Monday, September 30, 2013

Movie Review: Ruby Sparks (2010)

I’ve been meaning to watch Ruby Sparks for some time now. It was languishing in my Netflix cue for a year or so when it finally arrived in my mailbox. But a funny thing happened on the way to watching it – my DVD player broke and my laptop player also stopped working. So it hung around in its lonely sleeve for months. Then I got cable again after a year without, mainly so I could watch English football, and it appeared on a free-for-the-moment movie channel. And what a film!

Ruby Sparks is about a lonely writer, languidly traipsing through life in the aftermath of the early success of his first novel at the sapling age of 19. He still publishes short stories but is approaching 30 without a second book yet completed. He is also friendless, without a girlfriend since his of five years left and depressed, with his brother one of the few non-literary presences in his life. The writer, Calvin Weir-Fields (played by the excellently Paul Dano) has a dream one day about a girl that he can’t get out of his mind. She seems perfect from afar and he might be in love with her already. His analyst Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) assigns him the project of writing about the girl and within a few days she appears in his apartment, just as he has written her. From here the story launches into a fanciful, though nuanced contemplation of what happens when one falls for the idyllic Golem they have created. Perfection, of course, must always destroy itself and problems emerge. Whenever they become overwhelming, Calvin simply writes a few lines and her character changes overnight. But can one really sculpt a real life person out of fiction and keep her happy? Can one be happy themselves if their creation expands beyond the contours of the life you have created for them. These are the questions the clever screenplay asks.

The film is backed with a core of talented actors, including Annette Bening as his quirky, new age mother Gertrude, Chris Messing as his stern brother, Antonio Banderas as his step father artist Mort and Steve Coogan as the beguiling Langdon Thorp. But it is the script that impresses the most, hints of the nonpareil Charlie Kaufman’s genius present throughout, including in a clever ending with words soaked with meaning. Dano is great as a moppy, depressed genius – a part he seems ideal for – but it is Zoe Kazan as writer and lead actress that really brings the script alive.

I first came across Kazan on Broadway, in my favorite playwright Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane (2010). I was immediately smitten by her vexing performance and idiosyncratic acting style, which she has repeated in several movies since including the The Exploding Girl, about an epileptic girl coming of age on summer break from college. I had no idea she had written this film until the end, when her enchantment hit new heights. Kazan acts, writes plays and has now added a clever first script to her impressive repertoire. There are interesting similarities between her and Zoey Deshanel, as both play odd hipster retro girls who sometimes act like 50s dream girls and other times as complex contemporary women traversing the seemingly contradictory gender roles of advertisers, mainstream films and reality television against the more empowering vision increasingly seen in a smattering of film, television and books. Dashanel has a rather impressive side gig as a humorous double to M. Ward in She & Him, but a feminist lesbian friend of mine offered a rather impressive feminist critique of Deshanel that I can’t seem to shake ever since. Kazan, on the other hand, seems to go deeper into her roles finding richer characters that lead the action through their development and complexity. She is just as charming as Deshanel (or maybe more so), but there is deeper vulnerability and intelligence in her performances that seems to capture the complexity of gender politics and identity in our confusing, schizophrenic age. She is a descendant of Hollywood royalty who has crafted an impressive CV already with four films being released this year alone.

Ironically, the simplistic, puerile humor of Don Jon appears to be getting more positive reviews as and press than this gem of a writing debut from three years ago. I would certainly recommend the latter. A-

Arsenal Keep on Rolling

When Arsenal lost to Aston Villa in the opening fixture of the new season, few could have foretold what would follow. Not only have they not lost since, but have won games through grit, determination and even several comeback wins after ceding the equalizing goal. On Wednesday, Wenger put out a squad of youngsters in the Capital One Cup and almost lost a match that went the full 120 minutes tied at 1, but then the neophytes pulled off a surprise come from behind victory in the penalty shootout – which will serve all of them well as they continue to develop. And then on Saturday we faced an inform Swansea in one of the tougher venues beyond the top 6 in the EPL. And yet Arsenal held tough through a tepid first half, scored twice and then held on after giving one back to Swansea (actually losing the possession battle by a sizable margin).

And so Arsenal now sit in first place after winning five on the bounce in the league, a champion’s league away match at Marseille, two qualifiers beforehand and their first match in the Capital One cup. Tuesday Napoli comes to the Emirates for maybe our toughest test of the young season and then we travel to the world beater West Brom, who just scalped a stuttering Manchester United at Old Trafford. If we can win these two games going into the next International Break, this will have been the best start to a season in many years. And it comes amidst a strange weekend of upsets that included the aforementioned Man U loss and another by Man City to Aston Villa (2-3), with Chelsea only able to secure a draw at Tottenham (meaning we picked up two points on both rivals).

