Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Top 10 films of 2011

2011 has been a good year for films, not the most brilliant yet still some amazing work, and here are my top films of the year:

WEEKEND (Andrew Haigh, UK, 2010)
First saw this at the London Film Festival, this gripping and yet at times enlightening film about the growing relationship between two gay men after a one night stand.  Brilliantly acted, well written and a true depiction of what is possible in British film if they are supported, trusted and given the financing.
Usually I dont like putting films in order, but on this occasion it is at the top of the list for a reason.  Top top film, which will be a cult favourite for years to come.

NATURAL SELECTION (Robbie Pickering, US, 2011)
A real find of the LFF, that I hope receives a form of distribution in the UK.  An odd-couple road movie that bashes the bible-bashers, with some genuine laugh out loud moments featuring a standout performance from Rachael Harris, as the frumpy Linda.

THE SKIN I LIVE IN (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2011)
Almodovar's reunion with Antonio Banderas proved that the partnership is still vital and unique.  Banderas melts into the malevolant role of the evil, twisted doctor with ease and coupled with the sylistic panache so indicative of Spain's finest auteur - this was a twisted tale reminiscent of Roald Dahl and David Lynch.  I first saw it at the premiere screening at Somerset House on a balmy August evening- a wonderful experience and venue for live cinema.  (Also saw 'Scott Pilgrim vs. The World' the following week for the first time at the same venue - absolutely mind blowing)

THE DESCENDANTS (Alexander Payne, US, 2011)
Payne's first film since 'Sideways' is a return to form and an honest depiction of grief and loss in Hollywood cinema, albeit it also in a faithful adaptation of Hemming's source novel.  George Clooney's performance as Matt King is another of those under the skin roles as slowly the celebrity Clooney disappears and we believe the character we are seeing.  The film is released nationally in late January 2012, is a front runner for the Oscars due to the cache of Clooney and Payne; whilst screenplay honours beckon I feel Clooney will have to wait, as he has had better roles before.
After so much worry, the transition to the big screen for our four favourite small screen teenagers was easy and it was far funnier than the feeble American efforts of Bridesmaids and The Hangover Part 2

The Australian soap opera married with Goodfellas was a stand out film from the start of the year.

LE QUATTRO VOLTE (Michelangelo Frammatino, Italy, 2010)
Unlike anything done on screen before - goats, shepherds, mysticism, spiritualism, mythology all embedded into this unique piece of poetic cinema.

SOURCE CODE (Duncan Jones, US, 2010)
Jones' first Hollywood film was a sprightly mainstream blockbuster relying upon time travel and action film conventions featuring a suitable lead role by Jake Gyllenhaal.

BLUE VALENTINE (Derek Cianfrance, US, 2010)
Featuring two standout roles for Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, this was a telling and honest depiction of the disintegration of a modern relationship where the love at the start never lasted.

THE INTERRUPTERS (Steve James, US, 2011)
James who did so well with 'Hoop Dreams' out does himself with this tale of anti-violence campaigners that is both gripping and emotive.

Other notable films that missed out but deserve credit are: Oslo, August 31st; Black Swan; Cold Weather; Submarine; Putty Hill and Fire in Babylon.

Re-issues included the peerless black and white presentation of Gilda and the re-release of the re-redux of Apocalypse Now which saw at the BFI on the big screen - a visual and sonic experience to not be forgotten about.

Disappointments were mostly from America - I found the second Hangover movie to be lazy and tiresome with few funny moments apart from Ed Helms' Stu freaking out as always and 'Super 8' which promised so much but at times was too self-reflexive of Spielberg's oeurvre and turned into just another alien movie.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Norwich v Tottenham preview

On Boxing Day, it was the season of goodwill as the top teams (with the exception of Man United - who received their own present from referee, Phil Dowd) dropped points in the title charge.

Leaders Man.City drew goalless with West Brom who were disciplined and organised against the superstar line up as Jerome Thomas came closest to winning the game, the right back hitting the post that left Joe Hart beaten.

Liverpool's home form again put into question their Champions League aspirations as they again drew with a bottom half table team as they had to come from behind to gain a point from Blackburn, 1-1.  A Charlie Adam (the walking liability) own goal on the stroke of half-time gave struggling Rovers the lead, but a quick response in the second half from Maxi Rodriguez led anticipation to the floodgates opening, yet even the return of Steven Gerrard could not prevent some fine saves from Mark Bunn, who came in for the injured Paul Robinson.

For Tottenham, the best result was the dropped points by Chelsea at home to Fulham in a West London derby.  Chelsea took the lead through Juan Mata shortly after halftime, yet Fulham who were thumped 5-0 at home by Man.United before Christmas showed great character to equalise deservedly through Clint Dempsey.  Chelsea were denied the win by a fine goalkeeping performance by David Stockdale, an England squad member in for the injured Mark Schwarzer.  Stockdale showed he is good enough for a regular Premier League spot, if not at Fulham then anywhere.

December 27th has two intriguing match ups and both can effect Tottenham, who play away at Norwich City in the evening kick-off.  However, the afternoon kick-off between Arsenal and Wolves will see Arsenal go joint on points with their North London rivals if they win, leapfrogging Chelsea in fourth.

Tottenham are one point ahead of Chelsea, and so can extend that advantage to four points with a victory at Carrow Road.

