Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sport is not a fairy tale

Yesterday, after finishing his third round in the Australian Masters Golf tournament in the lead, Robert Allenby told how his mother was dying of cancer. An emotional Allenby said:

"Mum is the best mum in the world and I really want to win for her". He told how the family had decided last Monday "to take her off any more treatment''.

Allenby, at Number 29 in the world, was the highest ranked player in the tournament, was the favourite, and, as a local from Melbourne, the fairy tale was all set - his mother was in attendance following him around in a golf cart, the crowd was on his side, and in the second round he had made an amazing albatross. All that was left was for the script writers to do their work, and the tears of joy could flow.

Alas, sport is not written by playwrights who know what the audience wants to see. Greg Norman doesn't win the US Masters, Ron Clarke doesn't win a Gold Medal at the Olympics, Pat Rafter doesn't win Wimbledon, and Robert Allenby doesn't win the Australian Masters for his Mum.

He was doing ok - holding the lead or one behind - when he approached the Par 3 15th. In the first two rounds he had pared the hole, in the third round he had made a birdie. As he stood on the tee he knew he needed to make at least one birdie over the last 5 holes. Marcus Fraser had finished his round on 12 under, and Rod Pampling a hole ahead was on 11 under (equal with Allenby). Pars from here on wouldn't be enough. But the wind was picking up, and Allenby, an emotional, fire-tempered player even when things are going well, had struggled to get anything going all day. He had made solid approach shots, but just couldn't buy a putt.

And so with the wind picking up, he hits his 6 iron tee shot into the front, green-side bunker. He catches his second shot fat - the ball just makes it out of the bunker but dribbles into the adjacent sand trap. His tournament is over. He knows the best he can do now is bogey, which will put him 2 shots behind with too few birdie-friendly holes to play.
He leaves his third shot in the bunker. This is sport being utterly indifferent to romance. His fourth shot flies past the hole, and leaves him with about a 20m putt for double bogey.

At this point, it is not hard to envisage that beneath his trademark sunglasses the tears are beginning to well. It is over.

And then he makes the putt. The camera watches his face as the ball falls into the cup - his expression is a mixture of frustration and despair - only now, when it is too late, does he make a putt. Only now, when it won't matter if makes every putt from here to the 18th, does he find the cup. He takes off his glasses and wipes his eyes: frustration mixed with despair mixed with sport.

And yet, sport doesn't care about this pain. He still has three holes to play. He can't walk off as though in some nice, tragically written film and let the screen fade to black. No, he must play out the round. He has to spend the next 30 minutes walking the fairways knowing he won't win this one for his mum.

After hitting his tee shot at the 16th, he goes to his mum sitting in her golf cart and they hug - her tears obvious; his hidden, as ever, behind his sunglasses. His face attempts to keep the expression of the inscrutable, professional golfer, but it is obvious it is that of a heartbroken son who wanted to give his mum one last present to say thanks for everything.

But sport is not scripted; any fairytale victory requires the same amount of hard work and skill and luck and luck and skill and hard work that any victory requires. And that is as it should be. Allenby would not let another player win just because it would be a nice story, so neither would he expect others to gift him a victory. Professional golf, like all professional sport, is played for keeps - it is a person's livelihood. For many in the field, a win in this tournament would be their career highlight; for almost all, it is a dream that will never be realised.

Allenby has won the tournament twice; it is not a tragedy he didn't win this week. It is a tragedy his mother is dying of cancer - and Allenby who is a patron for Challenge Cancer Support Network would know that tragedy on the sporting field is nothing to tragedy in life; but that wouldn't make the loss any easier to bear.

That Allenby failed to realise his perfect ending does not diminish sport - in fact it highlights why we who love sport and who hold it so dear will continue to love it, continue to watch it, and continue to play it.
Sport is not scripted, and thus when the fantastic occurs we know it is not through CGI, or because there were 22 takes before the perfect moment occurred. Sport is the ultimate reality show - done without editing, done without faked challenges. It is non-fiction, and yet incredibly at times it seemingly merges with fiction, and dreams do come true.

It's why we keep coming back to it. Those who love sport also know that while maybe the story we want to come true doesn't always do so, with every victory there is a tale, and with every tournament, or match, or game, another waits to be told.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Oscar is always wrong (except when it's right) Part II

And now (by request) for the second installment of me rectifying the mistakes of the Academy Awards.


Best Picture: Chicago
Nominees: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Pianist
Should have won: The Pianist

Here's a trivia question for you: How many films have won the Oscar for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor, and have not also won Best Picture?

One - The Pianist.

In a poor year for film, The Pianist did everything that mattered better than any other film, and yet the Academy in its wisdom decided to give the Best Picture to a musical that isn't even a great musical. Chicago was always more of a Golden Globes winner than an Oscar worthy one. I mean geez, Richard Geer as the lead?? But with the weight of the Mirimax publicity machine behind it, it won 6 Oscars.

Time however, has not been kind to Chicago. On imdb its score is only 7.3/10, which doesn't even put it in the Top 50 all-time musicals on that site. In 2006, Premiere magazine listed it in its Top 10 Worst Best Pictures, and it also made the London newspaper, The Independent's, list of Top 10 Worst Oscar Winners.

The Pianist, on the other hand, is considered one of the best ever films done by its director (Roman Polanski), and has probably rendered pointless any future attempts to do a film about the Holocaust.

Its story follows the true life tale of Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who, through luck, help and perseverance, makes it through WWII without ending up in a concentration camp, but who nonetheless is witness to the most obscene horrors imaginable.

Much was made at the time of Polanski's own experiences during WWII, and perhaps that enabled him to make the perfect non-documentary Holocaust film.

As with all such films, it's hard going - not one you pick for a Friday night when you want to kick back; but it is just so brilliantly done. Adrien Brody as Szpilman is amazing, (and unfortunately he hasn't gone on to do anything anywhere close to the quality of this), but the real star is Polanski. His camera doesn't flinch, even when we wish it would.

The comparison between this and Schindler's List will no doubt always be made, but for mine this is the better film. Spielberg just couldn't hold back his sentimentality, and to be honest, I think shooting the film in black and white is a crock - it makes you think, oh well it happened way back then, wouldn't happen now - Polanksi by contrast shoots it in colour and there's no ignoring the blood; there's no pretending this is something from the olden days.

I have to admit it's been a fair while since I saw The Pianist, whereas I watch Schindler's List (or at least the first 2/3rds) quite often. The Pianist is just too hard; too brutal. There is little to save you - you can't think, oh well the war brought the best out of Schindler, and he saved all these Jews, how wonderful. In The Pianist there are only meagre scraps of hope to hold on to, and they do not last - even the German officer who in the end protects Szpilmann ends up dying in a Soviet gulag after the war.

It's horrible to watch, but by God it's a great piece of film making, and it would have been a great selection as Best Picture.

Below is the scene when Szpilmann is discovered by the German officer:

One caveat to this selection is that I have not seen City of God, which many critics insist was the best film that year. Should I see it, I may come back and update this.
Best Actress: Nicole Kidman (The Hours)
Should have won: Anyone else.

My God what a terrible selection; but then the Best Actress category has put up a stack of shockers over the past decade - Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Halle Berry - but geez, Kidman has to be one of the worst actresses to ever win this award. And even worse was that in this film the were three "lead" performances by women - Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep - and Kidman's performance was a far distant third in quality. Moore was amazing (easily the only thing worth seeing in the turgid film), but she was only nominated for Best Supporting Actress - lost to Catherine Zeta-Jone for Chicago (yeah it was a year for crap choices). And as Moore missed out to Kidman in the Best Actress category for her performance in Far From Heaven, I'll give it to her, even though I haven't seen that film!

It's hard to believe that Cate Blanchette, Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts, Annette Bening, Kate Winslet, Judi Dench, Joan Allen, Julianne Moore and Kate Winslet don't have a Best Actress Award, but Kidman does (and Hilary Swank has 2!).

The best thing you can say about Kidman's performance in the role is that at least it was done when her forehead still moved.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

There's an "I" in Minister

Back at the end of October, I wrote about the German doctor in Victoria who was being denied premant residency because his 11 year old son has Down Syndrome.

I said at the time:
I am sure this decision will be overturned – either on appeal or by the Minister. It’s such an obviously wrong decision.

