepers and pick ups like Odell Beckham Jr became last year. This goes hand in hand with your research.

Also to consider is the theory of garbage time, the fourth quarter period of any game when a team is so far behind on the scoreboard that they start throwing the ball instead of running the ball to try and score quick touchdowns against a defence playing deep safety coverage and avoiding injury on the tackling front.  Teams renowned for this in recent years are the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders; so perhaps try and see when a second or third receiver gets the majority of his yardage. Despite the deficit, a team having to throw will not go to the first choice receiver too often, meaning a Jaguar third option will pay dividends even the Raiders who although have a good back in Latavius Murray need to be ahead to get reward from him.

Trust your judgement 
If you think Andrew Luck will have a better year than Cam Newton, trust your judgement and stick with it. Only drop Luck if he is injured. Do you think Rob Gronkowski is better than Jimmy Graham, then chances are you are right. And on the subject of Graham his signing to Seattle changes the fantasy profile of two players; Russell Wilson although a great dual threat QB becomes a better option due to the space and double man coverage Graham will receive in the red zone and Marshawn Lynch will now get the ball thrown to him less due to the potency and capability Graham provides.

Enjoy your season and follow me on Twitter @JamieGarwood

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

In praise of...Breaking Bad

Last night, I had the pleasure of completing my first box set. Breaking Bad. It has taken just about five weeks but me and my girlfriend, have witnessed countless deaths, numerous cooks and shady dealings in Alburqueque. We have followed the transformation of high school Chemistry teacher Walter White from fighting lung cancer to the horrific Heisenberg, the empire builder who would stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Oddly enough, when the conclusion of series 5 first aired in America on AMC I avoided any spoilers as best I could, thankfully the Internet community found it necessary not to ruin it for non-watchers as it is something best experienced first hand, much like The Mousetrap.

The ending was to me a complete finite ending deserving of the legacy that Vince Gilligan and his team have created.  Usually when series come to a finish, it is perhaps two series past its sell by date or the characters have outstayed their time.  Breaking Bad was good because it did not take a series as  the same temporal period for the viewer, for example, the original audience did not witness a White family Christmas when they did. The action started in series one around Walt's 50th birthday and ended a day after his 52nd, therefore the condensing of all the narrative action in to a timeframe of five years served a greater reality to the drama; things change dramatically from day to day in our lives, so why can that not be reflected in our viewing pleasure?

A lot has been made of the writing by Gilligan and his writers, yet while the show has been rightly heralded as the perfect amalgamation of talent, special mention must go to the acting of Bryan Cranston and the ensemble who infused all the characters with not just a belief but a humanity not seen before in American television drama. Whereas, characters in the West Wing or The Sopranos, where highly stylised versions of political and gangster conventions, in Breaking Bad these were actual people doing what comes naturally to survive and exist.

Yet that was the appeal and motivation for Walter to begin with. We meet a man on his 50th birthday, who feels unfulfilled in his life. A teacher who is not respected, mocked by his alpha male brother in law who works for the DEA. Had things been different for him he would have been a CEO of a Fortune500 company, yet fate dealt him a bad hand seemingly, and he cancer diagnosis leads him to reassess his options. His lack of insurance coverage means his family will be bankrupt should he die, so he attempts to cook Crystal meth and get close to the $700,000 he requires for the medical bills and pay his disabled son through College in his absence.

In the final episode, when Walter and his wife Skylar talk for the last time, she believes he will say he did it all for the family. Yet he surprises her by saying he did it for himself and he liked doing it. That was a good line to have Walter say, as the series has predominantly been about pride and the things people do when their ego is out of control. And it was this battle of wills sometimes between Walter and Jesse. I say sometimes as too often Walter seemingly got away with his malicious acts of violence, in contrast to the mindset of Jesse who has seen too much bloodshed and wanted to avoid it as best he could.

The story would ask if it was possible to avoid violence, or if it was the only course of action with say the murder of Gus in the nursing home.  It would also make you root for the villain as Walter slowly became one, and made you root for Hank and Mike who were oddly purveyors of justice and attempted to make you get the bad guy.  Through the last series, you were still rooting for Walter until he crossed the line of domestic violence in the episode containing Hank's death, that was the act that made you want to get caught, or die and ultimately the act that made him leave New Mexico and go into hiding.

I saw an interview with Gilligan, where he said his writers stole from the best in reference to their ending matching The Searchers. I think they also stole from The Godfather, in that Walter is similar
to Michael Corleone played by Al Pacino; a man so vastly different from that young idealistic soldier,
that he is almost unrecognisable. Yet the way in which he slips into the skin of malevolence and murder is the most unsettling aspect of it all. Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel was as a watershed moment in American film history, as is Breaking Bad in American television history.

Is Walter the devil or just a bad man, I believe he was not a changed man, he was a man who learnt a lot about himself and became a version of himself he did not know was possible nor capable of such acts. How do we know what we are capable of doing until we do it the first time?

Breaking Bad is as close to the perfection people have envisioned in this box set culture. A show that was brilliantly written, wonderfully acted and produced week in, week out not missing a beat and containing surprise that kept you gripped throughout without going for cheap way outs and belittling the audience it treated with intelligence and respect.  The ending was as close to perfect to, because it tied up all the loose ends with a sense of gravitas and humanity befitting a show about living and dealing with your own mortality.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Thirty One Nil - Interview with James Montague

Following on from my review of Thirty One Nil last year, I was pleased to be afforded the chance to interview the author James Montague (@JamesPiotr) with the paperback release of the book by Bloomsbury Sport.

- What is the appeal of travelling to watch football around the world?

