Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro

I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier last weekend, and thought it was about as good as a Captain America movie could be.  For me that puts it up with the first two X-Men movies, the first two (original) Spider-Man movies, and the first Iron Man movie as Marvel film adaptations that pretty much make the most out of their material. A lot of the movie draws from what I believe to be the greatest run of Captain America comics ever, writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting’s run in the mid 2000s. That run used essentially all the best Captain America supporting characters there are – the Falcon, the Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Agent 13 – all of whom make significant appearances here. It also repositioned Cap as an action/espionage type hero, and that is the approach wisely taken in The Winter Soldier.
The second Captain America flick also supports my view that Marvel stories are better once the characters have been established and you are thrown into the middle of things, as this movie hits full speed almost right from the start. Scarlett Johansson has her best outing as the Black Widow yet, and Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, and Anthony Mackie all put in solid performances.  The mystery of who the Winter Soldier is will be no mystery to recent readers of the comic book series, and even in the movie it is not really treated as much of a revelation, but it does add some emotional weight to a character and movie that might otherwise be a little on the wooden side. Some reviews have made a bit out of the political themes in the movie - as if it is a major surprise that Marvel films would venture into that territory - but they do not take over the film, and one can also enjoy it is a straightforward action flick. The WWII homage of the first Captain America movie was not a bad way to go until the character and his surrounding universe was more established, but this is much, much better.
After watching The Winter Soldier I then walked three cinemas down the hall and sat through the second (or fifth, depending on how you look at it) Spider-Man movie.  Rise of Electro has a few more flaws than The Winter Soldier, not least its name. Although I struggle to figure out what other subtitle might work (The Rage of Harry Osborn?), just leaving off a subtitle altogether seems to me preferable. The character of Electro himself does not fully work either, while actor Jamie Foxx makes a reasonable go at it, the character seems like a sideline to the main Peter Parker/Gwen Stacy/Harry Osborn drama. Which, as many have noted, gives you a sense that there is not too much new to see here – even those who have only seen the movies know about OsCorp, and scientific experiments, and what the Brooklyn Bridge in the background means.
But a few points of credit here. One, the movie comes up with what I thought was a clever twist on Spider-Man’s origin, in particular why Peter got powers after being bitten. Two, assuming you have not read spoilers, the resolution of the Gwen Stacy/Green Goblin plot will keep most viewers second-guessing right up to the very last moment, even those familiar with the comics. Three, for all its strengths, you could pretty much tell what sentimental words were going to come out of Peter’s, or Mary Jane’s, or Aunt May’s mouths in the original trilogy, whereas here the dialogue – particularly between Peter and Gwen – often throws you slightly off-base. Which is enough to make this worth a look, even if just on DVD. Unlike other Marvel movies, you can probably skip the credits though.

Monday, April 21, 2014

AFL Power Rankings: Round 5 2014

RISING UP

With their win over the top-ranked Hawks, Geelong take back the #2 rank spot that they lost to Fremantle late last year, when the Dockers took their performances up a notch in September. The Cats have picked up nine ranking points in the past couple of weeks.

FALLING DOWN

North Melbourne appears to have slipped a bit in the early parts of 2014, with their loss to Collingwood in this round moving them down to sixth. However, this would still suggest they could well make a finals appearance in 2014, something they missed in 2013 due to losing several close games. 

ALSO OF NOTE

Not much – despite my awful tipping record this week, the results were not that unexpected, save possibly St. Kilda’s win over the Bombers.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Wooden Finger Five – April 2014


Last week, I watched a BBC documentary from a few years back called ‘Prog Rock Britannia’. Like many of my generation, who grew up with the punk of Nirvana on one hand and the pop of Oasis and Blur on the other, I have generally considered progressive rock to be a load of pretentious old twaddle. But this documentary was excellent, containing interviews with many of the main players from this era of British music, including members of Yes, ELP, King Crimson, Procol Harum, and Genesis (Phil Collins in fact). For the rest of the weekend I was seeking out ten minute suites with ridiculous titles … which I often turned off halfway through, but still… Prog rock had some good stuff, and here is some of it.

