We love ya, tomorrow: Quvenzhané Wallis stars in the new remake of Annie, directed by Will Gluck
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Thrills, flops and hard knocks: films to watch this Christmas

Ryan Gilbey casts an eye over the Christmas fare.

One of the first shots in Birdman (15), in which the director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, Babel) introduces a comic element in addition to his customary intensity, shows Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, in the dressing room of a Broadway theatre. He is preparing to star in a Raymond Carver adaptation after years of being known only for superhero movies. First, he must contend with the method madness of his celebrity co-star, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton).

Then there are the emotional demands of the women in Riggan’s life, including his volatile daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), and his stoical star Lesley (Naomi Watts), who wonders aloud why she doesn’t have any self-respect (“You’re an actress, honey,” comes the reply). Riggan is being hounded by his old fictional alter ego “Birdman” for allowing the likes of Robert Downey Jr to steal his thunder (“That chump doesn’t have half your talent and he’s making a fortune in that tin-man get-up!”). Oh, and he is also levitating in his underpants.

Daring works of art are often described as high-wire acts but in the case of Birdman this is no mere turn of phrase. The camera rises into the rafters; it barrels down hallways with the woozy confidence of a self-righteous drunk; it follows Riggan through the fizzing hubbub of Times Square, into a forest of multicoloured light bulbs in a liquor store and off the edges of rooftops. On the rare occasions that it pauses, you can still feel the energy buzzing in the lens, the way an overactive mind races even after the head hits the pillow. This is one of the most wide-awake movies ever made.

Its central conceit, achieved through digital trickery, is that the entire picture has been filmed in a single take. It hardly matters that this isn’t logistically possible: it lends the film a stream-of-consciousness momentum that makes it feel like a live-stream from the darkest recesses of Riggan’s ego. The star of the film is undoubtedly Keaton, whose jittery, jangly performance, with its poignant references to the actor’s past as Batman, represents his wildest work since Beetlejuice more than 25 years ago. Stone is also superbly emphatic, with her gigantic anime eyes set in that pallid CBGB face.

Equally deserving of top billing is the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the man to whom film-makers turn when they want shots that defy logic (it was his hand and eye behind Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Gravity). It’s a pleasing irony that this study of one actor’s search for honesty has been concocted using a repertoire of visual sleights of hand. A philosophical rumination it may be but that doesn’t prevent it from also being an adrenalised delight. It puts the romp into trompe l’oeil.

Two new biopics might benefit from the tiniest drop of that audacity. The faults in James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything (12A) lie not with Eddie Redmayne, who is full of vitality as the young Stephen Hawking, nor with Felicity Jones as his future wife, Jane Wilde, whom he meets when his motor neurone disease is not yet diagnosed. The film fails to find an expressive voice for its subject once his verbal powers become restricted – it then becomes Jane’s story, with Hawking gradually sidelined from his own movie.

But then, conventionality is on the cards right from the early shots of Hawking and his chums woo-hooing on their bicycles through a blue-tinged Cambridge in the 1960s; it’s the sort of cinema that will look best on Sunday-night television. This extends to the tone of excessive niceness. How jarring to see a film so devoid of conflict, tension or struggle. The most memorable character is the physicist who storms out of a lecture and calls Hawking’s theories preposterous. The closing titles stop short of assuring us that everyone got on famously for ever and no one said or thought anything nasty or resentful. But only just.

Unbroken (15), which follows the Olym­pic athlete Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) from the broiling frenzy of the Second World War to internment in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, is poor in more exotic ways. Directed with extravagant ineptitude by Angelina Jolie from a screenplay that counts Joel and Ethan Coen among its writers, it plays like parody – this is a Mommie Dearest-style cult classic of the future. The material is indisputably dramatic but it hasn’t been shaped or shot with any dynamism; the PoW camp scenes aren’t remotely harrowing. And the dialogue incorporates countless lines – “If you can take it, you can make it!” – destined to become camp slogans for the ages.

The usually excellent O’Connell is only one member of the cast whose best efforts at suffering are undone by a creosote tan and gleaming teeth. In the film’s lowest point, he is upstaged by a computer-generated shark hamming up its death scene.

If you’ve ticked the glorious Paddington off your list, you could take any nippers in your care to the modern-day remake of Annie (PG). “Everyone loves a musical,” crows the rock’n’roll has-been Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Everyone except the makers of Annie, that is: though the old numbers are here, they’re staged in an off-hand manner that lacks the excitement of John Huston’s original. There are compensations. Quvenzhané Wallis (the youngest ever nominee for Best Actress at the Oscars, for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild) is delightful without being twee, and there’s sparky chemistry between Jamie Foxx as the mayoral candidate who takes the Little Orphan in to improve his polling and Rose Byrne, his perky assistant. “The sun will come out . . .” trills Wallis, exaggerating only slightly. A clement few hours with occasional outbreaks of pizzazz.

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.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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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