Thursday, 8 December 2016

This Is Us

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The new NBC show which is appearing on Channel 4 is one of those shows that comes along once in a while, and it is the sort of feelgood show that a nation in crisis needs.  Offering escapism from the trying nature of day to day life, the series offers a heartwarming glimpse of a life full of homespun notions of goodness and wellbeing.

Starting out with a silly Wikipedia reference, stating that any person shares their birthday with 18 million other people on the planet, we witness four people sharing their birthday. They are all 36, and it seems this is the mid-point crisis level for all three people.

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Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) is with his pregnant wife Rebecca (Mandy Moore) who is expecting triplets on his birthday.  When her water breaks they rush to the hospital.  We then switch to Kate (Chrissy Metz), an obese woman who is keen to lose her weight this time in spite of self-help post it notes adorning her fridge, she has a twin brother Kevin (Justin Hartley), an actor at a fork in the road of his career, between being taken seriously as an actor in spite of appearing in lowest common denominator comedy where he frequently takes his top off to show his washboard abdominals.

The fourth person is black man Randall (Sterling K. Brown - who was excellent in The People vs OJ Simpson), a modern day successful professional who has found his biological father by way of a private investigator. Randall is reluctant to make contact with him, as he left him outside a fire station on the day he was born.

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Having seen shows of this sunny disposition before (Thirtysomething, Ally McBeal) falling into the trap of having a good cast without the necessity of a solid script, This Is Us has the admirable quality of having a well written script that helps bring the best out of this well assembled ensemble and vice versa.

The script is clever as well such as when Randall describes his interaction with his father to his wife, as if it is some lame sitcom like 'The Man-ny' which Kevin is appearing in within the show; this willingness to refer to the intertextuality of lives and how similar people may watch the same shows in spite of racial differences is indicative of this unified world the show wants to picture.

The moments Randall confronts his estranged father and Kevin's breakdown on the set of his sitcom are neither histrionic striking the right balance between being heard and making sure they are said in the right way. Even the pediatrician who delivers Jack and Rebecca's triplets gives Jack a pep talk in the hall after the birth; it could be construed as too sweet for a serious moment, but the balance between the light and the delivery by Gerald McRaney is expertly handled.

While moments of saccharine may grate on bah humbugs in this seasonal time of year, those moments are necessary to the plot such as the birth of children or reunions of lost family members. The show does not ask too much of its audience, nevertheless, it leaves you smiling and beaming.

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The reveal at the end of the pilot episode of the connection between the four thirty somethings is a real eureka moment of plotting by creator Dan Fogelman, ably assisted by co-directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra. The twist allows for a more expansive exploration of the characters which will certainly get this viewer returning for more of this show's positivity.

This Is Us screens at 10pm on Channel Four weekly.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

College Basketball: Early Observations

The College Basketball is in full swing and with most teams close to playing their 10th regular season game after the early season tournaments now ended, conferences are in to the strength of their non-conference schedule.

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Fort Wayne triumphed over Indiana

In this instance, many teams can either decide to fill their card with cup cake victories whilst playing a top 25 side to look good in the eyes of the committee come Selection Sunday. The need for these games is to fulfill a season rota but also learn how your team is playing before the conference schedule comes into full swing.

Some games are built on rivalry in-state, such as the Big 12 West Virginia travelling to the ACC Virginia; both teams will be in the NCAA tournament but a win for either promised a big RPI victory. In this case, it was Bob Huggins' Western Mountaineers who left with the bragging rights and a road win to the resume.

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West Virginia in their starting back court formation

Others can find a defeat can be liberating. Indiana Hoosiers, so often a perennial underachiever with Tom Crean at the helm defeated Kansas Jayhawks on the opening night; then followed a loss on the road at Fort Wayne, Indiana. A crippling loss for the Hoosiers, but should Fort Wayne win the Horizon League or even finish a close 2nd with 25 wins they can be considered for the tournament. And not all defeats are bad, the Hoosiers themselves welcomed North Carolina, who at the time were undefeated and handed them their first loss of the season.

It is this merry-go-round or carousel of chaos that makes the College Basketball season so unpredictable at times. Due to the one and done rule, teams are frequently looking for new schemes and integrating personnel into those schemes  You will not see a team like Florida who won back to back titles under Billy Donovan and had a returning title side of four starters; Kentucky with their frequent revolving door of talent attempt it but even they can end up in the NIT.

Teams that look good thus far are sometime familiar, Kansas Jayhawks (7-1), North Carolina (8-1), title holders Villanova (8-0) proving it was not a fluke and that Jay Wright deserves more props than he receives and UCLA (9-0) who went into the Rupp Arena, Kentucky (7-1) and served up the Wildcats first defeat of the season.

