Tuesday, May 26, 2015

AFL Power Rankings: Round 8 2015

In Greater Western Sydney’s three-and-a-bit-year stint in the AFL I have several times referred to them as terrible, or some variant thereof. For the first time ever this week, GWS has a positive rating on these rankings. I am now prepared to say that the Giants are good. They may actually be more than good, given the rate at which they are improving. The Giants have won six of their first eight matches for the season, including beating highly-ranked teams like Hawthorn and Adelaide.

Meanwhile, the newer club that was expected to be good, the Gold Coast Suns, now sit back on the bottom of the rankings. They may be off the bottom within a week, given there is a group of teams that are basically as bad, including Carlton, St. Kilda, Brisbane, and possibly Melbourne. The flipside to this group of bad teams is that there are twelve teams with positive ratings, from Hawthorn all the way down to Essendon and Collingwood.

The other point I thought was of note is that the top four rated teams are now clearly the top four: Hawthorn, West Coast, Sydney, and Fremantle. While many football followers probably have some doubts about the credentials of the Eagles, the other teams in that group will come as barely any surprise, and there looks at this stage a good chance the premier will come from one of those teams.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 105

News this week broke that Bill Simmons has left the sports entertainment network ESPN, where he had worked for 15 years. As I’ve highlighted on this blog before I am a big fan of Simmons’ writing, particularly his writing on the National Basketball Association. Here are links to what I think was some of his best stuff:

Simmons’ annual ‘NBA Trade Value’ columns were always fun. The idea behind them was that Simmons ranked the NBA players in terms of their ‘trade values’, in that any given player would theoretically be traded by their team if that team could get back a player that was higher on the list. Grantland recently collected the whole lot, dating back to 2001.

Also fun was Simmons’ annual NBA Draft Diaries. Basically Simmons kept a running diary of his thoughts and predictions while he was watching the NBA Draft Coverage. (I used a similar format on my blog post on reading the final Harry Potter book.)

Simmons also often used the ‘retro-diary’ format, such as for his re-watching of the 1987 NBA All-Star Game. Even within the column itself Simmons admitted this was possibly taking sports-obsessiveness to new levels. However, his preview of the eventually good but hardly famous 2011 NBA All-Star Game probably went even further in its obsessiveness of NBA greats.

Simmons had a bunch of amusing ideas that he liked to repeat throughout his columns. One was the Ewing Theory, which was the theory that sometimes team play better without their supposedly best player. Another was the Entertaining-As-Hell Tournament, which was an idea for determining the last couple of spots in the NBA playoffs. Another was the Pyramid format for sports Halls of Fame, which was an idea he took to epic, rambling, but entertaining, levels in his ‘Book of Basketball’. I also liked his questions for determining the NBA MVP, but hated his idea that if no-one ‘deserved’ the award it should be rolled over into the next season.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

AFL Power Rankings: Round 7 2015

Back in 2012 Hawthorn started the season at 4-4, and sat outside the top eight, and yet these rankings had the Hawks ranked at #1. This reflected that the Hawks, when they were winning, were winning big, whereas their losses at that stage had been narrow, and to good (or at least decent) teams. As we know, the wins soon started coming, and the Hawks were the minor premier that year, and probably should have been the premier.

Similarly Hawthorn started this season 3-3, but these rankings had it clearly still on top. The Hawks’ three losses this year, while possibly setting back a little their chances of finishing in the top two, are considered here as nothing to be too alarmed about. None of those losses have been big, while Hawthorn is still winning big, as exemplified by its 105-point win against Melbourne on the weekend. The second ranked team here, West Coast, is also following this pattern in its results.

But before I get all ‘I told you so’, I should point out that, since they hit rock bottom on the rankings here a couple of weeks ago, the Brisbane Lions have actually been playing OK. ‘The way things are going I can’t see Brisbane giving the bottom spot back for more than a week or two,’ I said… Well, clearly things haven’t been going as they were. The bottom five teams are so close that one bad loss could still see the Lions ranked last here again, but there are a few other teams now that look more likely, or at least as likely, of being worse this season.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

AFL Power Rankings: Round 6 2015

The Western Bulldogs and Collingwood, though much improved this season, are not rated here as among the top teams, and this weekend’s results added support to that. The Pies lost comfortably to a middle-of-the-road team in Geelong, while the Dogs lost to the lowly-ranked St. Kilda. For Collingwood, even though I suggested last week that these rankings may be underrating the Magpies a little due to their injuries last season, easy matches against Brisbane, St. Kilda, and Carlton had boosted their ladder position. The Dogs have had the more impressive wins, against the Eagles, Crows, and Swans, but their good form this season does not yet outweigh their bad form in 2014.

