Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Real Madrid v Barcelona UCL Semi-Final 1st Leg Preview

As the world waits with baited breathe for the El Clasico Champions League double-header, the focus on the clash of two goal-scoring machines and the midfield battle between Xavi and Xabi, may take focus away from the real battle and where this game may be won - defence.

Real Madrid have seemingly found a rich vein of form lately, and in the two recent El Clasico match ups have conceded only one goal to Barcelona and that was a penalty, a significant improvement from the famous 5-0 mauling at the Nou Camp in November when the single best team performance left egg on the Mourinho face.

Since then, though the defence has improved and the solidity of Iker Casillas and the growing responsibility of Carvalho has led to more clean sheets, along with the versatility of Pepe either next to Carvalho or as the marshall in midfield to disrupt the fluency of Xavi and Iniesta as some enforcer.  Some critics likened Madrid's tactics last week in the Copa del Rey final as that of Holland versus Spain in the World Cup final, and only one player getting sent off issued another type of referreing leniency.  The referee for tonight's game will certainly have his work cut out in the Santiago Bernebeau.  Unfortunately, due to suspension Carvalho is unavailable for the 1st leg, so the idea of defensive stability maybe exploited by Messi and the out of form, David Villa

As for Barcelona, the return of Carlos Puyol and Gabriel Milito to defence will ease some headaches after the loss of Maxwell.  And with Daniel Alves forsaking his defensive responsibilites down the right flank, Pep Guardiola may well play three centre backs in Puyol, Milito and Gerard Pique three giants to disrupt Ronaldo, Benzema and Ozil. 

Yet Real Madrid are the team with momentum; they won 6-3 at Valencia on Saturday with goals coming from Benzema, Higuain (back from injury) and Kaka (back in favour). 

And following the injury to Andres Iniesta, meaning he misses the first leg, Barcelona may well travel to Madrid with the plan of possible damage limitation and attempt to score a goal on the counter attack and get a vital away goal.  Whilst, Jose Mourinho may well know that tonight is the night to put the knife into Barcelona and go for the jugular much like his Inter Milan side did in last year's semi-final first leg where a 3-1 advantage was too much to overturn - Madrid have the attacking thrust to exploit.

Without Iniesta, the advert for football is diminished and perhaps this might be the game of four El Clasico's in quick succession that may well fail to live up to expectations.  However, it sure does whet the appetite and the anticipation for kick off at 7.45pm tonight on ITV1, cannot come soon enough.

I dare not predict the score, but if Howard Webb is referee. I predict a riot.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Wenger and the blame game

Being a Tottenham Hotspur fan, I suppose I should not give two hoots about the goings-on and latest title surrender from the Emirates nor care that Arsene Wenger is going a sixth season without any silverware.  But I feel a little bit miffed at his continual approach this season to take the blame, football is fast becoming a blame game more and more.

Players blame the referees, referees blame the clubs for lack of respect, managers blame referees, (okay I am a part-time referee aswell, and yes we do get the blame too often) but sometimes the blame should lay with the players who cock-up, the goalkeeper that drops a clanger, the player that gets needlessly sent off, the lazy defending at set pieces and failure to close out teams.

This has happened too often at Arsenal this season, they have squandered too many winning positions and dropped close to double digit points that have cost them a chance at the Premier League title. The one piece of silverware left to aim for, after being in all four major competitions come the end of February.

They lost the Carling Cup final to Birmingham, and the blame game started; but luckily it was the sort of clanger from Sczeceny and Koscielny that blame could easily be affixed, but it took away credit from a spirited Birmingham display and showed Wenger was out-thought by his opposite number Alex McLeish whose tactical nous prevailed, as he loaded the midfield with his triumvate of Bowyer, Ferguson and Gardner.  Their grit was too much for the Arsenal midfield and but for an offside flag, Arsenal might have had to play the whole game with just 10 men.

Then came Barcelona in the Champions League, a great draw at home gave hope but then followed Arsenal chasing shadows at the Nou Camp for the second year in a row, but the sending off of Robin Van Persie was used as blame in spite of the fact that Arsenal could not hang with one of the great teams of recent years.

