Tuesday, September 29, 2015

October Movie Guide

Film releases follow clearly established patterns. The winter months are the dumping ground for bad movies (beware of any movie released in February). Late spring and summer is the season for blockbusters. Fall is the time for Oscar contenders. As the weather turns cooler, the movies begin to feature more mature content. This fall is no exception. So let’s take a look at some of the big movies set for release this October.

October 2: The Martian: Matt Damon plays an astronaut stranded on Mars and forced to try and find a way to survive? Then the rest of his NASA crew disobeys orders to head back to the Red Planet to try and save him? Yes, please. The Martian is directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Blade Runner, Exodus: Gods and Kings), and features Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Sean Bean in its supporting cast.



October 2: The Walk: Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in this film based on the high wire walking exploits of Phillippe Petit. In 1974, Petit famously walked between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Directed by Robert Zemecks (Back to the Future), this has Oscar bait written all over it.

October 2: Sicaro: Starring Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent recruited to help in the fight against the import of illegal drugs into the United States from Mexico. Josh Brolin and Bencio Del Toro co-star in a movie that has gotten a lot of hype for its brutal and gritty depiction of the drug war raging along the US-Mexican border. This topic has been covered extensively on television (The Bridge) and in other movies (too many to list here), but the top notch cast offers hope.



October 9: Pan: Director Joe Wright digs deep into the background story of Peter Pan—the mischievous boy whose story everyone loves as a child and then finds deeply disturbing as an adult. Why do they need a 12 year old girl as their mother? For a magical and enchanted place, Neverland features a lot of killing. Pan serves as an origin story as Peter, a twelve year old orphan, finds his way to Neverland and encounters Captain Hook (Hugh Jackman), Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), and the Lost Boys. Why anyone wanted a Tim Burton-esque reboot of Peter Pan remains a question without a good answer.

October 16: Bridge of Spies: Tom Hanks and Steven Spielburg reunite for this movie about an American lawyer (Hanks) recruited by the CIA to help arrange a prisoner exchange with the Soviet Union. The film’s trailer paints Hanks as the one honest man trying to prevent a thermonuclear war between the United States and the Soviets. That’s an interesting idea, but we all know that didn’t happen, so….?

October 23: Steve Jobs: If you missed that Ashton Kutcher movie about Steve Jobs, have no fears, now we have another biography of the legendary Apple CEO. This movie checks off all the Oscar boxes, famous leading man on the rise (Michael Fassbender), Oscar winning screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin), and Oscar winning director (Danny Boyle). With the flood of attention focused on Jobs since his passing (including a lengthy biography and the aforementioned Ashton Kutcher movie) it remains to be seen if Boyle and Sorkin have something new to offer.



October 23: Suffragette: Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, and Helena Bonham Carter highlight this story of the early history of the women’s suffrage movement in England. Like Jobs, this movie seems like pure Oscar bait: Women rebelling against patriarchy, Meryl Streep, British accents.  Hopefully this film rises above the typical liberal paternalism present in these types of movies where women, African-Americans, immigrants or whatever disenfranchised party fight for their rights, but can only succeed with the help of some good honest white men to guide and direct them.


Those are the big movie releases for October. We’ll be back at the end of October to look ahead to November’s most anticipated films. Next week, we’ll check in with the Saints as their season hits the one quarter mark. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

King Leopold's Ghost

            Leopold II ascended to the throne of Belgium in 1865 with imperial aspirations. He hoped to transform the small European nation into a colonial power, rivaling that of England or France. While Belgium never reached the heights of its European rivals, Leopold managed to carve out a private empire for himself. By manipulating the media and his fellow world leaders, Leopold claimed and seized (through a private corporation that he controlled) the Congo in 1885. He ruled the ironically named Congo Free State for over twenty years. Political and humanitarian pressure finally forced him to sell the colony to Belgium in 1908. Throughout his reign, Leopold stripped the Congo bare. The ivory and rubber trades enriched him beyond imagination. According to Adam Hochschild’s marvelous book KingLeopold’s Ghost, he did so at the cost of nearly ten million lives. Hochschild’s book also represents a remarkable achievement in historical publishing, fusing commercial appeal and an unpleasant and unknown subject to the American public.

Leopold and one of his victims. 

