The Believer (2001)

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Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling) is a neo-Nazi. He’s also Jewish.

Inspired by true events, The Believer centers around Danny, a young New Yorker who consciously rejects his childhood beliefs and culture and embraces the twisted philosophies of the Third Reich. While he hangs around a local group of skinheads and gets into plenty of twisted mischief on his own, Danny also attempts to defend his beliefs intellectually to like-minded people, including at the home of a professor, Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) and fellow academic Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell). At the meeting, they are both impressed with Danny’s intelligence and charisma but disagree with his extreme approach.

Unbeknownst to Danny, a reporter, Guy Danielsen (A.D. Miles), was at the meeting and contacts Danny for an interview. Danielsen has been researching far-right hate groups and invites Danny for coffee to pick his brain. During their meeting, Danny delves into his own twisted worldview but threatens to commit suicide after Danielsen reveals Danny as Jewish.

Along the way, Danny develops an intimate relationship with Carla, Lina’s daughter (Summer Phoenix) and also begins to deal with long-repressed feelings about his Jewish upbringing. Growing up in synagogue, Danny frequently interpreted Scripture in an unorthodox manner, drawing the ire of the rabbis. However, as time goes on, Danny begins to question his own racist beliefs, wrestling with his own conscience. His relationship with Carla further complicates matters, as does Stuart (Dean Strober), an old friend from Hebrew school who Danny reconnects with by chance.

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The Believer is a cinematic obscurity. Directed by veteran screenwriter (but first-time director) Henry Bean, the film’s subject matter was considering so shocking that it didn’t even get an American release back in 2001. However, The Believer was a smashing success among critics, earning an 87% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and taking home hardware at Sundance, Cannes and the Moscow International Film Festival.

Bean, who was raised as a Conservative Jew in Philadelphia, drew upon the real-life story of neo-Nazi Dan Burros, who committed suicide after being revealed as Jewish by a New York Times reporter in the 1960s. With a minuscule budget ($1.5 million), Bean decided to cast a former child actor from Canada who had never been a leading man before — Ryan Gosling.

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Well before he became A-list material via starring roles in The NotebookLars and the Real GirlDrive, and La La Land, Gosling was a scrawny 18-year-old struggling to gain mainstream acceptance following a brief career as a child star on The Mickey Mouse Club. I’ve long been a fan of his work in general, but in The Believer, the young Gosling simply owns the screen.

The Believer occupies a unique place in film history. As opposed to other movies dealing with racist gangs (American History X and Romper Stomper come to mind), there’s not much violence. The themes and Danny Balint’s ideology are both what make this film so unsettling — and what makes Gosling’s performance so brilliant. Well before he played tortured, violent men in indie flicks like Drive and Only God Forgives, Gosling broke out with an outstanding, complex performance….in a film, that, unfortunately, nobody saw at the time.

(Intriguing side note: Bean specifically chose Gosling due to his religious upbringing. Gosling was raised Mormon growing up in Ontario, and Bean felt that this background would help Gosling understand the isolation of Judaism.)

I’ll give The Believer credit, simply because it doesn’t rely on added shock value via excessive violence or disturbing images, instead choosing to take an intellectual approach, all while dealing with Danny’s inner demons and showing his willingness to wrestle with hard questions. With that being said, some elements of the film, particularly in the third act, feel like they skim the surface a bit too much and don’t necessarily focus on the real philosophy behind the choices that are made. Ultimately though, The Believer isn’t just a provocative little shocker — it’s able to rise above its disturbing subject matter and look at the big picture in a way that few movies do.

Grade: B

  • Written and directed by Henry Bean
  • Story by Henry Bean & Mark Jacobson
  • Produced by Susan Hoffman and Christopher Roberts
  • Director of Photography — Jim Denault
  • Music by Joel Diamond
  • Edited by Mayin Lo and Lee Percy
  • Starring Ryan Gosling, Billy Zane, Summer Phoenix, Theresa Russell, A.D. Miles, Glenn Fitzgerald, Dean Strober, Elizabeth Reaser, Ronald Guttman, Heather Goldenhersh
  • Rated R for strong violence, language, and some sexual content
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Bronson (2008)

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The life and (violent) times of Charles Bronson, Britain’s most notorious prisoner.

Charles Bronson is one of the most violent and unpredictable prisoners that the United Kingdom has produced in a long time. Born in 1952 as Michael Gordon Peterson, Bronson had a perfectly ho-hum, middle-class childhood, but his violent temper and appetite for crime as a young man has led to a seven-year prison sentence after a grand larceny conviction for robbing a post office.

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While on the inside, he has more violent outbursts, which result in his sentence being extended, as well as stints in solitary confinement. Put into psychiatric evaluation due to his condition, Bronson nonetheless has never been convicted of any murders and is eventually declared sane. He returns to society and begins a career as a bare-knuckle boxer, winning many fights in the process. Dissatisfied with his meager prize winnings, Bronson organizes more ambitious fights, sometimes with more than one opponent. In the meantime, he attempts to woo a local girl he met through his uncle, and even steals an engagement ring to propose to her. She declines, and Bronson is arrested again and sent back to prison.

The film is told in a surreal, non-linear format, with Bronson as the omniscient narrator. Sometimes he directly addresses the camera while wearing his prison jumpsuit, and other times he talks to and entertains an audience while onstage in a vaudeville-type theatre. Therefore, the film doesn’t entirely function as a traditional story, but rather as a series of interconnected vignettes, punctuated by narration.

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Bronson is a somewhat-fictionalized account of the real man, and is directed and co-written by Nicolas Winding Refn. Before Refn became a household name with experimental arthouse films like Drive (one of my all-time favorite action flicks) and Only God Forgives, he made a big splash with Bronson, a micro-budget affair that was made for only US$230,000.

The real Bronson, now age 65, was once quoted as saying: “I’m a nice guy, but sometimes I lose all my senses and become nasty. That doesn’t make me evil — just confused.” Indeed, the film doesn’t attempt to rationalize the man’s behavior or create undeserved sympathy, but it also doesn’t avoid the consequences that Bronson himself faced. Tom Hardy delivers an excellent and charismatic performance that attempts to grasp the nuances of a man who, even if not criminally insane, was violent and psychopathic. There’s lots of dark comedy along the way, too.

Roger Ebert gave Bronson three out of four stars, remarking “There is some human behavior beyond our ability to comprehend. I was reading a theory the other day that a few people just happen to be pure evil. I’m afraid I believe it. They lack any conscience, any sense of pity or empathy for their victims. But Bronson is his own victim. How do you figure that?”

That, more than anything, is the real point (or non-point) of Bronson. He was a man who had a chance to make something of himself, and like many people who wind up prisoners, chose to throw it away after making a serious of bad decisions. Be that as it may, the film is far from preachy and doesn’t focus too much on what could have been or why Bronson chose to do the things he did. On paper, there are other people who could be considered more nefarious than Bronson. At heart, he was just a charismatic guy with a vicious temper who refused to resist his violent tendencies — no more, no less.

Filming was done in and around Nottingham. Unfortunately, Refn was not allowed to interview or speak to the real Bronson before filming began, as he is not a British citizen, but Hardy managed to speak to Bronson on the phone in order to prepare for the role. Bronson was very impressed with how much Hardy had built up his physique in order to portray him.

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Despite Hardy’s earnest performance and some tight direction by Refn, the film can certainly be off-putting due to A) its disturbing violence and B) the avant-garde nature of the storytelling. There’s not much in the way of subplots or intriguing supporting characters, but it’s a very well-made film given the lack of budget and manages to be a reasonably engaging character study. With that being said, Bronson doesn’t always hit all the emotional beats in the best way possible, and certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, it’s an admirable effort at getting to the psyche of a disturbed person and helped launch the fruitful careers of Refn and Hardy.