The question that emerges is whether Arsenal is ready to offer a real, sustained title chase this season. And based on the level of performance and consistency since March of last year, one has to believe the answer is a yes (with some serious caveats). Man U is in trouble, Man City is inconsistent and Chelsea appears to still be struggling to find their best 11 starters. Tottenham is playing strong, but it’s hard to see them maintain their form coming in, something they haven’t been able to do in many eons. So Arsenal has a real shot at ending the eight-year duck and claiming not only a trophy, but maybe the second most coveted in England (besides the Champions League). What will they need to accomplish this daunting feat. Let’s consider a few things …

1.  Striker Consistency: this is the weakness that has the greatest possibility to unwind our title push, as Giroud has come down a little from his blistering start and continues to show some troubling tendencies that he really needs to work on. One is his movement off the ball, making cuts that our sublime creators can take advantage of. A second, more pressing problem, in my mind is his inability to hold up the ball with any consistency. He has a tendency to go for the low probability pass (usually header) rather than stopping the ball at his feet and waiting for the wingers or CAM to get open. This is amplified by an average first touch but I just can’t understand why the coaches aren’t working with him on this, as I believe he could really improve in this important facet of his game. It was instrumental on Wednesday to see Bendtner do much better with this essential task, and he also provided the pass for the Eisfeld goal. Maybe the troubled Dane can actually make a worthy contribution this season after all! But it does seem imperative that Giroud stays fit and that we grab a striker in the winter window, even if only to backup the Frenchman.

2.  Wilshere Has to Improve: one reason Arsenal are winning so many close games is the incredible run that Aaron Ramsey is on. But it can’t last forever, can it? That would mean over 30 goals for the season, and that seems highly unlikely. He will be one of our most important players throughout the season, I believe, but we need to find other places to find goals. Giroud should continue to score, but he alone cannot carry the load. That means we need some others to step up and contribute and one of those players is Wilshere, who has seemed to take several steps backward in recent weeks – but has never been terribly good in front of goal. If Wilshere isn’t going to score, he needs to create more chances and be smarter with his play. Two tendencies he has at present that are both quite troubling are to fall down far too often at even the hint of a challenge and to try to dribble through rather than pass through or over defenders (as I’ve mentioned in several previous posts). Wilshere has a great eye for the clever pass, flick or long ball, but seems to think he is one of the best dribblers in the world as well. Simply put, he’s not and better figure it out soon.

3.  Defensive Troubles: our defense has held up when it needed to since the Villa defeat, but we are shipping goals with far too great a frequency and would have dropped several points but for some outstanding goalkeeping by a resurgent Szczesny. But one hopes we can restore the defensive record of the second half of last season, keeping more clean sheets going forward. I believe Flamini’s great form has helped, but we must stop giving the ball up in dangerous positions (Wilshere a major offender in this regard), make sure Koscienly keeps his positional discipline, as he gets caught off up the field far too frequently, and get our less defensively-minded midfielders like Walcott, Wilshere and Ozil to track back and press up more than they have been in the last several games.

4.  Results Against Major Competitors: the win over Tottenham was the key result so far this season, but we still have to play Chelsea, City, United and Liverpool twice and the Spurs at White Hart Lane. How we do in those fixtures will go a long way to deciding our ultimate fate. Last season we were poor against the top five clubs around us and that is why we only snuck into the fourth spot by a single point (aided by another Spurs collapse). We must do substantially better this time around, taking advantage of the upheaval that continues to occur at these clubs.

5.  Consistency Against the Rest: this is where Arsenal have blown title chases ever since the end of the Invincible's run. Too often, we blow leads, lose games against bottom dwellers or settle for tepid draws when victory was an askew tap in away. So far, we have done just that this season, but we must continue that form if we are to have any shot at drinking out of the jug in May.

Luck will also play a part, of course, but Arsenal have gone on this run with a number of key injuries, some terrible calls going against us and coming back after ceding early leads. Those are good signs for the long race ahead. Looking around the league, Man City seemed to be back on track and the preliminary favorite for the title after dismantling United last weekend, but then had another baffling result, blowing a game they seemed to dominate throughout. And Chelsea are clearly still figuring out their identity, and best starting 11. But the biggest questions clearly revolve around the new crisis emerging at Old Trafford as David Moyes learns how hard it is to try to fit Fergie-size shoes. He has just registered the worst start for United in 24 years and they currently sit in 12th place, already 8 points off the pace after a mere six games (and having already lost three matches). While it is largely the same team as last year, the absence of Scholes and reduced role of the ageless Giggs appear to have hurt the squad, together with the failure to really strengthen in midfield and Moyes’ overly conservative approach. Beyond those rather obvious issues, however, is a team that just seems to be playing uninspired football, and one wonders why – as Everton were always among the most spirited teams in the league. Some are already predicting a December sacking if the team drop two more games, but I wonder if Moyes won’t be given at least two seasons to get things right. In any case, the race is more wide open than it’s been in years, with Arsenal, City, United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham all with a realistic chance. Result over the next two months should whittle that list down … let’s hope with the Gunners still at the fore!

Movie Review: Don Jon (2013)

Maybe it’s because I’m from New Jersey and have grown weary of the stereotypical Jersey boys and girls sold to America in mobster TV and movies, on MTV and reality television fare across the dial. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown weary of paper thin character development and screenwriters too lazy to make charming men and women actually charming. Or maybe it’s because I’ve grown weary of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s continued success in spite of the fact I believe he is an overrated, overacting star who tends to make the movies he’s in worse for his inclusion (I liked (500) Days of Summer and Dark Knight Rising in spite of him, liked Inception less because of him and generally find it even more baffling that he is sold as a heartthrob than Toby McGuire, who was at least likeable).