And thankfully it has been. Not on appeal - that was rejected, but by the Minister, who in a fit of very speedy work, overturned the appeal in less than a day. Good work Chris Evans.

When you listen to the interview with Dr Moeller you can hear the stress in his voice, and the relief that it is over. So, yes it's great that the right decision was made, but here's hoping Minister Evans gets the Department doing a review of the process, so that he doesn't always have to step in and make the common sense decision.

Obviously there need to be rules to guide officials - but one would hope common sense is given a go as well.

On the QT: "Faux outrage Day"

Before Question Time today, Kevin Rudd made a Ministerial Statement on the Global Financial Crisis. He spoke for 22 minutes, but all that really mattered was the 30 odd seconds it took him to say the following:

"If Australian economic growth slows further because of a further deepening of the global crisis then it follows that Australian Government revenues will reduce further. Under those circumstances it would be responsible to draw further from the surplus and if necessary to use a temporary deficit to begin investing in our future infrastructure needs, including hospitals, schools, TAFEs, universities, ports, roads, urban rail and high speed broadband. Such action would support growth would support families and jobs and would be undertaken in the national interest."

The key phrase was "temporary deficit". When he uttered that line, the Opposition howled as though Rudd had said he intends to legislate against small puppies and kittens. It was actually a fake howl, because, as Malcolm Turnbull pointed out in his reply, the Government had given the opposition a copy of the speech 45 minutes before hand, so they knew it was coming.

Now I have to say the Government has handled the whole "deficit" prospect rather poorly. It's been obvious for a while that there is a strong likelihood that next year the budget may go into deficit. But instead of admitting as much, the Government has been dancing around saying everything except the word "deficit". It enabled journalists to start talking like it meant something, and using dopey phrases like "the D word". It also allowed Turnbull to go around laying the foundations that running a deficit is a bad thing, and proof of economic irresponsibility.

It is of course no such thing.

I don't give a damn whether the budget is in deficit or not, so long as being in deficit means Australia avoids going into a recession, and so long as being in deficit is not creating high inflation.
Now 10 months ago, running a deficit would have fuelled massive inflation. In fact, if in May Swan had put down a deficit budget he would have been the dumbest economic hick of all time.

When growth is strong, the Government doesn't need to step in and help increase demand. What it should do is spend the money on non-growth areas such as hospitals, education, roads etc and, most importantly (in an economic sense), long term infrastructure. But when demand disappears, the Government needs to step into the breech. Provided not all of this is just throwing money away (I don't think we need anymore increases in first home buyer grants...), there is nothing wrong with a deficit. Nothing. Zip. Zilch, Nada. (Heck even the 'great' Peter Costello ran a deficit in 2001-02 (he just didn't tell anyone about it until afterwards).

Saying we must stay in surplus is like telling someone they have to keep living in a house with a hole in their roof rather than extend their mortgage and repair the hole. If keeping a surplus means a recession and high unemployment, ask yourself if you still want it.

But don't tell the Liberal Party this; for every question today was focused on how the PM "has signalled he is driving the Australian budget into deficit". Oh geez! Run for the hills Ma Baker, the deficit's coming!!!

Joe Hockey, for one declared that today was "Deficit Day", which perhaps did not come out sounding as catchy a phrase as it sounded when he was practising it in his office beforehand... His confected indignation perhaps was due to the fact that Turnbull's wonderful tactic against the Government was now out of date. The deficit possibility had been acknowledged, now the debate was down to whether or not that was good or bad. And the Liberals are locked in to saying it's bad.

The big problem for the Libs is that virtually no one outside of the Liberal Party room thinks going into a deficit is bad. Let's take a vox pop of financial people around the traps:

Solomon Lew said on Tuesday "massive" government spending programs were needed to prevent a jump in unemployment. "The government will not survive if it doesn't go into deficit," Mr Lew told journalists. "There is no doubt they will not be able to manage the economy without going into deficit ... the government is kidding themselves if they let this go too long," he said.

Access Economics' Chris Richardson observes that it's not economists who draw the line between surpluses and deficits — "it's politicians". Richardson believes this is "a taboo we've got to break fast. The Government shouldn't be afraid of a deficit — we need one."

Ross Gittens: All economists believe that whether deficits or surpluses are good or bad depends on whether they're appropriate to the economy's circumstances at the time.
It's appropriate (and desirable) for budgets to fall into deficit when the economy is entering or leaving recession (or a serious downturn), whereas it's appropriate and desirable for the budget to move into surplus when the economy recovers from recession in the expansion phase of the business cycle.

Luckily for Rudd, despite having been too wimpy on suggesting the deficit might happen, he has been saved by Turnbull's need to always go over the top. His desire to make the deficit the big issue, rather than employment or growth means now he has to argue that the Government should stay in surplus. It gives Rudd the chance to say Turnbull is for caring about dumb economic numbers, and against real numbers - growth and employment.

Turnbull says that he won't give the Government "a leave pass to go into deficit", and that a deficit would be a sign of "lazy economic management".

Well given he thinks it fair enough to say former ALP governments are addicted to deficits, I say let's judge Rudd's economic management against that of the brilliant Howard and Costello. That should be fair - though probably a bit of a hard ask for such lightweights as Rudd and Swan. But oh well, let's ask Chris Richardson what he thinks of Howard's and Costello's budgets:

"We pissed the good years up against the wall in the usual ill-disciplined blowout of tax cuts and big spending during the boom.''

Ouch, ok, what about their economic policies:

With the days in which China was handing the federal government enough money to pay for any crappy piece of policy now receding fast..."

Hmmm. "pissing up against the wall"... "crappy piece of policy"... Maybe Turnbull would do best to forget referring to the past, he doesn't want to make it too easy for Rudd and Swan.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Newspoll: ALP 55- LNP 45

Today I dopely forgot to tape Question Time, so no 'On the QT' today.

Today another Newspoll came out, and as it was on the 12 month anniversary of last year's election, it is a good one for seeing how the Rudd Government is going.

The result? It's as popular now, if not more so, than it was when it won the election last year. Then the Two Party Preferred result was ALP 52.7% -LNP 47.3%, now it's 55-45. Is this a blip? Nope let's look at the ALP's two party preferred result this year:
58, 57, 63, 59, 59, 61, 57, 57, 57, 59, 55, 55, 57, 57, 56, 56, 55, 55, 54, 55, 55. (average of 57%).
Not much movement there (well apart from the unreal 63% - which no one believed).

How about wonder man, Malcolm Turnbull? How is he tracking? Well, when he came on board the ALP's 2PP was 56. It's now 55. I don't think we can say that is a significant inroad.

What about on the preferred PM stakes? I had a lot of friends who this year were saying "wait till Turnbull becomes leader, then Rudd will be in for a fight".

Well the latest Preferred PM is Rudd 63%-Turnbull 21%. Ouch.

Let's look at Rudd's Preferred PM rating this year:
61, 68, 70, 73, 70, 73, 71, 72, 70, 66, 68, 64, 65, 66, 68, 65, 62, 54, 54, 59, 62, 63. (average of 65%)

So Turnbull took over when Rudd was beating Nelson 62-16 (22 uncommitted). Now it's 63-21 (16 uncommitted). Hardly a ringing endorsement of Turnbull.

Now of course this has nothing to do with policies, and you can say Turnbull is taking the fight up to Rudd in a way that Nelson never did etc etc. But to be honest, leaders live and die by their preferred PM rating. Nelson got killed in the media because he was so far behind Rudd; Turnbull by contrast is being given a pretty cruisey ride in my opinion - plenty of ,"he's the man for the job", "he is starting to make inroads", "Rudd is clearly worried" blather.

So praise be to George Megolagenis for saying it like it is:

The Coalition's primary vote has been below 40 per cent throughout the first year of the Rudd Government.

This is the worst sequence on record for the Coalition, which even in the dog days of Opposition in the 1980s consistently polled in the mid-40s.

Last weekend, Mr Rudd stretched his lead over Malcolm Turnbull as preferred prime minister by two points, from 40 per cent to 42 per cent. This gap is in the same ballpark as the advantage Mr Rudd enjoyed over the previous Opposition leader, Brendan Nelson.

