Month: September 2017

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
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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 2004 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.”

2018 FBS/FCS PUNTER LIST

  • Alex Bland, Oregon State — Adelaide, South Australia
  • Oscar Bradburn, Virginia Tech — Sydney, New South Wales
  • Ryan Bujcevski, Texas — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Kirk Christodoulou, Pitt — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Mitchell Crawford, UTEP — Newcastle, New South Wales
  • Angus Davies, West Virginia — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Mark Deaves, Louisiana-Monroe — Girraween, New South Wales
  • Joel Dixon, UAB — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Max Duffy, Kentucky — Perth, Western Australia
  • Corey Dunn, Iowa State — Numurkah, Victoria
  • Davan Dyer, Louisiana Tech — Gilston, Queensland
  • James Elmo, Houston Baptist — Melbourne, Victoria*
  • Bailey Flint, Toledo — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Stan Gaudion, Hawaii — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Ben Griffiths, USC — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Josh Growden, LSU — Sydney, New South Wales
  • Ollie Holdenson, Georgia State — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Owen Hoolihan, Prairie View A&M — Oberon, New South Wales*
  • Adam Korsak, Rutgers — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Wade Lees, Maryland — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Doug Lloyd, Weber State — Mt. Gambier, South Australia*
  • Luke Magliozzi, UConn — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Luke Maynard, Tennessee Tech — Bannockburn, Victoria*
  • Matt McRobert, Sam Houston State — Berowra, New South Wales*
  • Mackenzie Morgan, NC State — Perth, Western Australia
  • Harry O’Kelly, James Madison — Wynnum, Queensland*
  • Dominic Panazzolo, Texas Tech — Adelaide, South Australia
  • Phillip Richards, Eastern Kentucky — Mt. Dandenong, Victoria*
  • Dane Roy, Houston — Bunyip, Victoria
  • Jamie Sackville, SMU — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Trent Schneider, USF — Sydney, New South Wales
  • Jack Sheldon, Central Michigan — Echuca, Victoria
  • Arryn Siposs, Auburn — Sandringham, Victoria
  • Tom Snee, Oregon — Frankston, Victoria
  • Xavier Subotsch, Appalachian State — Perth, Western Australia
  • Joel Whitford, Washington — Warragul, Victoria
  • Haydon Whitehead, Indiana — Melbourne, Victoria
  • Mitch Wishnowsky, Utah — Gosnells, Western Australia

*FCS school

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.