Rating: B

  • Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
  • Written by Brock Norman Brock and Nicolas Winding Refn
  • Produced by Danny Hansford and Rupert Preston
  • Starring Tom Hardy, Kelly Adams, Gordon Brown, Katy Barker, Amanda Burton, Andrew Forbes, Matt King, James Lance, Juliet Oldfield
  • Director of Photography — Larry Smith
  • Music — Johnny Jewel
  • Editor — Mat Newman
  • Rated R for violent and disturbing content, graphic nudity, sexuality and language.

TRIVIA

  • The line “It was absolute madness at its very best” was written by Charles Bronson himself for the film and told to Nicolas Winding Refn during one of their phone calls.
  • Charles Bronson was not allowed to see the film, but said that if his mother liked it, that would be enough for him. According to Refn, his mother loved it. In 2011 Bronson was finally allowed to see the film and called it “theatrical, creative and brilliant.”
  • Bronson is occasionally seen wearing a small pair of sunglasses. These are not an accessory. According to the real-life Bronson, his years in poorly-lit solitary confinement units damaged his eyesight so badly that he required darkened lenses just to be able to read.
  • Jason Statham was originally considered for the role of Bronson, but declined due to scheduling conflicts.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Tom Hardy did not do 2,500 push-ups a day in preparation for the role of Bronson. The confusion and reason for this rumor is that the real Bronson was the one doing 2,500 push-ups a day around the time Hardy was meeting with him to gather information for the film’s script during pre-production. Hardy himself denied the rumor during a 2009 interview while doing publicity for the film.
  • The film’s London premiere was prefaced with a recording by Charles Bronson himself, recorded in prison, where he stated “I’m proud of this film, because if I drop dead tonight, then I live on. I make no bones about it, I really was a horrible, violent, nasty man. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either. See you at the Oscars.” The British Police Officers Association lodged a formal complaint with the filmmakers, as it’s illegal in the UK to make unauthorized recordings of prison inmates.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***

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The true story of N.W.A, one of the most controversial and influential groups ever, and their rise and fall in the golden age of hip-hop.

The year is 1986, in Compton, California — one of the roughest cities in the United States.

Eric “Eazy-E” Wright is a crack dealer who decides to team up with his good friend, aspiring DJ Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, to create some new rap music. The laid-back, charismatic Eazy-E prefers to rap just for the fun of it, but Dr. Dre embraces all things hip-hop and has a passionate work ethic to boot. He convinces Eazy-E to start up an independent label called Ruthless Records, and they cut a demo, offering a raw, uncensored view of life in the hood and the challenges thereof.

Together they join with talented lyricist O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson and also enlist the services of Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson, forming the group Niggaz Wit Attitudes, or N.W.A.

N.W.A’s demo becomes a hit among the fertile hip-hop grounds of Los Angeles, and the group regularly starts selling out small shows in town and drawing passionate fans. Veteran record producer Jerry Heller catches wind of this and offers N.W.A a deal with Priority Records. He takes a particular interest in Eazy-E, becoming a mentor to him along the way.

N.W.A’s debut album, called Straight Outta Compton, becomes a massive hit in 1988, with its profane, violent lyrics and unfiltered look at life on the streets. Police brutality is rife on the streets of L.A., and N.W.A takes aim at the boys in blue on more than one occasion, most notably with the hugely controversial single “F-ck Tha Police.”

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The quintet becomes both undeniably important and notorious within the hip-hop scene — N.W.A’s 1989 tour is an unprecedented success, although it’s also marred by riots, protests, and even cease-and-desist threats from the FBI. The tour reaches a boiling point both professionally and personally after a riot following a performance of “F-ck Tha Police” in Detroit, as well as the unexpected tragic murder of Dr. Dre’s younger brother, Tyree, back in Compton.

However, the controversy doesn’t faze N.W.A, with Ice Cube proclaiming at a press conference that “our art is a reflection of our reality….freedom of speech includes rap music.”

Meanwhile, Cube grows jealous of the Heller/Eazy-E relationship, and he tries to get Dre on his side, eventually leading to a rift among the three primary N.W.A members. When Heller tries to convince Cube to sign his individual artist contract without a lawyer present, Cube quits the group. While refusing to take sides in the Cube/Heller dispute, Dre leaves N.W.A to focus on producing, as well as his solo career. Ice Cube embarks upon a successful solo career, too, releasing a vicious diss track towards both Heller and his former bandmates in the song “No Vaseline.”

Dre joins forces with fellow Compton native Suge Knight and the two found Death Row Records. In addition to Dre’s best-selling debut album The Chronic, Death Row also churns out some serious up-and-coming hip-hop talent, including Tupac Shakur, the D.O.C., and Snoop Dogg. After his breakout performance in the 1991 film Boyz in the Hood, Ice Cube chooses to primarily focus on writing and acting, while Eazy-E and Heller remains business partners but struggle to find much solo success.

Despite plenty of commercial success with Death Row, Dre becomes increasingly disturbed by Suge Knight’s violent and shady tendencies, while Eazy-E struggles to pay child support and discovers potential embezzlement on Heller’s part, eventually firing him. Amidst all this, Los Angeles becomes a virtual war zone following the not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King beating and the subsequent Watts riots.

Cube, Dre, and Eazy-E soon agree to mend fences and reunite, but the plans are derailed following Eazy-E’s HIV/AIDS diagnosis. He dies tragically at the age of 30, ending any plans for an N.W.A reunion. The film concludes in 1996, the following year, as Dre leaves Death Row to form his own company, Aftermath Records.

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In a lot of ways, N.W.A were hip-hop’s equivalent of the Sex Pistols — a short-lived, extremely controversial group that remain undeniably important and influential to this day. It’s hard to look at the group’s discography with fresh eyes now. And even to this day, you can see Ice Cube in multiple summer blockbusters, and Eazy-E’s likeness is still graffiti’d on back alleys all across the world. And of course, Dr. Dre, who even at age 52, is still ubiquitous and still a multi-millionaire.

As for the film itself, it’s about what you’d expect for a film about N.W.A — it’s raw, uncompromising, and riveting. The cast all give remarkable performances, and it’s cool to see Ice Cube played by the man’s actual son, O’Shea Jackson Jr. However, in my opinion, the real revelation is Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre. He gives a powerful, evocative performance that doesn’t shy away from Dre’s temper, talent, and complexity.

Straight Outta Compton is pretty accurate for a film biopic overall. The sheer hysteria about N.W.A’s profane lyrics is captured quite vividly, as is the unacceptable behavior of the cops that the group so famously railed against. The real-life Jerry Heller was unhappy about his depiction in the movie and sued the producers; despite Heller’s death in September 2016, the case is still pending.

The movie is quite long (two and a half hours), but that won’t be a big deal for the majority of viewers, especially ones who are already hip-hop fans. Even though the film takes place over about a decade of time, it’s still very well-paced and doesn’t wear out its welcome (kudos to veteran director F. Gary Gray for that, as well as for his passion for the source material).

Some people — mostly film critics or rap historians — also took issue that the movie glossed over some unpleasant allegations against N.W.A members, particularly Dr. Dre (ostensibly the film’s protagonist) and the time he slapped reporter Dee Barnes at a Hollywood nightclub in 1991.

(Note: This scene actually was filmed, but was left on the cutting room floor. In real life, Dre served two years probation and paid six figures in fines, and has since apologized for the incident on several occasions.)

However, I feel like such controversy was kind of missing the point of the film. Make no mistake: Straight Outta Compton doesn’t pull punches when it comes to violent behavior (from N.W.A or anybody else), and it makes no excuses for it either. It’d be easy for the film to take the proverbial high horse, but it chooses not to. It’s simply the true story of a fearless group that wanted to bring their own reality as they saw it to the masses — and just so happened to change hip-hop history while they did it.

