Tag Archives: lead

DVD Review: Morning Glory


The ongoing and increasingly shocking twists and turns of
the News of the World hacking scandal has prompted a complete rethink of the way we all think about the media. The public’s fury has rightly been fuelled by disgusting revelations exposing criminal practices that targeted ordinary
people or even the likes of vulnerable missing children. Prior to the game
changing news stories of recent weeks though, we were not all that bothered
about the odd tabloid listening in on the occasional romp or row between
footballers or actresses. An intense debate about privacy raged amongst some,
closely linked to the super injunction headlines from earlier in the year, but
for the vast majority of us the underhand tactics of the press were a given
that thankfully didn’t affect our daily lives.

But the momentous events of the past week have shown that
bad habits in an industry as far reaching as the media have to be taken
seriously. No one can avoid the press or the news in the modern world. Even if
you don’t buy newspapers you will blindly consume headlines or leave some bland breakfast show on in the background to help you acclimatise to the new day.

Morning Glory’s critical reception was lukewarm when it was
released in January of this year. It was universally dubbed a thoroughly ok
romantic comedy, riddled with flaws and sprinkled with just a smidgen of
appeal. In the light of the never ending phone hacking saga though, its message
is given far greater relevance and urgency.

One aspect of our relationship with the media highlighted by
the scandal, but buried under an avalanche of corruption and foul play, is
whether or not news has become too fluffy and meaningless. Defenders of certain tactics employed by the paparazzi say that the private lives of celebrities are only ruthlessly analysed because paying readers demand it. Whatever happened to “real” news items about ethical, humanitarian or political issues? It might still be possible to find some hard stories on the likes of Newsnight but in
the mainstream press, and on popular breakfast shows, the bulk of the content
focuses on fluffy items about rescue dogs or a woman who miraculously lost
weight by eating nothing except bacon.

Morning Glory is set in the world of breakfast telly. It follows Rachel McAdams as Becky Fuller, whose (somewhat strange) childhood dream is to make it to a big network as a producer of a news show. She loses her job at Good Morning New Jersey, where she was hoping to get promoted, and applies
everywhere until Jeff Goldblum calls her up and offers her the job at the
failing Daybreak, America’s least favourite start to the day. Becky ignores the
negatives like the bickering anchors and the nonexistent budget, choosing
instead to work as hard as she always has to make her dream a reality now she’s
finally at a network.

It doesn’t take long for Becky to stumble on, in her own bumbling way, the solution to Daybreak’s woes. She vows to get Harrison Ford’s legendary newsman Mike Pomeroy to replace her terrible male presenter, proving
in the process that you should never meet your heroes. The film follows her as
she sets about boosting the awful ratings of the show, which is just six weeks
away from being axed.

Morning Glory definitely has a whole host of things wrong with it, chiefly an uneven script with some dreary dialogue and pointless subplots. But it glides along averagely enough, throwing mostly unsuccessful cheap gags in your face. Its opening scene is a bafflingly awful way to start a film, which takes a sledgehammer approach to establishing that Becky is a busy
and clumsy character. Such weaknesses in the script let down Rachel McAdams, as she is for the most part a capable and attractive lead.

This is also a rom com with its fair share of positives however. It’s refreshing to see Harrison Ford having some fun on screen and most of the cast are good; even Patrick Wilson does alright with his underdeveloped love interest. There are also some belly laughs in the middle when the, far from sophisticated, physical humour is undeniably funny as the weatherman is put through his paces on a rollercoaster, all in the name of ratings. Then there’s the message behind it all.

The climax of Morning Glory sees Harrison Ford’s Pomeroy
trying to prove that there is a place for real, breaking news on morning
television. It is genuinely inspiring to see some substance injected into all
the ridiculous antics in the kitchen or out in the field. The hacking scandal
has given journalists and readers a much needed wake up call, hopefully in
terms of content as well ethical behaviour. Of course there’s a place for
entertainment and light chat, especially in the bleary eyed early hours, but
there is also always a place for enlightening fact and information. One need
not be sacrificed for the other. A great news story can also be great
television and great entertainment.

Morning Glory is far from faultless but when the credits
rolled it had won me over. It has an uplifting soundtrack, filled with songs
from the likes of Natasha Bedingfield and Michael Buble, and music from Bond
composer David Arnold. It may leave little time for subplots or romance to
develop but this does for once realistically show the all consuming day to day
life of a career focused protagonist. Above all this it is a fun romantic
comedy with something worthwhile to say, which is a rare thing these days. In
this way it mirrors what successful breakfast TV should be about (take note
Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley from ITV’s own Daybreak).