Talking of teams that may be slightly underrated by these rankings, Fremantle may fall into that category if one thinks that establishing a match-winning lead should be rated more highly. In these rankings only the final margin matters. There have been a few games this season, including in the Dockers’ win against the Bombers on the weekend, where their lead has been much bigger than the eventual final margin. Based on the final winning margin, Fremantle’s performance against Essendon was only roughly about par. Because of these second half fadeouts the Dockers are rated here as no more than one of the best five teams, despite being a couple of games clear on top of the ladder. Still even if they are relatively close to their rivals in terms of ability, a top two finish for Fremantle would give them a pretty good chance of making the Grand Final again, based on the home ground advantage they would gain for the finals series.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Wooden Finger Five – May 2015

5.I Don’t Wanna Fight – Alabama Shakes

This is now going to be the song I think of when I think of Alabama Shakes. Or Alabama BBQ sauce. Or malted milkshakes.

4.Let It Happen – Tame Impala

I meant to include this one last month, but forgot. It opens with an ‘ooh-mow-mow-ma-ma’ sound that I couldn’t quite place at first, but finally pegged it as (most likely coincidentally) the opening lyric from one of the tracks from Spoon’s latest album (‘Outlier’). Following ‘Elephant’ and ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’ purveyors of psychedelic music clips must be queuing up to make the video for this epic seven-minute track.

3.Minimal Affection – The Vaccines

The Vaccines are one of those bands who came roaring out of the blocks with an opening track – ‘Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)’ – that they haven’t matched since. On ‘Minimal Affection’ though they seem to perfect the laid-back, deadpan, early ‘80s-like style that Julian Casablancas and the Strokes have been striving for over the past decade. It somehow, unexpectedly, seems to come a lot more naturally to the Vaccines. I am not sure that they could do it again, but if they could then, as much as I still long for the band that was seemingly going to pump out hit after hit like ‘Ra Ra Ra’, I’ll pay a bit more notice.

2.Thought I Was A Spaceman – Blur

While being more than merely a repeat of past glories Blur’s first album in a decade, ‘The Magic Whip’, does evoke several of the different periods of their career. Opener ‘Lonesome Street’ recalls the Britpop of ‘Parklife’, ‘Go Out’ and its heavy, scratchy guitar sound feels like it is from their self-titled album, while ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ and its violins would fit in pretty well with Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz work. ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ is a bit like Gorillaz too, crossed with some of the spaced-out tracks from Blur’s most ponderous album ‘13’. Some of Blur’s best tracks for me are when Albarn’s voice is at its most emotive and beautiful (stuff like ‘Ambulance’ and ‘The Universal’), and this is one of those tracks for me, making it possibly my favourite from the new album.

1.Vertigo – Mini Mansions

I didn’t know who Mini Mansions were until about a month or two ago; they are a Queens of the Stone Age-associated ‘side project’, though only to the extent that QOTSA’s bassist is in the group. Their latest and second album, ‘The Great Pretenders’ is an enjoyable romp through ‘60s and ‘70s classic rock/pop styles – T-Rex, the Kinks, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and probably bunches of other bands from that era. ‘Vertigo’ is the ‘one with Alex Turner’, with the Arctic Monkeys frontman contributing a verse to this track. These sort of things can feel tokenistic (see 70 per cent of hip-hop tracks with ‘special guests’), but Turner actually adds something here with his trademark complicated wordplay. He still sounds too clever for his own good, but it works here, and the chorus is lovely. (Tip for heterosexual men: watch the videoclip, online, because you won’t see it on TV that often.)

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Film Review - Avengers: Age of Ultron

This was one, in theory, for the long-time Avengers fans. The first Avengers movie had the star characters, the characters who were already known to the general public through their films if nothing else. The second Avengers movie, ‘Age of Ultron’, puts a higher emphasis on characters that are more closely tied to the comic book – Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, the Vision – characters that have long been members of the Avengers, and that without that membership, would probably have been mostly forgotten decades ago. When our nine Avengers face off against Ultron’s robotic army near the movie’s end we basically have the characters that, minus a couple of members, have been the core of the Avengers throughout their fifty year history. For many millions of people it is a cool action sequence; for several hundred thousand hardcore fans who have grown up reading the characters the moment may strike them as slightly surreal.