Grade: A

  • Directed by F. Gary Gray
  • Screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff
  • Story by S. Leigh Savage & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff
  • Produced by Matt Alvarez, Scott Bernstein, F. Gary Gray, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Tomica Woods-Wright
  • Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Paul Giamatti, R. Marcus Taylor, Marlon Yates Jr., Carra Patterson, Alexandra Shipp, Elena Goode, Keith Powers, Corey Reynolds, Tate Ellington
  • Director of Photography — Matthew Libatique
  • Music — Joseph Trapanese
  • Editors — Billy Fox and Michael Tronick
  • Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use

TRIVIA

(This’ll be a new section in any film/TV reviews that I write from now on. Enjoy!)

  • Straight Outta Compton is the highest-grossing music biopic ever, grossing nearly $202 million worldwide against a $50 million budget.
  • Dr. Dre and Ice Cube both served as the movie’s co-producers, as did Tomica Woods-Wright, Eazy-E’s widow.
  • The actors playing N.W.A. re-recorded the entire Straight Outta Compton album before filming started to help them get into character.
  • Film debut of O’Shea Jackson Jr.
  • The film’s script was written all the way back in 2004, and was originally intended to strictly be an Eazy-E biopic. After acquiring the music rights from Tomica Woods-Wright, the script was moved forward, but the project languished until Ice Cube and his producing partner Matt Alvarez got involved. Cube wanted the film to focus on all of N.W.A and not just Eazy-E, so he hired Andrea Berloff to re-write the script. F. Gary Gray and Dr. Dre weren’t hired as director and producer, respectively, until much later.
  • The filmmakers originally wanted Eazy-E’s son, Eric Jr. (AKA Lil Eazy-E), to portray his dad in the film, but they decided against it. Despite this, Lil Eazy-E was involved with the production as a consultant.
  • The movie grossed over $56 million its opening weekend in August 2015, making it the highest-grossing opening weekend for a music biopic since Walk the Line.
  • The film’s director, F. Gary Gray, is a long-time friend and colleague of Ice Cube. They first worked together on the cult classic black comedy Friday in 1995.
  • Early in the filming process in August 2014, a drive-by shooting took place less than a block away from where the movie was being shot on location in Compton. Thankfully, there were no fatalities, although one civilian was injured.
  • The real-life MC Ren was upset that he wasn’t featured more in the finished film, although he said that he liked the movie otherwise.
  • Another real-life person who disputed some of the movie’s narrative was club promoter Alonzo Williams, who appears in several early scenes, in which he praises Dr. Dre’s talent but forbids him from playing gangsta rap in his club. Williams claimed that this part of the film was inaccurate and also stated that he was the one who originally introduced Eazy-E to Jerry Heller.
  • There’s an ongoing conspiracy theory about Eazy-E contracting the HIV/AIDS virus, and that Suge Knight had one of his hitmen inject Eazy-E with infected blood. Eazy had seven children with six different women, none of whom have since tested positive for the virus. Eazy’s son has gone on record as saying that he thinks there may have been something sinister going on with Knight (as he and Eazy were frequently at odds with each other). Similarly, a transcript from a grand jury indicated that Knight sent threatening text messages to F. Gary Gray during filming, although Gray did not confirm that while under oath. Knight, who is currently in jail on an attempted murder charge, has also been accused in the past of being involved in the still-unsolved 1997 murder of the Notorious B.I.G.

2017-18 coaching carousel

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#21 — Sean Lewis, Kent State

  • Age: 32
  • Hometown: Oak Lawn, Illinois
  • Alma Mater: Wisconsin
  • Previous Job: Co-Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach, Syracuse

This is one of the toughest jobs in the nation, and Paul Haynes, a Kent State alum, still faced a mountain of obstacles, going 14-45 in five years and never winning more than four games in a season.

Lewis has been with Syracuse head coach Dino Babers since 2012, following him from Eastern Illinois to Bowling Green to Syracuse, smashing offensive records along the way. He’s an energetic guy who knows offense as well as anybody, but this job is not your average one. Lewis needs plenty of time to clean up this mess.

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#20 — Dana Dimel, UTEP

  • Age: 55
  • Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
  • Alma Mater: Kansas State
  • Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator/Running Backs Coach/Tight Ends Coach, Kansas State

It can’t get any worse in El Paso — UTEP is coming off a winless 2017 campaign, so new AD Jim Senter decided to look outside the box for his first major hire. The 55-year-old Dimel is a proven assistant from the venerable Bill Snyder coaching tree, but his track record as a coach is mixed: he did reasonably well at Wyoming from 1997-99, but then crashed and burned at Houston (2000-02) before returning to K-State. He’s a good recruiter and should give the UTEP offense a much-needed shot in the arm, but his long-term success is harder to predict.

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#19 — Steve Campbell, South Alabama

  • Age: 51
  • Hometown: Pensacola, Florida
  • Alma Mater: Troy
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Central Arkansas

Campbell was an intriguing choice for this position. An Alabama native and a Troy alum, the 51-year-old Campbell won 33 games in the past four years at FCS Central Arkansas, and also has experience at the Division II level and the junior college level in Mississippi.

The Jaguars showed flashes of great potential and sprang several notable upsets under longtime coach Joey Jones, but never quite turned the corner, going 29-46 overall since joining the Sun Belt in 2012. Campbell will feel right at home in Mobile, as he tries to take a South Alabama program to new heights.

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#18 — Mike Bloomgren, Rice

  • Age: 40
  • Hometown: Tallahassee, Florida
  • Alma Mater: Florida State
  • Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach, Stanford

After a 1-11 season, things currently look as bleak at Rice as they have in some time, but Bloomgren could end up being a nice sleeper pick. The former Stanford offensive coordinator brings a no frills, run-first offense that prioritizes being disciplined and mentally tough, and it helps that he has experience recruiting at a program with high academic standards. Give him a couple years and the Owls could be consistently competitive again.

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#17 — Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern

  • Age: 40
  • Hometown: Elberton, Georgia
  • Alma Mater: Georgia College
  • Previous Job: Tight Ends Coach/Special Teams Coordinator, Georgia Southern

A school birthed in the triple-option tradition, Georgia Southern hit rock-bottom in 2017, firing Tyson Summers after an 0-6 start and then going 2-4 with Lunsford as the interim head coach. Despite looking at flashier candidates, Georgia Southern elected to reward Lunsford, the school’s longest-tenured assistant (in addition to Summers, Lunsford served under former coaches Willie Fritz and Jeff Monken).

Lunsford is as enthusiastic as anyone, even if he is unproven as a full-time head coach himself. The Eagles have plenty of talent, but they never flourished under Summers, a defensive guru, and their offense sputtered without a clear identity. Getting back to the option is the first order of business, and Lunsford is committed to doing so. Whether that translates to a return to Sun Belt prominence remains to be seen.

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#16 — Matt Luke, Ole Miss

  • Age: 41
  • Hometown: Gulfport, Mississippi
  • Alma Mater: Ole Miss
  • Previous Job: Co-Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach, Ole Miss

Considering the current circumstances in Oxford, the school was smart to promote from within. Luke was the 2017 interim coach and former offensive line coach under Hugh Freeze, as well as an alum who wants to be there. The NCAA is still hovering around the program and the Rebels will suffer through another bowl ban in 2018, but give credit to the 2017 squad for not quitting and rallying to reach .500. There’s still plenty of challenges ahead, but Luke seems ready to take them on, and he has some talent to work with.