Before seeing the film Saturday night, I had read Manola Darghis’ review and thought this was a film worth seeing. But I wasn’t overly surprised to be at odds with the New York Times reviewer yet again. She is to be commended for taking popular films seriously, for not touting her intelligence more than the films she sees (like Anthony Lane often does) and for not selling the public dull films that are popular with critics mainly because average audiences would never like them. But I find her taste off the mark often and never more so than in this facile, steeped in stereotypes film that could have used a real screenwriter to bring a decent topic to life with more than crass humor,

Don Jon is a simple guy with simple tastes – girls, family, church, his cheesy car, his “boys” and porn. And that’s about it. We know nothing of his deeper ambitions, don’t even find out he is a bartender until near the end of the film, no nothing of his shortcomings (beyond being a narcissist, womanizer and, given his taste in porn and treatment of women, misogynist). He is the MTV-constructed mook taken to the extreme, with an infuriating accent and clothes that would make anybody not from the trashier parts of New Jersey cringe with embarrassment. Our hero, if we can call him that, does have one problem though – he is addicted to porn, and even spanks the monkey after sex (admitting he likes porn more than sex with actual women). Jon, of course, meets a girl named Barbara (played by Scarlett Johansson with the worst attempt at a Jersey accent I’ve ever heard (more like 70s Long Island to my East Coast ears)), who changes him almost overnight – though we have no foundation for this attraction. Even in his rather wooden performance in (500) Days, we can understand why he fell for Summer, and even why she ditched him in the end, but here there is no foundation for the ensuing romance and self-actualization other than the fact that she’s pretty and withholds sex for a while. As their relationship develops, and Don ditches his friends and former shallow life, we can sense that all is not rosy, as Barbara plays out the sort of controlling, overdosed on romcoms as a child girl that no one could really put up with for very long. And a fight eventually ensues, as she is horrified to learn that he likes to clean and then catches him lying about continued porn viewing.

From here emerges a bizarre character, played by Julianne Moore, who teaches Jon the essence of his problem – essentially that he is a narcissist who doesn’t give anything in bed. They start an unlikely romance and the film settles here after a final scene to remind us just how bad Barbara really is – for wanting love on her terms, in appears. Tony Danza as Jon Sr. and Glenne Headly do funny turns as the quintessentially Italian couple basking in overtly stereotypical roles. And the film certainly has its moments, both humorous and genuine. But the storyline is too muddled by the lack of character development, the characters themselves too uninteresting and the attempt to create a likable mook stretched beyond my capacity to enjoy silly films.

There is something interesting bubbling under the surface though, including questions of the place of porn in our culture and its relationship to sex and relationships (arguably undermining both), the problem of masculinity (a recurrent theme in almost every film I see these days, but going back at least as far as the Noir of the 40s) and the tripe sold to us in most romantic comedies (a worthy theme for a film that teeters on the edge of a rom com) – the place where the script is the most nuanced and interesting. Yet the unlikable characters, apart from Jon’s friends and parents, makes the ideas secondary to a plot revolving around a character I felt completely uncompelled to root for. Even in the end, it appears he merely learned that sex involves actually caring about your partner and that friendship is more than a competition to see who can score the most “pussy”, a good message for many men I guess. But our hero but doesn’t find love and instead ends up in a relationship more about pleasure and a broken woman finding some relief from the pain of losing her husband and child (another cheap trick used by screenwriters far too often for my tastes – sure it builds sympathy, but I can’t be the only one getting numb to this theme). Again, one might find the ending better than the more sanguine and maudlin ones we are used to in romantic comedies, but it simply left me cold. The irony is Don Jon has been getting good reviews in many circles and the friend I saw it with actually liked it. But I for one would rather watch Yes Man for the 10th time then have wasted $12 on this admirable but underwhelming debut for the actor. C- 

Friday, September 27, 2013

GOP Ransom America for Right Wing Agenda Yet Again

A budget standoff, a threat by the GOP to shut down government unless they get their way and a President trying to find a reasonable compromise with a petulant child who doesn’t really believe in compromise, or democracy for that matter. Sound familiar? Of course! Continuing to employ a strategy first used after Clinton’s election, the GOP are at it again, this time demanding:
-         A one-year delay to implementation of “Obamacare”
-         Concessions to drill fossil fuels on public land
-         Tort reform (remember that popular yesterday girl?)
-         Cuts to Medicare and Medicaid
And unless they get their big business agenda passed, they will let the government shut down. This comes on the heels of a vote to cut food stamps while providing additional benefits to corporations and big agribusiness.

