james debate
james debate

Sunday, 28 November 2021

Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Gil Kenan, Jason Reitman
Produced by Ivan Reitman
Starring Mckenna Grace, Finn Wolfhard, Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd
Studio Sony/Columbia
Running time 125 minutes

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It is difficult to imagine, in this era of mega-franchises that churn out a new instalment every year, that something so ingrained in our pop culture as Ghostbusters could have been left dormant for so long. We can argue all day as to whether this is a good or a bad thing. Either way, after thirty years it appears that the powers that be have finally decided to bring Ghostbusters back, in a big way.

The first attempt was with 2016's Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, a clean reboot completely disconnected from the original films, with a new cast, which was widely panned by both critics and fans upon release. Now Ghostbusters: Afterlife gives fans what they always really wanted: a true sequel.

By way of warning, this review will contain some mild spoilers, but I will endeavour to avoid ruining the biggest surprises.

So it's true, Afterlife is the direct sequel to the original Ghostbusters films that had long been rumoured but never materialised. Original director Ivan Reitman (now producer), passes the torch to his son Jason Reitman, himself a hugely accomplished Academy Award nominated filmmaker (Juno, Up in the Air, The Frontman). Sadly the original cast are now far too old and/or dead to lead a Ghostbusters film, so the focus instead falls to a new cast. Specifically the daughter and grandchildren of original Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (notably portrayed by the late, great Harold Ramis, who also co-wrote the original films), who inherit the Oklahoma farmhouse and unfinished business of the now-deceased Egon. Ghostbusting ensues.

McKenna Grace leads the line with a remarkable star turn as Phoebe Spengler, granddaughter to Egon. She is joined by Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things, and relative newcomers Logan Kim and Celeste O'Connor. The formidable duo of Carrie Coon and Paul Rudd round out the core cast. I will refrain from saying too much else, but there are some delightful cameo appearances.

Much has been written of 2016's failed reboot and why it did not work. But for me, the main issue was always the tone. Answer the Call simply did not feel like a Ghostbusters film. The humour was broad and obvious, leaning more heavily into slapstick and stereotype. Most of the discussion at the time focused on the cast, but really it was writer/director Paul Feig who really just wasn't a good fit for the franchise. 

In many ways, Afterlife does a better job with this. The choice of Jason Reitman as director was clearly intended to convey a sense of continuity, and you definitely get a sense of this being much more of a genuine successor to the original films. This looks and feels every bit like a Ghostbusters film, from the pacing, to the visuals, the music and the aesthetic sensibilities. 

Often, this goes too far, and Afterlife sometimes feels a bit too much like fanservice. In its worst moments, Afterlife straight up rehashes plotlines and jokes from the original movies. Gozer is back, we do the Keymaster/Gatekeeper routine again. While the cameos generally work, sometimes the callbacks can feel gratuitous and forced. These things were funny the first time, but in an era where Hollywood is often criticised for lacking original ideas, the repetition here feels a little bit ill-advised.

But despite this predilection for the familiar, in other ways Reitman has taken the opposite approach and made a number of creative decisions that make Afterlife actually a surprisingly different kind of movie to its forebears. First there is the rural Oklahoma setting. For many fans, New York City is a core part of the Ghostbusters identity. In many ways, it's the unsung star of those first two movies. Then there is the younger cast, focused on a core group of tweens compared to the middle-aged men of the original, with a sense of humour to match. The result is a quite different sort of movie. The original had a vaguely irreverent "SNL" type of quality about it, whereas Afterlife often feels a more straight-faced kind of adventure film. If I had to liken it to something, I'd describe it as a mix between Ghostbusters and Stranger Things, itself of course heavily influenced by the horror/sci-fi of the 1980s. 

Make no mistake, this is a very fine film, but these contrasts can sometimes feel a bit odd-fitting. A film that can't decide if it wants to be its own thing or rehash past glories. Enough changes to potentially alienate its likely target audience, but closely adherent enough to be occasionally cringeworthy.  

Ultimately, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is an accomplished, if often unbalanced film that marks a return to form for the franchise. A fitting and loving tribute to the departed Harold Ramis, and an exciting new beginning which will hopefully lead to a rebirth of all things Ghostbusters. In its wake, I am left feeling saddened that they did not make more films with the original cast when they had the chance, but excited to see where they take things going forward.

Sunday, 24 October 2021

Created by Hwang Dong-hyuk
Network Netflix
Starring Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon
Genre Survival Drama
Running Time 32-63 minutes

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“The exciting thing for me would be if the next Stranger Things came from outside America... right now, historically, nothing of that scale has ever come from anywhere but Hollywood.” These words, spoken in 2018 by Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos can't help but come to mind when watching Squid Game. Ever since they moved into original content, Netflix have poured an impressive amount of resources into the development of world cinema and foreign language productions. Many of these have even met with notable success (see Dark, Money Heist), but none have yet had the global impact of a hit like Stranger Things. Those words loom now, because with Squid Game it appears that the moment has finally arrived.

To say that Squid Game has been a success would be a gross understatement. Number 1 in 90 countries, 117 million viewers in its first month. Squid Game has blown past the record set by Bridgerton to become Netflix's all time most watched series at launch. Not just for foreign language productions, but for all Netflix productions. It is hard to overstate what a remarkable accomplishment this is, for a subtitled Korean series without any actors or production team who are known in the west to have smashed records and become the biggest thing in global entertainment is absolutely unprecedented. How did this happen, and is the hype deserved?

The concept is simple. A group of destitute, desperate people are invited to compete in a series of games with the promise of a cash prize large enough to clear all their debts and generally solve all their life problems. Each game is based around a popular children's game. The catch: if you lose the game, you die. As far as critiques on capitalism go, it's fairly on the nose, but it gets better. 

Part of the mystique about Squid Game comes from its unlikely path to production. Originally written more than a decade ago by writer/director Hwang Dong-hyuk, then a struggling writer going through a self-described low point in his life,  much the same as his characters in Squid Game. At the time, the script was rejected by every studio as being too extreme, too unbelievable, and so he put it aside. When Netflix finally picked up the project as part of its push into non-English media (the concept apparently deemed more believable in the 2021 age of class division and social media), it spurred this romantic image of of the struggling writer having his long-gestating project finally realised, but in truth this isn't really accurate. In the years since, Dong-hyuk has gone on to become quite a successful filmmaker in South Korea, with a number of significant hits to his name. He came into this project as a distinguished and recognised name in his home country.

Netflix, for their part, backed Dong-hyuk to the hilt, bankrolling Squid Game to the tune of $21million. This has allowed for a level of production that is up there with the biggest American series, and provided Dong-hyuk with the means to secure the absolute cream of the crop of South Korean actors. I'm not going to pretend to be overly familiar with Korean cinema, but my understanding is that this cast features a wide array of some of the most recognisable names in the region. Series lead Lee Jung-jae in particular is extremely well known in Korea as a charismatic romantic lead, a sort of George Clooney equivalent. His casting here as a desperate miscreant represents something of a casting against type. An exception to this is Jung Ho-yeon, a Korean model of moderate notoriety embarking on her very first role in acting. This breakout performance has seen her instantly transformed into a global superstar, her Instagram followers increasing from 300k to more than 20 million in just two weeks. The former relative unknown is now set to become a global ambassador for Louis Vuitton.

So why has Squid Game become such a global phenomenon? The first thing is the marketing. The cryptic imagery, the masks, the colours, even the name, is immediately arresting. It grabbed my attention as soon as it came up in the Netflix queue even though I had no idea what it was, and I'm sure I am not the only one. It stands out. Squid Game has an incredible sense of style about it that carries into the show itself. Its contrast of bold, over-saturated colours and children's games against bleak subject matter and extreme violence is striking - it brings to my mind a similar series, Utopia, which also stood out for its visuals and brutality.

The style is what hooks you in, but what keeps you watching are the characters. These characters are all distinct, larger-than-life types, brought to life through sharp scripting and consistently superb performances by its A-list cast. Even the unlikeable characters are hugely entertaining and irresistible to watch. You will become very attached to these characters, which makes the brutality of the series' narrative beats hit all the harder.

