Phil who? This was the reaction of a lot of football fans when it emerged that the first major bidding war of the summer had broken out over a 19 year old Blackburn centre back. Liverpool looked as though they were wrapping up a deal for yet another promising youngster, as Kenny Dalglish looks to rebuild, but then Manchester United swooped in with Sir Alex Ferguson on his own reconstruction mission. A sizeable £16 million release clause in his contract was triggered and after a period of uncertainty, Fergie got his man.
Or should I say boy? Jones is currently with the England Under 21s for the European Championships. Against a Spain side much fancied to win the whole tournament, Jones won plaudits for his performance alongside another United youngster, Chris Smalling. Sir Alex bought him last summer and he has since proved himself as a top quality, capable defender, deputising for the increasingly injured Rio Ferdinand with composure beyond his years. The 21 year old was also praised universally by pundits and columnists and it was generally accepted that but for Jones and Smalling in central defence the Spanish would not have been held to a 1-1 draw.
It’s looking worryingly like the same old story for England fans, even at Under 21 level. On paper the squad of youngsters is stronger than most, bursting with names that have already gained considerable Premiership experience and demonstrated their skills on a tough stage. Some might even think it’s stronger than Fabio Capello’s first team and many players will be looking to break through. But following the promise of the hard fought draw with Spain, England drew 0-0 with Ukraine, with the only impressive performances coming once again from the defenders. Talented forwards with enormous potential simply didn’t deliver.
And literally as I write England have capitulated to a 2-1 defeat against the Czech Republic in a must win match. Danny Welbeck had headed them ahead with just twenty minutes or so to go, but then it all fell apart with an equaliser and a snatched winner as England poured forward in stoppage time. Their tournament is over. Stuart Pearce’s boys are no better at winning trophies than the men.
None of this will greatly concern Sir Alex Ferguson. He is used to watching England internationals as accomplished as Paul Scholes, David Beckham or Wayne Rooney go off to tournaments and return dejected and defeated. It did not stop them becoming phenomenally successful Old Trafford legends. He will set about the task of moulding Phil Jones and Chris Smalling into the perfect readymade pairing to replace the ageing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
In an interview this week Smalling said that he liked to think both he and Jones had a mixture of Ferdinand’s passing ability and football brain, as well as Vidic’s hard as nails tackling prowess. This might be true because certainly Smalling has proved that he is no physical lightweight and Jones is versatile enough to play in midfield, so he can presumably pass a ball reasonably well. But there’s no doubt that Jones appears to be the tough tackling long term replacement for Vidic and Smalling the smoother operator to step into Ferdinand’s shoes. I mean he even looks a bit like Rio.
Jones proved his Vidic-esque credentials by almost singlehandedly taking United’s title challenge to the last day of the season. In the end a penalty earned the Reds a 1-1 draw at Ewood Park but Blackburn almost gave Chelsea hope thanks largely to Jones’ one man brick wall. Even on his Blackburn debut against Chelsea in March 2010, not long after his 18th birthday, Jones made his presence felt with some stinging but legal challenges on the likes of Frank Lampard.
Smalling meanwhile, as I said, has had a surprisingly key role over the last season at Old Trafford. I’m not sure even Fergie would have anticipated his rapid rise through the ranks, leaving the veteran manager contemplating selling the likes of Jonny Evans, John O’Shea and Wes Brown with not too much concern. Ferdinand’s fitness is unlikely to ever reach the heights of reliability and effectiveness again, meaning that Smalling will be called upon more and more often until eventually Rio is relegated to experienced squad member. The former Fulham man will grow in confidence the more he plays, so that he’ll be bringing the ball out of defence and looking for a killer pass as Ferdinand did in his prime, as well as covering superbly.
Jones and Smalling then have the potential to become a durable, formidable and complimentary partnership at the heart of one of the best teams in the land. Any understanding the two develop could also be transplanted beneficially into future England teams. But before such a partnership forms, they are going to have to compete against one another to play alongside Vidic for perhaps the next couple of seasons.