Essentially, as Salon columnist Andrew O’Hehir recently argued, we are entering the GOP “Hunger Games” era (Salon) – where any attempt to cloak their agenda is subsumed under their relentless push to give America, its resources and its citizens to the new corporate and Wall Street plutocracy to use and abuse as they please. One wonders if the rest of us will ever wake up in time to stop them, or just ask for sleeping pills to complement our metaphoric executioner’s song. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Outsourcing America

The Center for Media and Democracy has launched a new website exposing outsourcing and privatization efforts by corporations: Source Watch Portal. A big part of the neoliberal agenda here at home is to “liberate” markets from regulation (aka oversight and accountability) while shrinking the size of government overall, ala the Republicans shut down today, but another key component is to privatize and outsource public goods. These include education, healthcare, retirement and utilities, among a host of others. The problem is that the positive externalities associated with these public goods are too often pushed to the side when private ventures and interests intervene. We can see this with the failed attempt to privatize public schools: either directly as in Philadelphia or indirectly through the highly touted but largely unsuccessful and unviable Charter School Movement. Included with the launch is the following piece from Pulitzer Prize winning video journalist Mark Fiore: 

Or you can access the video here: You Tube

The Corporate Crusader and his Cadre of Fools

Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R) is not a popular figure at the moment, at least among the media and his Republican colleagues. And yet his latest filibuster attempt is certainly the talk of the town. As a Tea Party hero, Cruz has more recently been labeled as a self-serving megalomaniac who is undermining his own party and making himself look like a fool in the process. He is derided across the political spectrum but is still a champion to many in America, who have been bamboozled into supporting interests that rarely support their own. It is the great sleight of hand that conservatives have been playing on average Americans for at least 30 years, getting them to believe that government is the problem and markets and corporations the solution. Where has it left these dupes? With lower real wages, higher unemployment, worse benefits and retirement funds, a more poverty and hunger (and crime in the future) and a declining quality of life for the majority. It is a corporate utopia and average Jane and Joe nightmare all wrapped into one skewed, but compelling fictional narrative. The plutocracy in America continues to grow, the rest of us suffer and yet our consternation is misaligned with reality. Gays, affirmative action, feminism and, of course, paranoid visions of a government that is out to get us all serve as scapegoats for the real criminals in America – corporations and their many witting and unwitting acolytes. Cruz is among them, maybe actually believing the BS that he spews, but serving the corporate agenda nonetheless. Not only indirectly but based on the reality that he is part of a movement bought, sponsored and funded by those party animals of the right-wing corporate set – the Koch brothers. Hollywood could not tell this story any better; it’s just too bad that so many people can’t tell the difference between a well-constructed lie and the truth.

Monday, September 23, 2013

At Least they Can Afford an Estate or Three

Bad news for democracy can often be good news for the market, in this case the housing market. How in the world are those two related? Well, I’m just kidding actually, but one could argue that a media led by people who themselves fall in the top one percent is never going to serve as the hallowed fourth estate it once did – though they may be able to buy several estates with the riches they are accruing not doing their jobs. Not just in the halcyon days of the muckrakers or when Agee and others detailed the travails of the great depression on average Americans, or those two fellows that once took down a president, but in a more general way. And this came into stark repose when MSNBC host Chuck Todd last week informed us that the media’s job is not to correct misinformation spread by politicians (Op Ed News).

During a segment on "Morning Joe," former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (D) argued that most opponents of the Affordable Care Act have been fed erroneous information about the law. Todd said that Republicans "have successfully messaged against it" but he disagrees with those who argue that the media should educate the public on the law. According to Todd, that's President Barack Obama's job.

Continuing he argued "But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have successfully messaged against it," Todd told Rendell. "They don't repeat the other stuff because they haven't even heard the Democratic message. What I always love is people say, 'Well, it's you folks' fault in the media.' No, it's the President of the United States' fault for not selling it."

So to a pundit on MSNBC, the one station besides PBS and Moyers, where left-leaning media personalities actually challenge conservative discourse on television (maybe CNN once in a blue moon), the media’s job is simply to report the spin doctors and who are more effective in their framing and “messaging.” This is exactly the problem and reaffirms suspicions first voiced by Chomsky and Herman and later by Eric Alterman that we have lost the media to the growing leviathan spectacle society (see Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle) and rightward turn over the past 30 years. Just watch political television in the 70s and you will start to see how bad things have gotten in comparison, given the reasoned and critical debates that used to occur. But as Network so poignantly showed us, ratings and the huge corporations behind the teleprompter have consistently undermined their role in keeping the public informed (and interested) in news that matters to them.

Todd is simply the latest example of a pundit that believes firmly in the absurd call for “neutrality,” “balance” and “objectivity” in reporting. It is part of the positivist trend in American social science and society in general that Karl Popper and his acolytes have been pushing on us since the 50s. There are a number of problems with these calls for objectivity, of course: 1) It is an impossibility, 2) It allows the more effective rhetoricians and spinners to dominate debates, 3) It tends to support the status quo (as it rarely critiques what is, rarely considers what isn’t and never asks would could or should be) and 4) It allows lies and misinformation to spread unchallenged. For all these reasons, we actually need a media that does the opposite.

Conservatives have understood this since the 60s, when they were on the verge of irrelevancy, and built a wide network of radio, television, print and Internet media representatives, together with think tanks and other institutions that legitimate their false claims, spreading their lies far and wide, to an audience that uncritically accepts most of what they say. Internal squabbles among their punditocracy do little to undermine the firm and consistent message and instead serve to solidify the overarching aim – serving the few while pretending to represent the many.