However, the Canaries should not be under-estimated they are unbeaten in three games and worryingly have Grant Holt being his unplayable self as he was in the Championship last year and now scoring goals - the last game at Carrow Road was there performance of the season as they beat Newcastle 4-2, this has been followed by two solid away draws: 1-1 at Everton, 2-2 at Wolves, both games in which they dominated possession, territory and chances.

Norwich have a constant aerial threat in Holt and Steve Morison up front, they have scored the most headed goals this season - 11.  Yet they have not kept a clean sheet all season in the League, which against the forward prowess of Tottenham is a worrying statistic.

Tottenham have only lost one game in the last 14 league games, Emmanuel Adebayor has scored six in six yet Tottenham are having a mini injury crisis with players falling down hurt and so consistency of selection is suffering.  Expect Ledley King to be rested after he played two games in five days, his knee suffering in its swollen form.  The hope is that Younes Kaboul's hamstring is not that hamstrung to partner William Gallas at the centre of defence.  Other injury scares concern Rafael van der Vaart's own hamstring and Jermain Defoe.

Norwich lose Kyle Naughton to suspension, and Elliott Ward and James Vaughan remain out through injury. 

My feeling is that Tottenham struggled (in the first half at least) at Stoke when the aerial bombardment from Peter Crouch and Jon Walters led to a 2-0 deficit they could not overcome.  Expect Norwich to take heed of this weakness, admittedly King did not play that day and his dominance will be missed against the crafty Holt and Morison. 

It should be an entertaining game full of end to end attacking and certainly some goal mouth action, yet a point for Tottenham should not be sniffed at.  It seems to be the thing to do this Christmas.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Final Destination 5

We should learn that franchises never really die or pass on, especially in the horror genre.  After the last film in the franchise, where they did not even grant it a number - The Not So Final Destination - and the previous incumbent succumbed to the fad of 3D technology.  Your heart kind of went in the mouth as we heard of a fifth instalment.

Which is why it is all the more surprising and refreshing to see the fifth film, Steven Quale has kind of resurrected a franchise which was feared to be on life support.

The familiar conventions of the series are all here and present.  Aspiring chef Sam (Nicholas D'Agosto) has a weird premonition regarding a elaborate bridge collapse which in glorious CGI comes to life as pins and steel and concrete account for close to a hundred deaths.  Sam - after much convincing - saves the lives of on and off girlfriend Molly (Emma Bell) and two other workers from the factory where they all work.

Yet as told by coroner Tony Todd (Candyman), nobody can cheat death and so death comes a calling picking off the survivors one by one as this elusive stalker who uses all manner of creative crowd pleasing ways.

This is where the film comes to life through the death scenes, it seems to be the only reason you go to see the film yet the actors especially D'Agosto are able (and most importantly allowed) to inject some humanity and plausability into their performances, where other directors would insist on cheap histrionics.

Whereas, the previous films in the series were more about fate and second chances; this feature appeals to the scares of knowing when death is waiting for you.  The scariest thing may be knowing when you are going to die.

While there is nothing out of the ordinary in the scares, the humour that has run through the franchise remains yet the film as a whole is one of the best in the series.

Final Destination 5 is out on DVD from Warner Bros on Boxing Day on Blu-Ray, Triple Play, Blu-Ray 3D, DVD and Ultraviolet Digital Download.  HMV are also offering the triple play in an exclusive Steelbox presentation case.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Haywire Preview

As one film year comes to an end, there are more films to look forward to in the new year. Already 2012 promises blockbusters (The Avengers), fantasy (The Hobbit), scares (The Woman in Black), Oscar front runners (The Artist and The Descendants) and a usual breed of action movies and thrillers.

Steven Soderbergh who returned to big screen fare with his big screen friends with Contagion in September, has another star-studded film on the horizon in January 2012 - titled Haywire it sees him reunited with writer Lem Dobbs, who wrote The Limey, which starred Terence Stamp - a film about revenge and the journey to exact the revenge.

Mallory Kane (Gino Carano) is a highly trained operative who works for a government security contractor in the dirtiest, most dangerous corners of the world.  After successfully freeing a Chinese journalist held hostage, she is double crossed and left for dead by someone close to her in her own agency.  Suddenly the target of skilled assassins who knew her every move, Mallory must find the truth in order to stay alive.

Gino Carano is a former MMA fighter and this is her first starring role in a major film, which would be considered a risk unless you have seen the trailer and the numerous fights she is involved in one where she kicks Channing Tatum's butt in a roadside diner and then disposes of suave Michael Fassbender in a hotel room.  The Fassbender scene sets the wheels in motion for her betrayal, she is meant to be killed meaning she is on the run and in search of Ewan McGregor's point man who ordered the killing, along with CIA official by Michael Douglas.

The trailers show the film attempting to be as globe-trotting as Bourne; as hard-hitting as Craig's Bond, and as thrilling as any Michael Mann film - however, many people will be surprised at the action film being directed by Soderbergh, an auteur more adept at vast character pieces like Oceans 11 or Traffic and social comment pieces a la Erin Brockovich.  Haywire promises to be another feather in the cap for this versatile and always entertaining director.

The tagline is 'They Left Her No Choice', you can make the right one and go see this exhiliarating feature.

Haywire is released by Momentum Pictures on January 18th up and down and around the country.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

An intense and gripping picture from Brazil which is heavy on social conscience and political satire, Jose Padilha (who also wrote the script) directs with a definite panache and visceral quality akin to fellow films of Brazilian cinema lately.