The FA Cup dream died at Old Trafford, when Wenger's rotation policy and team selection seemed baffling considering they had the second leg in Spain still to come he chose to pick a weaker than usual side, and Man.United duly won 2-0 without much trouble.  This left the leg which three weeks ago was wide open owing to Arsenal maintaining a game in hand, they just needed to stay in arm's length before the May 2nd showdown at the Emirates against the champions elect. 

Alas, goal shy attackers and long injury times, have ended up with a nine-point deficit with four games remaining, not mathematically impossible but quite possibly that is all she wrote for another season, following a 2-1 defeat at Bolton with Tamir Cohen headed in a winner in the last minute of regulation.  No 11 minutes of injury time this week, and four minutes later Arsenal were cursing their luck again.

And yet following the game, Wenger was at liberty to take blame for another poor showing following a week of three league games, they have picked up just two points from two winning positions but the points at home to Liverpool and away at Tottenham were just indicative of Arsenal's season.

I wrote some weeks ago, about a lack of consistency and I used Arsenal as an example, a team that loses at home to West Brom and Newcastle, do not deserve to be considered title contenders - yet they were still there. And yet the players do not take the intiative, the attackers have gone backwards lacking bite and relying on the prolificgacy of young Jack Wilshere to take them to new heights, and the continual troubles in defence continue.  The lack of a marshalling keeper and the loss of Tomas Vermaelen meant that clean sheets and dominating defence were missing from this line-up.

But for Wenger to take the blame is okay in some respects but not on this occasion, now he has players who do not mind losing and do not take responsibility for their actions and poor performance(s).  Instead they realise, their manager will take the buck and the pressure off of their young shoulders. 

But we cannot keep saying this team is young, Emanuel Eboue's foul against Lucas in the Liverpool game was incredibly naive, he is 28.  Wilshere has looked at times older than 19, but he is growing an increasingly petulent streak for such a young man. Wenger likes to put his staple on a team a combination of youth and expert training; an accusation that has led to rumours of a rift between captain Cesc Fabregas and the manager over comments in a Spanish magazine.  Fabregas asked that Arsenal need to make a decision between challenging for Europe's biggest prizes or develop youth in the future. 

This summer with the funds of Kroenke coming into account, Wenger needs to make a new statement of intent, use money to convince Fabregas to stay and avoid another prolonged summer soap opera.  Arsenal need a goalkeeper, but they may have to fight Tottenham for Shay Given; a central defender to co-operate with the returning Vermaelen and a dominant midfielder who is a work-horse, like a Birmingham City midfielder and a goalscorer, unlike the one Chamakh hoped to be.

I should hate Wenger, but now I see a man who is becoming deluded in his appraisal of the playing staff.  And he is failing to remember that managers are more dispensable than players who command bigger wages than a one annual salary man; and managers are judged by their track record, and as we have seen in the last six years, that resume of success is looking particularly bare.  Even Steve McLaren has won more in those six years than the great saviour Arsene Wenger.

Source Code review

Jake Gyllenhaal, is fast becoming one of those stars who is building up an impressive resume of films, which give him another five years he will have a CV of films which you will read down and say, 'I didn't know he was in that', you already forget that he was in Brokeback Mountain, more remembered for the passing of Heath Ledger and Jarhead, as good a war film produced by Hollywood in recent years.  And those are just two films.

Last summer he appeared in Prince of Persia, a would be summer blockbuster which asked him to put on an English accent and a Jason Bourne body to build up a franchise for himself.  Unfortunately, that film did not capture the audience's attention even though it did have some plus points as harmless family fun.

Source Code offers Gyllenhaal a second chance, and ironically, the film's entire structure revolves around second chances.  Gyllenhaal plays a marine Colter Stevens, who is part of a government program called 'source code' where he is supplanted into an individual who matches his physical specifications (a la Quantum Leap) and he experiences - through simulation and a mastering of physics - the last eight minutes before a tragic incident; he has to find out vital information that may prevent the loss of further lives as the clock ticks and chances slip by. 
     Stevens awakes on a train in the body of Sean Prenger opposite a lady he has never seen before, but who Sean clearly has a relationship with. The lady is Christina (Michelle Monaghan) and she is an alluring beauty to wake up opposite.  Stevens has eight minutes before the train blows up to find out who the bomber is and where the bomb is, as well as fall in love.  Okay you cannot do all that in just eight minutes, but the film borrows from Groundhog Day in that Stevens travels back to wake up opposite Christina and so his ordeal or assignment starts again.
     Stevens is monitored by Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), a fellow soldier who is her guide and helps with his investigations on the train and she is shadowed by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) the creator of the mechanism and a brooding intense presence who holds vital information to Stevens' personal records in Afghanistan and what happened to his unit.  Stevens wishes to call his father, and Goodwin and Rutledge insist on finishing the job first.