The Bruins 97-92 victory was nothing to do with the Wildcats having an off day, but more to do with the collective talent of UCLA combining in spite of an off day for Lonzo Ball, their heralded guard who himself had an off day.

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Lonzo Ball silenced the Rupp Arena on Saturday

This victory which elevated the Bruins to #2 in the rankings behind Villanova, is indicative of a trend currently returning to College Basketball. Guard play and balanced scoring - up and down the divisions you can see good guard play making a comeback. From Kansas playing a small rotation with Devonte Graham and Frank Mason, Ball at UCLA to Al Freeman and Manu Lecomte at Baylor (8-0).

The idea of balanced scoring and not being over-reliant on a big forward in the paint means a team is harder to prepare for in opposition, utilises confident shot makers from behind the arc or in mid-range yet it asks for consistency at both ends of the court. Guards by definition are defenders, who hassle attackers forcing turnovers and steals then quickly scoring on the break.

Teams are scoring a lot, the Bruins scored 97 at Kentucky, a team who have scored over 100 points three times already this year. This is due to teams wanting to score more in possession and the growth of the three point shot, a trickle down effect from the success Steph Curry had in college up to the NBA.

There will still be good defending sides who make it difficult for teams to score and eat up their shot clock possession such as Louisville (7-1) and West Virgina (6-1), whose constant press will be hard to face for a full 40 minutes, and Villanova while they may not have the dynamic playmakers that set the NBA draft on fire, the diligence of the system will win them more games than they lose.

Markelle Fultz 22.7-6.7-6.6 on a 4-3 team

Games to watch for this week:
Markelle Fultz's Washington on the road at Gonzaga; Fultz is a top NBA prospect averaging 22.7 ppg, 6.7rpg and 6.6apg yet the team is 4-3 facing a tough road trip at undefeated Gonzaga (8-0) - Wednesday night.
Saturday - Battle of 2 undefeated teams - Villanova travel to Notre Dame (8-0) ranked #23
and a barn burner as Cincinnati (7-1) travel to Butler (8-0)

Keep watching this space for more CBB observation next to the aisle.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Missing: Series 2 review



The Missing was a successful television series written by the Williams brothers, Harry and Jack, which first appeared in 2014 starring James Nesbitt as a desperate father looking for his missing son after he disappears in France on a family holiday.  The series showed two parallel timelines between the incident when the boy disappears to the investigation some time later, led by the inquisitive detective Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo).


The series ended in a somewhat downbeat finale with Nesbitt's character traversing rural Europe still looking for his boy, with many characters broken beyond repair.  Many reviewers thought the series was a stand alone one, with little comeback expected.  Yet the Williams' have returned with a second series, this time however, Baptiste is the focal point of the drama.

Baptiste, is still on the trial of the missing girl Sophie Giroux, and his interest is pricked when a young British girl, Alice Webster, goes missing near to her home at the military camp of Eckhausen, Germany.  When Baptiste begins his investigations in 2014, he is of sound mind and his investigations begins to upset people as more skeletons are let out of the closet.


Again we have a dual narrative as we follow the fall-out of Alice's disappearance in 2014, along with the present day when 'Alice' supposedly returns to her home after escaping captivity.  However, as with most mystery-thrillers nothing is what it seems and the labyrinthe storyline takes the viewer on many twists and turns as Baptiste - who is fighting a brain tumour - becomes a pivotal figure travelling to the Middle East to uncover the truth when a military cover-up may be happening.

In this day and age, the sensitive subject matter of false imprisonment (Josef Fritzel among others) and the unsavoury detail of child sex abuse, the Williams' have taken these topics and used them to great effect to create a story of fear and mystery.


While the thread has been stretched over the eight episodes, we could have perhaps done without the sojourn to the Middle East, nevertheless the acting has been top notch. Karyo brings a rare humility to Baptiste, whose desire to find justice is all conquering even to the detriment of his short-term health.  Keeley Hawes, as Alice's mother, Gemma, continues her purple patch of recent roles bringing a steel to a grieving mother and while David Morrissey's Sam can come across a bit chauvinistic and ignorant, he portrays the rigidness expected of a stubborn man.

The entire ensemble helps elevate the series to your run of the mill whodunit show; from Laura Fraser as the cold Eve Stone, who is pregnant when we first meet her, sleeps with Sam and has to protect her weak with dementia father, Adrian (Roger Allam).  Yet the casting is superb across the board, from Julien's wife, Celia (Anastasia Hille) who share those brilliant intimate moments with Karyo pleading for him to return home to Derek Riddell as Press Liasion officer, Adam Gettrick; the performances are impressive throughout, not to mention the sterling work of the young cast especially Abigail Hardingham in various guises of Alice and Sophie.

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In a year of great drama on the BBC and the current clamour for true fiction such as 'Making A Murderer' it is great to see an original drama have you gripped from episode one to its conclusion; and even rarer to see a drama's second series be better than the original. The Missing Series 2 is the The Godfather Part 2 of television drams in that sense. That is the highest praise you can give this terrific series.