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#15 — Jonathan Smith, Oregon State

  • Age: 38
  • Hometown: Pasadena, California
  • Alma Mater: Oregon State
  • Previous Job: Co-Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach, Washington

Gary Andersen’s abrupt departure after a 1-5 start in 2017 was surprising, as the Beavers had shown flashes of potential under his watch. However, they never settled on a quarterback, cycling through six in two and a half years, and also dealt with young and inexperienced defenses.

Meanwhile, Smith had significant success the past two years as co-offensive coordinator at Pac-12 North rival Washington and should definitely give the Beavers a shot in the arm. In addition to being an OSU alum, Smith has spent his entire coaching career elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest at Idaho (2004-09), Montana (2010-11), and Boise State (2012-13). He should be the right guy to navigate a tough job in Corvallis.

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#14 — Mario Cristobal, Oregon

  • Age: 47
  • Hometown: Miami, Florida 
  • Alma Mater: Miami
  • Previous Job: Co-Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach, Oregon

Willie Taggart never seemed to be an ideal fit in Eugene, but it was still surprising to see him bolt after only one season. The 2017 product was average, but the Ducks still have plenty of talent left over for Cristobal, the former offensive line coach who was promoted from within following UO’s long tradition.

The 47-year-old Cristobal is a great recruiter who also has head coaching experience at Florida International (2007-12), where he inherited a trainwreck of a program and made it reasonably competitive. He also has assistant coaching experience at programs from Alabama to Rutgers. The Ducks should be in good hands, although there’s little margin for error these days in the Pac-12 North.

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#13 — Chad Morris, Arkansas

  • Age: 49
  • Hometown: Edgewood, Texas
  • Alma Mater: Texas A&M
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, SMU

Morris, one of the top offensive minds in the nation, engineered a turnaround at SMU the past three years, going from two wins to five to seven. He also has a sterling pedigree as both a Texas high school coach and as a former offensive coordinator at Clemson (2011-14).

The one red flag is the fact that Morris’s defenses were routinely dreadful at SMU. You can’t win many shootouts in the SEC. He’ll also need a couple of years to transition from Bret Bielema’s old-school, run-heavy offense to a more wide open spread scheme. He’ll get a reasonably long leash from new athletic director Hunter Yurachek.

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#12 — Sonny Dykes, SMU

  • Age: 48
  • Hometown: Big Spring, Texas
  • Alma Mater: Texas Tech
  • Previous Job: Offensive Analyst, TCU

Post-death penalty SMU remains a tough place to win consistently, and give credit to Chad Morris for building an excellent foundation and upgrading the facilities before he bolted for Arkansas this past offseason. Dykes is hardly a fresh new face, and he didn’t do so well at Cal, but he never really seemed to be an ideal fit in Berkeley to begin with. Can the Mustangs take the next step forward and dethrone UCF and Memphis at the top of the conference? Dykes gives them as good a shot as anybody.

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#11 — Herm Edwards, Arizona State

  • Age: 63
  • Hometown: Fort Monmouth, New Jersey
  • Alma Mater: San Diego State
  • Previous Job: ESPN analyst

Edwards came out of nowhere to become the leading contender for the vacant ASU job, landing the full-time gig on December 3rd. He takes over for Todd Graham, who started off with a bang when he took over in 2012, but peaked too early, going 18-19 in the past three years after a 28-12 mark in his first three seasons.

While Edwards’s disciplined approach and NFL experience will certainly be a draw for potential recruits, one has to wonder if the college game has passed him by — he hasn’t coached anywhere for a decade and hasn’t been in the college game since an assistant gig at San Jose State from 1987-89. Side note: both Edwards and athletic director Ray Anderson publicly stated that they wanted to hold on to both of Graham’s coordinators, Billy Napier and Phil Bennett, but they both left within a week, making the transition trickier. It might be a case of wait-and-see in Tempe.

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#10 — Kevin Sumlin, Arizona

  • Age: 53
  • Hometown: Brewton, Alabama
  • Alma Mater: Purdue
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Texas A&M

Sumlin inherits an Arizona program that has plenty of talent left over from former coach Rich Rodriguez, who was dismissed in the offseason was prompted by sexual harassment allegations. Can Sumlin win consistently while no longer under the albatross of high expectations at Texas A&M? He won big at Houston from 2008-2011, and has a well-deserved reputation as an elite recruiter, so he should fit in well in the wide-open Pac-12 South.

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#9 — Josh Heupel, UCF

  • Age: 39
  • Hometown: Aberdeen, South Dakota
  • Alma Mater: Oklahoma
  • Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach, Missouri

It was fairly obvious by season’s end that Scott Frost would be jumping to Nebraska (his alma mater) after orchestrating a perfect 13-0 regular season and a conference title in Orlando.

Heupel, the former Oklahoma QB and assistant, has spent the past two years at Missouri, where he helped transform Drew Lock into one of the SEC’s best passers. A proven recruiter, Heupel walks into a seemingly perfect situation at a program with on-field explosiveness, excellent facilities, a fantastic recruiting area, and a passionate fanbase. This could be an ideal fit.

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#8 — Billy Napier, Louisiana-Lafayette

  • Age: 37
  • Hometown: Chatsworth, Georgia
  • Alma Mater: Furman
  • Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach, Arizona State

UL-Lafayette regressed considerably in the past three years under Mark Hudspeth, and NCAA sanctions (which included vacated wins from 2011-14) didn’t help. With that being said, this hiring could be a slam-dunk for all involved. Napier is still young, and he’s cut his teeth at both Clemson and Alabama, earning a reputation as one of the nation’s best recruiters in the process. With the amount of talent in the state of Louisiana, Napier should be able to mine fertile recruiting regions in the immediate area and re-energize a fanbase that is as passionate as any in the Group of Five.

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#7 — Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State

  • Age: 44
  • Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Alma Mater: Fordham
  • Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach, Penn State

Kudos to Dan Mullen for staying in Starkville and not jumping at the first opportunity; his nine years with the Bulldogs produced some memorable seasons and stats, and AD John Cohen was looking to keep the good times rolling when he hired Moorhead. The former Penn State offensive coordinator engineered a spectacular turnaround for them in the past two seasons, and before that, he led Fordham (his alma mater) to a 38-13 mark in four seasons (2012-15). Mississippi State should stay relevant.

 

NCAA Football: Southern Utah at Oregon

#6 — Willie Taggart, Florida State

  • Age: 41
  • Hometown: Bradenton, Florida
  • Alma Mater: Western Kentucky
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Oregon

This development came about after a dreadful 2017 season for the Seminoles and the subsequent bombshell departure of Jimbo Fisher to Texas A&M. Taggart is a terrific choice for this position, as a Florida native and a proven developer of talent. Plus, he never seemed to be an ideal fit in Eugene. The question is: can Taggart help FSU get back to consistently challenging Clemson for ACC titles?

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#5 — Dan Mullen, Florida

  • Age: 45
  • Hometown: Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania
  • Alma Mater: Ursinus
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Mississippi State

Mullen was one of the country’s most consistent winners at Mississippi State, bringing excitement and stability to a program that needed both when he took over prior to the 2009 season. The 45-year-old is a great recruiter and an even better offensive mind, with a long track record of developing quarterbacks. He’ll look to bring a shot in the arm to a Florida team that has been running on fumes since Urban Meyer left town.

Speaking of which — Mullen’s connections to UF as a former Meyer assistant is the primary reason he was brought in to right the ship in Gainesville. The only major areas of concern are the fact that, while Mississippi State enjoyed a historic run under Mullen (eight straight bowl trips), they rarely recorded major upsets or made national noise when it mattered. With that being said, this is a great hire that most Gator fans will buy into immediately.

