Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Can Manchester United Make it Four in A Row?

Yes They Can: If the Gaffer Reads the Writing on the Wall!!!

Well, having had his head handed to him twice last season, Sir Alex Ferguson still seems bound and determined to ignore the handwriting on the wall. The sheer depth of talent in his squad, however, will always allow the Gaffer to peek into the abyss, throw out some appropriate barbs meant to psych out the immediate opposition and still find a way to pull a nineteenth trophy. Nevertheless, slightly weakened, at least psychologically, by the departure of Ronaldo and Tevez and the shrill clang and rattle of coin resounding from the deep oil money-filled pockets of Manchester City, the grand old geezer of British football and his squad really do have their work cut out for them this season.

“You need a new leader!” the handwriting says.

And we do. Rio’s magazine is very nice. I am impressed. He has also become, in partnership with Chelsea’s Ashley Cole--yes, the Cashley Grrrl and her bad left-footed self--a film producer. This is all splendid and wonderful. I’m sure Rio’s thinking ahead to retirement. Still, the absolute howler Rio committed for England on Wednesday while making a simple back pass may be the sign of a return to old habits and vices, or even a flashback. Neither Rio nor Ryan Giggs owns either the moxy or personality to be the truly great captain United need. Sir Alex needs to step in now and force the responsibility on Wayne Rooney, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, or... someone new!!! Picking Wazza may sound daft, but I think it would help force him to grow up.

I was kind of disappointed to see a strong character like Lorik Cana sign for Sunderland on the cheap. Cana, a decent post-to-post midfielder and an inspiring gung-ho captain for Olympique Marseille, would have made a wonderful skipper and definitely would have made a more natural successor to Roy Keane than the Gaffer’s pet, Darren Fletcher. Now don’t get me wrong, Fletcher is definitely what Ferguson calls a ‘trier.’ To be sure, Fergie was referring to Carlos ‘el traidor’ Tevez at the time, but, I say, if the shoe fits... Darren has been learning on the job for six seasons now and his diligence is to be applauded. As a sort of super substitute, I think Fletcher is fine and capable of being even more adaptable than Johnny O’Shea. For some reason, however, Fletcher’s diligence and hard graft is mistaken for quality. I have never been enamored of the Scotsman, but have seen a steady incremental improvement. There are those who believe he was the missing link in the E.C.C. final against Barcelona. This is absurd! Whether we’re up against Xabi Alonso, Stevie G and Javier Mascherano or the even better midfield of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, the fact is that we just don’t have the horses in central midfield to take it to the next level! In a nutshell: Anderson is still being forced to play out of position and Fletcher simply isn't good enough. This is United's single biggest problem.

“You need a truly great hard midfielder if you want to win everything,” the handwriting says.

Now that Xabi Alonso’s gone, I’m not really worried about Liverpool. His replacement, Alberto Aquilani, is a fine footballer; but beyond his constant ankle problems, it will take him a season for him to get acclimated to the speed of the EPL. Buying Glen Johnson will improve their right side a lot, but, ultimately, Liverpool are completely dependent upon Fernando Torres and Stevie Gerrard remaining fit. I hear Rafa Benítez is a deeply religious man who prays every morning with his daughters. If Torres manages to stay fit throughout the season, I, too, may become a believer in miracles. I won't make too much of 'Pool's 2-1 mugging by Spurs last weekend and then the humiliation by Burnley, except to make note of the fact that they only lost two Premiership games in all of last season.

As I write, I hear on Spanish language radio that Arsenal are trying to squeeze 45 million quid out of Barcelona before agreeing to flog Cesc Fabregas next year. Even with Fabregas, even if there were to be a miraculous shopping binge before the window closes, I can’t see the Arse staying in the top four. Having massacred Everton 6-1 at Goodison in their first game, Gooner fans are already talking the talk. Yesterday I got eight e-mails from different Arse men. Promises and predictions! The usual! I say sssssh! Same old Arsenal: No testosterone!

