mother! (2017)

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Note: the characters in this film are purposely never referred to by name, and are listed on IMDB in the following manner. There is a reason for this, which I’ll get into later:

  • Jennifer Lawrence as mother
  • Javier Bardem as Him
  • Ed Harris as man
  • Michelle Pfeiffer as woman

Ok.

This film is very difficult to describe. There are multiple interpretations of mother! out there and it’s causing a polarizing reaction among critics and audiences alike. There WILL be some spoilers in this review. I apologize in advance; I wanted to include a completely spoiler-free review before a did a more in-depth look at mother! but found myself unable to broach the film’s subject matter without getting into the nitty-gritty aspects of it.

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Him (Javier Bardem) is a gifted poet who lives in an isolated rural house with his much younger wife, known only as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence). Mother works to renovate the house while Him suffers from writers’ block; they are outwardly affectionate towards each other, but have a strange relationship dynamic. Him is naturally sociable and charming, but it’s implied that he has suffered from traumatic events in his past and comes across as emotionally distant towards his wife. Meanwhile, Mother is young and timid, and while she loves Him, she struggles to reveal her true thoughts and feelings due to the demanding nature of his work. We see that Mother also occasionally has disorienting, vertigo-like episodes and that the house itself is sentient and has a personality of its own (yes, even a beating heart).

One day, the couple’s tranquil existence is disrupted by a Man (Ed Harris). Man is a doctor and researcher who has greatly admired Him’s writings, but his unannounced arrival — as well as Him’s lack of suspicion towards his mysteriousness — alarms Mother. Soon enough, Harris’s wife, Woman, (Michelle Pfeiffer) also shows up. There’s plenty of awkward interaction as Woman begins to trouble Lawrence with nosy questions and help herself to a tour of the house. Again, Mother and Him’s lack of communication with each other causes notable tension.

It’s soon revealed that Man is dying of an unknown disease. He and Woman have two sons, and a traumatic and violent incident occurs involving the two of them and their father’s will. This results in the younger son being bludgeoned. Him follows the family to the hospital, but the younger son dies regardless. As Mother cleans up the bloody crime scene, she notices a spot on the wood floor that continues to bleed, dripping down to the house’s basement.

This violent incident drives a further wedge being driven between Him and Mother. After a wake for the son in which more uninvited guests arrive, Mother eventually confronts Him about it and voices her frustrations about the lack of communication in their relationship. It’s also becoming increasingly apparent by how many people hold Him in such esteem, even to the point of harassing Mother, being rude to her, and becoming violently obsessed with Him’s work. Mother becomes angry with Him, but they eventually make up and have sex, which results in Mother’s pregnancy.

Happy for his growing family, Him finally gets new inspiration to write. He finishes the piece in record time over the next few months, and both he and Mother begin to be contented again. However, when Him’s new poem is released, he begins to get more and more obsessed fans arriving at the house, who become violent and push a pregnant Mother to the edge of her own sanity.

This film is insane. I didn’t know much about it until I saw it recently, only that it drew a sharply divided response from critics and audiences and was full of metaphor and allegory. Mother! is the brainchild of acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky, who has frequently blended violence, harrowing drama, and surrealism into his previous films, most notably Black Swan, Pi, Noah, The Fountain, and Requiem for a Dream. He’s someone that I greatly respect due to his daring artistic visions and willingness to push stylistic boundaries. You never forget an Aronofsky film once you’ve seen it.

The insane part of the film is primarily due to the violent climax in the last third of the movie, but mother! builds a coherent and visceral atmosphere right off the bat. Lots of the early parts of the film follow Mother around the massive house, and you get a real sense of the scope, age, and isolation of the place. The cinematography and sound design are both outstanding, the latter of which is key, because mother! has very little in terms of a traditional musical score. Therefore, the sound of the film becomes extremely important in establishing the tone.

Alas, tone is what can sometimes make mother! a jarring and disorienting experience. I get that it’s a psychological horror film with heavy allegorical meaning, but some of the tonal shifts from scene to scene — most notably about halfway through the movie — weren’t done super well. At the same time, I feel like that the unsettling effect of the tonal shifts were kind of the point — after all, I would agree that this is a film that must be experienced, not simply watched. Nonetheless, I recognize that it’s sometimes strange to go from surreal religious symbolism to domestic drama to psychological horror and back again. This is probably one of the reasons as to why most audiences found mother! a difficult film to watch.

The acting and directing are as good as any you’ll see all year. Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in particular are outstanding; Lawrence might have just given us the performance of her career, and that’s saying something.

The film has been described as a Biblical allegory by both Aronofsky and Lawrence, and this becomes very apparent as the film goes on. Bardem — as Him — is essentially playing a version of God, albeit a deity that’s not entirely consistent with one particular religion. Him is universally admired and some of his followers do, in fact, take it too far and do horrible things to please Him. Lawrence echoed some similar sentiments in a recent interview as well — that Bardem represents a deity, but not any particular religion.

