Sunday, April 28, 2013

Arsenal Draw First Blood ... Settle for a Draw

In the second minute of the game against Manchester United today, Walcott snuck in behind Evra and a perfect pass from Rosicky was well finished by the Englishman. That he was slightly offsides seemed almost apropos given how many bad calls Arsenal has suffered through the years and how many United have benefited from. The Gunners then dominated the next twenty minutes of the game, pressing up on the Red Devils, passing the ball around cooly and creating several half chances. But they were wasteful in the final third and the second never came. As had happened against Fulham, Everton and Schalke, they would cede the lead and never find the winner. In the 42nd minute, after a sea of yellows from Phil Dowd, most for United, Sagna inexplicitly sent a back pass too slowly in the direction of Mertesacker. RVP intercepted the pass and charged toward goal down the left flank. Sagna, trying to make up for his error, chased from behind and though RVP had run into a rather poor angle, the Frenchman tackled him in the box, missing the ball and earning our ex-captain a penalty. A minute later the score was level and momentum had shifted. Arsenal held out until halftime, but the damage was done.

In the second half, both teams charged forward frequently, but neither found a second goal and the game ended in a 1-1 draw. It was not a terrible result for Arsenal, but did seem like a missed opportunity and took the UCL place out of their power (assuming Tottenham beat Chelsea and both win all the rest of their fixtures). Arsenal will rue not taking further advantage of having more at stake, of controlling parts of the game in a way that should have led to more goals and of the Sagna mistake -- which is not the first that has cost us this season. It was a decent display holding the champions to only one goal, but could have been so much better. Aaron Ramsey put in another strong performance, Cazorla was decent at times (though not up to his usual level), Szczesny had three great saves and seems to have refound his old form and Mertesacker and Kos were again impressive in the back, though they did provide some openings for crosses and headers that United luckily failed to convert. On the down side, Sagna appears to have lost the steadiness he has displayed for the past several years, not only with the one mistake but in being too slow in the buildup and failing to put in more than one pinpoint cross. I assume we will let him go this summer and buy another right back, giving Jenkinson the chance to start next year. Gibbs was decent, but not much developed on his side of the pitch and he did let Valencia get behind him on several occasions. Arteta was steady as usual without being spectacular and Podolski was largely invisible in his second chance playing through the middle. One does wonder if he is suffering from an ankle injury, as rumoured.

In any case, the Gunners now have three winnable fixtures to finish the season and will hope that United can at least draw against Chelsea and then Chelsea draw Tottenham (or beat them). If either or both of those scenarios unfold, Arsenal will again hold their fate in their own hands. As it now stands, if everything goes against them, including Tottenham grabbing all three points at the Bridge, Arsenal will miss out by a mere point -- ruing all of the missed opportunities against Fulham (the penalty at the death), today, against Liverpool, almost coming back against Chelsea and a host of other games where they needed a little more punch to win. They have been on an impressive unbeaten run of form ever since the meaningless 2-0 win over Bayern, but could fall just short. Let's hope Tottenham continue their history of late season swoons, not hard to imagine after only gaining a point against Wigan (and a lucky one at that, given it was an own goal in the 89th minute). COYG!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Arsenal Win, Barely .... Barca All But Out of UCL

It has been a jam-packed five days in European football with action across the leagues and the first legs of the Champions Leg semifinals yesterday and today. The biggest news to come out of the week so far is the 4-0 pounding that Barcelona took at the hands of Bayern Munich, a team that has been rising in stature for several years now and, with arguably the best defense in the world this season, looks set for a final showdown against either Real Madrid or Borussia Dortmund. This will be Bayern's third final in four years and one wonders if they can finally cross the finish line and win one, as their record in finals since the dominant 70s squad is abysmal. They did win a penalty shootout against Valencia in 2000-01, but otherwise have lost the other five finals since the 75-76 win. At the same time, It appears that we might be coming to the end of an era -- the Barcelona that was by far the best team in the world from 2005-06 until the 2011 UCL final (and one people argued was the best ever). Last season, of course, they ceded the title to Real and lost to a resilient Chelsea in the UCL semis. It was a disappointing final year for Guardiola, though he did finish with a cup win before choosing to exit the club. This year they have seemingly reclaimed the La Liga title, but that will be all unless they pull off a miracle in the second leg. While Barcelona could well have a bright future, they were beaten at their own game with Bayern looking the more creative team throughout. Barca looked a little old and a little ragged and lacked the energy, creativity and fight in the back necessary to victory. Any team with a healthy Messi will still compete at the very top of the game, and Xavi and Iniesta are still among the top midfielders in the world, but it appears time that Barca consider new options at the back and rejuvenate the team with some fresh blood that can respark their desire to take the top prize in European Club football.

As to Arsenal, another hard fought win, this time on the road at Craven Cottage, should have been a walk through after Steve Sidwell drew a red card for a reckless tackle in the 12th minute. Yet the Gunners played lethargically throughout, and relied on our two central defenders in scoring the only goal of the game. It was the first "jaded" performance in a while and one wonders what is wrong with this team psychologically at times, as they could have won the game easily with a little more drive and panache. Giroud was again below par, but it was really the midfield who failed to create any real chance, though I thought Ramsey played well yet again. The questions about Podolski remain, as he again only came off the bench, but will probably be called into action for the final four games as Giroud received a red and three game suspension late Saturday for topping the ball as a defender challenged him. It was a stupid play, but given our two goals in two games, it might be a blessing in disguise. Too often Arsenal rely on Giroud getting the ball down and out to a teammate on long goal kicks, and this strategy appears to fail more than it succeeds. The important thing at this point in the season is wins, though, and even a 1-0 win in a game we should have dominated will do. Next up is Manchester United, who won the title against Aston Villa on Monday, thanks in no small part to RVP, the 24 million pound signing that gave United the crown and Arsenal one of its worst seasons in memory. 

