Saturday, December 31, 2011

Van Persie Scores ... Arsenal Wins (Top 4 Anew)

Not the most convincing of performances, but another win to close out 2011, 1-0 over QPR. For the second game in a row, Arsenal had chance after chance but didn't convert until Van Persie, of course, finished with a lovely goal around the 60th minutes to surpass Henry at the top of the Arsenal list; though he unfortunately fell short of Shearer's record by one (not for lack of chances, as he let three others go wanting). Overall, we largely controlled the game, but the quality of play in the final third was quite average for large parts of the game. Scorecard:

Van Persie: played a nice game, but had two clear opportunities he failed to convert, just missed on an early header and had a chance toward the end, that he couldn't quite get on his left foot. But would have been a 0-0 tie but for him so an A is due.

Walcott: I had gotten off of Theo of late as his form improved, but I'm still unimpressed with his ability to finish. Rather than write books and talk about why he should be playing in the center, he should be working on figuring out how to score in front of net. He had two very good opportunities: the first just needed a decent touch right in front and he instead scuffed it. The second was one on one with the goalee, and he again showed his lack of class. C

Arshavin: received one of his few starts this year and played decently. He has a nice assist on the Van Persie goal and didn't play as badly as he has recently, though I still think he should go. B

Ramsey: another relatively terrible game from him. He gives the ball away far too much, tries to be cute rather than precise too often and hasn't put the ball in the net in quite some time (though he did have two decent efforts). I really think there needs to be more competition for that spot, as he isn't doing the job at present; even with all of his talent. C+

Arteta: a good game for him, though he had a nice chance to score that went wanting. But decent service and control of the middle. A solid presence that kept us pushing forward all game. B+

Song: not one of his best efforts and with M'Villa potentially available, I think he showed why we should spend the money to get him. Song is solid on the defensive end but the number of errant passes he compiles on a weekly basis is way too high, particularly for a possession side like Arsenal. I really think we should start looking for a replacement that can get the ball out to the wings and through to Van Persie with more consistency. I know a lot of people will disagree, but he is just too careless with the ball. C

Djourou: solid on the right and decent coming forward. Not much danger emerged down that side of the pitch. B+

Koscielny: solid in the middle, demonstrating the form that has moved him up the ranks of the centre backs in the EPL at present. Should have had a yellow, but somehow it was given to Vermaelen instead. B+

Mertesacker: beat in front of goal early, but luckily didn't cost Arsenal. Otherwise solid throughout, with some very good interceptions. B+

Vermaelen: An odd ghost yellow that wasn't corrected at halftime from one of the worst refs in the league, in my estimation, but otherwise solid until he came off early limping. B


Gervinho: is in a similar boat to Walcott, in that he appears to need to work on his finishing touch. He did have a goal last week, but could have easily had a hat trick after subbing in. He scuffed a lovely cross from Van Persie right in front of the net and missed two other opportunities. I still like him, but he could easily have 10 or 12 goals this year. C+

Coquelin: while he clearly needs to work on his defensive positioning, he was playing out of position again (as left back this time) after coming in for Vermaelen early in the second half. He showed his skills on several occasions, is very cool on the ball and passes the ball well. I would like to see him get more time on the pitch (though not necessarily as a full-back where his positioning is a potential problem). B+

Rosicky: played solid without anything terribly exciting though it looked like he might have had a shot on target blocked at the last second by a defender. Could be the last time we see him in red and white. B

So we finish with a subpar win and jump back above Liverpool and keep the pressure on Chelsea (I'm watching their game on tape delay now). Liverpool looked much better with Gerrard back and might start putting the ball in the net with more frequency, meaning we have to keep on winning. The real test for us comes in our home games against the other top teams who, with the exception of Chelsea, have all beaten us this year (unless you count Newcastle you we drew 0-0). I think we have a good chance at the top four if we don't drop points against the middling squads. So far this year, we dropped three points to the worst team in the league at the midpoint, only snagged one from 17th place Wolves, one from Fulham and only taken four points from the other teams in the top seven. So we need to keep our focus against some of the lesser talent in the league and do better at home against the best. In any case, happy new year!

