Saturday, 31 December 2011
Here we are again for the traditional end of year awards, where our esteemed panel of judges (ie me) lay down the ultimate verdict on the year gone by for everything, and we do mean "everything". 20 categories, 20 hard fought and well earned trophies.
It's been a year of much excitement and transition, of folk-rock revival and Ryan Gosling, and whether you find yourself overwhelmed by it all, or simply haven't been paying attention, you can't miss our final and definitive look back at all things 2011.
So happy holidays you magnificent bastards, and without further ado here are the:
2011 Debbie Awards
Cinema & TV
1. The Debbie for TV Show of the Year
Winner: Curb Your Enthusiasm
Runner Up: Dexter
Curb Your Enthusiasm , the brainchild of comedy legend Larry David, is quite simply the funniest thing on TV right now, and this latest season might just contain some of its finest moments. It's all the more impressive when you consider that between this and Seinfeld, David has been writing at the forefront of comedy for more than 20 years, his is a rare kind of genius.
Dexter comes in second, with the series still defying all expectations in keeping the premise improbably watchable as the seasons advance. The series may have peaked, there may be only a year or two left waiting in the wings, but for now this still remains one of the best shows currently on TV.
2. The Debbie for New TV Show of the Year
Winner: American Horror Story
Runner Up: Falling Skies
It's safe to say that many eyebrows were raised when the creators of mega-sensation Glee said they wanted to move into horror for their new TV series American Horror Story, especially for people like myself who hate Glee. The result however is far better than anyone could have expected, proving that some people simply have a knack for making compelling television regardless of genre or style.
Also worthy of note is new Spielberg produced alien invasion series Falling Skies, the spearhead of TNT's new lineup, which got off to a very promising start this fall.
3. The Debbie for Film of the Year
Runner Up: Source Code
While it may be a premature statement with so many of the films tipped for next year's Oscars still to be released, the Brad Pitt starring Moneyball goes down as the best of 2011 in my books. For the second year running, an Aaron Sorkin scripted film takes the prize, this time adapting the best selling true story of a manager who turns a tiny baseball team into record setters through the magic of statistics.
Duncan Jones (who no longer has to be known as Zowie Bowie now that he has escaped his father's shadow) follows up his critically acclaimed debut Moon with the bigger budget Source Code . The result speaks for itself and provides another hint of things to come from one of the most promising directors in cinema.
Music & Theatre
4. The Debbie for Theatrical Production of the Year
Runner Up: Anna Christie
For the second year running, we snub the Donmar for the coveted Theatre Debbie. Michael Grandage must be phoning it in with his final year in charge. That being said, the winning production is something quite spectacular indeed: Danny Boyle's stunning interpretation of the classic Frankenstein starring a superb cast of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, and the music of Underworld. Truly it was the kind of theatrical blockbuster that comes along only so rarely, and one that will live long in the memory.
The Donmar's Anna Christie takes the silver medal with Jude Law proving his stage acting chops with a role cast completely against type, and all the better for it.
5. The Debbie for Album of the Year
Winner: Hurry Up We're Dreaming - M83
Runner Up: Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes
Some Debbies are easy to award, but in this case there has been much deliberation and disagreement over which of two great 2011 albums should take home the gold. Ultimately we went with the more creatively adventurous effort from M83 and its rich, ambitious soundscape. Dreamy, nostalgic and quite remarkable, Hurry Up We're Dreaming is a worthy winner.
Fleet Foxes take the runner up price, but make no mistake they would have been a worthy winner in another year. Helplessness Blues improves upon their successful debut in every way, refining the wistful folk-revival sound and adding a lyrical narrative richness that was often previously lacking.
6. The Debbie for Debut Album of the Year
Winner: Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds
It's not been an especially groundbreaking year for debut acts, but there are a couple which come to mind when considering this most coveted of Debbies. This year the winner is Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, the latter and greater of this year's two post-Oasis solo albums. Noel is on song here on his own for the first time, staking his claim as a standalone artist in his own right.
7. The Debbie for Song of the Year
Winner: Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes
Runner Up: Wait - M83
In a reversal of fortunes from the best album Debbie, it is Fleet Foxes who take the top prize for song of the year with their lead single Helplessness Blues. Building on the smooth harmony-laden melody of a White Winter Hymnal, Helplessness Blues forms the crux of the new album with its driven angst and impetus.
Meanwhile the sumptuous Wait from M83's album takes second place with its beautiful, yet understated melancholy.
Videogames & Technology
8. The Debbie for Greatest Technological Innovation of the Year
Winner: Kepler Spacecraft
While technically speaking Kepler launched in 2009, 2011 was a big big year for the project, and a year of many firsts for space exploration. 2011 saw the first Earth-size extra-solar planets discovered as well as the first extra-solar planets discovered within the so-called "goldilocks zone"; there has been much talk of the death of the space program, but in many ways now more so than ever before is an exciting time in this field.
9. The Debbie for Lamest Technological Innovation of the Year
At some point the Microsoft bigwigs gathered in a smoke-filled and i'd like to think poorly lit room and decided that the best way to copy Nintendo's motion control idea was Kinect, a device which involves controlling games by flapping about like an idiot with absolutely zero physical feedback. Needless to say it has not exactly taken off, nor has Microsoft's grand vision of a house controlled entirely by waving your hands at Kinect.
10. The Debbie for Videogame of the Year
Winner: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Runners up: Portal 2, LA Noire
The winner of this year's Debbie for best video game may raise some eyebrows for its lack of review on this website, but then I'm a busy man, so deal with it. The fact that it's winning game of the year against some pretty formidable competition should say all that needs to be said; Skyward Sword sees the most radical shift in gameplay arguably in the series' history while managing to stay faithful to the elements which make Zelda one of the world's most critically acclaimed franchises.
In a year full of tough competitors for the top prize, the choice of runners up was equally difficult, but ultimately second place is being shared by Portal 2, the more ambitious sequel to one of the greatest games of the past 10 years, and LA Noire, Rockstar's technologically innovative homage to the 1940s.
11. The Debbie for Footballer of the Year
Winner: Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi, retains his trophy, being that he is frankly not in the same category as the rest of us mere mortals when it comes to footballing ability. For this reason I have decided that picking a runner up would bely the gulf in class between him and the rest. Also I didn't even bother changing this blurb or picture from last year's awards.
12. The Debbie for Sports App of the Year
It's been a big year for iFooty with the launch of video content and other new features, one which has seen the app attract even greater media attention, including a write up in prestigious football magazine FourFourTwo.
13. The Debbie for Party of the Year
Winner: Halloween Pub Crawl
Maybe I'm just a sucker for Halloween, but year after year they tend to produce the best nights. This year's pub crawl through the seedy depths of Camden Town set the scene perfectly.
14. The Debbie for Restaurant of the Year
Winner: The Oxo Tower
Runner Up: O Ya
This year belongs to the Harvey Nichols brasserie in the Oxo Tower, consistently one of the best restaurants in London with its superb changing menu and newly redone bar. With unrivalled panoramic views across the Thames this is truly a restaurant for special occasions.
Content to hold the runner up position again is O Ya of Boston, one of the best restaurants in the world, so good as to make reference to it as a "sushi place" seem almost ludicrous.
15. The Debbie for Nightclub of the Year
Winner: Piccadilly institute
If there's one thing I am a sucker for it's creative drinks and themes. Piccadilly has this going for it in spades with several uniquely themed rooms and drinks to match including a science room containing the steaming foamy beakers pictured above, and a Moulin Rouge styled room where drinks are served in a top hat with sparklers.
16. The Debbie for Best Brother
Winner: Jeremy Debate
You're welcome bro.
