Friday 27 April 2007

Augusta Masters

Another splendid article in the Observer Sport Monthly - this one about Augusta National golf club. I had been mistaken in thinking it was a racist club, based on some prejudiced article I'd read in the build-up to a previous year's tournament, when there was some sort of controversy over women being excluded from club membership. David Owen argues convincingly that Augusta merely reflects the racial balance of the sport as a whole in the US. I didn't know that the club and the tournament struggled to establish themselves before to WWII. I agree that it is such a special tournament because it shuns the overtly commercial branding of some major sporting events and because it is played on the same course every year. I've always appreciated how proud it is of its history and how much that is a part of the tournament.

Moneyball: British vs. American sport

For a number of years I've been more interested by American sports (particularly the NFL and MLB) than I have been by football here in the UK. (I'm still fond of rugby and cricket for more sentimental reasons.) Never before have I seen the differences articulated so intelligently as in this article by David Runciman in the Observer Sport Monthly. It's so rare for a writer to understand both sporting cultures so sensibly, without applying the usual ignorant stereotypes. I can now see why football has never had much appeal to US armchair fans; although it has a huge level of participation at the grassroots. There's a wonderful contrariness about American elite sport, which Runciman calls "a workers' paradise compared to the red-in-tooth-and-claw competition of the English game." He continues, "What American sport - with its powerful unions, its salary caps, its drafts designed to favour the weakest teams, its collectivised bargaining - most closely resembles is European Union-style capitalism: a heavily regulated, bureaucratically policed, carefully nurtured cash cow."

(Thanks to Richard Matthews for the tip.)

Monday 16 April 2007

England's hopes rest on 3-year-old

England coach Steve McClaren today claimed England's hopes for Euro 2008 qualification are dependent on the fitness of Charlie Edwards.

"The lad's got talent," said McClaren. "It would be a disaster if his playgroup didn't release him for international duty. We hope they won't overplay him in the coming months."

Edwards, 3, is already pencilled in above Peter Crouch in the England squad to face Estonia in June.

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger yesterday dismissed rumours that his club were looking to sign Edwards in the summer.

"He's too old," Wenger explained. "Plus, we don't want any more Englishers at our club. It's not good for the national team."

Manchester United, on the other hand, have already approached the youngster's parents about securing his services.

"As soon as the kid learns to write his own name, we'll sign him," a club spokesman declared this afternoon. "Our chief scout spotted him 18 months ago. We've been tracking his progress ever since. It was his dribbling skills that first caught our attention. He didn't even need a bib."

The Press Association reports that a bulk order for the club's shirts bearing the toddler's name has already been placed with the official kit manufacturer Nike in the Far East.

Pitch 'n' Putt with Beckett 'n' Joyce

Funny wee short film, playing on the stereotypes of Joyce and Beckett. Made me giggle. Thanks to Sig. Bibbio for the tip top tip. I love the line, "No not a Milky Way, you arse! A Topic!"

Friday 13 April 2007

The Mark of Cain (2007) - ickleReview (TV)

Feature-length drama about British soldiers in Iraq. This programme was postponed by a week because it was feared it might endanger the sailors and Marines captured and detained in Iran. They were eventually released before this programme was due to air, but the schedules had already been changed.

I found it disappointing. Like Jarhead (2005) it looked very good but didn't deliver. It portrays the institutionalized bullying and thuggery that I already believed exists within the Army. It was too one-sided. Not even the chaplain or the doctor could offer solace.

It's inspired by true events: of prisoner abuse and the difficult task of policing Basra after the official end to the war in Iraq in 2003.

The main performances by the two privates, Mark (Gerard Kearns) and Shane (Matthew McNulty), are convincing and natural. The way they are torn between loyalty to their regiment and moral courage is well delineated. However, their superiors are too stereotypically made out as the bad guys. I'm sure the Army can't be that bad throughout; but if it is, they should not be given the task of policing: their sense of justice is too warped.

The one striking moment is the speech Corporal Gant (Shaun Dooley) makes to the pall-bearers before the repatriation ceremony, carrying empty coffins because the remains of the two dead soldiers, killed by an RPG, are so charred.

Nugget: it did not live up to the hype. It was nasty, yes, but not as powerful as expected.

Monday 9 April 2007

Curt Schilling's 38 Pitches

It's pretty cool to have such a high-profile baseball player writing his own blog. 38 Pitches is from the man with the bloody sock, Boston Red Sox ace pitcher, Curt Schilling. He goes into great detail in his descriptions of the previous night's game. It's nice to think of him typing away on the red-eye flight home. I'm not sure about all the references to US troops in the Middle East. I guess it's a cultural difference. It's interesting to see how an elite sportsman thinks about the game.

