Friday, May 27, 2005

Liverpool: European Champions

I don't know what it is that makes being a football fan in England a trying time. For some reason English teams are incapable of winning competitions without putting their fans through every emotion. But then, if they didn't, victory wouldn't taste quite so sweet!

Liverpool, rich in history but without any significant success in over a decade, returned to the top of World football on Wednesday night with a performance that belied the 100-1 odds placed on them in December. Both Liverpool and AC Milan played a part in the most astonishing final in footballing history.

Trailing 3-0 at half-time to one of the most experienced Italian teams ever assembled, bookies started offering odds of up to 350-1 on Liverpool fighting back to win. Italian teams NEVER surrender such leads. No team ever comes back from 3-0 down in crunch games.

As the second half kicked off my only thoughts were that we didn't get humiliated. What followed though was more akin to something out of a Rocky script. First Gerrard fired in a header from range. His response was to run to the fans and urge them to get behind the team. Then Hamman set up Vladimir Smicer. So often a pariah, he hammered the ball into the bottom corner of Didas goal.

AC Milan had collapsed. Every pass, every 50/50 ball, every move went Liverpools way. On 60 minutes Gerrard latched onto a pass that split the AC defense. Bundled to the ground, Gerrard won Liverpool a penalty. Alonso, seeing his effort saved, pounced on the rebound and hammered it into the net.

Nobody could believe what was happening. It had taken only 6 minutes for Liverpool to humble a team that in the first half had taught them a footballing lesson. A team that had won this trophy only 2 years previous.

The match moved into extra-time with AC Milan laying seige to the Liverpool goal. Minutes from the final whistle, Jerzy Dudek, pulled off two stunning point blank saves. That Dudek, a player whos inconsistency has cost Liverpool many matches this season, should be the hero seemed pre-ordained, and as the game entered penalties he etched his name into footballing legend. He turned back the clock to 1984 and mimmicked that other great Liverpool eccentric Bruce Grobbelaer. Dancing and clowning around on the goal-line, Dudek succeeded in putting off the AC Milan spot-kickers. One miss and 2 saves later, Liverpool were champions.

It's two days ago now, and it still hasn't sunk in. I realise that people who don't understand what it is to support something like a football team can never understand, much as I cannot understand peoples faith in their religions. However, this event is the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed. That I was helped through the trauma of penalties by several Man Utd fans, further illustrates that every once in a while football can bring people together.

"How can I think of leaving Liverpool after a night like this?" - Steven Gerrard, plays his part in 'Liverpool: The Hollywood Story'.

When I look back at Wednesday night I honestly can't believe it happened. If it had been written by a Hollywood scriptwriter, it would have been laughed out of the studio. This was Rocky 1-5 and The Great Escape rolled into one. The sequel though, is already being penned as Liverpool fight to be given the chance to defend their title next year. Their poor league performance has meant that, regardless of playing a part in what was arguably the greatest sporting comeback in history, they do not merit a place in next years competition.

"Should Uefa prevent Liverpool from defending it next season, it would be a denial of everything that is great and important about football. All of which we witnessed last night." - Independent

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Kingdom of Heaven

Great thing about Star Wars opening weekend is that all of the other films are empty!

I'd heard several mixed reviews about Kingdom of Heaven; Ridley Scotts epic followup to Gladiator. Confusion reigned when one reviewer labelled the film an incitement to racial hatred due to its somewhat anti-Islam stance, while another reviewer said it was the exact opposite. So I entered the cinema somewhat unsure which of the two reviewers had actually seen the movie!

My low expectations probably helped here, for this is no Gladiator. The story, while disjointed is quite strong and gives tremendous sense of scale as men from all over europe flock to the Holy Land to 'do Gods Will'. However, very early on we see the Directors intention is not to criticise Islam, but to squarely point the finger of blame at Rome, and the extremist followers who did the Popes bidding.

"To kill an infidel is not murder"

Balians (Orlando Bloom) reaction to such lines is one of disdain. He is the protector of people, not religion; a lesson passed down to him by his father (Liam Neeson).

How Balian comes to be in Jerusalem is a largely uninspiring affair. His wife, having committed suicide is damned to hell, while Balian himself has become the man that God has foresaken. Luckily, his father, the Baron of Ibelin, arrives just in the nick of time to whisk the young elf blacksmith off to the Holy Land where he can seek redemption both for himself and his wife. Naturally fate intervenes, leaving Balian with the title of Baron of Ibelin and the duty of protecting the ailing King of Jerusalem(the superb Edward Norton).