After a prison riot that goes wrong under his watch, Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is swept into a political dispute concerning government officials and paramilitary groups - the situation is not helped by the family matters as his ex-wife (Maria Ribeiro) is engaged to a fool, Fraga (Irandhir Santos) who is running for political office, which could endanger his position if elected.

There is plenty of violence and gunplay on a level with that employed by Michael Mann in his seminal Heat and any Tony Scott film.  Padilha is very clever, he has pretty much directed a typical B-class script involving political shenanigans and backstabbing which would be also ran fare if released by Hollywood, but the sheer thrill seeking of the piece, helped by great production values and a suitably entertaining cast elevates the film to a respectable spectacle.

It is all here - bent cops, cops that are good but have trouble on the inside, cops that are bad, cops that cannot control emotions, bent political officials, serpentine plotting and strands that all come together in that great Latin American tradition of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams, Babel) - fans of City of God and The Wire will feel right at home in this mesh and mess of law and order and chaos.

Padilha directed the respected documentary Bus 174 (2002) which had a close-camerawork and MTV editing; the conviction with which he directs this sequel to 2007's Elite Squad puts it in that rare pantheon of films that are better than the original.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is released on DVD from Aim Publicity on 26th December (Boxing Day)

Watch the trailer here

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Spurs v Chelsea preview

Tottenham Hotspur are on a roll.  Thanks to a tough 1-0 victory over Martin O'Neill's resurgent Sunderland on Sunday, they remain 3rd two points clear of Chelsea, who dropped two points away at Wigan where they could not convert dominance into goals.  And five clear of Arsenal who suffered their 5th defeat of the season (4th to a Top 6 side) as they lost 1-0 at Manchester City.

Now the Christmas season is upon Tottenham and they (like everyone else) they have four fixtures in 12 days starting with a massive encounter with Chelsea at home on Thursday, then Norwich City away on the 27th (live on Sky Sports); Swansea away on New Years Eve then to finish off a home game against West Brom on January 3rd, before the FA Cup tie at home to Cheltenham Athletic of League Two.

Things have been going well at Tottenham, as I have noted previously, due to their levels of consistency in terms of selection policy allowing continuity and finesse to the line-up.

Brad Friedel is the anchor at the back, getting clean sheets in games that last season would leak goals by Heurilho Gomes, forcing the team to attack and win the game.  On Sunday, Roman Pavyluchenko's goal won the game but the security of having Friedel being able to fend off Seb Larsson's free-kick mastery meant the clean sheet led to three points.

The defence has had a few changes to the usual foursome of Walker, Kaboul, King, Assou-Ekotto - due to injury to Ledley King and the suspension of Kaboul this week, luckily on both occasions the veteran William Gallas has been able to return from injury and do a solid job.

Owing to an ankle sprain sustained in training, Gareth Bale missed his first game of the season forcing Sandro to start meaning Spurs had to attack with a narrower midfield forcing Aaron Lennon to lead the counter-attacking purpose.  Unfortunately, Lennon himself tore a hamstring after 27 minutes in the Sunderland match.  Interestingly, Redknapp chose to bring on Super Pav instead of a natural winger like Steven Pienaar or Nico Krancjar; asking Pav to play with Van der Vaart off of Adebayor in a 4-3-2-1 formation. 

This tactic led to Tottenham plahying some of their most negative football - the fluidity of having two talented wingers coupled with full backs Assou-Ekotto and Walker bombing past in overlaps, meant that Spurs have been difficult to contain and defend against.  What happened Sunday was, Walker did a lot of running for balls that never came and against a stubborn Sunderland defence, this proved difficult until the goal game just after the hour.  Of course, once the lead was obtained the victory was never really in doubt.

Hopefully, Bale will return from injury and be able to attack Boswinga, the problem for Redknapp will be which player to choose on the right wing to not only offer an attacking thrust but someone who is able to track back against Ashley Cole who can bomb down the left flank with the best of them.  Although the team that finished the game, may well start on Thursday although another option may be to switch Bale to the right to combat Cole, and play the vibrant Danny Rose on the left.

However, the next week will bring many different episodes of injuries, suspensions and tactical hiccups - although after the Chelsea game, who themselves have injury concerns over John Terry, the tnext three games can be deemed winnable although Norwich and Swansea are better at home than away, whilst the visit of West Brom will be a welcome conclusion to the hectic period.

The loss of Lennon though is a bitter blow not just for his club, but for the player himself, a man who needs confidence and games under his belt to help his development and maybe earn a recall to the England fold ahead of the European Championships next summer.  He was someway back on the list behind Walcott, Young and Milner anyway but his history of injuries and the time he takes to recuperate will worry many, especially such a delicate muscle like the hamstring and for a player who requires speed so much.

Again, considering the depth of the squad and the players missing - Michael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone - Spurs have done well to maintain a considerable title charge or at least be taken seriously in discussions whilst Arsenal and Chelsea have both false started this season.  Tottenham went undefeated for 10 games between a defeat by Manchester City in August and last week's defeat at Stoke.

Following the thrilling game between Manchester City and Arsenal on Sunday, Thursday night promises to be just as exciting - for years Chelsea held a curse over Tottenham inflicting some heavy defeats at White Hart Lane, yet Chelsea have not won at 'Three Point Lane' in six years and the influence and play of Luka Modric, so touted by Chelsea in the summer, will be interesting.  It is expected that Chelsea may well bid again for the Croat in the January transfer window, while Spurs look likely to stand firm his performance against the Juan Mata will be interesting.

