Tennis 2015: Boys still finding it tough to beat the men

As we end the 2015 tennis season, it’s the usual suspects – Djokovic, Federer, Wawrinka and Nadal contesting the semis of the ATP World Tour finals in London.

After all the new names that hit the headlines in 2014, it almost feels like we have taken two steps back in 2015. Indeed, 2014 was a year of breakthroughs – not just the first-time Grand Slam winners, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic, but the so-called ‘young guns’ of tennis, players in the range of 17-23 years.

At the top end of that age bracket, two 23-year-olds – Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov – had a stellar year in 2014. Both had been making steady progress over the past 2-3 years and last year, both reached the Wimbledon semi-finals; Raonic went on to qualify for the World Tour finals, while Dimitrov ended the year with 3 titles on 3 different surfaces. It seemed a certainty that by 2015, one or both would win their first major. Raonic started 2015 strongly, beating Nadal at Indian Wells and rising to #4. But a foot injury put him out of the clay court season and he just hasn’t been the same since he returned, ending the year down at #14. Dimitrov has fared even worse; he split with his coach (and also with his girlfriend Maria Sharapova) and seems to have been generally distracted. He ends the year at #28 and without a single title.

Kei Nishikori reached the US Opens finals last year at age 24, qualified for the World Tour Finals at which he took Djokovic to 3 sets in the semis. He ended the year at #5. This year, he has been pretty consistent, but hasn’t really troubled the top players (except a win over Nadal) and crucially has failed to make a mark at the Grand Slams. He had an early exit at the US Open, lost a bit of momentum towards the year-end and will settle for #8.

Last year, at Wimbledon, 19-year-old Aussie hot shot Nick Kyrgios announced his arrival on the world stage knocking out Nadal in the 4th round. Not since Boris Becker in the 1980’s has there been a player with so much ‘stage presence’. He ended 2014 at #52 and on paper, 2015 has been an improvement as he has moved up to #30, including wins over Federer, Wawrinka and Raonic. But he will probably be remembered more for his poor on-court behaviour leading to controversy, official warnings and fines. Hopefully all this is a part of growing up and will be put behind him in 2016.

Croatian Borna Coric started 2014 with wins over Top 20 players like Jerzy Janowicz and Ernests Gulbis. Later in the year, he defeated Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Swiss Indoors and became the youngest player in the Top 100. Coric hit a career-high 33 in mid-2015 although he later dropped back to a still respectable #45. The year included a win over Andy Murray in Dubai, but mainly his rankings improvement has come through consistent play, rather than through any spectacular big tournament success. I think he is more of a ‘grinder’ in the Nadal style and I assume he will continue his steady climb in 2016, but remains to be seen if he has the something special to challenge the top players consistently.

Nick Kyrgios (left) and Borna Coric (right)

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Another teenager, Alexander Zverev won the Australian Open juniors in 2014 and then hit the senior circuit at age 17 going on to beat a Top 20 player (Mikhail Youzhny) soon after. He has finally broken the Top 100 this year and climbed to #83. No big wins, but I guess we will be reading about Coric and Zverev contesting tournament finals ten years from now.

Austria’s Dominic Thiem is technically a young gun, as he has reached a ranking of 20 at the age of 22, but he has done so by accumulating points through consistent play rather than by beating any of the top players (although he did have a win over Wawrinka in 2014). However, he has won his maiden ATP title this year followed by two more – all at smaller tournaments. It’s a bit early to say whether he will build on this to rise to the top, or will end up as an ‘almost there’ player like David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych. But the fact that he is one of the few players with a one-handed backhand means that he is worth keeping an eye on. When Federer, Wawrinka and Gasquet retire, it will only be Dimitrov and Thiem keeping the one-handed backhand alive.

So for 2015, nothing really to set the heart on fire. Dimitrov, Raonic, Nishikori and Kyrgios all still waiting to challenge the top players consistently, while younger players like Coric and Zverev continue to play the Challenger tournaments to accumulate points and qualify for the bigger ATP tournaments.

With Nadal resurgent towards the end of 2015, Djokovic stronger than ever and Federer looking determined to keep himself fit for the Rio Olympics and Murray or Wawrinka always capable of winning another Grand Slam, it would be surprising if any of the young ones makes a significant dent in the Top 5 next year. This is not necessarily because these young guys are no good. Much has been said about how tennis has now become an older man’s game; the top players are all in their late 20s and early 30s, powered by improved racket technology and scientific training programs. It is doubtful we will see another teenage Grand Slam champion in the near future until some new disruptive technology comes along which would shift the advantage back to younger players.

