Friday, 6 May 2016

Last Vegas

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Last Vegas is a product of two unrealistic box office successes, that came from left field and left the Hollywood studios aghast at their money making.

The first was the phenomenal success of The Hangover trilogy, the first film was one of those head slapping instances when a film's premise was so easy to pitch in an elevator that you were surprised it was not done before. It was naturally helped by having three leads at the ascent of their careers in Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifinakis, whose chemistry helped two more films complete the trilogy although by the second half of the second film that magic had dissipated.  The second surprise was The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where the numbers showed that if you made a film that appealed to the greyer pound they would come out in force to watch them if taken seriously.

The makers of Last Vegas must have thought lets combine two elements; ageing actors and a hot location, so they took four legendary actors and transplant them into a bachelor party storyline in Las Vegas.

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Michael Douglas plays Billy, a late 60s attorney who proposes to his 32 year old girlfriend at a funeral. He calls his two friends, Sam (Kevin Kline) and Archie (Morgan Freeman) to tell him the good news. Sam is based in Florida; retired and tiring of his relocation to the retirement state and Archie is recovering from a stroke with a worrying son watching his every move.  The trio are reluctant to ask Patty (Robert De Niro) because he is upset at Billy for not attending the funeral of his dearly departed wife the previous year, yet they somehow convince Patty to get to Nevada.

The film has its funny moments and yet these are restricted to throwaway lines mostly from Kline who gets the majority of them, and yet for a cast of such class it is a shame that they could not incorporate more visual gags or moments of dialogue for them to play with. Tellingly, all of them look and play the age they are meant to be playing, which restricts the narrative and debilitates the flow of the narrative in terms of emotional attachment to the characters.

The other reason for this disconnect is the contempt with which the film treats women, now whilst this may be a measure of Vegas itself where scantily clad women adorn many a billboard or advert, the women in the film are treated as sex objects or of desire that is not befitting the nature of the men on show. Kline's wife gives him permission to sleep with someone, no anyone, while he is away and gives him a condom and viagra. Kline is tempted and almost gets his wish before the realisation dawns on him that he would like to do something sensational, but with his wife, this does not stop him asking for a blow job from the embarrassed girl who fancies him.

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It is odd that the only women treated with any respect in the film is dead, and that is Sophie, Patty's wife, a women who cannot speak for herself nor make an argument. Which makes the presence of Diana (played by Mary Steenburgen) all the more confusing, she sings torch songs and is dazzling in her costumes yet she only serves as a conduit for Michael Douglas' character to realise that it is clearly a mistake to be marrying someone half his age when someone his own age is available.

The fun moments become fewer and further between as the film goes on, and the emotional impact of scenes between De Niro and Douglas talking about their friendship does not have the resonance it deserves nor warrants.

A shame as the premise is a good one, just poorly executed by a lazy director.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Thoughts About Her

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Spike Jonze's film won an Academy award for Best Original Screenplay, and while any work by the visionary Jonze is worthwhile and garners attention due to his huge back catalogue of music videos and film, this attempt at a romantic film for the digital age is at times both affirming and frustrating.

In a near-future but too familiar to be science fiction, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a writer of lonely hearts letters for family members unable to connect with their loved ones, so they ask him to write letters to sons at college, wives on the anniversary of their wedding days from tongued tied spouses.

Theodore is going through a protracted divorce from Katherine (Rooney Mara) and is becoming somewhat insular and anti-social, so he purchases an operating system that will allow him to engage again with the outside world. He chooses a female voice, she calls herself Samantha and they slowly start a relationship together culminating in a sexual one, Samantha is voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

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The film is at pains to point out that the relationship between the human being and artificial intelligence is genuine and acceptable in this near future. Theodore's neighbour and friend Amy (Amy Adams) also has a relationship with her operating system and mentions others doing likewise.

Theodore has an ear piece where he can talk to Samantha, and this cuts him off from the rest of the world. He talks only to her, and although he is perceptive and observant of those around him, he does not interact face to face with them. His one attempt at a date with another female ends abruptly when she fears he will not call her back as it is only a one-night stand, something Theodore admits to.

The quest for love and companionship has fallen on deaf ears because people are too interested in their devices carrying all the information and knowledge they require, why interact with people who may well bore you - people are both alienated yet involved.

