Monday, 30 December 2013

2013-14 Season Halfway Review


The Arsenal
So far, so good.
(Pic : Daily Express)

Overall Verdict – Aside from blips (Villa, Man Utd, Man City), it's been much better than anyone would've expected after the shambles of pre-season. I can't argue with being top going in to 2014, but a lack of squad depth will come back and haunt Arsenal again. I expect Chelsea and Man City to last the distance, especially as mid-February and the end of March look particularly brutal in terms of fixtures. I won't accept Arsenal as bonefide title challengers unless they go into April 6 points clear. I want to BELIEVE!

Best Performers – One player stands out; the second coming of Aaron Ramsey. He's proving he's not only one of Arsenal and Wales' most talented players, but pushing to be one of the best young players in the world on present form.

Per Mertesacker is a future (full-time) Arsenal captain in making, and – despite his flaws, like having the turning circle of the Ark Royal – should be one of the first names down on each teamsheet. The Mertesacker-Koscielny partnership is, as last season, rock solid.

Olivier Giroud deserves a mention, despite his recent barren patch which came to an end yesterday. There are legitimate concerns over whether he can carry an attack, but he's somehow managed to do it. I'm not sure about his over-dramatic flouncing whenever he misses a chance though.

New Signing ImpressionsYaya Sanogo has yet to play, so there's nothing to say.

Mathieu Flamini is one of the shrewder signings of the season. He does the ugly stuff in midfield that Arsenal have lacked since Gilberto Silva. He's doing very good "Generalissimo" impression each game, pointing and shouting at thin air. I was sceptical about bringing him back, but I'm glad Wenger took then punt.

That leaves Mesut Özil. He initially produced performances that matched his price tag, but from November onwards he's taken his foot off the gas. I don't know if that's tiredness or him still adapting to the English game, but he's only showing about 2/3 of his ability – which is still pretty good.

The League Overall


Player of the season (so far) – Realistically, it's Luis Suarez with Aaron Ramsey second. Despite signing a new contract, I just don't see Suarez staying at Liverpool for the long haul. I'd expect a "Galactico" move to Real Madrid in the summer unless Liverpool qualify for the Champions League.
He's still a rat.
(Pic : 101greatgoals.com)

Take your pick from most of the Man City squad. Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo, Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany are probably up there in contention. At Chelsea, you can probably point to Edin Hazard.

Goalkeepers have had wobbles, but Simon Mignolet is looking like an excellent signing for Liverpool, and was one of the best keepers last season also. Tim Howard is also putting in excellent performances for Everton.

Surprise Packages (Good)Everton have punched above their weight, and Roberto Martinez is proving doubters wrong. I don't think that's down to their high profile loanees either, they've threatened to break into the top four for some time. They have a very good run of games over the next few weeks from their perspective. I don't think it's silly to suggest they could launch a surprise title challenge.

Liverpool are proving doubters wrong too, though I wouldn't expect them to go the distance as their inconsistency is causing problems. If Arsenal are criticised for not turning up against the big teams, the same can be said of Liverpool.

Hull City have adapted quickest to the Premier League of the promoted sides and have put in some great performances. I had Steve Bruce down as one of the first sackings, but he could very easily lead Hull to the top half of the table on current form.
David Moyes doesn't care about Japanese people.
(Pic : Daily Mail)

Surprise Packages (Bad)Man United, it goes without saying. It's been a miserable start to the Moyes era – Europe and cups aside. I fully expect them to finish top four, or at least push towards top four. The sight of Shinji Kagawa – one of the best creative midfielders in the league – sitting on the bench while the likes of Tom Cleverly start is very amusing.

Chelsea are far from their previous Mourinho incarnation, resorting to George Graham tactics and not being convincing either. The fact they're still in contention does, however, highlight how good a manager Mourinho is – begrudgingly. I fully expect another splurge next summer which will re-establish Chelsea's juggernaut. Man City have perhaps overtaken Chelsea as my favourites for the title now though.

Tottenham spent £100million and have – predictably – unravelled in comical fashion. Fulham have long flirted with relegation, and I suspect this will be the season they go down. They're playing as though they've given up.