            The publishing market for popular history in the United States encompasses a narrow range of subjects. They generally fall into familiar categories that appeal to the audience of middle and upper class white men who buy the bulk of popular histories. Military histories of World War 2 and the Civil War, voluminous biographies of George Washington, John Adams, Jefferson and the other founders, and Abraham Lincoln dominate the shelves of major bookstores. The view of American history that emerges from these histories is largely one of triumph and progress. Lincoln frees the slaves, the Greatest Generation overcomes Nazi aggression, or the Founding Fathers overthrow the tyranny of Great Britain. These narratives are embedded into our national consciousness and every semester history professors and educators across the country battle them in the classroom. The story of America, they argue, is not some triumphant march towards freedom. Rather it is an ugly and dirty history marked by conflict, oppression, and unspeakable cruelty. They try to include stories of slaves, women, Native Americans, immigrants, the poor, and other marginalized peoples. In the popular imagination these subjects rarely receive the attention warranted to the great white men of history.

The American literary audience is much more interested in these guys...

            The history of Africa garners little attention in the American popular consciousness and modern news agencies take only a fleeting notice of Africa’s problems. Even when they do, an American-centric view dominates. Most of the popular focus on the Ebola outbreak has fixated on the American doctor who caught the virus and not its African victims. By focusing on Leopold II and his adversaries, Hochschild, a journalist and graduate instructor at UC-Berkeley, builds his story around their lives, giving the book a clear chronological narrative. His story is of Leopold’s greed and its catastrophic consequences. Hochschild pulls no punches in describing Leopold’s selfishness, indifference to the suffering of Africans, and his adroit manipulation of late 19th and early 20th century media. In a century marked by some of history’s greatest monsters, Leopold deserves special mention. The destruction he caused is incalculable, but, as Hochschild reminds us, sadly represents just one horrible chapter in the encyclopedia of European conquest and colonization.

...rather than these people. 
             In the late 19th century, European powers saw Africa as rife with potential. In explaining Leopold’s desire for colonies, Hochschild successfully captures how Europeans viewed Africa.  It had vast territories and natural resources that could fuel economic growth. Best of all, in European eyes, it was a blank slate, empty of civilization and people. Indigenous Africans were lazy and in need reformation. A modern work ethic combined with the civilizing efforts of missionaries could transform Africa and its people into reflection of liberal European ideals. Turning Africans into pliant workers, however, required the liberal use of the whip. The civilizing mission, then, became one of enslavement. Hochschild further highlights how Leopold continued European traditions of forced labor in the Congo. England had ended slavery in its American colonies in 1838 and other European powers soon followed. Brazil, the last holdout, ended slavery in 1888. Yet systems of forced labor did not end there. Rather they took on new forms in Africa, Asia, and the Americas (where they still continue today). In Africa, corporations and colonial governments created new means of coercion in the form of production quotas that enslaved indigenous Africans. Leopold’s empire in the Congo gained notoriety for its rubber quotas that devastated the landscape and uprooted entire villages. The book is sobering reminder of the cost of “progress.”

Hochschild’s book succeeds because of its ability to appeal to and challenge a commercial audience with a subject that rarely receives popular attention.  

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Saints Week 1: To Punt or Not to Punt?

            New Orleans Saints lost their season opener 31-19 to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. The loss was all too reminiscent of the Saints struggles last season: an offense that moved the ball well, 408 yards of offense, and controlled the clock, 33:24 time of possession, but scored touchdowns on only one of four trips into the red zone. The running game failed to get going as the Saints rushed the ball 20 times for 54 yards, an anemic 2.7 yards per carry. With all of the pressure, once again, on quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints QB went 30-48 with 355 yards with one TD pass and one INT. The Cardinals easily exploited the Saints pass defense as Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer threw 307 yards and 3 touchdowns completing 19 out of 32 passes. The Cardinals had no problems running the ball, rushing 25 times for 120 yards, good for a 4.8 yard average. Defensive end Cameron Jordan managed to disrupt several of Palmer’s throws, but he was the only defender to generate any sort of pressure on Cardinals QB.

Cam Jordan was the only Saints defender who could celebrate on Sunday. 

            Despite being outplayed for much of the game, the Saints had a chance to take the lead with a little over two minutes left in the game. Thanks to the efforts of rookie kicker Zach Hocker, who converted all four of his field goal attempts including kicks from 23, 33, 27, and 45 yards, the Saints were only down 5 points with 2:12 to play in the 4th quarter. An Arizona punt pinned the Saints back on their own 3 yard line. On first down, Brees completed a four yard pass to Mark Ingram. In second and third down, Brees failed to connect with wide receiver Marques Colston. On fourth and six from their own seven yard line, the Saints decided to punt. Thomas Morstead hit a fifty-four yard punt that went to the Cardinals 39 yard line. After a four yard return, the Cardinals began their drive from their own 43 yard line with 1:49 left. A 2 yard run up the middle forced the Saints to burn their second time out. Then Palmer connected with running back David Johnson on a screen pass. Johnson ran past the Saints defense for a 55 yard touchdown. After the extra point the score was 31-19 and the game was effectively over.