But ultimately you can't look any further than Dong-hyuk himself. The man wrote and directed every episode of this series, a rarity for such a big production, and he has crafted a world that is utterly absorbing, full of mystery, and stylishly presented. He has written a fantastic lineup of characters and expertly crafted an emotional narrative that ties them all together. It's compelling stuff, an excellent series that fully deserves all the hype. Great credit must also be given to Netflix, who have poured so much money and effort into supporting international production. That confidence is paying dividends now and has vindicated years of Netflix strategy.

Is it a perfect production? Certainly not. The concept often strains credibility and requires a suspension of disbelief, the American VIPs who appear late in the series are abysmally written and performed (surprising given the Netflix funding and Hollywood connections), and the mastermind villain's ultimate goals and motivation is a bit superficial and unsatisfying (unless this gets developed further later on). None of that ruins the experience, however, or detracts from what is otherwise a hugely entertaining series.

I am excited to see where Squid Game goes next. With this compelling world, its distinctive imagery, and now a massive audience, they could have the makings of a major franchise on their hands if they want it.

Saturday, 16 October 2021

Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Cary Fukunaga, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Produced by Michael Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Starring Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes
Studio MGM/Eon
Running time 163 minutes

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How will Daniel Craig's time as James Bond be remembered? A bold reinvention of a 1960s hangover? The last gasp of a dated male fantasy ill-suited for the MeToo era? At the very least it marked a change from what came before. Gone were the playboy antics of Pierce Brosnan, in favour of Craig's grittier, more physical blunt instrument of a man, while the gadgets and villains also saw a notable reduction in camp-factor. This was a more serious take on the character, initiated in the early 2000s, post-9/11 boom of big budget blockbusters taking on weightier subject matter and tone. The experiment bore fruit, with Craig going on to be the longest lasting actor to carry the 007 mantle, and the Bond franchise arguably bigger than it has ever been in terms of commercial and critical appeal.

By way of warning, this review may contain some light spoilers.

No Time to Die marks the end of that era, the last film of Daniel Craig's tenure and fittingly he has gone out with a bang. For Craig's swan song, Eon have assembled an array of impressively prominent talent behind the scenes. Hans Zimmer scores, Phoebe Waller-Bridge scribes. Most intriguingly, No Time to Die marks the first major film project for director Cary Fukunaga, a man known for critically acclaimed TV projects like True Detective, The Alienist, and Maniac. Eon have been bold in handing such an important project to someone with only minimal big-screen experience, but it has paid off. 

This is an excellent film overall. Compelling, entertaining, and gorgeously crafted for what might otherwise just have been typical blockbuster fare. No Time to Die is surely one of the most visually striking film in the Bond pantheon. The camera shots, pacing and imagery is a constant joy throughout. Fukunaga shows himself to not only have an eye for the spectacular, but a gift for captivating simplicity - for all the exotic locales and sweeping vistas, it is arguably the simplest of his set pieces (Blofeld slowly moving down a tunnel) that provides the most arresting imagery of the entire film.

Waller-Bridge's scripting is tight, for the most part, and injects some welcome levity back into a franchise that has been taking itself just slightly too seriously of late. While this still very much has the tone one would expect from a Daniel Craig Bond film, she does manage to slip the odd joke or visual gag into the mix in a way that allows her trademark wit to shine through in a way that is not overly gratuitous. 

No Time to Die also boasts some of the finest performances in the franchise's history. Craig has not been so compelling as Bond since Casino Royale, while Christoph Waltz takes his second chance at making a lasting impression as Blofeld (following the hugely disappointing Spectre). The supporting cast boasts a remarkably deep bench with Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Jeffrey Wright reprising their roles, while newcomer Lashana Lynch makes a headline grabbing impression as a black, female 007 (it should be noted, however, that the current scuttlebutt is that she will not be reprising this role going forward, despite the hype). 

Much attention will no doubt be on the main villain of the story, played by recent Academy Award winner (albeit one of the weakest in recent memory) Rami Malek. Malek, it has to be said, is somewhat bland and forgettable in this role. That is not entirely his fault, this just isn't all that compelling a villain, but one also gets the impression that he is a bit out of his depth here as an actor. Malek has been propelled onto the Hollywood A-list by his good fortune at landing so beloved a role as Freddie Mercury, but he won't stay there if his performances don't earn it.

There is some unevenness in the plot. The villain's motivations are not especially well thought out or compelling. The big bad MacGuffin that everyone is chasing has a somewhat fluid nature that adapts to whatever is most narratively convenient with little care for consistency or logic, and the narrative beats themselves sometimes just don't make much sense. It is established early in the film that Bond has become infected with this nano-weapon that everyone is chasing, but no one seems to be especially concerned about this until the final segment where Bond is, once again, infected, only this time it's suddenly a game-changing crisis. Particularly strange is how the film handles the character of Paloma, a CIA agent played by the magnetic Ana de Armas. Paloma gets a significant chunk of the film having her character and growing connection to Bond developed, only to suddenly disappear and never be seen again. Some very odd choices.

But perhaps I am expecting too much from a Bond film. These are only niggling concerns that do not detract from what is otherwise an excellent action movie - and note, this is an action movie rather than a spy movie. Whether you like it or not, one of the defining features of Craig's Bond is that (aside from the first movie) he is more of a comicbook superhero than a clandestine agent, but I can't fault a film for being what it is.

So No Time to Die follows the pattern of Daniel Craig Bond films alternating between good and bad (Casino Royale - good, Quantum of Solace - bad, Skyfall - good, Spectre - bad), and has earned all the plaudits that it is currently receiving. The story is not as strong or meaningful as Casino Royale (still the highlight of the franchise for me), but in terms of style it ranks among the very best. It will be interesting to see where Eon take the franchise next, but for now this makes for a satisfying and hugely entertaining goodbye to the Craig era.

Sunday, 10 October 2021

Genre Rock
Label Island
Producers Shawn Everett

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When The Killers announced the upcoming release of their seventh studio album, mere months after their previous album Imploding the Mirage, it raised a few eyebrows. A big name artist releasing two albums in such quick succession is practically unheard of in this day and age. For The Killers, the gap between albums has generally been 3-5 years historically, so the announcement that they would be releasing a second album in less than a year was surprising to say the least. But any concerns that this would be a rush job or album of B-sides has proven to be premature. On the contrary, Pressure Machine represents arguably the band's most complex and ambitious release to date. 

The Killers' frontman Brandon Flowers has been known to say that he would never stop writing new material, were it not for the need to travel, tour and promote his previous work. So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that he has used his year of lockdown, with all tours and commitments cancelled, for precisely that. Nor should it come as a surprise that an album written amid such sombre circumstances would strike a decidedly more introspective tone than we have come to expect from his work.

Previous albums have covered a broad swathe of matters that largely strike you in the heart: love, family, destiny, spirituality, ambition, topics that are relatable to most, and powered them with lyrics that are evocative rather than nuanced. "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier," "The stars are blazing like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun," "I saw the devil wrapping up his hands, he's getting ready for the showdown." Flowers is a master of this kind of songwriting. He has a spectacular eye for imagery and knows exactly how to hit his listeners deep in their gut. With Pressure Machine he takes much more of a  topical laser focus, attempting a sober and serious look at the struggles of small town American life, particularly in relation to the opioid crisis.

As a band that is best known for crafting songs as big, shiny objects, the more subtle nature of Pressure Machine's music may come as a shock to long-time fans. It's a bit like if filmmaker JJ Abrams decided that his next film should be an intimate portrayal of migrant workers during the Great Depression. That is not to say that The Killers have not previously dabbled in the intimate, but their past albums have largely been focused around the show-stopping anthems. Their most recent album, for example, featured tracks like Caution, My Own Soul's Warning, Dying Breed, and My God, each of which was a potential hit single with their broad, radio-friendly hooks and exhilarating tone. By contrast, Pressure Machine's music is much more of a slow-burn, without any obvious chart toppers and more understated, delicately crafted melodies. But while the music may not be as instantly impactful as some of their best known work, it does grow on you with repeated listens and its additional intricacy starts to shine.