I liked this movie probably about as much as I did the first instalment. One good point about the Marvel sequels is that, with the introductions out of the way, they can hit the ground running. In part because of that I generally find them more engaging than the originals: ‘X2’, ‘Spider-Man 2’, ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’, and ‘Thor: The Dark World’ among them. In contrast to the first movie the Avengers are no longer feeling each other out, but fighting (and partying) as a group.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Marvel production without conflicts between our heroes. In this case the main source of conflict is Tony Stark/Iron Man deciding to create an artificial intelligence to save the world, and deliberately choosing not to consult with his teammates in the process. As most people will already know that artificial intelligence – the robot Ultron – almost immediately rebels and causes massive havoc. I have never been a big fan of Ultron, who has moved between being a cheesy robot hiding out in a convent and full-scale genocidal maniac. This movie didn’t necessarily make me a fan, but James Spader and his menacing voice played Ultron about as well as I reckon he could be played.

Other elements I also had mixed feelings about, though generally on the positive side of the ledger. The Hulk/Black Widow romance was a strange addition given that it is completely foreign to the comics, and was a little bit awkward at times, but Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johannson seem to make it work. The lesser-known Avengers I mentioned above also have their backstories tweaked, but apart from perhaps Hawkeye the family man, none of them are major reinventions of those characters. The ‘Tony Stark as creator of Ultron’ bit has also drawn mixed reactions from fans (in the comics it was Henry Pym); still the idea that a hero unintentionally created a dangerous menace remains, and Robert Downey Jr. remains a pretty good figure to build your franchise around.

Like most of the good Marvel movies the story does not necessarily scale the same heights as the very best of the comic book stories but it nestles pretty well among the better ones. Apart from the final battle highlights are the aforementioned party scene, a destructive battle between Iron Man and a mind-controlled Hulk, the reaction of the Scarlet Witch to Ultron’s devastating blow, and the integration of other characters from throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not everything hits the mark, and some quips are stretched or fall a bit flat. But a lot of work has gone into getting this massive production running smoothly, and for the most part it works. Hopefully it all still works when the final chapter is spread over two whole films a few years down the track.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

AFL Power Rankings: Round 5 2015

There was some action at the top, middle, and bottom of the rankings this week.

At the top last year’s premier Hawthorn are now clearly the number one team, with about two goals break on the Swans. Meanwhile Sydney’s loss to the Bulldogs has put it closer to the teams ranked third to fifth: Port Adelaide, Fremantle, and West Coast. Perhaps Sydney’s win against Port a few weeks back was its last gasp for 2015 as a clear top two side?

In the middle, Collingwood rises up a few spots, with the Magpies having won four of their first five games for 2015. There is an argument that these rankings have been underrating the Magpies this year. While Collingwood was horrid towards the end of 2014, that may have been due in part to its significant amount of injuries, which these rankings do not account for.

At the bottom Brisbane replaces St. Kilda as the lowest-ranked team. Arguably it became clear a couple of weeks ago that the Lions are now the worst team in the AFL. While the Saints have still been bad they have put in a couple of decent performances. Most of Brisbane’s performances this year have been dreadful. The way things are going I can’t see Brisbane giving the bottom spot back for more than a week or two before the season is finished.

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 104

It still seems strange that this comic book I picked up at the newsagent when I was nine years old, and read throughout the entire 1990s without knowing another reader, became the world’s current biggest movie franchise. But so it is. To mark the release of the new Avengers movie, ‘Age of Ultron’, here are some Avengers-related links:

These are the 50 greatest Avengers stories as voted for by the knowledgeable Comic Book Resources readers. A few months back I came up with my own recommended reading list.

The Wall Street Journal looks at the colours of Avengers covers over their 50 year history. The Avengers’ world has gotten somewhat darker.

Walt Hickey at Fivethirtyeight seems like a bit of an Avengers fan. His recent articles include which Avengers are most likely to show up in future movies, how the Avengers’ movie line-up is stuck in the 1970s, and the physics of Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s shield.

A list of the 9 ‘worst’ Avengers, and another similar list, though called the 10 ‘lamest’. While I wholly support Doctor Druid’s appearance on these types of lists I actually quite like Starfox. On the subject of the ‘worst’ of the Avengers here are the 10 dumbest Avengers moments Stan Lee ever wrote.

Yes, I like the Avengers and have written a lot about them myself. One of my first big topics on this blog was a pseudo-critical history of the Avengers. I also posted what would be my Avengers team if I was in charge. And finally here was my review of the first Avengers movie. I saw the second movie yesterday, so I’ll post my review of that sometime soon.