Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The conflict in The Middle East

It seems that not a month can go by without global news being dominated by the tensions in the Middle East. This latest series of tragedies in Northern Israel and Lebanon serve only to illustrate why no peace can ever be accomplished there (or at least not in my lifetime).

While Israel randomly bombs civilians in Beirut and Hezbollah continue their slaughter of innocents in towns like Haifa the "World Leaders" ponder how to react at the G8 summit. Most of the work so far has been solely aimed at getting foreign nationals safely out of Lebanon. But what of the wider implications? Well Tony Blair has offered to go and mediate (hasn't he got enough failures on his record by now!), only to be slapped down by his real boss George W.

Unfortunately, these leaders seem far too embroiled in the standard blame culture that engulfs anything involving Israel and it's neighbours. Oh it's Syria!! Not it's Iran! Wait a minute, both are to blame! Rather than continuing these rituals, did it not occur to people that perhaps the most important action that needs to take place is to get a cease-fire in place so that diplomacy can begin?

Israel are not just being heavy-handed, they are committing atrocities. They cannot simply be allowed to bomb civilian buildings throughout Lebanon as an act of self-defense. I am not a bleeding-heart who blames Isreal for everything, but the fact remains that bombing Lebanon into submission will not defeat terrorism. It will not prevent further attacks on Israel, it will only serve to force more people into the waiting arms of the terrorists.

Hezbollah MUST be dealt with, but not like this. Only through strong arm covert tactics can they be defeated. If Syria are backing Hezbollah, then impose sanctions on Syria. However, such action cannot be taken without also punishing Israel for it's outrageous incursions into Lebanon. The main problem in the Middle East is that almost every Arab nation feels that Israel is treated with kid-gloves while the rest of region faces sanctions and possible invasions. Whether this is true or not, the perception exists. The Israeli response to terrorist attacks is as disgusting as the attacks themselves and all nations involved should be dealt with in a fair and equal way.

This is not about blame... it's about ensuring that innocent civilians live without persecution. There are innocents dying in both Israel and Lebanon. It's time for the World Leaders to be strong, alas I get the feeling that this is not going to happen. Being given a week in which you have permission to basically do what you want in Lebanon is not being fair to all sides. It is giving Israel a license to commit atrocities.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean 2

Sequels are a risky affair. Even more so when the original film was one of the most unexpected financial successes of the year. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has already been touted as the "new Star Wars", although that's not entirely uncommon (remember The Matrix??), so it had a lot to live up to.

The eagerly anticipated sequel kicks off pretty much were we left the first movie (plus a few months). Will Turner (Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) are all set to be married, only for the devilish Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) to clamp them in irons for aiding in Cap'n Jacks escape from custody. They are offered a deal, deliver a mystical item from Sparrow or face the noose. And so, before you can say "Where's the rum gone?" we are off on another adventure, g'aaaar!

I actually found it really difficult to write a review for Pirates 2, mainly because I couldn't completely make my mind up about it. One thing is certain, it isn't as good as the first film. Not by some distance. Don't get me wrong, when it's good, it's superb, but all too often the film get dragged in random directions by a very convoluted plotline.

It's a classic example of sequel weighed down by the sheer level of expectation thrust upon it. With the first Pirates movie, everything just clicked, so much so, that you could ignore the plot and just enjoy the swashbuckling action and witty one-liners.

Most of the problems are rooted in the length of what is, essentially, an action-adventure comedy. It's two and a half hours long and boy does it show. I probably loved a good 90 minutes of this film, didn't mind another 30 minutes, but was bored to tears with the rest. Much like this blog, it took forever to get to the point. A case in point is a 20 minute stint on an island of cannibals, in which the only reason for it's inclusion is to serve as a way of thrusting the old gang back together. While good to look at and full of some fun action sequences, there is nothing new there the entire sequence is on the whole pointless.

As for the characters, the same old gang are back and for the most part are superb. Johnny Depp again steals the show as the infamous Jack Sparrow. Knightley is given far more screen-time and enough depth to make her character really stand out. Bloom does the job, but I still remain unconvinced of his star quality (Lord of the Rings aside). Bill Nighy (Davey Jones), meanwhile is suitably evil and does a fine job of trying to steal some thunder from Depp, but alas, he isn't given the screen-time his performance really merits.

However, and this for me is probably the most disappointing element of the movie, I was horrified at the direction taken by writers with regards to some of the characters, particularly Jack Sparrow. That might seem strange given how strong I believe Depps performance to be, but that doesn't mean I've got to like where the character is going. The problem stems from the writers decision to try to add further depth and meaning to the movie. In the first movie Sparrow was, for all intents and purposes, a lovable rogue; a survivor who was given the chance to redeem himself and did so amicably.