Back in one of my first posts, I wrote of another 55-45 Newspoll:

Nelson is still in the teens when it comes to preferred PM, and I don’t think any poll will matter until the opposition leader is within 15% of Rudd on preferred PM. If Rudd stays above 50%, and Nelson or Turnbull or whoever can’t get above 35%, then the election will be a rout.

My opinion hasn't changed.

Regardless of commentary, the public seem content with Rudd and co at the moment. Sure this might change, but all beliefs that Turnbull would be Rudd's undoing have been shown to be incorrect. If the ALP's and Rudd's popularity goes down, it won't be because of Turnbull, but because of Rudd.

Toxic blogs and tastless jokes

Last Friday Crikey released the results of its poll to name Obama's new puppy. Among the choices were such ones as "Karl Barx", "A Poodle called Kevin", and my favourite "Joe the Dog". One of the choices however made me feel sick. It was "A mongrel called Trig". Trig, as you may recall is the name of Sarah Palin's youngest son, who has Down Syndrome.

Now making fun of any politician's kid is pretty low, (unless like Chelsea Clinton, they've decided to enter the political fray themselves), but to infer that a person with DS was a mongrel is about as low as you can get, and as the Dad of a girl with DS, I was pretty angry.

Now I am not a subscriber to Crikey, but I am a frequent commenter on PollBludger, which is a Crikey Blog. So in a fit of indignation, I posted on PollBludger that I would boycott the blog for a while as I didn't feel like contributing to Crikey's hit count. It was a pretty dumb response, somewhat akin to boycotting The Australian because I found one of the opinion columns offensive. But still, I thought I'd register my protest and so I also fired off an angry email to the editor, Jonathon Green.

I was quite comforted to see that a number of bloggers on PollBludger from all ends of the political spectrum (bearing in mind most are lefties) expressed agreement with my condemnation of the Trig "joke", and many stated they too were writing emails to Green.

Interestingly, Andrew Bolt had been alerted to the puppy contest and saw it as ripe for his ripping into the left (and Crikey in particular). Now I agree with his point on the very poor taste of the contest, but after reading some of the comments left on his blog, I wondered just how much he really cared about the issue.

Here was a comment made by one of his readers:

Trig Palin should have been aborted. Down Syndrome victims are not human. Human Beings must be perfect, not genetically challenged in any way.
If you don’t know that then, crikey, what have been reading lately?

Now I read that trying to find some humour in it, for surely the writer couldn't be serious (one would hope). But to be honest I couldn't even see what point the writer was trying to make - was it that crikey readers think that, or that crikey don't think that? It made no sense; so I decided to leave the following comment:

I will assume that [the writer] here is trying to make an attempt at being funny, or perhaps using “satire”, but I have to say it’s not funny, not good satire, and not worth getting past the moderator.
This made me feel more sick than Green’s disgusting joke.

My point was that here was a blog full of righteous indignation about someone inferring a person with DS is a mongrel, and yet the line "Down Syndrome victims are not human" got through without even a cursory "I trust you're joking" from Bolt (or his "moderator").

Then again caring about feelings is not a strong point over at Bolt's blog, nor is moderation. In his blog on the puppy contest, Bolt unaccountably linked it to Maxine McKew's comment after the election where she said:

Well I think Paul Keating got it right, you know, this election has wiped away the toxicity. People are smiling, a sort of sense of, we can get on and do things.
And I think we all want to get on and do things in a certain way, in a civil way, in a sensible way, and get rid of perhaps I think that brutishness that has characterised our politics probably since 2001.

So suddenly the poor joke was an example of the entire left being hypocritical, and the McKew herself is the prime hypocrite (and as he then linked, she is also absent from her post because some people interviewed by The Daily Telegraph had not come across her in her seat of Bennelong).

So then the issue of treatment of people with DS by "the left" (in truth one blog, which I'm sorry to say does not speak for all lefties - though perhaps I missed the memo on that, and everything written in Crikey does now represent the beliefs of everyone who didn't vote Liberal at the last election...) morphed into a commentary on Maxine McKew, which contained such unmoderated, uncommented, and (I guess in Bolt's view) non-toxic comments as:

Maxine the smirk McKew. The most hated woman in politics is certainly nowhere to be seen or found for some reason. Anyone know why ? Will the Liberal Party be fielding a candidate for Benelong at the next election ?

McWho’s smile doesn’t look very convincing; appears the champagne socialista was uncomfortable being snapped amongst the great unwashed of the electorate whilst strolling down sh*t street ...

I do not know a lot about “Crikey” but I do know this. Leading up to the 2010 election myself and many others will do everything we can(including spending our own money) to remove Ms McKew from Bennelong and thats a promise written in blood.

Gee talk about spreading the love...

But, such comments are not surprising given Bolt, the day after his indignant blog about the puppy contest, wrote this:

Maxine McKew, who has never had a child herself, spooks me a bit:

"As Professor Frank Oberklaid and Professor Fiona Stanley keep saying, babies come out of the womb ready to learn.
Our job as policymakers is to ensure young children
have access to a calm, stimulating environment run by professionals..."

McKew, parliamentary secretary for early childhood education and child care, goes on to praise a school for three-year-olds. Don’t these little tackers just want - and deserve - their mums? Let’s not treat them too soon as government clients.

Excuse me?? Why is it important that McKew has not had children? How is that not offensive? I didn't realise you needed to be a parent before you could be a Minister of anything to do with children. I guess next he'll be having a go at Nicola Roxen for not being a doctor (she doesn't have kids either); or Kate Ellis for not being a professional sportsperson (actually no kids there either... or knowledge of sports trivia - which apparently Bolt thinks is imperative as the Sports Minister).

But look McKew really is at fault, how dare she have a career, and not shack up with some bloke at a young age and have a few kids? Why would she wait until she was 38 before falling in love with a guy. How dare she not put her career on hold at that point. I mean Lateline, 7:30 Report? Who needs them?

Oh well, at least Bolt ain't being toxic. Never mind that in his rant about her being anti-mother, he ignores what McKew wrote in the article that "spooked him":

The Wendouree West community has suffered for decades from a high level of disadvantage, intergenerational unemployment and children who have been disengaged from just about every level of education.

But a wondrous thing has happened. Through a dramatic change to the physical environment, Wendouree West has made a gigantic leap and created a school that functions for the entire community, and at all hours.

Mothers are enrolled in TAFE courses, their young children are on a different part of the site, either in playgroups or in pre-school, and primary school children are working away in beautifully designed learning hubs.

The change in the aesthetics and design has had a remarkable effect on behaviour. Parents now want to be involved with the school and, best of all, for the very young, pre-school participation has risen from a dismal low to more than 90 per cent.

Mothers learning new skills, with their children nearby. How horrible! But then I guess these mums shouldn't be going to TAFE, they should be home with the kids while the men do all the working and thinking for them...

But enough of Bolt. A few mates have told me I need to stop reading his blogs, as they only serve to make me annoyed. They're right. After all the reason I was annoyed in the first place was Crikey's utter insensitivity.

And so today I found this on Crikey, by the Jonathon Green :

There are moments as an editor - I’ve had a few - when you realise you’ve made a bad, bad call. This happens as often through the things you miss, or stumble over, or fail to give appropriate attention to, as it does thanks to the things you do resolutely, but wrongly, on purpose.

Crikey - and me personally - has copped a lot of blogosphere heat for running a poll to name the Obama puppy that included the candidate A Mongrel Called Trig. It was a reader suggestion, and it somehow made our shortlist, and then hopped onto the polling page. From there it was just a hop skip and a jump to the outraged comment strings of Andrew Bolt, Tim Blair and others.
There’s not a lot of love in those rooms.

We deserve our lumps here. There was no redeeming - or even comic - feature to what is just a dumb slur on an innocent child. The galling part of course, is giving ammunition to the billious rabble of the blogging far right. But what can you say when you’re so obviously in the wrong. Other than “I was wrong.” Which I was.

As I say, cop your lumps, learn your lesson and move on.

And with that I am back on PollBludger. We all make mistakes. What matters is how we act after making them. My concern was the Crikey folk were being purposefully vindictive - that they thought linking DS and mongrels was funny, but now I don't think they were - they were just being stupidly ignorant.

I believe Green's apology is sincere; and it is good to see. Some other blogs could benefit from doing the same thing occasionally. But then Bolt wrote a book called "Still Not Sorry", so I doubt we'll be seeing one from him.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Flick of the Week: "I know things about people, Lilly"

The week's Flick of the week takes us from a young Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare, to an aging Clint in In the Line of Fire.