This is were the movie earns its wings. Despite being sold as the action-packed followup to Gladiator, KoH is surprisingly low on sword wielding antics until the final third. Instead it chooses to focus on the fragile peace between the Christian rulers of Jerusalem and the majority Muslim inhabitants of the land. The political interplay between the central figures is superb. The King maintains an open dialogue with the leader of the Muslims, Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), working hard to enable the two religions to live together. Jeremy Irons puts in a solid performance as Tiberias, the man who believes that all denominations must live together regardless of whether it goes against the Papal doctrine.

Of course, for every peace loving Knight there are hundreds of warmongers, and none greater than Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), the Kings brother-in-law. Through his henchmen, he intends to start a new war; a war to wipe out the Muslims, for they are the enemies of Christianity. There are shades of the powerhungry Commodus here, but none of the brilliance. Too often does Lusignan resort to snarling, in an effort to look evil, to ever be credible.

When the shit hits the fan, we just know that everyones favourite elf will come to the rescue. Balian has vowed to protect the people, be they Christian or Muslim and this is how he remains. Unfortunately, Bloom lacks both the charisma and gravitas to pull off this role. While I enjoyed his performances in Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean, he was very much a co-star in both. It is a real shame, because for the majority of this film there is an epic story trying to run free, only for it to be constantly held back by Blooms impotent hero and Csokas' snarling villain. For all my dislike of Russell Crowe, the man had tremendous stature in the role of Maximus.

In the end, the best performances are those of the underused Irons, Norton, Massoud and Alexander Siddig (playing the brilliant Nasir). Meanwhile, the least said about Balians love interest Sibylla (Eva Green) the better.

In summary, a terribly disjointed film that is let down entirely by the lead actors. It has moments of genius and beauty, while the poignant message about religions living together in peace echoes long after the movie has finished.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Star Wars: Episode III

Star Wars, the saga I love and hate probably with equal measure is finally complete (unless you are a proponent of the 9 movie version that is). Even the most die-hard fans of the original trilogy must have felt just a little short-changed after the mediocre Episode 1 and the truly dismal Episode 2. However, when I came out of Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith at 3:15 in the morning, I finally felt I had closure. Here we have a movie that, despite a pretty hellish first third, actually came close to touching the coat-tails of its mighty predecessors.

Going into Ep3, I had a level of quiet confidence. Even George Lucas couldn't screw up the birth of Vader; even George Lucas couldn't distract from the truly tragic events by throwing in Ewoks or Jam Jars to 'lighten the mood'; even George Lucas couldn't come up with enough cheesy dialogue to ruin the most important moment of young Anakins life.

Thankfully, my shaky confidence seems to have paid off, as Ep3 delivers at least half a movie that is both tragic, touching and compelling.

As with the entire 'new' trilogy, the film suffers greatly from a lack of direction and genuine storytelling. Indeed, the first third feels like it is just going through the motions, full of simple filler before the real story of Vader comes to the fore. This first section sums up everything that is wrong with the prequels.

First up we are treated to a visually stunning battle between mighty Republic and Separatist ships. The culminating lightsaber duel is so lacking in feeling that it betrays the memory of those classic encounters between Luke and Vader. These scenes are supposed to set up Anakin as the conflicted mind, eager to serve his Chancellor, but determined to help people. Sadly the delivery of both his lines and actions are as wooden as ever.

From the 'excitement' of the battle we are re-introduced to Padme (Natalie Portman), now heavily pregnant with Anakins child. If there is one plot point that Lucas has failed to deliver on, it is this relationship. It is so integral to the story of the young Jedi and his fall from grace, and yet so lacking in chemistry that it is a miracle the movie flows at all.

The same could be said of Obi Wans friendship with Anakin. It is clear that the two are supposed to be close, but the director refuses to let the actors breathe life into their characters.

Despite the poor direction, dialogue and acting, the first third is rescued by Ian McDiarmid, playing the would be Emperor Palpatine. Sensing the time to conquer the Galaxy is near he begins to plant seeds of doubt in the mind of young Anakin, cruelly taking advantage of the Jedis fragile state. These scenes are terrific and offer the first real glimpses of Palpatine from Return of the Jedi.

From here the movie steps up a gear. In truth it almost feels that halfway through the film Lucas handed over the direction to, oh I dunno, Irvin Kershner!! Not only does the film suddenly become darker than Empire Strikes Back, but many of the actors start to show actual depth of character. We see Obi Wan and Anakin bidding farewell. It is a subtle moment that is clearly marked as the final time they will be together as friends and actually comes across with poignant sincerity.