Liberals have done little to challenge this. One problem is their inability to counteract the conservative frames or create any alternative narratives that resonate with the public (except as opposition to bullshit fatigue and the occasional realization that things are getting worse for most people each year). A second is how those messages are delivered. The two main approaches are measured, reasoned and rational critique (ala Moyers) and ironic, humorous attacks on their opponents (ala Maddow and Stewart). Neither is very effective outside liberal circles – as the former is too at odds with the general tenor of social life today and the latter alienates those who feel spoken down to (aka all conservatives).

The Internet has certainly provided a number of spaces where one can check the veracity of political claims (like Politifact, Alternet, Truth-Out and the like), Facebook and You Tube have democratized access to information and allowed average citizens to challenge power (or overthrow it in the Middle East) and successful blogs and alternative news sites (like Huff Post, Slate and Salon) have expanded the number of voices we hear and challenged politicians and the mainstream media to be more accountable. But shouldn’t we demand more from that mainstream media, particularly as it attempts to reestablish the mass society of the 50s – in a more diversified form? He said, she said reporting has undermined political discourse and debate for far too long. It’s time to demand change, or simply stop watching – with the latter maybe the better option in the end. Instead of turning on, tuning in and dropping out, maybe the new reality means turning off, tuning in to alternatives and dropping back in to the public sphere.   

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Arsenal 3 Stoke City 1 (And the EPL this Weekend)

A Seinfeld episode several years ago called The Opposite featured George deciding that he should do the exact opposite of what he normally would, leading to a number of successes that really changed his character from that point on. And today the Gunners turned the table on Stoke, winning 3-1 at the Emirates by playing a very Stoke-like game. They scored all three goals on set pieces, with two coming from headers, while Stoke scored its only goal on a rebound shot from outside the box. It was a reversal of expectations but continued Arsenal’s recent run of form, culminating in a third successive win. After scoring again through the man of the moment, Aaron Ramsey, early in the game (5’), Arsenal again gave back the lead (which they have done against Aston Villa, Sunderland and Fulham) in the 26th minute from American Geoff Cameron’s strong finish of a shot off the post.

But as has become their tendency of late, Arsenal fought back with Per Mertesacker scoring a header in the 36th minute. As the second half started, one assumed Arsenal would dominate but it was Stoke that seemed to have the momentum, controlling the ball for long spells and demanding some strong defensive work and a couple of key saves from Szczesny. In the 72nd minute, Ozil garnered his third assist of the game, sending in a perfectly placed cross that Bacary Sagna looped over Stoke goalkeeper Begovic to put the game away. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was yet another win and showed the mettle that this team has seemed to embody ever since the 2-0 win at Bayern last season. Some thoughts on the game and the weekend in the EPL:

1.     Ramsey/Wilshere/Arteta/Flamini: Ramsey continued his performance as one of the best box-to-box midfielders in Europe with a lovely finish off an Ozil free kick rebound. As the game went on, he did miss more passes than usual, but this could certainly be the result of being tired (though Yaya Toure looked the best in the world later Sunday). Wilshere continues to fail to impress at the moment and really could use a rest, particularly given the form of those around him. Arteta will probably take his place in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday, but one must wonder if Flamini should be replaced at the moment, so good is his play. Not only has he become the rock in defense we have lacked since Alex Song left, but his passing was exemplary throughout the game. When Cazorla returns, it really is hard to see Wilshere being more than a rotational player at the moment, though one wonders what Wenger will do. He has shown a more ruthless approach to squad spots since the turn of the year, sitting both Vermaelen and Wilshere late last year to snag fourth place. It might be that Wilshere/Arteta become an alternative to Flamini/Ramsey in some games, but it is hard to see Ramsey left out often this term, pushing Wilshere to the periphery once everyone is healthy again.
2.     Without Walcott out wide, our counter seems far less troubling. Walcott was scratched with some sort of stomach ailment (muscle strain or something) and, while Gnarby was clearly superior on the defensive end of the pitch, he lacks the pace and touch of Walcott. Once Ox is back, he can certainly provide similar flair on the right but we might have more luck pushing left with Gibbs rushing in until that happens. Both Cazorla and Podolski should be back in the coming month or so, though, and that might help the counter as well.
3.     Needs in Winter Window: Flamini has shown himself to be a very astute signing by Wenger, even if it was serendipitous, and probably ends the need for a DM. What we do clearly need is another striker, maybe someone with speed that can play alongside or instead of Giroud in some games. The Frenchman had a very average game, failing to impress with the two opportunities he was given. He has clearly improved and will not score every week, but the need for another option is clear. When Ramsey stops scoring every game, and that obviously has to happen at some point, we will need the striker to score with consistency – even against physical teams that play in two flanks of four. The other real need, in my opinion, is another strong centre back that can slot in at times. While our defense has only given up more than a goal once this term, we have only 3 clean sheets in 7 games, and two were against a very average Fenerbahce. Watching Vincent Kompany dominate Man U today made me think we could still improve in this area. And Tottenham has only ceded a single goal, against us, all season and stand level on points after five games.
4.     Szczesny is back: while Sz might have gotten across to stop Cameron’s equalizer today, he has been relatively impressive this term, stronger in the air and on crosses/corners, more assured in his distribution and has already tallied a number of impressive saves. His form has been an important part of this run, after being benched late last season, and continuing in that vein imperative if we are truly to mount a serious title charge.
5.     Media Bias: Arsenal has long suffered with a media that seems to place them in perpetual crisis – sometimes fairly, more often just as a result of its sensationalist tendencies. But few could argue when they saw a team that seemed too thin to really challenge for the league this season. Yet now, Wenger has a new “problem” – a few selection headaches that many in the league would beg for. We have two able bodies on both wings, competition for every spot in midfield (and in some cases are three deep, once players return from injury), should be fine on the wings and have options at every position except a fourth viable centre half (though Sagna seems like he can cover, with Jenkinson starting on the right). The only position where we are light, though it is an important one, seems to be striker. Giroud has been playing well until today, but we still don’t know how he’ll perform in the big games, where he often goes missing (except against Tottenham this term). But if we stay near the top and spend the money we have to bring in another top-quality striker in the Winter Window, this could be a team that could go all the way!
6.     Title Contenders: Arsenal has to avoid the downturn in form that seems to plague us at some point every season since our last title, but must feel like this is the best chance to reclaim that coveted prize in some time. Man United would be in crisis mode if Moyes wasn’t being given an early pass by the media (one point in three games against the major rivals Chelsea, Liverpool and City should be garnering more press). A loss Wednesday to Liverpool in the Capital One would certainly get people talking, but the beating they took today at City must open some eyes to a decline in quality in the back and midfield this term. Liverpool has started brightly, but no one, including Rodgers, thinks they are real challengers for the title yet – and the tame 1-0 loss to Southampton seems to confirm the distance they still have to go to get back to the top. Man City did look impressive, but have already blown four points against Cardiff and Stoke, though they appear to be the in form team after the display today, when the new pieces seemed to finally fit together with the old (though oddly without David Villa on the pitch). And finally is Chelsea, a team that does seem in crisis mode, without the striker they need to mount a serious challenge at the top. Sure they won Saturday, but it was again less than exemplary and Mourinho’s tendency to ostracize a team’s most popular players (in this case Mata and Luiz) in his last two stops seems to be costing him points and silverware. Right now he doesn’t seem to know who to play in what position and that is not allowing the team to build up the understanding and confidence necessary to beat teams like Basil (couldn’t help myself there). It is too early to say anything definitive, but Arsenal certainly have a team that can compete with the best.

Moving to the American version of the sport for a paragraph, some thoughts on the weekend action. Pittsburgh appear to be a team on the decline and the new system not really complementary to Roethisberger’s strengths. The Niners have certainly come back down to earth as well, as has their young quarterback who had a truly awful day. The Jets improved to 2-1 with a nail-biter than should have been comfortable – but for several missed turnovers and 20, yes that’s right, 20 penalties. This is clearly one of the worst coached teams in the league and it might be time to start lining up replacements for the likable but increasingly clueless Rex Ryan. The Cowboys also improved to 2-1 while the Chargers blew yet another game to fall to 1-2, continuing a trend that saw them blow 7 leads last year and already 2 this term. A new coach but the same old lack of backbone. Green Bay and Atlanta also lost while the Saints won, already messing with early predictions (including the rather pathetic performance of the NFC East sans the Boys). On that note, we might be reaching the end of an era with the Giants, as they fall to 0-3 in a truly paltry performance, though I suppose you should never count them out. Andrew Luck appears to be the only sophomore living up to last year’s hype so far, though third year man Cam Newton had an impressive performance in the win (though his completion percentage was still low).

Anyway, that’s all for now. COYG!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Whole Foods Hell

Upon becoming newly single, aka divorced, several years ago – and waiting four months before moving across country to be with my new girlfriend – I found myself with that most daunting of tasks à food shopping alone. As someone who married relatively young, this was a new experience and after a few trips to oppressive supermarkets that left me depressed and humming infuriating tunes that had been “musikified,” I decided that the enticing choice was the one for me. So I started to frequent the local Santa Monica Wholefoods, a utopian mecca where anything you could desire was at your fingertips. After a couple of months of weekly trips, my new girlfriend mentioned that I was wasting money every week venturing to this organic spot. I protested, but just to win an argument bought largely the same things somewhere else. And what I found was rather startling. For one, she was right. Second, I was blowing $30 to $40 a week to hobnob with the liberal, latte-drinking, organic obsessed, wine connoisseur set. So I started shopping elsewhere, though the pull of Wholefoods kept me visiting them at least once a month on the sly. In any case, a friend sent me this hilarious send up of the chain by comedian Kelly MacLean at Huffington Post today. Enjoy!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Larry Summers Withdraws from Fed Chair Race

Whew, some good news for a change ...

The Tuna Fish Sonnet

Shall I compare thee to a tuna fish?
Though art more lovely and smell better too
Thou tastes more sweet; unless I’m hungry
In which case tuna can be a pretty satisfying lunch
If they do not slather it in too much mayonnaise
Which can, you see, be a real turn off to me.