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10 Reasons to see Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon


The latest Transformers movie has been critically panned from virtually every corner. Danny Leigh off that BBC show with Claudia Winkleface is even calling for strike action to boycott the movie in The Guardian and thus send a message to studio execs. But outside elite film critics there must still be a demand for Michael Bay’s franchise. And I bet those of you that are glass half full kind of people, are crying out for some positivity. Wail no more optimistic readers.

1)      Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon is based on a pretty sound and promising premise. It draws on one of the most historic moments in human civilization, the 1969 moon landing, to give a story about toys some narrative heft for the adults. The space race, we discover, was not just a competitive dash to the stars but a sprint for the wreckage of an Autobot ship, containing some alien tech with Godlike powers. But hang on the astronauts look round for a bit and then come home again rather uneventfully…

Aside from the idea there’s the title itself. I mean it’s pretty damn cool to make a film with the same name as a legendary Pink Floyd album! Oh wait, there’s a word missing. But they say Dark Side of the Moon in the movie? Maybe Michael Bay (or some lawyers) decided it was snappier to drop a word.

2)      Or perhaps no one wanted to limit this film to just the one “side”. There are at least three sides available because Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon is out in 3D. In fact with the juggernaut of 3D films slowing, its supporters in the industry are said to be pinning their hopes on Bay’s blockbuster because his trademark CGI pyrotechnics look stunning via the magic shades. I saw it in 2D because I wasn’t keen on paying more for a film I didn’t really want to endure. But let’s stick with the positives.

Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen makes a case for being one of the worst films of all time. I haven’t even seen it (mostly because of the sheer force of the derision) but you know a film is bad when its director and star use words like “shit” and “crap” just seconds after they are no longer contractually obliged to promote it. The original Transformers was surprisingly good though and critical consensus is that this is substantially better than the sequel. The downside for Michael “Boom-Bang-Bam” Bay is that most reviewers are merely saying Transformers 3 is better to illustrate how atrociously bad the second instalment was.

3)      Damn I said I would stick with the positives didn’t I? Well there are always two big ticks alongside Michael Bay’s name. He is consistent and he always provides plenty of bangs for your buck. I saw the first Transformers by accident all those years ago and I was won over primarily by Bay’s competent handling of stuff frequently exploding into thousands of shards of glass and chunks of concrete. In Transformers 3, if you stick with it for over an hour, you get to see Chicago flattened. In one scene the human characters slide through a skyscraper as it collapses. Then they slide through it again. Then more stuff blows up. Then some more. Then there’s some slow mo. And a bit more. Something else goes bang. You lose interest.

4)      Alright there are some negatives. Like the constantly annoying and yelping Shia LaBeouf.

5)      But surely these are more than outweighed by the presence of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley? It was a big ask to find someone to replace Megan Fox’s assets but British lingerie model Rosie was named FHM’s sexiest woman of 2011. Physically she easily fills the implausibly hot girlfriend role. Bay knows he’s working with a thing of beauty, panning the camera down her body in the middle of action sequences.

Unfortunately her performance has been chewed, swallowed, digested and vomited onto a pile of steaming fresh elephant dung by every single critic. Surprisingly I thought her acting was worse when she was simply required to scream. We see her getting dressed from behind briefly at one point and in a couple of revealing dresses but not sufficiently unclothed to warrant the price of admission. Having said that Bay does his best to reduce every single female extra to eye candy by ordering them to strut about or look scared in something short.

6)      On the plus side! John Malkovich appears in what might be a mildly amusing but pointless cameo in a film that was at least an hour shorter.

7)      Ken Jeong also shows up as essentially his character from The Hangover, minus any of the sometimes funny rudeness. He is vital to one of the many baffling and needless sub plots. Which leads me to reason number eight…

8)      A glorious two and a half hour runtime may make any of the microscopically good things in this film meaningless but it has its beneficial effects as a sedative. You’ll be capable of falling into a sleep so deep that a succession of nuclear wars wouldn’t wake you after Bay has left you numbed and extremely bored by repetitive scenes of endless destruction.

9)      Actually there aren’t even 10 fake reasons to see it.

I have completely failed to live up to my nickname of Optimist Prime…

Battle of the Bonds: Michael Fassbender vs. Daniel Craig


Ok so I know technically Michael Fassbender isn’t a Bond but there was no way I was calling this anything else. If you’ve seen the new X-Men film you’ll know Fassbender essentially gives a super powered performance of our favourite suave secret agent. My review points out as much here.

Critics up and down this green and pleasant land are saying they’d like to see Fassbender play Bond in future. Some are even calling for the head of Daniel Craig now, just two films after Craig successfully rebooted cinema’s longest running franchise to acclaim from commentators and audiences alike. But the problem is Casino Royale was almost six years ago. Since then we’ve had the action packed disappointment of Quantum of Solace, in which Craig was still good but hampered and limited by a mostly naff script. We’ve also had the crisis of MGM delaying the release of Bond 23. All the while Craig has been ageing, the poor thing.