P.S. Blackburn has done it again, beating Man United 3-2. Wow! In one of the odder situations in the EPL, Steve Kean has gotten 3 points against both Arsenal and Man United and 1 against Liverpool. Did he save his job? Hard to say, but it does ask a few questions of United, who have been on a wonderful run of form. The first question is how good their defense is without Vidic (who is out until next season) and the other is whether De Gea is good enough to play in the EPL at this point; or the second Scottish division for that matter. In any case, a good day for the Gunners just got a little better. Chelsea lost to Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge and Tottenham could only muster a point against Swansea meaning we are back in the top four having played as many games as everyone except Tottenham. Chelsea looks lost at the moment, particularly David Luiz who just doesn't seem good enough to be playing at this level, and appears to be making John Terry worse whenever they play side by side. Of course, it appears Cahill will join next week and that could shore up the side, but on offense they do not look fluid. AVB needs to get hold of the team. After our start, it's unbelievable that we are back in the top four as the year closes. Go gunners!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Arsenal Transfer Rumours

As I get ready to drink myself into oblivion, I am also contemplating the winter transfer window and wondering if Wenger will continue the momentum from last summer and actually do anything. My nibbling fear is the answer is no. But us Gooners already have some great news -- the two month return of Henry, who will be signing in days on loan from the New York Bulls. To me this is extraordinary news and makes me want to jump on a plane to London to see him again in the red and white. I think he will add leadership, give Van Persie some much needed rest here and there and improve our offensive threat (if we switch to a 4-4-2 or put him on one of the wings). Beyond Henry, though, is the question of what we need and what we'd like. From my perspective, here are the issues:

Defense: Wenger has just announced that both Gibbs and Sagna will be back in January and we thus don't need a fullback. I'm less sanguine on this point. Gibbs is prone to injury and given the recent record of our medical staff, every injury gets more serious as time goes on. In fact, I read a blog about this a couple of months back and do think it's something the management should look into. From Van Persie to Santos to Wilshire to Vermaelen and Gibbs, we are constantly getting bad news that turns worse after injuries occur. And we have suffered them in droves this year and I wonder if something is going wrong in training or overuse that's causing the problem. In any case, I would at minimum pick up Vermaelen's best friend and versatile centre back Jan Vertonghen. While Santos is out we could then have him on the right or left, or move him into the center and move Vermaelen or Koscielny out. I also think there are still questions to be asked of Mertesacker and that another quality centre back would be a good pickup. 

Midfield: while Wilshire will be back soon, Ramsey is still developing and Benayoun and Arteta have both brought experience to the position, I'm still not sure we shouldn't be looking for a creative youngster like Hazard or Goetze to bring in. Look what Mata has done for Chelsea; and if we weren't so cheap, we could have had him. I also think we have to make a decision on Coquelin and Frimpong. Are either of them ready to serve as a legitimate backup to Song, maybe even providing some competition to him so he stops with the careless back heels and suspect passing at times? Or should we send one or both out on loan? I think Frimpong should be sent out. He has great potential but is still raw and too aggressive in his tackling. A spell at another side (Aston Villa are rumoured to want him on loan) could be good for him and the squad. Coquelin I would keep, even as his last performance was subpar out of position, and start to give him some starts here and there. He has looked very good at times and could be a good backup. Song has become a stalwart in the middle, but some of his lovely service and his goal lead me to believe he could be pushed to be better. If M'Villa is available, I think we should snatch him up. We might lose Song in the shuffle, but it would make us a better team and he is still young. Song's main problem as far as I'm concerned is his inconsistency getting the ball forward and that has slowed down our attack a little too often for me. In any case, no need for a middling purchase here -- I think we should save our money to pick up someone who can be a big part of this club for the foreseeable future. Others in the mix are obviously Gourcuff (who seems off until the summer), Granero and a few others.

Forward: this is maybe our biggest need, particularly with the African Cup of Nations coming up. I think Podolski would be a great pickup and we should make the purchase. Chamakh is going, or should do so. Park appears unworthy to Wenger and didn't look great in his last effort. And that leaves only one legitimate central striker on the club. I do think we should give Chamberlain some starts over the next month, but with rumors that Arshavin might go (please oh please be true), who can play on the other wing? Certainly Benayoun has made an argument for that spot, if he's comfortable farther forward, but it does seem to me that that is a spot we could use cover on, not only while Gervinho is gone, but to play in cup ties and the like. I'd like to see Ryo get a shot, but he is currently still injured. Maybe Henry will play on one of the wings (I suppose this is actually likely) but he is obviously a short term solution.