Palpatine is now free to make his move, leaving Anakin with the ultimate choice. The buildup and execution of Anakins transition to the darkside is wonderful, although once he accepts his choice Hayden Christensen lets everyone down by 'acting' evil - which in his case involves staring up from his sinister cloak and speaking veeeerrrry slooooowwwwly. However, once he fires up the lightsaber again, the evil flows freely and we finally get a glimpse of Anakin, how I imagined him.

Which brings us to the final conflict and much has been written about how this fight would be the fight to end all fights, yadda yadda yadda. However, in the end the climactic coming together of Anakin and Obi Wan is stunning not for its choreography and stunts - which in my opinion are still far outclassed by the brilliant Duel of Fates - but rather by the truly emotional performances of Christensen and Ewan McGregor. After 2.5 movies of wooden acting and emotionless dialogue, Anakin and Obi Wan unleash their guilt, anger and love in a mesmerising display of martial arts, force powers and tearful dialogue. It is, in my opinion, this trilogys finest moment, and easily the best conflict since Vader spoke that immortal line to his cowering son in Return of the Jedi.

"If you will not turn to darkside, then perhaps she will"

Beyond this, there is some superb intercutting of scenes between the birth of the twins and the birth of Vader, only damaged by a return to some extra cheesy dialogue.

And then that's it. The saga is complete. Time to go home.

It is highly unlikely that this trilogy will stand the test of time like the original. The more I think about it, the more I believe that Lucas got very lucky with the original. He cannot direct actors, that much is clear, yet somehow the chemistry between Luke, Leia and Han was stunning and had real depth. Perhaps that had more to do with the actors than anything else. In this new trilogy, there was little or no chemistry, not until the final hour of the final film, and that is one of the saddest points and the reason I sincerely hope we do not see Lucas bring Eps 7, 8 and 9 to the screen.

Another key point which I only noticed last night was the poor use of the soundtrack. For me, a soundtrack is as important as any other aspect of a movie. When I look back at the original trilogy, I can recall how the music heightened the senses of each scene. Remember, the entrance of the Super Star Destroyer? That scene would have been nothing without 'The Imperial March'. What about the sublime Jedi music that follows Luke down the trench of the first Death Star? Or my personal favourite scene in all of Star Wars - the moment Luke gives in to anger and defeats his father. Everything about that scene is perfect, from the framing, to the performances and finally to the piece of music that still sets my heart racing today.

Only once in the entire of this new trilogy did the music feel perfectly balanced with the scenes, and that was Duel of Fates from Ep 1. Too often was the music over-produced and mingled so profoundly with the other sound effects that it became a garbled mess. Add to this the over-use of CGI, the poor ordering and cutting of scenes and it's not a surprise that this trilogy was unable to capture the magic of the previous one.

However, Ep 3 deserves a lot of credit. For me it has rescued a franchise in serious artistic decline and while some of the scenes between Vader and Palpatine are camp let us not forget the cheese fest scenes in RotJ!

Vader: "I have felt him"
Palatine: "Strange that I have not"

Plus, after 2 movies with far too much failed comic relief you'll be pleased to hear that C3PO hardly has a line, while Jam Jar only appears in the background. Bar the shaky first hour, Hayden Christensen finally comes of age when his full wrath comes to the surface while Ewan McGregor shrugs off Alec Guiness to delivery a poignant, new side to Obi Wan. Seeing this great leader reduced to a tortured, desperate soul, will go down as one of THE defining moments in the entire Star Wars saga.

Oh and Yoda is pretty cool too!

In summary, Ep 3 is 100 times better than Ep 1 and 10,000 times better than Ep 2, yet it still fails to match the consistency of the original trilogy. It is very much a story of 2 halves. The first 45 minutes feel like a hangover from Ep 2, save for the performance of Ian McDiarmid. But hang in there, because the final 90 minutes finally deliver a movie worthy of the name Star Wars.

"Thank the maker!"

Friday, May 13, 2005

Beware the hoodies

I'm as guilty as everyone else. Ever since I was assaulted in the street by two hooded youths, I have tended to give groups of lads wearing hoodies a wide berth. When you break it down it's a pretty irrational fear. I mean hoodies have been around for years, so why now are they suddenly the biggest issue in British politics?

Only a week since the election and apparently the issue that warrants the highest priority is not health, education, terrorism or the economy. It is, instead, the issue of whether youths should be banned from wearing hooded tops.

Anyway, here's a report in the Guardian that might just explain the cause of this bizarre fear most of the nation has.