I am a huge fan of Craig’s interpretation of Bond but even I have to admit that he’ll be under pressure if Bond 23 doesn’t vastly improve on Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace. Sam Mendes is at the helm and the signs are good but then most of us Bond fans were saying that on the web about the last one. Forster was supposedly a director who could tell a story but we were left with some decent action at the start, which felt like it was still part of Casino Royale, followed by a disappointing story with flashes of average action that was an unsatisfying epilogue to the reboot at best.

Because of the delays then, as well as the unstoppable onslaught of human decay, Fassbender has the edge on youth. His career is also shifting into a top gear; at a time when Craig’s is also attracting big enough projects that could tempt him away from Bond should the 23rd instalment prove be a sinking ship.

 Enough build up. Let’s compare a few necessary requirements for an actor playing a 00 agent. Bonds do battle.

FILMOGRAPHIES

Fassbender:
                                                                                                       
300 (2006)
Eden Lake (2008)
Hunger (2008)
Town Creek (2009)
Fish Tank (2009)
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Centurion (2010)
Jonah Hex (2010)
X-Men: First Class (2011)
Jane Eyre (2011)

Craig:

Casino Royale (2006)
The Invasion (2007)
The Golden Compass (2007)
Flashbacks of a Fool (2008)
Quantum of Solace (2008)
Defiance (2008)
Cowboys and Aliens (2011)
Dream House (2011)
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Round 1 – Acting Chops

Going from both men’s biggest hits and breakthroughs to the mainstream in 2006 (300 and Casino Royale) to the present day, it’s probably Fassbender with the more impressive list. There were meaty roles for him in Hunger, Fish Tank and the upcoming Jane Eyre. Hunger in particular alerted directors everywhere to his talent. The film carries a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is “anchored” by Fassbender’s performance, according to Empire Magazine. Working with Quentin Tarantino is no bad thing for a CV either.

Craig on the other hand followed up his cold and commanding debut as Bond with the critically panned The Invasion with Nicole Kidman and average kids film The Golden Compass, which was supposed to launch an all conquering series to rival Harry Potter. Flashbacks of a Fool was a favour to directing friend Baillie Walsh, in which he gave a performances as a washed up actor fallen from grace. It was good but not the main role in the film, as the rest was told in flashbacks to childhood and in any case it wasn’t a big hit. He pulled off an impressive accent in Edward Zwick’s Defiance and generally convinced as a leader. Only recently has Craig got some really appetising projects on the go though, working with the likes of Spielberg for Tintin, David Fincher for Dragon Tattoo and Harrison Ford and Jon Favreau for Cowboys and Aliens.

Verdict: Even with that lull for Craig, it’s difficult to separate the abilities of these two.

Round 2 – Sex Appeal

I am definitely the wrong person to ask about this. But there’s no doubt that Bond has to be able to inspire a certain longing in the ladies, with a mere gesture or flirtatious glance. Both actors have charisma and cool credentials. Fassbender dresses up smart in the latest X-Men, as well as donning casual hard man leather jackets and camp superhero costume, cape and all. In Fish Tank his character’s raw masculinity was irresistible to mother and daughter alike. Inglorious Basterds saw him with slick and precise hair and a uniform. After starring as Mr Rochester as Jane Eyre later this year, further legions of women will join the ranks of his swooning admirers, with the earliest recruits hooked by the sight of his muscular and barely clothed physique in 300.

From what I’m told Craig is not a bad catch either. Certainly upon news of his casting as Bond and following the first viewings of those notorious blue Speedos, the females in my social circles could talk of nothing else in fits of giggles for days. Perhaps they’ll like the sight of him in a Cowboy hat.

Verdict: I really don’t know, they both seem to be handsome chaps and I imagine it comes down to personal preference. However if I had to make a decision, I’d say that Fassbender’s mixed Irish/German heritage makes him more exotic. Plus he seems taller. I hear that’s good.

Round 3 – Who would win in a fight?

Fassbender fought like a lion on speed in 300. And as I’ve said he had very little on. That’s impressive and a Spartan warrior takes some beating. However Bond doesn’t fight with swords, well not very often. He’s got to be able to beat a man to death with his fists, win shootouts and take out bad guys in witty ways. Fassbender did a lot of grunting and killing in 300 but where were the one liners? And in Inglorious Basterds he got shot almost immediately after some lengthy chit chat. Bullets are meant to swerve to avoid 007.