On first listen, what stands out most from the music is how varied and textured it is compared to previous albums. Delicate keys and lingering strings, in addition to the usual jangling indie guitars. This is an album with a wide soundscape, from West Hills' raw outpouring of the soul, to the breezier country jam Quiet Town. In the Car Outside delivers some of the more energetic rock and roll that one would expect from The Killers and, in its climax, one of the best instrumental segments The Killers have ever produced. But perhaps the most impressive track is the title track Pressure Machine, a soft and soulful track of rare beauty. There is a lot going on her musically and it's often gorgeous. It is refreshing to see the band operating outside their usual comfort zone, exhibiting a greater musical dexterity than I think the band often gets credit. What surprised me, given the more understated nature of the music, was just how much these melodies got under my skin and stuck with me on repeated listens. While these songs may not have the visceral immediacy of those opening chords from Mr. Brightside, their subtle and timeless hooks nevertheless leave a lasting impression.

Where Pressure Machine doesn't quite succeed is in the lyrics. While Flowers' broad impressionistic style is effective in its own way, it's not especially well suited to this kind of discussion. The subject matter is one that demands insight, rather than evocative tugs on the heartstrings. Flowers has always been more of a poet than a piercing intellect and it makes for an uncomfortable fit with the vision of this album.

Pressure Machine marks an ambitious turn from The Killers, and delivers one of the band's most musically complex offerings, if not the raw excitement of their more famous hits. I suspect this is an album that could fly under the radar for many, failing to grab hold of the top 40 crowd, while struggling with critics that have historically been sceptical of the band's work. For those who give it a chance, however, they will find a powerful piece of work, with music that will surprise you in its longevity.

Must Listen :

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Developed by Beethoven & Dinosaur
Published by Annapurna Interactive
Genre Musical Platformer
Platform Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC

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This one takes me back. Even though The Artful Escape is a brand new game, it feels like I have been talking about it forever. It has become a mainstay of my annual Hot List since its originally scheduled release in 2017. Now after a series of delays, it finally sees release.

The Artful Escape is the latest production from Annapurna, a studio that is quickly establishing itself as one of the finest producers of games in the industry. Players control Francis Vendetti, an aspiring folk musician from a small Colorado town who lives in the shadow of his world famous uncle Jonathan Vendetti, a sort of Bob Dylan-esque figure. Struggling for inspiration and motivation, Francis has a sudden epiphany and decides to completely reinvent himself and in doing so create the most elaborate stage persona in rock music history, David Bowie style. What follows is a dazzling and surreal cosmic adventure in which Francis travels the galaxy crafting a mythology and style for his new persona. Think "Ziggy Stardust the videogame" and you won't be far off. 

The game itself is essentially a platformer. Run from left to right and jump over gaps until you reach the end, with the added twist of being able to shred a guitar while doing so. It's not an especially challenging platformer. The levels are quite simplistic in terms of obstacles, with the most difficult task being the timing of double jumps during certain segments in order to get past moving obstacles and closing doors. There are no enemies or combat, and the closest thing you have to a boss battle is the occasional Simon Says style musical section. There's no fail state. If you miss a jump or play the wrong note on a musical section the game just lets you try again. 

Let's be clear, this is not in any way a challenging game. More of a 2D walking simulator. Instead, the emphasis is on the experience. Fortunately it is one hell of an experience. The Artful Escape is a sensory treat in every respect. The visuals are incredible, among the most beautiful games I can recall seeing. Colourful, imaginative settings bursting with life and small details, and some breathtaking artistic vision. 

The music is also very impressive, from the Jonathan Vendetti tracks that sound authentically like some long lost folk masterpiece, to the soaring glamrock of Francis' galactic adventures. While the player's guitar shredding does not affect gameplay in any way (aside from some achievements), it does add to the game's backing track through some impressive technical wizardry that ensures everything is on tempo and in tune.

The quality of the writing is also very strong. The Artful Escape is full of memorable characters with satisfying arcs, while the dialogue is witty and mostly a delight. In classic Annapurna style, the studio has called on a number of its Hollywood buddies, resulting in an impressive cast. Jason Schwartzman in particular steals all of his scenes, but he is ably supported by big name actors including Mark Strong, Carl Weathers, Lena Headey and Michael Johnston.

I was pleasantly surprised by how far the game goes to immerse players in the fantasy of creating this Ziggy Stardust style character. Players can choose a name and backstory for Francis' persona as well as their appearance through a highly customisable hair and costume system. The flexibility and complexity of this system was far more than I was expecting and allowed me to design a rock star persona that I truly felt was mine. If I have one criticism here, it's that the player doesn't really have much input into the music itself. Guitar shredding is (outside those Simon Says sections) just a single button that the game uses to automatically match to the backing track. That being said, I didn't feel like this was sufficient to break the immersion or fun.

I can see why some people might get bored with this game due to the lack of any real gaming challenge. But for anyone with a love of music, sci-fi or quirky adventures, The Artful Escape is a delightful journey. It exceeded my expectations. I was expecting a colorful musical adventure, but not the absorbing world and characters. Annapurna have shown once again that they know how to craft compelling stories in the medium of videogames, and The Artful Escape is another jewel to add to their collection.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Directed by Leos Carax
Written by Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Leos Carax
Produced by Charles Gillibert, Adam Driver, Vacharasinthu, Paul-Dominique Win
Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
Studio Amazon
Running time 140 minutes

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I am honestly not sure if I can give this film a meaningful score out of five. This is the sort of film where you could have two perfectly reasonable and insightful people of good taste, one who thinks the film is extraordinary, the other that the film is hot garbage, and they would both be right.

Annette is a musical film written (and with cameo performances) by Sparks, a 1970s rock band probably best known for their bizarre stage personae and this song. On paper, it's a strange duo to be in charge of a major motion picture, and in Leos Carax they have found a director who can craft an equally strange film.

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard play a celebrity power couple, he an acerbic stand up comedian, she a renowned opera star. Tragedy strikes and shortly afterwards their child Annette, portrayed bizarrely by a marionette on strings, gains the supernatural ability to sing like her mother. All kinds of crazy shenanigans ensue. 

There is a lot going on that makes Annette such an unusual, surreal film, even aside from the aforementioned marionette. This is a film that features, among other things, ghosts, a musical sex scene, and constant fourth wall breaking. This is a supremely melodramatic, over the top, rock opera. It is a strange combination of knowingly camp, but produced with the artistic flair of a more serious film (not entirely unlike the ill-fitted pairing of Driver's trashy comedian to Cotillard's sophisticated singer). In many ways, this feels more like watching a theatrical production than a film. We are used to seeing the avant-garde and surreal on stage, but less so in a big budget film. Often the staging feels like something designed for Broadway with the way scenes unfold and how the actors address the audience. I suspect that many of the things here that strike a cinema audience as unusual probably would not look out of place on the West End.

Despite its sillier elements, the quality of production is very high. Visually, Annette is a treat with some very striking cinematography and memorable set pieces. The music is also generally very good, although the fourth wall breaking lyrics get quite irritating after a while, as does the heavy use of repetition. For the first one or two songs it can pass as quirky and mildly humorous, but when you're an hour into the musical and every song does the same schtick, it's a bit much.

Adam Driver's performance is exceptional in his intensity and brutality. Driver has a non-traditional physical appearance and carries himself with a unique physicality that makes him one of the more interesting actors in Hollywood right now. By contrast, Cotillard seems to be a bit under-utilised in this role but still manages to haunt each scene (in more ways than one) with her inimitable presence. 

Annette is a strange film, one that is very difficult to evaluate in any meaningful sense. It's an ambitious, sprawling mess at times, yet executed with undeniable artistry and panache. There are moments watching this film where I feel as though the producers are shooting for the awards season and others where it seems that they are instead trying to craft the next gonzo Rocky Horror Picture Show style cult classic. A film of excesses that is meant to be watched in groups at raucous late night screenings. The impression I am left with at the end is that of a muddled piece of work that probably doesn't fully succeed in hitting either of those targets, but genuinely doesn't seem to care.