           
            The question becomes should the Saints have punted and given the Cardinals the ball back? While in hindsight the answer to that question seems obvious: No. The Cardinals scored a touchdown and won the game. But everyone’s hindsight is 20-20; decisions that seem so obvious after the fact are rarely ever so before it. Using the Win Probability Calculator devised by Brian Burke, now an ESPN analyst, we can let data guide our analysis. At the moment of the decision to punt, the Saints had fourth down and six from their own 7 yard line with 1:58 to play, giving them a 9% chance to win the game. Now let's look at some possible outcomes: 

1st: The Saints chances of winning if they go for it on 4th down and fail.
2nd: The Saints chances of winning if they punt.
3rd: The Saints chances of winning if they succeed on 4th down. 

First, If New Orleans fails to convert on 4th down they have a 5% chance to win the game (calculated by giving the Cardinals the ball on the NO 7 with 1:49 on the game clock). Second, if the Saints punt, they have a 4% chance of winning the game (5% if you use the outcome of the punt, Arizona with the ball on their own 43 yard line with 1:49 left). According to Burke’s calculator, down 5 points with 1:49 on the clock and a 1st down from their own 14 (the distance needed for a 1st down), the Saints have an 11% chance of the winning the game. So let’s put that into a simple chart:

Situation
Saints Win Probability
Fail to Convert on 4th down
5%
Punt
4%
Successful Conversion
11%

As the first two circumstances show, if the Saints go for it and fail or punt, their Win Probability is virtually the same (5% vs 4%). If they succeed they have an 11% chance. In other words, by going for it the Saints had nothing to lose and 6%-7% win probability to gain. There’s also the game context to consider, who, as the Saints head coach do you trust more? Drew Brees or the Saints defense? Sean Payton made his choice on Sunday. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Saints 2015 Season Preview

            On Sunday, the New Orleans Saints open their season against the Arizona Cardinals in Phoenix. As they start their 2015 campaign, the Black and Gold look to rebound from last year’s 7-9 season, their second such finish in the last three years. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the Saints aggressively retooled their roster in the offseason, desperate to improve a defense that finished 31st according to Football Outsiders’ Defense Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA—a statistic that calculates the outcome of every single play and compares it to league average—DVOA is expressed in a percentage with 0 as league average, offenses want to have positive DVOAs, defenses negative ones). In the Drew Brees era, the Saints have consistently been a top-flight offense and constructed their defense around generating turnovers. In 2009 that strategy paid off as the Saints triumphed over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. The Saints insistence on trading up in the draft and backloading free agent contracts has nearly crippled the team’s salary cap and caused this season’s offseason frenzy. If the Saints have any hope of being Super Bowl contenders, they’ll need their defense to take a significant step forward. So let’s break the Saints down by offense, defense, and special teams.

OFFENSE:


DVOA (rank)
Weighted DVOA (rank)
Pass DVOA (rank)
Rush DVOA (rank)
2014
10.6% (7)
5.2% (9)
21.6% (9)
0.8% (9)

Quarterbacks: Drew Brees, Luke McCown, Garrett Grayson

Reports of Drew Brees’ demise as an elite NFL quarterback have been grossly exaggerated. In 2014, Brees finished 4th among NFL QBs in DYAR (a Football Outsiders metric that adjusts a QB’s passing yards to league average) behind only Ben Roethlisburger, Aaron Rodgers, and Peyton Manning. On a per play basis, Brees was sixth among quarterbacks with a 15.7% DVOA (Brady and Romo jumped ahead of him). Brees remained excellent in connecting with his wide receivers on short throws completing 74% of his passes thrown within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He got in trouble when he tried to force the ball down the field completing only 22 of 52 passes (42.3%). So keep an eye on those downfield throws, if Brees can consistently connect with wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the Saints will be in good shape. McCown enters another year as Brees’ backup and that’s all there’s to say about him. Grayson was a 3rd round pick this year and will spend the season as a developmental project.