In the Line of Fire is about John Malkovich playing an ex-CIA assassin, Mitch Leary, who has taken a trip to nutsville and decided to kill the President. Clint Eastwood plays Frank Horrigan, an old Secret Service agent who was on JFK's protection detail when he was assassinated in Dallas, and who is now targeted by Leary in a bit of old pre-assassination cat'n'mouse. Along the way Frank is helped by fellow Secret Service agents Renee Russo and Dylan McDermott (with John Mahoney playing the boss).

It is a great action film/thriller. It has that indefinable thing that is lacking from similar types of films around these days. Oh wait, no it's not indefinable... it's called intelligence.

A couple months ago I was unfortunate enough to waste 2 hours of my life watching Eagle Eye. That film is also about a plot to kill the US President, only it's not a mastermind who is planning it, but a 'super computer' that can think for itself and has gone rogue (don't they all - surely someone would think to write in a "must not be allowed to plot to kill mankind" bit of computer code in the program). That film was all about car crashes, explosions and impossible coincidences. It was utter shite.

In the Line of Fire has no car chases, no explosions, and yet is edge of the set stuff all the way. Director Wolfgang Peterson was still coming off his success in Germany of Das Boot, and this signalled a strong future. And while he has not exactly gone on to auteur greatness, the run of films after this of Outbreak, Air Force One, The Perfect Storm, Troy and Poseidon shows that the guy is a pretty solid director - apart from the last one, he has been stinker-free.

But where ITLOF really shines is the cast. Clint is as good as it gets in these types of roles - the aged warrior. He plays it better than anyone, and it was the first film he did after Unforgiven, where he plays an aged gunfighter. Throughout this film he is all charm and effortlessness. One of the great things about Eastwood is virtually every role he plays has the ring of truth about it. Whether he's Blondie in The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Harry Callaghan in the Dirty Harry movies, or the old boxing manager in Million Dollar Baby, you think Eastwood could be those guys - in fact he doesn't seem to be acting - he just is the perfect no-name western outlaw, renegade plays-by-his-own-rules cop, or crusty old boxing manager. And in this film you believe he could have been an agent under JFK, and he most definitely could be the old single guy who goes home and listens to jazz.

The supporting cast is amazing for a film of this type - Malkovich in the role that truly made him. He was nominated for Best Supporting Oscar, but lost to Tommy Lee Jones for his "hen house, outhouse and doghouse" role in The Fugitive. It was a bad choice - Jones's role is pretty much limited to him swaggering around being a smart arse. Malkovich is much more intense and mannered (though he shouldn't have won the Oscar either. In just about the worst decision ever in Oscar history, Ralph Fiennes was overlooked for his role as Amon Geoth in Schindler's List - perhaps the best supporting actor performance ever.). In the following scene you see him first appear and interact with Eastwood; the two working off each other brilliantly.

As the female lead, Renee Russo brings about as much sexiness and intelligence to the role that is humanly possible. She is just fantastic to watch on the screen. And at 39 was proof against all those idiots in Hollywood who think women over 30 (25?) can't sizzle up the screen. For the rest of the 90s she was the go to woman for any role that demanded a woman with (to quote the great line from Bull Durham) "long legs and brains". She hasn't been in a film since 2005. A tragedy.

The other cast members of note were Dylan McDermoot in his pre-The Practice days, and John Mahoney in his pre-Frasier days (it started that year). They're both good and everyone else comes to the party as well - good cast, with a good script. What more can you ask? The script incidentally was written by Jeff Maguire. He was nominated for an Oscar (lost to Jane Campion for The Piano - no I didn't get it either), and then his next film came out 10 years later! It was called Timeline, and no I didn't see it, and I'm betting you didn't either.

The plot has enough twists to keep you guessing, but not so many that you start doubting everything. The story isn't so much about trying to trick the audience (as is so often the case in films nowadays), as it is about watching Leary toy with the secret service, and also watching how Horrigan tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, while also facing his demons from JFK and, in a lovely old movie kind of way, falling in love with Renee Russo's agent, Lilly Raines. The dialogue between the two of them is witty and believable - they shadow box around their feelings, but the flirting is quite sweet really.

The climax is also well handled as Leary and Horrigan finally face off with a result far more deep than action thrillers are allowed to be now.

It's only 15 years old, and yet it seems to have come from some time long, long past. It doesn't try to be Citizen Kane, but it does expect the viewers are at least adults. An action film with brains, and a thriller that eschews violence in favour of thought. There's little wonder whenever this is repeated on TV, I feel perfectly happy to sit down and watch it again, because like all good thrillers, knowing the ending doesn't diminish the film at all.

Best line:
Lilly Raines: What makes you think he'll call again?
Frank Horrigan: Oh, he'll call again. He's got, uh, "panache."
Lilly Raines: Panache?
Frank Horrigan: Yeah, it means flamboyance.
Lilly Raines: Mm, I know what it means.
Frank Horrigan: Really? I had to look it up.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Now that's how you start a show

Following on from my blog yesterday about TV's decline in quality; today I'm on something I've been thinking about for a while. That crucial aspect missing from TV; that most important part of any good 70s,80s or 90s show. I'm talking about the opening credits.

Nowadays, in the interests of saving time, the credits for shows such as Lost and Heroes occur about 10 minutes in, and last for about 10 seconds. But back in the good old days, the opening credits - complete with easy to remember theme or song, could go anywhere up to 90 seconds. It's no surprise they have been cut - I mean did we really need to see every week Quincy explaining to a group of police cadets that they were "about to enter the world of forensic medicine" only to see them faint? (And while we're on the subject, when was the last time a show featured a guy who looked like Quincy, who wasn't playing the crotchy old apartment janitor, but was the guy who got the girl every week? You gotta love the 70s).

But with the cutting of the theme/opening credit sequence, we have lost something. Sure we've lost the ability for a band like The Rembrandts or singers like Vonda Shepard or Thom Pace to crank out one hit before wondering off to obscurity, but more than that we've lost that ability to hear the music starting and know you have to run in from the kitchen to make sure you don't miss the opening lines.

A good opening credit theme, not only gave the watcher a catchy tune, it would oftentimes give an insight into the show - showing clips from the show that established the characters and allowed the co-stars to be seen in freeze frame with the dumbest smiles on their faces.

Here's the opening of Scarecrow and Mrs King - it lets you in on everything you need to know about the show without even using words:

In a similar vein was the great opening to Magnum PI:

It was the same opening every week, and every week it let you know what you were in for - sun, chicks, high-jinks, and the snobby English caretaker (plus who didn't want to drive that Ferrari?). Maybe it's just me, but I suddenly have a hankering for some of that TV magic.

For those shows that needed a bit of explanation, there was the voice over; you know, just in case this was the first time you were tuning in. The two best of this kind was first Hart to Hart:

(C'mon, you were all saying "it's moidah" along with Max - how could you not? And seriously now, if that's not a show that would rate its socks off, then I don't know TV... or am possibly trapped in a early 1980s' time warp...)

The next great example of this type of intro was the superb A Team (for bonus points see if you know the words before hitting play - and if not, you should be able to hum the theme)

For those who needed words and a theme together in a song that also explained the entire premise of the show (plus had a bit of metafictional reference to Farrah Fawcett), they had The Fall Guy:

There just aren't enough shows featuring stunt men doing a bit of bounty hunting on the side...

In Australia, we weren't really that good about being fancy. Take Sons and Daughters, an incredibly boring opening, but the song was easy to sing and was a great hook for reminding you to what you were going to get each week (namely tears and sadness and happiness):

Similarly The Sullivans gave you nothing fancy, but gave you enough time to bring the tea and biscuits in from the kitchen and get everyone settled in front of the TV before Dave uttered his first words to Kitty or Grace (or Norm and Tom were seen in the jungles of New Guinea):

But really, the best openings in the 70s and 80s had a catchy song and a credit for each of the main cast members, plus guest stars. And for catchy songs, and guest stars it doesn't get any better than The Love Boat:

Why does it seem like McLean Stevenson and Robert Vaughn were on every episode of The Love Boat I watched... But be honest - you're smiling now aren't you?