This time will test, trial and prove the individual ability of each player but will give them little chance to play together. If they have both been useful and their talents have passed the tests of high quality football on a regular basis at the Theatre of Dreams at the end of this period, then Sir Alex (or his successor) will have relatively cheap, and English, replacements for two of the best defenders the Premiership has ever known.
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Ideally I like to write my reviews shortly after I’ve watched a film, as I’m doing now. First impressions are important right? I think recording that instant reaction can be valuable, especially for readers dithering over whether to see something. Of course taking more time to chew over the substance of a movie can also have its advantages. It might help me to get my head round it and make some more insightful points. But somehow I don’t think I’ll ever get my head round Memento.
The protagonist of Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce), certainly couldn’t make it as a film reviewer. And I’m not saying that because it’s a particularly difficult task with insurmountable challenges. In fact normally I’d take the view that anyone could do it and that’s what makes cinema so engaging in the first place. But Leonard is not just anyone. For him remembering the plot of the most transparent Hugh Grant picture would indeed be an insurmountable challenge. There’s an advertising slogan that reads “Impossible is nothing”: this is literally true in Memento. It would be impossible for Leonard to write a review because he would remember nothing about the film. Not even Hugh alternating between “gosh” and “golly”.
Leonard suffers from a rare condition which basically means he can’t form new memories. I say “basically” but if you watch Memento it’s rapidly clear that his day to day existence is not a simple matter. Repeatedly Leonard tells us, via voiceover or mysterious conversation, that through his mastery of routine, instinct and a system of writing down “facts” as they happen, he has conquered his inability to save memories to the mainframe of his brain. But as the story progresses things that seemed certain prove to be far from it. Leonard’s quest to find his wife’s killer, and the man who whacked the talent of remembering from his skull, gives even the most ordinary encounter life and death importance. If Leonard draws the wrong conclusion from something and writes it down for future reference, he could end up on a path that causes him to kill the wrong man.
With last year’s hit Inception, Christopher Nolan reminded us that before his skilled reinvention of Batman for the mainstream he had a reputation as an experimental narrative trickster. Inception was his first film since The Prestige, which had twists and turns aplenty in the plot, to tell a daring story free of the Gotham city universe. The hype for the “dream heist” thriller was hysterically huge. I and countless others positively salivated at the sound of the concept. The possibilities of such an idea were endless. Sadly the film is one of the most overrated of recent times. Whilst good it did not compete with the whirring of imaginations kick-started into life by the premise.
Memento is much better than Inception when it comes to realising a tantalising idea. This is despite the fact that Nolan’s relative inexperience as a director is evident in a handful of lacklustre shots; one drab and overlong focus of Pearce strutting away into a building stands out. The acting isn’t always brilliant either, with what seems like half the cast of The Matrix on show and in hit and miss form. The script however is superb, bouncing themes and tension around the scattered narrative structure. I was never bored. And I never knew what was going on.
As well as being extremely gripping and exciting, Memento has its other strong points. Leonard as a character is an engrossing figure, complete with those striking memories in tattoo form (which Steven Moffat recently adapted in Doctor Who for the monsters you forget when you look away). He is trying to make sense of his life, in one sense with nothing to go on but also with endless notes and information he’s amassed for himself. We’re all trying to settle on a purpose and the excess of notes could be an interesting symbol for information overload in the modern age. Clearly Memento has its insights on memory given the driving force of the story but it also comments on the nature of fact and perhaps the notion of history. Leonard insists he only collects facts and this ensures no one takes advantage of him. But his “facts” are manipulated. And what’s the point in revenge if he can’t remember it? Is it enough that “the world still exists when I close my eyes”, as he says?