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#4 — Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee

  • Age: 43
  • Hometown: Rainsville, Alabama
  • Alma Mater: Alabama
  • Previous Job: Defensive Coordinator, Alabama

This hellish offseason in Knoxville culminated with a 4-8 record on the field, Butch Jones’s midseason firing, a pouring of outrage when school administration attempted to bring in an alleged Penn State scandal conspirator (Greg Schiano), and then finally the promotion of Hall of Fame coaching legend Phil Fulmer to make the official decision in place of ousted AD John Currie.

Enter Pruitt, an outstanding defensive mind who has done exceptional work at Florida State, Georgia, and most recently Alabama. Before that, he had a long run at a number of different Alabama high schools and developed a well-deserved reputation as a players’ favorite. Tennessee is desperate for success, and with the 43-year-old Pruitt — a two-time Broyles Award finalist — they might finally have some stability.

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#3 — Scott Frost, Nebraska

  • Age: 42
  • Hometown: Wood River, Nebraska
  • Alma Mater: Nebraska
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, UCF

It’s been a tough few years for Nebraska, dealing with porous defenses and an overall lack of consistency under veteran coach Mike Riley, who went 19-19 in the past three seasons. 

Frost, a Nebraska alum, has a background as a Chip Kelly disciple and did an incredible job at UCF: he inherited an 0-12 team in 2015 and went 18-7 in two seasons, including an undefeated regular season mark in 2017. Frost will certainly add lots of excitement on offense and rejuvenate the fanbase, both of which are imperative heading forward. An outstanding hire.

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#2 — Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M

  • Age: 52
  • Hometown: Clarksburg, West Virginia
  • Alma Mater: Samford
  • Previous Job: Head Coach, Florida State

Well this will be interesting. Texas A&M administration has made it abundantly clear that they expect the Aggies to be perennial national title contenders — not an easy task in the SEC and one that consistently eluded Kevin Sumlin after his high watermark debut season in 2012.

Fisher was 83-23 during his tenure in Tallahassee, and a terrible 2017 season notwithstanding, carved out an impressive legacy in the post-Bobby Bowden era. Fisher is an excellent recruiter and should be able to get Sumlin’s players to buy in immediately, but there are questions about his staff, as many FSU fans grumbled that he held on to coordinators for too long and was too conservative of a playcaller. Regardless, this is a very good hire and one that should keep Aggie fans invested as the program looks to push higher.

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#1 — Chip Kelly, UCLA

  • Age: 54
  • Hometown: Dover, New Hampshire
  • Alma Mater: New Hampshire
  • Previous Job: ESPN analyst

It was inevitable that Kelly was going to try to make a splash again in the college game. It was just a question of “when?” and “with who?”

Jim Mora was a veteran name and an excellent recruiter, but fell behind in the Pac-12 rat race and never recovered. Labeled as chronic underachievers who only received buzz due to NFL prospect Josh Rosen, UCLA finished badly in the past three seasons despite the obvious talent on the roster and numerous changes in scheme.

While Kelly’s NFL career didn’t pan out, he remains one of college football’s biggest innovators, and his hiring instantly makes UCLA one of the nation’s most intriguing teams. He’ll have a chance to work his magic in Westwood.

Riches to rags: the sad, bizarre story of Nauru

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A few clicks south of the Equator about 1,400 miles off the northern coast of Fiji, the island of Nauru is only eight square miles in land area — an oval-shaped slab that is located in the epitome of no man’s land. Its closest neighbors (in clockwise order) are the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. The smallest independent country on Earth, Nauru has a story that is seemingly fitted to occupy an obscure section in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! 

Flash back 50 years. Nauru is enjoying its newfound independence, and it’s going well. Maybe too well. The island’s population of 9,000 is filthy rich due to phosphate, second only to the oil kings of Saudi Arabia in terms of per capita wealth. Nauruan residents don’t have to work too much, as their government has set up a trust fund that will manage the phosphate profits, giving them a large safety net for years to come after years of colonial mismanagement. In the meantime, most Nauruans go fishing, play Aussie rules football, ride the main island road on their motorcycles, buy boats and cars for their family members, and drink beer with friends until the sun sets.

Now flash forward 50 years. Nauru is broke — quite literally. Since the country’s bank shut down, Nauru is using the Australian dollar exclusively, and with only one ATM on the island, the vast majority of transactions are in cash only. The government’s phosphate trust went belly-up roughly a decade ago, resulting in the almost complete collapse of the nation’s economy. Due to lack of funds, the island’s schools shut down for nearly three whole years in the early 2000s. The national airline had its Boeing repossessed, and the once-prosperous phosphate mines were abandoned.

Modern-day Nauru and its inhabitants are in bad shape, in more ways than one. The island’s interior is irrevocably scarred from the strip mining, with 80% of it now uninhabitable and unsuitable for agriculture; nearly all Nauruans live around the coast. Due to the lack of island vegetation and over-reliance on imported processed foods, Nauru’s citizens are some of the most obese on the planet, with the world’s highest per capita rates of diabetes and heart disease.

The country’s private sector is practically non-existent outside of a general store, two hotels and a few restaurants. With one exception: a so-called “offshore processing centre” run by the Australian government on and off since 2001, in order to deter would-be asylum seekers from navigating Australian waters.

Other than these enterprises, the island has a 90% unemployment rate, and some adult residents, if they’re able and willing to work, earn a mere AUS$70 per week. With no personal income taxes and no way of paying off their debts, Nauru’s government is insolvent and almost completely reliant on foreign aid, mostly from Australia.

So what the hell happened?

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Part 1: The good times

Originally christened Pleasant Island by English sea captain John Fearn, Nauru was inhabited by a dozen tribes of Micronesian and Polynesian stock. They were strong-bodied, excellent fishermen, and known as good-humored by the few people in the Pacific who knew they existed (in the early 19th century, this was mostly confined to Asian sea merchants and the odd Australian escaped convict).

A civil war broke out on the normally peaceful island in 1878 following a domestic dispute. This dragged on for a decade, exacerbated by the presence of firearms previously supplied by merchants and whalers. The conflict only ended when German merchants arrived and the war-weary Nauruan chief pleaded with them to establish a protectorate over the island so that the fighting could stop. They obliged, and Nauru was proclaimed a German protectorate in 1888.

Nauru was relatively autonomous under German oversight, and the people were Christianized by missionaries from their nearest neighbors in the Gilbert Islands. But in 1900, British prospector Albert Ellis was visiting Nauru and he surprised many when he found something.

You see, Nauru was about as far removed as any island could be (4,300 miles from Singapore, 2,500 from Sydney, and 3,000 from Tokyo). The island was also surrounded by a coral reef, prohibiting construction of a major port. And as Mr. Ellis found, Nauru had very few natural resources over the space of eight square miles, with no indigenous animals, rivers or lakes.

What they did have was phosphate. Lots of it.

Phosphate is made up of guano (fossilized bird droppings) and is a valuable ingredient in fertilizers and explosives. At the turn of the 20th century, with the industrial revolution still going, it proved to be a potentially valuable commodity for basically every first-world nation on the planet. Mr. Ellis established the Pacific Phosphate Company in order to conduct strip mining operations on Nauru, as well as the two other nearby phosphate islands Makatea (in modern-day French Polynesia) and Banaba (Gilbert Islands).

Then World War I broke out. With Germany preoccupied on the western front, the Allies collectively seized most of the German possessions and protectorates in the Pacific, and Nauru was no exception. Following the war, the newly-established League of Nations entrusted Nauru to Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, but only after they were allowed to use the island as a phosphate mining operation under the Nauru Island Agreement.

While the strip mining was a successful operation for both Nauru and Britain, there was no effective way to rehabilitate the land from the mining, which left behind jagged rock pinnacles and no arable land. The South Pacific was also hit hard by the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918-1920, and the Nauruan people suffered dramatic mortality rates accordingly (at least 230 deaths).