Or in Craig’s case, merely puncture his huge pecs. Craig has proven himself already as Bond, especially physically. His stunts and fight scenes have brought the series up to date. Some have criticised the mimicking of Bourne-esque action, which is valid for Quantum of Solace but off the mark for Casino Royale. In the past Craig has blown up enemies of Israel in Munich and taken on the Nazis in Defiance. Judging by the trailers he’s going to kick some Cowboy/Alien ass this summer too.

Verdict: Fassbender needs more time to learn the ropes but unless he’s got his metal moving powers still, looks like Craig will knock him out.

Round 4 – Staying true to Ian Fleming’s original

In X-Men: First Class Fassbender proves he can speak menacingly in Spanish, French and German. He is ruthless and suave and all action. He has a taste for the ladies and strong principles which he stands by. He is loyal. All of these qualities and more that Fassbender displays as the young Magneto, travelling the globe conducting his own private espionage, are those of Ian Fleming’s original spy. If Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson were ever bold enough to take Bond back in time, Fassbender would be perfect for another reboot. His British officer look in Inglorious Basterds, combined with his Magneto, creates a pretty cool version of James Bond licence to kill.

It’s unlikely the producers will ever take Bond into the past and a Cold War world again because they feel that would tarnish the earlier films which covered that ground already. Bond needs to find a way to carry on in the modern world whilst retaining the best elements of the original. And Daniel Craig’s version of the character found that path with Casino Royale. His more human and more brutal portrayal took Bond back to his literary roots with tremendous results.

Verdict: Impossible to split. Fassbender has the potential to be a classic Bond as Fleming imagined him but Craig has already proven himself as a Bond inspired by the books as well as the films.

So at the end of that battle we know nothing new. It’s a draw on points. Basically Fassbender might be a good Bond when Craig steps aside but for now he’s doing a good job. What happens next all rests on Bond 23.

What do you think? Would Fassbender make a better Bond than Craig?

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Remake gets Teaser Trailer – with Trent Reznor Soundtrack


I tweeted earlier this week when David Fincher’s English language remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo got a leaked teaser trailer online. Daniel Craig stars as Steig Larsson’s investigative journalist, and looks on terrifically brooding form, despite getting no dialogue.

That’s because the trailer is dominated by a remix of Led Zeppelin classic Immigrant Song. The man behind that remix is Trent Reznor, who also worked with Fincher on The Social Network, to produce a stunning techno score that was crucial to underlining the film’s modern feel.

From this teaser alone it seems certain that when this remake hits screens on Boxing Day, it will only improve upon the original, based upon the bestselling books. An irresistible Fincher/Reznor combo will be unstoppable once again.

Here’s that tune from the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwbA5JUQ3bA

I don’t normally love techno remixes, but Reznor’s work on The Social Network blew me away, as does this song. Make sure you see the trailer for the full wow factor.

A final mildly interesting aside: Craig will have two films going up against each other, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s The Adventures of TinTin, in which Craig plays the villain, and this Dragon Tattoo remake, come Christmas. Both films ought to be successful and it’s clear at least that Craig is making the most of his break from Bond to work with the best directors available today.

Kick Ass Assassins: Salt on Blu-Ray and The American on DVD


The world lacks a female super spy. Angelina Jolie has perhaps come closer than most to filling the void with her all action portrayal of sexy video game Tomb Raider Lara Croft, but this was ultimately more Indiana Jones than James Bond. Last year Phillip Noyce’s Cold War conspiracy thriller Salt, originally earmarked for Tom Cruise, morphed into a very different project altogether with the casting of Jolie as CIA agent Evelyn.

I may be veering into sexism here, but because of Jolie’s casting my expectations were drastically lowered. However I’ll defend myself with two qualifications; firstly I think of Jolie as more than merely an internationally coveted sexual icon, but as a fine and capable actress, particularly after her powerhouse performance in Clint Eastwood’s excellent Changeling. Secondly I believe I expected disappointment because of the film industry’s own sexist view of women playing action leads, rather than my own narrow and intolerant perspective on the “fairer sex”.

What I mean by this is that women rarely seem to be cast in serious mainstream action films. They’re a common feature in action comedies, such as the dire Knight and Day and Jolie’s own light-hearted romp with her equally famous and sexy spouse in Mr and Mrs Smith. But there’s no realistic and gripping female equivalent to the Bourne series, for example. Filmmakers are reluctant to showcase women, even today, as ruthless and professional killers without elements of fantasy. Watch a film about what is essentially a paid, female murderer (a “hitwoman”) and expect lots of ninja style, silly high kicking and unbelievable martial arts, alongside tight costumes, to offset such a horrific notion.