1.       Roundabout – Yes

I first listened to Yes’ ‘Fragile’ album in full a few years back, and my affection for this track was cemented by soon after discovering it was on my newly obtained Rock Band 3 game. Even on a relatively tame difficulty level I almost broke my fingers trying to play plastic guitar along with this monster track. It’s quite catchy, Jon Anderson’s voice sounds quite nice rather than fey, and the first couple of minutes of the guitar solo does actually make your neck hairs stand upright. Amount of time that could be edited out of song: three minutes.

2.       The Carpet Crawlers – Genesis

After watching the Prog Rock Britannia documentary, and seeing Peter Gabriel’s over-the-top costumes I spent a fair amount of time googling ‘peter gabriel genesis’, which then led to googling ‘peter Gabriel haircut’. I have listened to a lot of Gabriel’s solo output over the years, but pretty much nothing of his Genesis output. For a person who grew up listening to ‘Invisible Touch’ I was impressed by how well the band could play, and how much they, well, rocked, and Peter Gabriel’s voice is unmistakable even if the musical style is quite different to his ‘Sledgehammer’ or ‘Solsbury Hill’. ‘The Carpet Crawlers’ is a good sample of Genesis’ best era for anyone who does not feel like committing 10-plus minutes listening to a track. Amount of time that could be edited out of song: one and a half minutes.

3&4. 21st Century Schizoid Man and Fallen Angel – King Crimson

In true prog rock fashion I am combining my two favourite Crimson tracks in one entry. I have to make the heathen-like admission that my first encounter with King Crimson’s masterful ’21 Century Schizoid Man’ was the sample that was used in Kanye West’s ‘Power’.  When I first heard the full track in a sufficiently light-minded state on an airplane flight early in the morning, it blew said mind away. Well, at least half the track did – the ‘ironclaw’ part that sounds like it invented alt-rock rather than the free-form jazz-like part in the middle. ‘Fallen Angel’ comes from King Crimson’s mid-70s ‘Red’ album,  and might seem a bit too standard to fit in the prog rock genre, but it is beautifully played and it still has a change in time signature for prog rock fans to appreciate. Amount of time that could be edited out of song – Schizoid Man: four minutes, Fallen Angel: one minute.

5.       Learning To Fly – Pink Floyd

This is not so much prog rock as classic ‘80s rock, but I have pulled it out as I also watched a pretty good Pink Floyd documentary in the past week, and I think this is a fairly underrated track by Pink and cohorts.  Dave Gilmour’s guitar sounds like it was bought and then discarded in 1985, but this track still has an epic feel to it that I find hard to resist. I remember being about eight years old on a houseboat interstate when I first heard this track on the TV, and I immediately felt like I had been fast-tracked into moody young adulthood. That memory might help explain why this track still feels to me nowadays like something beyond my own life experience, even as I generally feel like I’ve long outgrown most of the Floyd’s output. Amount of time that could be edited out of song: half a minute.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

AFL Power Rankings: Round 4 2014

RISING UP

Many observers picked Port Adelaide, after last year’s improvement, to slide back down the ladder in 2014, and given that I assessed the Power’s final ladder position as flattering them a bit, I nodded my head in agreement. But Port has improved more than almost any other team, and this week they climb from 8th to 5th in the rankings with a massive win over Brisbane.

FALLING DOWN

Richmond swap places with the Power after another disappointing result, this time against Collingwood. Given that, prior to last year, the last time they played a final (2001) Carlton and Richmond both fell away badly the next season, I am hoping as a Richmond supporter they do not meet again in a final until 2055.

ALSO OF NOTE

Four of the bottom seven teams – Carlton, Gold Coast, Brisbane, and St. Kilda – lost over six ranking points this week. But on the other hand, bottom placed Melbourne gained over six ranking points from their win over the Blues.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

AFL Power Rankings: Round 3 2014

RISING UP

Essendon continues its customary early season practice of making my rankings look foolish by playing well above its ranking spot. (It then usually finishes off the season making my rankings look foolish by playing well below its ranking spot.) The Bombers move back into positive territory in terms of ranking points after beating up on Carlton.

FALLING DOWN

Carlton had the biggest fall in ranking points this week, and has had the biggest fall in ranking points so far this season. Along with the Crows, the Blues look to be a step below how they finished off 2013.

