HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Don Ritchie

After completing his service in the Australian Navy during World War II, Don Ritchie became a life insurance salesman. But his far greater accomplishment was quite literally “selling life” to the dozens of distraught Sydneysiders who have attempted suicide at The Gap.

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The Gap is a gorgeous cliffside in the affluent Sydney suburb of Watsons Bay which separates Sydney Harbour from the Tasman Sea. It has been a notorious suicide spot for nearly two centuries, with only a three-foot fence separating one from the edge.

And Don Ritchie lived next to it for 50 years.

According to estimates, Ritchie — the so-called “Angel of The Gap” — has saved 160 people from jumping to their deaths, all by being friendly and offering a warm smile. Frequently he just offered a cup of tea to them or invited them to chat at his home. While many would dread living to such a depressing place, Ritchie saw it as an amazing opportunity.

“How wonderful is it to save so many? How wonderful is it to sell them life?” he once said. “People will always come here. I don’t think it will ever stop. You can’t just sit there and watch them.”

“I think, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we live here and we can help people?'” his wife Moya added.

Ritchie didn’t keep count of how many people he actually saved, although the actual count could be close to 400. Sadly, many people eluded his grasp and plunged to their deaths regardless.

Some of the ones he spoke with were battling cancer, while others suffered from mental illness. Sometimes, the men and women who jumped left behind reminders of themselves on the edge — notes, wallets, shoes, etc. Once, Ritchie rushed over to help a man on crutches. By the time he arrived, the crutches were all that remained.

Ritchie admitted that he didn’t want to pry into would-be victims’ lives; rather simply being someone who could listen and offer an alternative if needed. He claimed that he didn’t try to dwell on the ones he could have saved, although there are still some that haunted him.

On a summer evening several years ago, a 19-year-old man had already climbed over the small fence at The Gap and was preparing to jump.

“I went over and I tried to talk to him, asking him questions…he wouldn’t talk much and just kept looking straight ahead. I was talking to him for about half an hour, thinking I was making headway. I said, ‘Why don’t you come for a cup of tea, or a beer if you’d like one?’ He said no and stepped off…his hat blew up and I caught it in my hand.”

It was later discovered that the young man had lived down the street many years prior and grew up with Ritchie’s grandkids. The man’s mother brought Ritchie flowers and thanked him for trying. “If you couldn’t have talked him out of it, no one could,” she said.

Ritchie also once spoke with a woman who he described as “nervous and confused”; she had struggled with depression for years and felt that her medications were of no help. Ritchie and his wife spoke with her for several hours and she eventually went home safely. Months later, she returned with a message of thanks: “I’ll never forget your important intervention in my life. I am well.”

Ritchie consistently remained humble and low-key about his extraordinary work. In 2006, he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to suicide prevention. However, he was acutely aware that excessive publicity could potentially attract more depressed people to The Gap.

The following year, on November 2, 2007, prominent Australian journalist/newscaster Charmaine Dragun jumped from The Gap after suffering from depression and anorexia for years. According to Ritchie’s wife, there were six more suicides in the following few weeks.

Therein lies the problem for many activists and would-be helpers: while The Gap’s security needs to be upgraded, how can that be done subtly without attracting more potential victims? There aren’t easy answers, but the local city councils are doing all they can to improve the situation.

As for Ritchie and his wife, they’ve always insisted that they’ve had successful, full lives. They raised three daughters and have a few grandchildren, and have traveled all around the world. One day, Ritchie found an anonymous gift in his mailbox — a painting of a ray of sunshine with a message at the bottom, calling him “an angel who walks amongst us.”

However, the humble Aussie was just glad to be of service to the community. “It makes you — oh, I don’t know. I feel happy about it. Once I’m gone, I imagine somebody else will come along and do what I’ve been doing.”

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Suffering from recurring cancer, Ritchie passed away in 2012 at the age of 86.

