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.

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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.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Olive Tree

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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.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017


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A glowing documentary that follows the post-NFL career of New Orleans Saints specials teams player, Steve Gleason, who shortly after retirement is diagnosed with ALS - Amyotrophic Lateral Sceloris or Lou Gehrig's Disease - and how his once physical body quickly detoriates and a sound literal mind slowly vanishes over a year.

The director Clay Tweel is lucky in respect that an unsung player such as Gleason becomes this incredible walking and talking document about the human spirit and how we can overcome. Tweel is the director and editor of the film, yet the narrator and producer of the content is Gleason himself; a sportsman who does not suffer from vanity or brand awareness, Gleason documented much of his life by means of videotaping or camera phone from his teenage years to college days to archiving his off-season trips overseas when experiencing adventure holidays.

This zest for life continues for Gleason in his retirement and led to him meeting his rock, Michel, a free spirit too who becomes his wife and mother to their son, Rivers.  Their relationship is one of enlightenment and joy, and then Steve starts feeling pains in his arms and chest.

After the diagnosis, Michel becomes pregnant and they go on a two month road trip to Alaska, on this trip Steve's body starts diminishing which hurts Michel yet Steve is eager to not have it stop him experiencing life to the full.  Steve starts a video blog for his unborn child - teaching him about relationships and family, and also a video diary of his day-to-day realisation that he is slowly going more inward as the condition takes hold.

What set Steve Gleason apart from other NFL players was his determination and drive to achieve, Gleason played linebacker at college for Washington State, however, he was considered too small for the position in the professional game yet his speed and desire to win led him to be drafted by the New Orleans Saints who utilised him as a special teams gunner, a player who specifically attacks the punter when he kicks the ball away to attempt a turnover or block to regain possession for the offence.

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In the annals of the Saints franchise, Gleason has a play for which he is synonymous - the blocked punt of the Atlanta Falcons' punter in the first few minutes of the first game back at the New Orleans Superdome following the horror of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The game was September 25th 2006, and Gleason's play became christened 'The Rebirth' and helped galvanised a city and fanbase that desperately needed something to cheer about.  Much is made about the way Gleason played, with a hunger and a controlled anger, coming from a broken home his Dad alludes to the fact that the field of play allowed Steve to be cathartic and let out his anger.

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Gleason's Dad also says maybe the illness stems from the way Steve played - so hard, so fast - yet ALS is apparent in adults not on the physical level of Gleason and there is no discussion on the CTE discussion so prevalent in the NFL currently.

Nonetheless, the film is a moving document on the treatment of ALS and the fight Gleason shows is paramount to him overcoming his illness as best he can becoming more of an inspiration in retirement than he did when playing - his foundation Team Gleason raises money to help similar ALS sufferers to go on trips with family and he went to Congress to pass the Gleason Act meaning the technology to help ALS sufferers talk via computers be available on Medicare; a legacy perhaps far more reaching than a blocked punt. The punt was a second was a moment; the Act will live on and help far more people.

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The film takes time to show the tragedy of the illness on the Gleason family, how Michel has to cope with a newborn child and an ill husband; the living grief she suffers as a chasm slowly comes between their loving relationship yet she is able to grow as an artist and be extrovert in that respect whilst supporting Steve.

There is also a telling sub-text on the dichotomy and difficulty of father-son relationships; how Steve's with his own father has altered over time due a difference of opinion on faith and religion, yet they have slowly grown closely together due to the illness. This is juxtaposed with the closeness Steve - who will be unable to touch and talk to his new son - and how he endeavours to create a vital relationship by way of his video diary and creating a bond by any means.  Gleason due to his intellect also becomes an insightful interviewer such as the moment he asks Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam, Gleason's favourite band and huge supporters of his cause) about his own absent father bringing the rock and roll star to tears himself.

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A complex subject is given a touching and emotional documentary which at times will have you tearing up, yet Gleason remains an uplifting film about the overcoming of obstacles in your life, how only you yourself can create the legacy you want to leave behind and how debilitating illness does not necessary mean the end of the road.  This is as much a film about patience and how it pays off if you have it.

Gleason is released in cinemas on Friday 17th March from