Emerging Talent – Everton's Ross Barkley probably has the strongest claim here, as does his teammate Seamus Coleman. I'd expect big bids to come in for both during the summer, and it'll be a question of when, not if, both move from the Toffees – unless the club can offer them a chance to play at the highest level.


One of the big talents of the Premier League?
(Pic : BBC)
Southampton's Adam Lallana (though hardly "emerging" at age 25) and Luke Shaw have also impressed. The latter has already been linked moves to a bigger club. Christian Eriksen was one of the few Spurs signings who seems genuinely exciting, and was flagged up by Dennis Bergkamp as someone Arsenal should've paid close attention to.

Duff BuysMarouane Fellaini was one of my favourite non-Arsenal players prior to his move to Old Trafford, where he's since become anonymous. His poor performances and lack of playing time have perhaps put his place at the World Cup in doubt.

Roberto Soldado hasn't done anything to justify his £26million price tag at Tottenham, yet. Meanwhile, Cardiff's third most expensive signing, Andreas Cornelius, has played a whopping 6 games and scored zero goals – somewhat understandable due to injuries.

The worst signing in terms of investment vs end product is probably Chelsea's £31million Willian, closely followed by Norwich's £8.5million Ricky van Wolfwinkel.

The Welsh Clubs
Aside from one or two surprise results, neither club has set
the Premier League alight this season.
(Pic : Wales Online)
Swansea have struggled this season, despite spending more than £20million in the summer. That's probably because the Europa League has proven a distraction (with constant Thursday-Sunday games). I wouldn't expect them to get anything from the Napoli games, and although I'm sure Jacks were pleased to have picked up silverware last season, they'll want to stay in the Premier League more.

Michu's also suffering from "Second Season Syndrome" with abundance and out until February with an ankle problem. In addition, the Liberty Stadium isn't the fortress it was last season or under Brendan Rodgers. They're still pretty solidly run on and off the pitch and have talented players like Ben Davies and Jonjo Shelvey, so they do have the players at their disposal to push on. However, I'd expect towards the end of the season there'll be the annual muttering surrounding Michael Laudrup's future.

On the pitch, Cardiff are doing as I expected, though Hull are performing best of the promoted sides. Have they completely adapted to the Premier League? Aside from one or two surprise results (against the two Manc clubs, for example) probably not 100%. They're big problem seems to be upfront, as they're averaging less than a goal a game, while goals conceded aren't that far off the sides around them.

Off the pitch, they're a complete mess and a perfect example of how not to run a newly-promoted club. Sacking Malky Mackay defies logic, but when did logic ever matter in football? They've been linked with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and firebrand Turkish manager Yilmaz Vural as replacements. The former's perhaps too sensible to want to work under Vincent Tan, while the latter (who's been ruled out, it seems) is a complete fruitcake who rarely lasts more than a year at clubs he's managed.

Cardiff and Swansea in a relegation scrap before the season's out? I wouldn't bet against it, and if I were putting money on one of them to go down, it would be the Bluebirds. Cardiff's saving grace is the sides below them aren't doing much better....for now.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Cryfaces of Homeland

Nobody does stress-induced screaming better.
(Pic : uproxx.com)
Series three of Homeland – shown on Channel 4 - draws to its conclusion in the UK tonight. It's already finished in the United States, and the finale leaked. I've been spoilered, so I know what happens without seeing it, but because I'm not an arsehole – or like to think I'm not – I'll keep that to myself.

The third series has been a big improvement on the second – which "jumped the shark" a little bit with silly stuff like people bursting through walls and implausable plots. It's blown its chance of going toe to toe with the "modern greats" on HBO etc., but  S3, on the whole, was a straight-up CIA drama in the manner of 24. The characters remain cartoonish, but it remains one of the more entertaining shows around.

There's been criticism of the focus on the "Brody Bunch", and Dana Brody Lazaro – played by Morgan Saylor - in particular. I don't think that's a criticism of her acting abilities.

Having said that, you can't decide if Dana's had the sort of terrible growing up experience which has earned her the right to be a bit mopey. Or, she's just an angsty, self-righteous brat.

