Tag Archives: talent

Manchester United can beat Barcelona at Wembley: And it would just be the beginning


The title is theirs. Carlo Ancelotti did his best to fire up the Chelsea players, repeatedly calling it their cup final, but the Red Devils proved too strong at Old Trafford. The Theatre of Dreams has been a fortress of consistency in a curiously unpredictable season. Often it’s appeared as though no one wanted the league enough but ultimately United’s experienced desire was superior, and it was at its lustful best against Chelsea.

It seems as though we might be witnessing a time of real change in football, particularly in the Premiership. Every team in the league is capable of taking points from the top sides. The notion of a traditional top four is crumbling and the ways in which clubs are preserving their success are evolving too. The era of the successful big money signing appears to have past. Of course there are exceptions, with Manchester City the latest to flash the cash, but the big teams doing well this season were not dependent on new signings or even one standout performer. Arsenal may have once again fallen at the crucial stage of the race, but they were United’s primary challengers for most of the campaign. Their squad has grown gradually over the years.

And so has Manchester United’s. Since the departure of Ronaldo to Real Madrid Sir Alex Ferguson has continued to ignore the calls from fans, myself included, for more expensive replacements. Instead he has focused on improving the players he already has by carefully managing their experience of important fixtures, as well as bringing in some future investments (with some paying off early, such as Javier Hernandez). The failures of other teams have proved his strategy right. He has also once again settled on a different tactical vision for his side. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Champions League.

United have not conceded a goal away from home in the competition. They have done this by mastering a drilled and disciplined style of play. In many ways this is at odds with the entertaining, attacking tradition of the club. But Ferguson has been wise enough to recognise that the strengths of his team have changed. In 2008 when they defeated Chelsea in the final, United were a team boasting the sparkle and individual talent of Berbatov, Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo. These days United have become a highly efficient and effective collective unit. Their starting eleven appears inferior in terms of talent, but they are no longer dependent on stars to succeed.

Having said this they will still need the key players in their unit, particularly Rooney, to be at their best if they are to beat Barcelona at Wembley. This is because the Catalans have the collective mentality of the current United side, as well as happening to have a team bursting with world class footballers. Ferguson insists he knows where his team went wrong in the final of 2009 against the Spaniards. He has been able to rotate his squad with extreme flexibility to get what he wants from a game, with whoever comes in doing what is required of them. But against Barcelona nothing less than his best combination of midfielders will do.

For it was in midfield that United lost the 2009 final. They can take some comfort from the fact that Yaya Toure, who scored the goal that ended United’s treble hopes in the FA Cup semi with Man City, will no longer be an immovable object at Barcelona’s core. It was he that overpowered Carrick and co so fatally. But nowadays the likes of Javier Mascherano are there to provide a defensive screen from which Iniesta and Xavi can create for the devastating abilities of Villa and Messi up front. Somehow United’s players will have to get a grip on possession.

Carrick has been unfairly derided in the past. He is a world class passer of the ball who can provide both a defensive shield and attacking platform. In recent weeks his resurgent form has added vital impetus to a tough run in. But there will still be question marks over whether or not he will perform for the big occasion and whether he will once again be outmuscled. He seems likely to start though given his involvement lately, so Ferguson must decide who to play alongside him and in what formation.

With the main worry being a lack of possession it’s likely we’ll see a three man central midfield, with Rooney leading the line alone. This robs United’s prize asset of much of his threat and his deadly combination with Javier Hernandez. It will also put him under pressure that might lead to frustration, which is a dangerous cocktail for his volatile temperament. Against Chelsea a two fingered salute to the Blues fans was a sharp reminder that the striker is way off the level of maturity required for a captaincy, of England or his club.

Darren Fletcher could be the missing link, as he missed the final two years ago through suspension. He would add the grit that was so evidently missing that night. But this time around its fitness that will be a problem for the Scot. Giggs has been majestic in some vital fixtures this campaign but mediocre in others. Anderson and Scholes seem unlikely to feature, but Ji-Sung Park, especially after his man of the match display against Chelsea, might be chosen to be a busy thorn in Barcelona’s side. It’s interesting and baffling that Dimitar Berbatov, the team’s main source of goals in the league and an undoubtedly dazzling player, is not being seriously considered by any commentators for a starting place. Ferguson does not trust him for the big fixtures and Rooney plays better with Hernandez ahead of him. The Bulgarian’s future will be one to watch in the summer, despite being top scorer.

It’s a one off game at Wembley. Ferguson will have learnt genuine lessons from two years ago and the togetherness of his new team will be a challenge for Barcelona, just as their undeniable quality will be a challenge for United. The tantalising thing for United fans is that if they are successful here, in theory such a young squad should only improve with experience, without the need for drastic and expensive imports.