Sunday, 22 August 2021

Football is back, for real this time. With spectators and everything. This summer has been a welcome relief for starving sports fans with Euro 2020, the Olympics, Marble League 2021 and other highly entertaining spectacles, but few things can really compare to a new season of Premier League football. This season in particular is shaping up to be a scorcher, with a good four or five teams with a genuine shot at the title. So without further ado, let's dive into it and get the season underway.

premier league 2020/21 preview
For anyone wondering why I still use the old school Premier League logo, know this: I'm an old school kind of guy.

Premier League 2021/22 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester City
Champions League qualifiers: Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool
Relegated: Watford, Crystal Palace, Norwich
Golden Boot winner: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
Golden Glove winner: Ederson (Manchester City)
Player to watch: Harry Kane (???)
New signing to watch: Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea)
Young player to watch: Billy Gilmour (Norwich)
First manager to get the sack: Mikel Arteta (Arsenal)
Shock of the season: Brentford to achieve a comfortable midtable finish in their first ever Premier League season

Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 8th
Manager: Mikel Arteta

It is a challenging time to be an Arsenal fan. Two consecutive 8 place finishes, European football only a faded memory, and a general mood of doom and gloom that pervades every fibre of the club. 

Mikel Arteta simply is not ready to manage a club of this expectation and may never be. One can only imagine that the reason he has kept this job this is the controversial 2019 FA Cup win that was much derided for its questionable refereeing, this unearned triumph perhaps disguising what has otherwise been a near constant procession of disappointment and underachievement. It is strangely poetic that this sham of a football match may actually have harmed the club's development in the long run.

Knife-twisting aside, this is a squad that appears worryingly bereft of genuine top level talent. Talismanic striker Aubameyang had a quiet season by his standards, and when he doesn't fire Arsenal don't seem to have a plan B. Nicolas Pépé was somewhat improved although still struggling to justify his massive transfer fee. Willian proved to be a bit of a dud signing. There is some promising young talent in the squad from Kieran Tierney, Emile Smith Rowe, and Bukayo Saka, but these players alone are not (yet) enough to form the spine of a top tier side. If Thomas Partey can hit the ground running this season and conduct this midfield, then Arsenal may yet punch above their weight. Otherwise, this is looking worryingly like a midtable season.

That their summer transfer business has been so lacklustre, with an astonishing £50million spent on former Brighton defender Ben White being the highlight to date, paints a troubling picture of a club that is either in greater financial trouble than they let on, or no longer offers allure to elite-level footballers.

Key Signing: Ben White
Key Man: Thomas Partey
Verdict: Another season of midtable obscurity awaits without a few more astute signings.

Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Capacity: 42,095
Last season: 11th
Manager: Dean Smith

Aston Villa's upwards trajectory has been most impressive in recent years. Midtable of the Championship in 2017, promoted in 2020 and last season achieving a very solid midtable Premier League finish. Sometimes a club reaches the top flight, rides that emotional high to a remarkable first season, and then fades away the next year. But with Villa that does not look to be the case, quite the opposite in fact.

This summer, the club have invested with ambition and they appear to have done so shrewdly. The addition of attacking trio Emiliano Buendía, Leon Bailey, and Danny Ings is some very impressive business for a club of this stature, especially when you consider they already have the likes of Ollie Watkins and Bertrand Traoré in the squad. Grealish may have gone, but they have put that transfer kitty to good use. This is a Villa team that has become renowned for its grit and solidity at the back, but they are building a team that is capable of playing good, attacking football. If they can achieve this without sacrificing that solid core, then this could become a very capable football side.

But for all the flashy additions, the key man at this club is the man at the back, Emiliano Martínez. I think people underestimate the extent to which his performances and organisation in the box have been a contributing factor to Villa's improvement. For anyone who has watched the transformation of the Argentinian national team since his promotion to the first team, however, the impact will be clear.

Key Signing: Emiliano Buendía
Key Man: Emiliano Martínez
Verdict: I like the look of this team and if they can gel they could be looking at a Europa League place.


Nickname: The Bees
Ground: Brentford Community Stadium
Capacity: 17,250
Last season: Promoted (3rd)
Manager: Thomas Frank

The pundits already have the knives out for Brentford. A team with little in the way of a storied footballing history, playing in the Premier League for the first time ever, with few experienced top flight players in the squad. It's predictable that this side would be tipped by many for the drop, but this does a disservice to the team Thomas Frank has built over the last couple of years. One wonders the extent to which any of these pundits have actually seen any of these people play.

In truth, there are a core of players at the club who seem well suited for top flight football: David Raya, Ethan Pinnock, Ivan Toney, and in particular classy midfielder Christian Nørgaard. Young striker Yoane Wisa formed one half of a deadly partnership at French minnows Lorient, while in Kristoffer Ajer they have signed a player of genuine elite potential who has been hotly tipped for a big move in recent years. The signing of Frank Onyeka, meanwhile, brings actual Champions League experience to the club. Without wanting to disrespect Brentford, the fact that a club of this relatively minor stature is able to summon the clout and financial resources to be making these types of signings reflects will on how powerful this league has become.

But it's important to stay grounded. This is a promising side and they will be on an emotional high coming into the season. The reality is that they will come up against some of the best football teams on the planet, in a league where even the smallest players command world class resources. Success is far from guaranteed, but likewise it would be a mistake to write them off.

Key Signing: Kristoffer Ajer
Key Man: Christian Nørgaard
Verdict: Could surprise people. A relegation risk but I think they'll survive and sit comfortable in the lower mid table.

Nickname: The Seagulls
Ground: Falmer Stadium
Capacity: 31,800
Last season: 16th
Manager: Graham Potter

A lot of very positive things have been written about Brighton over the past few years and the south coast revolution that owner Tony Bloom and manager Graham Potter have been promising to instigate. Despite this, I was rather more measured in my evaluation of their qualities and expected a finish somewhere in the mid lower half of the table. Indeed this is almost exactly what happened, leaving many to wonder if this club had progressed as far as it could be taken.

But the statistics reveal more than one can infer from the lacklustre results alone. In spite of their struggles at the foot of the table, Potter's side ranked near the top in terms of expected goals, a statistic that estimates the number of goals a side would be expected to score, given their attacking play and chances created. In fact, if Brighton had managed to score as many as the statistics suggest, they would have been in contention for European qualification, with a mean expected finish of 7th place.

Potter has got this team playing some good football. They are tight at the back with Robert Sánchez, Lewis Dunk, and Adam Webster, while Yves Bissouma and Leandro Trossard form a productive midfield. In Tariq Lamptey they have one of the league's brightest young players, if he can stay fit. They just need someone to finish all the chances they create. It is a bit shocking, then, that at the time of writing they have not yet made any moves for a new striker. That is not to say they have not been active, however, and the signing of box-to-box midfielder Enock Mwepu should add some additional energy in the midfield. Nonetheless, one feels that until they find that elusive goalscorer, this club may find it difficult to progress further.

Key Signing: Enock Mwepu
Key Man: Lewis Dunk
Verdict: If they sign a striker, they could push into the upper midtable. Otherwise, more of the same.

Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Capacity: 21,944
Last season: 17th
Manager: Sean Dyche

It could be his no nonsense demeanour, or his team's hard-fighting style, but Sean Dyche's Burnley has always been something of a media darling. An example of classic grit and overachievement. Many pundits had predicted a push into the top half of the table last season. This blog was one of the few who saw the troubles on the horizon.

This side has a lot going for it. Nick Pope is unironically one of the league's best performing goalkeepers. Ben Mee and Jack Cork have been in the top flight forever and know how to succeed in this league. But this is a razor thin squad with a lack of options going forward. Their business in the transfer market so far this summer has done little to rectify the situation. For all the hype they've had in recent years, this is a Burnley side that has done little to move itself forward in a league that is constantly improving, and the result could be a challenging season for the club.