17. The Debbie for Douchebag of the Year
Winner: 99.9% of all London bike riders
Bikes, the scourge of London drivers and pedestrians, and with the new influx of "Boris bikes" (actually a brilliant idea, though we stole it from the French) there are a whole lot more of them all of a sudden. Don't get me wrong, bikes are a great thing, the trouble is 99.9% of people in London ride them like an idiot. So to those of you in the 0.1% I raise a glass in gratitude, to the rest, a middle finger.
Travel & Literature
18. The Debbie for Book of the Year
Winner: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson
Not exactly a new book, but read for the first time this year and unique to say the least. Don't just catch the films, make sure you read the books as well.
19. The Debbie for Wine of the Year
Winner: Castello di Fonterutoli 2004
Runners Up: Cerviolo 2001
Castello di Fonterutoli 2004 is, for my money, the best vintage of the best wine from one of the best vineyards. Fonterutoli has become one of the biggest names in wine, but if you want to do it right, try to find one of these bottles, which are understandably becoming scarce.
Going for something a bit on the heavier side, Cerviolo 2001, takes the silver medal this year having tracked down the last remaining bottle at the San Fabiano vineyard. Quite the wine.
20. The Debbie for Champagne of the Year
Winner: Champagne Mailly L'Air Blanc
Champagne Mailly's latest Grand Cru continues the "four elements" theme, this year bringing air to the table, and it might just be their best yet. This delicious 2005 vintage is rich, fruity and irresistibly smooth.
Well there you have it, another great year, and here's to the next one being even better!
Monday, 12 December 2011
As you have probably noticed, I haven't had a lot of time (read: any time) to write new articles lately. However, now that the holidays are upon us I intend to get started again. A few big articles coming up, but before then I'm going to get a few essentials out of the way, with a round-up of all the recent reviews I haven't been posting.
"Drive" Film Review
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by Hossein Amini, James Sallis (novel)
Produced by by Michel Litvak, John Palermo, Marc Platt, Adam Siegel
Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston
Running time 100 minutes
On paper, Drive is a film that ticks all the boxes. In Ryan Gosling, they have one of the hot actors of the moment, and with the Danish Nicolas Winding Refn they have a hotly tipped director whose last big western release was the critically acclaimed Bronson. Critical reaction has been strong and indeed Drive has been doing the rounds in many a top ten film list for the year, but this is not a film that will live long in the memory.
The plot is your standard heist-gone-wrong, with Gosling's unnamed stunt/race/getaway driver getting caught up in the illegal shenanigans of Irene's (Carey Mulligan) jailbird husband. This story may not be particularly remarkable or compelling, but the performances bring it to life with Gosling showing again why he is held in such increasingly high regard. More impressive are the outstanding supporting roles played by fellow up and comer Carey Mulligan, multi Emmy award winner Bryan Cranston, and the two mobsters played by the superb Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman.
However, what most stands out about Drive is undoubtedly the bold style of film making, with events being told through heavily stylised noir and some admittedly captivating cinematography and production. Sadly pretty visuals can only go so far, and this focus on style over substance simultaneously hurts the film more than anything else. The repeated reliance on music-backed montages and segments often makes portions of the films feel like a long music video, and with little meat to fall back on the end product feels superficial in the extreme.
This perception is not helped by actual shoe-horning of other films' scores into this film. On first viewing I noted the 28 Days Later score used repeatedly, and one extra long sequence set to Trent Reznor's Academy Award nominated score for the Social Network. For such polished production, this feels incredibly tacky, and quite jarring when you're familiar with the score in its original use.
In the end Drive is a flashy, but at times fairly grating crime noir film that nevertheless deserves notability in a year so far bereft of classics.
"Mylo Xyloto - Coldplay" Album Review
Genre Alternative Rock
A new Coldplay album is always going to be pretty big news and pretty big business, sadly by the point it feels like the band is just phoning it in. I am reminded of the claim that Chris Martin made six years ago that he was on the verge of retiring, not wishing to drag his career, and yet here we are still milking that Coldplay cow.
Don't get me wrong I love classic Coldplay as much as anyone, but this time around the memorable songs are few and far between, with just the dance-riff based Every Teardrop is a Waterfall pushing the band into new and exciting territory and only Don't Let it Break Your Heart doing justice to the classic stadium busting Coldplay sound. Credit where it is due, these are very fine songs indeed, but they are the diamonds in the rough rather than highlights.
Mylo Xyloto has been billed by the band as a move into more "poppy" music. Strangely though I have yet to find a single person who was of the opinion that Coldplay's biggest problem was that they were not "poppy" enough. Nevertheless it is unfortunate that their interpretation of "poppy" seems to mean bland rehashes of their old music. Even less forgivable is the apparent shallowness of the album as a whole, devoid of any coherent theme or structure that one might have expected from their earlier albums.
Coldplay has never been everyone's suit, but even for long time fans Mylo Xyloto is a disappointment. Too early to say that the band's best days are behind them? Either way, this one is just Coldplay by the numbers.
"Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds" Album Review
Genre Alternative Rock/Britpop
Many are still feeling the bitter fallout from the split of britpop band Oasis, but little by little those wounds are beginning to heal. The elder Gallagher Liam returned to the limelight earlier this year with his solid solo project Beady Eye. Now it is the turn of the younger and arguably more musically gifted brother Noel.
Noel is the man behind some of Oasis's finest hours like Don't Look Back in Anger, often described as the more creative force within Oasis. So it is with great interest that we finally get a look at what he can do on his own, and finally determine once and for all which Gallagher is best.
Happily I can report that this album is not only a triumph, but also the best collection of Gallagher written songs since the early days of Oasis. Embracing his new central role, Noel's fingerprints are all over this album; from full blooded sing-along anthems to grittier rock and roll songs, the self-titled album captures all the best elements of Oasis and imbues them with a new charm and panache rarely seen in the band's back catalogue.
The album maintains a refreshingly high quality throughout, with several excellent songs and a handful of strong supporting songs. The soundscape is richer, the melodies more grown up and the range broader, with standout tracks like If I Had a Gun, Soldier Boys and Jesus Freaks, and A Simple Game of Genius.
Noel's solo career is off to an excellent start. You should buy this.
Thursday, 3 November 2011
Directed by Terrence Malick
Written by Terrence Malick
Produced by by Dede Gardner, et al.
Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Running time 139 minutes
The enigmatic director stormed this year's Cannes Film Festival with his ambitious magnum opus, but does it deserve its success or is it a sprawling mess?
How to describe what the Tree of Life is all about? The hint is right in the title; it's about life and all existence, from the macroscopic to the very personal level. This film spans from the dawn of time to the end of the universe. We see the big bang and the dinosaurs, and finish with judgement day and the end of the Earth. So how can this film be anything other than an unfocused, pretentious flop? Well it's unlike anything you've seen before, that's for sure.
The central plot tells the story of Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn), jumping between his troubled childhood in 1950s suburbia at the hands of his overbearing father (Brad Pitt) and his aimless adult life where he continues to struggle with the memory of his tragically deceased brother. At it's heart this is a story about love, loss and the grieving process, the rationalisation of life and death in a greater context. The all consuming sorrow of a single lost life and the weight of a man's entire 50 year experience is paled into insignificance against the birth and destruction of the universe, and the scale of all time.
What makes this film special is the way it manages to cover such cosmic distances and contrast issues of such profundity with those on the personal level without collapsing under its own weight, something which is accomplished by its quite unique storytelling methods.
The lack of spoken dialogue in this film is striking. Most scenes pass outside the diegesis, narrated instead by evocative music as years of memory and story flow in minutes. Partnered with stunning cinematography and visual imagery, this is a story told mostly through sensation and mood rather than words, unfolding implicitly rather than through explicit dialogue or exposition. An apt analogy of the comparison between the Tree of Life and other films would be that of classical music to the pop music of today: telling a story without vocals, but still lyrical.