In the 80s and 90s, the themes became quite sophisticated in their way, especially for dramas. And for great opening credits and great drama, you need go no further than Steven Bochco. His series always had great themes. Here are the three best:
Hill Street Blues:

LA Law:

C'mon, when you heard that saxophone blast at the start, you wanted to be able sit down and watch Harry Hamlin and Susan Dey flirt with each other. In one and half minute you are reminded of everything you loved about the show, and what is lacking in shows today - a bit of fun!

The third seris of Bochco's is my favourite of the three, though it didn't have much fun. This opening credit is a brilliant use of scenes and music - I love the firecrackers going off in time with the music. Of course, we're talking NYPD Blue:

I doubt any show's music has conveyed the vibe of a show so well without words - the unrelenting beat has your heart getting up to the speed it'll need to be to keep up with the hand held camera action trying to follow Andy Sipowicz around.

Perhaps the only theme that mirrored a show's dramatic vibe so well was ER (and it had great clips - who didn't want to do a do a Benton style karate move in celebration?):

But I'll end with my three favourites.

The first is from the "unbelievebly cheesy" genre: the great Beverly Hills 90210. It captures the show perfectly, and also rates so massively high on the unintentionally funny scale that is demands re-viewing:

(Did anyone ever believe that Gabriel Cateris was a teenager? - Actually I had a bit of a thing for Andrea. Seems kinda lame looking back. Actually it was lame even then... oh well, moving on...)

Next up is the totally weird, but brilliantly perfect Twin Peaks. At 2 1/2 minutes it's also one of the longest intros.

There's just something about watching the saws being sharpened that is hypnotising and fits the mood of the show exactly.

And to end, the all time greatest opening. It uses words, music, vision, everything to capture the mood of the show perfectly, and importantly made you want to keep watching (and imitate whenever you went through a toll booth). Yep, The Sopranos, with perhaps the only theme song that demanded to be cranked up loud:

And here's my final thought - if I was producing a TV show today, my stock phrase would be - if it was good enough for The Sopranos, it's good enough for my show. TV Themes? Bring 'em back I say!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

When TV Ruled My Life

The other day I realised that I have stopped watching TV. Sure it's always on, but I'm not watching it in the way that I used to. I no longer care about getting the TV program in the Sunday newspaper, because there aren't any programs I feel any great need to watch, or that I need information on - such as what is happening in this week's episode.

I don't know when this started, but I would say it was linked with us getting pay TV. With the 60 odd extra channels to watch, and the program available on screen, my viewing habit is now very much switch on and choose whatever takes my fancy.

This is a big change for me. Up to only 2-3 years ago TV ruled my life somewhat. I could map out my days by which programs I was watching that night. This addiction was even worse back in the 90s, early 2000s. But TV was enjoying a golden age: Friends, Melrose Place, Seinfeld, ER, NYPD Blue, Law and Order before it cannibalised itself, The X-Files, Chicago Hope, Northern Exposure, Picket Fences, Absolutely Fabulous, The Larry Sanders Show, Homicide: Life on the Streets, Frasier, Murder One (the first series not the second), Ally McBeal, The Practice (the Dylan McDermott years), Cold Feet, Mad About You, Will and Grace...

TV mattered then. You had to watch Melrose Place - in fact quite often we had friends around to watch it. I don't think around 1996 I had any friends who didn't know who was Kimberly, Billy, Allithon, Michael or IneedamanAmanda.

My sister was in England at the time, and as it was in the age before the internet, I used to write to her giving recaps of Melrose (curse you Television Without Pity for stealing my idea!!!). I mean how could you be in your 20s in the 90s and not rememeber this moment?

Now that was a water cooler moment. Every 20 something in offices around Australia was talking about that the next day.

And even moving into the early 2000s, TV was still going strong - The West Wing, The Sopranos, 24, Survivor (remember when everyone actually watched and cared about it?), Six Feet Under (killed by the Channel 9 time slot, but still great), CSI before is cannibalised itself...

All great shows.

Just look at the Emmy Award nominamtions for Best Drama series in 1995:
NYPD Blue (the winner - the Jimmy Smitz era)
Chicago Hope
Law and Order (the Chris Noth, Jerry Orbach, and Sam Waterston era)
ER (first series)
The X-Files

Five absolutely Hall of Fame level shows, with NYPD Blue and Law and Order going through their Sgt Pepper periods - every episode was amazing.

What about the Best Comedy nominations?
Frasier (the winner)
The Larry Sanders Show
Mad About You

Again, five shows that are as good as it gets TV wise (Mad about You hadn't yet descended into schmaltz)

Now lets look at last year's nominations:
Mad Men (the winner)
Boston Legal
House MD

Now Mad Men is on Foxtel, and from what I have seen it looks very good. Haven't seen Damages, and House is fine if you can cope with the predictable lupus story lines, but I'd put it on a level with Chicago Hope; certainly not on the ER level. And Lost? Loved the first series, stayed there for the second, but geez, it's lost me now, and has certainly lost a stack of "must-seeness" factor. Dexter? I know a few friends who have told me it's great, but I've reached a point in my life where I can do without a show where the lead is a serial killer. I know it's 'really clever' and yeah yeah yeah. But you know what - I've never had anyone say to me, "Did you see Dexter last night?"

And the comedies?
30 Rock (the winner)
Curb Your Enthusiasm
The Office
Two and Half Men.

Ok, I like Entourage, but it's getting close to its use by date. 30 Rock from what I've seen is good, but not as good as The Larry Sanders Show. Curb Your Enthusiasm? I've just never really got it; and let's be honest, it's a cult show that has certainly never reached the hey let's go to the pub and drive everyone crazy by saying "these pretzels are making me thirsty" level of Seinfeld. The Office? Ok, it's ok - but I doubt anyone would put it above the original English version. Two and Half Men? Seriously? I mean really... it actually got nominated? Seriously?

The last time I absolutely had to watch a show I'd suggest was the first series' of Lost, Heroes, and Grey's Anatomy. That was before Lost became stupid and involved "the others", and no one cared anymore about what it all meant. It was before Heroes had a second series so insane that even the creator apologised for it. And it was before Grey's Anatomy became lame. So very lame - Izzy and George? Please.

Now sure the lowering of quality is to blame for my lack of TV watching, but there are enough shows out there that I would have in the past been addicted to - Heroes seems to have gotten good, Life is fun/interesting, and House is always solid. Good comedy is very slim pickings though...

But the real reason for my dip in TV viewing is, I think, DVDs. In the past you needed to see each episode, because once missed it was gone. If you forgot to tape an episode, well too bad, so sad - you will never see it. Now by the time the series ends, you can go down to Target and buy every episode in a nice shiny box set. Every show I have mentioned in this blog can be bought in its entirety from JB HiFi or other DVD stores.

And you know what? It's better to watch them that way.

I know of two people who did not watch The Sopranos when it was on TV, but who bought every DVD and watched them pretty much back-to-back. My sister is the worst culprit I know of this - she bought the first couple of The West Wing series and then kept going back and buying the next series, and the next... She's done much the same with Sex and the City (another great later 90s show), Six Feet Under and an assortment of other series (always a good Christmas present!).

I am now inclined to not bother watching a show on TV, but rather just wait for the DVDs - for example Rome was killed by Channel 9, no worries, it's great on DVD. Series 2 was on foxtel - but I was able to buy it from Big W before it had even screened.

Even if you watch the show, it's better on DVD - Underbelly DVD sold out even though it had just been on TV - on DVD there are often more scenes, a few special features, and no ads, no TV timetable etc etc (have to admit I did talk to people at work about it - but then again that was a mini-series, not a TV show).

And for those who are not concerned with copyright, they don't even bother with waiting for the DVD, they just download the episodes as soon as they are on in the US.

So is it the end of TV? Well no, but it certainly is changing. I don't watch Packed to the Rafters, but it's doing well in the ratings, as is House, and L&O and CSI. But I can't see myself getting back to series TV addiction. I'm happy to wait for the DVD and then watch it when I want to watch it. Plus, how can I watch a series now when I have all those episodes of old 1990s TV shows to get through on DVD?!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

On the QT: Julia shows how it's done.