If there is one potential bright spot for the club, it is the recent takeover by ALK Capital. This will be the key to building on what Dyche has created. Burnley need their new owners to back their man in the transfer market and build a squad that deserves to hit the heights of the club's finest moments.

Key Signing: Nathan Collins
Key Man: Nick Pope
Verdict: Can't be ruled out of relegation, but should have enough to survive.

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: 4th
Manager: Thomas Tuchel

There's never a boring time to be a Chelsea fan, although sometimes I wish there was. This is a team that inherently lacks any sense of stability and yet somehow keeps winning anyway. Two Champions League victories, both of which took place in years where the manager was fired halfway through, says everything about how this club is run and the paradoxical amount of success that approach has brought.

Still even by the club's standard, sacking Frank Lampard after so impressive a start to his Chelsea managerial career felt gut-wrenching, even without taking into account Lampard's exalted history with the club. The replacement, Thomas Tuchel did not exactly get off to the most auspicious start either: initially benching the youthful Chelsea players like Mason Mount and Reece James that had brought such success the previous year (thankfully he realised his error pretty quickly), forcing out the club's top scorer for two seasons running Tammy Abraham in favour of the misfiring Timo Werner (the fact that he still finished club top scorer last season despite being frozen out for half the year says everything). Sure, the victories that brought Chelsea the Champions League title were remarkable, astonishing even. But they have somewhat papered over the humiliating bottling of the FA Cup final, and the lacklustre end to the Premier League season that saw Chelsea barely cling to a top four place.

But I will say this for Tuchel, he has given this Chelsea side the solidity and consistency that they sorely lacked under Lampard. The addition of goalkeeper Mendy doubtlessly helped in this regard, but so too have the defensive duo of Rudiger and Christensen found a brand new lease of life under Tuchel. The truth is that Tuchel had something of a teething problem when he arrived at the club, but seems to have now found a team that works. He's even learned to embrace Chelsea's impressive youth output. Really the only thing lacking right now is goals. Enter stage left: Romelu Lukaku. Nothing typifies Chelsea's transfer policy over the years than spending £100m on a striker we already had as a teenager and then sold for a song (let's not forget that a more patient Chelsea could also have had Salah and De Bruyne in this lineup). But Lukaku is undoubtedly one of the world's top strikers right now and he could be exactly what this club has been needing. The fact that his name isn't Tammy Abraham should hopefully mean he gets a few games as well.

So Chelsea enter this season filled with optimism and good feelings. They have recruited well to add to a squad that was starting to shape up nicely, with talent in every position. But the key to this team is and will remain Mason Mount. On and off the pitch, Mount is the beating heart of this club. If everything clicks into place, this team could challenge for the title.

Key Signing: Romelu Lukaku
Key Man: Mason Mount
Verdict: Genuine title contenders, but perhaps not yet at the level of City.

Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 25,486
Last season: 14th
Manager: Patrick Vieira

Stability has been tricky to come by for Crystal Palace in recent times, through a slew of managerial changes and squad upheaval. It's the same old story. Last season I said that a tough year was in store for Roy Hodgson and sure enough he is no longer with the club. His replacement, Patrick Vieira, has got a real job on his hands if he wants to not only stay in a job, but stay in the Premier League.

He joins a stagnant and ageing Palace side that, for a number of years now, has been overly dependent on a single, talismanic Wilfried Zaha. That's no longer enough and Zaha is no longer the player he once was. A number of first teamers have left the club this summer and with Eberechi Eze out until the end of the year, a replenishment of talent is needed. Looking over their summer transfer business, it's not clear that they have done enough.

New defensive signings Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi will look to provide a platform for the club's attacking talent of Zaha, Eze and Benteke to build on, but personally I will be watching closely the on-loan midfielder Conor Gallagher, who has excelled in the Championship and is hotly tipped at his parent club Chelsea.

Key Signing: Joachim Andersen
Key Man: Wilfried Zaha
Verdict: A genuine relegation risk if they are not careful.

Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 10th
Manager: Rafa Benitez

It is fair to say that the past 12 months have been an emotional rollercoaster for Everton fans. They entered last season at perhaps a high point in optimism for this club. A superstar managerial appointment in Ancelotti bundled with ambitious, big name signings. But it was not to be, Everton disappointed and Carlo left as soon as Real Madrid came calling.

After a season in which the perennial nearly-men finally looked set to push forward, it is now back to usual form. New manager Rafa Benitez, certainly not a popular man at Goodison for his Liverpool history, is nevertheless a safe and tested pair of hands who can get this club to perform and meet objectives. But manager aside, this is a squad that will ask some pressing questions of the new administration.

What is to be done with the injury-prone Rodriguez? The want-away Moise Kean? Richarlison is a supremely talented player, but remains inherently ephemeral. Instead, the focal point of this team remains Dominic Calvert-Lewin. It's clear from the signings of Gray and Townsend that the priority is going to be to get more balls to Calvert-Lewin and get the best out of their star striker. This is a good strategy and will result in a solid season for Everton, but at the moment there is no sign of that heightened ambition that we saw only one year ago.

Key Signing: Demarai Gray
Key Man: Dominic Calvert-Lewin
Verdict: Targeting a top half finish, but face plenty of competition.

Nickname: The Whites
Ground: Elland Road
Capacity: 37,890
Last season: 9th
Manager: Marco Bielsa

There was certainly a great deal of buzz around this Leeds team ahead of last season's long-awaited return to the top flight, but I don't think many could have predicted such an impressive debut from Bielsa's men. Every pundit under the sun has got their own opinion of whether this will prove to have been a one-season fluke, or the start of a new renaissance at Elland Road. But the truth is, no one is really quite sure what to expect.

On paper, there's no particular reason to think they would be in trouble this season. Patrick Bamford, far from arising out of nothing, has shone at Championship level for many seasons and long been tipped to be a top flight success. Kalvin Phillips, meanwhile, has continued his fine combative form for England at the highest stage. Stuart Dallas is just excellent.

But there have been warning signs. Leeds have had a rotten pre-season and have largely failed to bring in meaningful additions to the first team. There are tough questions to be asked of the defence. This is a team that largely thrived on its attacking intent and control of the midfield, but once teams learn to adapt and play them, they've proven surprisingly bereft of a plan B. It will be interesting to see how defender Junior Firpo, signed from Barcelona, can slot into this team and whether he can make a difference.

Key Signing: Junior Firpo
Key Man: Kalvin Phillips
Verdict: Shouldn't be a relegation risk, but will struggle to live up to last season's success. Lower half of the table.

Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Capacity: 32,261
Last season: 5th
Manager: Brendan Rodgers

The transformation at Leicester City in recent years has been one of the most remarkable stories in world sport. Their shock title victory a few years back is the stuff of legends of course, but while everyone was writing them off as a one hit wonder, Leicester have been quietly leveraging their financial muscle and newfound notoriety to build a team that is potentially capable of challenging, not as rank outsiders, but as equals. Despite this, the last two seasons have seen this team burst out the gates early and play at the top of the table, only to fall short at the business end of the season. 

Can they finally break into that top four? Leicester are a fine side, and getting better with each season. in Kasper Schmeichel they boast one of the league's finest goalkeepers, while a defence featuring the likes of Çağlar Söyüncü, Ricardo Pereira, and Daniel Amartey are bettered by few. Youri Tielemans is quickly becoming one of the league's star midfielders and forms a highly productive partnership with James Maddison. Then of course we have Jamie Vardy, one of the league's best players in spite of his advancing years.

Leicester are a fine team, but they have tough competition and those competitors have all improved this season. It's not enough for Leicester to be a good side, they have to be better than teams like Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool. If I compare the sides, I'm not sure Leicester have done enough to catch up to the rest of this group. As good as Vardy is, he will decline with age. The signing of Patson Daka should alleviate some of the pressure on their talismanic forward and it will be interesting to see what kind of impact he can make.

Key Signing: Patson Daka
Key Man: Jamie Vardy
Verdict: Will struggle to credibly compete for top four and will instead be looking at a best of the rest finish in 5-8th.

Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 54,074
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Jurgen Klopp

The curious case of Liverpool FC. After a number of years competing for honours at the very highest levels, last season saw Klopp's men cut a surprisingly uninspired form, really only just squeaking into the top four in the dying stages of the season.

So what happened? Burn out? Injury problems? Lack of transfers the previous summer? It may have been all these things, or none at all. In my view it was a mix of things: defensive frailties highlighted by some notable absences and a once fearsome attacking three that had gone somewhat off the boil. In any case, rival fans should be under no illusion that this Liverpool side are finished. An impressive run in the final weeks of last season, earning 26 of the last 30 points, makes abundantly clear that they possess that winning mentality.

Make no mistake, Liverpool will be up there come the end of the season. This is still one of the finest attacking sides in Europe. Roberto Firmino may not have the form of two seasons ago, but in Sadio Mané and Mo Salah they still possess arguably the two best attackers in the league. Virgil van Dijk is, when fit, one of the finest defenders of any side in the world. Trent Alexander Arnold is a player who could offers quality all over the pitch. If Klopp can bring his team into this season with greater focus and consistency, perhaps adding a few more defensive recruits in addition to the newly signed Ibrahima Konaté, this is still one of the finest teams around and a major player in the title race, despite what the pundits say.

Key Signing: Ibrahima Konaté
Key Man: Mo Salah
Verdict: There or thereabouts.

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 55,017
Last season: Champions
Manager: Pep Guardiola

While they may have missed out once again on that elusive European title, Manchester City's domestic dominance last season says everything you need to know. This is still very much the team to beat and one of the few teams unquestionably in the hunt for the title this season.

Despite this, a surprising number of questions hovers over this team. Now that Sergio Aguero is gone, they need a long term option to lead the line. Is Gabriel Jesus really that man? Can Raheem Sterling put last season's woes behind him and continue his fine form from Euro 2020? City have already splashed a cool £100million on Jack Grealish, and yet all eyes still remain on Harry Kane and whether he will follow his England teammate to the Etihad.

The good news for City is that aside from any questions that linger over their attacking line, the rest of their squad is still the finest the league has to offer. They boast an embarrassment of riches in defence and attack with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, Ruben Dias, Kyle Walker, Fernandinho and many others. The fact that they have players like Nathan Aké, Riyad Mahrez, Aymeric Laporte, Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva not even guaranteed a starting place makes clear just how deep a squad they have. 

A title defence is far from assured. After all, such a thing has only been accomplished 8 times in the 30 years history of the Premier League, and just once in the past fifteen (the vast majority of those retained titles comes from United's 1990s domination), but they surely start the season as the favourite. The bigger question will be whether they can finally live up to their potential and claim the biggest prize of all, the Champions League. Such a thing may depend on what happens a certain wantaway Tottenham striker..

Key Signing: Jack Grealish
Key Man: Kevin de Bruyne
Verdict: Title favourites.

Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 74,879
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Arguably the fourth of this year's big title hopefuls. Solskjaer's men got off to a rough start last season and for  along period it seemed almost certain that he would get the boot. But the club were patient, they gave him time to turn things around and were duly rewarded with a fantastic second half to the season that saw United finish as runner up to Manchester City against all odds. I'd say that United are a great example of a club being rewarded for its patience and stability, and that certain other clubs could learn from them. But then Chelsea did go and win the Champions League, so what do I know?

For the first time in a long time this United side is playing with purpose, spearheaded by one of the league's standout players in Bruno Fernandes and arguably their best player last season Luke Shaw. Paul Pogba, Harry Maguire, all strong performers in their role. But otherwise, this squad still looks thin for a title contender. Rashford, Martial and Greenwood are fine attacking players, but inconsistent and rarely capable of match-winning influence. Nemanja Matic and David de Gea are both long past their best. This strikes me as a side that can compete with any other in the league on their day. The question will be whether they can do so consistently over a season, responding to the pressures that a long campaign places on a squad. Compared to their other title rivals, United have been active in the transfer market this summer, with Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane signed so far, and rumours linking the club with another defender and striker. 

Solskjaer undoubtedly deserves great credit for the improvement this club has seen in recent years. Not least of all for how he has managed to steer the focus on the club away from its controversial ownership and management. But now three years into this job, the expectation has to be a genuine challenge for silverware (Solskjaer has still not won anything here). This may be a now or never season for this team.

Key Signing: Jadon Sancho
Key Man: Bruno Fernandes
Verdict: Title contenders, but face a stern challenge from their improved competition.

Nickname: The Magpies, Toon
Ground: St James' Park
Capacity: 52,305
Last season: 12th
Manager: Steve Bruce

The Newcastle rollercoaster ride is as ubiquitous to English football as the twin towers of Wembley and Des Lynam's moustache. In spite of this, Steve Bruce does seem to have brought some semblance of stability to the club, but is it real or just paper over the cracks?

Mike Ashley is still here, and he seems content for Bruce to keep this club steadily, if unambitiously, safe in the Premier League. That may not be enough for the fans, however. Many of the Newcastle faithful still stick to this idea of the Magpies as a big-club-in-waiting and feel that with some of the, undoubtedly talented, players at their disposal they should be aiming for something a little greater.

As far as the playing staff goes, most will point to the revelatory talents of French youngster Allan Saint-Maximin, but I think the man to watch is Callum Wilson. The Premier League mainstay has shown himself to be as productive as ever at 29 years, with last season's tally reaching some 12 goals in 23 appearances and five assists, or a goal involvement every 120 minutes. Not a bad outlay for a team near the foot of the table. Summer business has been productive, with the £22million signing of Joe Willock, who so impressed on loan last season, the main bit of business to date and others allegedly in the pipeline.

But while this side should be good enough to survive, it can not be guaranteed. The Newcastle purgatory continues.

Key Signing: Joe Willock
Key Man: Callum Wilson
Verdict: Good enough to survive, but could find themselves in a relegation battle if they're not careful.

Nickname: The Canaries
Ground: Carrow Road
Capacity: 27,359
Last season: Promoted (Champions)
Manager: Daniel Farke

The last time Norwich won promotion to the Premier League, they lasted just a single season before going down. This year they look better equipped for the challenge, but it still may not be enough.

It doesn't help that Daniel Farke's side have lost probably their best player from last season, Emiliano Buendía. But they have been busy over the summer adding some ten players, not all of whom, mind, will necessarily feature for the first team squad. These include Ben Gibson, a central defender (on loan at the club last season) who will add the sort of qualities at the back that Norwich were lacking last time around, American forward Josh Sargent, and Milot Rashica, ostensibly the direct replacement for Buendía. But perhaps the most intriguing addition to the squad is the loan signing of Billy Gilmour, a Scottish youngster who has lit a fire of hype across Europe with his intermittent appearances for Chelsea over the past two seasons. No doubt many fans will be intrigued to see how he can perform over a full season of top flight football.

Otherwise, the qualities of this Norwich side are well known. Grant Hanley and Ben Gibson form a solid pair in central defence. In Max Aarons they have a very promising young fullback, assuming he can resist the allure of the bigger clubs allegedly courting his signature. This defence will need to be solid, especially as the club is otherwise still largely dependent up front on the same attacking talent who featured for the club last time they were relegated, Teemu Pukki and Todd Cantwell.

Norwich are not a bad side, they wouldn't have won the Championship if they were. But the Premier League is a ruthless place. This is better than the Norwich sides of recent Premier League seasons, but I still doubt if they have enough of a winning mentality to survive.

Key Signing: Billy Gilmour
Key Man: Grant Hanley
Verdict: Certainly one of the relegation contenders, staying up would be an accomplishment.

Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: 15th
Manager: Ralph Hasenhüttl

Southampton are an interesting prospect. Their league form in recent years has seem some impressive highs, buttressed by disappointing lows. They have nevertheless managed to strike some consistency and re-establish themselves as top flight mainstays, but it's not clear that enough is being done to move forward. 