The film is a beautiful spectacle then, a statement which not many will disagree with. This is definitely not a film where it would be appropriate to spend a lot of time critiquing the writing or the acting as so little prominence is given to these elements of the film. On the other hand, this is certainly not a film for people who are used to being dictated a story when they go to the cinema, as opposed to inference.
What many will no doubt find objectionable are the overdone religious overtones, particularly in the last season and the conclusion of Jack's story. My preferred interpretation was to view this as merely the character's chosen method of internal rationalisation of his situation, rather than some attempt by the film maker to press his ideology upon us. However I can see why it would bother others.
What does, however, trouble me is the unsatisfying dramatic nature of this resolution, and indeed much of the narrative structure. The film essentially revolves around this one grand notion to which I have alluded, and fails to really add much over the course of two and a half hours. A great many scenes feel overcooked to the point of self indulgence, or simply unnecessary, and often I had the impression that what I was watching served more as an exercise in the technical aspects of film making than an attempt at really poignant storytelling.
This is a film that will inevitably polarize audiences, with some driven off by the opaque, demanding nature of the film, and others drawn to its artistic splendour. It may end up being a film that will be remembered more for its technical excellence and experimental cinematography than for any deeper meaning, but in this humble reviewer's view there are few scenes in cinema which are as touchingly beautiful and relatable as some of the childhood montages set to the backing of Bedřich Smetana. Malick is to be applauded for his vision and his ambition, but is perhaps a little too self indulgent for this film to really achieve the kind of status it seeks.
Overdone and Preachy
Difficult to get into
Saturday, 22 October 2011
Developed by EA Canada
Published by Electronic Arts
Platform Xbox 360, PS3, PC, OSX, Wii
After a few years of doing this, the annual FIFA updates inevitably seem to start blending together. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it allows me to half-ass my reviews and get back to more important things. However, this year EA Sports have decided to delight millions of fans, and mildly inconvenience me, by bringing about the biggest revolution that FIFA games have seen in a generation.
I speak, of course, of tactical defending. It's no secret that defending has always been the weakest area in FIFA; the timing is imprecise, the AI is terrible, and close friendships have ended over arguing who has to sit back and defend. But this year's update looks to change all that.
Positioning is now the key element to defending in this game, and much of the process involves applying pressure to defenders and then making the correctly timed tackle, process which seems much smoother this year than it has in the past. This new mechanic is buoyed by the all new physical collision engine which aims to add yet further realism to the art of defending. When it works, it works very well, and yet I can't help but feel as though EA are barking up the wrong tree.
You see, it doesn't work all the time. Even aside from the steep learning curve, the fact remains that by far the biggest issue with defending in the past has been the dreadful AI, and this has been the case for a number of years. So for their big defensive revolution to leave this aspect completely untouched is bizarre to say the least, and if anything the more cerebral defending in this game only serves to highlight these inadequacies.
As for the shiny new physics engine, don't get me started. People laughed at me for being skeptical when it was first announced, but anyone who has played FIFA and seen the general patchiness of EA Sports' recent attempts at animation and "realism" should have seen this coming, or this. You see, EA Sports has a habit for trying to be far too clever and overdoing it, which is why they took the concept of referees getting decisions occasionally wrong out of the game. The sad thing is that these comedy issues are not the rare glitch, they are incredibly common, I would be surprised if you can get through more than one or two matches without seeing a few slapstick moments like this.
However, it is a valiant, if misguided attempt at fixing the defensive side of the game, and aside from these issues, the gameplay is pretty damn good. In almost every other way the football on offer here has been honed and improved from last year's iteration and the attacking play feels incredibly satisfying and versatile. In the old days it would often be the case that all goals would end up being scored in the same way, but now it really is a more varied affair, and passing the ball through the defense, putting crosses in, shooting from range are all perfectly viable solutions.
The biggest issue with the game for me is more a case of design. Once upon a time there was a game called FIFA 98, which incredibly included all the domestic football content, the whole world cup from qualification to final, and a series of scenarios or "challenges" which could be played through to keep things from getting stale. Since then, however, it seems that the actual content of the game decreases more and more every year.
In FIFA 12, the challenges from previous iterations are gone, replaced with a periodic online challenge which can be played if and when the developers come up with one, so on the day of purchase there was only one challenge I could play, as opposed to literally dozens that came with the old FIFA.
Of greater concern, however, is the new career mode. EA Sports seems to have bizarrely decided that it would be best to combine the regular career and the be-a-pro mode into one single feature. The effect of this is that be-a-pro career mode has essentially been removed from the game. In FIFA 11 this gameplay mode would start you off as a youngster in the reserves, and then let you play your way into the first team and even the national side. Well in this year's edition none of that is true, there is no 'narrative' so to speak, you just start in the senior team and there is no career progression and no international call ups. Basically, the be-a-pro career mode is now exactly the same as the regular mode, except you control one player instead of an entire team. A big step backwards then.
So we find ourselves in a familiar position here. FIFA is undoubtedly the strongest football game on the market right now, but it is still so riddled with gaping flaws and astonishingly amateurish design choices that one really wishes Pro-Evo would step up their game a bit to apply greater pressure on EA.
Defending is... slightly better
Attacking side of the game still a delight
Overcooked physics engine (but funny)
Dire lack of be-a-pro gameplay features
Saturday, 8 October 2011
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Written by Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan, John le Carré (novel)
Produced by by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Robyn Slovo
Starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch
Running time 127 minutes
An all star cast and crew team up in an attempt to adapt le Carré's classic novel to the cinema.
Skepticism was rife when a cinematic adaption of Tinker Tailor was announced. After all, the novel is a celebrated and layered tale of espionage, which up til now has only been successfully adapted into the BBC's seminal seven part miniseries. Fitting the entire piece into a two hour film was always going to be a tall order.
For their part, an impressive array of talent has been assembled for the project. Director Tomas Alfredson is one of the big up and comers in the cinema world following the critical acclaim lavished upon Let the Right One In, while the cast features such luminaries as Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt and Mark Strong. It all makes for one of the more impressive ensembles in recent years, with a good mix between experienced old hands and hotly tipped newcomers.
It is no small praise then that this crew damn near succeeds in their efforts. The end result is an entertaining and cerebral two hours, one which appears almost flawless from a technical standpoint. Alfredson more than lives up to his billing, crafting a visually striking and generally well articulated film of some style. A great deal of credit must go to both him and the scriptwriters who have done about as good a job as can reasonably be expected in fitting the story into such a short narrative running time. Tinker Tailor is a satisfying and complex story regardless of format, and fans of the genre will find much to enjoy here.
Additional kudos must go to the actors involved. It is inevitable that they will be unfairly compared with those that have portrayed these characters in the past, notably the late Sir Alec Guinness, but they do themselves a great service, standing tall alongside their esteemed forbears.
Gary Oldman delivers one of the strongest performances of his career, a fine-etched tableau of a world weary being sleeping under well trained exterior. Familiar faces like Colin Firth and John Hurt also bring their typical level of quality to proceedings, but special note should be afforded to relative new boys Tom Hardy (who viewers will recognise from Inception) and Benedict Cumberbatch (who will be familiar to fans of the recent BBC adaption of Sherlock Holmes, or to any regular theatre patrons in London), both of whom have seen their stars rise considerably in the last few years and will see it take off still further here.
Yet despite this, Tinker Tailor still falls short of the standard set by its other iterations. While this may be a highly entertaining and well made spy thriller, it consistently falls flat when addressing some of the meatier contexts of the original plot, and at key moments. A perfect example is the final climactic scene, which sadly finds itself lacking in any real suspense or sense of danger. The big reveal of the double agent traitor thus feels disappointingly indifferent; what was supposed to be a wrenching and deep conflict of friendship and betrayal ends up with a complete lack of emotional impact.