“He would always say not to underestimate the power of a kind word and a smile….an everyday person who did an extraordinary thing for many people that saved their lives, without any want of recognition,” Ritchie’s daughter, Sue, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

FOOTY AROUND THE WORLD: Ireland

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Ireland is significant as one of the first European nations to have adopted the sport of Aussie rules. However, footy has never enjoyed significantly broad popularity in the country due to the dominance of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which overseas the traditional Irish sports of hurling, camogie, handball, and Gaelic football.

Gaelic football — by far the largest Irish spectator sport — has several similarities to Aussie rules, which have been well-documented over the years. The primary differences are the number of players, the size and shape of the ball and pitch, and the fact that Gaelic football is not full-contact.

Irish interest in footy was most likely initially sparked in 1967 during the Australian Football World Tour, which played a couple of test matches in Dublin. The hybrid sport of international rules football (a combination of Aussie rules and Gaelic football) has its roots in the World Tour. In addition, many Gaelic footballers have given Aussie rules a shot since the 1980s, primarily due to the lure of a quality salary; the Gaelic games are only played at an amateur level in Ireland.

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As far a domestic competition goes, there were no official footy clubs in Ireland until 1999, when teams were formed in both Belfast and Dublin (the Redbacks and Demons, respectively). The following year, the Australian Rules Football League of Ireland (ARFLI) was founded, and the Demons and Redbacks began playing test matches against teams in England. Having recruited well, both clubs performed admirably, providing a strong foundation for footy to grow in the Emerald Isle. Three more clubs — the Leeside Lions, the Midland Tigers, and the Drogheda Dockers — were founded within the next year, helped by an established group of Aussie expats.

ARFLI’s co-founders, Ciaran O’Hara and Michael Currane, attempted to strengthen ties with other organized footy clubs and leagues in both the UK and Continental Europe, helping form the European Australian Rules Football Council in early 2001. This was a key development in the eventual formation of AFL Europe in 2010, of which Ireland was a founding member.

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Due to a lack of available cricket ovals, the ARFLI originally decided to create two competitions, starting in the 2001 season. The premiership season was the original five teams competing in traditional 18-a-side formats, while the Super 9’s competition was nine-per-side, and was played on Gaelic football pitches in order to give players a smoother transition.

In addition to a growing local competition, Ireland’s national footy team, the Warriors, were inaugural members of the International Cup in 2002, when they won the premiership over heavily-favored Papua New Guinea, in addition to prior victories over Canada, Samoa, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States.

In both 2005 and 2008, the Irish team (AKA the Green Machine) finished in fourth place, suffering losses to both PNG and the US in ’05 and falling to New Zealand during round one of the finals in ’08. However, Ireland rebounded three years later, taking home the 2011 IC title with another nice win over PNG. The Green Machine/Warriors are one of the most successful IC teams ever, as they’ve never finished below fourth place overall and are tied with PNG for the most premierships.

The women’s national team, the Banshees, was also an inaugural member of the women’s IC in 2011, winning the Grand Final that year and finishing as runners-up to Canada in 2014.

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While Gaelic football still dominates the local media coverage and captivates spectators, the future of Aussie rules in Ireland still looks bright, due to the triennial International Rules Series, the emergence of several Gaelic converts in the AFL, and the chance to compete abroad at the International Cup. There are roughly 150 registered Irish footy players, as well as a junior development program.

AUSTRALIAN RULES FOOTBALL LEAGUE OF IRELAND

  • Belfast Redbacks
  • Dublin Demons
  • Galway Magpies
  • Leeside Lions
  • North Leinster Giants
  • South Dublin Swans

IRISHMEN IN THE AFL

  • Dermott Brereton (played 1982-1992) — One of the greatest goalkickers ever, Brereton is a first generation Irish Australian who played in 189 career games for the Hawthorn Hawks, winning five VFL premierships during that time. After briefly attempting a comeback with Sydney and Collingwood in the mid-90s, Brereton permanently retired and is now a prominent radio and TV commentator.
  • Jock McHale (played 1903-1920) — The son of Irish immigrants to Sydney, McHale mostly grew up in Melbourne and played for Collingwood during the VFL’s infancy. However, he is best remembered for his 714-game coaching career with the Pies, which lasted over two decades and resulted in seven premierships. McHale passed away of a heart attack in 1970 and was posthumously named as a Legend in the AFL Hall of Fame.