Of course tuna’s half life wheels
Where yours cast endless toward the seas
And thou eternal glow shall always be
Far fairer than a Chilean bass fair and free
Even when marinated with the best of seasoning
So long as I can breathe, or mine eyes see

So long shall your beauty transcend bumble bee 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Arsenal Win Again 3-1

Arsenal went into Sunderland expecting a win and left with one after a much harder contest than many expected. The Gunners started early, with new signing Ozil cushioning a long ball from Gibbs with his left foot and then charging forward before a lovely pass to Giroud who finished strongly. From there the Gunners dominated possession and created a number of chances, though they went to half-time only up 1 – after Theo Walcott missed four, yes four, chances to put the game beyond reach. Many came from the golden foot and eagle-like eyes of Ozil, who lived up to his billing – though he largely disappeared from the action in the second half (potentially as a result of growing tired as he was sick, or maybe as Sunderland surrounded him whenever he touched the ball).

Arsenal looked set to pay for all those missed opportunities, as Koscielny was again adjudged to  have committed a foul in the box, leading to an equalizing penalty early in the second half. I again believe that the referee was harsh, as replays showed that Kos had gotten the ball before the man, but he needs to stop with the rash challenges from behind in the box as they penalties are becoming the main source of goals for our opponents in the young season so far. The hero was again Ramsey, who scored the second with a powerful volley off a nice pass from Jenkinson, then slotted in to seal the victory after a great pass from the edge of the box by Giroud. Ramsey now has five goals in all competitions this season, and really is the player of the moment, finally realizing the promise so viscously derailed by Ryan Shawcroft a few seasons ago. The second half was not without its controversy though, as American Jozy Altidore appeared to equalize for Sunderland after outmuscling Sagna, playing centre half for the ailing Mertesacker, and slipping the ball past Szczesny. Martin Atkinson, however, one of the worst refs in the league when it comes to Arsenal – made a bizarre call not allowing play to continue and the goal was thus disallowed. While Sunderland boss Di Canio was left fuming, I thought it was just in the end, given the soft penalty awarded earlier in the half.

So the Gunners have now won five on the bounce since the disappointing opening loss to Aston Villa and sit in first place, at least until Liverpool play Swansea City on Monday. They have a key Champions League tie against Marseille this week, and will have to play without Cazorla, who is injured and out until October, Podolski (on a long term injury) and maybe Giroud, who hurt his knee reaching back for a cross behind him in the closing moments. But watching other games in England and Spain this weekend, I must say the Gunners are playing some of the prettiest football in Europe at the moment. It was an action-packed weekend of football across the leagues today. Man United won an important game, again based on a questionable penalty call that seemed to involve a foul outside the box (on Ashley Young, who is continuing his diving ways). Everton pulled off an impressive upset over Chelsea, who outplayed the Toffees for large sections of the game but created few scoring chances and appear to be suffering from the lack of an inform striker at the moment. Tottenham won 2-0, with two goals from Sigurdsson, and Erickson was apparently quite impressive in his debut. And Man City again found no joy at Stoke, suffering through a tepid nil-nil draw. In Spain, Barcelona gave up a lead in stoppage time to Valencia only to score at the death and take the win 3-2, while Real were lucky to secure a 2-2 draw with Villareal after being outplayed through much of the match – though Gareth Bale did score in his debut. Some thoughts on Arsenal and the weekend in general …