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Part 2: Japanese occupation

The mining continued until December 1940, when two Nazi ships sank four merchant ships off the Nauruan coast and shelled the phosphate mines, cutting off the supply to Australia and New Zealand. Understandably, Nauru immediately faced an economic crisis amid the encroaching Japanese threat. The Japanese invaded in August 1942, enslaving the Nauruans. Some were forced into labor on their homeland, building an airfield for the Japanese to use. Others were deported to the Chuuk Islands in Micronesia, a few thousand miles away. Some sick Nauruans were literally shipped off the coast in a boat that the Japanese torpedoed in order to send a message.

As Allied forces slowly but surely reclaimed Papua New Guinea, Guadalcanal, Indonesia, Guam, and the Philippines, the Nauruans were left high-and-dry. A month after Japan surrendered, the Royal Australian Navy finally arrived and reclaimed Nauru. Out of the 1,200 Nauruans kidnapped and enslaved, a mere 737 survived. The island became an Australian mandate again, this time under the UN, in 1947.

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Part 3: Independence (and more good times)

Australia managed Nauru (and its phosphate) for a good two decades following the end of WWII. By 1966, Nauru achieved autonomy, and two years later, they were fully independent, writing up a constitution and electing Hammer DeRoburt as the island’s first president.

At the risk of stating the obvious, one of the first things the new Nauruan government did was purchase the British Phosphate Company’s assets and rename it the Nauru Phosphate Corporation (NPC). Irritated with Australia over what they viewed as chronic mismanagement of the phosphate, the government would manage the exports and then transfer the profits to Nauruans themselves.

As mentioned previously, this resulted in the islanders becoming exceedingly rich and enjoying the benefits of being exceedingly rich. The island got their own airline, Air Nauru, buying a jet that could almost fit the country’s whole population inside. The government built a golf course on Nauru and bought high-rise hotels and other real estate in Manila, Melbourne, Sydney, Guam, and Honolulu, among others. Nauru was sitting pretty, and people were taking notice of the island paradise. But soon that paradise would be lost.

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Part 4: Panic time

Here’s where it gets weird.

By the late 1980s and early 90s, the phosphate was beginning to run out. Therefore, Nauru’s government needed a backup plan. One of the country’s financial advisers, an Australian man named Duke Minks, came up with a strange idea — fund and sponsor a West End musical. Minks had connections in London prior to his banking days and decided to co-write and produce a musical based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Nauru’s then-president, Bernard Dowiyogo, jumped at the idea.

Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Love debuted in June 1993 and was a massive critical flop, becoming one of the biggest bombs in West End history. The cost to the Nauruan taxpayers? Seven million dollars.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Nauruan citizens were getting disgruntled. Phosphate was no longer a viable industry, and the people knew it, with their shrinking bank accounts staring them in the face. With the advent of the internet in the early 90s, Nauru’s government jumped at the chance to purchase ads on the World Wide Web. They posted several, offering anyone with $20,000 the chance to open up a bank on Nauru.

You can probably see where that was going. In 2000, it was revealed that the Russian mafia laundered $70 billion through Nauru in one year alone. Increasingly desperate for money, Nauru even began selling passports to anybody who wanted one and started playing diplomatic musical chairs, recognizing Taiwan, then Communist China, then Taiwan again in exchange for lucrative foreign aid packages to upgrade their own decrepit infrastructure.

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Part 5: Australia, the Godfather

Only a month before 9/11, a boat carrying a few dozen refugees and asylum seekers capsized in the Indian Ocean. Many of them were Afghan, Pakistani, or Sri Lankan and were fleeing their home countries due to religious persecution, political persecution, or both. Most were trying to get to Christmas Island, an overseas territory of Australia near the maritime border with Indonesia, when the boat capsized. A Norwegian cargo freighter, the Tampa, rescued the refugees, but were promptly stopped and ordered to turn back by the Australian Defence Force.

Immigration had been an ongoing issue in Australia in the past few years leading up to this event, and the government’s policy was never to allow anyone who came by boat. But regardless of ones feelings about admitting would-be boat people, this incident triggered a full-blown crisis for Australia, its Parliament, and then-Prime Minister John Howard. Norway wasn’t happy. Neither were the refugees.

Howard refused to let any of the refugees into Australia, but didn’t want to deal with a permanent solution for them either. Instead, his government came up with the so-called Pacific Solution and passed the buck to — you guessed it — Nauru, offering lucrative amounts of foreign aid in exchange for temporarily housing the asylum seekers. In other words, Australia became Don Corleone: they made Nauru an offer they couldn’t refuse.

This proved to be a double-edged sword for both countries. First, Nauru couldn’t exactly say no (their bills weren’t going to pay themselves). Secondly, Australia’s government didn’t want refugees and certainly did want to provide an effective deterrent to any others that tried to come. And thirdly, none of the refugees were actually processed at the offshore Nauru centre; they were simply left there, given their papers, and conveniently forgotten.

Seeking to protect their new source of income, Nauru closed off the processing centre to outside observers and began charging outrageous prices (AUD$8,000) for media visas. Concurrently, Australia passed strict anti-whistleblower legislation in the hopes that no one would find out about the processing centre and its grim conditions. It was the perfect storm.

When Australia’s government changed hands in 2007, they temporarily shut down the Nauru centre, but it re-opened in 2012 under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and continues to have broad bipartisan support in Parliament. Men, women, and children alike were once again shipped off to the depleted phosphate island as they faced an uncertain future.

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Part 6: The Aftermath

Nauru continues to deal with the consequences of the past five decades. Corruption is almost as widespread in Nauru as obesity: this is a country that changed heads of government an astonishing 17 times in 14 years (including three presidents in 1996 alone) and whose presidents would routinely commandeer the Air Nauru planes on weekends, leaving paying customers stranded on the tarmac.

Way back in 1962, the Australian government, including then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies, understood the potential ramifications that generations of phosphate mining could have on Nauru and its people, who were getting ready to become fully independent at the time. Menzies even went so far as to hire a Director of Nauruan Resettlement, whose job was to scour the Pacific and/or the Australian coast for a suitable island for Nauruans to move to once their home was completely ruined. Nauru balked at the idea, arguing that moving the whole island’s population would diminish their own culture and ruin their lives. They stayed put.

In the early 2000s, after Nauru’s dubious transactions with the Russian mob were well-documented, The Economist wrote a non-flattering piece about the island’s ecological state:

Seen from the air, Nauru resembles an enormous moth-eaten fedora: a ghastly grey mound of rock surrounded by a narrow green brim of vegetation. On the ground, this unlovely impression is confirmed. Strip mining has turned Nauru into a barren, jagged wasteland. The once-dense tropical vegetation has been cleared.

And its rampant corruption:

Greed, phosphate, and gross incompetence in a tropical setting….the citizens of Nauru, to their credit, have not taken all this lying down….rare visits from international dignitaries have been disrupted by placard-wielding protesters, demanding to know where their money has gone. It is a melancholy sign of the islanders’ desperation that the idea of simply buying another island and starting afresh is once again under discussion. But who in his right mind would let the Nauruans get their hands on another island?

In 2018, Nauru will celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence, although I’m sure few people feel like celebrating. Essentially, Nauru is back where it started — heavily dependent on Australia — only this time, with no more valuable mineral resources to give. They’ve become the archetypal client state, beholden to a larger power while Australia holds all the cards in the deck 3,000 miles away.

While many Nauruans try to stay positive and do all they can to work with what they have, this story was never going to have a happy ending. For better or worse, Australia and Nauru are forever intertwined, if only by a handful of refugees. And as far as Nauru’s decline goes, sadly, the writing was on the wall. One easily exploitable resource plus chronic fiscal mismanagement equals collapse.