(Worth mentioning: Aronofsky previously directed the Biblical epic Noah in 2014. While he admits to a spiritual side, Aronofsky has said that he has a complex relationship with religion and was raised culturally Jewish in his hometown of Brooklyn.)

Harris and Pfeiffer represent Adam and Eve, and you’ll pick up on some related symbolism along the way. The brothers fighting and one killing the other is obviously a Cain and Abel reference, Lawrence’s character is an embodiment of Mother Earth, while the house is the Garden of Eden (this is explored by Mother giving life to a literal child as well as sustaining the house through its many incarnations).

***WARNING: MORE SPOILERS AHEAD***

Speaking of Mother Earth, there were some reviewers that believed that the latter half of the film — in which Him’s obsessed fans ruin the house and drive Mother to her breaking point — as being a metaphor for environmentalism. You could certainly draw this parallel, but the religious symbolism is much stronger and more pervasive throughout the movie.

In my opinion, the symbolism of the bleeding floorboards of the house has two meanings: physical and spiritual. The house’s bleeding stops when Mother is pregnant, suggesting both the physical differences (menstruation vs. pregnancy) and how Mother is happier knowing that she’s bringing a new life into the world, as opposed to earlier, when she felt emotionally distant from Him and lacked joy in her life.

There was some controversy related to Aronofsky’s intentions with this film. The director wrote the entire script at an astonishing pace — five days, in fact — and said he wanted the movie to have a dreamlike quality to it. Some critics complained that the film’s themes and poster bore an uncanny resemblance to horror classic Rosemary’s Baby. Other people didn’t like the violence in mother! or found it too intellectually dense to comprehend, dismissing it as silly or pretentious.

I disagree; I found mother! to be extremely engaging, visually and technically spectacular, and very well-acted. Some might find it too ambitious or disturbing, and some will love the meaning of the film and draw philosophical and spiritual messages from it. Just like my favorite Aronofsky film, Requiem for a DreamMother! is harrowing and intense at times, and isn’t exactly something I’d recommend to everyone. However, I know this film has a real meaning to it and will definitely merit repeat viewings eventually.

Grade: A-

  • Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky
  • Produced by Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, and Ari Handel
  • Director of Photography — Matthew Libatique
  • Edited by Andrew Wiesblum
  • Starring Javier Bardem, Jennifer Lawrence, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
  • Rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.
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Silence (2016)

Two young Jesuit priests search for their missing mentor while facing danger and persecution in 17th-century Japan.

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Why do bad things happen to good people?

Why does God seem hidden when we need Him the most?

Why is there suffering in the world?

What loaded questions. But these age-old philosophical queries form the basis of Martin Scorsese’s religious epic Silence.

In 17th-century Japan, there are a number of hidden Christians (known as Kakure Kirishitan) under persecution from the authorities. The story follows two young Portuguese Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), who are stationed at St. Paul’s College, Macau.

Garupe and Rodrigues receive word that their former mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has been rumored to have forsaken the faith while under torture. Skeptical but nonetheless troubled of this rumor, both priests journey to Japan, attempting to both find Ferreira and bring a dash of faith, hope, and love to the impoverished, persecuted Japanese Christian community.

However, along the way, both men — especially Rodrigues —  become deeply distraught at the fear and tragedy that the Japanese Catholics deal with. They live in destitution and are desperate for someone to give them encouragement and support. Many scenes in the movie are Rodrigues journaling his thoughts, serving as an inner-monologue to his struggles. It’s heartening to know that even leaders of the faith struggle with the problem of pain, but Rodrigues and Garupe will soon find themselves persecuted as well, struggling to sustain their Gospel against the Japanese shogun.

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Silence is — to put it mildly — an emotional roller-coaster of a movie. Characters grapple with their consciences. Innocent men and women are tortured for their faith. Some characters deny their faith only to tearfully ask for confessions later on.

Put it this way: I have never, ever cried while watching a movie, but in Silence, there were three occasions where that streak was nearly broken.

Silence was in the works for 25 years, with Scorsese securing the rights to Shusaku Endo’s novel back in the 90s. Scorsese’s Catholic background was a key factor in his desire to bring the story of Silence to the big screen, but he still struggled to find the emotional heart of the story. Scorsese and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Jay Cocks, wrote the screenplay all the way back in 1991, but were never quite able to get the project off the ground, re-writing scripts numerous times in between Scorsese’s other films, such as Shutter Island, Gangs of New York, and Hugo.

Eventually, the duo were embroiled in legal battles with studios and had to fight for many years to retain the novel’s rights. Scorsese continued to work on other films in the meantime, before finally deciding to film Silence after his 2013 blockbuster The Wolf of Wall Street. 

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Even at the age of 74, Scorsese is still one of the greatest directors alive, and this pet project was something that he was genuinely passionate about and fought to get made. Still controversial among Christians for his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese nonetheless does have a sincere set of beliefs, even if it’s taken him awhile to re-examine them in his later years. “All I’ve had all my life are movies and religion,” the director once said. In fact, Scorsese briefly considered entering the ministry thanks to the positive influence of a priest during his teenage years at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx.