Are Chelsea good? Sure Chelsea are good, but they’re getting really old. If Chelsea stay fit, particularly my darling Michael Essien, they have to stand a good chance. Anyone watching the Community Shield match clearly saw that this cynical group of mercenaries are going to grind out victories any which way they need to. Carvalho, Terry and Ballack are gristled, mean, dirty and past their pomp, but they will well and truly mount up for this their last serious season as a group and go for it. Clearly, this season Chelsea will be very physical, like Big Sam’s version of Bolton Wanderers, only with a touch of class. Aston Villa and Everton will hang in there on the periphery, but just don’t have good enough squads. Both teams got badly beaten in their first match, and, although there shouldn't be too much made of it, Joleon Lescott moping for a move to Manchester City for a whole season will poison the Toffees dressing room in much the same way Gareth Barry's whinging to be a Scouser hurt Villa last season. This leaves Manchester City. Despite their still being a little anemic-looking at the back, I have to believe their depth of talent will tell on the opposition after January, especially if Robinho is happy. It is imperative that the old big four need to put them to the sword early in the season before they’ve gelled as a unit, or else they really may sneak into the top three.

This brings me back to United. As I said earlier, United’s only two major defeats of last season were very public, totally humiliating and telegraphed our weaknesses to all and sundry. We have three potentially brilliant attacking midfielders in the wingers Valencia, Nani and Tosic. Old man Giggsy should be able to make his mark as a substitute. The energy machine, Park ji-Sung may have already overstayed his welcome and is probably due for a move to a club where scoring isn’t important by next season. What I expect to happen in game after game is the Chelsea model from the Community Shield match. Everybody will try to beat United up in central midfield, and, even though the red devils will never be turned into the kind of passive, testosterone-free team Arsene Wenger has fashioned in his own image at Arsenal, I expect the squad will be battered and become tired early enough in the season to have to trot out Darron Gibson and Tom Cleverly regularly in the Spring. In United's first game, a 1-0 win over Birmingham City, neither Ginger Scholes nor Darren Fletcher kept possession for long. This is worrisome. The 5-1 win over Wigan Athletic was encouraging, but there's still a strong sense that Ferguson is papering over the cracks in central midfield. The upcoming match with free-scoring Arsenal will be a big big early season test.

“Berbatov is a load of rubbish!” the handwriting on the wall says.

In my heart of hearts, if United can just hold on until January, I think everybody around him will ultimately convince the Gaffer to swallow his pride and go out and spend big money on a midfield general. Ideally, I’d like Ferguson to splash big on Daniele De Rossi or Hernanes; but, more realistically, I’m sure he’d rather gamble on the youth of Javíer Martínez, Blaise Matuidi, Stephane DuFour, Anthony Annan, Axel Witsel or Scott Brown. Out of the six, although he may not be as good a technician as the others, DuFour looks to have the best leadership skills.

We may mourn the exit of Ronnie and Carlitos, but I truly believe that Wazza, Macheda, Welbeck and little Mickey Owen can get the job done if Berbatov keeps out of everybody’s way. Dmitar Berbatov, like the League of Nations, America in South Vietnam, the Concorde, Massimo Taibi, Eric Djemba Djemba, Juan Sebastian Veron and Kleberson, exists to illustrate the folly of owning absolute power. Sir Alex Ferguson, easily the most successful manager in British football history, and a fine motivator of young men, has been calling the shots at Old Trafford since the last old school club chairman, Martin Edwards, stepped down in 2000. To be fair to Ferguson, he has truly been a mostly benevolent dictator since Edwards walked away from the club. Despite his habit of teasing Jose Mourinho, Carlos Queiroz and the press about his ‘imminent retirement,’ most of us true believers think he will never quit, and end up being carried off the field of play on a stretcher, exactly like his mentor, Jock Stein. Even if Taibi, Djembax2, Kleberson and the fitfully brilliant £28M Seba Veron could be written off as honest mistakes on the Gaffer’s part, the whole circus involving Berbatov has stunned many fans. Slow, lazy, selfish and beguiled by his hubris-driven ego to a point of ridiculousness, the shrugging Bulgarian is truly the Gaffer’s weakness. The almost perfect diamond formation of the 1998-99 season may have been the hardest working football team ever. They smothered a brilliant Barcelona team at the Nou Camp in 2008. The full-frontal battering ram effect of Tevez and Rooney up front allowing Cristiano the freedom to score 42 goals. Clearly, we can see now, this team was brilliant, but often rejected pretty football for the sake of practicality. The cliché is: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Unfortunately, Ferguson wanted a new kind of aesthetic perfection last season. Dmitar Berbatov, a big man who can dribble, flick and dish, can be a dazzling technician who, at his best, reminds you of Eric Cantona on Paxyl. Perfect for the slow, deliberate system at Tottenham Hotspur, like some big-ticket chatchke at Fortnum & Mason’s, Berbatov was truly the object of the Gaffer’s lust and desire. Without ever fitting into the system, Berbatov was trotted out week after week. Well, £32M is a lot of money to spend and the Gaffer wanted to get his money’s-worth. Fortunately, United are such a good team that they kept winning anyway. The disenchantment of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez was clear for everybody to see, yet Fergie's righteous band of committed professionals still managed to hold onto the premiership crown by the skin of its collective teeth and can do it again.