NOTABLE GAELIC FOOTBALL CONVERTS TO AFL

  • Tadhg Kennelly (played 2001-2008) — An athletic 6’3″ defender, Kennelly made history with the Sydney Swans in 2005, when he became the first born-and-raised Irishman to win an AFL premiership. Before he transitioned to footy, Kennelly was a stellar underage player for GAA powerhouse club County Kerry.
  • Pearce Hanley (played 2008-present) — The son of an Irish father and Welsh mother, Hanley played for GAA’s County Mayo. In 2005, after a positive showing at the International Rules Series, Hanley began to receiving scouting attention from the AFL. He ultimately signed with the Brisbane Lions as a midfielder/defender and played in 129 career games there before being traded to the Gold Coast Suns last year.
  • Jim Stynes (played 1987-1998) — Born in Dublin, Stynes spent his entire AFL career with the Melbourne Demons and is considered the first major success in the so-called Irish experiment, playing in 264 career games and winning a Brownlow Medal in 1991. Following his retirement, Stynes became well-known for his charity work and penned two memoirs. He was also selected to the AFL Hall of Fame and named to the Melbourne Team of the Century. Stynes passed away in 2012 at the tragically young age of 45 due to recurring melanoma.
  • Ciarán Byrne (played 2014-present) — Byrne is another Gaelic convert who originally made his presence known to the AFL when playing in the International Rules Series. Hailing from County Louth, Byrne signed as a category B international rookie with Carlton in 2013 and has since played in a dozen AFL games, primarily in the half-back line.
  • Conor McKenna (played 2015-present) — McKenna hails from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland and played at the minor league level in Gaelic football before deciding to give Aussie rules a try. Now a midfielder for the Essendon Bombers, McKenna has seen more and more senior level footy in recent months, drawing praise for his style of play from ex-Bombers captain Jobe Watson.
  • Colm Begley (played 2006-2009) — Begley moved to Australia in 2005 from County Laois and signed with the Brisbane Lions, where he played for three seasons. Unfortunately, injuries marred the latter half of his career; he retired in 2009 and elected to return to Ireland.
  • Zach Tuohy (played 2010-present) — Tuohy is one of the more recent Irish success stories. Originally from County Laois, he began his career as a versatile defender with the Carlton Blues before getting traded to Geelong at the end of last season. Tuohy also represented Ireland at both the 2011 and 2013 International Rules Series.

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Taika Waititi

He’s made quirky independent comedies and drama films in his home country for years. As an actor, writer, director, and comedian, he’s helped spearhead a close-knit group of like-minded creatives. He wrote the original script for Disney’s animated Polynesian blockbuster Moana last year. And now he’s taking on the Marvel Universe.

But truth be told, Taika Waititi probably wouldn’t be recognized on the street in places like New York or Los Angeles.

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The 41-year-old Waititi has dominated the cinema scene in his native New Zealand for over a decade. In 2003, he came out of nowhere and got a Best Short Film nomination at the Oscars for Two Cars, One Night. He didn’t win, but he drew plenty of laughs when he pretended to fall asleep during the ceremony before they got to his category.

Waititi has been a darling at the Sundance Film Festival for many years – following his initial short film success, he wrote, directed, and co-starred in Eagle vs. Shark, an offbeat romantic comedy starring his good friend and frequent collaborator, Jemaine Clement. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2007. Three years later, Waititi wrote and directed the coming-of-age story Boy, which tells the story of a young Māori kid learning the truth about his long-lost ex-convict father (played by Waititi). At the time, the film was the highest-grossing domestic movie ever at the New Zealand box office.

In 2014, Waititi and Clement tag-teamed the director’s chair for vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, which also wowed audiences at Sundance despite being made on a NZ$1.7 million budget raised entirely on Kickstarter. Last year, Waititi’s kid-friendly caper film Hunt for the Wilderpeople became the little Kiwi film that could, grossing over $12 million in its home country and $23 million worldwide, while also receiving unanimous acclaim (97% positive on Rotten Tomatoes). Also a smash hit in nearby Australia, Hunt for the Wilderpeople became the highest-grossing Kiwi movie ever, ahead of Boy – meaning that Waititi dethroned himself as New Zealand’s box office king.  “It’s the happiest and saddest day of my career,” Waititi quipped when he was told the news.