So what went wrong? Ultimately it seems inarguable that two hours is just not long enough to fully appreciate the details of this story. The ending lacks tension because the stakes have not been well established, and the pacing inconsistent. The character drama lacks impact because the characters have not been fleshed out with any substance, and their relationships have not been explored in any real sense. Colin Firth in particular, for what is a pretty central role, has fewer lines than I can count on my fingers up until the final scene, and as far as I can remember doesn't share any lines whatsoever with Mark Strong's character, which is intended to be one of the deeper and more meaningful relationships in this story. These characters, simply, do not have anywhere near enough time to develop sufficiently.
This movie feels like an abridged version of Tinker Tailor, a bare-bones outline of events, offering newcomers to the story only a touch more emotional depth than a wikipedia plot summary. However, it would be foolish to only criticise this film for what it isn't, rather than appreciate what it is. This is not a novel, nor is it a miniseries, but as a film in its own right it is a fine piece of work, albeit one that finds itself oddly lacking in bite.
Just to be clear, this film makes a valiant attempt at adapting the classic novel. The production and cast are superb, and one can't help but be impressed at how close they have come to condensing everything to film length. In the end there simply is not enough time to devote more than the most superficial of attention to the characters and relationships, which is where the real meat of this tale lies.
Quality of film making
Satisfying and intriguing classic plot
Too short to flesh out character drama
Sometimes lacking in suspense
Often lacking in dramatic impact
Wednesday, 21 September 2011
Genre Dream pop, Electronica
Producers Justin Meldal-Johnsen
Release Date October 18th
Even though Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is the 6th studio album of Anthony Gonzalez's M83, chances are you haven't heard of them before. That may all be about to change.
Gonzalez has spent three years pouring over every detail in this latest album, and it shows. Hurry Up, We're Dreaming stretches out over 2 discs and 22 tracks, a rarity for music these days, and yet each song is so meticulously crafted that every synth note, every chime, every buzz feels as though it has been placed with intent and fastidious care. Even during the album's more adventurous, abstract segments there is method and purpose and the end result is that the album sounds exactly as described on the cover, like some ephemeral, velvety dream.
I do not say this merely with regards to how the music sounds, although "dreamlike" would be an apt description for the ethereal, lush quality of this music, but more to its ability to be emotionally evocative. In equal parts uplifting and deflating, this is an album that can be wistful and reminiscent, thought provoking and introspective. In this regard the album feels very much like a dream.
The easy comparison that will no doubt be a feature of every review is one with 80s music, and indeed much of the album will evoke a distinct John Hughes aesthetic, but to characterise the album as simply an 80s revival would do a disservice to the great variation throughout.
Hurry Up, We're Dreaming runs the full gamut from anthemic pop-heavy tracks like Midnight City and Ok Pal, harkening back to the likes of Simple Plan and OMD, to the more stripped down hushed harmonies of Wait and Splendor.
Throw in a few eclectic tracks like Raconte-Moi Histoire, more a throwback to pre-80s psychedelia, and even full blown orchestrated songs like My Tears Are Becoming a Sea and you have some idea of the kind of range we have here.
It is impressive then that the music is so consistent; one gorgeously crafted melody after another and a good balance of instrumental and vocal elements. Each and every song merits a listen, and at its best moments this is an album that absolutely sparkles. If I have one qualm with the music itself it would be that the vocal style is quite the departure from M83's usual subdued yet quietly affecting lull, with Gonzalez taking on the reins himself and Morgan Kibby absent entirely. It almost sounds more in the vein of Kings of Leon or Arcade Fire; that's not to say that it doesn't work, it's just different. Some people may like it, others won't.
The bigger issue is that there seems to be no real structure to the album as a whole, no logical thread running through the length of either of the two discs, let alone the whole package. If one were to listen to the album on shuffle, I doubt they would notice a difference in the experience compared to progressing from start to finish. Hurry Up, We're Dreaming ultimately feels more like a collection of pretty sounds than a cohesive whole, although indeed one could say that this simply adds to the overall dizzying dream-like quality of the album, for better or for worse.
But despite this, Hurry Up We're Dreaming is an album that is hard to resist. Few other albums have captured the dream-like state to such a degree and portrayed it with such elegance and beauty. The attention to detail belies the talent of a true perfectionist and produces a record that may lack the clear narrative to which we are accustomed, but is undoubtedly the embodiment of this man's vision.
Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is M83's most ambitious album to date, and certainly their most impressive. This is a contender for album of the year, it's time to start taking notice.
Saturday, 17 September 2011
song of the week: "Lungs Quicken" by "Lanterns on the Lake"
thing that makes me smile today: Going to my first Chelsea game of the season.
pic of the day
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Thursday, 15 September 2011
Directed by Rob Ashford
Written by Eugene O'Neill
Starring Jude Law, Ruth Wilson, David Hayman
Theatre Donmar Warehouse
Eugene O'Neill has always been the sort of playwright who will appeal to a certain crowd, whilst putting many others off with his overwrought dialogue and turgid stylings. Anna Christie is a play which, at first, sounds like a typical entry from his back-catalogue; there is depressive boozing, jaded old men, rough around the edges sailors, and of course the supposedly innocent girl with a shameful past. But to dismiss this production as such would be to do yourself a grave injustice.
Rob Ashford and the Donmar have crafted a superb production which manages to embrace the depth of drama, whilst highlighting the kernel of optimism and indeed throws lashings of good humour into the mix. This is a finely pitched, intense piece of theatre brimming with energy and deftly sidestepping the potential pitfalls of melodrama, one which will take even the most skeptical of theatre patrons and keep their attentions glued to the stage for the entire two and a half hour production.
Indeed much of this quality can be credited to the strong cast, with particular note for the three main characters. David Hayman gives a superbly nuanced and often heart-rending performance, even if he lays his Swedish accent on a bit too thick. Ruth Wilson is accomplished in every department as the titular main role, balancing the acerbic qualities of her world-weary character with a touching sense of vulnerability, although for some her demeanour and vocal qualities might come of as a bit too textbook for such a role.
But of course much of the focus will rightly go to one Jude Law, who has produced a potentially career-changing performance here, breaking free of his effete typecasting and transforming on stage into a gruff, surly sailor with such fervor and character that it is honestly difficult to believe that this is the same actor. Jude Law far exceeds anything he has ever done before, anyone who is not a fan will be after they see this.
The production is notable from a technical standpoint as well. The entire stage is replaced by a mechanical platform which pivots and emulates the tossing of the sea, while dry ice pours fog in from all angles and water sprays on deck. Such is the obsession with detail of setting that reportedly the front rows of the audience in the early showings of Anna Christie were soaked.
Fans of Eugene O'Neill will love the quality of the drama and the level of detail, while those who would not normally consider themselves fans will nevertheless enjoy the range of this production, a highly enthralling and well pitched production for all comers.
Sunday, 11 September 2011
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by J.J. Abrams
Produced by by Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk
Starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler
Running time 112 minutes
Geek deity J.J. Abrams returns with most ambitious foray yet into cinema.
Better known for his Television credits, with the likes of Lost, Alias and Fringe to his name, J.J. Abrams has in recent years started to delve into the world of cinema. Beginning with franchise films like Mission Impossible 3 and the recent Star Trek remake, Abrams also saw great critical and commercial success with his first original creation, Cloverfield. Now in Super 8 Abrams teams up with his childhood idol Steven Spielberg to produce a film that is arguably his most mature and polished work to date.
The director's veneration for his producing partner here is apparent throughout, with homage paid repeatedly to Spielberg's classic sci-fi from the 1970's and 1980's. Everything from the setting to the style to the dialogue will evoke memories of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or ET. There are numerous other references of iconic pop culture (eg. Romero, the Twilight Zone, amongst others), but it is certainly a distinct Spielbergian vibe above all else that pervades.