The Missing (Series 2) will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on 26th December from Aim Publicity.

Interview with Jason Vuic, author of The Yucks












































What was the genesis or beginnings of your research for The Yucks?

Well, I grew up in Florida.  I was born and raised there in a town called Punta Gorda about 100 miles south of Tampa.  I vaguely remember the Bucs run to the 1979 NFC Championship Game, but became a Bucs fan myself when several team members came to my local high school in 1981 or 1982 for a charity basketball game.  That's when I met Doug Williams, the Bucs' quarterback.  He looked like a super hero to me, plus he was an African-American quarterback in a league with no African-American quarterbacks, which even then, as an eight or nine year old, I found fascinating.  So, from then on I was a Bucs fan, even when Williams left the team in 1983 in a contract dispute, and even after the so-called "the Curse of Doug WIlliams," when the Bucs franchise suffered a mind-boggling 14 losing seasons in a row.  Years later I became a writer, and decided for my third book that I wanted to do something on my love affair with what historically has been the losingest franchise in the history of the league. 


Did it feel like a story too good to be true?

Yes, in some respects.  But that's what you look for as a writer...a story that's funny enough and interesting enough and engaging enough to carry the reader through 200 pages.  I also look for stories that defy common tropes.  My focus with The Yucks was on the worst team in NFL history, specifically the 1976 and 1977 Buccaneer teams that lost an all-time record 26 games in a row.  I didn't want to do a worst-to-first story, or a "Bad New Bears" story.  Those are too easy, and to me, boring. I wanted to write about how the Bucs began as a franchise and how and why they suffered through such a horrible losing streak. 



You grew up in the Florida area, do you recall the Yucks when you were younger?
Absolutely.  To us, growing up, Tampa was the big city...a somewhat distant city.  Interstate I-75, the main thorough south from Atlanta to Tampa and on south to Ft. Myers and Naples and across Alligator Alley to Miami, hadn't been finished yet.  We're talking in the early 1980s.  So, as a kid, my father and I would leave the house early in the morning, and drive light to light to light up old US 41, "Tamiami Trail," to attend Buccaneer games.  We'd get there, sit for hours in the roasting sun, watch the Bucs get their asses beat, then return home.  We get back at dark, tired and exhausted but somehow satisfied we'd gone through the effort. 


Have you always been an NFL fan?

Yes, certainly.  I've wavered in recent years, preferring college basketball and football, but NFL football has been America's most popular sport since at least 1970, and as kids we were a party to that.  I imagine its like the Premier League in Europe.  You can ignore it, or you can try to ignore it, but the most popular teams and players are cultural icons.


The stories of McKay thinking his college ideology could translate easily to the NFL still resonates with how illustrious college coaches falter at the professional level like Nick Saban and now Chip Kelly? Why did McKay fail and why does that step up still trip people up?

Well, McKay failed in the short run.  But he was, by 1979, the only coach to take an expansion team to the playoffs in 4 years.  That was the fastest any coach had ever done it.  I would say that McKay's college-like offense was incredibly simplistic, but he proved that with an elite defense and the right personnel, he could ultimately run it.  But, because there was no free agency in the NFL at the that time, it took several years of drafts, of drafting young players from the college ranks, to do it.

As for the jump from college to the pros...It's a different game.  The players are adults, not kids.  They're professionals, and it takes a different sort of finesse to get them to play for you.  The techniques you use to motivate college kids are different from the techniques you use with the pros.  Offenses are far more complex, too, and everyone at every position on every team, is a 1 percenter.  By that I mean...roughly 1% of high school kids play football in college, and just 1% of those make it to the pros. So scouting is fundamentally important.  A good player-personnel director and a good general manager are fundamentally important, too, and college coaches sometimes find it difficult to relinquish control.   


Do you feel failing like Steve Spurrier did at the Bucs drive him to succeed in coaching?

Maybe not specifically due to his one season with the Bucs, but I'd say, after spending his career on the bench in San Francisco, he was certainly unfulfilled.  This was a guy who won the Heisman Award at Florida, the award for the nation's best college player, but then was a backup quarterback for 8 or 9 years with a bad 49ers team.  He then lost every game in 1976 with the Bucs. Maybe coaching was a way to scratch the itch, as they say, or maybe to prove himself to his peers. Who knows?


What was the funniest story you came across?

