Tuesday, September 27, 2016

October Movie Preview

The movie calendar, like the seasons, follows clearly established patterns. The winter months are the dumping ground for bad movies. Who wants to go to the movies in February anyway? Spring and summer are blockbuster seasons, when Marvel and DC relentlessly cram 2-3 franchise movies each down our collective throats. Now, however, we’re into the fall movie season and movies that adults might actually enjoy. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the big movie releases for the end of September and October.

September 30
Deepwater Horizon—The latest Peter Berg-Mark Wahlberg collaboration (see also last year’s Lone Survivor) tells the story of the crew of the offshore oil rig, Deepwater Horizon. The rig, which exploded on April 20, 2010, triggered the largest oil spill in American history. The explosion killed eleven of the one hundred twenty-six crew on board. The rig sank thirty-six hours later, but continued spilling 4.9 million barrels oil into the Gulf of Mexico until July 15, 2010, causing irreversible damage to Louisiana’s coastal ecosystems and resulted in billions of dollars worth of fines to BP and the other companies that ran the rig. The film, focusing on the immediate aftermath of the explosion, slides neatly into Wahlberg’s movie sweet spot—ordinary guy caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Hopefully he doesn’t try a Southern accent.

October 7
The Birth of a Nation—Nate Parker stars and directs this retelling of a slave uprising in Virginia in 1831. Parker plays Nat Turner, a literate slave preacher who led some seventy or so slaves in rebellion against their masters in Southampton County, Virginia. A white militia eventually quelled the rebellion, but not before the deaths of some 55-65 whites. The film looks to be a worthy companion piece to 2013’s Twelve Years a Slave that told the story of a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film’s title is a deliberate play on W.B. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation that premiered in 1915 and portrayed African Americans as animalistic predators seeking to destroy good, white Christian Americans. Parker’s film seeks to reverse nearly a century of Hollywood minimizing or ignoring the horrors of one of America’s original sins.

The Girl on the Train—This mystery thriller stars Emily Blunt as an alcoholic who hasn’t taken to her divorce particularly well after discovering her husband cheated on her with another woman. Her drinking and general instability get her caught up in a missing person’s investigation where (SHOCKER) she goes from witness to suspect. The film seems bent on capitalizing on the psychological and mystery elements that made last year’s Gone Girl so popular. The real question is whether the film can take its pulpy origins and make something entertaining.

October 14
The Accountant—According to the film’s description, Affleck (in a non-Batman role) plays an accountant who is more interested in his spreadsheets than in dealing with other people. He works as a forensic accountant for various criminal organizations, shielding their money from the Federal government. He is pursued by a Treasury agent (J.K. Simmons) and the standard chase movie hijinks seem to ensue. The rest of the promising cast includes Anna Kendrick, Jeffrey Tambor, and John Lithgow. Whether the film can rise above what seems to be a rather formulaic plot remains to be seen.

October 28
Inferno—If you’d forgotten that there was another one of these Dan Brown novels/movies coming, we can’t blame you. Angels and Demons came out in 2009 and garnered only a 37% from Rotten Tomatoes. It did, however, make $485 million dollars, so maybe we can understand why Sony Pictures insisted on another sequel. The plot seems to be exactly identical to the two previous movies down to the conspiracies, threats to humanity, and a disposable female sidekick (we’ve gone from Audrey Tautou to Ayelet Zurer to Felicity Jones). So at least you know what the movie will be about, not that we’d recommend actually seeing it however.

            That’s it for October movies. In the coming weeks we’ll take a look at November and December’s big releases as well. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Disney's "Healthy Gumbo"

            Last week, Disney posted a video recipe titled, “Tiana’s Healthy Gumbo” to the Facebook page for their 2009 animated movie, The Princess and the Frog. For those unfamiliar with the movie, Tiana, the central character, is an aspiring chef in early 20th century New Orleans and, after some typically Disney princess shenanigans, winds up achieving her dream of opening her own restaurant. Playing off the themes of the movie and New Orleans’s rich culinary history, Disney offered its own healthier version of gumbo--one of the most beloved dishes in Cajun and Creole cuisine. The recipe, however, did not go over well with residents of the Crescent City and the Bayou State, who took to the internet to voice their disapproval of this "healthy gumbo." The vitriol prompted  Disney to pull the video from social media.  This fan edit of the video is a typical response. 