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Born in the small coastal village of Raukokore in the North Island of New Zealand, Waititi is entirely Maori on his father’s side, while his mother is of Russian Jewish descent. He attended school at Onslow College before moving on to the Victoria University of Wellington, where he met Clement while studying film and drama.

Waititi and Clement formed the comedy duo The Humourbeasts, touring the nation and winning the Billy T Award – New Zealand’s highest comedy honor – in 1999. Meanwhile, Waititi also earned a couple of bit parts in indie films, most notably an award-winning turn in the student drama Scarfies, which was filmed in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1999. Eventually, he decided to give directing a shot, starting with short comedy films for New Zealand’s 48-hour film festival. From that came Two Cars, One Night and immediate domestic success.

Earlier in 2017, Waititi was named the recipient of the New Zealander of the Year Award. “There are a lot of nominations for things I never won and this is something I actually did win – it feels like I’ve followed through on this one,” the director says, while expressing regret that he couldn’t attend the ceremony in person.

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“If someone asked, ‘What are your films like?’, the best I can come up with is that they’re, like, a fine balance between comedy and drama. And they deal mainly with the clumsiness of humanity,” states Waititi, who lists his favorite directors as Hal Ashby and George Miller.

Now, Waititi will be directing the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, the third entry in the Marvel Universe starring the comic book character portrayed by Chris Hemsworth. However, Waititi was given a shocking amount of artistic freedom and declared almost immediately that the film would be set outside the Marvel Universe and be a stand-alone movie. Primarily shot in Australia, Thor: Ragnarok will be premiering on November 3rd.

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Waititi’s films all have vulnerability mixed with offbeat Kiwi humor, which will certainly be a unique addition to a big-budget superhero film. Conversely, Marvel has never had someone like Waititi direct a film of theirs. Noted critic Sarah Marrs said specifically that she was only as excited as she was for Thor: Ragnarok because Waititi was directing it, and that Marvel was giving him a long leash in order to do so.

“Having had pretty much four successful films at home, I know there’s an audience for my work,” Waititi explains. “A lot of people are trying to get out of their home country and think ‘making it’ is if you’re able to work in another. For me, I’d be quite content to keep doing my own little films down there for the rest of my filmmaking career.”

Similarly, Waititi remains low-key about being the proverbial Hollywood outsider. “I’ve always felt like I wanted to make a Marvel film. I just want to make sure I’m not making an episode.”

Now that Thor: Ragnarok is in the can and preparing for its release, Waititi is turning his attention elsewhere. He’s working on a werewolf-themed spinoff of What We Do in the Shadows and recently landed a $20 million Netflix deal to direct Bubbles, a film about the life of Michael Jackson as seen through the eyes of his pet chimpanzee.

“From film to film, it’s a new thing,” Waititi says. “And that, to me, is more inspiring than making same type of movie every time.”

Wonder Woman (2017)

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Diana (Gal Gadot) lives in isolation from the outside world amongst her female tribe on the island of Themyscira. A princess of an Amazon warrior culture, Diana is destined from birth to protect humankind and conquer evil, as represented by the fallen god of war, Ares. Diana’s idealistic philosophy revolves around defending humanity from harm, believing that people are inherently good and are simply corrupted by society.

One day, Themyscira is penetrated by the outside world – in the form of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American undercover agent, who crashes his plane offshore. World War I is raging in Europe, and Trevor has been working for British intelligence services, attempting to infiltrate the Germans and their attempt to develop new chemical warfare. While undercover, Trevor was able to steal some vital information from Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), one of the German scientists, but was discovered and had to escape by stealing a plane, which eventually took him to Themyscira.

Trevor is interrogated by the Amazons and tells them of “the war to end all wars.” Diana is disturbed by Trevor’s stories of carnage and desires to help, despite her mother’s warnings. Eventually, she joins Trevor and leaves her homeland for the first time.