Meanwhile, it’s always fun following the career arcs of new talent and there’s a whole bunch on the horizon. Thanasi Kokkinakis (age 19, rank 80) is a close friend and playing partner of Nick Kyrgios. Swedish fans look to Elias Ymer (age 19, rank 136) and his brothers to bring back 1980s style tennis glory to their nation. Just as Nishikori has put Japan on the tennis map, Hyeon Chung (age 19, rank 52) is set to do for Korea; he has been named by ATP as Most Improved Player of the Year for 2015. The US which used to dominate the game from the 70s to the 90s now has three teenagers – Frances Tiafoe (age 17, rank 182), Taylor Fritz (age 18, rank 207) and Stefan Kozlov (age 17, rank 356) – of whom great things are expected in the next few years. And maybe we can get some good old-fashioned Russian-American rivalry going in the Davis Cup if Andrey Rublev (age 18, rank 175) joins the earlier-mentioned Alexander Zverev in Top 20 in the next few years.

Clockwise from top left: Taylor Fritz, Elias Ymer, Hyeon Chung and Frances Tiafoe

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New generation of European actresses make an impact on Hollywood, Part 3

In Part 1 of my run-through of European actresses crossing over to mainstream Hollywood films, I had looked at the careers of Eva Green, Rebecca Ferguson and Noomi Rapace. In Part 2, I covered Marion Cotillard, Melanie Laurent and Alicia Vikander. Now in Part 3, let’s look at two more French-speaking actresses.

Léa Seydoux (30) comes from both cinema and business royalty. She is a descendant of the founders of oilfield services company Schlumberger; her grandfather and granduncle were the chairmen of Pathé and Gaumont respectively, both highly respected French film production companies. No doubt that with such a background, acting opportunities would come her way. She started her film career at the age of 21 and soon after was nominated Most Promising Actress for her lead role in the French TV film The Beautiful Person. She doesn’t have a very emotive face, so her characters tend to appear rather cool or pouty, except when she flashes her smile. Which she did, in her small role as the down-to-earth antique dealer Gabrielle in Woody Allen’s magical 2011 romantic comedy Midnight in Paris (pic below); I loved that last scene where she walks off in the rain with Owen Wilson. The same year, we saw her play a deadly assassin who falls off the Burj Khalifa after a cat-fight with Paula Patton in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. At the time of writing, she can be seen on-screen with Daniel Craig in Spectre. Bond films are not really platforms to showcase acting skills, but instead audiences will be looking for screen presence and chemistry. I’m not sure she scores very high in this regard – Monica Bellucci probably created more sparks with Daniel Craig during their brief moment together in the film; and when compared with past ‘Bond girls’, she neither has the stunning looks/ figure of Ursula Andress and Halle Berry nor the IQ/ EQ of Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. So it’s tough to say how much her Hollywood career will benefit from this high profile role. Of course, it could well be that Ms. Seydoux may want to limit her overseas appearances, given her thriving French film career. She has after all, received best actress nominations for 2 highly regarded French films (both on my to-watch list) – the period film Farewell My Queen and the Cannes Palm d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color – while enjoying box office success as Belle in the big-budget French version of Beauty and the Beast (2014).

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I first saw Charlotte Le Bon (29) last year in The Hundred-Foot Journey (pic below) as the local sous chef who helps a struggling Indian family to set up a restaurant in her village in the Pyrenees. The Canadian-born actress is based in Paris and so technically qualifies for this list! Since the start of her career in 2011, she has acted in some well-known French films including comic-book adventure Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia and biopic Yves Saint Laurent, for which she received her first ever acting nomination earlier this year. Her latest Hollywood release is with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the acclaimed, but little seen The Walk. I am looking forward to her next release The Promise – it is a period drama set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire and her co-stars are powerhouse actors Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac. It is directed by Terry George who made the heart-wrenching Hotel Rwanda a few years ago. Next year will be a big one for Ms. Le Bon; besides The Promise, she has 3 other English-language films scheduled for release – scifi thriller Project Lazarus, action movie Bastille Day and WW2 historical thriller Anthropoid (the same story as another upcoming film, HHhH, which I had mentioned in my coverage of Rosamund Pike recently).

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Looking back at this three-part list, it’s pretty clear that the European ‘invasion’ is mainly coming from France and the Nordics (Denmark and Sweden, to be precise). Unlike two generations earlier, there are very few actresses crossing over from Italian films (except Monica Bellucci for the odd supporting role). The Spanish and German film industries are thriving and there are a number of fantastic actresses from those two nations, but they appear quite content to stay within their borders.