As far as strikers go, I hope Ferguson stands easy until January. I really believe we have ample strikers. Come Christmas, if the Gaffer finally loses his faith in Berbatov, perhaps we can dump him on Athletic Madrid or Valencia in part-exchange for Sergio 'el Kun' Aguero or David Silva.

“We need a good goalkeeper NOW!” the handwriting on the wall says.

This is the least of our worries. EVDS will be back soon and our defense is still really solid. It’s very clear that, similar to Tim Howard before him, Ben Foster is turned into a nervous wreck by the pressure of big games. Howard has matured slowly at Everton and I expect Foster will have to improve really quickly or else he'll be shipped somewhere else. Kucszak, although prone to mistakes in the air, looks to be a better choice as he gets far less flustered than Foster in pressure situations. If Manuel Neuer is available, Ferguson has food for thought. Schalke will surely prefer to sell Neuer--who really does have all the tools in spades--to Manchester United rather than their permanent Bundesliga rivals Bayern Munchën. Is he worth £20M? I wish United would have bought Sergio Asenjo from Real Vellodidad before he went to Athletic Madrid for £3M a few weeks ago, because I think he has surpassed the aging Gianluigi Buffone as the second-best keeper in the world. At 6’4” and around 17 Stone(238 lbs) Neuer is exactly what Ferguson has wanted for two seasons: A true successor to Schmeichel and Van Der Sar. Comparative theorems are a slippery slope, to be sure, but, if Diego Lopez is deemed to be worth £12M by his club, Villareal, then, yes, Neuer is worth £20M. Still, Foster made four fine saves from Birmingham City last Sunday, gave up an unstoppable goal to Burnley and made a couple of fine stops against Wigan, which is cause for celebration. His footwork, however, is horrendous. More than a few weak passes fell short and United were extremely lucky that the hapless Brum forward line were too surprised to take advantage.

Clearly, Ferguson is committed to his two weakest starters, Darren Fletcher and Dmitar Berbatov. He is not the kind of man to cut his losses in the way Rafa Benítez did after the disastrous £20M purchase of Robbie Keane. As long as the lads win, he will keep trotting out Berbatov, again and again. If the goals aren’t going in by January, however, stuck with a 29-year-old Jonah of steadily diminishing value, I would expect Ferguson to use him as swap bait for Agüero or to be sold back to Spurs for about 50% of the price he was purchased for.

“Manchester United will win again and Fergie will laugh as you swallow your humble pie!” (once again!)" says the handwriting on the wall.

As I said earlier, I can't see anyone mounting a season-long challenge good enough to challenge United for the Premier League honours. United will not just survive without Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, they will thrive. With Adam Ljajic arriving from Partizan Belgrade in January our attacking midfield options will improve even more. I don’t think we will make it to Madrid this year for the ECC final, but I do expect United will have found a new, inspiring holding central midfielder by this time next year. With a week to go before the transfer window door slams shut all things are possible.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Ivorismo Rating ***

The closest I can describe the feeling after seeing The Hurt Locker is “Shaken Baby Syndrome.” My world got rocked a bit. I am not naïve. I’ve seen my share of war movies and had a father and a father-in-law who, between them fought in four wars. The visceral shocks in The Hurt Locker, however, are shocks of recognition, Kathryn Bigelow's stunning film about a bomb squad in Iraq will leave you exhausted. This truly is high art in its most populist form.