            Let's start by looking at what's objectionable about the recipe. Generally, you start cooking gumbo by making a roux. The roux, a mixture of flour and fat cooked until dark brown, gives the resulting dish a fatty, rich flavor.  It is possible to make a gumbo without a roux, through either the use of okra or the introduction of file powder, an herb made from the dried and ground leaves of a sassafras tree.  Generally though, the okra is cooked down at the beginning of the process, not added as one of a bundle of mostly unobjectionable ingredients—except for the absence of celery, one of the three vegetables that comprise the holy trinity of Cajun and Creole cooking. Why there’s no celery goes unexplained in the video.  The recipe really goes off the rails when it suggests adding kale to the gumbo. Kale? What does kale have to do with gumbo? At this point, we’ve all been indoctrinated into the cult of kale.  It’s super healthy! You can make kale chips! It goes great in soups! Just sauté it in a pan!  All of this is just trying to hide the simple truth that kale tastes awful. It’s only good when you hide it in other dishes so you don’t have to actually taste it.

Then we get to the other big problem of the recipe: adding a cup of cooked quinoa. Now this makes a certain amount of sense. If you want to swap out the rice, then quinoa is a logical substitute. It’s a healthy and hearty grain that has a lot more nutritional value than rice. Quinoa, however, has a similar history as kale. It’s become popular in recent years and every health food advocate, overeager vegan, or just annoying dieter has extolled its virtues at some point. You can’t go to a health conscious restaurant without seeing one (or generally both) on the menu.

Leah Chase: The inspiration for Tiana 

In order to figure out whether kale or quinoa are actual ingredients in gumbo, I consulted two sources. The first was John Besh’s My New Orleans Cookbook. Besh has built a New Orleans restaurant empire by through his love of Creole cuisine. Nowhere in the 5 different recipes Besh provides  for gumbo does he list kale as an ingredient. The second source was Leah Chase’s recipe for gumbo. Chase, the famed chef at Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans, was the inspiration for the character of Tiana in The Princess and the Frog. Back in the 1950s, Chase transformed the restaurant’s menu to reflect her family’s Creole recipes.  Over the decades the restaurant has been the center of Civil Rights activity and a center of African-American culture in New Orleans. If you want a cultural institution, Leah Chase and Dooky Chase are it. Looking at her gumbo recipe she never calls for quinoa. In fact, the recipe ends with the words “serve over rice.” 

We’re only left with one unmistakable conclusion, whatever that Disney dish is, it sure as hell isn’t gumbo. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Saints Week One: Recap

            “The more things change, the more they stay the same” is one of the oldest clichés in the book. As with every cliché, there’s a little bit of truth to it, especially if you’re looking back at the New Orleans Saints Week 1 loss to the Oakland Raiders 35-34. There was some amazing offense, bad defense, and questionable kicking. With all this in mind, let’s go three up, three down for the Saints performance on Sunday.


Drew Brees: This just in, Drew Brees is still a superstar. Against Oakland’s defense, Brees threw for 423 yards and 4 TD passes, good for a QBR of 78.6 (rated out of 100 with 50 being average). In the third quarter with the Saints on their own 2 yard line, Brees connected with a wide open Brandin Cooks for a 98 yard touchdown. The play was the longest offensive play in Saints history. Brees completed passes to seven different receivers and apart from a fumble on the opening drive, did not turn the ball over.

Brandin Cooks: Did you see that 98 yard TD? In case you missed it, here it is again.

Willie Snead: Third year wide receiver Willie Snead had the best game of his young career, catching 9 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown. After bouncing around with the Browns, Panthers, and finally the Saints, the undrafted receiver had a productive season in 2015 with 69 catches for 984 yards and 3 TDs. If Snead can keep producing like this, the Saints will have uncovered another valuable pass catching option that opposing teams will have to game plan for.  


Saints Run Defense: A year after finishing 27th in rushing defense according to Football Outsiders, New Orleans allowed the Raiders to run 26 times for 167 yards, good for 6.4 yards per carry. Oakland running backs contributed 3 touchdowns on the ground including a 75 yard TD run to undrafted rookie Jalen Richard. Now the Saints were without defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, their first round pick, who was out with a broken fibula and won’t return until sometime during the season. The absence of one player, however, doesn’t excuse allowing so many rushing yards to a team that finished 24th in rushing DVOA in 2015.

Saints Pass Defense: Cornerback Delvin Breaux left the game in the second quarter with a broken fibula. By the third quarter the Saints pass defense had completely collapsed. Picking on 2nd year player P.J. Williams and undrafted rookies Ken Crawley and  De’Vante Harris, Oakland scored 22 points in the 4th quarter and converted the game winning 2 point conversion as quarterback David Carr threw a fade pass to Michael Crabtree over the overmatched Crawley. Safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro didn’t look much better either. The Saints pass defense will have to try and hold on until Breaux returns in six weeks.