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Macho Antidotes to the Royal Wedding – Part 2: United on BBC iplayer


My second suggestion of anti-Royal Wedding medication for the ordinary man, following the sensational spectacle of Thor, is a single strong dose of BBC drama United, shown on Sunday and now available on iplayer. If Thor was grounded in fun fantasy then United is rooted firmly in poignant and period storytelling, of the sort the Beeb does so well. In fact with budget cuts beginning to bite, our national broadcaster has made it clear that quality dramas like United and The Crimson Petal and the White are the future of BBC2 in particular. If future projects are as good as these then it’s a wise as well as an economical decision.

United is the story of the tragic Munich air crash that killed most of Manchester United football club’s first team, as well as reporters and staff, after a successful European cup match in Belgrade. The squad’s flight was stopping over in a snowy Munich to refuel and the players and coaching staff were keen to return in time for their league game that weekend, and thus avoid a points deduction. For most football fans the catastrophe that cruelly cut short the life of so many of “Busby’s Babes” is the stuff of familiar legend. I have been a Manchester United fan since the age of 6 and was raised on the fairytales of pure footballers from both before the disaster and after it. The men directly touched by such devastating events forged the foundations for Manchester United to become the world famous and successful club it is today.

Rest assured though, United is a good drama and an absorbing watch, pure and simple. For those without the background in football heritage or even those that can’t tolerate the game, this is a captivating human story of careers, celebrity and comebacks. Most importantly this is an extremely British tale and the perfect anaesthetic for ears bleeding profusely because of the hypocritical and imbecilic and meaningless whining of Americans pleasuring themselves over the blandest, most lifeless 24 hour coverage of the exterior of Bucking-HAM palace.

Despite the subject matter United is not all doom and gloom. For over half an hour from the start we are welcomed into the heart of a football club going from strength to strength. But it’s not about the football; it’s about the characters at the club. We are treated to finely honed BBC costume drama detail, from the 1950s fashions, to the dressing room, to Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams itself, rendered lifelike with impressively unnoticeable CGI. Most pleasing of all is the delicious double act formed between David Tennant’s Welsh coach Jimmy Murphy and Dougray Scott’s understated but charismatic portrayal of United’s most celebrated manager, Matt Busby.

Most of the time, Tennant steals the show, as he does in almost everything he’s in. It is by no means one of the more important judges of an actor, but Tennant continually succeeds at accent after accent, this time believably carrying off the musical Welsh tongue. This role also allows him to show off other more vital aspects of his talent too though. He has tremendous fun motivating the players as a coach with vision and then more than copes with the emotional side to the story when the drama hits. The majority of Doctor Who fans may now be fully warming to Matt Smith but Tennant remains a class act and it’s actually refreshing to see him embracing parts as diverse and interesting as this one.

It’s fitting that United is mostly told from the perspective of a young Bobby Charlton. He’s now a Sir and a national treasure, but then he was just a lad that wanted to play football. And he ended up living through a harrowing and traumatic experience. Yet he came out the other side of it and was lucky enough to have been part of the great team before the crash, and the even greater side built from the ashes. Jack O’Connell, who plays the young Charlton here, does a really good job whether he’s stumbling through the plane’s ripped ruins and grimacing at explosions, practicing on the pitch or gazing up in awe at the stadium.

As a production United really does ooze quality. The acting is top notch, the music is touching and the directing beautiful, particularly at the snowy crash site itself and in the dressing rooms. It also deals sensitively with an immensely emotive issue. The question of blame is delicately raised and wisely the film does not nail its opinion to any specific interpretation. Some will blame those who were desperate to play abroad and then make it back home in time for the league match, and indeed Busby blamed himself. Some will blame the league officials who refused to grant a postponement to the fixture after United’s European trip. Some will insist the officials at the airport and the mechanics and the pilots should have taken more care. But the sensible will just accept the terrible tragedy of it all. The enormous grief.

Of course the overwhelming and important cost of the crash was the human one, with so many young men dead. Their families and girlfriends and mates were robbed of their lives prematurely. As a drama United undoubtedly tells that tale. It often seems callous, stupid and emotionally ignorant to talk of the cost to the game of football. I call myself a football fan but much of the time the game leaves me unmoved. I do not live and breathe the game, I no longer care greatly as I used to as a child when one of my favoured teams does poorly. It takes a great occasion or an unusually interesting story, or an exciting match with beautiful passages of play, to truly ignite my interest these days. But there certainly was a significant cost to the game of football after the Munich crash, and it was a cost that mattered almost as much as the loss of their lives. United tells that story too.

It mattered that such a great and talented team was almost completely wiped out, because it mattered to them. It would have mattered to those that died and it mattered to those left behind. It mattered to the fans that mourned them and even the people that knew them. It’s too easy to talk with nostalgia of how football used to be, with starting elevens as opposed to giant squads and meagre salaries and basic training pitches; the modern game is too often ignorantly slated as excessive junk. Watching United though you can see the appeal of that nostalgia, of an old school approach brimming with romance, you can understand those who knew it firsthand ranting and raving at the money making machine that’s replaced it.