Memento gave me a headache. I may have had one before sitting down to watch but after having the pieces inside my head jumbled about until my brain moaned in pain, it didn’t help matters. Nonetheless I enjoyed it. The overwhelming strength of the film is its originality. The execution was certainly there, which is why this was Nolan’s breakthrough picture. But the real genius lies with the idea behind the story. And the script was based on a short story by Christopher’s brother Jonathan Nolan. Perhaps he is the real mastermind behind the family’s success and the endless plaudits should be more evenly shared.
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It’s difficult to know what one’s destiny is; or if there is such a thing. Colin Firth for example seemed set to play bumbling Brits in silly rom-coms for all time, until the perfect, acclaimed home for his restrained emotion emerged in the form of firstly, a suicidal homosexual in Tom Ford’s sublime A Single Man and now spluttering monarch King “Bertie” George in Tom Hooper’s very regal Oscar contender, The King’s Speech. Helena Bonham Carter’s fate seemed to be mad eccentric types, inspired by her vicious turns as villainess Bellatrix in the Harry Potter franchise, only to find herself alongside Firth as the Queen Mum before she was quite Queen or indeed, merely a mother.
You’d think that at least in the Royal family destinies are clear; smooth processions along a plush red carpet blood line. But in the 1930s a scandalous affair and subsequent abdication crisis in the prelude to war meant that the poor old anxious Duke of York found himself stepping up to the throne ahead of time. The youth and popularity of his wild brother meant that he probably never foresaw himself taking on the big job. He certainly didn’t want it. And yet Guy Pearce’s Edward feels he simply must step aside if it means he can fulfil his love (or lust) for his American sweetheart.
Despite the sideshows of better known history, which adds sparkle and meaning to events, the heart of this film is the untold story of a King’s personal problems and his struggles to overcome them. Firth’s Duke of York has been struggling with a stammer for most of his life and the film begins as he and his wife seek treatment from various esteemed medics. His father, King George V played by Michael Gambon, has already noticed the wayward ways of Pearce’s Edward and starts pinning his hopes on the stuttering Bertie for a viable successor. However in the new age of radio, voice is everything for a monarch. Eventually the excellent, perfectly spoken Bonham Carter finds Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue for her husband and the film comes to life.
From their very first scene together, Rush and Firth captivate the audience. No matter what other merits The King’s Speech has as a film, you will always want the action to get the King and his speech therapist back in a room again, as no other scenes come close for simple enjoyment. That is not to say that the other actors don’t give wonderful performances; Bonham Carter, Pearce, Gambon and Spall are all spot-on. And there is drama and humour elsewhere. But the speech therapy is after all what the film is about despite all the other momentous events. It’s a very personal drama about the weight of expectation on one flawed individual, born and bred in a cotton ball world. The best of the humour from some magnificent lines in David Seidler’s script sparks rapidly in these intimate scenes too.
However I couldn’t help thinking at times during The King’s Speech that it simply wasn’t as funny for those of a younger generation. Sure it wasn’t the stuffy, serious costume drama I’d been expecting either. But the cinema was packed with the elderly and middle-aged who seemed to snigger at the slightest hint of cheek from Rush’s speech therapist, or the merest sniff of rage from Firth’s dignified Royal. Most of the humour in The King’s Speech is of this variety, with the silver haired audience exploding into laughter thinking “oh dear, imagine saying that to the Queen today”. I was inclined to look on the dialogue as clever and witty, rather than uproariously funny.
I did thoroughly enjoy The King’s Speech though. The period detail is predictably sumptuous and immersive. The script is not only lively and witty but gripping and concise. The cast are all superb. I disagree with the criticisms of some reviews that the film seems to conclude by saying the King’s personal triumph over his demons won Britain the war over Hitler. This movie simply isn’t telling that story. And the story it does tell is fresh, moving and engaging. It’s at its best when reduced to simple parts; a therapist, a patient and his troublesome speech. Firth proves once again he’s stepped up into serious Oscar worthy roles and breathes life into the British period drama. It’s worth seeing for some rare, theatre like scenes that give acting talent centre stage above all else.
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