Father James Martin — a real Jesuit priest — worked with both Driver and Garfield to ensure an accurate representation of the Catholic faith and traditions. Garfield — fresh off playing another faith-filled hero in Hacksaw Ridge — actually undertook the Spiritual Exercises in preparation for the role. The Exercises are a series of meditations and philosophical musings practiced by the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and Garfield admitted that he found them “profoundly transformative.”

Filming Silence was a grueling process, with many actors losing weight and suffering through unpredictable weather conditions while shooting in remote and rugged parts of Taiwan.

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Silence does have some incredibly powerful moments. Even for a three-hour film, it’s truly engrossing and beautifully shot, although it really can be hard to watch at times. By Scorsese’s standards, Silence is a very mild R-rated film, with only occasional bloodshed, but it’s still tragic seeing so many people suffer.

Let me be clear: Silence deals with some very deep themes and religion permeates every aspect of the film. Heck, that’s probably why the movie flopped at the box office: most Scorsese fans will not be expecting this type of film from him, and lots of moviegoers aren’t necessarily comfortable with religious epics. But even if you aren’t religious, it’s still an outstanding film and something that is more than capable of tugging at heart strings.

Scorsese explains his philosophy further:

As you get older, ideas come and go. Questions, answers, loss of the answer again and more questions, and this is what really interests me….ultimately as you get older, there’s got to be more. Much, much more. The very nature of secularism right now is really fascinating to me, but at the same time can you wipe away what could be more enriching in your life, which is an appreciation or some sort of search for that which is spiritual and transcends? Silence is just something that I’m drawn to in that way. It’s been an obsession. It has to be done… it’s a strong, wonderful true story, a thriller in a way, but it deals with those questions.

The director even went on record as saying that there’s not much hope for humanity without Christianity. “I’m a believer with some doubts,” Scorsese told The Hollywood Reporter. “But the doubts push me to find a purer sense of the word ‘God.'”

In Silence‘s examination of heresy and apostasy, there’s a bit of a bait-and-switch. While it is certainly a grievous sin to deny one’s faith, Silence asks us to go even deeper than that. If someone outwardly denies his faith, but still believes deeply in his heart, is it as severe of a sin? Can someone serve Christ silently, even if he doesn’t show it publicly out of fear of being harmed?

Scripture is a prime example of how people are still redeemable, even if they struggle with their faith or even have public moments of doubt. In the Old Testament, Samson fell away from God, but still destroyed His enemies (and himself). In the Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy, influential man who loved Jesus, but also feared backlash from the Sanhedrin and kept his faith secret. And, most famously, Peter — the greatest coward in history — became one of the most prominent and dedicated leaders the Church has ever known.

I should clarify — Silence does sometimes pose a lot more questions than answers, and among Christians, I would only recommend it for mature believers. Again, it’s an emotional roller-coaster and is the most thought-provoking film I’ve seen in awhile. The film is also punishingly lengthy (three hours), but does reward the patient viewer. Without getting into spoilers, the emotional payoff of Silence doesn’t come until the final shot of the movie.

Here’s what Catholic scholar Caesar Montevecchio stated in his analysis of the film:

Silence is as much about the object of Christian faith as it is the experience of that faith…..The object of faith becomes a Christ who is a hero of pity, who takes up the weakness and suffering of humankind as his cross, rather than a hero of triumphant resolve. The Jesus of Silence is one of utter kenosis or self-emptying, and one who in the mercy of that kenosis radically sympathizes with the weakness and frailty of human beings.

Japanese-American theologian Fumitaka Masuoka also echoed this view, stating that the movie “pivots on the idea that the silence of God is in fact the message of God, being not the silence of nothingness, but rather the accompaniment for the forsaken and the suffering.”

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Scorsese premiered Silence at the Vatican and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome at the end of November 2016. Scorsese met Pope Francis at the premiere, who wished the film great success and was also impressed by Garfield and Driver’s unique preparations for the role. Scorsese also arranged several private screenings for groups of Jesuits, many of whom were moved to tears. (I’m sure it was a surreal experience for Scorsese to be among groups of people who might have been ready to tar and feather him following Last Temptation, but that’s beside the point.)

It’s a shame that this film didn’t connect with audiences the way it should have. Silence is a remarkable achievement and one of Scorsese’s finest films, and that’s saying something.

Grade: A

  • Directed by Martin Scorsese
  • Screenplay by Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese
  • Based on the novel by Shûsaku Endô
  • Produced by Martin Scorsese, Irwin Winkler, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, Barbara De Fina, Randall Emmett, David Lee, Gastón Pavlovich
  • Director of Photography — Rodrigo Prieto
  • Music by Kathryn Kluge and Kim Allen Kluge
  • Editor — Thelma Schoonmaker
  • Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Tadanobu Asano, Issae Ogata, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Ciarán Hinds, Yoshi Oida
  • Rated R for some disturbing violent content.