Sadly this is a formula that Salt eventually and perhaps inevitably, conforms to. The opening of the film is promising. Once we get some god awful dialogue out the way, probably ripped straight from the “how to script a film in the espionage genre” handbook, along with some forced flashbacks, we get Salt interrogating an apparent Russian defector. He drops the bombshell that there’s a sleeper agent in the CIA, and that agent is called Evelyn Salt.

Salt is dismissive at first, but all the high tech brain scans and probably some ingenious pad questioning his balls from his seat, says that he’s telling the truth. After a bit of dithering Salt decides to run, apparently out of concern for her husband, but it still seems rather daft if she really is innocent. Once she does run however, it looks as if Salt is going to be a decent film.

With the shadowy, backstabbing premise of the plot and some tense evasion of security cameras by a grey suited Jolie, Salt seems very Bourne-esque at first. And a female Bourne film would not have been such a bad thing. Boxed into an interrogation room, Salt constructs a makeshift weapon from chemicals and chairs and table legs to allow her to escape. She then flees for home to look for her husband and just avoids capture by climbing around the outside of her building. Finally she escapes the city after a standoff by jumping from truck to truck on the freeway.

During all of this action it’s easy to get swept up and the character remains believable. You sympathise with her apparent innocence and will her to succeed. But once Salt heads to New York based on information that someone will attempt to kill the Russian President at the Vice President’s funeral, the plot completely loses its way. It utterly surprised me on several occasions but purely because it becomes so absolutely ludicrous. You can no longer relate to Salt as a character and the action degenerates into ninja Jolie implausibly kicking the asses of trained security personnel in seconds.

At first I thought it was refreshing that Salt was a spy thriller based on the old Cold War rivalries and tensions. Cinemagoers could do with a little more entertainment courtesy of grand, evil schemes, rather than grim and realistic takes on Al-Qaeda. There’s nothing wrong with fantastical plots based on extravagant conspiracies and the destruction of the world, providing they’re executed plausibly. But Salt is just too farfetched and has too many holes, mainly surrounding the believability of its characters. It also strays into the absurd and hilarious; supposedly a “master of disguise” Salt looks fairly obviously like Angelina Jolie dressed as an effeminate man infiltrating the White House.

As usual with Blu-Rays, there’s a whole host of meaty special features to devour about the making of Salt. There’s a baffling section on Salt’s supposed genius as a “master of disguise” and a separate “in screen” interview with the costume designer explaining the selection process behind Jolie’s grey suit earlier in the film. Apparently it was really beneficial to visit the CIA and presumably discover they wear boring and generic corporate power suits like everyone else. The most revealing sections are interviews with Noyce and Jolie about the fact Salt was originally written for a man, which might account for some of the script’s rough and unfinished feel.

There are some pleasing references to classics of the genre in the film, for example when “defector” Orlov escapes using a blade concealed in his shoe, like Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. But in the end Salt resembles a mishmash parody of everything it has taken influence from. It lacks originality, quality and entertainment for most of its thankfully brief 100 minute runtime.

THE AMERICAN is the sort of serious and sombre story that sadly wouldn’t get made with a woman in the title role. It’s a slow-burning meditation on the nature of being an assassin and on loneliness itself. It’s an exercise in minimalist storytelling from writer Rowan Joffe, adapting Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, and particularly, director Anton Corbijn. With the lightest of brush strokes he paints what was, for me, an incredibly evocative and captivating picture. 

I had meant to see The American on the big screen but sadly its lack of success at the box office resulted in a short stay at my local multiplex. For critics the problem with The American is that it never truly ignites following such a tantalisingly drawn out simmering of tension. Many find it boring to sit through. But for anyone that loves the genre, the intoxicating idea of the lone assassin, or anyone that likes understated and subtle films, The American is wonderfully watchable.

In many ways George Clooney shouldn’t work in the title role. He is such a recognisable face across the globe, a brand rather than a name, that he shouldn’t convince as an unknown and elusive assassin. But Corbijn needed someone who could act without words and Clooney delivers a master class. When there is dialogue Clooney enthuses it with charisma; it oozes enigmatic intrigue. When the camera is entirely reliant on Clooney’s movements a pained expression, a cold glance or a precise gesture speaks more than a page of script ever could.  This has been hailed by some as the best performance of Clooney’s career for a reason. We’ve never seen him laid bare like this; robbed of the charm and the cheeky grin.

More than anything else The American is beautiful. Its soundtrack is haunting, atmospheric and touching. Every other shot would make an arty still in a gallery; in Corbijn’s second picture after the acclaimed biopic Control, his background as a photographer is constantly evident. Clooney’s character chooses photography as his cover and there’s something about the parallels of precise skill and solitude between pictures and killing that’s endlessly fascinating. Indeed the subtlety of the storytelling really lets you think about its themes whilst enjoying the gorgeous visuals and the sexy girls.