Running Backs: Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller, Khiry Robinson, Tim Hightower, Austin Johnson, Marcus Murphy

The Saints gave up a 2nd round pick in 2011 and 1st rounder in 2012 to trade up for Ingram. In 2014, Ingram finally showed some signs of life after being plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness. He ran for 964 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. According to Football Outsiders metrics, Ingram ranked 14th in both DYAR (108) and DVOA (2.7%). The Saints then resigned him to a four year, sixteen million dollar contract. If he can build off 2014, Ingram will be worth the money. The Saints then signed the speedy and oft injured C.J. Spiller to a nearly identical contract (4 years, 16 million). Spiller is a speedy runner, but one who has only managed a single thousand yard season. For a team in salary cap hell to invest so much money in their second running back boggles the mind. Especially since Khiry Robinson was an undrafted free agent who has exceeded expectations. Tim Hightower will serve as a change of pace back, Johnson is primarily a fullback who will block and catch some passes out of the backfield, and Murphy is primarily a special teams player.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: WR: Brandin Cooks, Marques Colston, Brandon Coleman, Willie Snead, TE: Benjamin Watson, Josh Hill

The Saints open the season thin in the pass catching department. They’ll need Cooks, their first round pick from 2014 (and the only player from that draft still on the active roster), to stay healthy and become a viable deep threat for Brees. Cooks showed his potential in the preseason game against the Patriots, catching four passes for 117 yards and a 45 yard touchdown reception. Marques Colston remains an aging, but steady option in the passing game. Look for him to collect a lot of those short passes from Brees. Coleman and Snead are both second year players who spent time on the practice squad last season. Watson and Hill will look to replace Jimmy Graham’s production in the passing game. Watson is the veteran and better blocker, while Hill is younger and the better receiver.

Offensive Line: Centers: Max Unger, Senio Kelemete 
Guards: Mike McGlynn, Tim Lelito, Jahri Evans, Senio Kelemete
Tackles: Terron Armstead,  Andreas Peat, Zack Strief  

The Saints retooled their offensive line in the offseason. Unger came over from Seattle in the Jimmy Graham trade and Peat was drafted with the 13th overall pick. When healthy, Unger anchored the middle of the Seahawks rushing attack. With the Saints renewed focus on the running game, they will need strong offensive line to open up holes for Ingram and Spiller. They will also need to give Brees time in the pocket as he adjusts to life without Jimmy Graham.

DEFENSE


DVOA (rank)
Weighted DVOA (rank)
Pass DVOA (rank)
Rush DVOA (rank)
2014
13.1% (31)
9.0% (28)
19.2% (27)
14.6% (32)

Defensive Linemen/Linebackers: DT: Kaleb Eulis, John Jenkins, Kevin Williams, Tyeler Davison
DE: Cameron Jordan, Aikeem Hicks, Bobby Richardson, Tavaris Barnes,
Linebackers: Hau’oli Kikaha, Stephone Anthony, Ramon Humber, Davis Tull, David Hawthorne, Dannell Ellerbe, Kassim Edebali

No matter how you look at it, the Saints defense was atrocious last year. And the defensive front seven is the weakest area on the entire roster. Cam Jordan is a Pro Bowl caliber pass rusher and defensive lineman—other than that? The Saints will rely on two rookies, Kikaha and Anthony to start at linebacker. Anthony will play inside alongside veteran castoff Dannel Ellerbe. Kikaha will play outside and rush the passer behind Jordan. Look for opponents to run up the middle against the Saints defensive tackles. In 2014, the Saints defense allowed opponents to convert 74% of their runs on 3rd or 4th down with two yards or fewer for either a touchdown or a first down. Last season, the Saints defense forced three and outs on only 13.9% of opponent’s drives, worst in the NFL. They’ll need to do better than that in 2015.

Defensive Backs: CBs: Keenan Lewis, Brandon Browner, Delvin Breaux, Brian Dixon, Kyle Wilson, Damian Swann
S: Jairus Byrd, Rafael Bush, Kenny Vaccaro, Jamarca Sanford

If the Saints secondary can stay healthy—and that may be tough with Lewis out for at least the first month of the season—they will be the strength of the defense. The Saints imported Brandon Browner to line up opposite Lewis. Browner is a tall and physical corner who matches up well against bigger wide receivers. He also draws a ridiculous amount of penalties, accounting for 15 penalties in 12 games for the Patriots last season. If Byrd can return to the player he was in Buffalo, he can roam the middle of the field searching for interceptions and providing safety help. This would allow Vaccaro, who struggled mightily in his second reason, to play to his strengths, near the line of scrimmage and in run support.

SPECIAL TEAMS
P Thomas Morstead
K Zack Hocker

Morstead remains one of the very best punters and kickoff specialists in the league. Hocker is largely unknown as a kicker, but in Sean Payton’s time with the Saints, he’s recognized that kickers are largely replaceable. So if Hocker struggles, the Saints will just bring in someone else.