There’s nothing aesthetically new here, per sé. A low-budget Vietnam film called ‘3-Charlie-Mopic’ covered the same ground first. Bigelow’s originality here lies in a unique kind of observational action moviemaking. Every new take yanks you into a kind of POV reconnaissance. The camera sensitizes you to changes in atmosphere. Objects are fixed upon, piles of garbage, bombed-out cars, gore-covered, apron-wearing butchers smoking during their lunch break, The mundane becomes a kind of metaphorical gargoyle. Bigelow fixes on each moment for a long time as a portent of lethal danger, all the while giving us a fixed sense of the paranoia and fear which dog the observer. Character is fate, according to Chekhov, but could that rusty pair of old paint cans really be a bomb? Every long, and sometimes tedious, shot hints at some hidden meaning while furthering our sense of refined character and plot. While the Second World War and Vietnam were very clearly reported, our sense of the young men and women in Iraq is murky at best because the government and military have stage-managed the choreography of this war so well from the sidelines. Somehow, Bigelow manages to flesh out the character of soldiers we know absolutely nothing about, yet makes them completely convincing.

Whether they’re defusing a bomb on a sandbagged Green Zone street in Baghdad, getting drunk at their Camp Victory base, buying a DVD off a bootlegger on the street or talking down a taxi driver who may or may not be a Jihadi, every single act seems to carry consequences for these men. They are caught in a vortex of imminent danger where every act may have a mortal aftermath. Something as insignificant as the sight of Iraqi adults appearing on top of a minaret staring in their direction, or in a window, could mean they’re bombers. Are they about to detonate a bomb or just curious: watching? What is that man with a camera doing? Clearly the best bet for safety would be to simply blow them away. The rules of engagement do not allow for this, of course, but this film helps us understand how such desperate acts end up happening in a way that no war movie I've ever seen before have done.
The screenwriter, Mark Boal, keeps it simple. Three men in a bomb unit are counting the 38 days to the end of their Baghdad rotation after their leader gets killed by a mistake. Day by day they engage in a war with a crafty group of bomb-makers and their lethal devices. To say they’re ‘stressed’ is the understatement of all time. Yet, in incident following incident, they improvise new ways to adapt their individual eccentricities to their awkward, emotionally spastic but ultimately lukewarm group chemistry. Boal, formerly a freelance investigative reporter for the likes of Playboy, the Village Voice and Harper's, seems to have entered the screenwriting profession as a means of no longer allowing other writer/directors the opportunity to mutilate his work, as was the case with the writer/director Paul Haggis, who took one of Boal's Playboy articles and turned it into In the Valley of Elah (2005). Boal, who produced this film along with the director, Katherine Bigelow, seems to have learned everything he needed to know from Haggis' complex failure. There is nothing extraneous in this movie. No fat. His screenplay is first-time perfection.

Sergeant J.T. Sanborn is superbly played by Anthony Mackie as a kind of lean and hungry macho lion-tamer. In a relative sense, especially in dealings with people from other squads, he is an island of sanity. Sanborn's leadership skills are a smorgasbord of hood rat wisdom, the dark results of time spent working in military intelligence and the lethal street reflexes honed in any number of fire fights. His motherly vigilance and ra-ra pep talks are the slender thread which keep the ultra-sensitive and doggedly naïve Spec. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) from jumping off the precipice of a cliff. These two welcome Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), but quickly realize that he is both brilliant and suicidally reckless in equal parts. James views the world in the myopic manner of a very hungry fat man at a buffet. It is his buffet and he does not share.

Sanborn and Eldridge are the carefully trained auxiliary eyes and ears for bomb disposal experts who don protective suits and defuse IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Protocol is King in the military. From the get-go, however, James rejects both their practical support and camaraderie. Indeed, James goes to war with every bomb he goes up against. It’s a kind of lone wolf, single-warrior combat that Sanborn and Eldrige just can’t deal with or share in. Indeed the sharing of information is an anathema to James. Military etiquette is simply ignored. There is no need-to-know basis when you are the one who dismantles the IEDs. Rules and procedures are meaningless to James. Consequently, Sanborn and Eldridge find themselves handcuffed into a state of complete dependance on James and his foibles.