SPECTRE lacks the freshness of Casino Royale or Skyfall, but pretty good for the fourth entry in the Craig series

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SPECTRE’s opening set-piece instantly reminded me of Orson Welles’ brilliant 3 ½ minute single-take achievement in Touch of Evil. Unlike that 1958 classic, this 4 minute sequence is only appears to be a continuous tracking shot but in fact has a couple of carefully hidden transitions. Nevertheless, it is a richly mounted, incredibly detailed and meticulously choreographed sequence, consisting of 2000+ extras, all of whom stay in character even in wide and long shots.

Sam Smith’s new theme song Writing’s on the Wall is reasonably good when paired with the title sequence, but will not challenge my Top 3 favourites – Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill, Tina Turner’s Goldeneye and A-ha’s The Living Daylights; of course, Paul McCartney’s iconic Live and Let Die now probably transcends these mundane lists.

The overall story arc is simple enough to describe – Bond follows up on a tip to kill a man and then investigate the secret organization he works for. As he digs deeper, he uncovers a personal connection with the man who has been pulling the strings of globally organized crime over the years. The execution of this simple story is quite complex though and sometimes it’s tough to keep track of why exactly Bond is in a particular part of the world – Mexico, London, Rome, Austria and Morocco – except in order to set up a spectacular sequence in an exotic location!

And spectacular they are. Everything looks fabulous in this movie, including Bond in his perfectly fitting Tom Ford O’Connor suit (only about USD 4000 at Harrod’s). If indeed this is going to be his last Bond, then certainly Mr. Craig will be going out on a high, as he hardly seeming to have aged since Casino Royale nine years ago. Equally eye-catching are his co-star Léa Seydoux and his car, the Aston Martin DB10 prototype.

Product placement has been toned down, but just enough to allow the featured brands to run their own Bond-related promotions off-screen. Aston Martin and Omega are the two brands explicitly visible on-screen, but brands like Tom Ford, Sony phones and Belvedere Vodka are certainly riding on the association.

Throughout the film, there are echoes of the past for Bond loyalists to pick up on. The mountaintop Hoffler Klinik where Seydoux’ character Dr. Madeleine Swann works looked like Blofeld’s similarly placed allergy research institute in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond and Dr. Swann’s dinner date on the Oriental Desert Express is a nod to his and Vesper Lynd’s first meeting in Casino Royale.

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Later on, the fight sequence between Bond and Hinx (Dave Bautista from Guardians of the Galaxy) is reminiscent of the one between Sean Connery’s Bond and strongman Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia with Love.

I get a bit worried with this new trend of referencing old events in franchise movies. JJ Abrams did it in Star Trek Into Darkness and it came off poorly in Terminator: Genisys. It’s a bit of a gimmick and seems like lazy writing to me. Or maybe it was just coincidence and I am looking too hard for such connections!

There is no femme fatale this time around unless you count Monica Belucci in a use-and-throw role who does not even have the good grace to get killed. I missed having a character like Famke Janssen’s unhinged Xenia Onatopp from Goldeneye or Bérénice Marlohe’s stunning and tragic Séverine in Skyfall or even Caroline Munro’s irritating helicopter pilot Naomi from The Spy Who Loved Me (whose destruction I thoroughly enjoyed at the tender age of 9).

I should be writing more about Christoph Waltz’ performance; not only is he one of my top character actors, he is also a two-time Oscar winner and plays an iconic Bond villain – history was waiting to be made. However, he is strangely tame in the film; I actually thought he was more menacing with his shadowy presence in the trailers than he was when actually seen in the movie. I can understand that director Sam Mendes would not have wanted him to ham it up like previous Bond villains nor do a repeat of Waltz’ own tongue-in-cheek performance as SS Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Whatever the case, I felt that Javier Bardem’s Silva was far more menacing and disturbing in Skyfall.

I also missed Judi Dench. At the end of Skyfall, I very much welcomed Ralph Fiennes as the new M. His character Gareth Mallory had shown a certain spiritedness throughout the film which I thought would serve him well as the new boss of MI6. But in SPECTRE, Fiennes’ M is an emasculated leader, tagging along behind his new boss ‘C’ (played by Andrew Scott, last seen as Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock) and mouthing pedantic phrases about democracy. Likewise, Naomie Harris, who made such an impression as field agent turned executive assistant in Skyfall, seemed to be missing her spark. I thought about this and realized that this is the truth of life in large corporations (even MI6), which is that even omni-powerful bosses have their own boss to be afraid of and the brightest of talent can eventually get ground down by the pressures of the job! Perhaps their seeming fatigue is a reflection of director Sam Mendes’ own state of mind, considering that he has been working on 2 consecutive Bond films for the better part of the last five years.