Ok, it's pretty obvious I'm a bit of a Julia Gillard fan. She's the soul of the ALP at the moment. Kev won the election, and is still as popular as Makybe Diva on Cup Day; but there would not be many lefties around who don't think Julia is the real deal, and that Kev was just the means to Government. (Not to downplay that feat, and to be honest I think he's doing pretty well. And if all he ever did was beat Howard, he would still earn a rightful place in the ALP pantheon).

Most people from the left like Julia because her history is old school left-wing, but the entire ALP loves her for her parliamentary performance. I wrote a while back that she looked like she had been waiting her whole life for the opportunity to answer questions in Question Time. She obviously loves it; and best of all, is that she is good at it.

On Thursday she stood in for Kevin Rudd, who all week had been targeted by Turnbull over the leaked phone call with George Bush. Turnbull (as ever) went way over the top suggesting Rudd had insulted the entire USA. Rudd had battled on in QT, not giving anything away, but not really scoring any runs on the issue. He brought up John Howard's comments about Obama that were made last year, but they didn't cut through.

And so on Thursday Turnbull got up and asked Julia about the issue. She didn't say a heck of a lot different to Rudd, but she gave it a few twists, and in doing so slaughtered Turnbull on the field. He may be a hot shot legal mind, but give me Julia arguing my case anyday, especially if it is being heard in the court of public opinion.

Let us read the Hansard of the encounter:

Mr TURNBULL (2.00 pm)—My question is to the Acting Prime Minister. I refer to the statement of the member for Dawson this morning when he said ‘There is no question that Kevin Rudd was indiscreet’ when false and damaging details of a private and confidential conversation with the United States President were leaked to the media. I ask the Acting Prime Minister: if the Prime Minister has not already apologised for this appalling indiscretion, will he apologise to the US President during his G20 visit to Washington and will he give a commitment to this parliament that he will not be so derelict in his future dealings with President-elect Obama and other world leaders?

Ms GILLARD—I do sincerely thank the Leader of the Opposition for his question. On the question of things that the member for Dawson may have said, I will check. I will not take the word of the Leader of the Opposition on that.
[Deftly she deals with the curly part of the question - no worries about her bagging a member of the Government or seeming to criticise Rudd herself]

On the substance of the Leader of the Opposition’s question, it strikes me as remarkable that the Leader of the Liberal Party would be calling on someone to apologise to President-elect Obama other than the former Prime Minister of this nation, John Howard. That is who should be apologising to President-elect Obama.
[So far just like Rudd - better delivery, but still the words are the same...]

Let us just imagine a parallel universe where in 2007 John Howard had won the last election. Let us imagine a parallel universe where John Howard is in the prime ministership—the member for Higgins has been reassured by him that he will hand it over when he is 94, so the member for Higgins is patiently waiting—and the presidential election is over; we know that President-elect Obama has won. Let us just imagine how that phone call would have gone between Prime Minister Howard and President-elect Obama. I do not think it would have escaped President-elect Obama’s notice that Prime Minister Howard said about him:

I think that would just encourage those who wanted completely to destabilise and
destroy Iraq, and create chaos and victory for the terrorists to hang on and
hope for (an) Obama victory.
These are the words of former Prime Minister Howard:

If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and
pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also
for the Democrats.

Just imagine how that telephone conversation would have gone. Just imagine it.

[Wow. Brilliant. She tells a story - a story that never happened, but by now the Liberals are dying. She has not just repeated Howard's words, she has got everyone to think how close Australia was to a real diplomatic crisis. And for good measure she stabs Peter Costello through the heart with the line about Howard holding on till he's 94. Perfect. No surprises what came next.]

Dr Southcott—Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Under the standing orders, questions cannot contain hypothetical material. Surely, the same standing orders apply to answers as well.
The SPEAKER—At risk of getting myself into trouble, I would make the observation: if only the
member’s point of order were right. It is not, and I refer him to page 553 of the Practice.

Ms GILLARD—I was asked about the question of apologies to President-elect Obama and I am just asking the House to imagine the first telephone call, had it ever occurred, if we were in that parallel universe between Prime Minister John Howard and the man he had called—
[Perfect, she points out she is relevant and then keeps going, she knows she's got them]

Mr Turnbull—Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The Acting Prime Minister said she was asked about apologies to President-elect Obama. Without wanting to declare a war on irrelevance, she was actually asked about an apology to President Bush and she should return to it.
The SPEAKER—The Acting Prime Minister has the call.

Ms GILLARD—The question actually did refer to President-elect Obama, but putting that to one side, of course what should be happening here is that we should be noting not what the Leader of the Opposition says but what he does. When the greatest offence was paid to President-elect Obama by the then Prime Minister of this country, when the then Prime Minister of this country described the man who is now going to be President of the United States as a terrorist, did we see the member for Wentworth go out and condemn it publicly? Did we see him disassociate himself from it? No, we did not.
[She's on fire - not only does she continue to treat Turnbull's original question with contempt, she even slaps away his point of order. Hmmm if only the Liberals had a big angry man who loves calling points of order...]

Mr Hockey—Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order to do with relevance. I ask the Acting Prime
Minister to come back to the question that was asked.
[Sigh, poor Joe. How galling to know that your lot in life is to rise on points of order when all else have given up]
The SPEAKER—The Acting Prime Minister will respond to the question and bring her answer to a conclusion.

Ms GILLARD—I am very happy to. The opposition day after day has raised this issue when it has been fully dealt with by the Prime Minister. What I am asking for is an explanation of their hypocrisy, given the actions of former Prime Minister Howard.

[And that my friends, should you ever rise to be a Minister in the Australian Government, is how you deal with Question Time].

Flick of the Week: "Major, right now you got me about as confused as I ever hope to be."

This week's flick takes us with the voice of Richard Burton in Zulu to the Alastair MacLean action/thriller, Where Eagles Dare.

Where Eagles Dare, in many ways, marks the end of the action adventure WWII flick. It was based on a novel by the master of the genre and produced by same people who did The Dirty Dozen. It encapsulates everything such films need - suicide mission; bad Germans, twists upon twists, a mix of Americans and English, lots of explosions, and a good ending.

After this film, which came out in 1968, very few films adhered to this mix. Too Late the Hero which was released in 1970, and directed by Robert Aldrich, who also directed The Dirty Dozen, is possibly the last 'action' WWII film to come out, but even that was starting to feel the effects of the Vietnam War, and thus allegories to that conflict were included (and pointedly it was set in the Pacific . From then on war films would be Apocalypse Now, or The Deer Hunter - they had to say something.

With Where Eagles Dare, there's no link to modern conflict. No questioning of why men fight. No pondering on how those who return after a war are affected. Nope - this is just lots of fun thrown wildly around. If ever a WWII film could be made into a theme park ride, this is the one - a parachute drop, the fantastic cable car jumping, and the chase along snow-frosted roads in a bus with massive explosions along the way. I mean, c'mon, what more do you need?!

The plot involves a group of Englishmen and one American having to infiltrate into Germany to rescue an American General who knows of the Allies' plan to invade Europe. But really that's just an excuse to let rip the adventure. It's pure unadulterated boy's own stuff, but the efforts of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood put this into the top drawer entertainment level.

I have to admit to having watched this one far, far too many times, and yet still love it. It's not my favourite WWII flick (The Great Escape has that title), but it's perhaps the one I've watched the most.

Burton actually makes this film for me. As Major John Smith (!) of British Intelligence, the guy just dominates, and is obviously having a lot of fun doing so. He was a brilliant actor, but he never got too snobby about the films he appeared in. Some say he wasted his talent, and yet the guy came from a dirt poor Welsh family with 12 brother and sisters, went on to make a tonne of films, married Liz Taylor twice at the time when she was considered the most beautiful woman in the world, and generally had fun (drunken fun it must be said, but fun nonetheless). Ok, his last decade was mostly full of crap films (The Exorcist II) but he was nominated 7 times for an Oscar (never won). So I say bugger it, the guy did well; and many an actor would kill to have his career.

Also, according to imdb, he once got into a contest with Robert F. Kennedy, whom he greatly admired, in which they tried to out-do the other by quoting William Shakespeare's sonnets. Both were word-perfect, and Burton was forced to "win" the contest by quoting one of the sonnets backwards. Now, that is cool. (nerdy cool, but still cool).

Another interesting bit of trivia; MacLean was asked to write an original screenplay for the film. He couldn't do it - so what he did was write the novel first and then do an "adaptation"; all in six weeks apparently. I'm thinking Alastair didn't worry too much about writer's block.