The two arrive in London, where Trevor reports of his findings to the British high command. Trevor believes that the Germans can change the course of the war in their favor with their plans for chemical weapons, but his superiors dismiss him, as they’re tantalizingly close to negotiating the armistice. Frustrated, Trevor assembles a rogue group of mercenaries to join him in his attempt to take down Dr. Maru and her superior, General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston).

Meanwhile, Diana is absorbing the reality of the new world she finds herself in and how she can find a place in this environment — while also holding true to what she holds near and dear and fulfilling her destiny.

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Wonder Woman was released earlier this month and is already the first big summer blockbuster of the year, and with good reason. It’s also a big return to form for DC’s Expanded Universe, which got off to an inauspicious start last year with the massively disappointing Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. 

While I’m generally not a huge superhero movie guy, when are done right, they’re frequently done REALLY right. And Wonder Woman is no exception. This film has everything a summer blockbuster should have: tons of awesomely epic fight scenes, great music and cinematography, solid acting, and a compelling and engrossing story.

The film succeeds as an awesome re-introduction to Wonder Woman as a character — someone who is naïve and idealistic, but also heroic and complex. It’s also really cool that they took the the time to look at her origin story without dragging it out too much. Wonder Woman is also surprisingly funny, as it’s two fish-out-of-water stories rolled into one. There are plenty of humorous moments as Trevor tries to understand who Diana actually is and where she comes from, while Diana also attempts to familiarize herself with the real world.

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Despite receiving criticism when she was cast, Gal Gadot nails the role of Diana. In addition to balancing the aforementioned character traits of naïveté and courage, she just has the presence and charisma for the role. Her chemistry with Pine is truly outstanding and is the emotional core of the film. We see how they’re both heroic in different ways — Diana being the idealist and Trevor being the pragmatic one. It’s worth mentioning that Gadot can certainly pull off the physicality of Wonder Woman, too, as she gained 17 pounds of muscle for the production and even has a military background herself (three years in the Israeli Defense Forces).

Now, as always, on to the negatives. Wonder Woman‘s villains are — in a word — “meh”. This is hardly new with DC, but all of the principal villains in this film just don’t feel good. They’re underdeveloped and heavy-handed in their motives, and while I didn’t find their acting super hammy, they were still very underwhelming as a group.

The action sequences in this movie are really awesome as a whole, but there’s a ton of CGI towards the climax and there’s also the occasional overuse of slow motion. I get it — she’s Gal Gadot, and you want to make her look awesome, but it can still get tedious.

Overall, the dual fantasy-reality setting works pretty well. Wonder Woman is a great-looking movie, and the film’s soundtrack is euphoric. I think there’s a lot to like here, simply because there’s an emotionally-involving story, fun action, and strong performances. I’m glad to see Gadot finally come into her own as an up-and-coming A-lister, and I feel like director Patty Jenkins has a bright future, too (it’s only her third feature).

As far as the rest of DC’s filmography goes, Wonder Woman certainly is up there. It’s definitely not in the same league as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but this works as both a standalone superhero film and as a gateway to other DC films, like the upcoming Aquaman and Justice League. There are certainly some aspects that needed to be fine-tuned, but if there was ever a film to help get this genre back on track, this is the one you want.

Grade: B+

  • Directed by Patty Jenkins
  • Screenplay by Allan Heinberg
  • Story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs
  • Based on a character created by William Moulton Marston
  • Produced by Charles Roven, Zack Snyder, Deborah Snyder, and Richard Suckle
  • Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, David Thewlis, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock
  • Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content.

FOOTY AROUND THE WORLD: Germany

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The Aussie rules phenomenon has expanded in continental Europe in recent years, and Germany has been no exception. The sport was originally played there in 1995, with clubs formed by Aussie expats in both Munich (the Redbacks) and Frankfurt (the Kangaroos). The two clubs competed against each other on a largely informal basis until AFL Germany was founded in 1999.

In 2003, the league expanded, with the Berlin Crocodiles and Hamburg Dockers joining and forming a nice nucleus for a nationwide German competition. Soon enough, the Dusseldorf Lions (now the Rheinland Lions) and the Stuttgart Emus were added in the ensuing years.