Or, as Vlad Sokhin of the World Policy Institute puts it, “Nauru is a cautionary tale of what happens when the music stops. Or, more to the point, what happens when the single commodity on which an economy rests runs out.”

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Like a moonscape, much of Nauru's land has been left barren by miners who have extracted phosphate o..

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The Disaster Artist (2017)

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

Based upon the best-selling memoir of the same name, this film follows an eccentric, misguided filmmaker who teams with his actor friend to make what ended up being known as The Room.

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Native San Franciscan Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is an aspiring actor who desires to make a career in Hollywood, but lacks the confidence, money or  parental support to do so. One day in acting class, he is enthralled by a mysterious misfit named Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) who is an appallingly bad actor but approaches it with admirable gusto.

The two strike up an offbeat, surprisingly close friendship, but Sestero consistently has questions about Wiseau’s background. The independently-wealthy, thick-accented Wiseau declines to reveal his sources of income, his nationality, and even his age. Regardless, they both share a serious passion for film and acting and constantly encourage each other to pursue their dreams. When Wiseau reveals that he has an apartment in Los Angeles, Sestero jumps at the chance to move to LA and potentially get an agent.

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After moving with Wiseau into his LA apartment, Sestero begins pounding the pavement looking for work. He lands with a prominent agency and also starts a relationship with cute bartender Amber (Alison Brie), but still doesn’t get the major break that he wanted. Meanwhile, Wiseau also auditions for numerous gigs, to no avail, and becomes discouraged and jealous. Eventually, he decides to write his own movie and finance it independently. Titled The Room, Wiseau decides to direct, produce, and star in the film — despite the fact that he has no experience doing any of the above tasks.

Wiseau’s story is intended to be a love-triangle drama about amiable banker Johnny (played by Wiseau) whose fiancée Lisa cheats on him with his best friend, Mark. Encouraging of his friend’s efforts but wary of the script’s many weaknesses, Sestero is chosen to play Mark in The Room. Against protocol, Wiseau decides to buy all of the film equipment (rather than renting) and even chooses to shoot in both HD video and 35MM film simultaneously. They are backed by a seemingly endless supply of money, the source of which Wiseau refuses to reveal.

Filming ends up being a disaster, with Wiseau routinely forgetting his lines and clashing with numerous crew members, most notably cinematographer Raphael Smadja (Paul Scheer) and script supervisor Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen). Wiseau is adamant about doing his film his way, and the budget balloons accordingly due to his mismanagement. Sestero eventually becomes exasperated, and wants to forsake the entire project, arguing with Wiseau repeatedly and leaving the project behind completely at the end of filming.

Eight months later, Sestero hasn’t talked to Wiseau at all until he receives an invitation in the mail for The Room‘s premiere. Initially reluctant, he reconsiders after Wiseau tracks him down and insists that he come.

The premiere on July 27, 2003 is a disaster, with the audience dumbfounded by the film’s awkward dialogue, terrible performances and gigantic, unresolved plot holes. Audience members begin to embrace The Room as a comedy, and their laughter makes Wiseau uncomfortable, causing him to leave in a huff. Sestero tracks him down and convinces him to come back into the theatre, saying that even though this response wasn’t what Wiseau wanted, people are still entertained by The Room and are having a blast. The two men return to the theatre and Wiseau gets a standing ovation.

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Imagine a film so bad that it becomes the proverbial car wreck you can’t look away from. Imagine a film that is so intensely bad that it becomes funny. And imagine rewatching this film over and over because it’s just that priceless.

That, my friends, is The Room, the $6 million disaster-piece that was christened “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” when it was released in 2003. Bombing at the LA box office in a limited release, The Room was eventually embraced as a midnight movie and cult classic, becoming a worldwide sensation. This has what has led to both Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero becoming the unlikeliest of household names.

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As for The Disaster Artist itself, this movie-about-a-movie is truly wonderful. In their first film collaboration, Dave Franco and James Franco are exceptional as Sestero and Wiseau, respectively, performing their roles with conviction and earnestness. My only major issues with the film are the music (didn’t find it memorable), and the overall lack of faithfulness to the novel. While the film largely captures the spirit of the Sestero book, there are still a number of things that are glossed over in the finished movie.

Smartly written and downright hilarious, The Disaster Artist succeeds as both an homage to the “greatest bad movie ever made” and as a poignant nod to the quirky people who choose to never give up on their dreams.

Grade: A-

  • Directed by James Franco
  • Produced by James Franco, Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, Vince Jolivette, and James Weaver
  • Screenplay by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
  • Based on the book “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell
  • Director of Photography — Brandon Trost
  • Music by Dave Porter
  • Editor — Stacey Schroeder
  • Starring James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Paul Scheer, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, Hannibal Buress, Zac Efron, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Megan Mullally, Jason Mantzoukas
  • Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.

 

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Tom Wills

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Tom Wills’s life had all the drama, passion, and excitement of a major movie script: someone who was beloved across a then-fledgling country as a talented dual sportsman and an eccentric personality.

The man was one of the most talented Australian cricketers of his day and also helped give birth to Aussie rules football — a unique and fast-paced game that enthralls modern audiences and has since spread across the globe. However, immediately following his death, he fell into obscurity and did not achieve folk hero status as an Aussie sports legend for many decades. Who was Wills, and what made him such an intriguing figure?

Thomas Wentworth Wills was born in rural New South Wales (then still a British colony) on August 19, 1835 to Horatio Wills and Elizabeth McGuire Wills. Wills’s maternal grandparents were Irish convicts, while his paternal grandfather, Edward Wills, was an Englishman who was convicted of highway robbery and transported to Australia in 1799.

Horatio Wills was active in local politics and also owned a newspaper, where he helped make the case for a self-reliant, robust Australia with minimal British interference. By the time he got married and started raising a family, however, Wills moved to the countryside, settling in a predominantly Aboriginal region of Victoria near the modern-day town of Moyston. Here, the Wills family began a more pastoral style of living.

Young Tom naturally gravitated towards his Aboriginal neighbors as companions, learning their language and appreciating their music. Horatio Wills was also well-regarded among the community due to his uncommon hospitality to the locals, allowing Aboriginal clans to hunt on his land. Tom moved south to Melbourne and attended Brickwoods School from the age of 11, where he developed a close relationship with his uncle, who lived nearby. A natural athlete, Wills first began playing cricket while at school in Melbourne.

By 1850, Wills was 14 and his father was looking to ensure a good secondary education for his eldest, so he sent him to the elite Rugby School in Warwickshire, England. Here, Wills continued to play cricket and developed a sterling reputation as one of the best young bowlers at the school. In addition to his prowess as a cricketer, Wills also excelled in other athletic events, including Rugby School’s annual sports carnival. At a lanky 5’10” with natural agility and skill, Wills was considered the best all-around athlete in the school.

Wills, despite battling homesickness, finished his schooling in 1855 and began playing cricket across England, including first-class appearances for some of the most historic cricket clubs in the country. Eventually, after pressure from his father, Wills returned home to Australia right before the following Christmas.

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Wills came back to his home country at the perfect time — the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales were battling annually in cricket and the competition had reached a fever pitch. Recruited to the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) by his old school friend, an Englishman named William Hammersley, Wills soon became a highly-regarded cricketer in Australia as well.

At the time, Aussie cricketers were strictly amateur sportsmen. Wills didn’t mind; he liked playing sports strictly for fun, but he also enjoyed drinking and fraternizing with the professional Aussie cricketers, which irked sporting officials but endeared him to the average fan.

During the 1857-58 cricket season, Wills was elected secretary of the MCC, but he was blamed for poor administrative skills lackluster leadership — he sometimes didn’t even show up to club meetings, even when the MCC was heavily in debt. Wills eventually resigned in a huff, resulting in a strained relationship with the MCC that would last for many years.