Every show has a character like that though – Ziggy Sobotka in The Wire comes to mind, as do Wesley Crusher in Star Trek TNG or Michael in Lost.

Her brother, Chris, doesn't seem to have any issue. He doesn't seem to have anything, about anything, at all. In fact, it looks like the Brody's won't feature heavily in S4 which might cause sighs of relief.

Elsewhere, the CIA story has been genuinely entertaining, to the point you're no longer sure who the good guys and bad guys are, especially since the introduction of hawkish Senator Lockhart and the guileful Dar Adal (played by F. Murray Abraham). Then there's Quinn – the obligatory semi-robotic Black Ops guy who kills without thinking but really wants to breed rabbits and culture alfalfa.

It's all a bit computer gamey, dominated by lead character Carrie Mathison herself, played by Claire Danes. Having gone through hell and back....again....risking missions and being generally stupid....again....she remains (as hinted in the titles) "the smartest but dumbest person" on television.

"Smart, but dumb" describes Homeland brilliantly. If there's one thing this show will be remembered for though - it's trademark, effectively - it's not the epic facial hair on display, but the Claire Danes "cryface".

It seems everyone wanted in on the teary action this time around.
(Pic : celebuzz.com)

Three words : "Fuck....You....Saul". A testament to the character's strength, delivering a defiant response even when completely off her face on sedatives in a mental hospital. It was also a little bit funny, I'll admit.  But it was all part of Saul's brilliant masterplan! Isn't that great! It makes it all OK! No worries!
(Pic : uproxx.com)

I call this "Zellewegger Sucks Lemons". Here we have a brilliantly-acted example of a woman crushed by young love betrayed. I don't think schadenfreude or laughter was the desired outcome, but it was perhaps one of the most unintentionally funny scenes in the show. It's like seeing a small child trip on some steps, and the delayed reaction between pain and tears. Not that I take enjoyment from such things.
(Pic : uproxx.com)

"Beard of Pride".
(Pic : digitalspy.co.uk)

"Beard of Shame".
(Pic : happynicetimepeople.com)
I call this one "Full Metal Jacket". The CIA heard Brody like drugs. So they put more drugs in his drugs to make him stop taking drugs. That produced....effects.

Morena Baccarin gets a thumbs up from me for multiple reasons. I call this "Down The Road, Not Across The Street, Dana". It's the sort of face I picture her making if she came around the corner to find me lying in bed, a rose between my teeth, pitching a tent that the Chinese State Circus would be proud to perform under, as I utter the immortal words, "My body is ready". Sort of fear, mixed with a mournful regret. Strangely tearless too.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Blurred Lines

#Thicke? Or just #Thinkingwithhisdick?
(Pic : thetrendingreport.com)
It's almost Christmas. So that means plenty of booze and stuffing faces. It also means lots of crap music. If one song of 2013 encapsulates "crap music" it's Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines, which will inevitably appear at every excessively dull Christmas party this year.

When I was first made aware of this valuable contribution to humanity's artistic pantheon, I wondered why Beetlejuice and cow tongues were in vogue.

True to form, it's been nominated for three Grammy Awards.

Pop songs don't become popular without generating some modicum of controversy. This song supposedly has it in spades, flagged up by The Guardian a few weeks ago as "the most controversial song of the decade".

Why though?

Well, as many of you know, the song has been described as a bit "rapey". It's been banned by a few universities, even leading to protests. Fortunately, nobody cares what Student Unions think, but it doesn't mean the song's not worth the outcry.

The lyrics are generally tame, seemingly a tribute to Fat Albert, a few one liners aside.

The first one being, "I know you want it." That's not anything in itself as it's followed up with "the way you grab me" (which could easily mean physical grabbing). I interpret it as the arrogance of an annoying, but mostly harmless, letch. You could even interpret it as flirting between two people who are already in a relationship.

Another, perhaps overlooked, line is, "I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two." It's obvious what that refers too – bumming with a penis the size and weight of a flagon of White Lightning (or one the owner thinks is the size and weight of a.....).

So the lyrics aren't that bad. Add the video to it though, with its parade of ornamental women, and it gets worse. Claims the song is a little on the nose with the old sexism become somewhat justified.