 

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)

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An Australian journalist and a British embassy officer have a romantic fling while surrounded by political instability in 1965 Indonesia.

Foreign correspondent Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) receives his new assignment in Jakarta, Indonesia, a country with rampant instability and high corruption. The country’s president, Sukarno, is an avowed nationalist who has been fiercely opposed by both the state communist party (the PKI) and the Muslim-majority Indonesian military.

Western journalists — including Hamilton’s own colleagues from the US, the UK, and New Zealand — struggle to gain adequate information. Hamilton feels awkward around his colleagues, as they view him as an inexperienced hotshot. Adding to Hamilton’s frustration, his predecessor left Indonesia suddenly and didn’t inform him of what to expect.

Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a Chinese-Australian photographer born with dwarfism, turns out to be an unlikely ally for Hamilton, giving him valuable insider information and arranging key interviews with prominent political figures. While smart and intuitive, Billy’s motivations don’t always remain clear to Hamilton.

Billy introduces Hamilton to Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), a beautiful assistant at the British embassy, and the two eventually begin a romance. However, Hamilton discovers several important bits of information that could signal a coming coup against Sukarno, including the bombshell revelation that the Indonesian communists are plotting to overthrow Sukarno by using arms from China. Despite the danger, Hamilton plans to cover the impending communist uprising, much to Jill’s chagrin. In the midst of turmoil, can Hamilton keep his career and his love life intact?

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One of the classics of Australian New Wave cinema, The Year of Living Dangerously was based upon C.J. Koch’s novel of the same name. Koch wrote the novel in 1978 and based it on some of his brother’s own experiences in Indonesia as a foreign journalist during the same time period.

Koch’s novel soon drew many suitors who wanted to adapt the political romance into a film. While there was no shortage of contenders, eventually Peter Weir bought the rights and signed on to direct. Weir was riding high following his 1981 war film Gallipoli, but The Year of Living Dangerously would prove to be a unique challenge for him.

Koch wrote an early draft of the script, but Weir didn’t like it, prompting a few re-writes from screenwriter Alan Sharp and Gallipoli collaborator David Williamson. Weir and Williamson eventually wrote the final draft, and Koch estimated that the screenplay was 45% his work, and 55% Weir and Williamson.

Funding was initially easy to come by due to Weir’s status in the Australian film community at the time, but the South Australian Film Commission was eventually forced to back out. Weir’s agent suggested that MGM, which was already involved in North American distribution, provide the final budget. The Year of Living Dangerously was green-lit with a budget of AU$6 million and was one of the first international co-productions between the US and Australia (as well as one of the most expensive Aussie films ever made at that point).

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In addition to Williamson, Weir brought in Gallipoli cinematographer Russell Boyd and hired another previous collaborator, Mel Gibson, as his lead. Gibson was already a household name in Australia due to Gallipoli and the first two Mad Max films.

For the role of dwarfish photographer Billy Kwan, Weir originally cast David Atkins, a dancer, but during rehearsals, Weir felt like the chemistry between Gibson and Atkins was lacking. A few more people auditioned, but Weir soon made the unlikely choice to cast Asian-American Linda Hunt in the role of Billy. Hunt won the role and eventually earned the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Filming was completed mostly in Australia and the Philippines; due to the movie’s political overtones, the Indonesian government refused to allow the production to film in Jakarta (the movie remained banned there until 1999). Both Weir and Gibson received death threats from Filipino Muslims who had been led to believe that the movie was anti-Islam; this later forced the production to move to Sydney and complete principal photography there. (Gibson brushed off the death threats in a subsequent interview, quipping, “It wasn’t really that bad…I mean, if they meant to kill us, why send a note?”)

The Year of Living Dangerously was released in November 1982 in Australia and February 1983 in North America, grossing over $10 million in both countries combined. The film was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at the ’83 Cannes Film Festival.

I really enjoyed this movie — it’s got a excellent tone, pace and some really good cinematography while blending elements of suspense, romance, and drama. Gibson, Weaver, and Hunt are all outstanding. I found The Year of Living Dangerously to be about halfway between the sweeping romance of Casablanca and the harrowing, pulse-pounding nature of The Last King of Scotland. Most of these specific plot elements work really well, although there are some minor tonal inconsistencies from scene to scene. Apart from that, The Year of Living Dangerously is well-made and entertaining, and I’d highly recommend it if you like political thrillers, romantic thrillers, or Gibson’s pre-Lethal Weapon filmography.