That is not to say that Super 8 is lacking in originality or its own identity. Indeed, Abrams straddles the line between respectful tribute and basic mimicry perfectly, and adds in a few of his own modern touches that make this film distinctly a J.J. Abrams production.
The story itself concerns a group of kids in small-town America (So far so Spielbergian, even the classic character archetypes are all here!) who are in the process of making their own home movie on a Super 8 camera for a school competition, when all of a sudden strange things begin to happen across town. Naturally their childlike curiosity and desire to make a good movie compels them to dig deeper, and thus the plot unfolds.
The narrative that unravels is traditional sci-fi conspiracy stuff, you have aliens and military cover ups all accounted for, and if I were to have any complaint to make about this movie it's that this element of the film feels a bit hackneyed in a 'been-there-done-that' sort of way, and the alien itself was a somewhat uninspiring creation. Not to give too much away, but think more Cloverfield than Close Encounters, a concept which clashes quite strongly with the more simple and down to earth style in which the rest of the film is made (I suppose this would be the Abrams twist on the classic Spielberg formula). Meanwhile the military suits themselves are not fleshed out at all beyond 'look out, bad guys!', which leaves these antagonists lacking the real bite or intrigue that other better movies in the genre have produced.
Fortunately, the quality of the film making here is such that these flaws can be overlooked. The direction and production in general is so spot on and superb that you find yourself caught up in the story even if you don't really buy into it. Ultimately the secret is that none of the sci-fi or alien stuff really matters that much in this film. As strange as it is to say for something which is billed as sci-fi, these elements feel more incidental than central to on-screen events.
The real purpose of this movie lies with the characters, and the magic of film making in general. Super 8 is really a celebration of the passion of film makers, all the way up from the little kid with a cheap handy-cam to the big name Hollywood titans to whom this film so lovingly pays homage, and that desire for storytelling. It succeeds wonderfully.
Go see Super 8. It is a wonderful film, and certainly one of the better I've seen so far this year. Its few nagging flaws or lack of depth do not detract from its many strengths, and to focus upon them inordinately would be to miss the point entirely.
Quality of film making
Loving tributes to classic cinema
The "alien" (ok "hate" is too strong a word)
Thursday, 25 August 2011
Label Warner Bros.
Producers Rick Rubin
There has been a long hiatus for the Red Hot Chili Peppers between their last album, released in 2006, and this newest release. It's been a time of upheaval for the band, with lead guitarist John Frusciante leaving (again), to be replaced by Josh Klinghoffer. It's a perilous time for a comeback.
The first thing to note is that the band is definitely missing something without Frusciante. You don't lose arguably the best guitarist of a generation without noticing. Indeed the band appears to have lost some of their edge.
Album opener Monarchy of Roses typifies everything that the band has become known for; the duality between the dirtier funk stylings and the more melodic, soaring chorus. It's a hopeful and exciting start to the new era.
Unfortunately the next track Factory of Faith is more representative of this particular album. Awfully repetitive and frankly bland, this track sounds more like a parody of incredibly phoned in, inspiration-less funk.
Indeed much of the album seems to consist either of similar songs like this or more uncharacteristically low-fi rock like Brendan's Death Song and Meet Me at the Corner, the likes of which are perfectly listenable, but again, strangely flavourless for the band.
However there are brighter moments, including the typically radio-friendly lead single The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie, which features the classic RHCP funk/melody combination and one of Flea's classic swaggering bass lines.
Meanwhile, Did I Let You Know becomes one of the surprise highlights of the album with it's sunny demeanour and multi-vocalist chorus, while Happiness Loves Company is a delightfully bouncy throwback to the 1970s. Also worthy of note is the laid back Police Station, this album's answer to Californication.
In the end, I'm With You seems to be more about the band finding it's footing following the recent shake up and time out. The album as a whole is mercifully less sprawling than their last effort, the two-disk Stadium Arcadium, but it feels unfortunately lacking in memorable tracks. Their are some fine songs here to be sure, but they are few and far between, and overall, not of a high enough quality to stack up next to the band's back catalogue.
The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie
Happiness Loves Company
Did I Let You Know
Tuesday, 16 August 2011
Did we even have a summer this year? I have had neither the time off, nor the good weather here in London. Nevertheless, I have been informed by my assistant that it is now August, and as such we are approaching the start of the new season of football.
As per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few solid predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.
Premier League 2011/12 in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester United
Champions League qualifiers: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal
Europa League qualifiers (via final league position): Liverpool, (others depending on cup + fair play)
Relegated: Swansea, Wigan, QPR
Golden Boot winner: Wayne Rooney (Man U)
Golden Glove winner: Petr Cech (Chelsea)
Player to watch: David Silva (Man City)
New signing to watch: Sergio Agüero (Man City)
Young player to watch: Daniel Sturridge (Chelsea)
First manager to get the sack: Steve Kean (Blackburn)
Shock of the season: Arsene Wenger leaves Arsenal
Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Position last season: 4th
Manager: Arsene Wenger
The better part of a decade has now gone by without Arsene Wenger’s men bringing home any silverware. The “club in transition” excuses have long since dried up, and it’s getting to the point where simply shrugging one’s shoulders and pointing toward empty coffers for an explanation will no longer cut the mustard with the Arsenal faithful
That’s where porn-star-moustachioed new owner Stan Kroenke comes in, to give the club a bit more of the financial clout that is so important in this day and age. Arsenal fans have so far been resistant to any such spending (years of self-righteous bitterness toward the League's sugar daddies may be a factor here) but even the hardest of hardcore now seem willing to admit that such action is necessary if the club want to catch up with the top tier teams.
Of course, transfer spending is not the only area where Kroenke can make a difference. The faster the club’s massive stadium debts are paid off, the faster they can realise the income potential of such an asset. With Kroenke’s investment and the Emirates’ stadium income, Arsenal FC stand to be in a very strong financial position in a few years’ time, where the only thing holding them back will be their relatively minuscule commercial revenue. For that to pick up, they’ll have to actually start winning things.
On the personnel front, the club faces a real challenge with the threat of mass exodus of key players including Fabregas and Nasri, with Clichy already out the door. Robin Van Persie is likely to take the arm band in the near future as an increasingly heavy weight is placed upon the Dutchman’s shoulders, Arsenal fans will be hoping that he doesn’t begin to get similar ideas of greener pastures abroad.
Key Signing: Gervinho
Key Man: Robin Van Persie
If they were a car: A Daihatsu Copen, sporty, pretty to look at whilst being very economical, but in reality it's just a lemon.
Verdict: Can still challenge if their more established rivals falter in a big way or suffer catastrophic injuries, but will likely be more concerned about keeping their top 4 position with the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham breathing down their necks.
Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Last season: 9th
Manager: Alex McLeish
Never quite recovered from the bombshell of Martin O’Neill’s resignation, but the writing had been on the wall for a long time with the unpopular departures of key players to bigger clubs. They face a similar problem once again with the likes of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing already leaving this summer and the threat of further exits down the road.
New manager Alex McLeish is undoubtedly good at what he does, but begins his job amid a fire of controversy following the fracas that has arisen from his switch between the club and bitter arch rivals Birmingham. He has a lot to prove after suffering relegation last season, even more so now with the additional undesired attention and the scepticism of the fans.
On the other side of the transfer market the club have done some good business already this summer. Villa have pulled of something of a coup with the signing of Shay Given, unquestionably one of the best goalkeepers in the league who was only kept out of a strong Manchester City side by the quality of Joe Hart. However Given has his work cut out for him, stepping into the shoes of Brad Friedel. Meanwhile Wigan’s star player Charles N’Zogbia has made a big money switch to the Villans in what could prove to be a shrewd reinforcement for the club.