It says everything that their best player, Danny Ings, was lured away by a club (Aston Villa) that only just achieved promotion last season. How they replace the goalscorer will be fundamental to their chances. Currently their summer business has included just the one forward in Adam Armstrong, who has been prolific in the Championship, but the top flight will require a massive step up. Otherwise, the club may look to on-loan youngster Armando Broja, who has been hotly tipped by his parent club Chelsea. Their business at the back, however, is a little more tantalising, with Brest's Romain Perraud a solid addition along with the former Chelsea youngster Tino Livramento, someone who I feel could have a break out season.

Of their current playing staff, it is clear who stands out. A box-to-box midfielder and deadly set piece taker, James Ward-Prowse is the captain and just about everything in this team runs through him. His midfield will be productive, but without a proven top flight goalscorer up front, I would worry. It also bears mention that Southampton were among the league's leakiest defences last season, and with less of a goalscoring threat this season that could be come a real problem. Much may depend on how well their new defensive signings can replace the outgoing Ryan Bertrand.

Key Signing: Adam Armstrong
Key Man: James Ward-Prowse
Verdict: Not beyond a possible relegation tussle if they are unable to fill Ings' shoes.

Nickname: Spurs
Ground: Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Capacity: 62,850
Last season: 7th
Manager: Nuno Espirito Santo

The post-Pochettino slide continues. Cracking Amazon documentary series aside, there hasn't been much for Tottenham fans to get excited about for some time. Still unable to win a trophy and lacking in managerial stability. The club that once looked set for great things now seems rudderless. On the bright side, in Nuno Espirito Santo they have captured a highly underrated manager, one who should be capable of steadying the ship and putting them back on course. But first, he must solve the various crises that face the club.

Crisis number one is, of course, Harry Kane. It's clear he wants to leave, it appears that he was promised he would be able to do so, and now he is not happy. I feel for the club, there is no easy solution here. They can sell the man and risk losing him to a rival, or keep him and risk destabilising the dressing room, not to mention the likelihood of his performances suffering if he is unable to leave. I think Spurs need to consider him lost, cash in, and use those funds wisely to beef up the squad.

And beef up the squad, they must. Currently the only signing is youngster Bryan Gil, who most likely won't feature in the first team. This has been part of a pattern of Tottenham not really doing much business in the transfer markets over a number of years. It's a questionable strategy given their on the pitch fortunes of late. With Kane most likely out of the picture, the key man in this Tottenham side has to be Son Heung-Min, on his day one of the league's most dangerous attacking players. It's easy to see him taking the focal point in this new look team.

Hopes are high, as always, but right now Tottenham have just too many question marks hanging over them for me to fancy their chances. I think this is going to be a difficult transition season. Anything more will be a significant accomplishment for Espirito Santo.

Key Signing: Bryan Gil
Key Man: Son Heung-Min
Verdict: Top half of the table, but not much more than that.

Nickname: The Hornets
Ground: Vicarage Road
Capacity: 22,200
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Xisco

Things are rarely boring at Vicarage Road. A regular seesaw between Premier League and Championship, a slew of managerial comings and goings, and between it all some entertaining and unpredictable football. This year it is fair to say that they are not fancied by many and that may well suit them down to the ground.

On returning the Premier League this time around, the club have wasted no time in bringing in a few fresh faces. Emmanuel Dennis brings some much needed pace and energy to the attack, along with some actual Champions League experience. Danny Rose has been brought into to bolster an otherwise intact defence. Many of the others, it has to be said, are hardly inspiring. A number of journeymen with a smattering of Championship appearances. 

A major concern this season will be the future of Will Hughes, arguably the club's most consistent player over the last few seasons, seemingly banished to the reserves following some contract disputes. In his absence, much will depend on attacker Ismaïla Sarr, a player of astounding pace with an abundance of top flight potential. Sarr will need to form an effective attacking trio with Dennis and Joao Pedro for Watford to have any chance this season, and even that may not be enough.

Key Signing: Emmanuel Dennis
Key Man: Ismaïla Sarr
Verdict: Certainly one of the top tips for relegation.

Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: London Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Last season: 6th
Manager: David Moyes

It's a good time to be a West Ham fan. David Moyes, it is safe to say, has simply blown past all expectations with a remarkable sixth place finish last season. It seems the club most perennially tipped for greater things, may actually be on the way. But will this prove to be a one season wonder or are the good times set to continue?

There were a number of bright spots behind last season's successes. Tomáš Souček was imperious in midfield, like a Marouane Fellaini with more nous. Fabianski held the line well behind a rock solid defence of Cresswell, Coufal, and on-loan Craig Dawson, who has now joined the club in a permanent transfer. But it is still Declan Rice in the heart of the midfield who is the essential man in this side, pulling the strings and dominating everywhere. 

If there is a problem area in this team it is up front. Michail Antonio is the main man, but not especially prolific for the frontman in a top six team, and Moyes has yet to find the right player to complement the forward and provide him with the support he needs. There's still time for that to change, but unless it does I find it hard to see West Ham improving, or even matching last season's exploits, especially with the added physical demand of a European campaign.

Key Signing: Craig Dawsom
Key Man: Declan Rice
Verdict: A solid, if less inspiring season seems likely, with a midtable finish.

Nickname: Wolves
Ground: Molineux Stadium
Capacity: 32,050
Last season: 13th
Manager: Bruno Lage

One of the more interesting clubs to watch in recent years. Formerly a Big Club™ as recently as the mid 20th Century, buoyed in recent years by a wave of foreign investment. Their first few seasons upon returning to the Premier League bade well for the future, with creditable performances and contention for European qualification. More recently, however, there seems to be the sense of a team having gone off the boil, and last season's slump into the lower half of the table does not deceive.

Losing manager Epirito Santo was a big loss, for sure, as was the departure of Diogo Jota to Liverpool. The fact is that following that initial very impressive transfer window upon arrival in the top flight, Wolves haven't managed to replicate the feat and build on what they have. Moutinho and Jimenez are now in their thirties (and the latter well below his best form). Fabio Silva has so far failed to live up to his price tag. There is only so much that Ruben Neves can do on his own to win football matches. There is some genuine excitement over the signing of Francisco Trincão from Barcelona, but the expectation is that this is more a signing for the future that one to immediately bring success to the club.

When Bruno Lage replaced Espirito Santo, his mission was to implement the kind of attractive football that befits a supposed top six club in waiting. He has the track record and early signs indicate that he can bring his vision to this team. Now he needs the financial backing to replenish this squad and bring the kind of players that he needs to make that style of football a success. Right now, Wolves look a big transfer window away from where they need to be.

Key Signing: Francisco Trincão
Key Man: Ruben Neves
Verdict: Without further reinforcements will struggle to improve upon last season's midtable finish.

Predicted table:
1. Manchester City
2. Chelsea
3. Manchester United
4. Liverpool
5. Leicester City
6. Tottenham
7. Aston Villa
8. Arsenal
9. Brighton
10. Everton
11. West Ham
12. Wolves
13. Brentford
14. Newcastle
15. Leeds United
16. Southampton
17. Burnley
18. Watford
19. Crystal Palace
20. Norwich

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Created by Robert Kirkman
Network Amazon Prime
Starring Steven Yeun, J K Simmons, Sandra Oh
Genre Superhero Animation
Running Time 40-50 minutes

invincible season 1 2 steven yeun sandra oh jk simmons seth rogen jon hamm amazon best new show 2021
There is no shortage of superhero media available for streaming. The genre is big business in entertainment and recent years in particular have seen a glut of films and TV series inspired by lesser known properties such as The Umbrella Academy and Jupiter's Legacy, to the point of market-saturation. Even Amazon Prime has its own The Boys. Most of these series fail pretty quickly. It takes a lot to stand out in a crowded field, especially when you don't have the fanbase of a well known DC or Marvel on which to rely. It is somewhat remarkable, then, that Invincible manages to not only carve out its own identity but to stand out from the pack as one of the most exciting new television series in years.