Grade: B+

  • Released 1982
  • Directed by Peter Weir
  • Produced by Jim McElroy
  • Screenplay by Peter Weir and David Williamson
  • Director of Photography — Russell Boyd
  • Music by Maurice Jarre
  • Edited by William M. Anderson
  • Starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hunt, Bill Kerr, Michael Murphy, Noel Ferrier, Bembol Roco, Paul Sonkkila
  • Rated PG

Punters from Down Under, pt. 2 — continued success

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Nathan Chapman admits that it took awhile for his Aussie punting experiment to catch on with American coaches. With limited resources and plenty of logistical challenges, there was a laundry list of reasons why Chapman’s idea of putting Australians into American college football was a far-fetched idea.

Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, several prominent Australian rules footballers shocked the world by trading in a pudgy Sherrin for an American pigskin. Ben Graham, Sav Rocca, Darren Bennett, and others all had stints in the NFL, using their impressive leg strength to become star punters. Inspired by them, Chapman decided to take the same route to the NFL following an injury-marred eight-year stint in the AFL.

Chapman’s NFL aspirations didn’t pan out — he spent the 2005 preseason with the Green Bay Packers before getting cut and going back home to Melbourne. In the years since, the direct AFL-to-NFL pipeline has slowed down considerably.

But the NFL’s temporary loss has been Chapman’s gain.

In 2006, he started ProKick Australia — a unique training academy that would take young Aussie footballers, retrain their natural kicking abilities to American football, and send them off to US colleges. Based on his own experiences in the States, Chapman believed that college football could be an ideal conduit for young Aussies whose AFL dreams hadn’t worked out and who were looking for something new.

Fast-forward over a decade, and ProKick currently has over 40 athletes punting at various levels of the NCAA, the junior college system, and even three in the NFL. The past four Ray Guy Award winners have been Aussies, and more ProKick punters are on the way each year. It’s become a lucrative deal for Chapman and his business partner, John Smith, who train athletes not just how to kick an American ball, but the finer mechanics of kicking, NCAA eligibility rules, the daily grind of balancing academics and athletics, etc.

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Part of Chapman’s instructions are not just learning about American college football and adjusting to a smaller, pointier ball, but about knowing when to release, getting the hangtime right, knowing when to roll out and kick it, or simply drop-kick it. This has sometimes caused issues with the ultra-traditional NFL, where special teams structures are different from college, and where roll-out punts aren’t viewed as particularly effective. Therefore, ProKick athletes must be adept at both styles and execute them to perfection.

The punt has long been considered a boring play in football. While every team appreciates a good one, most fans use the punt play itself to grab a new beer from the fridge or text back a friend. It’s become Chapman’s task to take that one “boring” play and turn it into an art form.

“There are analytics for everything, but punting might be the last frontier in terms of gaining that extra edge that coaches want,” Chapman explains. “Punting, if it is done at an elite, expert level, can dramatically influence the outcome of a game.”

Quite frankly, it’s a win-win situation for most of Chapman’s students. Many of them are older than the average college freshman, and the majority have a background in Aussie rules from a young age, giving them the raw talent to punt an American ball. It’s relatively easy for Chapman to visit a kid and recruit him to play a completely different sport in a completely different country, with the added opportunity to get noticed by the NFL, play for roaring home crowds, and get a degree. Some of the athletes in question are coming off injuries and/or disappointing Aussie rules careers and are inherently intrigued by the possibilities of college football.

However, with that comes added wrinkles, like the fact that in the US, the vast majority of college punters are walk-ons. It’s rare for a high school punter, even if he’s nationally ranked, to get multiple scholarship offers.

“We realize that if we want to get a scholarship offer, we need to be better than a thousand kids in America each year. We’ve got to have that X factor,” Chapman says.

The ProKick alums themselves have amazing stories. No two are alike:

  • Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky won the 2016 Ray Guy Award in his first season as a Ute, but he was once a high school dropout who apprenticed as a glass-installation specialist in his hometown of Perth.
  • Jack Sheldon was recruited to ProKick after suffering a foot injury in Aussie rules; despite not having kicked for 10 weeks, Sheldon impressed Chapman with his raw talent. Four months later, in August 2016, Sheldon earned a scholarship to Central Michigan and is now playing for head coach John Bonamego — who once coached Chapman himself with the Packers!
  • Indiana’s Haydon Whitehead only found out about ProKick because his older brother played in an amateur gridiron league in Melbourne.
  • Oregon State punter Nick Porebski was recruited by Chapman when he was still a teenager playing Aussie rules in Melbourne. After Porebski suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery, he decided to give punting a try, landing for a year at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah before heading north to Oregon State in the fall of 2015.
  • Cameron Johnston grew up in the footy-obsessed city of Geelong and made it to the AFL’s Melbourne Demons, but never played a senior level game for them. Eventually, he found ProKick and earned a scholarship to Ohio State, where he started all four years and left second in school history in punting average. Johnston now punts for the Philadelphia Eagles and his cousin, Michael Sleep-Dalton, also went through ProKick and is currently a sophomore at Arizona State.
  • Houston punter Dane Roy worked the phones as a customer service rep at a Melbourne ice cream factory and was recruited by Chapman after winning a “biggest kick” competition in Aussie rules. Roy landed at Houston last year as a 28-year-old freshman.