Nowadays you wouldn’t get Tennant’s character, a first team coach, ringing round top flight clubs begging for players in the aftermath of a disaster so that the locals could see a game and to maintain the winning philosophy of a club. It just wouldn’t be possible. Or necessary. You wouldn’t get a fairytale quite as magical as the one that swept a ramshackle team, comprised of youngsters and amateur unknowns, to the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley just months after the crash.

I’m not ashamed to admit I cried watching United. I might have been predisposed to an outpouring of emotion because United stirred up a long since cooled love in me for the beautiful game. But I defy anyone not to be moved by such excellent acting, such accurate portrayals of grief and commitment and passion. I have been reminded by United that anything, be it art, table tennis or cartoons, that takes you out of yourself and absorbs you, helping you to forget pain and grief completely just for a moment, is a worthwhile and admirable activity. Something worth fighting for.

The Royal Wedding is more likely to make me vomit than get teary but I know it would be more acceptable to sob down the pub over the achievements of football greats than the nuptials of a posh Prince. So when the women are welling up at the sight of a dress or a bouquet, tell them you’re not dead inside you’d just rather save your sympathy and admiration for real royalty.

The Art of the Short Story – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


For weeks now I’ve attempted to absorb myself in the art of the short story. Not just to read lots of new ones and re-read old ones, but to look closely at their composition, compare their merits and work out why it was that these fleeting snapshots of life seemed so much more like art than their beefier cousin, the novel.

At the end of my blitz of numerous tales I feel at once wiser and just as ignorant. The fact that my study of these stories has been so intense, the fact that it was indeed a solitary blitz, meant I had much less time than I would have liked to dissect, contrast and concoct thoughtful, satisfactory points and conclusions. This mini task within the greater, rushed whole of Reading and Writing Month has certainly not proved to be the magic pill I might have hoped for; I have not morphed into a masterful writer myself simply by consuming such a renowned, diverse range. But I am glad I was ambitious and wide ranging. I feel as if I’ve discovered intriguing examples I’ll be able to return to again and again as an inspirational template and model for my own work. Or works I’ll re-read simply to marvel at and endlessly reinterpret and enjoy.

Even prior to this challenge I found that a certain type of short story would leave me baffled. It would feel as if I’d barely read what could be called a “story” at all. Ernest Hemingway was one of the particular authors that could simultaneously make me feel cold and unmoved and fascinated. At A-Level I studied Cat in the Rain and for this challenge I read other tales from Hemingway’s “First Forty-Nine Stories” collection, including Homage to Switzerland and One Reader Writes. One Reader Writes is barely two pages long and feels as though it were lifted straight from an experiment in a creative writing class, as the narrator, clearly barely literate, attempts to write a letter about her husband’s syphilis. Homage to Switzerland presents three almost identical but also very different conversations at a railway station in Switzerland.

This last story is more typically Hemingway. He simply paints the picture of a scene to the reader; who watches. It takes the rule of “show don’t tell” in storytelling to the extreme. It points towards any number of possible truths about the characters, just as the famous Cat in the Rain does. The reader is left to interpret, as if watching a scene from a play. Indeed the quote from The Guardian on the back of my Hemingway collection sums up, what in the end, is his subtle brilliance:

“The author’s exceptional gift of narrative quality gives the excitement of a well-told tale to what is, in fact, a simple description of a scene” (my emphasis)

Here then is the first vague, hardly groundbreaking truth I began to comprehend better about short stories; that they can show us the many, differing qualities of a specific scene, much like a play. They can have as much or little drama as the reader (or the audience) chooses them to. Their brevity and focus also means that short stories encompassing a substantial sweep in time become harder to write. They’re also more likely to succeed if they contain dialogue. I do not say light-heartedly that dialogue is easy to write, but simply that good short stories rest on their ability to show us things in flashes, like a play. This is easier to do with well written dialogue. The professional looking winners, submitted by amateurs, to last year’s writing competitions, for Summer and Halloween in The Guardian and Telegraph respectively, mostly contained convincing dialogue, from which the reader can infer.

Chekhov was of course a playwright and this might explain his aptitude for the short story. In an insightful and enlightening introduction to a collection of Chekhov stories, Richard Ford makes a number of points about the merits of Chekhov’s writing that can also be applied across the board to short stories. Firstly he highlights how teachers were always telling him it was the sheer economy of Chekhov’s writing that others tried to replicate. As he concludes though, whilst this was evidence of accomplished craftsmanship it was hardly remarkable. What Chekhov did to elevate his writing, what made them art, was to expose universal, everlasting truths of the human condition still relevant today. His stories, the most famous of which being The Lady with the Dog, went against convention by taking established forms and zooming in on their less explored aspects. Like poetry, or a well executed play, Chekhov slowly makes us accept facts of existence we knew to be true all along; he simply crafted the circumstances and phrases to express them.