Despite his lack of secretarial skills, Wills was a prolific writer on cricket matters, although he had a contentious relationship with his fellow journalists in Melbourne. On July 10, 1858, Wills wrote a letter to Bell’s Life, a local sporting chronicle, discussing the possibilities of forming a new type of football club to help keep cricketers fit during the winter months:

Now that cricket has been put aside for some few months to come, and cricketers have assumed somewhat of the chrysalis nature….why can they not, I say, form a foot-ball club, and form a committee of three or more to draw up a code of laws?

Wills may not have realized it at the time, but he made a historic declaration, stating that “foot-ball” should be an organized and regular pastime. After spreading the word to local schools, Wills and his fellow cricketers organized a series of test matches at the Richmond Paddock, located adjacent to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The matches were played on subsequent Saturdays in August between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School. At this point, the form of football was more akin to rugby than anything else, but Wills would soon devise a scheme to make his new code of football unique.

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On May 14, 1859, Wills and a handful of other cricketers founded the Melbourne Football Club. Three days later, Wills invited William Hammersley, Thomas H. Smith, and J.B. Thompson to the Parade Hotel to formally codify the new type of football.

The four men debated the public school forms of football that were popular in England at the time. Wills naturally geared more towards the rugby of his alma mater; however, Hammersley disliked using rugby as a primary influence, finding it too complex and violent. The men compromised and decided to tailor-make the rules to the typical Melbourne winter conditions. They drew up a set of 10 rules:

1. The distance between the goals and the goal posts shall be decided upon by the captains of the sides playing.
2. The captains on each side shall toss for choice of goal; the side losing the toss has the kick off from the centre point between the goals.
3. A goal must be kicked fairly between the posts, without touching either of them, or a portion of the person of any player on either side.
4. The game shall be played within a space of not more than 200 yards wide, the same to be measured equally on each side of a line drawn through the centres of the two goals; and two posts to be called the “kick off posts” shall be erected at a distance of 20 yards on each side of the goal posts at both ends, and in a straight line with them.
5. In case the ball is kicked “behind” goal, any one of the side behind whose goal it is kicked may bring it 20 yards in front of any portion of the space between the “kick off” posts, and shall kick it as nearly as possible in line with the opposite goal.
6. Any player catching the ball “directly” from the foot may call “mark”. He then has a free kick; no player from the opposite side being allowed to come “inside” the spot marked.
7. Tripping and pushing are both allowed (but no hacking) when any player is in rapid motion or in possession of the ball, except in the case provided for in Rule 6.
8. The ball may be taken in hand “only” when caught from the foot, or on the hop. In “no case” shall it be “lifted” from the ground.
9. When a ball goes out of bounds (the same being indicated by a row of posts) it shall be brought back to the point where it crossed the boundary-line, and thrown in at right angles with that line.
10. The ball, while in play, may under no circumstances be thrown.

While not all of these rules have survived, they still form the official basis of Australian rules football — kicking goals, marking the ball, boundary line throw-ins, and playing a fast-paced game over a very large area. Due to Wills’s immense popularity in Australia, the new game grew quickly, spreading across Melbourne and the nearby city of Geelong.

While Wills was developing Aussie rules during the winter, he remained a constant — albeit controversial — figure in cricket. After his falling-out with the MCC, Wills traveled around Australia, playing for any cricket team that would have him. This made many clubs furious, as Wills would frequently play without giving prior notice to the opposition, dramatically tilting the odds in his new team’s favor.

Shortly before England’s inaugural cricket tour of Australia in 1861, Wills abruptly announced his retirement from all sports. At the behest of his father, Wills moved to establish a new family property, this time thousands of miles north in outback Queensland along the Nogoa River.

Wills, his family, and a number of his dad’s employees took a steam train to Brisbane, and then began the long trip to the rugged Queensland interior to establish their new property. Upon their arrival, Horatio Wills named the new location Cullin-la-ringo and established a ranch there. The family was wary of intermittent fighting between Anglos and Aborigines in the area and resolved to have a non-interventionist approach to the conflicts.

Two weeks later, on October 17, Wills was out of town seeking new supplies when nearly everyone at Cullin-la-ringo — including Horatio — was killed by Aborigines. Nineteen people (including women and children) were clubbed to death, resulting in the deadliest massacre of Anglo settlers in Australian history. Wills was not the only survivor; two men avoided being spotted by the Aborigines and reported the news to Wills later on.

Following the tragedy, Wills rebuilt the property at Cullin-la-ringo and sold it to a relative; however, Wills began to descend into insomnia, PTSD, and alcoholism. Drifting for awhile, he returned to cricket briefly and also spent some time coaching Aussie rules in Geelong before going back to Cullin-la-ringo.

By 1864, Wills’s personal life was imploding — his fiancée broke up with him and he was deeply in debt due to squandering money on alcohol while falsely claiming it as “station expenditures” at Cullin-la-ringo.

Wills eventually moved back to Victoria, staying in Geelong with his sister Emily. He continued to play cricket occasionally, but his on-field professionalism was undermined when opposing players and umpires alike accused him of throwing games repeatedly (In cricket, one must use an orthodox method of bowling the ball, with very little wiggle room. Otherwise, a “no-ball” is called.).

By 1871, Wills’s style of play had ostracized many of his former friends and teammates, including Hammersley, and during that year’s match, Wills was tossed from the game and eventually banned from intercolonial matches. Wills attacked Hammersley (an Englishman) many times in the press, accusing him of manipulating the rules against Australians and threatening legal action.

Despite his fall from grace in the cricket world, Wills was still highly regarded in Geelong, where he helped further develop Aussie rules. He continued to play and coach, and consulted with other authorities to make new rules and provide innovative game plans. He retired from footy permanently in 1877.

Continuing to struggle with debt, Wills moved in with his longterm girlfriend, Sarah Barbor, in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg. Wills’s alcoholism continued to consume him until he was completely broke. With no money, Wills experienced withdrawal symptoms, including intense paranoia, and was admitted to a local hospital on May 1st, 1880. After being observed and released the following day, Wills continued to suffer from paranoid delusions; two days later, he stabbed himself in the chest three times and died. Estranged from most of his family, Wills was buried in an unmarked grave and his funeral was attended by only six people.

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Wills was Australia’s first real sporting celebrity — excelling in cricket professionally and developing Aussie rules into a beloved winter pastime. However, the man himself remains an enigma among his supporters and detractors alike.

In addition to his alcoholism and PTSD, which sprang from the personal tragedies in his life, Wills had strange personality traits. He was frequently described as charismatic and laconic, although he also had very narcissistic tendencies and was not shy about alienating people. Wills was also a notorious womanizer and may have had undiagnosed mental health issues, often confiding to friends and family that he didn’t always feel like himself.

Wills also wrote many letters to his friends and family over the years, many of which were composed in bizarre fashion: he had a peculiar stream-of-consciousness writing style that sometimes defied grammar, featuring random puns, strange Shakespearean allusions, and droll asides. It’s possible that he was bipolar or even mildly epileptic. “He could be dismissive, triumphant, and brazen all in a single sentence,” says Australian historian Greg de Moore.

Despite his moral flaws, Wills is heavily remembered not just for his sporting legacy, but for his egalitarian attitudes, which are strongly reflected in Australian culture at large. In some ways, he is emblematic of the tough, down-to-earth, individualistic image of the “Aussie bloke.”

“‘Great’ athletes seem to be anointed every day; far rarer are those entitled to be considered ‘original’. Tom Wills is such a figure in every respect,” says journalist Gideon Haigh.

Whatever you think of Tom Wills as a person, he will probably always be remembered as a lasting icon of Australia’s two most famous and popular sports.