The reason this role is so good for Gyllenhaal is that he has a lot of different genres to tick off; action star, detective, love interest and dramatic moment such as when he phones his father during one eight minute cycle.  When he finally does figure out most things and arrives at the last cycle, he exerts this supreme confidence in his own ability, not just a projection of the character but the actor also.

The script written by Ben Ripley (previous credits include sequels to Species) is a taut piece of science fiction, not too sci-fi for novices to be scared by and with enough action, romance and thrills for all to enjoy. However, the most credit must go to director Duncan Jones (Moon) who has graduated from his freshman piece to this excellent sophmore effort, you can see Jones gaining confidence in his direction as he uses the set of the same carriage train to good effect letting the camera explore the location and using alternative angles for each eight minute cycle instead of the expected same lazy set ups.  Jones obviously wanted to keep the attention of the audience, and key to it was that there mind was probably grasped early enough anyway, the next step was to make sure that they were awaken by what they saw as well as what they heard.
    Jones, who elicited a career effort from Sam Rockwell, does the same with Gyllenhaal here as he graduates to play a man, too often he has played prolonged adolescents or boys who have not grown up, in Colter Stevens we see a responsible adult on screen.  He is helped admirably by the two females, Monaghan has never looked lovelier and for someone who started so late in her career she aswell is garnering quite a CV from Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang to this via the underrated Eagle Eye, she is a calm presence, as is Farmiga here who plays a soldier and woman, and is reassuring to Stevens as he battles in his 'pod' and quest for the answers - taking a severely underwritten role and extending it to something more as she becomes a shared spirit with Stevens.  Jeffrey Wright also plays Rutledge as malevolent self brooding and self-important mad scientist but ultimately a gloryhound in search of fame and fortune.

If I have one flaw it would be the ending, non-ending debate; the choice of actual ending combined with ending that they could have had will be one of endless discussion on noticeboards and forums.  My belief is there was a chance to leave the hero in limbo would have been a noble deed to a man who did quite a lot, and all the talk of living for the moment and if you had one second left to live, what would you do - they swerve us and go in another direction. I felt this was a shame of the initial intentions and contradictory to the intentions of the character, Colter Stevens himself.

Be that as it may, the film still takes you on a brilliant journey full of thrills and spills with something for everyone including romance, adventure and a good old fashioned time travel yarn.  Recommended to everyone, it may be marketed as science fiction but it is a good film so do not let genre labels put you off.  And as for Gyllenhaal, he has found his niche and his entry into the A-list is assured now.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Blue Valentine DVD review

Blue Valentine is released by Optimum Entertainment on Monday 9th May for £12.99RRP and is also available on Blu-Ray

Director, Derek Cianfrance, has taken a long while to get his screenplay to the screen - supposedly nine years from treatment to production; what has to be asked is why did theoretically a two-hander between the man, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and wife, Cindy (Michelle Williams) take so long to get to the screen. The dual narrative tells the story of a breakdown of a marriage, whilst also showing how they came together in the first place.

This narrative of a breakdown of a marriage due to an overblown ego of a male and a derailment of romance has been seen previously in American independence cinema and is a familiar trope to be executed, most notably by John Cassavettes' Faces and most recently in Francois Ozon's memorable 5x2, which showed the breakdown of a marriage in chronological order but in reverse - starting in the divorce lawyer's office and ending with the meet cute.

On this occasion we start with the couple with their child and then sending child to grandfather to indulge in a romantic getaway at a fleabag themed hotel, ironically they choose the 'Future Room' which is exactly what they do not have by journey's end. This narrative is interrupted by flashbacks to the time when they first encountered each other, the meet cute and personal dilemmas involved once Cindy becomes pregnant with someone else's baby.