The loneliness of existence is there in every furrow of Clooney’s focused face; the life of the assassin is the perfect lens for examining anyone’s existential angst. His character makes meagre relationships that wouldn’t satisfy many human beings, and yet they prove too much and too risky for his secretive profession. Despite the reports of boredom and never-ending build-up, I thought that the restrained action punctuated the plot well and the climax of the simple story was suitably engrossing.

In many ways Salt and The American both take “old school” approaches to a familiar genre; Salt with its outlandish Cold War plot and The American with its focus on an age old character, complete with soul searching scenes with a priest. The undoubted difference between the films though is a sumptuous and sexy style and quality that makes The American infinitely more interesting than Jolie’s briefly entertaining foray into the world of espionage.

The curse of an unbeaten run: Do United need to lose?


In Westminster a Conservative and Liberal coalition sits in power. But the mood, as shown by recent policies and events, is unquestionably one of cold conservatism. And so it is too in Manchester, a city that at the start of the Premier League season may have had lofty but not unattainable ambitions of displacing London as the country’s capital of football. The nil-nil clash between the city’s red and blue halves this week has been widely condemned as the dreariest fixture of this campaign. The disappointing lack of incident, entertainment and thrills can be traced back to the currently cautious philosophies of both managers.

Now Roberto Mancini’s preference for restrained, grey tactics is well known. He is, after all, following a long, accepted tradition of the defensive minded Italian coach. Many have criticised him for pursuing such a continental style of football in the action-packed, fast-paced Premiership and it would seem results are now proving these critics correct. It beggars belief that a squad bursting with creativity and forwards can be so dependent on Carlos Tevez for a cutting edge. The starting line-up Mancini decided upon for the mid-week derby looked as if it were struggling to accommodate all his holding midfield players, as opposed to the usual dilemma of squeezing every last ounce of creativity from the team sheet. My jaw actually dropped when I discovered that Yaya Toure, the man once courted by the red side of town as the solution to their weak defensive spine, was selected to play “in the hole” behind Tevez. Certainly Toure was capable of surging runs on the ball but he was and is primarily a defensive rock to be positioned in front of the defence, giving other more gifted attacking players the freedom to roam. Even if Mancini refuses to play a second striker, and a degree of caution was more understandable against such able rivals, he ought to at least deploy his midfield cast in the right roles to support the increasingly isolated Tevez.

Anyway Mancini’s shortcomings are predictable. He has openly said that he would be happy with fourth place for his Manchester City side and is seemingly happy to progress in small steps towards the oil rich owners’ dream of global domination. Certainly his side has enough quality to achieve this goal, ahead of an overstretched Tottenham and dazed Liverpool, even though I happen to agree with Tony Cascarino in The Times that the title is up for grabs this season should any team have the willpower and resources to seize it. City clearly have the resources and an opportunity afforded them by a league in which teams continuously take points off each other, including the big teams. If Mancini took a risk and let some of his fiercer dogs off the lead the oil barons’ dream could be accelerated. The more interesting aspect of the mid-week duel however was Sir Alex Ferguson’s conservative style.

What conservative style? I hear you cry. His team just stormed back from two nil down against Aston Villa to snatch a point and remain unbeaten, and the defence has hardly been watertight, so if anything they need to sharpen up the concentration and caution. The real problem is that United just aren’t good enough anymore. All of this may be true. There’s certainly no doubt that the Reds have eased off the gas too early, conceding damaging late equalisers in games they should have easily won, despite below par performances. There’s also no doubt that another type of conservatism, that of caution in the transfer market, has led to a United squad that no longer matched Chelsea’s and in some cases City’s. The last time I saw the Red Devils play they were decked out in white kit at Villa Park, as they were yesterday. Rooney was also absent for most of the game, coming on late as a right-winger. Ronaldo tore Villa to shreds down the left, the defence was impenetrable, Scholes scored a wonder goal. Yesterday the squad could not cope so well, despite an almost identical backline. But a team of United’s stature having more draws than wins at this stage of the season must suggest something more.

As do Sir Alex’s comments after the Villa game yesterday. He had just watched two vital substitutions prove crucial to his team’s revival, with the first goal an excellent, thumping top corner finish from Federico Macheda, and the equaliser a diving header from the always commanding Nemanja Vidic. Before that though Villa had nearly deservedly runaway with it and the defending had been dire. Fergie insisted that another five minutes, and such was the swing of momentum, United would have won it. All I could think though was, like most fans: why had they not played with such incisiveness and urgency for the whole 90 minutes or at least from the off? Why the need for the near fatal catalyst?