Wednesday 4 April 2007

The Bourne Supremacy (2004) - ickleReview (TV)

Sequel to The Bourne Identity. A CIA operation goes wrong in Berlin. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is implicated even though he was in Goa at the time. A Russian agent attempts to kill him. Bourne gets angry and goes after the CIA to find out why they won't leave him alone. He gets nightmares and headaches. Are they flashbacks or premonitions?

Brian Cox is a cynical old CIA suit close to retirement. He was involved with Bourne when he was being trained as a new breed of young agent. He doesn't like taking orders from a woman (Joan Allen).

With lots of hand-held camera work and a pounding soundtrack, the action is relentless. There's a brutal agent vs. agent fight in a Munich apartment, another whiplash car chase in Moscow, and a pleasing level of realism in the fact that Bourne hurts his leg and keeps the limp for the rest of the film.

Nugget: director Paul Greengrass raises the bar for secret agent action movies. Thanks to this franchise, Bond got better.

Sunday 1 April 2007

The Lives of Others (aka Das Leben der Anderen) (2006) - ickleReview (cinema)

Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film with this tale about the Stasi state security in Eastern Germany in 1984. It is so perfectly composed, I don't want to spoil it for you by revealing too much about it.

Sebastian Koch plays the publicly loyal East German playwright, Georg Dreyman, whose beautiful girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), plays his leading female stage roles. Two Stasi officers, Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) and Wiesler (the wonderful Ulrich Mühe), suspect Dreyman of insurrection because of the company he keeps with other, more openly anti-state, artists such as the black-listed theatre director Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert). With the permission of the government minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme), who has hinted to Grubitz that he may be favoured for a promotion, the Stasi wiretap Dreyman's apartment in the hope of finding some evidence against him. Wiesler is put in charge of the monitoring operation.

This film is beautifully observed with impeccable production values. The are so many greys, browns and dull greens on the palette, and yet - thanks to doubleplusgood acting and ingenious scripting - von Donnersmarck finds a touching human warmth. Koch gives the writer's life a quiet dignity, a delicate balance between social obedience and free-spiritedness. The communist machinery of state is efficient, yet slowly crumbling from the inside. Mühe rides this divide.

The power games are delicious. The humour unexpected but not out of place. The tears drawn with cathartic poignancy. An unburnished gem of a film.

Nugget: in German with English subtitles. Worthy of your attention. It will reward you richly.

World Trade Center (2006) - ickleReview (DVD)

Oliver Stone usually makes films that are critical of American politics and institutions: Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) about Vietnam; Wall Street (1989) on the Reaganomic financial boom; JFK (1991) about the secret services and Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories; The Doors (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994) and Any Given Sunday (1999) about drugs and violence. His ethos has tended to be anti-establishment, often controversial. World Trade Center, despite the iconic title, badly misfires; although it wasn't aiming at his usual targets.

Stone is, above all else, a storyteller. In WTC he chooses a narrow focus, as he had done with Born on the Fourth of July, showing the events of 11 September 2001 from the point of view of two Port Authority Police Department officers, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), and their families. Their unit was sent to evacuate Tower 1, but before they could leave ground level, it collapsed on top of them in the elevator shaft. The fact that the filmmakers collaborated with these men and their families kinda gives away the ending; but also limits the sort of film Stone could have made. It was arguably already in dubious taste to make a film within five years of the events; to make it critical would have been US box-office suicide. So instead he makes a Bruckheimer.

Only rarely and briefly did it grab me viscerally. The tower collapsing from the inside was compelling cinema (although I'm not sure about the slow-motion screaming and running - clichéd and battered by parody). True, it might have had a bigger impact in the cinema and without a cynical attitude. The McLoughlin family reacting with joy to news that John was still alive was also moving. However, there was too much patriotic All-American Christian hero bullshit going on, particularly from the retired Marine, who, with the blessing of his pastor, got himself a buzzcut, found his old uniform, and rushed himself down to Ground Zero to help with the recovery effort. I'm not knocking his bravery or selflessness. I am wondering why he then spent two years at war in Iraq, as the end credits tell us.

From a film with this kind of shiny production value, I wanted epic scope - a proper disaster movie with a wide perspective, improving upon Independence Day (1996) and Armageddon (1998). It might have worked better as a Kevin Macdonald-style docu-drama à la Touching the Void (2003) with talking heads and dramatic reconstructions. Too much of the movie was from the outside; I wanted more to experience what the survivors went through, not what their kitchen-sink wives and Yankee-capped kids were doing. After two hours, I wasn't exhausted enough, and wasn't given enough of the sense of ordeal these people went through.

And as for the lack of political comment about what happened after...I hope that's coming soon.

Nugget: I stayed away from this film when it was first released and would not have missed anything had I never seen it. Take the hint. Watch United 93 instead.