Key Signing: Shay Given
Key Man: Darren Bent
If they were a car: They would be down at the chop shop, selling off spare parts without a care in the world for whether or not she will ever drive again.
Verdict: If N’Zogbia can supply Bent with a steady stream of chances, Europa League qualification is a strong possibility.
Ground: Ewood Park
Last season: 15th
Manager: Steve Kean
Steve Kean managed to save the club from relegation last season, but the fact remains that they weren't even under threat of going down until Sam Allardyce's shock sacking. Kean has much to prove this season, and the same has to be said for Blackburn's wealthy new owners who have taken a lot of flack for this controversial decision.
A good start to the season will be crucial to calm nerves and ensure the club doesn't get sucked down into another relegation battle. However fans would be wise to start preparing for the worst.
A bright prospect has left the club in Phil Jones, and rumours persist linking Chris Samba with a move away to a bigger club. Radosav Petrović, meanwhile, is an interesting signing of whom much will be expected.
Key Signing: Radosav Petrović
Key Man: Chris Samba (if he stays)
If they were a car: A jeep where the engine has inexplicably been traded for that of an electric scooter.
Verdict: A tough season ahead which could well see the team dragged into another relegation fight.
Ground: Reebok Stadium
Last season: 14th
Manager: Owen Coyle
Owen Coyle seems to have stabilised a club that has been in decline ever since the departure of one Sam Allardyce, but it'll be interesting to see how he can take them on from here.
Bringing Daniel Sturridge in on loan last season proved to be a very shrewd move, and the Chelsea youngster's 8 goals in 12 games played a big part in their improved form for the second half of the season. They'll be at a disadvantage then this season without Sturridge, who is set to make a breakthrough at Stamford Bridge.
Coyle has wasted no time in snapping up a few bargains this season, including Nigel Reo-Coker on a free transfer, but he'll desperately need more firepower up front to play off of Kevin Davies if he is to assure a comfortable mid table finish.
Of equal concern will be the persistent rumours linking Gary Cahill with a move away from the Reebok, a loss which would have quite an impact on the club's back line.
Key Signing: Nigel Reo-Coker
Key Man: Kevin Davies
If they were a car: Honda insight. Hardly the most glamorous out there, but dependable, and in the hands of a skilled driver can even challenge the big boys.
Verdict: Consistency is key to prevent club from going backwards.
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Last season: 2nd
Manager: André Villas-Boas
Last season was the perfect summary of the consistency problems that plagued the club under the reign of Carlo Ancelotti, from record breaking winning runs to record breaking winless runs, and the unsurprising result was a trophiless year.
The club has pulled off something of a coup in appointing Villas-Boas, the treble winning Porto manager who was being tapped as Pep Guardiola's replacement at Barcelona next year until he was poached by his former employers at Chelsea. Villas-Boas brings a more stylish flair-based approach to football to the club, but only time will tell if he's really ready for such a big step up. Either way, patience will be needed from the fans and the club owners.
There is no doubt that the team is in need of a serious shake up. It is surprising then that there has been so little transfer activity from the Blues this summer. So far only hot prospects Thibault Courtois, Oriol Romeu and Romelu Lukaku have been signed, with Courtois already off on loan for the season, and the others unlikely to play a major role in the first team just yet. Rumours persist of a move for Tottenham's Luka Modric, which would be a major boost to a club that lacks creativity in the midfield, but with such extortionate fees being quoted one must wonder why they don't seem to be considering other targets. Indeed, if the squad remains as it is now, it's hard to see the club having aspirations for anything beyond a top four finish.
On the plus side, youngsters like Daniel Sturridge and Josh McEachran appear ready for a breakthrough season, with the former in particular likely to play a big part in the team's drive for silverware. There is still a good deal of team building required here, Frank Lampard looks to be on his last legs and Didier Drogba is getting on in the years, but the club finally appears to be on the right track, arguably for the first time since the sacking of Mourinho.
Key Signing: So far, the manager.
Key Man: John Terry
If they were a car: A vintage Mercedes; expensive once upon a time, but after years of disuse is now having to subsist on budget replacement parts, currently missing a steering wheel.
Verdict: As always, predicting Chelsea's fortunes is an exercise in futility, but few would predict anything lower than third this season, and a title push an outside chance, but probably only if additional signings are made.
Ground: Goodison Park
Last season: 7th
Manager: David Moyes
Another year, and another big challenge for David Moyes who continues to purvey his unique magic levitating act on Everton with no budget. Indeed there are no transfers in so to speak, and nagging rumours that key players Phil Jagielka and Jack Rodwell could be off in the near future. Arguably though, such a loss would in fact be a good thing for Everton, who could then use the proceeds to buy a couple of new players, something that Moyes has always been adept at when presented with the funds.
This, plus stadium and ownership issues, has lent to a feeling of angst surrounding the club in the run up to the season, and one which could put a dampener on things once the action gets underway. There is the impression that the club has stagnated in recent years, and unfortunately for Toffees fans, that doesn't look like changing this season.
Key Signing: None yet
Key Man: Leighton Baines
If they were a car: The Magic School Bus, nobody quite knows how it does what it does, but there you go.
Verdict: Again, will probably be around the same place as they end up every year, barring a miracle or a disaster.
Ground: Craven Cottage
Last season: 8th
Manager: Martin Jol
Mark Hughes appeared to be doing a good job at the club until his humorous self destruction over the summer. The reigns of power now pass over to Martin Jol, another seasoned hand with Premier League experience who will endeavour to take the club to the next level.
No major signings so far, aside from the reunion of the Riise brothers, this season, but then the squad is not such that it needs a major overhall. Fans will be hoping that Bobby Zamora can avoid the injury problems that have followed him, and that the impressive defensive combo of Brede Hangeland, Aaron Hughes and Mark Schwarzer continues in similar form. Most importantly will be the consistency of key performer Clint Dempsey, who seems to have hit his peak in recent years.
Ultimately it’s hard to see how the club can go any further than they have done, finishing a creditable 8th place last season, but similarly I would not expect them to face any real threat of being sucked into a battle for survival.
Key Signing: John Arne Riise
Key Man: Clint Dempsey
If they were a car: The “ghost of Michael Jackson” car... for obvious reasons.
Verdict: A comfortable mid table finish seems likely.
Last season: 6th
Manager: Kenny Daglish
Liverpool have had a number of false dawns over the years, and following their sublime second half of the season last year, in which new manager Kenny Daglish turned their fortunes on a sixpence and ended up as the form team in the league, there is the feeling that a return to the big time is not far away.
In truth, not many would predict that the club are anywhere near ready to mount a sustained title challenge again, but a return to the Champions League certainly seems like a distinct possibility. Given that last Christmas they found themselves in the bottom half of the table, that’s quite the turnaround.
They have coped well following the loss of Fernando Torres, though perhaps eyebrows will be raised at the club’s decision to blow more than two times the Torres income (£45m) on largely unproven players like Andy Carroll (£35m), Jordan Henderson (£20), Stewart Downing (£20) and Luis Suarez (£23); although in the case of Suarez, the money appears to have been well spent, the jury is still out on the rest.
Following such a massive expenditure, expectations will surely begin to mount on Daglish. It will be upon him to gel the new players quickly, and maintain the form of present Liverpool stalwarts like Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard, the latter of which is in desperate need of a good season after appearing to be on the decline over recent years. If Gerrard is unable to recover his form, a lot of will rest upon new signing Charlie Adam.
Key Signing: Stewart Downing
Key Man: Luis Suárez
If they were a car: Must... resist urge... to make scouser joke.
Verdict: A massive season for the club if they’re serious about returning to the glory days. Contention for a Champions League place is likely, will probably duke it out with Arsenal for 4th.