The German national footy team, the Black Eagles, were established in 2006, when they participated in a tri-nation series of matches against Sweden and Denmark. The Eagles were able to use that experience as a springboard the following year in the same series, defeating Sweden in Berlin for their first international victory in July 2007. That September, the EU Cup – another international Aussie rules tournament – was hosted in Hamburg, where the Eagles finished in second place.

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The Eagles have desired to make an impact at the International Cup, but AFL Germany has been reluctant in the past, instead voicing the desire to focus on regional development and becoming a dominant force at various European tournaments, both in traditional 18-a-side format and 9-a-side. In the summer of 2011, the Eagles dominated France’s national team, the Coqs, at a test match in Paris.

After gaining suitable support to the greenlight from AFL Germany, the Black Eagles will be making their long-awaited International Cup debut later in 2017; AFL Germany now boasts four separate leagues, and many other clubs are looking to get started in the near future.

AFL GERMANY

  • Berlin Crocs
  • Dresden Wolves
  • Frankfurt Redbacks
  • Freiburg Taipans
  • Hamburg Dockers
  • Munich Kangaroos
  • Rheinland Lions
  • Stuttgart Emus

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GERMANS IN THE AFL

  • Alex Ruscuklic (played 1966-1974) — This German-born footballer was a star forward for Fitzroy, kicking 189 goals in 108 career games with the club. A testy relationship with his coaches resulted in his departure from Fitzroy, and he landed at Carlton in the 1974 season before announcing his retirement.
  • Peter Ruscuklic (played 1975-1981) — Alex’s younger brother was not quite as successful, but had some notable moments as a full-forward for both Fitzroy (1975-76) and Geelong (1977). After leaving the VFL, Ruscuklic caught on with the East Sydney Football Club in the Sydney Football League before retiring in 1981 and moving into coaching. He passed away suddenly at the age of 58 in 2014.
  • David Schwarz (played 1991-2002) — Originally from Sunbury, Victoria, Schwarz was a German-Australian footballer who was known for his goalkicking abilities. Although his later career was marred by knee injuries, Schwarz played in 173 games with the Melbourne Demons and became an AFL commentator following his retirement.
  • Dean Terlich (played 2013-2016) — Terlich is a German Australian who originally played in the South Australian National Football League (SANFL). He was drafted by the Sydney Swans in the 2008 rookie draft but never played a game for them, eventually falling in with the Melbourne Demons by 2013. He played in 35 career games before being delisted by the end of the 2016 season.
  • Jack Riewoldt (played 2007-present) — Riewoldt is of German descent on his father’s side and grew up in Tasmania, where he played for the Clarence Football Club before getting drafted by Richmond, where he remains today. Riewoldt is perhaps best known for his 2015 campaign, when he became the first Richmond player to kick 50-plus goals in six straight seasons.
  • Nick Riewoldt (played 2000-present) — A first cousin of Jack, Riewoldt has spent his lengthy AFL career entirely with the St Kilda Football Club, entering the league as the #1 overall pick in 2000. Although born in Tasmania, Riewoldt was historically significant as the first #1 pick to play his junior and senior footy in Queensland. To date, he has been St Kilda’s leading goalkicker four separate times and is a five-time All-Australian.

The Neon Demon (2016)

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Orphaned as a child, sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) longs for a career as an LA fashion model while living on the bare-bones essentials at a seedy Pasadena motel. She does well at a handful of photoshoots, which leads to an unexpected offer from talent agent Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks), who is impressed with her beauty but convinces her to lie about her age in order to get more jobs.

Along the way, Jesse befriends Ruby (Jena Malone), her lesbian makeup artist, and begins seeing Dean (Karl Glusman), an old-school Southern boy who likes her, but dislikes the shallowness of the fashion industry. Jesse must also avoid the creepy manager of the motel, Hank (Keanu Reeves) and navigate photoshoots with the stern Jack McCarther (Desmond Harrington) and the pretentious Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola).