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One of ProKick’s best known alums is former Utah punter and two-time Ray Guy winner Tom Hackett. Perhaps more so than anyone else, Hackett may have been the one who proved to the entire country that Aussies had staying power in the American game.

Standing at only 5’10”, 180 pounds, Hackett came to Salt Lake City as an unheralded walk-on. Four years later, he was a back-to-back Ray Guy winner and was even on the Pac-12 All-Century Team. In addition to his uncanny punting accuracy, Hackett was also well-known for his dry Aussie humor and unique bond with a fellow former walk-on, Utes placekicker Andy Phillips. Hackett’s NFL dream didn’t pan out, but he’s found steady work hosting ESPN radio shows in the Salt Lake City region since then. He paved the way for his successor, Wishnowsky, and many, many others.

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The coaches who are in contact with Chapman have been convinced to keep looking Down Under. One of them, former LSU boss Les Miles, once quipped that “if the guy can’t speak Australian, I don’t want him.”

Another ProKick convert is Virginia Tech special teams coordinator James Shibest.

Shibest and Hokies coach Justin Fuente worked together at Memphis for several years and both recruited 2013 Ray Guy winner Tom Hornsey. So when Fuente moved to Blacksburg to take over in December 2015, he took Shibest with him. This past February, Shibest recruited and signed another ProKick alum — Oscar Bradburn, a 19-year-old Sydneysider.

“They’re extremely competitive, No. 1. Just through the way they’re brought up playing Australian rules football — that’s what I’ve liked the most and we’ve had success with it, so we’re excited about him,” Shibest said of Bradburn on National Signing Day.

2017.04.22. Spring Game at VT.

Another believer in the Aussie tradition is former NFL coach and current Illinois head man Lovie Smith. Earlier this year, Smith used a scholarship on ProKick’s Blake Hayes, who stands at an imposing 6’6″, 220 pounds and landed in Champaign over the summer. “He has a strong leg. He’s calm. He’s a confident player. We’re going to call on him a lot,” Smith said of Hayes.

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Hayes, another Melbourne native, admitted that he was amazed at the recruiting process that some of his freshman teammates had to endure. In today’s social media-obsessed world, Chapman is acutely aware of how many young kids de-commit, commit, then de-commit again from high-profile programs. To avoid any potential flakiness, the ProKick coaches handle the entire recruiting process for their students and use their best judgment to determine which school(s) are the best fit for them athletically and academically. It could be seen as a risky move, but Chapman wants ProKick’s reputation to remain good and for his pupils to make a firm decision when the time is right.

“Our coaches try not to tell us a huge amount on what schools are interested,” Hayes explains. “It can boost confidence too much and we get ahead of ourselves. Coaches can’t see us in person. Basically when a coach starts speaking to my coach first, and then once they display genuine interest, they’ll call the player. I think it’s a good thing. I don’t know how these guys do it with multiple offers. I think it keeps us level-headed.”

In addition to a steady group of coaches who are consistently interested in new Aussie faces, Chapman’s program has benefitted from positive PR in their own backyard; they’ve fostered a loyal group of Aussie coaches, families, and the like that have sustained them. With college coaches in the States requesting tape from ProKick athletes nearly every month, they’ve become a veritable football factory in a country that doesn’t even play the American version of the sport. Friends and family of ProKick athletes stay up to ungodly hours to watch the games live.

“They don’t really grasp it yet, but with guys coming over and having success, Australians are starting to see college football is a really big deal,” says Penn State senior punter Daniel Pasquariello.

Parents of ProKick athletes have also been able to provide glowing reviews:

We couldn’t be happier with the way this has turned out and thoroughly recommend ProKick Australia to any future participant….this has been a fantastic, life-changing experience and once again we thank you for all your help and encouragement — in not just the boys’ college aspirations, but also in generating a great bond between all concerned. We wish all the boys in the USA the best of luck.

-Paul & Joanne Johnston, parents of Cameron Johnston (formerly of Ohio State, now with the Philadelphia Eagles)

Nathan is extremely personable and patient and has a wealth of knowledge about the technical aspects of punting.  Nathan and John both relate well to their students and have a very effective teaching manner….we are deeply indebted to the ProKick team who delivered exactly what they promised. 

Steve & Sally Gleeson, parents of Tim (Rutgers) and Will Gleeson (Ole Miss)

Nathan is personable and enthusiastic; he did not pressure us, but patiently explained to us what was available and how he could assist and train Alex….we found Nathan and John to be genuine and sincere….ProKick Australia doesn’t just get positions for the boys, they re-train their kicking abilities and they continue to support them, even three years after placement, and they match the boys to an area in which they feel they will thrive.

