Gilbey on Film: you say you want a revolution

Don't believe the hype about Kick-Ass.

As I wrote in the NS two weeks ago, I was amused and entertained by Kick-Ass, a violent comedy about a wave of DIY superheroes. Parts of the film have been described as shocking, but surely the biggest shock has been the adoration the movie has attracted from some quarters -- especially the Guardian, which described Kick-Ass on its website as "defiantly unconventional" and a "remarkable vision". Then Peter Bradshaw's frothing five-star rave ("thoroughly outrageous . . . fantastically anarchic . . . surrealist . . . monumentally mad and addled . . . a genius for incorrectness and pure provocation . . . . more energy and satire and craziness in its lycra-gloved little finger than other films have everywhere else. . . ") was followed by an approving capsule review in the paper's Saturday supplement, the Guide, which insisted that the movie "doesnt play by the rules".

The truth is that it plays by every rule. It doesn't rip up the rule-book so much as rewrite it in eye-catching neon.

The Financial Times and the Telegraph were scathing about the film, while the Independent and Observer were mercifully level-headed. But feverish approval was not restricted to the Guardian. I had to laugh when I heard the picture being discussed on Radio 4's Saturday Review, where Ekow Eshun delivered possibly my favourite line spoken anywhere, about anything, so far this year. He praised the film for "this desire to go to offensive places and own them as collective spaces". That is definitely what he said: I just went back and checked on the iPlayer. That's not an express ticket to Pseuds' Corner -- it's more like lobbying for a residency there.

But back to Kick-Ass: a good night out, yes, but no revolution. Here are a few reasons why, in addition to the ones I mentioned in my original review. Beware -- here be spoilers.

Fathers and sons. Like virtually every other mainstream movie in the western world, Kick-Ass has no place for women. The hero's mother dies in the first ten minutes or so. The mother of the foul-mouthed, 11-year-old crime-fighter Hit-Girl dies in a comic-strip flashback. (I can't remember if she expired in childbirth but, if not, she may as well have done.) The mother of Red Mist is glimpsed briefly at the breakfast table, then never seen again. Perhaps she died, too. The important thing is: no females, not real ones at any rate. There's something callous about that; you'll notice it everywhere. The makers of the Disney film Chicken Little got to the stage of casting the hero's single mother before deciding that it would be more dramatic to give him a single father instead. If you see that movie, keep an eye out for the character of the (now deceased) mother, consigned to a framed photograph on the mantelpiece. Brutal.

Women. OK, I exaggerated. There are women in Kick-Ass, but they're not real like the men. Hit-Girl isnt really a girl, but an adolescent lad's idea of a cool kid sister, meaner than any boy and with a mouth to match. The hero's love interest is only there to set up a running joke: she thinks he's gay. When she finds out he's not, and leaps straight into bed with him, you may wonder why the writers bothered with the gag anyway, unless the idea of a straight man being mistaken for a gay man is inherently funny. Which it may well be, unless you happen to be looking for a B&B.

Uxoriousness. I did wonder why the camera gazed so lovingly at that billboard of Claudia Schiffer. I didn't realise until I read other people's reviews that she is married to the director, Matthew Vaughn. Now it just looks sinister in the context of the film's insistence elsewhere on keeping its women in their place. What better way than by putting them on billboards in lingerie? (Vaughn began his career as a producer for Guy Ritchie. Ritchie has similar trouble with female characters -- remember Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? You could use your thumbs to count that movie's non-decorative female roles. And you'd still have two thumbs left.)

The catchphrase. "With no power comes no responsibility." A neat line, you might think, and one which fans of the film have celebrated as both a jibe at Spider-Man (cheeky, really, since Kick-Ass steals most of its first 40 minutes from Sam Raimi's nicely judged 2002 adventure) and a symbol of the picture's amorality. What doesn't get mentioned is that the line is followed by the words: "Except that's not quite true . . ." The screenwriters giveth, and the screenwriters taketh away. If it wasn't quite true, why leave the line in? Oh, I see, because it gets a laugh. To which the only response can be: Get thee to a script editor.

You'll notice I haven't even included the highly dubious BBC cross-promotion that allows Jonathan Ross (whose wife, Jane Goldman, co-wrote the script) to plug the film on his Friday-night talk show in an interview with the star, Aaron Johnson. (Ross is also chums with the writer of the Kick-Ass comic-book, Mark Millar, who based a character in an earlier comic on the chat-show host.) And to think that the covers of children's story-books on the CBeebies channel are routinely blanked out to avoid accusations of on-screen advertising!

Why not add some of your reasons why Kick-Ass is nowhere near as subversive as its defenders would have us believe? Together we can own this debate. Maybe we can even take it to a collective place, weather permitting.

 

 

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times