Without Rooney, Manchester United look timid, shy and inexperienced going forward. They are also crucially devoid of leaders in the final third of the pitch. Vidic is superb, but good teams need someone to lead by example from the front, and Berbatov’s languid style can only do so sporadically. During Rooney’s injury spell, despite his poor form and bad attitude preceding it, an air of hope rather than expectation has ruled before United’s games. Fans seem to be praying a promising youngster like Hernandez can step up to grab a winner, whilst consciously lowering their expectations, knowing they aren’t ready to do so consistently.

By remaining unbeaten for the longest spell at the start of a season during Fergie’s considerable tenure, United remain within touching distance of Chelsea, just. But only just. And coasting so inconsistently will not wrest the title back from London. Given the promise shown lately by the likes of Hernandez, Obertan and Macheda, perhaps it’s time Sir Alex let his own young pups off the lead to go truly wild in pursuit of glory. It might lead to recklessness and the end of the immaculate record and it may already be too late, but they have little to lose. All of the big hitters seem to be plodding this season, with even Chelsea’s march slowing, so it’s about time someone erupted into a sprint for silverware. A return to the attack minded, high tempo, youthful United of days gone by may provide the key to unlocking a championship increasingly shackled by the scarves of caution donned by European coaches. And if not, at the very least it will be gripping entertainment.

Ah, but Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are all about the free-flowing, thrilling stuff aren’t they? And where has it got them for the last few seasons? There are two key differences between United and the Gunners though. One is the strength of the defence: Ferdinand, Vidic and co have it in them to be immovable, they just need to get their act together, whereas Arsenal’s last resort is more questionable, particularly the goalkeeper. The other difference is the styles in which the teams attack: Arsenal attack in an arty, pretty, more continental style whereas United are direct, to the point, going for goal in wave after wave of red surges. It’s these imposing surges United must find the confidence to unleash away from home, as well as at the fortress of Old Trafford, if they are to reverse their stagnant fortunes on their travels, which have hampered their season so far. It will certainly do them little good carrying on as they are. At the moment United look easy to intimidate away; a fact they must reverse by becoming the aggressor, not through Mancini’s technical intricacies.

Ed’s safe shadow cabinet of unity must not lose the fire of Opposition


Two Eds are better than one? Well perhaps not as Labour’s new leader opted not to make his namesake Ed Balls shadow chancellor, despite the weight of expertise, a strong leadership campaign and many votes in the shadow cabinet elections behind him. His wife Yvette Cooper then, who topped the poll of Labour MPs, would surely get the chance to carve Labour a new, distinctive position on the deficit in response to the Con-Dem’s cuts? No. 60 year old Alan Johnson, the earliest backer of Ed’s elder brother, was chosen by young Ed as his right hand man. Despite David’s choice to bow out from frontline politics, his shadows hangs heavy over his brother’s first team selection.

Of all the shadow cabinet roles assigned it was obviously that of shadow chancellor that carried the most importance and also Johnson’s appointment to that role which was the biggest shock. Ed Miliband has been either slammed for his caution or praised for his unifying skills and his courage to make the right choices regardless of popularity. I happen to think that making Johnson shadow chancellor is a missed opportunity for Labour’s new generation but there are some well selected roles in Ed’s team. Andy Burnham is a good match for the education brief, given his reasonably strong leadership campaign, working class background and accessible, relevant character traits such as his love of football. His ordinary accent will contrast well with Michael Gove’s nasal snobbery in the Commons. Likewise Jim Murphy seems a good choice to shadow the MOD and Liam Fox, with his dour Scots accent he shall be able to pour scorn on government defence cuts whilst emphasising the needs of the ordinary soldier and citizen. There is also no reason why Harriet Harman, Douglas Alexander and John Denham ought not to succeed in their new roles in International Development, Work and Pensions and Business respectively. Alexander and Denham in particular have their work cut out, with capable coalition opponents in Ian Duncan Smith and Vince Cable, but both are able ministers themselves.