Wil Lutz: The Saints new kicker missed a 50 yard field goal at the beginning of the 4th quarter that would have put the Saints up 27-14. His 61 yard miss at the end of the game is irrelevant, but the earlier 4th quarter miss highlights how New Orleans has struggled to find a consistent kicker in the Payton-Brees era. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Saints Season Preview Part Two: Defense

            Last week the first part of our Saints season preview we looked at the offense. With Drew Brees at quarterback and Sean Payton calling the plays, New Orleans should once again score plenty of points. The weakness of the Saints, as it has been for years now, is the defense. In 2015, New Orleans finished 32nd in Football Outsiders defensive DVOA rankings with a DVOA of 26.1% (meaning they were 26.1% worse than league average). To give a sense of just how bad the Saints were, the difference between the Saints and 31st ranked Chicago Bears was equivalent to the difference between the Bears and the 12th ranked Patriots. If the Saints have any hope of competing for a playoff spot, they’ll need the defense make some big strides forward. 

Cameron Jordan sacking Cam Newton


Cameron Jordan, Tyeler Davison, Kasim Edebali, Paul Kruger, Sheldon Rankins, Nick Fairley, Obum Gwacham, John Jenkins, David Onyemata

What’s New? Defensive end/outside linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive tackle Nick Fairley are formerly productive veterans signed to cheap one year deals—precisely the kind of signings the Saints should be making. If they pan out, then New Orleans has gotten good players for not a lot of money. If they don’t, their signings won’t strangle the Saints salary cap. The biggest other addition is Sheldon Rankins, a mammoth defensive tackle who should help in run defense, except Rankins in on Injured Reserve and will miss at least half the season.
What’s Old? Other than exceptional pass rusher Cameron Jordan, there isn’t anything to get excited about. The Saints were 31st in Football Outsiders Adjusted Line yards (a metric designed to measure the ability of the defensive line to stop opposing rushers) and 20th in adjusted sack rate. If the Saints defensive line is going to improve, they’re going to have to hope that Fairley and Kruger are healthy and effective, otherwise there’s not that much difference between this year’s group and last year’s.


Dannell Ellerbe, James Laurinaitis, Stephone Anthony, Nate Stupar, Craig Robertson, Michael Mauti

What’s New? New Orleans signed former LA Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis to a 3 year, $8.25 million contract. Laurinaitis will assume defensive play calling responsibilities from Stephone Anthony, one of the Saints two 1st round picks from 2015. Laurinaitis has struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness the last few seasons, so who knows what kind of contributor he’ll be.
What’s Old? New Orleans acquired Dannell Ellerbe as part of the Kenny Stills trade last year and it’s still puzzling why they wanted him. In 2014, Ellerbe only played in 1 game due to injuries. He’s never played a full 16 game season or looked particularly competent since leaving the Ravens in 2013. Yet there he is, ready to play significant snaps for a team in desperate need of competent linebacker play.

Cornerback Delvin Breaux breaks up a pass to Julio Jones 


Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams, De'Vante Harris, Ken Crawley, Cortland Finnegan, Kenny Vaccaro, Jairus Byrd, Von Bell, Roman Harper, Erik Harris

What’s New? The Saints have invested heavily in revamping their atrocious secondary. They finished 32nd in pass defense last year according to DVOA. In the spring, the Saints released penalty machine Brandon Browner and just a few weeks ago let go of former starting cornerback Keenan Lewis, a year after puzzlingly guaranteeing more of his contract when Lewis had no leverage whatsoever. This year, the Saints invested a 3rd round pick in safety Von Bell, resigned safety Roman Harper after letting him go to Carolina in free agency a few years ago, and brought in veteran cornerback Courtland Finnegan, known as much for his quarrelsome personality as his play on the field.
What’s Old? The Saints will return former CFL player Devlin Breaux as their new lead cornerback. On a defense full of disappointments, Breaux was the lone bright spot, flashing the ability to contest passes and hinder opposing wide receivers. Starting safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd return. Since signing a massive free agent contract Byrd has either been hurt or terrible. Vaccaro, who had an impressive rookie season, has declined the last two years. Perhaps under new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen he can recapture some of that ability that made him a 1st round pick.  


Thomas Morstead, Kai Forbath, Justin Drescher

What’s New? Nothing.
What’s Old? Everything. The Saints return the same punter, kicker, and long snapper from last year. Morstead is the most important of the three as he handles both punts and kickoffs.


So now that we’ve taken a look at the Saints roster from top to bottom, it’s prediction time. There’s a lot of variance with this team. If Brees gets hurt and misses significant time, they could go 4-12. If the defense comes together and becomes something respectable—say 20th or so in DVOA, they could go 10-6 or 11-5 and make the playoffs. And who doesn’t want to see one of the best quarterbacks ever in the playoffs? Or they could meet somewhere in the middle. While the defense could improve, there’s still a huge absence of talent on that side of the ball, so let’s go with a record of 8-8.