And yet short stories don’t all have to be masterfully subtle scenes, open to endless interpretation. The subtlety helps and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to have the fine focus of a scene. But they can also be the seeds of future novels, as Haruki Murakami’s Firefly became Norwegian Wood or symbolic essays on ideas. If I had to categorise the stories I have read, and I don’t think it would be wise to, I would divide them between these focused scenes and explorations of a particular idea. Fiction, in this condensed form, can be a far better, fuller examination of any idea than a hard written essay. Short stories can also better express something, without all the trappings and requirements of a novel.

In a refreshingly frank and interesting introduction to the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami talks about the difference for him, as a writer, between short stories and the novel. As always I find his distinctive Japanese symbolism captivating, even when he’s not crafting anything creative:

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other…”

Certainly there is substantial crossover in style and themes from Murakami’s novels to his short stories. Like his most celebrated novels, these tales are often heavy with nostalgia, sentiment and emotion. I mentioned ideas, but Murakami is a writer more interested in feelings and moods. His short stories allow him to explore these moods in isolation, touchingly and with symbolism. Many of his stories are symbolic and for me at least, irresistibly enthused with ingredients like adolescence, love and Japan. He is also an old fashioned storyteller in the sense that his short stories are often told by a character, or have happened to a friend of the narrator. Stories are currency to be passed around and retold, often based on perplexing coincidence that cast life in light or shadow.

Among my favourites from his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was A Poor Aunt Story, apparently one of his youthful, inexpert creations. This was a story with a symbolic idea at its heart, as opposed to someone’s emotional journey; the narrator wanted to write a story about a poor aunt, only for one to appear stuck to his back for the world to see. It seemed to me a wonderfully poetic way to make a point about the forgotten members of society, the pieces in the background.

Murakami also has the knack for the occasional, sensational and fantastical funny tale. A perfect day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes were all witty and amusing. Other personal favourites from the collection included: Hanalei Bay, Where I’m Likely to Find it (wonderfully mysterious), The Seventh Man, Hunting Knife and Birthday Girl.

Like Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer excellent at moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed his atmospheric collection “Nocturnes”. This was five stories of music, love, nightfall and heartbreak. Here we find another string to the short story bow; loosely connected stories, that are quite separate but as a whole unite to portray one emotion, one truth or experience.

So finally then, to ideas. Whether they are sci-fi musings such as the poetically described automated house, with all its rhythm and life, in There Will Come Soft Rains from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Thomas Mann’s more intellectual and philosophical ponderings via his protagonist in Death in Venice, the short story can properly showcase them all. Mann’s masterpiece is a superbly written meditation on obsession, love, beauty, youth, art, ageing, inspiration and everything in between. It’s also just a damn good story, with an impressive sense of place, created from very little, compared to the time devoted to beauty and reflection.

Stories need not replicate the sweep of Mann’s success to be brilliant of course; I’ve already praised the narrow focus of the genre. They can deal with aspects and ideas within a grander theme. From the collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera and Lovers of their Time by William Trevor, stand out. Kundera’s story for its exploration of role-play and the need for a balance between meaning and fun in a relationship; what he calls “lightheartedness and seriousness” (reminded me of his unique philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And Trevor’s for its portrayal of the decay of love over time.

My three favourites from my fleeting trawl through the form then: The Hitchhiking Game, Death in Venice and Murakami’s Where I’m Likely to Find it.

Thus concludes my inadequate summary of the art of the short story. But as I say, I do feel enlightened and extremely excited to have reignited the joys of reading and writing.

127 Hours


Let’s brainstorm awful ideas for movies. The sort of film that should never be made or would only be attempted by foolhardy, insufferable idiots. Mmm let’s see. It’s actually harder than you might think to think of truly terrible premises. First of all I thought of a bed ridden man who likes to photograph boxes or gravel or picture frames (not the images just the frames), or something unbelievably dull. But make him a bed ridden man and he suddenly has an element of sympathy and interest.

An ordinary man with a fascination for gravel or sand then, who likes to talk about this obsession to the few people in his life, other boring folk perhaps or patronising do-gooders. Actually scratch that. Maybe just a saucy account of a weekend away for Tony and Cherie, a blow-by-blow description of dinner at Gillian Mckeith’s or X Factor runner-up Ray Quinn’s struggle to publish a novel.  In fact that one sounds quite funny.

Hang on I’ve got it. Take one guy; make him a bit of an arrogant, irritating prick. Then have him set off on some mad, impulsive trip without any means of contacting anyone. Make sure he doesn’t tell anyone where he’s going; we need to keep human contact to an absolute minimum. When he’s penetrated suitably deep into the wilderness, way, way beyond civilisation or chance of rescue, trap him somehow. Like throw him down a canyon and have him wedged by a rock so he can’t move. Then pick a random amount of time, something silly but memorable like 89 or 127 hours, and just leave him stuck there, barely moving. That should be truly awful.