Ground: City of Manchester Stadium
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Roberto Mancini
No more excuses for nouveau riche club or it’s under pressure manager. Manchester City’s FA Cup triumph last season made it clear for all to see that the heavy investments are starting to pay off, and the next target has to be the Premier League crown.
Nobody doubts the quality of the squad that has been amassed here, at great expense, but real questions remain over how good a team they are together. It’s never a good way to the start the season with your club captain Carlos Tévez doing all he can to force his exit, even going so far as to publically declare that he will never again line up in Manchester blue.
His ostensible replacement Sergio Agüero is unproven at this level, and very inconsistent for both his former club and country, while Mario Balotelli is one of those players who will always make more headlines for his crazy shenanigans than for his footballing prowess, talented though he may be.
In addition Agüero, new signing Gaël Clichy offers perhaps a slight upgrade on Wayne Bridge, and it is widely expected that Samir Nasri will join any day now. If Nasri signs then Manchester City will have arguably one of the strongest clubs in the league, and one of the brightest midfield prospects in the world. However, the priority now has to be less on bringing in more signings and more on helping this current group of stars operate as a unit. The secret to Manchester United’s success has always been the strong dressing room atmosphere, a factor that inevitably pays dividends right at the crunch time of the season when it really counts. Arsenal’s invincibles had it, Chelsea under Mourinho had it, and Manchester City must find this quality if they want to be the best team in the country.
Key Signing: Sergio Agüero
Key Man: David Silva
If they were a car: A souped up Lamborghini from Fast and Furious, the owner constantly adding more flair and shiny things, but seemingly unconcerned with practicality.
Verdict: A big year for the club where many pundits are expecting great things, likely to mount a challenge, but would be a surprise if they managed to achieve the consistency required to actually win the thing.
Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Last season: Champions
Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson
Last season Manchester United were easily the best team in the league, but any suggestion that the club intend to sit on their laurels and content themselves with being the best on this side of the Channel can be ignored.
No, this year they face a bigger challenge: unseating Barcelona at the summit of European football. Following last season’s comfortable Champions League final defeat at the Catalan’s hands, Sir Alex has set himself the challenge of building a team that can go one step further in what may indeed prove to be his final project at Old Trafford before retirement.
Not only do they start off the season as the strongest in the league, but they have also been one of the more active in the transfer window, adding the likes of Ashley Young, Phil Jones, De Gea and potentially Wesley Sneijder. Considering the transfer activity of their rivals who begin in a worse position (Chelsea have yet to make a first team signing and Man City have only signed no-names and a Tevez-lite replacement) it's hard to see them having too much trouble in securing a record 20th title. Of the prominent players who were released this season, only the loss of Van der Sar weakens them somewhat from last season, and so a lot will depend on how quickly his replacement can adjust to life at Old Trafford.
Key Signing: Ashley Young
Key Man: Wayne Rooney
If they were a car: The Batmobile. Their super powered enemies usually get a head start, but once Batman gets going it would be unwise to bet against them.
Verdict: Have enough about them to defend their title so long as their new goalkeeper proves to be less Van der Gouw and more Van der Sar.
Ground: St. James' Park
Last season: 12th
Manager: Alan Pardew
Mission accomplished last season in holding a comfortable mid table position and remaining in the top flight. Some may have questioned the dismissal of Chris Hughton, the manager who after all got them promoted and took them into the top half of the Premier League, although in Pardew they have placed themselves in safe hands. Eyebrows may also be raised by the club's transfer policy in selling the likes of Enrique and Carroll, but they have recruited well this summer with the signings of Demba Ba who impressed during the tail end of last season, and former Manchester United hot prospect Gabriel Obertan, who could turn out to be something of a coup for the club.
Survival shouldn't really be an issue this season, but at the same time I don't think anyone should be expecting a Europa League push either. Of greater concern will be the morale of players off the pitch. Considering the recent high profile shenanigans with Joey Barton who almost got free-transferred for criticising the club's management hierarchy, it only seems reasonable to ask questions of the perennially under fire club owner Mike Ashley, and whether his treatment of the senior players bodes ill for their prospects.
Key Signing: Demba Ba
Key Man: Joey Barton
If they were a car: The Prime Minister's car, as the owners of both club and car enjoy a similar level of popularity.
Verdict: Another mid table finish is on the cards.
Nickname: The Canaries
Ground: Carrow Road
Last season: Promoted from Championship
Manager: Paul Lambert
Back to the big time for the Canaries, for the first time in six years they will compete in the top flight of English football. Manager Lambert has pulled off something really quite remarkable by securing back to back promotions for the club, but he will find that the Premier League is something completely different, and he will do well to ensure survival.
But this is not an impossible task, and indeed his business operations during the summer appear to be quite shrewd, ruthlessly cutting a lot of the lower league slack that remained on the books and bringing in some quite interesting talent, including former Everton striker James Vaughan, and the loan signings of Kyle Naughton (Spurs) and Ritchie De Laet (Man U) among others. The emphasis is certainly on young and hungry players, as opposed to experienced and over the hill, a stark contrast to the team building policy of many newly promoted teams.
A long season lies ahead, but Norwich are certainly not going to be pushovers, and it could well be that the next page of the script has them staying afloat this year.
Key Signing: James Vaughan
Key Man: Grant Holt
If they were a car: A circus clown car. Looks small, not really sure what's inside, but could spring a surprise or two.
Verdict: Staying in the Premier League will be a tough challenge, but if any newly promoted side looks to have a shot it's them.
QUEENS PARK RANGERS
Nickname: The Hoops
Ground: Loftus Road
Last season: Promoted from Championship
Manager: Neil Warnock
Fans rejoice, Neil Warnock has returned to the Premier League, and now that he is backed by the money of QPR it will be interesting to see what rants he comes up with this time around.
Transfer activity so far seems to be a mix of the good (Jay Bothroyd, DJ Campbell) and the sounds good on paper, but is actually bad (Kieron Dyer), while the club will be buoyed by the fact that much talked about (by his agent presumably) midfielder Adel Taraabt looks set to stay at the club for at least another six months, however the loss of Wayne Routledge, to another newly promoted team no less, is a blow.
This is the club's first season of top flight football in 15 years, since the early days of the Premier League, but their chances for survival appear threatened by a host of off the pitch tensions, created chiefly by their wealthy owners and the ongoing saga of takeover rumours, which has contributed to the present unwillingness to afford the squad the kind of investment that would make a positive season more likely. As it is, this is a team that still looks awfully lower league.
Key Signing: Jay Bothroyd
Key Man: Adel Taraabt
If they were a car: A hatchback entering into an F1 race, with two elderly ladies driving, bickering over control of the wheel.
Verdict: Survival is going to be a very tall ask for the club, despite Warnock's best efforts. Get ready for the press conference fireworks now.
Ground: Britannia Stadium
Last season: 13th
Manager: Tony Pulis
Pulis continues to do almighty work at Stoke, punching above their weight and particularly pulling out the stops against the big teams.
So far the only incoming transfer activity has been Jonathan Woodgate. If he can stay fit, he will be a fine addition to the already formidable Stoke defence, and a threat going forward for set pieces, still the mainstay of Stoke goalscoring. Rumours abound for some additional attacking threat along the lines of a Carlton Cole or a Cameron Jerome, but as of yet no move has materialised. The expectation then should be for more of the same from one of the more consistent teams in the Premier League these days.
The key central defensive duo of Shawcross and Huth seems to grow stronger with each passing game, and the emergence of Asmir Begovic in goal has been something of a triumph for the club now entering its fourth consecutive season of top flight football. If it ain't broke don't fix it, but one has to wonder, how long can Stoke keep playing at this level without trying to evolve the squad and style of play.
Thanks to last year's appearance in the FA Cup final, Stoke will also be involved in European competition this season, adding further challenges to the already congested schedule of a Premier League club. It will be the most telling indication yet of Stoke's durability as a top flight club to see how they cope with the additional pressure.