Ken & Gillian Dunnachie, parents of Alex Dunnachie (Hawaii)

As of the 2017 season, there are currently over 40 ProKick punters in the FBS, the FCS, the NFL, CFL, Division 2, and the junior college system. How many more will come each year? Good question. Chapman just wants to focus on the process year by year and continue to foster lasting relationships with athletes and coaches alike. Still, the man remains confident:

“You will see that our punters will dominate as they’re given more scope and more opportunities to do what they do best.”

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

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An ailing theatre director’s world becomes increasingly surreal as he obsessively tries to re-create a life-size version of New York City for his upcoming play.

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a depressed theatre director who is increasingly distant from his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein). Caden directs a well-received production of Death of a Salesman and unexpectedly receives a MacArthur Fellowship, which he uses to stage an extremely complicated and elaborate production of his own making. Adele eventually leaves Caden and takes Olive with her, settling in Berlin and pursuing her art career full-time. Meanwhile, Caden begins to experience a variety of health problems, which adds to his own paranoia and hypochondria.

As Caden’s theatrical world becomes increasingly larger — both physically and metaphysically — his health begins to decline and the line between fantasy and reality becomes increasingly vague.

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This film’s title is based upon the concept of synecdoche, in which something represents part of a whole, or vice versa, and is also a play on words of Schenectady, New York, where most of the film takes place. Synecdoche, New York is the brainchild — and directorial debut — of Charlie Kaufman, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter of such surrealist fare as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

For what it’s worth, I had heard from various friends, cinephiles, and film industry colleagues that Synecdoche, New York was an underrated masterpiece that didn’t get enough credit when it came out. I also knew that the movie had developed a greater appreciation in recent years, particularly following the tragic death of leading man Philip Seymour Hoffman back in February 2014.

Synecdoche, New York premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 and was a polarizing film, to say the least. It bombed at the box office, generating only $4.4 million on a $20 million budget. The late Roger Ebert called the film the best of the decade and claimed he knew from the get-go that it was a masterpiece. Both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times also raved about Synecdoche, New York, calling it “sprawling, awe-inspiring, and heartbreaking” and “extravagantly conceptual”, respectively.

Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman stated “I gave up making heads or tails of Synecdoche, New York, but I did get one message: the compulsion to stand outside of one’s life and observe it to this degree isn’t the mechanism of art — it’s the structure of psychosis.” The Washington Times also blasted the movie, claiming that it was “inaccessible and endlessly frustrating, replete with arthouse pomposity and the type of muddled profundity one sees in an introductory philosophy seminar.” Rex Reed of The New York Observer also panned Synecdoche, New York and named it one of the worst of 2008, while Jonathan Rosenbaum claimed it was more of an illustration of a script than an actual narrative film.

Kaufman repeatedly stated in interviews that he did not want to explain anything about the film, and refused to record a director’s commentary on the DVD, believing that Synecdoche, New York should stand entirely on its own merits.

Fair play, Mr. Kaufman. Now let me explain what I thought of your film.

Synecdoche, New York is 10% an actually intriguing character study and 90% pretentious, self-indulgent drivel. Kaufman is an extremely philosophical writer, throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Anyone who has seen the previous films that he’s written will know this.

The entire point(?) of Synecdoche, New York is to show a theatre director’s natural fears of death and aging, and to visualize how his world is blurring the lines of fantasy and reality. While there are some decent enough emotional beats in the film, nothing is coherent enough to care about and the characters lose their appeal pretty quickly. The film is melancholy and extremely self-serious, to its detriment, and doesn’t have enough interesting elements or characters to do anything with all of its (admittedly weighty) themes. At the end of the day, Hoffman’s character is just a lonely, increasingly frail guy with wildly ambitious visions for an otherwise-straightforward play — no more, no less.

I have nothing against arthouse cinema or post-modern drama films; in fact, I can safely say that it’s a genre that had definitely grown on me in the past few years. Some of my favorite films are surreal and abstract movies that don’t immediately make sense — such as Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the majority of Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography, the early films of David Lynch, etc. Some might call those types of movies pretentious or plodding, but they actually have a lot more going on than meets the eye and definitely improve upon repeat viewings. And even if said films aren’t your cup of tea, at the very least, most people can respect the details and vision of them and acknowledge what the director in question was attempting to say.

With Synecdoche, New York, however, I constantly felt like there was little to no depth in the storyline, despite my digging into the deeper meaning of the film after I watched it. I read critics’ interpretations of Synecdoche, New York and wracked my brain to no end after the credits rolled, but there was still no real point to it all. Again, the film does touch on a handful of valuable themes, but it misses the mark nine times out of 10.

I alluded to how self-serious Synecdoche, New York is earlier in this review, and that’s part of what takes the wind out of its unusually ambitious sails. This film is plodding and humorless, offering tantalizing moments of clarity and emotional weight that end up being nothing but philosophical mush in the end. So much of the surrealist moments and underlying tones of the film just doesn’t hit the audience the way it should, and even if it does hit you, you’re too busy scratching your head and trying to make heads or tails out of anything in it.