In a general sense, Wenger seems to dislike extra competition for places, but as first Nasri and then Fabergas intimated, that lack might affect the motivation of players. You would like to think that guys being paid that much to play a game for a living would be sufficiently motivated no matter what, but it is true that fear of losing your starting place certainly adds a veneer of edge to any player. Think being a striker for Man City right now or a midfielder for Real Madrid, and the pressure to perform week in and out or end up as one of the best in the world on the bench. In any case, if we look at our best 11, there might still be room for improvement in some place. To take a crack at it. 

Sczezency (could use a decent backup here)
Sagna   Mertesacker (Koscienly)   Vermaelen   Santos (Gibbs)
Ramsey   Song   Arteta   (Wilshire)                   
Walcott (Chamberlin?)   Van Persie   Gervinho

You can see one thing when looking at this list. Some starters of late might find competition for their spot -- paritcularly with the return of Wilshire and Sagna in the cards. The midfield looks like the most competitive area with Ramsey, Arteta, Wilshire and Benayoun fighting it out for two spots, or we switch to a 4-4-2 and have to figure out who sits on the bench in the front (probably Gervinho I'm guessing). So there could be questions raised in the coming months, but I think that is good news and I still do believe we need a high quality, creative midfielder and/or forward on the club to take the next leap forward; particularly if Ramsey doesn't start to show continued growth in the position. Depth is imperative, particularly in the physical Premiership, and I think it's a good time to keep building it -- as we would probably be comfortably in the top four if not for our lack thereof earlier in the season. In particular, the fact that I groan every time I see Arshavin and/or Chamakh warming up tells us we really need a central striker and winger that are at least adequate backups. I'm not sure if Chamberlain can play on the other side, but it would be interesting to find out. In any case, let's hope Santa does give us a few January treats to mull over.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

Ethan Hunt is back, with an oddly long hairdo and all of the old flair, even as Tom Cruise teeters on the edge of 50. The fourth installation in the TV-turned-movie series finds Hunt in a Russian prison, though he anon escapes with the aplomb of a Bruce Willis cum Arnie violent spree assisted by new tech whiz Benji (Simon Pegg). We soon learn that Ethan has been disavowed by the IMF (why they use the name of the beleaguered financial organization is certainly open for debate), implicated in the killing of Serbians after his wife disappeared and must now work to stop a Russian terrorist, Hendricks (played by the excellent Michael Nyqvist), bent on setting off nuclear war to create some sort of crazed renaissance of the remaining lifeforms. The first attempt at intercepting the codes ends up going awry and after a part of the Kremlin is blown up, the IMF is implicated in the blast and completely shut down. In steps costar Jeremy Renner (Brandt) who along with Ethan, Benji and Jane (Paula Patton) team up to restore the IMF good name and save the world.

The latest film succeeds even in its excess and silliness. The startling cinematography, seemingly impossible camera angles and dazzling, almost inexplicable technology of the team all add up to a romp of a film that cascades seamlessly from one breathtaking scene to the next. From the claustrophobic prison escape to the Kremlin intrusion and explosion to a car crash escape, climb up the glass walls of a skyscraper and beautifully shot sand storm, the film works even as it defies reality at every turn. Pegg assists in this process by adding an element of humor largely missing from the first three installments and even as Cruise seems to overpepper the gravitas as has become more common in his latter films, the surrounding cast lightens the overall tableau sufficiently to keep us from paying too much attention to the rather absurd simplicity with which a rogue scientist could gain the codes and technology to launch a nuclear weapon. In the end, I still prefer the first film shot by one of my favorite directors, Brian Depalma, but in a Hollywood where blockbusters rarely live up the hype, this is one action-thriller worth the $11. A-

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Perry's Pathetic Parry

Rapists and incest practitioners received good news today from Rick Perry, who now believes that even in these cases abortion is impermissible, thus meaning they will not be shut out of contributing to the reproductive process (Slate). Well, why didn't you tell us that sooner? That important and well-thought out policy change should gain make him a viable candidate for the GOP nomination. You go Rick!