Some songs have tame lyrics and an controversial video. Others have it the other way around. Very rarely do you find both, but it's not that uncommon. Any song that relies on a controversial video to push it is, inevitably, shite.

But maybe the fact this song and video has generated so much controversy on this subject is a sign attitudes are, perhaps, beginning to change.

It's not like it hasn't happened before.....

Five songs at least as misogynistic as "Blurred Lines"

5. Every Breath You Take – The Police

We all know now, but this is one of those songs that sounds romantic because of the tune, but when you read into the lyrics is pretty scary, describing stalking, referring to women as property. This is not a wedding song. It's about breaking into homes and sniffing soiled underwear.

4. Delilah – Tom Jones

Next time it's sung by boozed up Welsh rugby fans, or by Stoke City's neanderthals, remember all those women in daffodil hats wailing along are describing a man stabbing his cheating partner to death. That's why I find domestic abuse campaigns around the time of the Six Nations rather amusing.

3. Don't Leave Me Now – Pink Floyd


A rock star destroying a hotel room, and giving his wife a bit of a slap (mentally and/or physically) in the process.

2. Bitches Ain't Shit – Dr Dre
"Bitches ain't shit but hoes and tricks
Lick on these nuts and suck the dick
Get the fuck out after you're done
And I hop in my ride to make a quick run."

Sir, you have the manners of a Tottenham fan. How uncouth and ungentlemanly. And certainly not very nice.

1. Pharaonic Circumcision – Desecration

I can't even link to Youtube because it includes the album cover, which is – even by death metal's standards – very naughty. You would think that because this song is grunted at a breakneck speed, and includes very graphic descriptions of body horror, that it would be pretty high up the offensiveness scale.

It's so misogynistic, it actually comes around full circle to be one of the best feminist songs there is. The lyrics of the song describe - hey,hey,hey - quite accurately albeit exaggerated - hey,hey,hey - female genital mutilation – a very real problem.

Friday, 6 December 2013

World Cup 2014 Draw Reaction

The draw for next year's World Cup has been made, and
it doesn't look good for England....is that a facepalm in the middle?
(worldsoccertalk.com)

If you're in the mood, the draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Finals in Brazil has just been made.

Obviously, events have been overshadowed by the death of Nelson Mandela. If anyone's wondering why I haven't acknowledged that "elsewhere", nothing I could write on a piddling blog could do justice to what he achieved, which is ageless even if – alas – human bodies aren't. So it goes.

If you're looking for other great global unifying figures, hatred of Sepp Blatter football would be towards the top of the list.

I'll do a full prediction closer to the tournament itself, so for now I'm just going to look at how strong the groups are and which nations stand out in particular. On to the draw itself :
(Click to enlarge)
That's not a particularly good draw in terms of group games. Group B and Group G stand out as the hardest groups.

Spain v Netherlands will be something of a grudge match, I'd imagine. Chile are no pushovers either, managing to hold Spain to a draw in a friendly earlier this year. One of the few likely guaranteed Welsh-based players will be in this group too in the form of Cardiff City's Gary Medel (EDIT: alongside Swansea City's Ivorian striker, Wilfried Bony).

Group G looks to be the most exciting overall. Germany Vs USA - USA being managed, of course, by Jurgen Klinsmann - and Germany v Portugal. Ghana aren't quite as strong as they were last time around, but will no doubt cause problems.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, sleep will be the last thing on the Three Lions minds.

England have a tough one, and that's an understatement. Not only are they playing in the middle of the Amazon against Italy at 2am our time, they also have to face Uruguay, who have their in form rat-human Luis Suarez.

England should....should....have enough to get out of the group, but it'll be a skin of their teeth job. If they do get out of the group they shouldn't have any problems against their Round of 16 opponents, but could be looking at Brazil, Spain or The Netherlands in the quarter finals. Football won't be "coming home" in 2014.

You've got to see Brazil, Argentina, Belgium, Colombia and France walking their groups. I don't see where any "surprise package" will come from looking at that draw. Bosnia are perhaps the best bet there, or South Korea.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

How Videogames Changed The World

Have video games changed the world?
Yeah, suppose so.
(Pic : videogamer.com)

Sod's Law says that if I like something, it's guaranteed to be linked to dying early or some sort of moral panic – heavy metal, football, sugary foods, beer, walking, women's bottoms, the colour red. Based on media coverage, I'm a man-made disaster waiting to happen.