Jesse’s fellow models, Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), attempt to understand what makes Jesse so special that she can score major gigs right off the bat. Intense jealousy and violence ensues, while Ruby, who has been much more open and kind with Jesse, reveals disturbing secrets of her own. In the end, they’re all sucked into the dark underbelly of the fashion industry with shocking results.

 

The Neon Demon is directed by acclaimed arthouse maestro Nicolas Winding Refn. I’ve long been an admirer of the Danish director’s previous works, including Drive and Only God Forgives, both action-thrillers which starred Ryan Gosling.

Drive is one of my all-time favorite action films, featuring a relatable and sweet love story mixed with graphic mafia violence. I didn’t like Only God Forgives — an experimental revenge story set in Thailand — nearly as much, but it also featured a good performance from Gosling and exquisite cinematography.

Speaking of which, that’s what The Neon Demon‘s biggest strength is — cinematography. The visuals are outstanding and create the appropriate atmosphere that we’re used to seeing from Winding Refn. I also loved the film’s score by Cliff Martinez (a frequent collaborator of Winding Refn), and most of the acting was solid.

The Neon Demon is also good simply because it knows what it is: a psychological horror-thriller. It’s not a catty whine-fest featuring hot girls vs. other hot girls, and it’s also not a self-righteous commentary on the superficiality and vapidness of the fashion industry. Think more of Carrie mixed with a Calvin Klein advertisement.

Onto the negatives: the characters aren’t as fleshed-out as they need to be, and the film lags at around the halfway point. There is some SERIOUS violence and sexual content in this film, and it will undoubtedly be disturbing to even some hardened viewers. The reason I can give these elements of the film a little bit of respect is because I know what Winding Refn was going for here. While some scenes veer dangerously close to exploitation film territory, overall, the graphic images are handled pretty well.

And to be fair, ever since the 70s, smart directors have known how to blend shocking, graphic violence and/or sexuality with enough artsiness to make it feel organic to the plot. Therefore, I didn’t find all of the content in The Neon Demon (or even most of it) to be 100% gratuitous — in the same way that (in my opinion) Straw DogsA Clockwork Orange, and Bad Lieutenant weren’t automatically gratuitous.

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Like Only God ForgivesThe Neon Demon received polarizing reviews and got nearly equal boos and cheers when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. I had briefly heard of the film when it came out last year, but, to my knowledge, it didn’t get a wide screening in a lot of area theaters. Heck, I didn’t even know Winding Refn directed it until I saw it at my local rental store. The Neon Demon flopped at the box office, grossing $3 million on an already-small budget of $7 million, and received mixed reviews from most notable critics (57% on Rotten Tomatoes).

And that makes sense — The Neon Demon is the antithesis of a mainstream film, despite featuring a recognizable cast and a well-regarded director. It definitely meandered towards the end, but overall, this is another good — but not spectacular — entry in Winding Refn’s diverse filmography.

This honestly is a very hard film to recommend, because there are definite negatives in terms of actual plot, content, and characters. While it’s a bold film visually and stylistically and the technicals are outstanding (especially directing, cinematography, and sound), The Neon Demon still doesn’t succeed on the grand scale it intends to. It might become a cult classic someday on the indie circuit, but I can see why it failed among most major audiences. Judge as you will.

Rating: 7/10

  • Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
  • Screenplay by Nicolas Winding Refn and Mary Laws & Polly Stenham
  • Produced by Lene Børglum, Sidonie Dumas and Vincent Maraval
  • Director of Photography – Natasha Braier
  • Music by Cliff Martinez
  • Edited by Matthew Newman
  • Starring Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Desmond Harrington, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola
  • Rated R for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language.

 

 

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Lachlan Macquarie

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Lachlan Macquarie was born on Ulva Island, Scotland, in 1762, to a well-regarded family of Scottish clan chieftains. Macquarie left his home island at the age of 14 and eventually found his way into the British Army.

In April 1777, the young Macquarie was deployed to North America during the American Revolutionary War and ended up stationed in modern-day Nova Scotia as an ensign. But that was only the beginning of Macquarie’s military excursions, as he saw many different stations over the next decade — including the American colonies, Jamaica, India, and Egypt. During this time, he became known as a very successful commander, rapidly climbing the ladder from Lieutenant to Captain to Major.