 My favorite story, or stories, involved the Bucs' first owner, Hugh Culverhouse.  He was, without a doubt, the cheapest owner in the history of professional sports.  A tax attorney by training, Culverhouse was a micro-manager and a bean counter, and learned that he could pocket his portion of the NFL's TV and merchandising revenues while squeezing the team to make money.  For years, the Bucs had the fewest employees and the smallest headquarters in the league.  He'd trade away costly first-round draft picks for older, cheaper veterans, and he scrimped on team expenses in a variety of ways.  The team's airplane, for example, was leased not from American or United, but from McCullogh Chainsaws.  Once, when a player separated his shoulder in a game and trainers had to cut off his jersey to treat him, Culverhouse billed him for it. He billed roommates 38 cents each for a 75 cent phone call. There was a Coke machine in the locker room that charged players for Cokes. He was so cheap, in fact, that he gave each team employee one season ticket, because he knew that no one went to a pro football game alone.


Was there anything you could not print?

There were a few funny stories which were off the record. I wish I could tell you them but I can't.  I've promised not to.


-Have you been pleased by the response of the book?

The response has been great. I've done 20 or so radio and TV interviews, and a Florida book tour, and recently did Only a Game on NPR.  Sports Illustrated also did a snippet on the book as did the Christian Science Monitor. It's been a good run.


I notice you are not on Twitter, is that deliberate?

Yes, I'm kind of a Luddite when it comes to new media. I also didn't want to get into a tit for tat with current Buccaneer fans who didn't know where I was coming from. I love the Bucs, and this book was my way of coming to terms with their difficult history and origins.




I'm thinking about a true crime story though I plan to return to sports someday to do a book on the coming of the three-point line and the shot clock to college basketball. Those two things really did change the game.  Who knows? Maybe I'll do a second Yucks book someday, something like the "The Curse of Doug Williams," about the terrible teams of the 1980s.

The Yucks is out now from Simon & Schuster in Hardback available from all good book retailers.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Interview with Roland Lazenby, Author of 'Showboat'


       Why Kobe Bryant?
He was a player I first became interested in years ago, in 1996 while writing about Jordan. I decided to take a look at the new generation of players coming into the league to see which ones might inherit the mantle. He wasn’t a prime player as a rookie, but he stood out because of his immense work ethic. After I finished Michael Jordan, The Life, I began looking for another subject to write about. Sonny Vaccaro, the basketball kingmaker, suggested Bryant. “He’s the most complicated guy in the NBA,” Vaccaro said. He was right.

      How long did the book take to write?
      The publisher wanted me to write it in 10 months. I finished it in 14, writing seven days a week, 10-14 hours a day. It was quite a grind, but his story was fascinating to me.


     
      Bryant transcends his sport yet he seems an introvert personality. Was it hard to get people to talk about him?
      Yes, some people were fearful of upsetting him, just as some media personalities have admitted being fearful of having me on their shows because they don’t want to anger him. It’s an independent look, a biography, which can be difficult for huge stars. They all like to control their narrative, but Kobe really wants to control his narrative.

      Did your opinion of Bryant change as you wrote the book and got to the end?
      It varied depending on what part of the book I was writing. I wrote a book about his adjustment to the NBA in 1999, called Mad Game, The NBA Education of Kobe Bryant, when he was 19 to 21. I thought I understood him. I had no idea.


      Do you feel the criticism that Bryant did not play well with others (O'Neal in particular) ring true?
      In the book, I lay out the criticisms over that. Jordan caught the same flak. It’s a function of their skill, their talent, their personalities, their alpha competitive natures.

      Where does he sit in your list of all-time great NBA players?
      I don’t make lists of all time greats. I’m just a writer. I let those guys settle it on the court. Kobe is 3 on the all-time scoring list. As he says, that puts him in the conversation. It’s hard to claim superiority over guys like Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Magic Johnson (in no certain order).

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      What is the most impressive feat of his career? - 5 titles, the 81 game, the longevity of his career?
      Well, you’re supposed to play the game to win. I’ll take championships every time, especially five of them.
   
      Will he succeed if he ran a team? Will he be better than Jordan did?
      I admire Jordan as an owner. He took Charlotte, the Chernobyl of the NBA, and has revitalized that miserable franchise. Kobe’s a bright man, so he could certainly be an owner. He’s a bit aloof at times, but the people who work for his media companies seem to enjoy him. It would be a new gig, so I think we have to withhold judgment and see if that’s where he goes.
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      What is the state of the NBA right now?
      The NBA is a young league, and the game has gone to a new style. Some of it, the Warriors, is beautiful. But the pace and space style of today’s game also makes for some ugly teams. You just have to wait and see if post play makes a recovery in the game. Whatever happens, it’s going to take time.


Will we ever see another Kobe Bean Bryant?
Not in today’s game. It has changed. Kobe and Michael were very effective post players as guards. But the game is a jump-shooting game these days, make or miss. And fans deride the triangle offense as something from the past. One of the earliest offenses was screen and roll but people act like it’s a new invention.

Showboat is out now from Little Brown and Company now for £19.95 RRP, although the kindle edition is better with more pages.