Doesn't everyone want to do that?! For me, the highest form of the game was international football. From a young age, before the internet, it was a window on the world. I vividly remember my Panini sticker album from Mexico 86 and it was glorious. The Iraq team! They all had these tremendous moustaches. So I grew up fascinated by the rest of the world and was lucky enough to get a job in the Middle East in my mid 20s, and started going to local games.It all started from that.

- Do you see it as an alternative or escape from the mainstream of Sky Sports coverage?
I can't stand what's happening to the game. The Sky-ification of football. It's an idiotic gentrification that is stripping football of its identity and will, eventually, kill the goose that laid the golden egg. You don't have to travel far to find the game's true soul, but for me travelling to different countries, understanding them through football, shows me that the game as we all remember it, the game we fell in love with, is still out there. It's messier sometimes, and fucked up, but who wants everything to be perfect? 

- What was your total mileage?
Christ knows. But if I wanted to offset my carbon usage I'd have to replant a forest the size of East Anglia.

- Were you afraid of anywhere you did travel to?
Yeah, there were times when I was properly scared. Egypt post revolution. When it was all falling apart. I remember being in Port Said, after the announcement that 20 people were being sentenced to death for their role in 72 Al Ahly fans killed at a  match in the city. Protests broke out there, dozens were shot dead, a curfew had been put on the city. I managed to get in just before the curfew started. It was chaos and terrifying. It seemed so far removed from football, but you have to follow a story all the way. Or you've failed.

- Would you visit these places if there was not a football match taking place (I have the same belief with cricket, would I travel to the sub-continent if a test match was not happening)?
Luckily, we live in a world where a football match is taking place in every country on earth every day. So there is nowhere I could possibly go where a football match isn't going on. Expect perhaps Antarctica.  

- Do you feel the minnows are closing the gap on the world powers, will the extra teams in Euro 2016 close it further?
Yeah. There was a lot of criticism of the expansion, but it has proved to be a genius move. Sport lives or dies on competitive balance so what was seen as a weakening of the tournament has motivated teams to up their games. Every game counts now because every team believes they have a chance. Hope is important. Look at Armenia, Albania, San Marino even. Everyone benefits from this system.  

- Why are smaller nations getting better?
Hope is a big factor. But football is getting smaller. You can watch any game in the world at any time online. Football across the world is becoming increasingly professionalised. That will improve hugely in the next 20 years. But the main reason some countries are making huge strides is money. Iceland is a case in point. They narrowly missed out on being the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup. It would be a record that would never have been broken. They invested heavily on indoor halls, for their harsh winter, and in training up coaches. They are lucky. They are one of the richest nations on earth so can afford it. But it shows what resources can achieve.  

- What are your thoughts on Russia and Qatar hosting the World Cup?

There has been so little scrutiny of Russia's World Cup. There is a very strong case that it should be moved elsewhere given Putin's actions in Ukraine. Qatar is little trickier. I was pleased the Middle East won the chance to host it. it is an important region that loves football. And having lived in the Gulf i wasn't at all surprised they won. Qatar and the UAE have been perusing these mega events for years. What is clear is that there is some very important scrutiny of Qatar including the kafala system. I started visiting worker camps when I lived in Dubai, in 2005. The treatment of humans in them is a disgrace. And the UAE has zero interest in reforming it. Qatar on the other hand has been forced to confront it. It is a far more reform minded place than the UAE or Saudi Arabia. So for that reason alone I hope they don't lose it. Kafalla is one of the world's great evils and if the World Cup can in any way help bring about its timely demise then I can live with a winter World Cup in 2022.

- What are you working on currently?
I'm typing this out in an Irish pub in Macedonia, covering the protests out here. I've moved to Belgrade and working on my next book, about money in football. But first I've got to get out of this god damn pub. They've had the same CD on for four hours now and if I have to here that Ke$ha song again I might kill someone.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Boring?

It's a strange word, boring. Boring by definition connotes mundanity and mediocrity, a mind numbing sense of lack of direction and purpose. And yet, when it is used in football to connate a type or brand of effect that is not of the appealing sort, pundits and fans jump at the word to prompt negativity and in effect jealousy.

Jealousy because rivals are not liking a certain team succeeding.  This was most apparent during Chelsea's 0-0 draw away from home at Arsenal on Sunday. A result that left Chelsea ten points clear with five games to play, requiring them to win only two more games to win the title. Such deliberate tactical planning by Jose Mourinho led critics to claim that Chelsea were doing a disservice to the league by not attempting to win in style at the Emirates. Admittedly, it was not a classic but the tactical battle was great to watch.

Mourinho is a good poker player, although his histrionics are not so on the touchline, he is one with his players who know what they have to do for him and he entrusts his players to do the job, hence why he has used a small batch of his squad in a throwback to the days of Liverpool in the 1980s with their 14 man Championship side.

Yet it does strike you as odd that Chelsea are being called boring, when they are trying not to lose. And since when has winning been boring? If Arsene Wenger was in the box seat, he would do the same thing. Remember the Invincibles of 2003/4, a great fabled team yes but a team that once it had the title claimed they struggled through the remaining fixtures to not lose, instead tamely playing football that was anything but invincible.

So while playing devils advocate you can perhaps see Wenger's point, the labelling is wrong and it is this type of football you expect of Mourinho in the sense that he is tactically astute and prepared to foresake flair for the need to succeed.

Mourinho is like New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick in that sense. Mourinho is the guy you love to hate, a guy you actually loathe to hate, but you cannot ignore the level of sustained success he has had over the years. Belichick bends the rules without breaking them, but do not forget for a defensive minded coach he had the highest scoring most dominant regular season of any team in NFL history; and Mourinho's charges have scored more goals than anyone else bar Manchester City.

But as Mourinho stated, the league is based on points won not goals scored. If you won 38 games 1-0, the thrill of victory and glory would outweigh any guilty feeling of boredom. Since when has celebrating been boring?