Best line:
err. look it's not really a 'talking' picture - just enjoy the action.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

On the QT: For Julie, the end is nigh; for Julia, it's only the beginning.

Unfortunately I was away at a conference this week so I missed all of QT except for Monday.

I won't bother with a recap of what I missed... ok quick one - Turnbull wasted a lot of time going on about Rudd leaking the phone call with Bush bit about how Bush didn't know what the G20 was - apparently this caused great offence to all Americans - yes the man of whom only around 20% of Americans regard as competent.

Thus Rudd meeting with Bush at the G20 conference this week will be watched for any signs of frostiness (already seen as "standoffish" - seriously even if Bush gave Rudd a kiss the press would call it a cold reception - "the President pointedly did not use his tongue").

All this misses the big question of why on earth would anyone give a damn what Bush thought? What does Obama think of Rudd is more important. And so what does he think? Well perhaps the fact that Rudd was the first foreign leader to meet with with Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state charged with meeting leaders on behalf of President-elect Barack Obama, should assuage any fears about the end of the alliance.

Mr Rudd told reporters that in their 45-minute discussion, he and Treasurer Wayne Swan had spoken to Dr Albright about how Australia will work "as closely as possible" with the Obama administration on the response to the crisis, "not just on financial market regulations but also in terms of stimulus to the real economy".

Further, if reports are true that Hillary Clinton will be Obama's Secretary of State, then fuhgeddaboudit - Rudd would have her number on speed dial, and she'd be taking the call. Yes Rudd or his office was dumb to let the G20 bit get printed - I'm still not sure whether it was a joke or Bush really didn't know what the G20 was - but it won't affect any relationships, and it certainly won't change one vote in Australia.

Back to QT. My big disappointment of the week was missing Julia sit in the big chair. Annabel Crabbe gives a great summary of her in action. But reading the Hansard is worthwhile for those who missed it on TV.

Two instinctive things emerged from Thursday's QT: One - the opposition are scared of Julia. There she was acting as the PM, and the opposition asked her only four questions - and only one by Turnbull on anything PMish (on the Bush phone call, and Julia fairly well read his delivery out of the hand and put it over the fence for six). Hockey asked one about the ETU (six more runs, and Hockey dispatched to fine leg to think about his performance...); Peter Dutton then asked one about Hospitals, and so lame was his delivery, it was a virtual Dorothy Dixer:

My question is to the Acting Prime Minister. Acting Prime Minister, does the government stand by the Prime Minister’s pledge to the Australian people that he will fix the public hospital system by 2009 or he will have a referendum to take over the public hospitals from the states?

I mean seriously. Seriously! That was his big question?? I wonder how long it took him to think it up? Essentially he asked if the Government still stood by its health policy made at the election. In reality he was asking Julia to reiterate the health policy that helped the ALP win the election, and while she was at it to talk about how badly the Howard Government had done.

The question was the equivalent of asking Tendulkar whether he'd like you to bowl on the off or leg side. To whit, Julia fairly slapped the return back so fast and accurately that had they been playing cricket, Dutton would've worn a kookaburra on his scone.

Here's her answer:

GILLARD—I thank the member for his question. This government has inherited from the former government a public hospital system that has had a billion dollars ripped out of it. It cut back GP training places and other workforce places, leaving us with a crisis in workforce in many parts of the country. It is not a track record to be proud of. What the government has done since it took office is work with our state and territory counterparts on new Australian healthcare agreements. What the government has said consistently is that it will work with our state and territory colleagues to get new cooperative arrangements to deal with the problems in the health system.

[after a few points of order]....

Ms GILLARD—In responding to the question, I say this to the member who asked the question and to members opposite: the last thing that I would have thought that members of the Liberal Party would want to do is start a debate about honouring election promises, given that they are the political party that gave to this nation the terminology ‘core’ and ‘non-core’. From the very first day they were elected, they wanted to dump their election promises, and they did. I remind members opposite that, when it comes to the question of promises, they promised Australians before the 2004 election that it would be business as usual in workplace relations.

So a question on health gets turned into a slap at the Howard government's non-core promises and also workplace-relations.

If you don't think Julia Gillard is the best parliamentary performer, you're so blind you probably think Julie Bishop is doing a great job...

Which brings me on to my next point. On Thursday Dennis Shanahan in The Australian picked up on what I have been thinking for a while - that Bishop is the biggest positive the ALP has on the Liberal front bench. On 3 Nov, I predicted that she would be dumped as shadow Treasurer over the Christmas break, Shanahan seems to agree:

JULIE Bishop is politically damaged goods. The Coalition's Treasury spokeswoman has lost credibility and lacks parliamentary authority at a time when credentials for economic management are determining political fortunes and directly affecting Australia's economic future.

On Thursday, with Wayne Swan out of the country, Lindsay Tanner was standing in as Treasurer. Here's who asked him questions: Turnbull (2) and Andrew Robb. Here's the Hansard of Robb's question:

Mr ROBB (2.45 pm)—My question is to the Acting Treasurer.
Government members interjecting—
The SPEAKER—Order! Those on my right will come to order!

Now I haven't seen the vision, or heard what the were interjecting, but the fact that Robb was Turnbull's choice to be shadow Treasurer, before Bishop took the spot in a deal that gave Turnbull the numbers for the top job, you can bet the Government, smelling death on the other side, took great relish in the fact that Robb was asking Tanner a question and not Bishop.

If she still has the shadow Treasurer's job next year, it'll mean Turnbull has no power in the Liberal Party, because it will mean he can't afford to lose Bishop's support. It'll also mean both he and the party are dead.

But to be brutally honest, the Liberals were pretty well stuffed on Thursday. They had to go against Julia and Tanner instead of Rudd and Swan.

I'm betting there were sighs on both sides of the House - sighs of relief from the Liberals that they only had one day against that pair; sighs of disappointment from the ALP side that they only had one day with that pair at the top...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Bowling up hill into the breeze

Is test cricket dead?

I ask because today was the last day of the Border-Gavaskar series. As I write Australia have just lost the test by 173 runs thus have lost the series 2-0. Australia and India are the two best sides in the world; they have had a run of fantastic test series over the last 7 odd years; and India were looking like winning the trophy for the first time since 2004, and yet if you saw a picture of the stadium, you would have seen that virtually no one was there to watch.

Indians, supposedly the most "cricket mad people on earth" don't give a stuff. Now look I know the ticket prices may be high by comparison with the average wage of Indians. And India certainly still is poor - its GDP per capita is about US$2600 (Australia's is around $36,700). And I couldn't find an average weekly earnings figure, but if we divide $2600 by 52 we get US$50 on average a week (a VERY rough guestimate). But the lowest price for a day at the cricket at the 5th test is 150 rupee (about US$3.15), or about 6.3% of the weekly earnings. By comparison using this measure, Australia's weekly earnings would be $705, and an equivalent ticket to the cricket would be around $44. In reality, the price to go a day of the Boxing Day test match is $98.

Now this isn't to have a go at Indians, because if I had to stump up $44 to sit on a concrete step, I'd probably give it a pass as well (would it kill the Indian stadium owner to put seats all the way round?). But the fact is, put on a Twenty20 match, and the joint will be packed. Put on even a one day game, and the crowds will come. Test cricket? Nah. (And if we are honest you can say the same about Australian test matches - the Ashes excepted - and even our one day crowds aren't that flash.)

And to be honest I don't blame them, because this series has at times been as boring as sitting around waiting for paint to dry by watching the grass grow. (But it has also at times been fantastic viewing).

Both sides have consistently bowled wide of off stump, with at times negative field. And both sides have had absolutely atrocious over rates. Because the match ended in a result, today's over rate won't matter (ie the captain won't be fined), but in the first session of play, India only bowled 21 overs. They're meant to bowl 30. Now because India didn't need to win the match, going slow didn't bother them - it was a 'tactic' - less overs means less balls off of which to score runs. Tactics is one way to describe it; cheating is better

But yesterday Australia was just as bad. When Australia had India in trouble, Ponting brought on his part-time bowlers to helps increase the over-rate to prevent himself from getting banned due to slow play.