After she refuses an abortion, Dean offers to be a father to a child that is not his and husband in a new family. The film shows them 6-8 years after this life-changing decison and the effect it has had on Dean is startling; a shadow of his younger, viral self with a receding hairline and alcohol addiction, which is alluded throughout the film and admonished by the film's chronological end.

This is a bold and brave piece of filmmaking, especially by the two leads who helped with the film's flow in terms of improvising dialogue but at times some scenes come across a little too self-indulgent, such as when Dean serenades Cindy with a solo ukelele performance with a high voice as she dances in a doorway; whilst this is romantic, could the flashback just be too indicative of how perfect it all was back then and perhaps too sentimental to punch the message home.

Cindy wants to be a doctor but ends up as a nurse who is hit upon by her new boss, another example of a man in this film who is a douchebag. Most of the men in this film are douchebags, especially Dean who at times is both irritating and selfish, as is Bobby (the man who impregnated Cindy), a boy all full of testosterone. And Dean could be a renaissance man, but puts his idea of virtue above providing financial stability for his family by becoming a house painter.

Interestingly, the scene where Cindy bumps into her child's father, Bobby (Mike Vogel) in a liquor store is a weird scene but played perfectly by Williams - her eyes lighting up at meeting an old flame with excitement burning in her heart for the first time in quite a while.

However, even good production values such as switching of camera style - from handheld video for the contemporary scenes giving it a harsher, grittier quality and then harking back to 16mm for the flashback scenes giving them a warmer, happier tone - cannot save the film from the requirement of a tighter script that on occasions in the modern day scenes pleads for the less is more approach, as Dean repeats another vital line to death. Sometimes the audience, especially the independent cinema one should be respected enough to get the message straight away.

Not to do a disservice to Williams and Gosling in their performances, whilst Gosling is all brooding and showy with his sunglasses hiding inner turmoil, Williams is brilliant as a young woman whose ambition and drive to be a better person and wife than her own browbeaten mother is shot to pieces by the sheer over-inflated ego of her husband. But it is these two performances from two esteemed actors of their generation that raises this film above from passable to watchable.

Released on May 9th by Optimum Entertainment on Blu-Ray and DVD

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Louise-Michel DVD review

The directors of the cult French classi Aaltra, return with a tale in tribute to a French anarchist that gives the film its name. Louise-Michel tells the tale of a laid off factory worker who takes her redundancy pay to hire an assassin to kill the boss who fired her; in doing so she hires an inept security guard with fantasist dreams of guns, this happen stance leads to many misunderstandings but a black humour mixed with memorable sight gags.

Louise (Yolande Moreau) is an ex-con who is laid off by the toy factory, and who after her colleagues pool the 20.000euros together convinces them to knock off the boss. After losing contact with her initial choice, she happens across Michel (Bouli Lanners), who proudly carries his gun and seems perfect but his ineptitude leads him to sub-contract the job to inexperienced gunmen, leading to hilarious results.

In this current global recession, where money is of the essence you sympathise with the female workers at the factory, but you cannot feel morally conflicted about their subversive decision to seek justice. (Oddly, this film was released one week after the crisis at Lehman Brothers in its homeland; but has had to wait two years for a UK release.)

The cult classic Aaltra had the premise of two wheelchair users trailing across Belgium to seek vengeance on the manufacturers whose machinery led to their disability, this sight gag of two wheelchairs on the road led to many a sight gag. And the directing pair repeat this trick on numerous occasions; such as when they the two leads first meet and he tries to find his home in the caravan park, a simple task leads to a maze of wondering where he is going; and when he attempts target practice but mistakenly shoots a cow to uproarious effect.

Much like their previous work, the film soon descends into a cross-European odyessey as the answer to Louise's question of who sacked her becomes ever longer. This movement of characters from town to next town is a bit of a shame, as any film reliant on gunplay and assassins should be geographically restricted to the town where the action initialises, it is a generic convention a la In Bruges, unless it has the geopolitical spectrum of The Bourne Trilogy or the leisure of expense that James Bond has.