However in the sequel it's like the reset button has been pressed, only with an added kick. He again has to redeem himself and only really does so under duress. Plus at times Sparrow isn't a lovable survivor, he's a nasty piece of work; genuinely cruel and uncaring. While some might say "Duh... Pirate!", it doesn't fit with what we have learned from this character before. I'm all for nasty heroes. I love Mal Reynolds in Firefly (and he can be a right shit!), but it just doesn't sit right seeing Sparrow in that light.

Add to this the decision to add a random love triangle between the 3 main characters and I've pretty much explained my issues with this film. It's ironic that I normally expect sequels to try to do something different, but when this one does it I can't get passed the idea that the writers shouldn't have messed with a successful formula. By trying to move away from comedy action into a level of drama they find themselves completely out of their depth.

After re-reading that you've probably got the impression that I really hated the film. I didn't. I genuinely enjoyed it, but for the 30 minutes of chaff in the middle and the altering of Sparrows character. The final hour is superb, despite the writers incessant overuse of the best joke in the first film; "Where's the rum gone?!"...

In summary, when it's good it's fantastic, but it's overly long and seems to lack any clear direction. It's well worth seeing, despite the flaws. It has a wonderful array of monsters which never cease to entertain, while the characters manage to spark again albeit to a lesser extent. I was going to talk about the comparisons between this franchise and Star Wars, but The Guardian have provided a far more concise and less cumbersome review. It's pretty much sums up my feelings about the film.

Monday, July 10, 2006

World Cup: It's all over

Well I didn't see that coming! Then again I don't think anyone believed that the final of this years World Cup would be played out by France (knocked out in the last World Cup without scoring a goal and full of has-beens) and Italy (scandal-hit nation, that have failed to impress for years). But hey, that's football.


The two semi-finals were almost complete opposites. Despite waiting for 118 minutes for the first goal, the Germany v Italy game was probably the second best match of the knockout phase (after the Argentina v Mexico game). The France v Portugal semi, was woeful. Once France had scored we got to watch dull football continually marred even more by blatant diving.

I would say that France deserved their place in the final having deservedly beaten Spain and Brazil in previous rounds, but they hadn't exactly looked like World Champions. The same could be said of Italy. They hadn't played really well in the first 4 games, but seemed to have just that little bit extra to see them through.

The 3rd Place Playoff

I think that Martin O'Neill summed it up when he said this was "the most pointless match in history". Germany won. Nobody cared. Enough said really.

The Final

Unlike many World Cups, this final was actually an exciting affair. Two early goals, some decent chances, a sending off and penalties. Can't really argue with that. In the end France probably deserved to win the match but failed to deliver enough shooting chances. Zidanes moment of madness was shocking to see, especially as it was his last act in football, but we should remember that this is a player who, despite all his greatness, has received something like 14 red cards in his career, so he's not exactly reknowned for being calm.

It was nice that Italy proved they could bury all those previous penalty defeats by scoring 5 out of 5. It's a shame that England can't do the same!

France 1 - 1 Italy aet (Italy win 5-3 on penalties).

In the end

As I said at the beginning of the World Cup, all of the top teams had problems, which was why I was confident anyone could win it. Having said that I really didn't expect to see France and Italy there in the end!

After a fantastic group phase, the World Cup failed to deliver in the knockout phases. There were too few goals, too few moments of brilliance and to few classic matches. It reminded me of Italia '90 (often considered the worst World Cup) in that too many teams played defensive football in fear of conceding a goal.

Italy are the World Champions, although I struggle to say they deserved it. Then again, I can't think of any team in this years tournament that actually did deserve to win it, by the end.

World Cup Winners List

Brazil - 5 (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
Italy - 4 (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006)
Germany - 3 (1954, 1974, 1990)
Argentina - 2 (1978, 1986)
Uruguay - 2 (1930, 1950)
England - 1 (1966)
France - 1 (1998)

Friday, July 07, 2006


Today is the first anniversary of the devastating London bombings which claimed the lives of 52 innocent people. It is a day of remembrance and also serves as an opportunity to ask some questions.

Why did this happen?
What can be done to prevent it happening again?
Are we safer now than we were a year ago?

They are simple questions with very complicated answers. All too often do people try to put a black and white shroud over issues like this. It's easier to see things in this way. Just look at Bush and Blair and their views on good and evil.

One thing is certain in my mind, only through education, diplomacy and cultural exchange can this threat we face ever be subdued. Violence begats violence, which is why the war on terror is a complete misnomer. By attacking other nations, we are driving more desperate people into the arms of the terrorist leaders; opportunists like Bin Laden prey on the desperate, seducing them with a lie.

