Films that make you feel old

Five videogame-related movies to savour.

 

Sometimes a film comes along that makes you feel like an enthusiast for the hand-cranked gramophone in a world of downloads. Mine was Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s self-congratulatory graphic novel adaptation Sin City, which I didn’t respond to at all on any level. (Occasionally it’s nice for the critic to be off-duty, to see a film about which one is not required to build an argument for or against or somewhere in-between, and to simply say, like Tom Hanks in Big, “I don’t get it.” Not having been required to write about Sin City, I was able in that instance to give the critical synapses the night off.)

I felt it to a lesser degree with the new 3D Disney animation Wreck-It Ralph, about a character in a 1980s-style arcade game who tires of his role as a baddie and starts to look around for opportunities to be a hero. The story itself is familiar enough, the standard Be True To Yourself message that is always being promoted by the largely conservative, lily-livered, risk-averse mainstream film industry. And the film is often a hoot, with some resounding and well-played emotional beats, not to mention a good movie role at last for the abrasive comic Sarah Silverman, even if it is in voice only. (Yes, she had her own concert film, Jesus Is Magic but until now her film acting highlight has been her profane cameo at the start of Christopher McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun.)

But I was keenly aware that the screenplay’s numerous videogame references and in-jokes were whooshing straight over my analogue head. It isn’t that I’m the wrong generation - Atari Tennis is my Proustian Madeleine. (Top tip: you can always tell those of us who have never read Recherche le temps perdu by our prodigious mentions of the only detail we have picked up from the text.) But I was never a videogame nut, unless you count the clunky, late-1980s game Gumshoe, which involved pointing an unwieldy plastic gun at the TV screen and pressing the trigger, thereby causing the squat detective hero to jump. Primitive isn’t the word. If memory serves, the image was comprised of around six pixels. Eight at a push.

I’ve been keeping in with Tetris. Well, you have to do your bit, don’t you? And one of my children downloaded Temple Run for me. It’s all go around here. But as if to prove that I’m still alive and able to ascend the stairs without pausing for breath more than three or four times, here are five videogame-related films that I admire - and, more to the point, that I can watch without having to resort to annotated notes from any nearby teenagers.

eXistenZ 

David Cronenberg’s foray into the world of virtual reality gaming was anything but sterile: the fleshy consoles pulsed, jacks are plugged into human flesh and a gun is constructed from bone and gristle. One of his strongest and funniest movies.

The Last Starfighter 

This charming 1984 adventure got trampled in the glut of cheapo Star Wars knock-offs, but it’s an altogether different and more delightful movie in which a boy’s success at a crummy arcade game serves as his inadvertent audition to join an intergalactic battle.

Ra.One

Bollywood megastar Shahrukh Khan stars in this ambitious 3D fantasy about a virtual reality villain who breaks out of the game and into the real world to hunt down his adversary. The same plot was used much less effectively in Virtuosity, starring a pre-superstardom Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington.

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World 

Edgar Wright’s musical-action-comedy doesn’t feature much actual videogame action, but that’s because it all spills into the “real” lives of the twentysomething Canadian characters who’ve grown up on Zelda, Final Fantasy etc. The quest of Scott (Michael Cera) to vanquish his girlfriend’s seven evil ex-lovers is structured like an arcade game, while even the Universal imprint at the start of the film is remade in 8-bit, old-school, 1980s videogame style.

Tron

You didn’t really think I’d leave this out did you? This may not be as good as you remember it, but its retro charm is something to be reckoned with, and it looks even better next to the travesty of its tardy sequel, Tron: Legacy.

"Wreck-It Ralph" is on release.

A still from "Scott Pilgrim vs The World", Edgar Wright’s musical-action-comedy.

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