Jonze's screenplay is a nicely meditative piece on how relationships disintegrate over time due to the demands individuals place on each other in the hope for the ideal mate, and it is surprising that this viewer found the fleeting flashbacks of the maturation and eventual end of Theodore and Katherine's relationship at times more interesting that the story of this lonely individual; it may well have made for a more interesting film.

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Jonze is helped though by some beautiful cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema that makes this futuristic Los Angeles look like the most beautiful city in the world especially the final shot overlooking the cityscape with all the lights on. When it is quiet and no phones or devices are being used.

While Jonze's oeuvre can correctly be identifiable as offbeat, you hoped this film would be more conventional in its attempts at tackling romance yet Jonze's kookiness remains. This is a shame as Phoenix is exceptional as Theodore appearing in practically every shot holding our attention and gains our sympathy when he could easily have slipped into a caricature of an unloveable creep.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The Black Mamba slides away

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33,583 points before tonight his 1,281st NBA game

And so it comes to this. Wednesday 13th April 2016. A day I am sure not many of us thought would occur, and one the man this essay concerns would have wanted to avoid at all costs.
Kobe Bean Bryant is finally retiring from the NBA after 20 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, five NBA championships, two Olympic Gold medals and 18 All Star appearances.

It is always sad to see a veteran have to ride off into the sunset one more time and when that veteran has had such an illustrious career as Bryant, you do get time to reflect of his career peaks and influence.

When Bryant did announce his retirement shortly after the start of 2015/16 season it came as little surprise. Three years ago Bryant suffered a torn Achilles' tendon, and since the. His play has been limited by season ending injuries to his knee and shoulder. 

Bryant is an all-time Laker, the highest points scorer for the franchise, 4th highest in NBA history and a one team man which is becoming rarer and rarer. Bryant is one of the most tenacious and competitive individuals who could seemingly score at will; yet as Father Time caught up with him that tenacity has waned as has his figures.

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Bryant won 5 NBA championships

A combination of injuries and playing on a lesser Lakers side (this season's side is statistically the worst in franchise history) has seen him become a playoff fixture to a forgotten thought. The mark of a legend is sometimes being able to write your own script, your own perfect ending as say Peyton Manning was able to with his Super Bowl victory.

You got the sense from Bryant that he wanted his talent to grace the playoffs one more time, and yet a mixture of poor off court decision making coupled with the burden to match Michael Jordan's six rings became paramount in the twilight of his career.

Bryant could have done more himself by taking a pay cut which would have allowed the Lakers to entice a viable free agent like Chris Paul instead Bryant took the maximum contract (two year extension worth $48.5 million) thereby hamstringing the team to his want of a better and greater legacy. Yet you look at his contemporaries like Dirk Nowitzki who reshuffled his contract in Dallas to exist in the West or even Tom Brady in the NFL a man who always takes a pay cut to help his team in the off season.

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Did Kobe play well with others?
Bryant is for this writer a top 10 all time talent based on his capacity to win and his frequency of scoring, but it is probably his unwillingness to play well with others, you need only see the unseemly fall out of his relationship with Shaquille O'Neal for evidence followed by his shutting out of Dwight Howard in a misguided super-team endeavour. 

Even the recent debacle on the Lakers between Nick Young and D'Angelo Russell needed an elder statesman to shepherd them through the mess, yet Bryant has remained mute when his words may have spoken volumes. Bryant always wanted to take the shot and will always be remembered as a scorer than a distributor or team player, for a man who was the first great player of this millennium and has five rings.

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Bryant plays his last game 13th April v Utah Jazz
Bryant maybe the Black Mamba but in recent years the player has lost his bite. A career more memorable for sustainability than credibility.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Ran - Akira Kurosawa - 30th Anniversary Re-release

Celebrating its 30th anniversary of release, Akira Kurosawa's final cinematic masterpiece RAN is being re-released on the big screen and enjoying a DVD and Blu-ray release in a new 4K restoration.

Based on William Shakespeare's King Lear, Ran is considered one of the greatest war films of all time. Fittingly the 4K release coincides with the 400th anniversary celebrations of William Shakespeare.

In the final years of Kurosawa's beautiful creative mind, he saw fit to create a colourful landscape within the Japanese hills as a small family dispute with far reaching scope takes over the country.

Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai – Yojimbo, Kagemusha) an ageing warlord who, after spending his life consolidating his empire, decides to abdicate and divide his kingdom amongst his three sons, Taro (Akira Terao - Letter from the Mountain, Dreams), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu – The Man in White, Red Shadow: Akakage) and Saburo (Daisuke RyĆ» - Tono monogatari, Gojo reisenki: Gojoe). When Hidetora’s youngest son Saburo voices concerns about the wisdom of his father’s plan, claiming that treachery within the family will be inevitable, Hidetora mistakes these comments for a threat and banishes him. This allows Taro and Jiro to take the reigns of power unopposed, leading to a brutal and bloody struggle to win absolute power.

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The richness of the colour palette is on display from the first meeting of Hidetora as he decrees over his sons his wish to pass on his kingdom to Taro - while the warlord oversees all in his glorious white robe his three sons sit in the primary colours of blue, yellow and red. Saburo sits in red which is the
colour of red and anger, and his banishment prompts the kind of bloody that 16th century civil war is
renowned for.

Kurosawa was always known for becoming the first Eastern director to have his work transported and transplanted to the West and most especially the American Hollywood system in particular the western genre where his work was impressed upon John Ford and Howard Hawks. Famously, his film The Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven in 1960.

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Yet perhaps the influence of Western Hollywood cinema came back to Kurosawa, in particular the huge epic sweep of films like David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and Richard Attenborough's Gandhi.

Majestic in its scope and a finale to a tremendously creative career which proved that film language can be universal in garnering an international appreciation of his work, Ran stands a fitting monument to Akira Kurosawa's career.

Studiocanal/Independent Cinema Office (ICO) re-issue the film on a 4K restoration in UK cinemas on April 1st, with a Blu-ray/DVD release on May 2nd with a wealth of bonus features available

Thursday, 31 March 2016

NCAA 2016 Final Four Breakdown

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The 2016 NCAA College Basketball Tournament reaches its dizzy crescendo this weekend in Houston where the final four and best remaining College teams face off to crown the Champion in College Hoops.

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Following a mad opening weekend where more upsets occurred than normal, and then a fairly flat second weekend of Sweet 16 and Elite 8 action owing to the shocks in the first weekend, we are left with four teams. One Number One seed remains in North Carolina, two number twos in Oklahoma and Villanova and one underdog in No. 10 Syracuse.

North Carolina (1) v Syracuse (10)
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Syracuse have profited from having winnable games throughout the tournament and profiting from teams being eliminated. They beat Dayton by 19 in the first round, they then avoided Michigan State by defeating their victors Middle Tennessee by 25. Then they got two tough games in Gonzaga (will they ever reach their potential) by 3 before defeating Virginia by a convincing margin of 6. Virginia could not contend with the 2-3 zone of Cuse, and while they may be able to slow down North Carolina's offensive production, Virginia scored the most points of anyone against Syracuse in the tournament - 62.

North Carolina meanwhile have been the most under-the-radar No.1 seed in recent memory, every game has been won by double digits, the closest being 14 over Notre Dame in the elite eight and 15 over Indiana two days before.  The Tar Heels have two very good players and probably first round NBA players in Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, yet they defend hard also making it difficult for teams to get shots off and disrupt their rhythm.

In that respect, Syracuse will have to score 80 plus points to have a chance of causing an upset. You doubt this will be likely for the Orange to succeed and Roy Williams will be heading for another title game.

Oklahoma (2) v Villanova (2)
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In a much tighter affair, the two number two seeds face off and this game revolves around one player - Buddy Hield. Can Hield maintain his form of avergaing 29.3ppg in the tournament and can the Wildcats stifling defence have an answer to him.  The key will be to stop him getting a shot from the perimeter or the three point line. Hield can score at will seemingly, but Villanova so renowned for their defence have found some shooting shoes in previous rounds before stopping Kansas in the last round.

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Time for Buddy to shine

In a coin flip of a game in this instance, you tend to go with the team that has the better player(s) and in this game you take Buddy. In recent years, the team that won the tournament had that tournment's MVP - from Conneticut's Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier to Kentucky's Anthony Davis.  The time has come for Buddy to shine.

In the final, you will see North Carolina Tar Heels v Oklahoma Sooners; will that be one game too many for Buddy or will UNC yield to Hield?