1.     Wilshere/Ramsey/Ozil: even without the creative flair and genius of Cazorla, the Arsenal midfield was impressive through much of the game, except for two short periods of sustained Sunderland pressure. Wilshere had a quality game, sliding passes through and lofting them over the defense, though he still seems too rash in his challenges and too quick to tumble over in a challenge. Ozil had an impressive first 45 minutes, gathering his first assist, creating at least three other chances and looking like he was worth the over 65 million dollars we paid for him. And Ramsey continues to be a spectacle to watch, now adding the goals many always thought were in him. His confidence seems to grow from week to week, with great passing, improved dribbling skills, defensive tackles and interceptions at key moments, the recent goal haul and a calming effect on the team. As these three and Cazorla, Theo and Arteta/Flamini get more time together, they really might become the best midfield in the EPL. Most people still give the nod to Chelsea, and on talent alone they are better, but as a cohesive whole, Arsenal are more aesthetically pleasing and, to my mind, more effective at actually creating good opportunities.
2.     Giroud/Walcott: Giroud continued his impressive early season form, with another early goal that gave the Gunners the lead, and a late assist that all but wrapped things up. His game has improved dramatically with smarter runs, better distribution off of goal kicks and some very clever passes around the box. Walcott, on the other hand, again seems to have lost that finishing touch he discovered last season. He seems too lackadaisical on the ball at times and has become predictable coming from the right and always shooting across the goalkeeper. If I notice this, I’m sure coaches and professional goalees do as well, and each of those attempts has been saved this season. He also had a great opportunity to score on a header, but sent it wide when he clearly should have gone back across goal that time. Walcott’s game has matured even more this year, to me, with better touches and decisionmaking, but he still needs to work on his finishing.
3.     Defense: the addition of Flamini on a free was derided in many quarters, but he has shown himself to be an adroit resigning by Wenger, plugging up wholes, covering on the counter attacks, providing a physical presence in the middle and completing most of his passes. Vermaelen came in late in the game, but again showed the horrible habit he has developed of sending long balls over the top that are generally too long – particularly with a two-goal cushion. He was adequate on defense in his short stint, but one does wonder if he’ll ever return to his old form. Koscielny was strong as usual, developing a better sense of the game, as he moves up and intercepts more balls a game than I remember in the past, but he needs to really think twice about the rash challenges in the box. Verm used to get away with them, for the most part, but Kos does not and he needs to adjust that aspect of his game. Sagna was adequate opposite Koscielny in the game, but I’m still not convinced of his readiness to play in the center, as it weakens us at right back and he still needs to learn a lot about positioning and how to cut off strikers and wingers forging forward.
4.     Wenger’s Revenge? Arsene Wenger announced this week that he will leave the club if he doesn’t win a trophy this season. It was a bold statement by a manager who finally finds himself in the good graces of fans for the first time in a long time. Whether he will stick to his guns remains to be seen, but Wenger’s philosophy is starting to show the dividends he has spoken of for so long now. For one, he has created a team atmosphere where the group appears to be tight-knit and play together. New faces come in and have only strengthened that feel of a “unit” with Flamini clearly vocal throughout the game, and the players seemingly embracing the arrival of a superstar in Ozil. He is one of the few coaches giving consistent time to young English players who could help save the in-crisis nation’s football future. He bought a player in a position many argued we didn’t need, but appears to have created a potent attack force that seems substantially more impressive than Chelsea, Man City and maybe even United and Tottenham (though the later two did score 2 a piece today). He signed Flamini on a free, and this might turn out to be great business covering a hole. He has argued that bringing in too many new faces disrupts the team chemistry and City, Chelsea (to a lesser extent), Sunderland and Tottenham (with three wins to counter the argument) have all seemed less than fluid in the early goings this year. Arsenal may fizzle as the season goes on, but do stand in first place and have a really shot at silverware this year, no matter what the pundits say.
5.     The League: right now it is hard to argue who the favorite is to win the title this season. Many have been putting their money (or at least reputations) on Chelsea as the clear favorite to win, but questions do remain. Do they have the necessary defensive steal in midfield to deal with the more physical teams in the league? Will having too many top players competing for spots cause discontent and lack of cohesion among the players? And do they have the strikeforce to score enough goals? Sending Lukaku out on loan might be good for the youngsters future, but could be a decision that comes back to bite the “special one.” A final point,  worth noting, is a defensive tendency in Mourinho that might have the Blues dropping too many points this season, as they have against their two toughest opponents so far this season. City is also suffering through an early malaise with a draw and loss to two teams they should arguably beat rather easily, though Stoke has been giving them trouble on the road for years. City probably has the most talented and deep team in the league, but will all the new faces gel quickly enough for them to stay near the top of the table? The first big test of 2013-14 comes next weekend in the Manchester Derby and we shall know more then. As to the defending champions, I think there are still a lot of questions to be answered with this unit and my contention that have been overperforming for the past three seasons and may suffer a return to the mean under new manager Moyes. As to Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal, I truly do believe that the Gunners are the best of the three – particularly given the fact we have only allowed two goals in open play all season (but three penalties already, though two were clearly questionable). The Gunners do sometimes look susceptible to the counter attack, but have been good for over a season at keeping clean sheets and squeaking out victories. We have a potent attack force from the middle forward now and will only improve when Cazorla, Podolski, Arteta and Ox return to action in the coming months. Tottenham may have improved overall with the sale of Bale, but we will have to await their next big games before we can decide on how good this team is. It should be the most wide open title race in several years though, and that can only be good for the league.

6.     Barca/Real: just a quick comment on the two top teams in Spain (though Athletico could make an early claim to be outplaying both at present). Barca was lucky to secure a late win after giving up an equalizer at the stroke of 90 minutes to Valencia, but should have been behind but for a terrible call by the referee who disallowed a second goal from Valencia on a corner for no apparent reason then allowed Barca to score in the 94th minute, maybe after the whistle should have been blown. The Catalon team looked suspect in the back on several occasions, and will have to shore up their defense if they are not to start dropping points. Real Madrid looked disjointed throughout their match with the resurgent Villareal who outplayed them for most of the match, drawing only because Real’s keeper Lopez was in top form. It is bizarre to think that the best goalkeeper in the world a mere nine months ago is now watching from the bench, very unlikely to win his starting role back in the foreseeable future. Bale had an average game before scoring a lovely goal and then almost putting in a second from outside the box. Ronaldo looked uncomfortable at times while playing alongside Bale and only scored after the Welshman left the game in the 60th minute. The talent of Real is unquestionable, but they really seemed to lack cohesion across the entire pitch. It should be an interesting race in La Liga this year, with Athletico having an outside (okay, maybe very outside) shot at unseating the two team Monopoly that have ruled Spain for so long. 

Friday, September 13, 2013