Month: October 2017

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Jim Stynes

AFL Round 1 - Collingwood v Melbourne

Jim Stynes has been cemented as one of the all-time greats in Australian football, winning a Brownlow Medal, earning two All-Australian honors, and holding the record for most consecutive AFL games. But Stynes didn’t know the finer points of Aussie rules until he was a young man, as the sport was entirely foreign to him growing up.

Born in 1966 to Brian and Teresa Stynes, he was raised in the southern suburbs of Dublin as one of six kids. He began playing Gaelic football and had a real passion for it, starting from the age of eight and continuing throughout his school days in Ireland. In addition to relishing the fast pace and ball movement in Gaelic football, Stynes also liked full-contact sports, competing in rugby union at De La Salle College, Churchtown.

In 1984, when he was only 18, Stynes led his team — Ballyboden St Endas — to a Gaelic football title in the All-Ireland Minor Championship division. While coming down from the high of this big win, Stynes wanted a steadier income. Since Gaelic football was an amateur sport, Stynes had to support himself by delivering papers for meager wages. While he wanted to go to college, it seemed like a pipe dream.

Soon afterwards, Stynes saw an ad in his newspaper from the Melbourne Football Club. They were offering two scholarships for young Irishmen to come and play Aussie rules while studying at a university in Melbourne. Lanky and athletic, Stynes saw it as a great opportunity and was eventually selected, flying to Australia in November 1984.

In addition to adjusting to the cultural differences in Australia, Stynes had to learn Aussie rules from scratch. While both Aussie rules and Gaelic football feature similar ball movement and kicking skills, Stynes found it hard to transfer his football IQ right away. He needed to fine-tune his techniques, adjust to the full contact nature of footy, and attempt to compete with young men his age who were far more experienced.

However, after about a year or so with the Melbourne Demons’ reserves squad, Stynes began to settle in and be more comfortable with a footy. Coaches liked his athleticism and his positive attitude, and by 1987, he made his senior level debut in a night game between Melbourne and Geelong.

It didn’t go as planned; Stynes performed poorly on the grand stage and didn’t play much the rest of the ’87 season. Melbourne got to the AFL Preliminary Final that year and was leading Hawthorn in the final seconds. The siren sounded to end the match, but Hawthorn had one more shot and were given a free kick after Stynes ran across the mark. This critical error cost the Demons a shot at the Grand Final that year.

But once again, Stynes didn’t quit and the following year, Melbourne made it back to the postseason. This time, they did advance to the Grand Final and lost badly, but Stynes was showing rapid improvement.

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In 1991, Stynes had his best season yet, playing all 24 games for the Demons and leading the league in marks (214). He also won the Brownlow Medal, the AFL Players Association MVP award, and was named All-Australian. To date, Stynes is the only foreign-born AFL player to ever capture a Brownlow, which is the game’s highest individual regular season honor.

Stynes was highly regarded for his relentless pursuit of the ball, out-hustling and maneuvering his opponents and using his quickness to be aggressive towards bigger players. In 1993, Stynes collided with a teammate and broke a rib. He was initially ruled out for six weeks, but amazingly, he returned the following week and played with light chest padding for protection. He was holding the all-time record for consecutive AFL games when he suffered another severe injury — this time to his hand — in 1998, and he retired that fall as one of the best players in Melbourne history, playing 264 career games.

Following his retirement, Stynes remained involved in the community, both on and off the footy oval. In 1994, while still playing, Stynes co-founded the Reach Foundation with his friend, filmmaker Paul Currie, with the goal of starting community outreach programs. The foundation works with kids, families, and the like to help people in various ways, from mental health education, to violence prevention, to sports and athletic activities.

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Stynes continued his philanthropic efforts in 1997, when the Government of Victoria asked him to help assist their anti-suicide task force, helping advocate for youth treatment programs and compassionate outreaches. In addition to two autobiographies, Stynes also wrote children’s self-help books and was named Victorian of the Year twice (in 2001 and 2003). In recognition of his community activism and work with children, Stynes received an honorary doctorate from the Australian Catholic University. The AFL inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2003.

The Jim Stynes Medal was named in his honor, first awarded in 1998 to the best Australian player in the International Rules Series, which pits Aussie rules and Gaelic footballers against each other under hybrid rules.

Stynes became president of the Melbourne Football Club in 2008 to much fanfare, although the following year he announced a sabbatical after being diagnosed with melanoma. Stynes continued to work during his treatment, but soon the cancer had metastasized. He passed away at his home at the age of 45 on March 20, 2012 and was survived by his wife Samantha and two kids.

Former Melbourne team captain turned TV journalist Garry Lyon gave an emotional tribute to his former teammate on The Footy Show:

Jimmy refused to let the game define who he was. It was just a part of him and it allowed us to marvel at his determination, unwavering self-belief, resilience, strength, skill, endurance and courage….he was secure enough to know that displaying vulnerability can be a strength and not a weakness.

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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.

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.