Arsenal, however, did get lucky in the second game Sunday after watching an impressive Tottenham comeback at White Heart Lane against Man City in the early slot. The latter was cruising up 1-0 with 15 minutes to go when the Spurs exploded for three goals in 7 minutes and wrapped up another three points. It was an impressive win for a team known for choking late in campaigns, again largely engineered by Gareth Bale (an assist on the first and the third goal). But in the second game, with mere second left in stoppage time, Luis Suarez put in a header that took two vital points from Chelsea right at the death. It was only what Liverpool deserved after a great second half, though Chelsea will wonder why Suarez was still on the pitch after biting, yes biting, Ivanovich. Suarez has now been suspended for 10 games, including the last four of the season, and one wonders if he can control himself in the future so that his talent and not his erratic behavior (this was the second biting incident, together with the racial abusing of Evra, the goal line hand ball against Ghana in the World Cup, the FA Cup goal he admit he handled, etc.) define the remainder of what could be a brilliant career. 

So the two dropped points against Everton have again put Arsenal on the back foot, though they remain in third place for the moment. A win over Manchester United Sunday could just about wrap up a place, assuming we do the necessary job against QPR, Wigan and Newcastle, but a loss could really put claiming a Champion's League place in jeopardy. COYG!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Erik Rush: "Kill them All!"

Erik Rush the author and columnist, the same Erik Rush who along with much of the media wrongly assumed the Oklahoma City Bombing was perpetrated by Muslim terrorists, is at it again. After the Boston Marathon massacre, Rush tweated, ""Yes, they're evil. Let's kill them all." We, of course, still don't know that it was Muslim terrorists and should probably mention the obvious fact that only a very small percentage of the over 1 billion followers of Islam in the world are terrorists. In fact, it's rather easy to make the case that a larger proportion of the Christian population are violent and that if we count the Crusades or even the complicity of the Church in the Holocaust, Colonialism and most of the evil wrought by the West, many more have died in the name of Christianity than Islam. But let's ignore the rather obvious and rational arguments and consider the issue from the other side.

Isn't "kill them all," in fact, the rallying cry of terrorism itself. It presumes an other that is anonymous -- an other that encompasses everyone that disagrees with their ideology or is even tacitly attached to the wrongs they believe have been committed against their faith and countries (in some cases legitimately, though this never legitimates terrorism in my mind). This is the rationale of terrorism. If you are not with us, you are against us. Since everyone in the West is complicit in the crimes against Islam, no one is innocent and it is thus okay, nay necessary, to kill innocent civilians in their attempt to promote their cause. It is not that they think their acts will lead to changes in the West toward their beliefs, it is the presumption that terror besets fear and fear undermines the Western beliefs they critique. "Kill them all" puts us right in line with this reasoning, undermining the notion that all have access to freedom and the absurd assumption that all members of a group can be grouped together without differentiation, agency or individuality.

If we were to take absurd arguments like this to their absurdist extremes, we should kill all alienated white male loners with access to guns, as they are the most likely to go on killing sprees. Hate mongers like Erik Rush play into the hands of the terrorists by propagating the hatred they desire. There is no nuance, no humanity, only hatred in the face of violence. I have heard people on the left calling for Rush to be fired, but I disagree. We do have freedom of speech in America and it is our job to critique fools like this and show the country how foolish they are. One hopes his rallying cry falls on deaf ears and no harm comes to the many million innocent Muslims living peacefully within our borders today.  

Media Frenzy

Is it just me, or has the real news and celebrity news seemed to have congealed into one indistinguishable miasma? Of course theorists of the spectacle have long argued that everything is turned into a commodity in the representational world we live in, including war, political campaigns, mass murders and the like (framed within narratives that create the most drama, suspense and entertainment value, while spreading the dominant hegemonic ideals). And terrorism, of course, is spectacular without any enhancements -- so it's not surprising that it fits the mold. But with people in Boston still trying to make sense of the tragedy and find meaning in the loss, the major cable news outlets are at it again. Fox decided that it is clearly "Muslim Extremists" behind the bombs that went off during the Boston Marathon Daily Beast, even though there is no evidence to support this claim, and one hoped they would have learned something from the Oklahoma City bombing (Orientalism Clip). And CNN decided to chime in and inform us that a suspect had been captured, even though this didn't turn out to be true. But in a world where truth and fiction have dissolved into one endless, anarchistic discourse (backed by montages of images without context), who really knows what the truth is any more

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Same Old Story ... Arsenal Blow Big Opportunity (0-0)

Arsenal had a big chance to grab Champions League qualifying by the scruff and take it home. Instead they earned a hard-fought point in a match against Everton they really should have won. The culprit? Giroud has to take the blame yet again, his profligacy in front of goal has just cost us too many points this season. In the 37th minute, Ramsey sent a lovely cross across goal and Giroud thrust forward to beat Howard to the ball, but somehow sent it wide from the middle of goal. A simple touch would have sent the ball in the net, but the Frenchman just doesn't have the touch when we need it first. Given two additional chances in the second half, he muddled them both and Arsenal was forced to accept a draw that cost us two invaluable points. It might have been different if midfielder Gibson was shown the second yellow card in the first that seemed warranted by a cynical block. The exact same play closer to the box warranted a yellow for Pienaar three minutes later and left the Arsenal fans and Wenger wondering what the difference was.

It was the most physical game the Gunners have played this season and Moyes' men will be proud, even if their own UCL aspirations took a big hit. They controlled the game throughout much of the first half and held a stronger display from the Gunners in the second. It was not without moments of key defensive work, particularly from Fellaini, who played deeper than usual and seemed to stop one Arsenal threat after another. Cazorla lined up a shot within three minutes of the second half restart that Howard had to parry away for a corner. Gibbs then worked around two defenders on the left side in the 51st, sending the ball across to Giroud on the edge of the box. His shot bounded high and into the seats. Five minutes later, Walcott bounded down the right on a counter, sending the ball behind Giroud, who could do nothing -- though a better striker might have been able to snag the ball and score. In the 63rd minute, yet another attack was dispatched when Wilshere dribbled into two Everton defenders and lost the ball. It was a pattern throughout the game, with Wilshere dribbling into defenders and losing the ball rather than passing to open teammates when the double and triple teams emerged. Wilshere was not even supposed to play, but it appears Rosicky was not ready (more on this below).