It let India off the hook, and serves Ponting right. If he can't get his team to bowl 15 overs an hour, he deserves to gets banned. People don't pay to see 6 hours of cricket; they pay to see 90 overs. If you can't give people their money's worth, go back to grade cricket where you're playing in front of family and bored friends.

But there are more problems than over-rates. Test cricket is bloody old, and not in a good "fine tradition" way. It's old in an "annoying old grandfather who has to get to church 40 minutes early so he can sit in his same place in the pew every week" way.

So much of it could be changed but isn't because... well who knows really.

Look off the top of my head here are a few suggestions:

1. Bowl an average of 30 overs every two hours. 10 run penalty per over under that rate. If the batsmen cause slow play (endless drink breaks etc - 5 runs penalty per over awarded against them). Don't wait till the end of the day.

If this doesn't work, then break it down more - and let the umpires take control. When they're ready, the players should be ready. In tennis, the umpire calls "time" and that means the player has to serve. If the umpire thinks either side is wasting time, then award 5 runs then and there.

2. Ditch the lunch and tea breaks. Two hours and you need a break? Please. Three hours play and then you can have a 30 minute break. Let players use the 12th man more judiciously if need be - heck let the 12th man become a de facto "designated-fielder". I don't care if a bowler goes off for a massage break after bowling 10 overs, if it means he'll go a bit quicker, all the better. A general drinks break every 40 minutes should be enough - depending on the heat - but a break for afternoon tea? What is it, 1890?

3. Ditch the toss. India won the toss 3 out of 4 times this series. Why should that be such an advantage? Have one toss before the series to decide who has first pick, then take it in turns to choose. If there are an odd number of tests, the visitors get the final test. Actually this would be the first thing I would ditch. In baseball they don't have it - the home team always bats second. At the least it would put an end to the "win the toss, win the match" arguments.

4. Day-night test matches. I don't care if it will ruin the purity of the red ball. I don't care if batting at night is not as easy, and so teams will declare at twilight. I don't care if the white ball gets dirty so you have to change it more often. Suck it up princesses. You've been playing day- night one-dayers for 30 years, live with it.

The best reason for day night games? Never again will a game be called because of bad light. Plus the game goes for 5 days, so only 2 at most are on a weekend, there's nothing worse than being at work while the test match is on, with a day-night test at least the working population will get to see a few hours of cricket.

Look there are no doubt a few more things that could be done, but these are all I could think of while watching a replay of Question Time today (quick recap - Rudd dodged the question of whether he leaked the Bush phone call to The Australian, and Julia Gillard absolutely slaughtered Sophie Mirrabella).

I'll do a few more posts on cricket as the season gets closer. But I'll leave with this - I love test cricket. Some of the most enjoyable days of my youth were at the Adelaide Oval watching a day's play. I remember Greg Chappell scoring 61 runs against the West Indies in the 81-82 series, which ended his run of ducks. I was there when Craig McDermott supposedly got caught behind off of Courtney Walsh, meaning Australia lost by 1 run. I saw Mark Waugh and Greg Blewitt score centuries in their maiden tests. Heck I love test cricket even though my teenage years meant going to the cricket at Adelaide Oval and invariably seeing a draw (7 times out of 8 from 1983-1991).

I am bored by one-dayers - always have been. I loathe Twenty20 - it's the only time I've ever been at a cricket match and realised the score was irrelevant. So I don't seek to make test cricket "new" or "groovy", I just want to clear out the dead wood so to speak. They used to have timeless tests. They used to have a rest day. The players used to wear their shirts unbuttoned to their navels.

Test cricket is not unchanging, but it is in trouble.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Flick of the Week: "The army doesn't like more than one disaster in a day"

In the novel by Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (much, much better than the movie), the narrator writes that two of his Dad's favourite films are The Guns of Navarone and Zulu, and so it is apt that for this week's flick we move with Stanley Baker from the Mediterranean of WWII to South Africa in the Anglo-Zulu War for the great 1964 war film, Zulu.

Zulu concerns the defence of the mission station Rorke's Drift (drift means a ford) by 139 men in a Welsh company (though many in the company were not from Wales) in the British Army (specifically, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot) against a Zulu Army regiment of around 4000 warriors.

Now the reasons for the British going to war with the Zulus may be all that is bad about colonial rule of white men over black men, but let us not let that interfere with the enjoyment of this brilliant movie.

The film was Stanley Baker's dream project - he was Welsh, and the defence of Rorke's Drift is the stuff of Welsh legend. The setting is 22 January 1879; news arrives to the mission that the day before in the first major engagement of the War, the Battle of Isandlwana, the British had suffered a massive defeat - losing over 1300 men. What was worse was the news that a force of Zulu's was coming to their way, with no time for them to retreat or get reinforcements.

The film concerns this prelude and the defence by the small company against wave after wave of Zulus.

As such it is a pure war film - little time for character development, and no scenes of the home front, and yet the characters are vibrant and memorable. The two lieutenants Bromhead and Chard played by Michale Caine (his first major role - the credit is "introducing...) and Stanley Baker play off each brilliantly - Caine as a posh pure military man, Bromhead, ("chin chin old boy!") and Baker as the engineer, Chard, who is there to build a bridge, and yet who finds he must take command.

Other characters of note are Colour Sgt Frank Bourne (played by the 45 year old Nigel Green, yet in reality Bourne was only 25 at the time), Pte Hook, Pte Hitch, the numerous Joneses known by their serial number, and Jack Hawkins as the Reverend Otto Witt, who as he is forced to leave the mission, drunkenly screams at the soldiers:

"You're all going to die! Don't you realize? Can't you see? You're all going to die! Death awaits you all!"

Which probably do not rank as the most heartening of words to hear as you prepare for battle.

The movie is about heroism as a unit - yes there are individual acts of courage, but this is the ultimate "there's no I in team" film. It's the film you would force recruits to watch before going off to war; it's the film a football team should watch before playing the Grand Final - it's the ultimate underdog film; and a number of war films since owe it a debt. Mel Gibson's We Were Soldiers is virtually Zulu in Vietnam, and the great Sci-Fi film Aliens is basically Zulu in Space. Any time you see a film with a small band of soldiers trying to defend against an army, you can be sure the director has first watch Zulu to see how it is done properly.

The main reason the battle is so famous is that eleven Victoria Crosses awarded to the men at Rorke's Drift - the most ever received in a single action by one regiment. Somewhat justifiably the large number is criticised as being more an over-reaction to the loss at Isandlwana, as it helped take the public's attention away from that battle. Equally some think that other battles in WWI - such as Lone Pine (7 were awarded to Australian soldiers) should have resulted in more VCs being awarded. But it's hard to be too churlish, especially when at the time VCs could not be awarded posthumously.

The film contains a number of stirring moments, and brilliantly captures the tension before the battle - especially due to the great, deep and intense singing of the Zulus before they attack. But the best moment in the film is when before the final charge by the Zulus, the Welsh decide to respond with a rendition of "Men of Harlech":

This film is the reason why when the Welsh national team play any rugby or football match the crowd will sing 'Men of Harlech'. And let's be honest, it beats the absolute hell out of Waltzing Matilda.

In many ways Zulu is a dated film - it glorifies the fighting of the British, without questioning too much politics of the war. But it does not glorify war - there is nothing 'fun' going on here, any jokes are bitter remarks made to stay sane. It also treats the Zulus with respect - which is certainly their due given they were fighting on their land, with spears against rifles.

They don't fight wars like this anymore - and the final slaughter has one thinking of the deaths to come in WWI when the British would be the ones charging towards men in fixed positions - only then the fixed positions would have not just rifles but also machine guns.

It's in many ways an anti-war film - the end result seems pointless - what was won? And none of the men appear anything but buggered after the battle - there is no sense of victory, only relief that the Zulus will attack no more.

The film ends with a narration by another great Welsh actor, Richard Burton, whose beautiful, whiskey-soaked oratory voice reads out the list of the 11 VC winners. Again there is no triumph in the list, and yet as the music of John Barry builds, you cannot but feel a sense of wonder at the deeds of this band of men in the face of such overwhelming odds.

Great film - always in the bargain bins, plus the DVD has a great documentary on the making of.

Best line:
Colour Sergeant Bourne: It's a miracle.
Lieutenant John Chard: If it's a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it's a short chamber Boxer Henry point 45 caliber miracle.
Colour Sergeant Bourne: And a bayonet, sir, with some guts behind.