Looking back at all my comments, it may seem like I have a lot to quibble about, but it really is only quibbling. And that’s because Skyfall set up such high expectations, which were even further enhanced with that brilliant opening sequence. Thereafter, the film suffers a bit due to the long running time and a bit due to some lazy script writing and editing. But overall, it is a great-looking movie, featuring a lead actor absolutely in his element that ends with on a surprisingly noble and conventionally happy (but welcome) ending. Go see it! It may be the last time we’ll see Daniel Craig on screen as the iconic 007.

New generation of European actresses making an impact on Hollywood, Part 2

I wasn’t sure whether to include Marion Cotillard (40) in this list of “new generation” European actresses crossing over into mainstream Hollywood. I could have just mention her in the introduction to Part 1 along with Penelope Cruz and Audrey Tautou; after all, she is in the same age bracket as the ‘veterans’ and had her first big hit in France in 1998 with the action-comedy Taxi (produced by Luc Besson). But she broke out internationally ‘only’ in 2007 with her Oscar-winning portrayal of legendary songstress Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, so I guess it is worth including her with the current generation! Her Hollywood career kicked off with Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) and Chris Nolan’s Inception (2010). Her biggest English-language release to date is Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), but she had a meatier role as part of a love triangle in James Gray’s excellent indie drama The Immigrant (2013), along with Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. Through it all, Ms. Cotillard has maintained strong roots in French cinema and arguably that’s where you can see her best work – Little White Lies (2010), Rust and Bone (2012) and Two Days One Night (2014). The last movie got Ms. Cotillard yet another Oscar nom this year and is one of my top films of  2014 (see trailer below). It should be interesting to see her as Lady Macbeth opposite Michael Fassbender in Macbeth, coming out this December. And then she will re-team with the same actor in the film adaptation of video game Assassin’s Creed, releasing December next year.

Melanie Laurent (32) was named ‘Most Promising Newcomer’ at the French César Awards in 2007 for the drama Don’t Worry I’m Fine. But of course, her major international breakthrough came in 2009 with Quentin Tarentino’s sublime WW2 adventure Inglourious Basterds (below) as the gutsy theater owner Shosanna. Since then, she has appeared in a few English-language dramas, but all in limited release; the only one worth watching is 2010’s Beginners, the ‘senior-citizen coming out’ dramedy which won an Oscar for Christopher Plummer at the age of 82. Her next film is By the Sea, directed by Angelina Jolie, in which she stars alongside Mr. and Mrs. Pitt; it was expected to be an awards contender this winter, but the initial reviews I have seen aren’t very promising.

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Alicia Vikander (27) is the youngest in this list, but currently the most prolific European export, having moved into high visibility in 3 short years. She received multiple international acting nominations for Danish film A Royal Affair opposite Mads Mikkelsen. This film was nominated for Best Picture Oscar and I really liked the chemistry between the two leads; it was the first time I had seen Ms. Vikander on screen, as she had mainly been on Danish TV shows before that. She then acted in films from 2 highly respected directors, which were unfortunately little seen by the public – Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina and Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate. She has since then gone into overdrive. Just look at her 2015 slate – she started off the year with the fantasy film The Seventh Son, then played British pacifist Vera Brittain in the period piece Testament of Youth, she was a creepy android in the scifi thriller Ex Machina and then starred as a gutsy East German in the stylish spy flick The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Before the year ends, she will appear in The Danish Girl as a woman whose husband became the first publicly known person to undergo a sex-change operation, back in 1930. The film is expected to garner yet another acting nod for Eddie Redmayne. It’s a bit scary, how many big projects this young actress is getting. Is there such a thing as too much international exposure? Perhaps not, when you think about how unpredictable acting careers are. She has been quoted as saying,”I suffer from a constant anxiety that what’s happening to me isn’t going to last forever. It’s a tough industry. Really tough. And I’m constantly preparing myself for it to go wrong.” Might as well make hay while the sun shines. And making hay she is! Having been confirmed to star opposite Matt Damon in the next Jason Bourne movie, there is now talk that Ms. Vikander will play Lisbeth Salander in The Girl in the Spider’s Web.

The many faces of Alicia Vikander: clockwise from top left – The Danish Girl (2015), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), A Royal Affair (2012) and Ex Machina (2015).

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In my concluding post, I will cover 2 French actresses who are making it big in Hollywood.