In the 68th minute, Ox came on for Wilshere and Podolski for Walcott, who was largely ineffective himself. From there opportunities started emerging with more frequency and one wondered why either or both of them didn't start in the game. In the 72nd, Giroud had a clear header in front of goal but sent it sideways ending the threat. A minute later Ramsey had two headers, one leading to a corner and the second a rebound that he tried to back heel past Howard. In the 75th, Sagna sent in a perfect cross to Giroud, though Distin arrived just on time to avert it for a corner. Two minutes later, Arsenal again broke on the counter with Cazorla sending Ox into the box with a sumptuous pass he probably should have shot. Instead he crossed to Giroud, who was caught from behind and fumbled away (though a replay showed it could have been a penalty). A minute later Giroud took a lovely pass from Ox in the box, got around his defender and then somehow struck the shot over the bar from six yards. Arsenal then rushed forward in the last twelve minutes of the game, but the best opportunity came as Arteta was set on goal by Cazorla only to dawdle over the ball and not even get a shot off. 

So Arsenal's destiny is again outside their hands, though the Spurs face Man City and Chelsea in the coming weeks. It was an important point in this close battle for the top four but really a missed opportunity. Wilshere, Giroud and Wenger (with his team selection) were all disappointing, but the rest of the team held up well to the incredibly physical play of Everton and showed that they are a lot tougher than last year's squad. Some thoughts, which seem to mirror the problems all year and the comments from last week, though in a winning effort: 

1. Giroud is not good enough: the Frenchman came in with high hopes, being the top scorer in France last year (albeit with 17 league goals). He has played well in streaks, but too often misses relatively easy opportunities. He has individually cost us more points than anyone on the team and does not appear to be the long-term solution to replacing RVP. The other issue I have with Giroud is his holding up of the ball. Sometimes he needs to simply stop the ball and look for outlets. Too often he jumps early or heads the ball forward blindly hoping to find a teammate. In the second half he did better, but his first touch is just not good enough and he seems to be trying too hard to score, failing to recognize that sometimes a tap in is just that -- not a booming shot from five yards out.

2. Selection, Selection, Selection: Wenger has managed the team better since January, but it is hard to understand the lineup for this game. The back made sense, given the injury to Fabianski, though I probably would have gone with Monreal on the left wing. He is steadier defensively and a more measured threat going forward. But Gibbs was dangerous on the offensive end throughout and comported himself adequately on defense, with few crosses coming from his side of the pitch. In fact, it was a strong defensive game all around with few opportunities for Everton. When we get to the midfield, the head scratching begins. Wenger just reported a couple of days ago that he might have rushed Jack back too soon, and then throws him in again, three days after a very average performance. And that is exactly what we got again. I would have rather seen Arteta, Ramsey and Cazorla playing as CAM, rather than out on the left wing, where he has less of an impact. Moving forward, I am still baffled as to why Podolski is not getting any starts and wonder if the rumours are true and he is leaving this summer. To be honest, I would have really liked to see him lead the line, with the Ox and Walcott surrounding him, though Pod, Giroud, Walcott would have been fine. I really think we would have won if Podolski was in there from the start. 

3. Podolski/Wishere:  I'm not sure what Wenger is doing with the German international, but it is extremely troubling, particularly after his arrival Saturday preceded three goals and a lovely comeback win. He needs to be given the chance to start and one hopes that happens against Fulham. Cazorla was still great, but it is clear he is better in the CAM and that Wilshere needs more time to recover and to find the form that he displayed upon his return. We are simply a more fluid, dangerous team when he is not playing. 

Next up is Fulham on the road, a game we should win. The wild reverse fixture was another two points we dropped after we blew an early two goal lead and actually trailed 3-2 late, before the equalizer. Arteta, as many of you remember, had a chance to win it with a last second penalty, only to shoot meekly and blow the game. But we have shored up the defense in the interim and should be able to score multiple goals if we finish our chances. It will be an important win, putting further space between us and Tottenham, who face Man City Sunday. Chelsea can now leapfrog us tomorrow (with a game in hand), by beating Fulham (also on the road), but then face a tough game at Liverpool Sunday. The Champions League is up for grabs with seven games left (only five for us) and we now probably need at least a point against Man United at home to have a real chance at having our destiny in our own hands. The only good news is Chelsea and Tottenham still have to play each other, guaranteeing us either two dropped points for each or three dropped points for one. Thus, if we do win out, we will be in the Champions League place. Beating Fulham, QPR, Wigan and Newcastle is certainly doable, though we will have to be resilient and improve our finishing. This means Man United might be a make or break moment depending on what happens around us -- a rather unenviable position. COYG!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Damien Omen 2013

I have long harbored suspicions that the Canadian haircut that sings, Justin Bieber, is the devil incarnate -- the augur of the end of the world. There is much evidence supporting this position, from the aforementioned haircut to the way he terrorizes the otic-sensitive among us with not only his only drivel but that of other pop-saccharine inspired "artists" like Carly Rae Jepsen, who he helped make famous. Now a visit to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam has further solidified my apocalyptic nightmare. After the visit, Bieber tweeted: 

"Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber." 

I've thought of a number of clever codas, but are they really necessary?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Arsenal Wait Until Late ... Win Again

Arsenal fans at the Emirates, in front of TVs at home or in pubs across the world must have been feeling that sinking feeling that has plagued all of us for years -- "Not Again!" The Gunners looked on the verge of blowing a winnable game at home against Norwich and thus put a serious dent in their chance to secure a Champions League place. And then something funny happened on the way to despondency and depression ... a penalty was called for a tug on Giroud in the 84th minute. Arteta, after a long delay, boomed it past Bunn, even as he got a hand on it and the game was on. There were cries during and after the game that it was not a penalty, mainly because "people pull shirts all the time," but that is absurd and it was a clear penalty according to the rules. Juve is famous for their cheating in the box and it is time for football to start enforcing the rules. In any case, it was now 1-1 with enough time to grab those other two vital points. And the Gunners did just that, with Ox using his speed and guile to navigate around at least three Norwich defenders before slotting the ball in for Giroud, who was given the goal even as it looked to go off a Norwich defender. 2-1 in the 88th minute. And then as Norwich desperately sought to grab back their point, Arsenal pushed on the break, Walcott (from an offsides position, to be fair), laid the ball off for Podolski, who finished beautifully for a 3-1 comeback win.