ALSO OF NOTE

By handily beating Fremantle, Hawthorn takes back the top spot that it has held for most of the past two years, but lost to the Dockers last week.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Most Dominant VFL/AFL Season Ever

Which team had the most dominant VFL/AFL season ever? One way to measure this might be to take the team with the best winning percentage (including finals).

Essendon
2000
96.00
Carlton
1908
95.00
Collingwood
1929
95.00
Essendon
1950
95.00
South Melbourne
1918
93.75
Geelong
2008
92.00
Carlton
1995
92.00
Melbourne
1956
90.00
Essendon
1962
90.00
Collingwood
1903
89.47

It seems like a pretty good list – most of the consensus dominant teams make an appearance, although no Hawthorn team from the ‘80s, or Brisbane Lions team from the 2000s gets on the list. But maybe some of those teams just beat up on bad teams all year? Another way to measure a team’s dominance is to work out how many standard deviations their winning percentage was above the average (the average is of course 50 per cent). That is, if the competition is relatively uneven, a high winning percentage still looks impressive, but slightly less so. Putting aside finals, that gives this table:
Essendon
2000
2.34
Geelong
2008
2.12
Carlton
1995
2.02
Hawthorn
1988
1.97
St. Kilda
2009
1.94
Melbourne
1958
1.93
Carlton
1908
1.91
Hawthorn
1989
1.85
Essendon
1950
1.85
Melbourne
1956
1.80

I like this list, but it has some weaknesses. The main one is this – in 1929, Collingwood won 100 per cent of their home and away games (they lost a final, hence why their overall winning percentage was 95 per cent), but cannot crack the top 10 in the adjusted winning percentage table. Granted, it looks like the competition was very uneven that year, but what more could the Magpies do? Another way to look at dominance then is to work out how many standard deviations their percentage (points scored divided by points conceded) was above the average. There is no limit to percentage, and I tend to argue that, while wins and losses are ultimately how a team’s ladder position is decided, a team’s percentage possibly gives a better indication of how ‘dominant’ they were. I am not going for raw percentage here, because that would just give a list of teams from the 1890s/1900s. The best teams in terms of adjusted percentage are as follows:
Geelong
2007
2.57
Essendon
2000
2.55
Geelong
2008
2.48
Brisbane
1999
2.47
Melbourne
1957
2.38
Carlton
1976
2.30
Hawthorn
1988
2.29
West Coast
1991
2.23
Collingwood
1929
2.13
Carlton
1908
2.12

There are a few ‘oddballs’ on this list, or are there … ? Perhaps the Brisbane Lions of 1999, which had a very good percentage in an even year, were really the ‘best’ team of the Lions’ ‘dynasty’ – they only won less game than the 2001 and 2002 teams, and likely would have won the premiership that year if not for losing the preliminary final against North Melbourne (assuming they played Carlton). Geelong in 2007 also appears to be more dominant than their winning percentage suggested – if a couple of close losses that year were reversed they would appear in the top list for winning percentage also.
But one team keeps appearing at or near the top – Essendon in 2000. The Bombers also more than doubled their opponents’ scores in the finals, a feat also achieved by Hawthorn in 1988, Carlton in 1908, and Geelong in 2007, but not significantly bettered. They may not have gone on to be dominant in subsequent years, but for me the conclusion looks clear – the Essendon 2000 squad had the most dominant VFL/AFL season ever.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

AFL Power Rankings: Round 2 2014

RISING UP

After they finished 5th on the actual ladder in 2013, many observers thought that Port Adelaide would fall back down in 2014, and given where the Power were in my rankings, I agreed with them. But instead Port Adelaide has improved more than almost any other team so far, handily beating fellow middle-rung teams Carlton and Adelaide. As a result, the ranking system now rates them as a top eight team as well.

FALLING DOWN

The Showdown result was less kind to Port’s cross-town rivals, the Adelaide Crows. The Crows’ nine goal loss has them dropping from 6th to 9th.

ALSO OF NOTE

We now have a new #1 team in the Fremantle Dockers. The Dockers really picked up steam in the closing stages of 2013, and have continued that form into the early stages of 2014. We also have a new bottom-ranked team, with Melbourne taking over that position from the much-improved GWS Giants.