Another of those things is video games. Last night, Channel 4 showed How Videogames Changed The World, presented by former video game journalist, Charlie Brooker. It was a typical Channel 4 list show, with plenty of talking heads, but with games funnily enough.

I don't know if it's a damning indictment of my own knowledge of popular culture that I knew who Peter Molyneux and Shiguri Miyamoto were, but had no idea who Labrinth was.

As the host explained in The Guardian, shows about computer games are rare things indeed. They're either "targeted at teenage boys", or brought up in news stories relating to the moral decline of society, with gamers said to be "defensive" about the past time.

I think that's true. The gaming industry has a massive inferiority complex because it isn't taken as seriously as high-end HBO productions, art house films and novels. Yet I believe many of the best creative works of the last twenty years have come from gaming. Since The Simpsons turned shit, Grand Theft Auto V is perhaps the best satire of modern America, for example.

I'm probably half-way between a casual gamer and a "hardcore" gamer. I enjoy them, know the terminology and aspects of the culture, but I wouldn't put it at the top of the list of things I do with my time, playing them sparingly. I only got round to playing Fallout 3 a few weeks ago, and that was released in 2008.

It's simplistic to say gaming is low-brow. It's as varied as any other medium, with first person shooters being your equivalent of a macho action film, while strategy games like the Civilization, Europa Universalis and Total War series' are more "cerebral" and "sophisticated".

Some can even be educational, or even be beneficial, as was highlighted in the case of Minecraft – a "virtual Lego" – which is very popular with people on the autistic spectrum due to its logical patterns and controllable environment.

The one part of this documentary that made you pause for thought is the issue of violence.

They showed a clip from Mortal Kombat 9 of Kung Lao bisecting another character via the crotch (warning, graphic). In a game context, you would probably find it funny, ridiculous and cartoonish – similarly Carmageddon, and Sniper Elite, where you can relieve Hitler of his remaining testicle :

                                

You see those levels of graphic violence presented in a documentary fashion, and you realise game violence sometimes crosses lines it shouldn't. The most graphic horror films wouldn't get away with it. I don't think, however, that it reinforces the belief that gaming contributes to general psychopathy.

Putting aside blockbusters like the Grand Theft Auto series and alike, I'm excited about how "indie games" are progressing.

I've mentioned Faster Than Light before, while the game Papers, Please – where you play a border crossing guard in a fictional Soviet Bloc nation – have far more layers than they're given credit for. As gaming audiences diversify, developers will increasingly want to make players "feel something" about what they do and made it difficult to live with their actions. That's not really something any other medium can replicate.

The next game I'll probably buy will be the indie-developed Speedball 2 HD, which is out next week, simply for the nostalgia factor as I spent hours playing it decades ago. Many big studio games no longer interest me.

What was also interesting was the choice of "the #1 game" – Twitter. I don't think many people think of it as a game as such, but you can definitely see elements of The Sims and old timey arcade games (perhaps card games like Top Trumps too) represented in social media. Would we even have social media if it wasn't for gaming?

I'm obviously not very good at this "Twitter" game because I only post links and respond to other people tweeting me. Such a n00b.

Key games left out in my opinion were :
  • FIFA series – As an example of a big licenced popular franchise, and longevity (it's been going for 20-odd years).
  • Sim City – Probably deserved a mention alongside things like Minecraft and The Sims.
  • Final Fantasy series – The "James Bond" of gaming. Surprised it didn't get a mention.
  • Championship/Football Manager – A much better example of successful "bedroom programming" than Manic Miner!
  • Sonic the Hedgehog – There are human proteins named after Sonic the Hedgehog. Proteins!
  • Pokemon – I loath it, but it's an excellent example of gaming crossing into popular culture.

Right, OK, it wasn't perhaps as in-depth an examination as many would've liked, but to have Elite, Monkey Island and Shadow of the Colossus mentioned on mainstream television is nothing short of a triumph.

In short : excellent. More, please!

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