It was the first game Arsenal have come back to win in some time and a welcome way to prepare for a key matchup with Everton at the Emirates Tuesday. If the Gunners can win that game, they truly move into the driver's seat for third or fourth place -- particularly as Chelsea's season continues to sputter out, with a tough 2-1 loss to Man City in the FA Cup semis this morning, and the Spurs appear like they could collapse again under the pressure as well -- together with the fact the two play each other (meaning either one team loses 3 points or both lose 2). It was thus a critical win and one that reinforced a number of themes from the season, while raising new questions as we head toward the final few games of the season:

1. Are we better with or without Wilshere? I know it sounds like a crazy question, but it was after Wilshere went out injured that Arsenal started this current streak -- beating Bayern 2-0 in the second leg of the UCL and winning our last four in the league. Don't get me wrong, since the 2-1 loss to Chelsea on January 20, the Gunners have been playing much better football -- outside of the FA Cup and UCL first leg at home. But the flow of the games was suspect at times and while Wilshere adds the dimension of his bursts forward, they generally end up going nowhere, with many leading to counterattacks by the opponents. His last start was the 2-1 loss to Tottenham and he was completely inept in this game. Certainly he would be expected to be rusty after the long layoff, but there was more to it than that. He was sloppy with the ball, the weight of his passes was too slow or too fast and he was slumping his each mistake. Wilshere is a key component of the future of Arsenal, but right now I think we should be careful about overplaying him, as it was after he left and Cazorla was moved back to a central role that the Gunners started to play their best football of the afternoon.

2. Gervinho must go: Gervinho occasionally flatters to deceive fans into believing he is a great player waiting to burst out of his bumbling form and finally find the finishing touch and good decision-making around the 30 yard box that will make him a star. I really don't believe it will happen for the Ivorian at Arsenal. The fans are too quick to start rousing him from the first mistake and he appears extremely sensitive to their jeers. Gervinho took a pass in the first half and rounded the goalie with a clear opportunity to score; but that touch was too strong and he then blew the chance to wait for Giroud to get in the box and finish a cross. It is typical for Gervinho and that goal could have made the game a coast, rather than necessitating late game heroics. Gervinho has talent, without doubt, but there are only so many clear scoring opportunities in a game and his conversion rate of one in six of seven (maybe a little harsh) is just not up to snuff for anyone playing in the forward three. We should sell him this summer and find a more adequate replacement. 

3. While we're at it -- Podolski: it is hard to understand why Podolski has gotten so little time on the pitch during this run, unless Wenger was weary to mess with the forming chemistry or wanted to see if Gervinho was worth keeping, but he again showed how invaluable he is, pushing us toward the equalizer and winner and then converting the shot that put the game away in the 92nd minute. Right from the moment he and Walcott entered the game, the attack improved and Norwich were suddenly on their back foot. And but for a great finger tip save, Podolski could have leveled it within a few minutes of his arrival in the 60th minute. There are rumours circulating that Pod could be on his way out, but that seems insane to me and I hope they are false. I fully expect him to start against Everton Tuesday and show why he is the best finisher on the team. 

4. Still Serious Questions about Verminator: Vermaelen didn't have a bad game in defense, and it is unclear if it was his failure to mark that led to the Turner goal in the 56th minute, but even though Mertesacker's lack of pace almost cost us last weekend, I still think he is preferred to our current captain. Vermaelen has lost his confidence this season and not only is his defending suspect, but he too often tries (and fails) to loft the ball over the defense rather than allow the midfielders to do their job; while Mert always chooses the short pass (and while conservative, that means keeping possession). It is possible that the summer off will help the Belgian rediscover his form, but I wouldn't be terribly upset if we let him go this summer -- as long as the price is right and we find an adequate replacement (maybe Samba who is about to be relegated along with QPR). 

5. The Ref: for years, Arsenal fans have felt rightfully begrudged by all the decisions that have gone against us, from the extra three minutes against Liverpool that led to a 116th minute penalty, to the absurd red against Van Persie to all the penalties not called over the past few years and the questionable sendings off (though not the one that cost us the UCL final in 2006 -- that was on the goalie). This year, Arsenal have had some games where the minor calls went against them (free kicks, yellow cards, etc.) and refs have certainly failed to call a number of clear penalties, but, on balance, this has been a good year for Arsenal. I believe, as I stated above, that the penalty call was right, as Giroud was taken down Tae Kwon Do style with a clear opportunity to clip the ball in from five yards out. But Arsenal rarely get those kind of calls and it was thus a welcome correct call that turned the game. If the Gunners don't make the Champions League this year, they will have only themsleves to blame.

A final few points: the reemergence of Aaron Ramsey has been impressive to see for me. I was screaming in this blog for him to spend more time on the bench, but he has cleaned up his game, regained his confidence and is now a positive player on the pitch, with a work rate that few in anyone on the club compares to. He needs to work on his finishing and try penetrating passes a little more during the game, but it's great to see the Welshman reclaim his form. And if the cameo from Ox is any indicator of his return to form, I'd like to see him on the pitch more. It has been a disappointing second year for the young Englishman, but he has looked more lively and dangerous on the pitch in recent games, and deserves more minutes. The problem is where to put him -- as Podolski should start on the left to me, Walcott is back on the right and Cazorla and Arteta are all but guaranteed spots. He could play in the hole, but that seems to be Cazorla's role. So no easy answers to the question, but he should certainly be a super-sub getting time in most games. And, last but not least, Koscielny deserves credit for once again emerging as our best defender, after some horrific spells this year, including the disastrous two goals he gave up against Chelsea last year. COYG!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Movie Review: Seven Psychopaths (2012)

I have been a fan of Martin McDonaugh since I first saw The Beauty Queen of Leenane at a theatre in San Diego in 2000. Adept at catchy, rhythmic dialogue, delving into the blackness of the human spirit, and dark comedy that masterfully swims through the postmodern mist while maintaining some semblance of the emotional and intellectual strength of modernism and even classic Irish theatre, his work is sometimes breathtaking. I later saw two other plays of his and came to consider him as the greatest playwright of his generation. When he moved to film with first the Academy Award winning Six Shooter short and then the small budget In Bruges (2008), he showed his mastery transcended theatre alone, at it was a lovely, though extremely violent entry with great acting, dialogue and clever storytelling on a small scale. 