Monday, 19 December 2011

NFL's Moving Day

In golf's majors you have the Saturday (Day 3) which is regularly referred to as moving day - where a leader cements his dominance by extending his lead, where second place novices wilt with the exposure and attention served to them; or a fan favourite starts moving up the leaderboard with a birdie charge.  Sometimes the major is not so much won on the last day but the day before.

In baseball, you have the wild card chase which can bring some amazing results.  Ask the St.Louis Cardinals who somehow overturned a deficit to get into the play-offs and then being the team wiht the momentum wind up winning the World Series.

For the NFL you can call Moving Day, Week 15 - so many storylines, so many things happening, upsets, history chasers, bible bashers being bashed, playoff contenders wilting and teams on the charge being cemented.

It all started as history beckoned for the Green Bay Packers at the Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium as the Packers seeking a 16-0 perfect regular season (to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins and 2007 Patriots) were defeated 19-14 by the 6-8 Chiefs. 

The Chiefs had fired coach Todd Haley this week after a fouth consecutive loss inspite of an improving defence led by interim head coach Romeo Crenel - the Packers were the makers of their own downfall however.  For once Aaron Rodgers did not click (17-35 for 235) as there were numerous dropped from such names as Donald Driver and Jermichael Finley, as they missed the injured Greg Jennings especially.  The rushing game suffered also as it accounted for only 5 of the 15 first downs.

Tellingly, the Packers had never trailed in the fourth quarter and they have been prone to moments of panic when the game is close as it was against the Buccaneers and Giants - however, credit should go to Kyle Orton who showed himself to be a top quarterback with a 23-31 for 299 yards with no turnovers; and he controlled the clock keeping Rodgers off the field for much of the game, leaving Green Bay to stew over their mistakes.  Orton finished with a QB rating of 104.1 in comparison to Rodgers of 80.1, the first time this season he finished a game under 100.

The Packers have games left against the woeful Bears and hungry Lions to get the one win to cement the one seed and home field advantage.  Expect the Pack to get both wins, yet as they have noted going 18-1 and winning the Superbowl would be more memorable than the Patriots season which ended with no ring and no memories.

As for the Patriots they put the snooze button on Tebow Time defeating the Broncos 41-23 which along with a Jets loss to the Eagles gave them the AFC East division and along with defeats for the Ravens and Texans means they are in the No.1 seed front seat and looking to cement home-field advantage throught the playoffs.

The atmosphere at Mile High Stadium was electric as the Broncos came storming out of the blocks utilising their running game to great effect garnering 167 yards on the ground alone in the first quarter compared to a paltry 4 by the Patriots.

The Broncos raced to a 16-7 lead after a 8yd Tebow run, a 32 yd run from Lance Ball and a field goal from Prater, nullified only by a first TD reception by Chad Ochocinco of 33 yards for the Patriots first score.

In registering their sixth consecutive victory, the Patriots as they did on the road to the Eagles a few weeks back when they fall behind early they are confident enough in their gameplan and their weapons being managed by Tom Brady to comeback and outscore any team.  Tellingly, the defence stepped up and forced some turnovers and the offense then scored off of them.  A muffed punt return led to a Gostkowski 34 yard FG to give a 27-16 halftime lead which would have been unthinkable fifteen minutes earlier.

And once they were ahead the Patriots never looked backed, Rob Gronkowski has been gaining the headlines lately but it was the other tight end Aaron Hernandez who had a big day (9 recs for 129, 1 TD) and the little nugget Danny Woodhead who provided an alternative to the running game (7 car, 40 yds, 1TD).

The defence stepped up in the second quarter when it needed to stop the run and did so, unfortunately they have lost Andre Carter for the season after he twisted his knee it is suspected he requires surgery.  This was another mental victory for this young defence who won another big game on the road in an hostile atmosphere and are slowly growing into roles.

Tebow did not play bad, 287 total yards (194 pass, 93 run) means they stuck to the gameplan but when they play against the elite QBs they come up short - against Rodgers, Brees, Brady and Rivers they have a 1-4 record. Tebow is 7-2 as a starter this season, they remain atop the AFC West with a 8-6 record due to the Raiders losing at home, but the Chargers are coming following their win over Baltimore. 

The playoff future of the Broncos are in their own hands, one more win should do  yet this will be the ultimate test of character to come back from.  Yet they need to know their place, Tebow is not elite and with him you cannot see the Broncos winning a playoff game.  And how ironic of the scheduling that they have to play at home to Kyle Orton/Kansas City in the last week, a game they may have to win to get into those playoffs.  The truth is stranger than fiction.

Congratulations to the Colts who won their first game of the season (1-13) to defeat the Titans 27-13, the Colts oddly enough could miss out on the Andrew Luck/Peyton Manning farce with one more win as the St.Louis Rams are still 2-12 (they lost 20-13 to the playoff chasing Bengals), and the Colts have a winnable game at home to the Jaguars in Week 17.  The Rams would appear a better ready fit for Luck if he is the No.1 draft pick, although following Robert Griffin III's Heisman winning performance that does not appear a foregone conclusion.