Imagine pitching this idea to producers. Not a chance of getting your dream realised. Unless maybe you’re Danny Boyle and the industry hangs on your every move since Slumdog Millionaire. And also let’s just say it’s a true story to properly get their juices flowing, their minds racing ahead in time to the prospect of awards success, emotional crowds gushing praise in theatres everywhere. Watching someone motionless and isolated shouldn’t work, and it couldn’t be further away from the vivid romp through India that was Slumdog, but somehow Boyle makes it not just tolerable but inspiring and riveting.

It certainly helps that the film itself is 94 minutes as opposed to the real time, 127 hours, long. It also helps that Boyle’s playful and distinctive direction grabs you from the very first scene. Knowing the claustrophobia that’s to come, Boyle peppers the opening to the film with visual interest and movement. Watching climber Aaron Ralston get ready is a marvellous experience through Boyle’s eyes.

The screen splits and divides into two or three, with intricate close ups of bottles filling with water and hands rooting around in drawers and shelves. These loving details are then impressively contrasted, first with an atmospheric night drive and then a frenetic bike ride across a bright orange, stunning Utah landscape. This scenery, with its back drop of sheer blue sky, is properly showcased with gorgeous wide shots. At the same time Ralston’s speeding movement is conveyed with fast editing and camerawork. When he comes off his bike to energetic music your adrenalin is really pumping.

The soundtrack to 127 Hours is terrifically good. A.R. Rahman, who worked with Boyle on Slumdog, really excels here with a difficult task. The opening and endings to the film are particularly wonderfully scored. I was not a fan of Slumdog’s score, or indeed the film itself, so it’s refreshing to see Boyle doing something completely different despite the easy options no doubt available to him now as an Oscar winner. He clearly cares about this incredible true story and set about bringing it faithfully to life. He couldn’t have done this half as well without the excellent James Franco.

Franco plays thrill seeking climber Ralston as both a slightly annoying arse and a clever, likeable everyman. In the early scenes he meets two female climbers and effortlessly impresses them with his knowledge of the area and daring sense of adventure. His youthful, flirty antics with them in startling, deep blue waters give the ordeal that follows far greater emotional resonance. Franco portrays the panic of being trapped superbly, as well as the calmer more reasoned moments. He’s completely believable and does well without other actors to spark off of to continually engage us.

The story also works so well due to flashbacks of Ralston’s life, showing his regrets and key memories of loved ones. These segments humanise Ralston; he isn’t just a physical machine stuffed with practical climbing knowledge, seeking an adrenalin fix. He’s made mistakes like all of us. And Boyle’s script and direction leaves the flashbacks realistically and suitably vague. In a starving, dying of thirst state delusions are bound to be half-baked. More importantly the gaps can be filled by the audience; everyone longs for their own friends and special, loved people in their lives, as Ralston goes through the levels of despair.

And passing through these levels he arrives eventually at resignation. Ever since the boulder trapped his arm he has quietly known what he’ll have to do, what he’ll have to endure and sacrifice, to escape back to his life. Incidentally the moment when the boulder falls and snares him is the only part of the film that feels less than real, as the rock bounces for a moment like the polystyrene prop it probably was. Apart from this the close, stuffy, handheld camerawork injects genuine realism alongside the fantasies.  

And the moment when he cuts through his arm, the single headline grabbing fact either attracting or repelling viewers, was believable. What was refreshing was that on a number of occasions you think he’s going to, but doesn’t. The film keeps you on its toes, waiting for the pivotal moment, and when it comes it shocks you and continues to shock as he battles through the unimaginable pain.

Whilst the gore shouldn’t disappoint those seeking it, the blood and horror wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be. I’m normally quite prone to sickness at such things but I barely looked away. It’s undoubtedly horrific but unavoidably compelling too. And crucially 127 Hours isn’t about a guy cutting his arm off. It also doesn’t have any other overriding, commanding themes and messages. The beauty of the story is that it can be about whatever you want. And whatever you make it about in your own head, the eventual rescue is as uplifting as cinema can be.

I’ve seen six of the ten films on the Oscar Best Picture list now. Of these six, 127 Hours is only better than Inception in my opinion. Black Swan I enjoyed the most and The King’s Speech, The Social Network and Toy Story 3 are all better films in their own ways. However the true story behind 127 Hours is more remarkable than any of these tales, despite the fact its circumstances inevitably limit the scope and entertainment value of the film. Some critics have unfairly suggested 127 Hours only made it onto the shortlist because Boyle is a past winner. It’s a film that excellently and faithfully brings to life an amazing true story, with directorial flourish. And at times, thanks to Franco’s charm, there are surprising laughs to get you through. It doesn’t deserve to win Best Picture, but it more than warrants its nomination.