So it was with great anticipation that I sat down to watch Seven Psychopaths after somehow missing it in the theatre. What I got instead was a mess that appeared both too ambitious and too insular to  succeed. There was still snappy dialogue, clever repartee between characters, dark tales of violence, revenge and redemption couched within humor that provide insight into the universal themes of humanity, and compelling characters. Yet in his attempt to deconstruct Hollywood film within a film, a postmodernist metatext technique, he seemed to forget that compelling storytelling needs compelling characters, compelling dialogue and a compelling visual text. Seven Psychopaths instead feels like an Eisenstein montage without the deeper conjunctures or central narrative thrust. 

The film centers on the exploits of three men: Marty (Colin Farrell), a screenwriting struggling with his latest screeenplay not-so-ironically called Seven Psychopaths, Billy (Sam Rockwell), a man making a living stealing dogs and collecting rewards and his partner Hans (Christopher Walken), whose wife is in a hospital dying of cancer. Marty lives in a plush LA apartment with his beautiful girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish), but is struggling to follow up his earlier success and spending most of his time drinking, smoking and doing anything but writing. Billy seems lost and we soon learn is one of the seven psychopaths of the film as is Hans, who cut his own throat to meet the man who killed his wife in hell. The film starts with two killers awaiting their prey on a bridge talking about shooting someone in the eye. As they prepare to execute their job, they are shot from behind by a man in a mask. That same man later kills two killers sent to retrieve the beloved dog of another psychopath, the gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). We soon learn that Billy is the masked killer, when he inexplicably kills Charlie's girlfriend, who has been having an affair with. The trio set out for the desert to escape Charlie, who has killed Hans' wife in the interim, and a final shootout is in the offing.

The film has its moments and some of the stories do resonate with their examination of the darker side of human motivation and desire, the eroticism of violence and the lengths we will go for love -- whether it be friendship, romantic love or for man's best friend. But the acting, particularly of Sam Rockwell, is over the top, the dialogue too often seems purposefully absurd and superficial, and the attempt to deconstruct the text while it unfolds on the screen falls flat. While Charlie Kaufman pulled this feat off spectacularly in Adaptation (2002), McDonaugh  gets lost in the midst of the pomo game, failing to recognize the Noir works best in simple, staccato scenes, lithe dialogue and truly compelling characters. He should have spent more time watching Quentin Tarantino, who could have probably spiced up this script in a few days, or maybe hours instead of creating what appears to be a mixture of Natural Born Killers and any B-movie about Hollywood made in the past 20 years. McDonaugh will surely return with something more tailored to his unique talents, but this was a disappointing film that I was surprised to find many ciritics lauding ... C+.

Margaret Thatcher RIP

It's been interesting to read the largely laudatory eulogies that have emerged in papers since the death of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Even in papers consider liberal like the Washington Post, though I have been questioning that tag for some time, her departure elicited nothing short of hagiography from the editors. Thatcher was an important figure in British history and did some positive things on the world stage, including assisting in putting the final nails in the coffin of the USSR, but what of her record in England? There serious questions emerge that put her right in line with the conservative revolutions of Reagan and Mulrooney. 

What did the Iron Lady leave in her wake? Well, England was in pretty bad shape in the 70s, like much of the rest of the Western world, with profits falling, inflation rising and unemployment peaking. The answer Thatcher offered to the problem was simple: attack the welfare state, send manufacturing jobs overseas and allow the "free market" to work its magic. And that it did, restoring England to the world stage in finance and other industries while ebbing the tide of economic and social decline. But not for everyone, of course. England has always been a stratified country like no other, but the period of Labour control after World War II led to a more equal society, at least economically. With Thatcher, the clock was turned backward on programs for the poor, educational equity, income distribution and all efforts to help the poor. It was sold much the same way as Reagan sold it to the Americans, though with less religion and cultural warfare. 

The economic revolution that occurred, which we now call neoliberalism, was sold as the only solution to the decline in England and throughout the Western world. As I've noted before it involved three main components: 1) Liberation of markets both domestic and foreign, 2) Attacks on "big government" -- including deregulation, cutting marginal taxes for corporations and individuals and cutting funding for most non-defense oriented programs and 3) Dismantling of the social safety net. The policies did lead to improved economic growth, higher corporate profits and more wealth creation. But they also fomented increased poverty, greater income inequality and a lowering of the quality of life for many in the lower, working and, over time, even middle class. Again, it was sold as the only and inevitable solution to the changing global economy. Yet not all countries followed the solution of Thatcher and Reagan. In fact, those countries that didn't are not suffering to the same extent as the U.S. and England, where unemployment, poverty and income inequality have skyrocketed in the years since the early 80s. German kept a larger proportion of its manufacturing sector and has avoided the economic crises of other countries in Europe and Asia. Finland, Sweden and Norway all maintained their Social Democracies, more or less, and have retained their dedication to social equity, income mobility and social welfare. Those countries thus have the strongest, most resilient economies and the best quality of life in the world.  

Thatcher did some important things regarding the Cold War and reigning in the excesses of the Welfare State, even providing affordable homes to many in England who would have otherwise never realized that dream. But her record on improving the quality of life of the average citizen is circumspect at best. We often argue that we should not speak ill of the dead, but it is important to provide a balanced view of the lives of all public figures and not only the good but bad they did in their lives. As George Santayana reminds us, so often uncredited, if we do not learn from the past, we are bound to repeat it. 

Monday, April 08, 2013

Arsenal Win 2-1

Arsenal won a huge road game over West Brom 2-1 on Saturday putting themselves in the driver's seat to grasp a top four finish from a disappointing season. Currently sitting in fifth with a game in hand, they can now snatch fourth or even third, sending hated rivals Tottenham or Chelsea to the Europa League next year. After cruising through the first 70 minutes, on two goals from resurgent Tomas Rosicky (in the 20th and 50th minutes), Per Mertesacker showed that his pace and positioning still let him down on occasion taking down Shane Long in the box for a clear penalty and red card. Morrison converted the penalty and the Gunners had to see out the last 26 minutes with 10 men. Though they wilted at times and seemed to give the ball away every time they had it, they held firm and picked up the vital three points. Rather than analyze the game in depth, I want to consider the run-in here ...