In between his service stints overseas, Macquarie also spent some time in London as an assistant adjutant general to the honorable Lord Harrington. After returning to India for two years, Macquarie ended up in London again in 1807, this time commanding the 73rd Foot Regiment.

In April 1809, Macquarie received word that he was to become the Governor of New South Wales. At the time, it must have seemed like a demotion, as the New South Wales colony was widely regarded as a poverty-stricken penal settlement on the eastern coast of Australia.

With widespread political corruption, a group of rebellious, undisciplined soldiers, and conflicts with local Aboriginal groups, New South Wales was hardly considered a dream destination. Previously, the British had only wanted naval officers to govern the place due to its remoteness, but had experienced very little success. But nonetheless, Macquarie was viewed as the right man to bring law and order to the fledgling New South Wales colony.

Macquarie arrived in the colony by December 1809, bringing along a good-sized group of his own men; he officially became Governor on January 1, 1810.

His first order of business was to restore order among the populace after the so-called “Rum Rebellion” of 1808. Macquarie also had to navigate the testy relationship between free settlers (AKA “exclusives”) and reformed convicts who had finished their sentences and/or been granted pardons (known as the emancipists). Severe droughts occurred in consecutive years, and Macquarie also had his hands full while he attempted to overhaul the military corps and the justice system. The first few years in the colony were grim, indeed.

Macquarie’s plan for the courts clashed with Jeffrey Bent, the Chief Judge of the new Supreme Court. Bent had alliances with the military and the exclusive settlers, and some accused Macquarie of trying to rebel against English common law by issuing ordinances that were viewed as inconsistent with the Crown’s plans for New South Wales. Macquarie’s attempts to allow emancipist attorneys into the court were particularly frowned upon.

It became clear that Macquarie’s plans for New South Wales were facing an uphill battle. His greater vision was to have the colony as a egalitarian settlement — allowing ex-convicts to coexist peacefully with civilian settlers and military officers. While that may seem perfectly logical and innocuous today, Macquarie was largely viewed as a radical at the time.

In 1816, Macquarie had been subject to repeated harassment and decided to proclaim a new law against trespassing, having three offenders — all of them free settlers — flogged in order to send a message. While an extreme example, this was one incident that Macquarie’s political opponents used against him. Eventually, Macquarie was censored by Lord Bathurst, the man who was in charge of colonial affairs in New South Wales. The British set up a committee in order to investigate Macquarie, as well as detail further plans for the penal colony.

Surprisingly, the committee was mostly OK with Macquarie’s policies and vision, but they disapproved of his liberal use of pardons and tickets of leave. They ended up supporting Macquarie in his goal to help New South Wales become a prosperous colony for ex-convicts who desired to start anew. However, many others still wanted Macquarie gone, so he eventually resigned.

Shortly thereafter, the Napoleonic Wars ended, and many free settlers decided to move to Australia, as Britain was sinking into a post-war economic depression. By the time Macquarie had resigned and returned to London in 1822, nearly 40,000 settlers lived in New South Wales.

Macquarie is also credited with being the first governor to issue official currency in Australia, in 1813, and helped found the Bank of New South Wales four years later. He helped bring in architects and engineers to supervise the building of many sites, most of which are still standing in Sydney today. Macquarie also encouraged further exploration of the Australian continent and helped build some structures in Tasmania, another penal colony, when he visited there. Macquarie University in Sydney, one of Australia’s most prestigious schools, is named for the governor.

To this day, Australians universally regard Macquarie as an extremely influential and important figure. The idea of “giving everyone a fair go” is a phrase that continues to be popular among Aussies to this day, echoing Macquarie’s philosophy that regardless of background, religion, educational level, or socioeconomic status, one can attempt to succeed and make a good life.

Macquarie passed away in London at the age of 62 while still awaiting charges for his alleged crimes. He was buried at a remote mausoleum in Scotland alongside his wife and two children — with the words “the Father of Australia” written on his epitaph.

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