Baltimore did themselves no favours again, losing on the road again all four of their losses have been on the road - Tennessee, Jacksonsville, Seattle and now San Diego - calling into question whether they are a false team.  Pittsburgh travel to San Francisco tonight for Monday Night Football, and if they win they will probably remain atop the AFC North and grab the 1 seed owing to their victory over New England.  The Ravens are odd, as each loss comes with low output from Ray Rice who although he can change games as he did against the Cardinals, too often it is hot and cold from this team who search for dominance.

As for odd, go for the Giants who lost 23-10 at home to the Redskins dropping them back to 7-7, 4 losses have come at the MetLife stadium and seemingly every time they have a big week or performance they reply with a woeful display - Eli Manning so good at the moment and MVP quality supposedly (23-40, 257 yards, no TDs but 3 INTs).  Following Dallas' Saturday night cakewalk over the Bucs, they sit at 8-6 meaning it will come down to the Week 17 showdown in New York between the Giants and Cowboys for the playoff spot at home to either the Falcons or Lions.

Such a crazy week of scores, headlines and storylines.  The notion of the NFL is that on 'Any Given Sunday' something miraculous can happen, usually it does, but this Sunday was magical and amazing.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

NFL - Week 13 Picks

I know it has been a while since I gave my selections for the NFL owing to time and getting a lot wrong, but this is a good week to step back inside.

Green Bay continue on their road to perfection at Kansas City, Tebow sees if he can go toe to toe with Tom Brady at home, the Giants host the Redskins to cement supremacy in the NFC East and we have a titanic tussle on Monday Night as the Harrison-less Steelers travel to San Francisco with question marks over the starting place of QB Ben Rothliesberger.

Here are my picks with brief explanations:

Jaguars @ FALCONS - The Jags had a fine win last week, but the Falcons are pretty good at home even though MoJo will have more huge numbers.

COWBOYS @ Tampa Bay - not a bad game to have on the bounce back after the loss to the Giants, but then we all thought they would beat the Cardinals.

Panthers @ TEXANS - T.J. Yates did a great job at Cincy last week with a last second TD drive to win the game 20-19; the Panthers had a good win last week but the Texans are on a mission after securing the division, now they need to get a bye.

Redskins @ GIANTS - Eli Manning is controlling this offence so well, and with Jason Pierre Paul making big plays on defence, the Giants can suddenly build momentum towards the huge week 17 matchup at home to Dallas.

Dolphins @ BILLS - Miami lost their starman, Matt Moore to injury and the Eagles took advantage, the Bills still have Fitzpatrick fully fit so going with the home-field advantage on this one. Even though without Moore, both teams are equal now.

Seahawks @ BEARS - the Bears have to win one game, although Marshawn Lynch is lights out at the moment, close one.

SAINTS @ Vikings - an indoor game for the Saints to enjoy, they are on a roll Brees is on the march for that 2 seed.

BENGALS @ Rams - Cincy were unlucky last week but still have a shot at the playoffs so need to wipe the floor with the sorry Rams.

TITANS @ Colts - The Titans are also in the hunt for that playoff spot so need a road win also.

PACKERS @ Chiefs - no brainer on this one.

LIONS @ Raiders - the Raiders looked to have imploded, full of injuries, bad decision making and miss McFadden badly. The Lions are in the driving seat for a playoff spot and have Suh returning from suspension.

PATRIOTS @ Broncos - the Patriots need to get out to an early lead otherwise this will be close and when it is close, Tebow always has a chance.  Patriots need to win and hope one of Ravens/Texans slip up to maintain a 1 or 2 seed, currently they are at 3.

JETS @ Eagles - might be the game of the weekend; Sanchez is not dominating but he is scoring, the Eagles will be competitive but when the season is on the line for the last two years the Jets get the job done. Expect Shonn Greene to have another big day.

Browns @ CARDINALS - the Cardinals are having a good end to the season, thanks to the fine work of John Skelton

RAVENS @ Chargers - this could be a tough one but I can see the Ravens just grinding out the victory if they allow Rice to have enough of the ball

STEELERS @ 49ers - the wheels have come off the SanFran bus due to their lack of redzone potency, I give this to the Steelers if Big Ben starts if he does not then I feel San Fran might win but they need to trust Gore with the ball in the red zone or alternatively go for some big plays downfield with Crabtree.

Should be another great weekend of action, what will be the headlines on Monday morning.  Hopefully you will check back in with me for a review.

All the best and Go Pats.

Green Bay v Tebow: When the Story Isn't the Story

This year in the NFL there have been an amazing set of storylines - the coming out party of rookie QBs (Newton, Dalton, Yates); the continued indiscipline of James Harrison; the implosion at Detroit after a great start (more down to the lose of Jahvid Best than their own indiscipline); the reinvention of the 49ers under the stewardship of Jon Harbaugh.

Yet there appears to be two stories that far outweigh all of these storylines; one involves a team heading for glory and the other is a man who is playing with glory in his heart.  The Green Bay Packers v Tim Tebow. One is playing for immortality, the other plays for an immortal.

The current Super Bowl champions from Wisconsin, who had a 7 game unbeaten run to win in Dallas this February over the favoured Pittsburgh Steelers, have continued currently 13-0. One more win this week at Kansas City will guarantee home field advantage throughout the playoffs at the formidabel Lambeau Field - a place that is so cold and hostile, it gives the Packers an added advantage as if they need one.