1. After a winnable game at home against Norwich (a game we must win), we next host Everton and then take on Fulham on the road. The most challenging of the three is clearly Everton and the Gunners must shore up their defense and finish their chances if they are to pull the maximum nine points and forge into third place (Chelsea and Tottenham are not playing until after the Everton matchup). Then we host Man United, before finishing with QPR on the road (a team that appears headed for sure relegation after giving up a last second free kick against Wigan to drop two points at home), Wigan at home and then Newcastle at St. James. It is the easiest finish of the other top four contenders and Arsenal should be able to secure the coveted UCL spot once again if they keep playing as they have since the Bayern second leg. 

2. Wenger actually has some selection headaches for the first time in awhile. Vermaelen will be back in the side for Norwich, as Mertesacker serves his one game suspension, but will have to prove himself if he is not to be relegated to the bench yet again. Koscielny and Mert have been playing well together, only conceding two goals in the past four games and Vermaelen has clearly been a liability for much of the season. 

In midfield, Wilshere is back in training but there is a real question of whether he should start. We just seem to be a better team without him lately, as his rambling runs forward too often leave us exposed behind (particularly if he is playing alongside Cazorla) and undermine the cohesiveness and flow of the attack. Wilshere is a star in the making, but we need a quality defensive mid behind him if we are to be top contenders in the future. Ramsey has also upped his game in recent weeks and though he missed a golden opportunity to put it in a gaping goal, appears to warrant consideration for retaining his starting role. On top of this is Rosicky, who is starting to regain the form that injuries have too often blighted (whether for the Czech Republic or Arsenal). His vision, runs and ability to hold onto the ball all make him indispensable at the moment. And if he can actually score some goals, as we all thought he could, that only adds to his claim to a starting role at present.

In the forward line, Walcott might also be ready to start again and here is potentially the biggest risk. Walcott has had a real dip in form since signing his new contract in January and Gervinho is currently playing the best football of his Arsenal career. It is hard not to continue starting him on the wing, particularly as this production could really turn his career in England around. That leaves both Ox and Walcott in the cold, but maybe Walcott should be given another chance to start in the middle against Norwich (a team without as much speed in the back). Giroud has shown glimmers of the striker that led France in goals last year, though more often with clever passes (he should have had an assist if Ramsey could finish), but he is not holding the ball up as well as I would like and sometimes undermines our attacks by failing to get into the box fast enough or taking heavy first touches. Giroud could still come good in the closing matches, but it is clear that a first rate striker is necessary if we are to challenge for silverware and titles next year. Gervinho could, of course, also start on the left as he has done in the past, but that would mean a sacrifice elsewhere. 

3. Podolski: I believe Arsenal have been better offensively with Pod in the starting  lineup, though it is hard to argue that we have not been a better team with him on the bench. What I would hate to see, though, is him be sacrificed this summer as there are potential suitors across Europe. Podolski's production this year has been great and while he does sometimes disappear from games, his ability to finish and put in quality crosses makes him a key point of attack. Given Giroud's problems scoring, I do wonder why Podolski has only had one game as our central striker and wonder if we might try him in that role in the run-in. In any case, he is a talent we must keep, as he seems to love Arsenal and has the talent to be a key player moving forward.

4. While recent form has been heartening and Arsenal victories are always a welcome start to a weekend, I do think we must recognize that the rumoured overhaul of the team still needs to take place this summer. Yes we have plenty of young talent, backed by more seasoned players like Mertesacker, Podolski, Arteta and Sagna (who may go), we still have needs at a number of positions. Looking again at those needs after the good run of games, I would argue at least three players should be brought in, if not more:

Defense: we are hopefully getting rid of the deadwood in the back this summer including Djourou and Squillaci, which really means we need another centre half. If Vermaelen continues to play as he has been I wonder if we should not cash in on Barcelona's interest and find more quality in the position. Regardless, we still need a centre half and should pay the money for someone who can shore up the defense (I like Ashely Williams from Swansea or this kid from France they've been talking about). We are set at left back with Monreal and Gibbs and might be at right back if Sagna decides to stay (he seems to be getting back in form in recent games, though I still think his positioning is sometimes terrible). Given Sagna's two broken legs, it might be prudent to let PSG have him and pick up someone for Jenkinson to battle for the starting job (Luke Shaw is a great option, though I'm not sure what his future holds). Finally, we need a more seasoned goalie to work with Szczesny going forward and to challenge him for the top spot (assuming we keep him). Fabianski has been good the past few games, but never looks completely convincing on crosses and free kicks, which is too important to the English game. 

Midfield: this is our strongest area and with Ramsey improving and Wilshere coming back, together with Cazorla and Artetea (and Coquelin for a more defensive gameplan), the key need here is a defensive midfielder. Rumours have circulated that Alex Song could be brought back, but do we really want a guy that left under a cloud and hasn't played much in Spain this year? Maybe, but I think there are a number of exciting options out there and we are supposedly considering a number of players including Capoue. A defensive midfielder will allow us to rotate the squad more next year and push Arteta further forward when he plays, thus capitalizing on his talents more. 

Forwards: the key need here is clearly a world class striker, though if Podolski is not going to be used in this position, we really need two strikers in addition to Giroud. My top pick would be Jovetic from Fiorentina, but I would be happy with some of the other names being parried around (though I do think Sanchez would be a mistake, as his production is way down this year). We need someone who can change games and not a project for the future so I hope Wenger finally opens the piggy bank and spends big on this, our biggest need. If we had RVP this year, I think we would have won the Capital One Cup and maybe been challenging for the title. It's not that Giroud has been terrible, he just doesn't score when we need it enough (or really ever). Beyond that, there is no clear need up front, as we have Podolski, Gervinho (if we keep him, which is still iffy) and Cazorla (though I think he is better through the middle in an advanced role) and Walcott, Ox and/or Gervinho on the right. We also have Ryo Miyachi if he ever gets over his injury problems and strengthens and some other young prospects. 

So Arsenal has their destiny in their own hands. One hopes they seize the moment and create some momentum heading into next year. And if we can leave Tottenham heartbroken yet again (and without Bale in all probability), well that's a savory bonus!