Key Signing: Jonathan Woodgate
Key Man: Asmir Begovic
If they were a car: A Rory Delap shaped catapult… that's close enough to a car, right?
Verdict: Aiming for status quo in the face of new challenges.
Nickname: Black Cats
Ground: Stadium of Light
Last season: 10th
Manager: Steve Bruce
Steve Bruce is a good manager and he has crafted a decent club out of the collection of Sunderland misfits he inherited, one that has long since forgotten about ensuring Premier League survival and one that now sets its sights on Europa League qualification. The challenge this season will be to combat the club's habit of inconsistency in order to progress still further.
The sale of Darren Bent was a big loss for the club, but the signing of much hyped striker Connor Wickham offers a great deal of potential, both for a player looking for space to develop, and for a club looking for someone to partner the erratic Asamoah Gyan. Meanwhile decent signings have been made in other positions including the likes of Craig Gardner and Sebastian Larsson.
If this is to be a good year, Sunderland will finish top seven and mount a creditable cup run, on the other end of the hypothetical spectrum, they might finish around 15th. My prediction? Well see below.
Key Signing: Connor Wickham
Key Man: Lee Cattermole
If they were a car: The Smartcar, small, unassuming and attracts derision from many, but surprisingly solid, and quietly gathering momentum… and then they break down for no apparent reason.
Verdict: Push for a Europa League place, but top 10 finish should be the minimum aim.
Nickname: The Swans
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Last season: Promoted from Championship
Manager: Brendan Rodgers
Cue the hysteria, we have the first ever Welsh club in the Premier League. Oh, what's that you say? No one gives a toss? Right then moving on…
Ex-Chelsea youth coach Brendan Rodgers is quickly making a name for himself as a manager. Rodgers was quick to poach the cream of the unwanted Chelsea youngster crop with the likes of Fabio Borini and Scott Sinclair lighting up the Championship, and last season his attractive Swansea side were the final team to clinch promotion to the Premier League through the playoff system. Even though Borini is now gone, he has strengthened his side well with the likes of Wayne Routledge and Leroy Lita, while the attacking forces of Nathan Dyer and Luke Moore make perfectly clear the intention to fight for survival playing attractive, attacking football. It's a similar tactic to the one Blackpool employed last season, so best of luck to them.
Whatever happens, this is a team that's likely to be fighting for survival come the end of the season, and while their style of play will win many fans and make them a popular choice for avoiding the drop as with Blackpool last year, the odds are that they too will find the step up to the top flight one too many.
Key Signing: Wayne Routledge
Key Man: Scott Sinclair
If they were a car: Alpha Romeo, aspiring for style and panache, but clearly lower league under the hood.
Verdict: A favourite for relegation despite their ambitious style.
Ground: White Hart Lane
Last season: 5th
Manager: Harry Redknapp
Tottenham under Harry Redknapp have far too often turned out to be the "almost but not quite" club. A rare piece of silverware, a first foray into the Champions League after threatening to break through for so many years, but last season saw a step backward for the club. With the level of competition toward the top of the league being what it is now, there are realistically six clubs fighting for the four Champions League qualification places, and arguably three of them fighting for just one place. Tottenham is one of those clubs, and compared to their rivals, they would appear to have the longest shot.
On top of this it is often overlooked that Tottenham have been among the biggest spenders in the league for many years now with very little to show for it, and considering the lack of major changes this summer, it is hard to see this changing. The one big improvement is the recruitment of a consistent, and excellent goalkeeper in Brad Friedel to replace the gaffe prone Gomes. No noteworthy departures as of yet, but rumours persist linking Luka Modric with a move to Stamford Bridge in the near future. Such a loss would clearly have a big impact on the squad, and on player morale for that matter, although the potential transfer fee would easily allow Redknapp to bring in a few replacements.
Make no mistake, Tottenham are certainly in contention for Champions League qualification this season, but it seems unlikely unless both Arsenal and Liverpool have massively underwhelming seasons.
Key Signing: Brad Friedel
Key Man: Luka Modric
If they were a car: Lotus Elise, costs way more than it should, in equal parts frustrating and delightful.
Verdict: Finishing outside the top six would be a bad result for the club, but pushing into that all important top four may be too much to ask.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Latest club news
Ground: The Hawthorns
Last season: 11th
Manager: Roy Hodgson
The dismissal of Roberto Di Matteo came as a surprise considering the fact that the newly promoted club (which he got promoted at the first time of asking) was positioned against all odds in the top half of the Premier League table at the time, however they have replaced him well with Roy Hodgson, a man whose disastrous tenure at Liverpool takes nothing away from his ability as a small-team manager. Hodgson duly did what he does best and ensured survival and even a comfortable mid table finish.
Once upon a time next big thing Scott Carson has been moved on, and another once upon a time next big thing Ben Foster has been brought in as his replacement, a definite improvement as far as we're concerned. Elsewhere, star striker Odemwingie looks set to carry the team's front line again, as no partner has been brought in as of yet. Hodgson looks as though he might even play with just the one up front, having brought in a number of new midfielders, including Shane Long who impressed for Reading in the Championship last season.
Captain Chris Brunt continues to be influential on the right, with Mulumbu sits in front of the back line with his intelligent play and fine passing, while Jerome Thomas completes a solid midfield. This is not a team that's ready to push for the Europa League just yet, but one that is probably good enough to avoid the drop.
Key Signing: Shane Long
Key Man: Peter Odemwingie
If they were a car: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, something delightful about the old codger in charge, who manages to craft something quite special from not much at all.
Verdict: Another finish in the lower half of the table looks likely, probably not quite stuck in the relegation battle.
Ground: JJB Stadium
Last season: 16th
Manager: Roberto Martinez
Wigan defied the odds, and an atrocious start to the season, by securing survival on the last day of the season in dramatic fashion. It may take another late miracle to prevail again, as the coming season looks like another long one for the club.
Securing Ali Al-Habsi is a big coup for the club, but much more will be needed to shore up the leakiest defence in the league. Meanwhile the loss of Charles N'Zogbia and the return of Tom Cleverley to Manchester United are both big losses for the team's attacking efforts. As of yet no ready replacements have been signed, which will probably mean that the burden of responsibility rests with Victor Moses and Rodallega.
Given the number of years that this club has survived against the odds, one would think that a turnaround in fortunes is long since due, however the opposite appears more likely and Wigan fans have every reason to worry.
Key Signing: Ali Al-Habsi
Key Man: Hugo Rodallega
If they were a car: A golf, with required pit stops every few miles, its engine on the last legs.
Verdict: Wigan's luck could run out this season.
Ground: Molineux Stadium
Last season: 17th
Manager: Mick McCarthy
Wolves face a tall order to remain in the Premier League, once again. However, Mick McCarthy is a good manager and he has done impressive work with Wolves for the last couple of years. He has also invested well. with Steven Fletcher coming in from Burnley, and Birmingham's impressive Roger Johnson coming in to bolster the back line.
But in today's Premier League where the quality of even the lower tier teams seems to improve with each passing year, that may not be enough. Johnson, while impressive for Birmingham, rarely got called out for his inconsistency, and here he is joining a defence that is already notoriously inconsistent. Meanwhile Wolves' attack was the least productive in the league last season, and while Fletcher and Doyle might sound like a convincing attacking pair together, it won't count for much without some additional quality in the midfield to create chances.
Key Signing: Roger Johnson
Key Man: Kevin Doyle
If they were a car: A Fiat. 60% of the time, it works every time… except that it's more like 20%.
Verdict: Another tough season ahead, which is likely to involve a struggle for survival.
1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
9. Stoke City
10. Aston Villa
12. Newcastle United
14. West Brom
17. Wolverhampton Wanderers
18. Swansea City
20. Queens Park Rangers