They do not need any extra help, as right now Aaron Rodgers is playing the QB position better than anyone else right now, in spite of it being a good year for his peers Drew Brees and Tom Brady.  All three are on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing record; as was Matt Schaub before his season-ending shoulder injury.

Rodgers is a beast - he throws it so accurately, so precisely with such poise and confidence he has made it look very easy.  He shakes off pressure that breaks the pocket due to his ability to run outside of it, he takes hit when necessary which is seldom, so maybe credit should go to his O-line for giving him time but he has an abundance of weapons downfield in Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings; coupled with the useful return of Ryan Grant who missed last year due to injury.

These Packers score for fun, when in a shootout they outscore the Chargers easily because the other QB will no doubt make a mistake either incompleting or being intercepted, and only once have they been run close which was at the Giants two weeks ago when with the game tied at 34; Rodgers with less than a minute marched down the field again with relevant ease to create a game winning field goal from reliable Mason Crosby.  The Giants were favoured to give the Pack a tough time, they did but in the end the result was never in doubt.

After the Chiefs (who fired Todd Haley this week, Romeo Crenel is interim) they have two divisional games remaining against the Bears (who are nothing without Cutler) and the Lions who may well need to win to sneak into the playoffs.  A lot of talk is being spoken about whether the Packers should aim for a 16-0 record to finish the season with or if they should rest key players (incl. Rodgers) once home field is secured. 

Now arguments may be made that the last team who went 16-0, the Patriots in 2007 did not win the Super Bowl as they lost to the Giants in Arizona - so maybe the search for perfection comes at a price and the need to have rest is paramount, although they would argue that the Packers will get two weeks to rest once the regular season concludes.  The Packers give the impression of not being overawed by the persuasive powers of history, of taking it one game at a time and they know that this is the only chance they get at perfection for this group of players.

And yet this search for perfection is being overshadowed by the performances of one man.  Tim Tebow.  Tebow the second string QB of the Denver Broncos who is metaphorically become their saviour of sorts as he has taken them from 1-4 to a 8-5 record atop the AFC West ahead of the Oakland Raiders and with a chance of making the playoffs and a home game at that,as they will be ranked fourth as a division winner.

Tebow-mania started in Miami, the same weekend as the NFL game at Wembley between Tampa and Chicago.  15-0 down with three minutes on the clock, somehow they managed to recover an onside kick and lead a charge to tie to force OT where Matt Prater converted the game winning, defying field goal.

The next week they were hammered at home by a rampant Detroit, but since then they have won 6 on the bounce each win more amazing than the last.  From Tebow's 20 yard rushing TD in the last two minutes against the Jets, to last week's 10 point comeback against the Bears with Prater again nailing an OT winning field goal.

Tebow is a conflicting figure in sports and culture at the moment, Tebow is a practising Christian with strong beliefs and values.  The use of faith in the workplace is always a strong point of conflict in a mutli-faith nation like America - some people do not like religion thrust in their face, yet Tebow is only the extreme version of every athlete who thanks God for every victory.  Tebow does not hide behind his fatih and instead embraces it.  What I think really upsets people about Tebow - is that he is a limited player in terms of technique and skill level, in comparison to Rodgers there is no comparison.  Tebow is proving to be a better running back, a young man of 260lbs who cannot be knocked out of his steps by 270lbs linebackers. 

And yet despite his mechanical defaults he is winning games, surely teams would rather win ugly than lose beautifully,  he is a phenonmenon granted and yet in the same season that a team is winning beautifully and playing football from a different planet they are not being exalted or praised, and overlooked by a savage media who always look for a hero amongst the muck - it has happened in America for decades (Iwo Jima, Miracle on Ice, Hoosiers) - the Packers are led by the MVP in Aaron Rodgers yet their accomplishments are being overshadowed by one young man.

Tebow is a game changer, a clutch player, a man who can inspire in ranks that were down and out; Tebow changed college football and his position, when colleges looked for his duplicate, hence why Cam Newton (13 TD's each thrown and run) was the No.1 pick and why Robert Griffin III won the Heisman this year and will be a top 5 pick in the draft in April.  There is still a place for in the pocket passers like Andy Dalton and Andrew Luck, but Tebow's influence is having a trickling effect from the professional to the college to the high school games thanks in part to the (over)exposure of his performances this season.

It is yet to be determined if Tebow will be a part of Canton's Hall of Fame, he still has 10-12 seasons at the top table and his sheer will and determination coupled with a fine work ethic will insure of employment; yet Green Bay are in the midst of a historical run it is rare thay you get the opportunity to witness history taking place at the moment it happens.  And if I had a choice between a team and one man; I will take the 53 man roster.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Winter of their Discontent

Manchester United are in trouble.  It is not hard to see why, but it is a shame that it has come to this.  On Wednesday night they are eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage - the first finalist from the year before to not reach the knockout stage the following season.

United are out of Europe, although they are physically now in the Europa League mentally they will not be competing.  Following the FA Cup draw last Sunday, they have been drawn away to neighbours Man City in the third round of the world's most prestigious cup competition.  It now bears out that following the first weekend in January, Man United - the champions of Europe - may only be fighting on two fronts and after the hurried Christmas schedule they could be further behind the same City neighbours in the title chase, and even behind current third place Tottenham who are undefeated in 11 games, with winnable encounters before the 22nd Dec match with Chelsea.