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Maya (is a seemingly-single-minded CIA operative who we first meet during the interrogation and torture of a prisoner following 9/11. She first appears to be a reluctant participant in the torture, but soon comes to at least tacitly support it. We then follow her and a supporting cast over the next decade as they struggle to find Osama Bin Laden. Finally, in 2011, her work pays  off, and a U.S. Navy SEAL team is sent in to kill Bin Laden (an impressive scene shot with green lenses and night goggle-type effects). Scrapping together a fictionalized account based on interviews and available information, Katherine Bigelow and Mark Boal first wanted to write a film about the failed attempt to capture bin Laden then scrapped that when he was killed and started over, though with years of research already in the bank.          

Zero Dark Thirty received critical accolades upon its release and was nominated for five Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Actress (Chastain) and Best Original Screenplay, winning for Best Sound Editing) and four Golden Globes. It is a riveting story that centers on Maya and her brave, lonely and relentless struggle to find Bin Laden. It thus becomes the rare Hollywood film where a woman plays the lead as a hero without really being sexualized or even having a love interest. She is instead the typical male monomyth that is single-minded in pursuing victory while those around her stumble and fail in their ineptitude or cowardice. And the film is entertaining, building like all good stories toward the third act resolution with increased drama and tension -- and a riveting reenactment), followed by an apt denoument, as she sits alone on a plane crying as she prepares to return home. 

The film was originally lauded for its "neutral" or "balanced" stance on torture, but many did critique it for essentially advocating for torture, or as Zizek put it -- normalizing it by failing to consider its ramifications or lack of effectiveness in so many cases. In fact, I couldn't help but consider it as a propaganda piece for the military, Bush/Obama torture policy (more the former) and Obama's ultimate victory in overseeing the execution of the the most infamous terrorist in history. In fact, it was only after receiving extensive criticism that Sony Pictures decided to delay the release until after the election. And it does seem to take a less than nuanced position on the effectiveness of torture, with several scenes involving CIA operatives and leaders complaining about their inability to use those techniques to get new intel. The actual torture scenes, while brutal, fail to offer much in the way of critique -- instead providing the foundation from which the rest of the film develops (a clue to the person that ultimately leads them to Bin Laden). 

Film is, of course, an art form and shouldn't be explicitly responsible to anything except itself. Yet it is clear that film and television play an increasingly large role in the formation of the identity and politics of youth. Films that deal with violence and torture should be held in some scrutiny, particularly given the large stakes involved. And Zero Dark Thirty seems to abrogate this responsibility either in deference to telling the most compelling story possible or maybe in supporting a pro-American position that ignores international law and the reality that torture often fails to work (or the questions it raises about the constitution and rights of all citizens). It is a compelling film but one that warrants serious scrutiny for its tacit support of torture -- further amplified by scenes of terrorism that seem to create a parallel violence that warrants the methods used. This is not to argue in any way for terrorism or undermine the work that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, but to ask at what cost that victory has been won? In my mind, the film fails to really ask this question and leaves it to the audience to decide -- clearly pushing them toward answering yes ... A.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Misguided Paternalism (Education Style)

Educational reform over the past decade or so has focused predominantly on market models of reform, privatization pushes, standardized testing and Charter Schools. As I've mentioned in previous posts, most of these reforms, while relying heavily on quantifiable data, do not found themselves on any research that demonstrates their positive effects on children. In fact, research on Charter schools, NCLB and market-based reforms have often found negative effects, particularly as they relate to poor and minority children. Yet this has done little to stem the tide of pushing for more testing, more Charter schools and more attacks on teachers and teacher unions. 

The latest example of reforms in this vein comes from Memphis, where the worst performing schools in the district have essentially been taken away from the Memphis School Board and made into a separate district that implements most of the aforementioned reforms (NYT), including Charter Schools, deunionized teachers (many coming from the highly contentious Teach for America program), longer school days, highly-disciplined rote-memorization models and involvement from Kipp and other popular Charter School programs. Missing, as is often the case, are culturally-sensitive curriculum, community involvement and buy-in, any voice for teachers from the area (with many being fired) and any attempt to have teachers that reflect the students they are teaching. 

The question that emerges, as we learn of teachers taking students' shoes away, making kids keep their hands in their laps throughout class and other troubling disciplinarian methods (for kids at the elementary level), is whether white paternalism is not in fact negatively influencing the education these kids are offered. Too often, programs like Kipp and Teach for America involve young White elites going into impoverished areas and attempting to impose White middle class culture on black and brown children. Yes their intentions might be good, but are they in fact reinforcing the very stereotypes they are trying to overcome? Have they ever considered that there are other teaching methods more appropriate to these students? Do their own prejudices color the way they treat these kids -- with schools sometimes seeming more like boot camps for the military? And what of the childhood we once celebrated; a time to be free and discover one's identity? 

School reform is necessary if we are to address the growing racial inequality in this country, particularly as the population becomes more diverse. Yet one must ask if the current approaches are not, in fact, counterproductive, or maybe based on the new reality of a plutocratic state, where the few rule and benefit from the economy while the rest should be taught to be compliant citizens that work, consume and otherwise disengage from the public sphere. I am not arguing that the majority of individuals implementing these reforms are in on the plot, but that they are the middle men -- or the professional/managerial class -- that have always stood between the elites and the people providing scientific and "common sensical" arguments for why we should continue to do things that don't work or hurt the very people they are purported to help. And this seems to too often be the case. People with little training or knowledge of education and schooling are increasingly the ones making choices about educational policy and reform, and are doing so with outdated and imperically-unproven methods that are making the education system worse. It could be they are doing so on purpose or just based on their lack of knowledge, but in either case, how long are we to allow this to go on unchallenged?

Cynicism and Politics

If one watches television or movies these days, there is a tendency to feel that an "honest politician" is an oxymoron along the lines of spare change. The news only further foments the belief that politics is a dirty game with a serious of greedy, power hungry vipers who will do anything to advance their cause -- which tends to be themselves. Citizens only amplified concerns that money now dominates the political landscape with more money spent on the last election than any in history. And yet President Obama won reelection against a windfall of cash and one of the most negative campaigns in history. That he has governed as if he won a narrow, rather than large, victory does little to dispel the notion that the people still have a say in the political process. And while popular opinion on the Congress is still at an all-time low, one has to believe that there are still a few politicians out there that actually struggle to represent the people that elect them.