In addition, Synecdoche, New York is barely over two hours long, and it felt like four hours long when I watched it. The film’s only saving graces are A) a couple of genuine moments towards the end that were actually somewhat thought-provoking, and B) a tour-de-force performance from Hoffman, who, too often, is the only real thing giving Synecdoche, New York any forward momentum.

Grade: D

  • Released 2008
  • Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman
  • Produced by Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Sidney Kimmel, and Anthony Bregman
  • Director of Photography — Frederick Elmes
  • Music by Jon Brion
  • Edited by Robert Frazen
  • Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan, Jennifer Jason Leigh
  • Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity.

2017 AFL season review: St Kilda Saints

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  • 2017 RECORD: 11-11
  • COACH: Alan Richardson, 4th year (32-52-1)
  • RETIREMENTS: Sean Dempster, Leigh Montagna, Nick Riewoldt
  • DELISTINGS: Joe Baker-Thomas, Nick Coughlan
  • FREE AGENTS WHO HAVE YET TO SIGN: None

OFFSEASON INJURIES/SURGERIES: Nathan Freeman (ankle) should be ready to go for preseason action, and the same goes for Paddy McCartin (concussion problems). Midfielder David Armitage is slowly recovering from a groin issue.

POSITIVES: The Saints showed good signs of growth most of the year, buoyed by some young talent up front and through the midfield. After Armitage went down, Koby Stevens and Jack Steele stepped up and played very well, while Seb Ross is an emerging youngster in that midfield group, too. Jake Carlisle and Nathan Brown are veteran defenders who made strides in 2017. St Kilda scored some nice upset wins along the way, too, beating Richmond, GWS, and West Coast convincingly.

NEGATIVES: St Kilda’s kicking inaccuracy cost them in 2017. The Saints had plenty of big bodies but were maddeningly inconsistent up front, even among normally reliable playmakers like Josh Bruce and Jack Billings. There’s no question that the Saints have a better nucleus of young talent than they’ve had in the past, but the pressure will be on in 2018 after missing the Finals yet again and saying goodbye to retiring club stalwarts Nick Riewoldt and Leigh Montagna.

SEASON OVERVIEW: The Saints should be disappointed in themselves overall after a season filled with promise eventually went downhill. While St Kilda broke even with an 11-11 year and showed flashes of elite play, missing the Finals again hurt, especially since the club wanted to send Montagna and Riewoldt out on a good note. Alan Richardson’s club needs to regroup and address offensive concerns heading into the offseason. Another year of “what ifs” won’t be acceptable.

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2017 AFL season review: Hawthorn Hawks

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  • 2017 RECORD: 10-11-1
  • COACH: Alastair Clarkson, 13th year (190-113-2)
  • DELISTINGS: TBD
  • RETIREES: Jack Fitzpatrick, Josh Gibson, Luke Hodge, Luke Surman
  • FREE AGENTS WHO HAVE YET TO SIGN: Taylor Duryea

OFFSEASON INJURIES/SURGERIES: Grant Birchall, James Cousins, and Mitch Lewis will be limited until January or so after surgeries, Ben Stratton and Cyril Rioli both struggled with knee injuries in 2017, but will be working their way back when preseason practices start in November. James Frawley was bothered by a turf toe injury, but should also be ready to go soon enough.

POSITIVES: The Hawks shook off an ugly 0-5 start which was marked by an avalanche of injuries. A number of Hawthorn’s young players showed a ton of promise in a disappointing year for the club, and while Clarkson shouldered a ton of blame for not kickstarting the youth movement earlier, he has a much better handle on his personnel heading into 2018.

Despite the retirements of club stalwarts like Hodge and Gibson, the Hawks have a solid baseline of talent remaining, including All-Australian midfielder Tom Mitchell, key defender Ryan Burton, the fiery and versatile James Sicily, and the speedy Conor Nash, a convert from Gaelic football. Hawthorn also got a nice surprise when veteran Shaun Burgoyne elected to play on after contemplating an early retirement.

NEGATIVES: Yeah, about that 0-5 start — sure, the injuries played a key role in Hawthorn’s inauspicious first month, but it still left fans dumbfounded that a club only two years removed from its last AFL Premiership would look so unorganized and lethargic on-field. Give Clarkson credit for righting the ship after such a horrific beginning to the season, but that alarming lack of focus and pressure can’t happen again at such a historic club. The Hawks’ big free agent additions, Ty Vickery and Jaeger O’Meara, did very little in 2017.

SEASON OVERVIEW: Clarkson got another contract extension in recent months and is in the process of re-shuffling his staff; the Hawks will presumably look to the AFL Draft and their VFL reserves side to develop players following last year’s disappointing free agent signings.

Give the 2017 Hawks credit: they improved dramatically as the year went on, and even when their Finals hopes were shot, they still made a consistent effort and developed a better work ethic at the contest, while also identifying a few budding stars. It’ll be interesting to see if Clarkson’s team can make another Finals push in 2018 with a younger lineup and a few key veterans returning from long-term injury woes.

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