Man United are in a bit of a tailspin, following their shooting out of the blocks in August and September which included the 8-2 home win over Arsenal; United are suffering on many fronts - they are not scoring goals, they are not dominating games, they are suffering a whole host of injuries and players are playing low on confidence due to a collective loss of form.

Starting from the back - David de Gea was signed with many worrying over his transferring to a new league and a new country; he has not disappointed being at fault for several goals including the first at Basle on Wednesday night.  The keeper needs to be a leader from behind, and currently the defence are not assured of his positioning, handling and control.

Constant injuries to the back line mean a lack of continuity and consistency - both Ferdinand and Vidic suffered injuries in the first few weeks meaning an elevation for Phil Jones and Chris Smalling who faired admirably, now Vidic is out for the season suffering medial ligament damage in Switzerland.  Jones will have to play the rest of the season at the back, great for his English aspirations but not the best situation for United for the remainder of the campaign.

The midfield has suffered from the retirement of Paul Scholes and the lack of play for Ryan Giggs (who was United's best player on Wednesday), yet you cannot rely on a 37 year old to lead a midfield.  Tom Cleverly was doing really well yet his creativity is definitely missing from United, Michael Carrick is a good passer but lacks the creative impulse to grab a game by the scruff of the neck like a Gerrard or Scholes might.  Nani has been hot and cold like he always is, Anderson is a mis-step and Ashley Young is suffering from injuries himself.

Upfront, Ferguson appeared to find a brilliant partnership between Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck until Welbeck pulled up with a hamstring in that 8-2 victory and yet Rooney has not seemed the same player since Montenegro where he was sent off following the arrest of his uncle for match fixing.  Rooney has been playing with a cloud over his head since late October and is struggling to score.

United are still winning games but without that zest and dominance of past seasons, winning 1-0 away from home at Swansea and Villa. Victories but unconvincing ones do little for faith and confidence from the stands.

In some respects, I wish that United had done the impossible at Wembley in May against Barcelona and defeat one of the best teams of all time.  If that had happened, Alex Ferguson might well have retired and walked out on his terms (much like Tony La Russa with baseball's St.Louis Cardinals) with his work complete.  United would have been the undisputed best team in Europe, League Champions and Champions League winners (for a 3rd time) instead Ferguson is walking around looking for the perfect ending.  He has put his money were his mouth is and bought in young talent (Jones, Young, de Gea) coupled with rejuvenated youngsters from loans (Cleverley, Welbeck) to try and create another famous side.  This side's inexperience with European football was most abundant in the group stages as they struggled to win at home against Basle and Benfica.  Maybe next season in the Champions League will be the time for them.

However, now it looks like the ambitions for the season have altered due to the dominance of City's squad, this is a squad game now in the Premier League, City's 25 is much better than United's and they are scoring at will.  City will fluff their lines at some point this season, oddly they have saved their banana skins for Europe and facing Napoli.  United went through this last year and went on to win the league by some distance in the end.

Ferguson has seen it all in his 25 years, but I am not sure he has ever seen a more inept and embarassing performance as that on Wednesday night.  Now he must become accustomed to Thursday night, Sunday afternoon football in February and March, as will City.

Yet since the 6-1 demolition at Old Trafford, City are still moving forward wheres we are still awaiting a United response.  And as the nights get longer, there will be plenty for Ferguson to mull over this winter.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Mark Allen v Barry Hearn

Snooker is back in the back pages this week due to the staging of the second most prestigious tournament on the circuit - the UK Championship returned to York but with some changes.  Instead of the established 17 frame rounds, the WPBSA announced that the event will instead have best of 11 rounds before the best of 19 final.

Some players have taken issue with this, before the event John Higgins said it was scandalous to change the format of a long established event.

Mark Allen, from Northern Ireland, the World 12 and who won his first round match 6-4 spoke of his displeasure at the changes, "When Barry came in, one of the first things he said was that the World Championship, UK and Masters wouldn't be touched. Only 18 months later, the UK format has changed," Allen said.

Allen continued, "I don't think he's pleasing too many players, but anyone who voted for him has only got themselves to blame. I wasn't one of them.  I've got no doubt he'll tweak the World Championship. The whole tradition of the game is going to pot."

Hearn (head of the Darts governing body Professional Darts Organization and Chairman of Leyton Orient FC) has had a long association with snooker back to his days as agent to the likes of Steve Davis and Jimmy White under the umbrella of Matchroom back in the halycon days of snooker in the mid to late 1980s.  Hearn was sworn in as the new Chairman those 18 months ago and he has tried to bring new initiatives such as Power Snooker to the masses and bring bums on seats back to the events.

World Snooker says they are experiencing record box-office for this week, helped in no small part to a match up between Ronnie O'Sullivan and Judd Trump (Trump won 6-5), but the need to have shorter matches will be of benefit to someone as enigmatic as O'Sullivan who admits he finds it hard to maintain concentration and apply himself to longer formats. 

Allen's argument has credence to his style of play, a nugget of a player who is better the longer the game goes on.  Yet it seems the more flamboyant and stylish players like Trump are the future of the game, which Allen also alluded to , "In the long run, he'll probably do good for snooker, but not for my generation."  Yet a generation that still has Steve Davis playing in the televised stages of a major tournament.