A lot of the show's success is due to the quality of the source material. A satire of the superhero genre, Invincible draws on a number of familiar genre tropes, from the heroes themselves and their backstories to the villains, the plot devices and sense of humour, but then subverts expectations with its darker turns and often shocking violence. For newcomers, the first hour of the series will feel like a very traditional superhero origin story. It is only in the dying moments of the first episode that the true nature of Invincible reveals itself. It's one of the most genuinely shocking turns I have seen on TV for quite some time and sets the standard for a series that constantly surprises and flouts convention.

Granted, the idea of a superhero story with dark elements may no longer be as fresh as it was when the Invincible comic series first launched some twenty years ago (again, see Amazon's own The Boys). What still sets this story apart from others is firstly the reverence that its writers clearly have for the material that influenced the original comic series. This is, first and foremost, a damn good superhero universe that they have crafted, with all the fun and humour that one would expect of the genre, complete with rich world building, rules, and dynamics. It evokes a sense of nostalgia and familiarity that makes the more shocking turns all the more impactful.

The second element that still sets Invincible apart is its cast of characters. For all its thrills and spills, Invincible also serves as arguably the most nuanced take on superhero psychology since the original Watchmen novel. The TV adaptation, wisely, leans heavily into this character-centric storytelling and brings them brilliantly to life with its all-star cast that features the likes of Steven Yeun, J K Simmons, Sandra Oh, Seth Rogen, Jason Mantzoukas, Jon Hamm, Mark Hamill, and many others.

But even the best source material doesn't guarantee a good TV series and an equal amount of credit needs to be given to those behind this adaptation. The writing is sharp, the pacing pitch perfect, and the general direction and presentation is extremely well formed. You can tell these are people who absolutely love the genre and cinema as a whole, and understand what works and what doesn't. If I were to make one criticism of the adaptation it would be on the technical side. For whatever reason, the audio levels are way out of whack on this series, whisper quiet one moment and deafening the next. This can sometimes be an issue when watching certain TV series without a decent sound system, but in this case it really is quite jarring and from the online buzz appears to be a common complaint.

Even at a time of mass over-saturation of the genre, Invincible stands out as one of the best pieces of superhero media in years. Sharp, inventive, and continually surprising. This series is just a lot of fun to watch, easy to recommend both for lovers of superhero stories and good television in general.

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Directed by John M. Chu
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Hudes
Produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Hudes, Scott Sanders
Starring Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera
Studio Warner Bros
Running time 143 minutes

in the heights hamilton 2021 musical film broadway lin manuel miranda oscars
We've seen this story before. An artist hits the big time and generates a renewed interest in their older works (see: Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code). Lin Manuel Miranda is one of the hottest names in show business today following the runaway success of Broadway musical Hamilton, a star that has only continued to rise with his subsequent work, notably his work with Disney that has earned him his first Academy Award nomination. But he can only produce so much new work in a given year, so it is natural that the studios would dive into his older projects in the hopes that they can rise his name to the bank.

In the Heights is one of Lin Manuel's first works, his very first stage musical and a Tony and Grammy award winning production. Its adaptation to cinema may have been accelerated by Lin's recent superstardom, but as a successful and well-regarded piece of theatre in its own right it was always likely to be on the cards at some point. While the script is credited to the stage play's original writers Lin Manuel and Quiara Hudes, directorial duties have been handed to John M Chu, hitherto best known for 2018's surprise hit Crazy Rich Asians.

As with so many first works, In the Heights is a loosely autobiographical work based on Lin's years living in the predominantly Dominican Washington Heights neighbourhood in New York. There's nothing revolutionary in the story here: you've got a love story or two, young people trying to "make it" and break out of poverty, and an ultimately heart warming message about the importance of family and good people.  It's a serviceable but familiar story, with many classic tropes from the overbearing father to the irreverent childhood friend and the local "neighbourhood mom".

It's a similar story with the music. Lin Manuel is currently one of the world's most sough after songwriters, but in this early work you can tell that he is not yet the finished article. The songs here draw on culturally appropriate influences, predominately rap and salsa, but lack the musical diversity and creative genre subversions of Lin's later work. The lyrics display hints of Lin's typical wit and charm and occasionally strike gold, but rarely shock or surprise in the same way as his later writing. That is not to say that it's bad. This is a good musical with some very solid songs, albeit ones that are quite simplistic by their songwriter's standards. Even after a few re-listens of the soundtrack I struggle to recall many of the songs until a few bars in. Compare that to the opening of Hamilton, where right from the first notes you know exactly what you're listening to. Ultimately, these are fine, catchy songs, but lack the distinctiveness that makes Lin's more famous songs so memorable.

Where In the Heights does succeed is in the filmmaking department, and John M Chu will have done his own rising stardom no harm here. There is great vibrancy in every scene with a vivid colour palette, playful special effects and striking imagery throughout. Some of the dance in particular setpieces are very memorable.

In the Heights is a good adaptation of a pretty good musical. While it may not be revolutionary in any respect, it contains all the joy and energy one could want from a summer musical blockbuster. If you want a bit of musical fun in the sun this summer, then this will scratch that itch and could well be a factor in this year's awards season. In the longterm, however, this is unlikely to leave much of a legacy and will serve mainly as fascinating snapshot of a budding songwriter who would go on to be one of the greats.

Monday, 12 July 2021

Genre Mashup
Label N/A; Independent
Producers White Panda

white panda nightcub mashup girl talk best new album 2021

White Panda is a name that will be very familiar to partygoers of a certain age group. The Los Angeles-based duo were part of the pop-mash up trend of the late 2000s that saw the rise of artists such as Girl Talk, Danger Mouse and Norwegian Recycling. That trend has died down somewhat in recent years (at least with respect to mainstream releases), with Girl Talk not having released an album since 2010, and White Panda since 2015. So Nightcub marks something of a comeback as well as a throwback to a style of music that was at one point all the rage.

There was always something a bit more underground about White Panda compared to some of their peers, with albums tending to be shared over social media and via bootlegs rather than through more traditional channels. Indeed, Spotify won't even carry the new album due to copyright issues with the samples. So it seems fitting that for their return to the scene, the group have turned to crowdfunding and word of mouth to get their work out there, going so far as to encourage backers to share the tracks over YouTube, social media and any other means available.

Those backers won't be disappointed either. Nightcub is everything a fan of the genre could ask for, an extremely solid party album that will have you grinning from ear to ear throughout. However, for newcomers and those unimpressed by the nostalgia factor, this might come across as a bit too "safe" of a record.

The production is slick and high quality throughout, but never feels like it is trying to push the boundaries of the genre. As much fun as it is, a good chunk of the album's hour-long run time amounts to little more than 1) find two songs that sound kind of cool together, 2) match tempo, 3) let her rip. And that's fine, it works, it sounds good. It sounds like a night out at the club with a good DJ. But compare that with some of the high points in the genre (albums like Girl Talk's Feed the Animals) which exhibit more intricate and creative methods of production: playing with pitch and tempo, breaking tracks down to their constituent parts and piecing them together in such a way that it almost sounds like a completely new piece of music. By contrast, Nightcub is more simplistic and only occasionally demonstrates that level of ambition or craft.

But while Nightcub may not quite reach the heights of the genre, there are moments where it comes close. Some of the combinations, like Britney Spears and Ozzy Osborne, are absolutely inspired. Nine Inch Nails with Ava Max? Who would ever have thought that one up? Some of the editing work, most notably for me on Third Eye Blind's Semi-Charmed Life is extremely well done and materially changes the mood of the original track. It's also great fun just to hear some more recent tracks given the mash up treatment. I never thought I'd be humming along to Kim Petras, but her mash up with Van Halen is fantastic. 

It's a similar story when it comes to the variety of source material. Nightcub often plays it a little too safe, mixing songs that are overused or that we've heard prominently mashed up before (can we stop using that one Eminem track over and over?). But when it treads off the beaten track, Nightcub does deliver some quite shrewd and unexpected song choices (Tegan and Sara, a Smash Mouth song that thankfully isn't All Star).

Nightcub is an album that retreads old ground a little too often, is mostly brilliant when it doesn't, and ultimately is just great fun. This has been one of the musical standouts of my summer and I'm sure it will be for a lot of people.

Must Listen :
N/A; the entire album is one big mix

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