Black Swan


Some people are perfectionists. You cannot imagine them any other way. They strive again and again to be the best, to fulfil their wildest, finely crafted, unblemished dreams. We all know people that work themselves into an unfathomable, illogical frenzy about the slightest flaw. You worry about what will happen to them if they ever completely lose perspective and fall through the cracks of their own expectations. How far can they push themselves, what lengths will they go to in the quest for perfection? Will you lose the person you know as they struggle towards faultlessly achieving their goals?

Black Swan is a film about the extremes of the perfectionist and the mania that can ensue in the dizzy rush for excellence in art. It’s packed full of themes about creativity and control, trust and tantrums. Is talent about honing your skills again and again until they’re technically sound, or something more intangible you must simply give into, like desire? Can anyone ascend to stardom and maintain their youthful innocence? Just how destructive can all consuming ambition be? Most of all, whatever questions Black Swan raises, it is a piece of beautifully pure, utterly gripping drama.

Drama as powerful and captivating as this is rarely found at the cinema these days. Perhaps because of the influence of and sizeable chunks of Swan Lake used in the film, Black Swan has the sensual quality of a stage production. Frequently it is flinchingly shocking. Acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky ratchets up the tension and paranoia to chilling, unsettling but completely compelling levels. The whole thing is a visual feast. Most surprisingly of all, given the sheer number of scares jostling for position and all the hype around the film, there were more than a handful of moments in which the auditorium was plagued by infectious giggles.

Most of these laughs come via Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy, director of the New York ballet company. He is amusingly frank with Natalie Portman’s Nina, as is Mila Kunis as Nina’s dancing rival Lily. Both of these supporting cast members give excellent performances but it’s Portman’s Oscar worthy turn rightly stealing the headlines. In the past I’ve found her acting irritating, especially her regular appearances as an English rose type figure, with stereotypical accent. She was the only thing I mildly disliked about V for Vendetta. But here Portman’s character is meant to be prissy and annoying, and despite this as her delusions worsen and multiply you find yourself rooting for her to overcome her demons. Her portrayal of mental confusion and paranoia spiralling into madness is startling.

Barbara Hershey plays Nina’s controlling mother, who has projected her disappointments from her own curtailed career onto her daughter. In a sickly sweet, cotton ball world at home Nina lives as a little girl, primed only to succeed as a dancer. This suffocating environment is far from helpful as Nina works to try and embrace the role of evil, seductive Black Swan as well as the pure, fragile and perfect White Swan Queen. Her director continually tells her to loosen up and the suffocation from Nina’s home life spread throughout the film, haunting her and the audience. Nina projects her own anxieties onto the confident, relaxed Lily, who soon becomes a recurring, taunting theme in her fantasies.

At the beginning of the film, Cassel’s director tells his dancers his will be a “visceral” reworking of Swan Lake. And Black Swan is certainly visceral. Of course it touches on all the themes I mentioned earlier, but in reality it’s far too over the top to explore them properly. Above all else it is a fantastical and theatrical story. You’ll be gripped by the drama, haunted and confused by the plot. Sucked in by claustrophobic visuals, charmed by stunning dance sequences and engaged by superb acting; Black Swan has a bit of everything and its vividness is inexplicable. You won’t see anything more sensual this year.

 

The Disappearance of Alice Creed


The Disappearance of Alice Creed is the sort of film that it’s almost impossible to talk about or review without puncturing and spoiling the drama for those yet to experience it. And an experience is what the film provides; even if some berk lets slip a key plot detail there are more than enough twists, turns and unforeseen, sudden plunges on this tense rollercoaster ride to keep you entertained and constantly clueless. It’s the sort of film that has you on the edge of your seat, scanning every scene for minute details that might seem insignificant but will later prove to be vital hinges around which the hyper plot will pivot. Just when you reckon you’ve cracked where things are heading, something totally unexpected will grab you by the lapels and catapult you back to square one. Here you’ll lie briefly, dazed in the dust, before picking yourself up eager for more.

That’s not to say that every swerve woven into the script is a surprise, as in most films some will loom obviously in the distance, with the audience merely asking themselves “when” and “how” as opposed to “what” will happen next. This is a largely original thriller that also loses much of its unique edge at the end as all the indecipherable good work that has gone before must somehow be wrapped up. But on the whole this is an accomplished directorial debut from J.Blakeson, who also wrote the ambitious and resourcefully realised script. Not only is this a movie that delivers as a thriller but working with limited possibilities and an enclosed space it also develops fascinating characters that are for the most part captivating enigmas impossible to unravel.