What does not get mentioned in the reviews upon its theatrical release is the question of gender in the two leading roles, and how they have both transgressed from the gender they were born as - whilst alluded to earlier in the film, it does not get spoken about until near the film's conclusion and then washed over somewhat, as the directors seek laughs.

The directors perhaps did not realise they had a convincing drama about sexuality, disability and moral fortitude in their hands. The pursuit of laughs sometimes goes down a dead end, such as the poor in taste sight gag of an ill chosen hitman, who shows of a scale demonstration of the Twin Towers. Just as in poor taste, was Michel utilising his terminally ill cancer-stricken cousin, in attempting to bump off said boss. After this, the film's laughs are harder to come by as they tried too hard to get a laugh.

Whilst the film fails to deliver on the moral quandries it poses, it does deliver on sheer inventiveness and absurd behaviour by less than perfect characters. The surreal nature of the film may lend Benoit and Kervern another cult following.

The DVD features a nice set of deleted scenes, theatrical trailer and stills gallery; somewhat good set of extras for a foreign title.

The film is released by Axiom Films on DVD on Monday 25th April for £15.99RRP

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Black Swan

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, US, 2010)

Following on from the surprise of The Wrestler where he reinvigorated the career of Mickey Rourke (and somewhat saved his own after the disappointment of The Fountain), Darren Aronofsky returns with another film that goes behind the velvet curtain and features a powerhouse leading performance. This film is led by Natalie Portman, who deservedly won the Oscar for Best Leading Actress at this year's ceremony, as Nina a perfectionist ballerina, whom is unexpectedly promoted to the position of lead dancer following the suicide attempt of the previous holder, played with evil malevolence by Winona Ryder.

Talented but worried by the onset of age as her chance may have passed, Nina is greeted by alpha male director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) as the person to play the dual role of Odette/Odile, the White Swan and the alter-ego, Black Swan in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Upon granting her the role of a lifetime, Leroy is himself perplexed by Nina's apparent angel quality for the white swan, but fears she does not have the underlying sexual energy for the black swan. This is both Nina's and the film's dilemma.

The introduction of new chorus girl, Lily (Mila Kunis) who has a fluidity and sexuality all too readily available in contrast to Nina's timidity means Nina is in constant battle with Lily; initial friendship leads to intimacy leads to regrettable bitterness. Nina also has a strict parent in the form of mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who still treats Nina as a pre-teen girl scared of her growing up and not being able to enjoy her success with her.

Aronofsky from the outset employs his hand-held camera as his eye on this world, immediately positioning itself upon Portman's shoulder as she enters a stage to dance. It is as if we are prying upon a private world. However, this has always been a m.o. of Aronofsky, showing us worlds we rarely see and perhaps reluctant to see; from the wrestlers taping up before a show and licking their wounds afterwards to the down and out routine of the junkies in Requiem for a Dream. The director chooses to be in the face of the character, using scenes we would not see normally in a ballet/dance film - did you know ballerinas get massaged just as much as wrestlers.

Black Swan combines part of thriller elements with body horror and a psychological study of a paranoid young woman experiencing hallucinations, not hiding the fact that this should be considered a 'woman's picture'. The use of doubles and mirrors are used predominantly - such as when Nina walks along a subway and her face is transposed onto the face of the oncoming person, she looks at herself and freezes. The mirror and constant looking at herself, when scratching a rash leads to many, only enhances her hallucinations. Ironically, her major act of violence is committed using a shard of glass.

Aronofsky does not pander to the audience forcing us to make quick judgments, even providing a double cross after the final act of violence allowing the end result to become more poignant. The tale of Nina's constant struggle for perfection is driven by her character alone, she has people around her who wish to push her off course, but it is her intrinsic being to be perfect that heightens these delusions and ultimately to her eventual downfall.

The end is similar to the ending of The Wrestler when Mickey Rourke dove off the top turnbuckle but we did not see the landing, on this occasion we see Nina land but the landing was just as uncomfortable.
At times a difficult watch due to the body horror coupled with genuine scares and moments of terror, the film is steadied by a stellar performance by Portman who is ably assisted by Kunis, who shows a different side to her talent playing misunderstood and sexual, instead of the girl next door she is frequently cast in. Aronofsky again shepherds his actors to career performances whilst indelibly leaving his fingerprint upon proceedings.