PREDICTION

 The Saints retooled offense will run the ball a little more, rely on short passes and finish in the top 10. It would be difficult for the Saints to repeat last year’s defensive debacle. But they will continue to struggle, especially upfront where the lack of top flight talent really hurts. Anthony and Kikaha have a lot of upside, but it will take time for them to develop. I think finishing between 20 and 25 in defensive DVOA is a reasonable expectation. With Brees and Payton heading the offense, the Saints floor is about 6 wins. With that defense, the ceiling is about 10 wins. I’ll lean towards the ceiling and predict the Saints go 9-7. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Peche

            Peche, one of New Orleans newest and best, seafood restaurants sits tucked away at the corner of Magazine and Julia Streets in New Orleans’ Warehouse District. There are no giant glowing neon signs beckoning tourists inside. No promises of Hurricanes or to-go cups. Instead a simple blue sign hangs on the corner of the building as the giant glass windows (and a helpful set of doors), framed by the brick and wood building exterior, offer a glimpse into the culinary marvel that lies within.  Since chef Donald Link and his chef-partners, Stephen Stryjewski, and Ryan Prewitt opened Peche in the spring of 2013, the restaurant has garnered a slew of awards. In 2014 The James Beard Foundation named Peche the Best New Restaurant in America. Prewitt also received the James Beard Award as the Best Chef in the South. Peche received Four Beans from Brett Anderson, the restaurant reviewer for the New Orleans Times Picayune. Anderson also placed the restaurant on his list of the Top 10 Restaurants of 2014. Bon App├ętit Magazine named Peche one of its 50 best new restaurants in America, and the list of accolades goes on and on.

Peche's simple exterior 

            Peche is the latest restaurant in the burgeoning culinary empire of chef Donald Link. Link began his career working as a dishwasher in restaurants at the age of 15. He attended culinary school in California in 1993, and throughout the 1990s alternated between New Orleans—including a 2 year stint as the sous chef at Susan Spicer’s Bayona—and California. In 2000, Link returned to Louisiana permanently, opening his first restaurant, Herbsaint, a French-American bistro. In 2006, he opened, with Stryjewski, Cochon, specializing in Cajun and Southern cooking. Cochon Butcher, nestled just around the corner from its namesake, soon followed. Butcher represents Link’s tribute to Old World butcher and charcuterie shops. It features small plates, sandwiches, and other bar staples. Then most recently he opened Peche, alongside Stryjewski, and Prewitt his former chef-de-cuisine at Herbsaint, this time with a focus on seafood. Along the way, Link has won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South in 2007. His restaurants frequently appear on lists of the top restaurants in the United States in major culinary publications like Bon Appetit, Gourmet, and Food and  Wine.  While Link does not have the fame of a Besh or Emeril, the quality of his food and restaurants rivals that of his better known culinary colleagues.

Donald Link: the man behind Peche 

            As a tourist town, New Orleans restaurants rarely enforce strict dress codes and Peche is no different. The restaurant promotes a casual atmosphere. The tables are wooden and unadorned. The servers, mostly hipster types, wear buttoned down shirts and denim aprons. The food comes served in simple plates and bowls. There’s nothing overly elaborate or fancy about Peche and the focus remains firmly fixed on the food. A few weeks ago, we wrote about the time required to create a smooth running restaurant. The staff at Peche functions almost effortlessly. Servers patrol the dining room, keeping an eye on their tables and clearing away plates and silverware, sometimes without guests even noticing—at one point a server refilled my water glass without me noticing. The host station is never unmanned. When the host went to seat a table, one of the other employees shifted over to cover and quickly shifted back once the server was done. This efficient operation stems from the combination of experienced front of house managers, chefs, and owners, and time.

Peche specializes in grilling whole fish

            Peche offers coastal seafood cooked over coals in an open hearth oven. It also has an oyster bar that highlights gulf seafood—as well as from around the rest of the United States. The food at Peche lives up to its promise: fresh seafood prepared in a deceptively simple manner. Flavors at Peche are sharp and clean. On a recent visit, a tuna crudo (a raw preparation of fish) with chilies and sourdough croutons highlighted this approach. The chilies offered spice, the croutons crunch, but the fish remained the star. Delicately fried fish sticks came with a homemade tartar sauce that avoided the heavy cloying texture of so many mass-produced tartar sauces. The smothered catfish was lightly crusted and moist. Catfish is a rather moderately flavored fish, but the accompanying rice and sauce, never overwhelmed it. Softened local shell beans shined alongside some perfectly cooked jumbo shrimp and bacon. The food proved filling and immensely satisfying.


            The food at Peche represents some of the best New Orleans has to offer. It merges expert cooking with the finest local ingredients, and a respect for the history of the region and the food bounty that the Gulf has to offer. We can’t recommend it highly enough.