It seems a tremendous act of prejudice to tar everyone with the same brush like this. I may be guilty of holding that same irrational fear from time to time, but I can still see the stupidity in the likes of John Prescott supporting this rubbish.

If you want to stop anti-social behaviour, try getting to the root of the problem, rather than making radical generalisations about clothing.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

UK election

Been in Germany (convention report to follow), so watched the BBC coverage of the election dubbed in German. Hilarious, you really had to be there!

Full election result

Anyway, superb result for the Lib Dems. While the Tories made significant seat gains, their share of the vote hardly increased at all, indicating that the population still don't see them as a viable alternative.

Labour meanwhile, seriously underestimated the strength of feeling on issues like Iraq, foundation hospitals and tuition fees. As is traditional, they fought solely on the back of a strong economy and it was their undoing. That a government in power for 8 years couldn't find one other significant success to fight this election on is astounding.

The Lib Dem share of the vote is a tremendous and my only hope is that this is the start of something special. I guess my biggest fear is that the vote rise is solely because of Iraq, in which case we could see people returning to the Labour fold in 2009. However, for the timebeing things are good.

Personally, I feel that Tony Blair will be ousted by Christmas. His position is becoming untenable and I think he will face a hostile crowd come the September conference season. Howard meanwhile is trying to promote a young image for the Tories by selecting a 33 year old as shadow chancellor. I honestly don't know what the tories can do to win back power. Their negative politics did nothing to help their cause in the election.

For Charles Kennedy, a lot of work lies ahead. He needs to strengthen the policies he has created and work to remove the label that the Lib Dems are just the anti-war party.

And finally, the Independent has started a campaign to have our electoral system reformed. As in my recent blog (Time for PR?), the argument that our first past the post system does not accurately reflect the voting intentions of the people seems to be gaining momentum. With only 36% of the vote, Tony Blair has a third term. Perhaps if everyones vote mattered (instead of just those in marginals) we would get higher turnouts in places like Brightside (my constituency) where only 36.9 of the electorate bothered to vote.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Time for PR?

As with every election, there is a lot of talk about proportional representation. In an effort to get a better understanding of what effect PR would have on a UK general election I have taken a look at the 2001 results (source: Parliamentary Library). Yes I am a very sad geek sometimes!

I decided to assume the most basic form of PR were all seats in Great Britain are decided solely on the percentage of votes each party gets nationwide.

The results of the 2001 election were as follows:

Labour - 412 seats
10,724,953 votes
42% share

Conservative - 166 seats
8,355,193 votes
32.7% share

Lib Dem - 52 seats
4,814,321 votes
18.8% share

Other - 11 seats
1,662,542 votes
6.5% share

Total - 641 seats
Total votes cast in GB: 25,557,009

Note, that there are actually 659 seats in parliament, but I have excluded the 18 in Northern Ireland as these are not contested by the three main parties in Great Britain.

Now if we simply take the percentage share that each party received and awarded the entire of GBs parliamentary seats accordingly the result would have been.

Labour - 269
Conservative - 210
Lib Dem - 120
Other - 42 (60 if we add Northern Irelands seats to this figure)

Of course, the biggest thing of note here is that no party has an overall majority. In fact no party has claimed over 50% of the share of the vote in the post war years. The closest any party has come to this was in 1950 when Anthony Eden took 49.6% for the Tories.

While I accept that a hung parliament can act as a serious ball and chain, preventing real policy movement as the parties fail to agree, I would still argue that such a system would promote more coalitions over key issues and guarantee that even the small parties have a voice in parliament.

Of course, there are many problems to work out, such as ensuring that MPs are still evenly and fairly distributed throughout the nation. A PR system would also need to take into account the various regional parties in Wales and Scotland.

However, I feel that in this election, many people have come to the realisation that the importance of their vote is directly related to whether the constituency they live in is a key marginal. In my local constituency (Sheffield Brightside) there has been little or no campaigning. The incumbent, David Blunkett, has spent most of his time travelling the nation bolstering support in key marginals. Blunkett knows that his seat is safe, so why bother campaigning there. Is that right? Is it fair?

Even more critically, the last election saw only 59.4% of the electorate turnout. With more and more people realising that their votes are almost meaningless in some places, a new system needs to be considered. Labour promised to look closely at the pros and cons of proportional representation, but as with the Tories before them, once in power they are unlikely to do anything that might remove their commons majority.

It's time for a change. In a PR system, EVERY vote would matter, and I can't think of anything more democratic than that.