This black and white shroud covers all sides of the conflict from the Al Qaeda view that all westerners are fair targets, to the similar view in countries like Britain that Islam is an 'evil' religion that teaches murder. Because issues are complex, we tend to generalise heavily. As a result we now have a situation in which all Muslims in Britain are being viewed with suspicion by some. Similarly, in Iraq and Afghanistan all Britons are viewed with hatred by some, despite the fact that some of them might be aid workers etc.

Why did this atrocity happen?
What can be done to prevent it happening again?
Are we safer now than we were a year ago?

I don't have the answers to these questions. I just feel that in the year since the attack we have done more to drive recruitment for the terrorists than we have to subdue them. Every biased foreign policy move, every piece of populist fear-driven anti-terror legislation, every brutal raid on an innocent persons home, every newspaper headline that polarises opinion are deterring from the real need to sit down and analyse the causes of terrorism. Only through education and understanding, can we emerge from these tragedies better than before.

Today my thoughts are with the families of all of the people killed in London last year. My hope for the future is that these deaths were not in vain and that we can learn from the event to ensure that we can prevent it from happening again, both in the UK and across the World.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

World Cup: Quarter Finals

Oh woe is me. England are out! We wuz robbed! Etc etc etc...

Of 4 quarters only I only screwed up my prediction on 1 of them (England). Germany have again proved that no matter how bad things are in friendlies, they turn it on for the big games. They are a tournament team and I wasn't surprised when they went through against Argentina. It was cruel for them, but they clearly peaked to early having struggled to break down Mexico in their second round match. The scenes after the match were appalling and any players involved in the fight should be severely reprimanded.

The Italians victory over Ukraine was not very surprising given that they were playing probably the weakest team in the last 8. At 1-0, Ukraine had a number of chances to pull it back and a final score of 3-0 flattered the winners. Italy haven't played well in this tournament, but they are still there.

The best game of the last 8 was undoubtedly France v Brazil. I'd been saying since before the tournament kicked off that Brazil were not the team of legends the sycophantic pundits would have you believe. They had been completely unconvincing throughout the tournament and were deservedly beaten by a French side that has turned the clock back 8 years to that memorable WC win at the Stade de France.

Bye bye England

And so, to England. It will now be 44 years of hurt when we next compete in the World Cup. Of course England deserved to beat Portugal. We were the better side for the majority of the match and played with 10 men for an hour. But, while it is fun to blame a pantomime villain like Christiano Ronaldo for his blatant efforts to get Wayne Rooney sent off, this only detracts from the real truth that England were poor in this tournament. We followed up winning one of the easiest groups with a lack luster second round win over Ecuador (probably the weakest team in the last 16). Despite a quarter final against a weakened Portugal team (probably the 2nd weakest team in the last 8) we still failed to progress.

If we are going to lay blame, then it has to be at the feet of the manager. His lack of tactical flexibility resulted in us having no strikers playing in what was to become his final match in charge. His determination to fit all the best players into the starting 11 was naive. Sometimes you have to drop players like Beckham or Lampard in order to foster a better team ethic. Look at Portugal, a very mediocre team on paper and yet they are into the semi-finals of the World Cup having beaten two of the old european powerhouses (Holland and England). They are the opposite of England. A weak team with a truly supreme manager in Scolari. England are a team of World Class players (and egos) with a truly inept manager.

I am still unsure whether McClaren can escape the confines of 5 years working for Sven, but if he can then I sincerely hope that he unshackles these great players and let's them do what they do for their clubs. The Gerrards, Rooneys, Owens, Terrys and Coles of this World are not meant to be stifled by completely negative tactics.

England are just like Spain, perennial underachievers. Back int he 1980s and 1990s, we had a relatively mediocre team, but our managers were able to get the side to punch above their weight (hence a quarter final in 1986, a semi in 1990 and a semi in the Euro Championships in 1996). Now we finally have a team of players that can win trophies, we just need a manager that can bring the best out of them.

Semi finals

Germany v Italy
Germany have been fantastic and while you can never write off the Italians, I just feel it could be the Germans year. I said it before the tournament despite all the criticisms of Klinsmann, they are a tournament team and have looked very strong coming forward. The Italians have, so far, been disappointing, but they are in the semis and one good performance could still see them through.

Portugal v France
Nobody saw France coming; not even the French team themselves! They have been supreme in the knockout phase, beating Spain deservedly in the second round and undeserving favourites Brazil in the last 8. Portugal have been like Italy, not very impressive but their team spirit seems to have carried them through. I don't feel they deserve to be in the final based on their performances, but they can't be written off. With a manager like Scolari, you never know.