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2004, 2009, 2011)

The first time I came in contact with Stieg Larson's now infamous Millenium Trilogy, I was at a rooftop dinner party for a friend when everyone at the table started talking about the books and the tragic tale of his premature death. That was back in 2008, before the Swedish film became available in the U.S. Since then, the trilogy has exploded into the global consciousness, selling in excess of 20 million copies and spawning two separate film versions of the series (with the Swedish triumvirate complete and the American trilogy 1/3rd of the way through). Last week I was home and couldn't sleep and came across it in my Netflix queue, though I don't even remember adding it. In any case, I turned it on as I was falling asleep and two and a half hours latter was transfixed. I remembered that I had been cajoled into buying the novel itself a couple of months back by another friend and found it sitting on my shelf. Out of pure curiosity I decided to read it, and in less than 25 hours had done just that. The first book is no masterpiece. At least in its translation, the writing is average, the narrative wraps up a little too nicely and the conversations at times pedantic and too heavily weighed toward his rather cynical view of corporations, media (particularly financial reporters), men and humanity in general. And yet he has created two of the more interesting characters you will ever meet in a genre that often paints characters as thin as Calista Flockhard's profile (or an ace of clubs if you don't know the actress).

In any case, the book is extraordinary in parts and flows from one page to the next with a flair for detail and narrative structure that draws you in and keeps you hooked. As I said, the first novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Men Who Hate Women in Swedish), does wrap up a little too nicely for my tastes and the odd way in which it both decry's the greed and corruption of big business and celebrates wealth and success, makes the book feel oddly hypocritical. And as I've said, it does offer a rather dismal view of humanity, except in the reason I think the series has captured this cultural moment so well -- the enigmatic Lisabeth Salander. Lisabeth is a girl who has been in and out of trouble, mental institutions and is a sort of goth meets punk meets S&M mix, neither beautiful nor ugly. In fact, as you learn more and more of her story, you can't help but become transfixed by her ability to overcome her tragic past and seek friendship and love with the delicacy of a flower welcoming a bee while fearing its sharp sting upon its stamen. She is essentially a contemporary feminist hero, looking for belief in a world where hatred and corruption lurk around every corner. But she strikes back at this world, hiding behind people's preconceptions of her and her deeper brilliance and toughness, housed in a 4'11", 90 pound frame. Mikael Blomvist is the other major character, clearly inspired by Larsson himself. He is a muckracking reporter who is charged with the crime of libel at the beginning of the novel, then gets involved in an attempt to solve a 40-year old murder. I'm sure most know the story from here, so I won't bore you with the details, but it is a wonderful mystery that unfolds at just the right pace before the startling denoument and a long wrap-up to follow.

Given the popularity of the series, it is no surprise that the trilogy would be made into film. And Sweden beat Hollywood to the punch, releasing all three in quick succession. The first is a brilliant 2 1/2 hour rendering of the novel, with only minor changes. Those changes work in my estimation and with the brilliant performances of Michael Nyvquist (who I remember from his equally striking portrayal of a drunk, abusive husband in Together several years ago) and Noomi Rapace, as the inimitable Lisabeth, one becomes almost immediately empathetic to their individual and collective causes. The supporting cast is equally strong and the trilogy unfolds under the adept tutelage of director Niels Arden Oplev. The second film, Girl Who Played with Fire, is slightly less impressive than the first but is certainly enthralling and the final film Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is a lovely finishing touch to three great, exciting and action-packed character study cum murder mysteries/crime dramas. The question then  becomes why remake them?