This, umm, explosive scenario makes for a strong viewer connection to the daily chaos these men face in Iraq. It's impossible not to identify with Sanborn's obvious doubts about his stated gift for leadership. Between Eldridge's permanent state of panic and James' relentless fervor for hand-to-hand combat with the fiendish machinations of the bomb makers, Sanborne's attempts to assert leadership and maintain camaraderie are like a lame attempt to fix a crack in a dam with a roll of Scotch tape. Conflict piles on conflict. The POV camera is everywhere, mutely recording the utter terror of war via every shift in movement and sound.

Renner's performance as James goes beyond someone very tightly wound. He is not some mere bomb disposal addict with a death wish. James is an egocentric artist dedicated to his craft. After dismantling one particularly complex set of carefully disguised booby-trapped devices, James' unstated, beaming sense of pleasure shines through his skin so that he's like some beatified saint in a mediaeval painting. He has touched greatness in his specialized vocation and the other members of his squad, mere mortals, can never understand or share his glory. Atypically, James keeps a box under his mattress filled with a diverse collection of triggers and tripping devices for bombs that he's conquered. These hellish chatchkes are mementos, like a box of smelly unwashed underwear belonging to scores of old sexual conquests. That he is also capable of a surprising sentimentality toward both his fellow soldiers and a sad-eyed Iraqi boy who loves soccer and sells bootleg DVDs is not so much surprising as darkly comic. These contradictions shock Sanborn into a kind of suppressed muteness until the built-up bile is allowed to escape after a night of drunken debauchery ends in James and Sanborn punching each other into a kind of vicious truce.

For two committed warriors like James and Sanborn, it's clear that life will never be the same again. We are left in no doubt that neither the traditional longing for the pull of family, nor any other kind of work will come close to the thrill and fear of combat and bomb disposal these men have encountered. Atypically, toward the end, in a brief supermarket scene, James, home from the war, wanders the aisles, dragging slowly behind his wife and son. Through James' tragically heroic POV, we see boxes of cereal and carefully stacked cans and jars as objects of threat. Random objects are dangerous in his eye. As if any one of them might be an IED, too.

In The Hurt Locker, Katherine Bigelow has create a shockingly complex, yet muscular and spare war movie. A prismatic voyeur's view of men in combat, rendered even more gainfully enigmatic by the Summer heat of Baghdad. Bigelow, who began her career as a painter, is picky about her projects. Having made only nine films over a 26 year period, her technique demands long takes, commitment from her actors and an obsession with character-driven storytelling Pegged by critics as a director of fairly successful 'action' films, Bigelow has long run underrated below Hollywood's hack radar and, for a change, gender has never been an issue. They are indeed action movies but Near Dark (1987), Blue Steel(1990), Point Break (2001) and Strange Days (1995), all work hard at offering motivation for their characters' indulgence in acts of homicidal mayhem. Near Dark is too talky for some, but it's my favorite vampire flick ever. In her collaboration with Mark Boal, Bigelow finally seems to have found a partner worthy of her gift for getting ratcheted up performances from her cast. Bigelow's multifaceted vision ruthlessly yanks us into a nightmare world, but without ever intruding enough to try to transpose us into their insane points of view.

I've talked lot about Bigelow's eccentric vistas through her obsession with the minutae of garbage and wire. Halfway through the movie, however, Bigelow exercises a little sleight of hand. There's a desert gun battle, right up there in the heart-racing excitement stakes with the shoot-out that follows the bank robbery in Michael Mann's Heat (1995). It's a balls-out duel in the desert outside Baghdad between insurgents and members of the bomb squad after their patrol accidentally stumbles into an assassination squad of British SAS men just as they get trapped in an ambush. It's just a coincidence. A moment of fated bad luck. As sniper bullets fell this group of elite killers one by one, we get a shocking take on just how it feels for soldiers to be pinned down in wide open spaces. It is the only time in the movie where we actually clearly see the enemy. There's a bonding for the survivors at the end of the short action, but we realize this will all instantaneously dissipate once the bomb squad returns to its routine. The Hurt Locker is extraordinary. 130 minutes, but the time goes by fast! See it!