However in my view Miliband has made a mistake in his handling of where exactly to place the popular and talented husband and wife team of Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper. Both are wasted at the Home and Foreign office. Those who support the leader’s decision say that it was unavoidable to maintain party unity and to avoid the mistakes of the Blair-Brown years. An economic policy handed to Balls, they say, would have conceded this ground to him permanently as Blair did for Brown, dividing the party again and sowing the seeds of future turmoil. My response to the argument of unity is that by appointing Balls Shadow Home Secretary Miliband has not necessarily pacified him. Balls will be gutted as it is to have missed out on his shot at the Treasury yet again; he made no secret of his desire for the job. To be so bluntly snubbed and given what many regard as the jinxed ministerial brief will not endear him to the younger Miliband. Besides there was no reason for Balls and Miliband to be enemies as Blair and Brown were, especially if Miliband had trusted Balls and rewarded with a job he had long coveted. If Miliband was uncomfortable handing his most important role to the volatile Balls though, he should have given it to his wife Cooper. Cooper won the shadow cabinet elections, and therefore had democratic legitimacy as well as the additional merits of youth (only 40 years old and part of the new generation), expertise (she was previously Work and Pensions secretary, a closely related role), intelligence (Harvard educated, a journalist at the Independent) and the fact that she is female. Appointing her to his top job would have sent exactly the right sort of modern, fair message but instead Miliband played it safe. Whilst being Foreign Secretary is an important, prestigious position, shadowing the area is less glamorous and less crucial to the argument defining British politics at the moment; how best to respond to the deficit.

With Johnson’s appointment Miliband signalled that he is planning to stick largely to Alistair Darling’s failed election pledge to halve the deficit in four years. This is disappointing as frankly Labour need a new idea to be championed by their new generation. Ed Miliband needs his equivalent of David Cameron’s “Big Society” and he has an enormous opportunity if he can find his big idea, because voters refuse to buy into the Prime Minister’s. Appointing Johnson though is unlikely to lead to a distinctive, radical or inspiring position on the deficit with credible, imaginative solutions. Yes Johnson is a capable minister, having held high profile jobs as Home Secretary and Health Secretary amongst others, but he has always taken a back seat and kept a low profile. He has shown the capacity to be popular with ordinary voters; with his working class charm often talked about, but lacked the desire or courage to use it. In the past he has passed up opportunities for advancement and you wonder if he is genuinely enthused by the task set him by his new leader and the opportunities to make a real difference to fairness he has, or whether he is merely grimly descending to his task for the sake of previously mentioned, holy party unity.

Forging a successful, coherent and credible economic policy that is also electable is THE challenge facing Labour. The coalition is struggling over issues like universal benefit, tuition fees and the spending reviews. Tension is set to rise, with the NUS leading students to the streets on the 10th November to highlight the backtracking of Lib Dems. The shadow chancellor should be the spearhead of Labour’s new generation, with new ideas gradually forming a fresh vision, one more accessible than Cameron’s “Big Society” and fairer too. He should be prepared to examine ideas like the Robin Hood tax, mansion tax and graduate tax, whilst also backing the more sensible reforms of the coalition, such as a standard benefit payment and lifting the income tax threshold, as long as they are carried out properly. Labour needs to propose ideas for a new sustainable economy that can support essential and modern public services, whilst always striving for growth. It should look at green taxes, green jobs and green industries and offer a new deal with concrete investment. It should be prepared to ring fence areas of spending the Conservatives are set to cripple, whilst being ready to remain credible and a force in the argument by suggesting alternative means of revenue. Labour has to offer the opportunities a modern day, liberal British society craves in a way that can be paid for and delivered on; not the idealistic, vague promises of Cameron’s individualistic rhetoric, which merely serves as a cover for a smaller state, no matter how well intentioned.

Unfortunately I fear that Miliband’s selections for his shadow cabinet and his chancellor in particular, will lead to half baked, over cautious policies that lack the passion for real change. Indeed an incoherent policy on the deficit will lead to policy clashes throughout the party that might give Labour’s new generation an identity crisis. Balls as shadow chancellor would have relished the chance to set out a genuine alternative to the coalition and Miliband would have had to rein him in at times when he was wrong. But ultimately I feel the dynamism glimpsed in the Labour leadership campaign would have been better channelled towards George Osborne than given a bitter, limited home in opposition to Theresa May. Balls is likely to propose tough, populist positions on crime, driven by his resentment at missing out, policies that could undermine his new leader’s courtship of liberal Britain. Cooper too could have been a far more effective weapon against Osborne than Johnson and shall be wasted in her standoff with Hague, on issues like Afghanistan where there is no real disagreement. She also could have been a far better symbol of the new party Miliband is trying to create. Ultimately I can only assume Miliband feared she would be the puppet of her husband and his appointment of an ensemble of women to less important ministerial positions shows that he may not be as pro-women as he likes to make out. His appointment of an unknown to his previous brief as Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary also shows a disappointing lack of regard for an issue he led supporters to believe was vital to him, but now may well have proved to be a mere rung on his career ladder. A high profile appointment to this area in his shadow cabinet could have been a signal of intent. Despite my criticisms though it’s possible that the team Ed has chosen, with its mix of his and his brother’s supporters, will offer a unified and passionate opposition. It is wrong to judge before they have set to work, after all the road to the election is a marathon not a sprint, it just might have been possible to set out at a faster pace.