Hollywood has, it appears, largely run out of ideas and is in the process of almost constant recycling and appropriation. So why not take a $10,000,000 Swedish film based on a smash hit and make it into a $100 million dollar blockbuster with one of the hottest directors around, David Fincher of Social Network fame? Well, having watched both films within a week, I'm not sure what the answer is except it will turn a profit and many Americans refuse to read anything -- including the annoying subtitles on the bottom of any foreign film. Don't get me wrong, Fincher's film is still very good. With the additional money, his version is clearly more aesthetically interesting and the action scenes more "turbo charged," as studio's and critics like to repeat ad nauseum as if it means anything any more. In any case, Nyqvist and Rapace are replaced here by Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. Both offer excellent performances that provide their own takes on the two leading characters. Yet I can't help but think that $90 million less gave a little more. While Fincher's film comes in at about the same length, it seems to rush through much of the narrative and change around the plot line without sufficient reason or explanation. I don't want to write a boring review that argues that the movie should have stayed faithful to the script, because it is often the case that movies require variations to fully embrace the differences of visual grammar from linguistics. But many of the changes here seem completely unnecessary and mildly annoying. Many opportunities to build suspense seem to be elided, the build up of the murder mystery too neat and tidy and we are thus instead stuck with the Hollywood conventions of film angle, point of view and crescendoing music to make the point that something exciting is about to happen. I thought a that a few more scenes between Mikael and Henrik Vanger for instance would have provided the build-up and narrative shaping that would have invited the audience in more. I also think Craig has slightly missed the gist of his character, who is more vulnerable and unaffectedly congenial that he appears here, and thus offers a less nuanced version of an oddly likable womanizer and bad father (in the novel). Mara is also excellent, but again seems to lack some of the facial complexity that Rapace brought to the part, even as she sometimes seems more human and less mechanical. One strength of the new film over the old is a more extensive explanation of the ending, with the final scene following the novel much more closely. This final scene, without giving away too much to those who have not experienced any version, seems so critical to our understanding of Lisabeth and I thus wish it had been in the original -- as it would help explain the second film's opening sequences better.

In any case, unlike Dan Brown's tripe, the Twilight books/films, Lord of the Rings trio or even the slightly more palatable Harry Potter oeuvre (I should mention I've read none of them except the Tolkien novels when I was a kid), the Millenium trilogy has largely lived up to the hype, at least in my estimation. To reiterate, it's not the quality of the writing or even the narrative structure, but the compelling cast of characters, the social critique, the feminist themes, the unfolding mysteries and the dark, but saturated perspective on humanity that makes the books and films come alive. They are often silly and sometimes pedantic, but somehow work. Swedish Version: A-     Fincher Version: B+

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What Happened to Harpers?

What happened to the once venerable Harper's Magazine, a publication that has refused many of the enticements of modern publishing by remaining a non-profit, refusing to offer a real foray into the world of sports, Hollywood or popular culture and resisting many now ubiquitous conventions, like inset ads and an open website. And this model, while losing money for several years, kept the magazine as one of the top in America. Great writers continued to contribute, they were among the best at covering politics, education in America, literature and the kind of arcana that the New Yorker and even the Atlantic started to increasingly elide. And then in an odd move two years ago, publisher John MacArthur fired popular editor Roger Hodge, replacing him with long-time managing editor Ellen Rosenbush (New York Times). And ever since the magazine has floundered at the level of content, at least to me. I have been reading Harpers on and off for over twenty years and have always enjoyed the voice, the tone and the content. They take on big ideas and big issues with incisive, lengthy articles surrounded by their always interesting opening essay, quirky "readings" selections and excellent book reviews. Yet somehow every month for well over a year, I look at the cover and realize I have no interest in the main stories. And the opening essay, which ranged from discussing the German economy to language to the War on Terror, was suddenly given to Thomas Frank, who I like but who tends to write about a small subset of themes from only slightly varied perspectives.There is still the occassionally interesting article, but it is just not the magazine I loved for years.

Unfortunately, this has become a trend. While the New Yorker continues to impress, at least to me, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Newsweek and a number of other top magazines have all seen a decline in quality in recent years, as financial constraints and problems push them to move more to the marketability over intellectual quality. As I said, the New Yorker has been able to make that transition, under Nina Brown and now Remnick, but I believe so many others have failed to maintain the quality as they try to stay alive. This is particularly true in the Newspaper business, with quality publications like the LA Times and Washington Post showing a measurable decline in critical reporting over the past several years. We can even see it in the incredibly slim new Vanity Fair, which continues to nicely mix more serious fair with their celebration of the rich and famous and celebrity, and even magazines like Sports Illustrated that once actually had articles of four to five pages. The notion that Americans can't concentrate on anything for more than 10 minutes is then self-fulfilling if believed, as publications adjust to the perceive communal ADHD. What is the cost? In my estimation, this is yet another example of the new anti-intellectualism that reigns in America today, which limits our ability to see outside the constricting contours of the world as scripted by the power elites. Luckily the internet provides alternative voices, though it too is often conforming to the notion that short and sweet is always better.