And then yet another story comes out to reaffirm our cynicism, or as many people over the last few years have called it -- our realism. In this case, it is the race to replace Mayor Bloomberg in New York City and a scandal that has already seen six arrests: WP. Apparently, New York State Senator Malcolm Smith, a Democrat, was trying to buy his way unto the ballot as a Republican, with the help of City Councilman Dan Halloran in what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called "an unappetizing smorgasbord of graft and greed involving six officials who together built a corridor of corruption stretching from Queens and the Bronx to Rockland County and all the way up to Albany itself." The two were bribing GOP party officials and went as far as threatening those they felt were not coming through on their promise. How did they get caught? Well, the intermediaries they were using for their scheme happened to be undercover agents. Following in the footsteps of Eliot Spitzer, those his crimes were of a more sexual nature (though they unfortunately involved state funds), the Democrats have done themselves few favors in the state, misappropriating funds and doing what they can to unseat Republicans. 

It was another victory for the press and the U.S. Attorney trying to clean up politics in a state that was once run by corrupt Tammany Hall and has never fully escaped it's metaphoric ties to that well-oiled Chicago political machine. Unfortunately, it was a loss for democracy. Can we take many more? The sad reality is cynicism begets cynicism and a retreat from civic engagement, thus providing further opportunities for the very corruption that begot the cynicism in the first place. It's no wonder that honest, well-intentioned leaders would shy away from the political process in the corrupt, media-vultured world we live in today, but we need them more than ever. Where are you Mr. Smith?

Monday, April 01, 2013

Previewing the Trailer Previews, Oh My!

Hollywood long ago made the preview into an art form unto itself. It is now the case that the preview often surpasses the film in quality, even as it entices so many to go see said film. There are heartwrenching tales of loss, heartwarming tales of triumph, silly stories of love, lust, failure and friendship and funny films with scenes producers know will then get the biggest laughs. These previews make most films seem like "must see's" and it is only the truly awful preview that fails to niggle at our emotional ADD at least a little. The formula varies little -- there is the comedy that usually starts with the set-up, then the conflict intertwined with some quirky music and some inspirational end (to the preview that is), followed by a quick reminder that it is, in fact, a comedy; there is the horror film that has the scary scenes and some interesting character narrative; there is the inspirational story that includes music that crescendoes into a tale that we know will make us feel better for a couple of hours and on and on.

Last year, Hollywood decided that they had so perfected the trailer that they could include a preview of the trailer for big budget films to get you excited to actually watch the commercial (sort of like the geniuses behind the Super Bowl advertising made the big game about the spaces in between actually playing it). But the movie industry has decided that the preview of previews aren't grabbing us as fully as they should. So they are introducing an exciting new advertising strategy to get us excited and our mouths watering for the cardboardy popcorn we will wolf down with our $7 drinks. Welcome to the preview to the preview to the preview! Yes that's right, we now have sneak peaks of trailers of trailers: The Wolverine. And why not? People are looking for any way to waste their time online these days, why not add previews of previews to the list. And when you are making a sequel to a film as bad as Wolverine, you really do need to heed H.L. Mencken's advice that "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."

Arsenal Secures Needed Victory

Arsenal finally looked like themselves at the Emirates again and picked up three needed points on Chelsea, who slacked off to defeat at Southampton. Missing Wilshere, Diaby (for another long stretch that will probably end his career with us), and Walcott, the Gunners still dominated the game against relegation threatened (and probably bound if they keep this level of performance up) Reading. The scoring started early from an unlikely source, as Gervinho tapped in a great cross from Cazorla in the 11th minute. But the Gunners failed to put in another before the break and the game still hung in the balance.

That soon changed, as Santi Cazorla sent a lovely pass into the corner of the net off of a nice Gervinho lay off in the 48th minute. From there the Gunners looked relatively confident, and the passing combinations and ball control left Reading chasing the game. A third came in the 67th minute, as Giroud sent a thundering left footed blast past Taylor, ending his rather lengthy dry spell in the league. Gervinho again assisted on the goal after taking a pass from Sagna and bursting down the right hand side. It was a great game from the Ivorian and though the Gunners conceded a sloppy goal in the 68th, they added a fourth from the spot in the 77th (the penalty converted by Arteta). 

It was an impressive win and beside poor defending at the far post from Monreal, it would have been a third consecutive clean sheet. Ramsey had an excellent game, pushing the ball forward and sending some slick passes into the box. Cazorla was his usual impressive self and is now leading the team in EPL goals (unfortunately, an indictment of Giroud as far as I'm concerned). Gervinho, in what may his last chance to impress Wenger, played his second above-par game in a row. Giroud got off the snide and maybe gained some confidence as we head into the final eight games. And the defense played strong again without the captain on the pitch (one wonders if we will see him next year). Sagna replaced Jenkinson and looked bright, though I still think his days with the Gunners are coming to a close; and based on his performance since the two injuries, we can probably do better with Jenkinson and another quality right back. 

One baffling question is why Wenger is not using Podolski more after a fine first season and whether this is the reason we are starting to hear rumors of a potential transfer. While Gervinho has performed well two games running, though he still gives the ball away unnecessarily and often makes poor decisions in the box, Podolski seems to make this team more dangerous and I hope to see him starting against West Brom next weekend, even though his sub performance was not great. I think he seems to be much better starting and getting into games than coming off the bench. 

In any case, we are certainly in a position to get third or fourth place but cannot afford another stumble this season. The two toughest games remaining are against Everton at the Emirates -- a game we can and should win, and hosting Man United, who may be already basking in having won the trophy, which is now just a formality. But our last three games are with QPR, Wigan and Newcastle, three teams that will probably be fighting relegation and it will be important for us to play strong defense throughout the games and put the ball in the back of the net. Finishing in the top four is essential this season, as it looks like Wenger is finally willing to spend money this summer and get rid of the excess fat and dead wood polluting the North London bench at the moment. Go Gunners!