Snooker is one of those sports whose fanbase is fanatical and extremely supportive, yet at times Hearn has come to the fore and tried to change it too quickly.  He has expanded the global view of the game staging events in Australia and Shanghai, where the growth of the game is considerable.  The changes though to the UK Championship is a shame as it appears that the established names were not notified until before the event, hence the frustration of some players.

As for changes to happen to the Masters at Wembley and Worlds in Sheffield - that may be a case of too much too soon - now Barry Hearn is threatening legal action over Allen's comments.

After having quelled the threat of betting in the game and match fixing, now we have the new Chairman threatening legal action over any player who does not like what he is doing.  Snooker players are not the superstars in terms of financial clout and the best players do have sustained careers for some 10 years, Allen has worked hard to stay in the illustrious top 16 and be a factor come World Championships, so does snooker really need a playground argument to be ended in a courtroom.

Hearn is the boss (a boss with too many fingers in too many pies it seems) yet Allen - whose exterior resembles that of a quiet choir boy - should not be reprimanded for once speaking his mind with such passion and belief.  A lot of what he says has a lot of basis in fact, it shouldn't lead to a disciplinary but rather a thorough discussion and explanation from said chairman.

The floor is yours Mr. Hearn, and you've never been shy to talk before.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Interrupters

From the acclaimed director Steve James of the seminal 1990s basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, comes another tale of small people with big ambitions as we follow them on their day to day life.

Steve James takes his obtrusive and investigative camera onto the streets of Chicago as we follow in the footsteps of three interrupters - from the Ceasefire organisation who work intimately in their local areas to avoid political incidents becoming violent episodes on the streets, over the summer of 2009 to the early spring of 2010.

Alex Kotlowitz, whose original article is the basis for the film, wrote the script as he knows these people and their whereabouts and how they do their work. Kotlowitz's article focused on the groups founder Gary Slutkin, who equates violence with an infectious disease, insisting that its spread can be combated the way one would contain an outbreak of cholera or TB: by going after, as Kotlowitz (who serves as producer and also collaborated on interviews and sound) explains in his article, the most infected areas and stopping the sickness at its source.

James has a keen eye as a filmmaker and is a strong non-fiction director giving a voice to those rarely if never heard on such a vast platform, he follows the three mainstays of the group - Amena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra - all have criminal pasts, like most of the organization's outreach employees; their histories give them not just street cred but an understanding of how to defuse volatile disputes between family members, neighbors, and schools. CeaseFire, as The Interrupters points out more than once, isn't a substitute for the police, or even a partner; indeed, the group operates at times within a gray area. The focus, as one worker explains, "isn't trying to dismantle gangs but to save a life"—in other words, to stop a trigger from being pulled.

Following on from the seminal success of The Wire - this is equally gritty, full-on, graphic at times in its too close to the bone content but still this is a gripping, important and most significantly, hopeful document of good souls who do exist in this unique urban milieu such as Chicago suburbs depicted here.  Good sometimes will out.

The Interrupters is released from Dogwoof Pictures on DVD from Monday 5th December.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Broken Lines

Sallie Aprahamiam directs her debut feature, Broken Lines is an emotional journey of loyalty and love set against the multi-cultural diversity of London's growing suburbia.

The film is co-written by cast members Doraly Rosa and Dan Fredenburgh and is a romantic tragedy that accentuates the very best in contemporary British cinema and seeks to answer an ultimate truth: to whom do we owe loyalty and why?

After the sudden death of his father, a newly-engaged Jewish man, Jake (Dan Fredenburgh) plunges into a charged love affair with an attached young waitress B (Doraly Rosa). Both are searching for happiness and don’t want to give up on their life long dreams, but are trapped by their existing responsibilities to the lives they have already created.

Co-starring Paul Bettany and Olivia Williams - two fine actors who do not take the leading roles and instead take the supporting characters who are portraits of what the lead pair may become - the film is acted wonderfully most especially by Bettany who as Chester, B's boyfriend, plays the crippled ex-fighter with this mixture of charm and trauma.  Demasculinised by his paralysis, his behaviour has led to B willing to indulge in an affair.  Williams plays Jake's uptight fiancee, Zoe, who although cold does not play her totally inhuman.

Whilst it is noble of Bettany-Williams to give the film some notable cache by having their names above the title, their roles are peripheral and not central to that of Fredenburgh and Rosa, who although they wrote the screenplay, do give the impression that they do not totally know the characters they have created with Jake being too self-absorbed to get our sympathy and Zoe, not fully formed to warrant our resentment.  Also the semantics of calling Rosa's character B (as in plan B for his life) is a little bit sloppy and fails to give her a full identity apart from a letter.

Worryingly, this film was made in 2008 and received a screening at the London Film Festival the same year, before a limited release in 2011 and now this DVD release before the start of 2012.

Whilst Aprahamiam whose previous TV credits include Teachers and This Life, shows herself more than competent with her eye of London, thanks in part to the work of DP Jean-Louis Bompoint - the film is actually a work of 2008, there is a lot of colour and visual flair, which looks odd compared to a lot of London-based films of the post recession.  Compare this film with its bright moments to that of the duller pallete of Dexter Fletcher's Wild Bill, whereas that film wears its morbidity on its sleeve, in Broken Lines the darker content is all underneath.

Leaving the film as one which is flawed but nevertheless admirable thanks in part to the resounding success of Bettany's performance.

Broken Lines is released on DVD on Monday 5th December by Axiom Films