The reason that the characters hold our attention so intensely and for so long is the steadily racked up tension, combined with only a meagre drip of information about who they might be. Crucially there are also only three characters in the entire film. The first five minutes are completely dialogue and mostly noise free, with only the soundtrack beginning to wind up the intrigue. We watch as two men methodically and meticulously transform a dilapidated flat into a prison, with some slow and beautifully shot scenes at a DIY store and car park contrasting impressively with more frenetic scenes later on. Then the near silence explodes into noise, with the Alice Creed of the title bundled into the back of a van, squirming and screaming. She is then stripped naked, still screaming, on a bed back at the newly fortified containment cell. The sound of her tearing clothes and panicked breathing dominates.

Gemma Arterton, as the title character, gets considerable opportunities to show off her acting chops, despite most of the dialogue going to her kidnappers, Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston. Marsan is often called upon for minor roles in big Hollywood productions, such as his recent Inspector Lestrade in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and it’s refreshing to see his full impressive range on show here as the key kidnapper Vic. Arterton too has been confined to generic female roles in big budget movies, with a brief and comic turn in Bond movie Quantum of Solace perhaps her most famous appearance so far. In the BBC’s latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles she took the lead role and had the space to prove her ability but in many ways her performance here is more convincing, as we watch her do so much with so little. With only three characters for the complex story to work with none is really more important than the other, but if anything Compston’s Danny is the most central figure, and like his fellow cast members he produces a superb and powerful performance.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a reassuring tribute to the raw power of narrative when all the luxurious additions of blockbusters are peeled away, leaving the bare essentials of storytelling: character and plot. These are the only ingredients talented directors and writers like J.Blakeson really need.

The Song of Lunch/ The Fry Chronicles/The Road/South of the Border, West of the Sun


Trawling through various cultural mediums is for me not just a search for entertainment and means of passing the time but a hunt for reassuring truths, universal truths of life that we all share and when found elsewhere as better formed, well expressed versions of your own troubles offer satisfying comfort. I am no poetry connoisseur but when I do read poems the ones I enjoy speak to me for saying something true, often in the simplest of ways.

Take The Song of Lunch, a BBC adaptation of Christopher Reid’s narrative poem, recommended to me by a friend. Through the artificial constructs of art it says something true and genuine about life, rising above the reality of existence. Of course lunches with old friends are not the profound verbal duels shown here, they are not always feasts of slow-mo exquisite detail. But at times the language, the imagery of the poem is spot on and the sentiments exact. That feeling of so much change and yet so little. Those regrets impossible to accurately voice. The simultaneous significance and insignificance of everyday gripes like the noise of the next table, the disappointing wine. On the whole the dramatisation of the poem works well too and certainly the first half an hour or so is immersive and engaging. Alan Rickman’s lazy, lingering, drooling tones suit such a piece perfectly. You rejoice with his ageing character as his planned escape from the office comes off, via the “yawn” of the lift and enjoy his observations of the London crowds. The direction matches the poem well, vividly evoking stand out lines and images. The arrival of the old lover and the disbelief and resurgence of old feeling is also dealt with well, but as Rickman’s character loses himself amongst his thoughts the adaptation struggles to convey the essence of the words, resorting to overlong focuses on Rickman’s vacant, ogling face. During these moments the drama loses its urgency and coherence and even Rickman’s loving recital of the language, full of irresistible rhythm and emphasis, cannot avert awkwardness for the audience. Despite this and the sense that the adaptation worked best at the beginning, only to trail away, The Song of Lunch was a beautiful, meaningful and enjoyable watch.

Emma Thompson, the old flame and muse of Rickman’s character in The Song of Lunch, also features prominently at times in Stephen Fry’s latest and second autobiographical work, The Fry Chronicles. This book focuses on Fry’s Cambridge years and the formative years of his career, mainly in comedy. However the book joyfully flits about all over the place, touching upon all manner of topics. Forgive me for what is a very Stephen Fry-espque tangent, but the cover of The Fry Chronicles, by which I mean the covering of the book itself, is extremely attractive and I cannot understand the unrealistic snobbery of people who continue to adhere strictly to the old mantra “never judge a book by its cover”.  It is surely impossible today not in some, even wholly unconscious way, to judge or dismiss books based upon their colourful jackets. A writer can slave away at the world’s next great novel only for it fall flat on its face, or be devoured by entirely the wrong sort of audience, because of a wrong decision in the marketing department. Fry’s book is carefully kept simple, with a mostly pure white background and a tasteful picture of himself accompanied by the title in bold blue. The quotes selected for the cover go some way to conveying the essence of what is in inside. I have also bought and shall soon read C by Tom McCarthy, the expected winner of this year’s Booker prize. His publishers too have done a fine job of creating an enticing, attractive cover, reflective of the book’s content (a whirl of lines reflect the theme of communication) and informative (positive criticism expectedly prevails), without excluding anyone by opting for a garish pink. A nice touch to The Fry Chronicles’ cover is that the inside cover has a coloured stripe pattern that matches that of the socks Stephen sports on the cover and generally such colours would seem to represent his personality too.

Cover rant over, is The Fry Chronicles actually any good, jostling for position as it does with whopping political memoirs from not just Blair himself but his advisers and fellow New Labour architects and other assorted celebrities with bright, bubbling, amusing lives to share? The answer is yes and I have not even quite finished the thematic, slightly chronological trip through Fry’s memories as yet. Of course like any autobiographical work has its faults but Fry does his best to acknowledge them. It is also surely more entertainingly, amusingly and playfully written than a host of other similar works set to come out in the endless run-up to Christmas gift season. Fry’s book will ride high on the bestselling lists right up to the turkey dinner and beyond, and deserves to. Not only is it stuffed full of interesting content and fascinating anecdotal tales, but offers an enormous amount of wit, humour and personal, emotional insight; of the truth I search for on my cultural wanderings.

If anything the book starts slowly with a brief focus on Fry’s adolescent addiction to sugar, which if I am honest I found irritating and hard to relate to, but never boring as the sheer energy and wit of Fry’s prose carried me through this section. Once he reached the start of Cambridge however I could identify far more and I whizzed through this portion of the book. Every now and then Fry will interrupt the recounting of actual events to bemoan his lack of confidence and express his own doubts. He fears that he has become a jack of all trades, master of none and that he has squandered natural talents. It is comforting to hear a man of such talent and intelligence admit to such fears about topics as wide ranging as ambition, fame and relationships. He even hopes that his trials and tribulations are merely facts of the human condition, shared by all, and in so doing says something true. At times his refusal to analyse the failings of others as he examines himself is frustrating, with most name-drops also accompanied by gushing praise, but this is all tolerable as he repeatedly acknowledges he is too kind to be a critic, can be seen as arrogant and would not want to judge anyone but himself, in what is after all, an excellent autobiography first and foremost, as well as a snapshot of the entertainment world of the eighties (which Fry makes accessible to those not familiar with the era, as well as the ardent fan).

If Fry’s book is for the most part a light hearted, jovial glance at what it means to be human, set amongst manicured university grounds and the artificial, rich entertainment world, then director John Hillcoat’s 2009 cinematic imagining of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is a bleak and brutal, stripped back stare at the core of existence. Unlike Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps which I reviewed last week, concluding that it had little purpose or idea of what it was, this movie has a strong narrative and never fails to engage, doing so on a number of levels. Early on we are struck simply by the aesthetics of a barren, apocalyptic landscape, the moving soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and the emptiness of father and son walking, emaciated and dirty. Then there are moments of genuine tension, excitement and action when the gangs, cannibal or not, emerge and threaten to discover our protagonists and then no doubt exploit or kill them. The scene where a gang member discovers the crouched Viggo Mortensen whilst taking a piss, clutching a gun with just two bullets left, bullets meant for his son and himself should they be necessary, is incredibly tense. It emerges that to be a father in such an environment means being just steps from being a killer. The film grapples with some big ethical questions around suicide, parenting and violence by placing them in a fictional, extreme context. Even without thinking about these deeply it’s impossible not to be moved by the bonds between Viggo Mortensen’s father and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s son, who both give excellent performances, or not to be gripped by the hard hitting action or grim scenery.

For me the most moving parts of the film were the flashbacks that revealed the boy’s mother choosing to leave the father and son, effectively choosing to die rather than go on living in a dangerous, frightening, fallen world. Viggo Mortensen’s character must deal with the fact she chose to die rather than be with them throughout the film as he clings desperately to life for his son. Again here I found that elusive truth that could resonate in my own life; people can do irreparable damage to each other, unimaginable hurt, just by living or in this case by choosing not to, but for her things were clearly so bad for it to be the only choice, the only path forward. This passive process, this capacity to senselessly destroy the meaning of the lives of others, is also recognised by Haruki Murakami in his novella South of the Border, West of the Sun.

I read this in its entirety during a series of train journeys this weekend and found it compulsive reading, for want of a better less clichéd phrase. This is the second Murakami I have read following Norwegian Wood and he seems to have an ability to articulate romantic feeling that I find fascinating, given the differences that perhaps ought to exist between Japanese and Western culture. He seems to capture some sort of universal feeling, especially when writing about the ambitions and frustrations of adolescence. His style is simple and elegant and full of spot on imagery, whilst always retaining a sense of urgency and passion. I could empathise with the narrator of South of the Border, West of the Sun despite our vast differences; he a wealthy, Japanese bar owner, facing a mid-life crisis and the return of a childhood sweetheart, me an ordinary student in Britain. I could share the agony of his conflicting desires and that sense that incompleteness will always prevail. In fact the novella seemed to conclude that such incompleteness was the only certain destiny of the human condition and that life will always be a meandering search for truth in vain.