Thursday, December 18, 2008

It's great? Ok, I'll take your word for it: Films I just didn't get

Everyone has at some stage in their film going life been told by a friend or family member that "they just HAVE to see this film", only for you to see it and come out thinking "huh?". At other times you will mention a film at work, and just before you say how you couldn't believe what a stinking pile of shite it was, some co-worker will let out a squeal and state to everyone in attendance that that film is their absolute all-time favourite movie ever.

Similarly critics will glow about a film and you will think it incredibly dull - this is more common, mostly because some critics always seem to be drawn to incredibly dull films and think if it's dull it must be good.

But that's what is great about film - I can love a film like Glengarry Glen Ross and my wife can think it the most horrible movie ever made (note to the guys out there - don't take your girlfriend to see a hard hitting David Mamet film about dodgy real estate salesmen, and think it will be a good date movie). But when film is most wonderful is when it seems like it is you against the pervading view of everyone else. There's no cache in hating say, Austin Powers: Goldmember, even though you have a mate who thinks Fat Bastard is pure comic genius.

But best of all, because it's just opinion, you can't be wrong!

Below are my Top 5 "I just didn't get" films of all time.

1. The Piano.

Now look; I'm no dummy. I have read a few literature books in my time. I've done a bit of study. I can happily read poetry. I can happily read poetry written by women. Heck I think Sylvia Plath is the greatest poet since the Second World War. But, oh my God, I hated this film.

I have seen a lot of films in my time, but The Piano is the only one I have ever fallen asleep during. And I saw it in the afternoon, so it wasn't like I was tired from a long day.

Here's what David Stratten said of this film about a deaf woman who is only able to articulate her feelings through a piano that is set in the wilds of pre-colonial New Zealand:

Jane Campion's third feature is a visually sumptuous and tactile tale of adultery set during the early European colonization of New Zealand.... "The Piano" confirms Campion as a major talent, an uncompromising filmmaker with a very personal and specific vision.

Well far better for me would it have been if her personal vision had been kept to herself. An absolute snorefest, and yet it scored 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. So many friends (and I have to say all women) have told me how the film is so layered, so poetical, so tragic, haunting, subtle, amazing, incredible. One even told me I probably need to be a woman to really get it. Well fine. I don't get it, don't want to, and (to be honest) will never try to.

2. The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

In my last couple of years at high school whenever I went to a party at some friend's house, invariably as the night wore on, Rocky Horror would find its way into the VCR and the party would dissolve into people reciting the lines of dialogue, singing all the songs, and me off in the corner pretending to still be enjoying myself. The same thing happened a bit as I moved onto university, and at that point I would always make myself scarce.

I have to admit to not minding the first half hour of this film - I really like the song played over the opening credits. But after Frank'n'Furter arrives, I'm preparing myself for a long hour to come. The middle section is the worst - like a boring university film school attempt at being edgy. The humour I find weak, the songs, so-so - don't mind "Whatever Happened to Saturday Night", by Meatloaf, but the actual scene in which he sings it in the movie is so pathetically dumb that I would always be looking around the room thinking "don't you guys see how lame this all is?" (They didn't).

When I was in Year 11 I worried that my not getting this film doomed me to never being able to be cool in that I don't care for mainstream tastes kind of way. But now I know it just meant I had good taste. It's certainly one movie that never touch-a, touch-a, touched me.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Oh the film beloved by film lecturers at universities the world over - so much texture; look at all the symbolism, the hidden meaning, the photography, the score... err has anyone pointed out the dullness?

Apparently it needs to be seen on the big screen. Apparently it is great to watch while stoned. Apparently it is just sooo deep.

Nope sorry, it's a boring couple of hours of pop-psycho drivel. It's a sci-fi film for those who like the "sci" in their sci-fi. It's a sci-fi film for critics who hate sci-fi films. Personally I think Starship Troopers is better than this (it sure as hell is more fun).

Open the pod bay doors HAL... and let me out of the damn cinema.

4. The Green Mile

Like pretty much everyone I thought The Shawshank Redemption was fantastic. I'm not sure if I like it as much as I once did, but it is still a pretty special couple of hours of cinema. And so when the previews for The Green Mile came out I was pretty excited. At the time I downloaded the preview (took about an hour I think) and was really excited. This was going to be good.

After seeing the film I turned to my wife (who had been equally bored) and said, well there's three hours I'll never get back.

On imdb this film rates 8.3/10. I gave it 1/10. I hated it - and I mean hate. I was angry that I had paid to watch this 188 minute over-reaching story about nothing. Oh yeah, so heart felt and so deep. Please, it's a freaking stinker, that should have been an hour shorter - I mean they spend a good half hour chasing the damn mouse "Mr Jingles" for no good reason (I guess it helped build the mouse's character, because God knows we need a film where the mouse has character).

By the end I was ready to sign a petition supporting the death penalty; I certainly was ready to avoid seeing any more films made by Frank Darabont. And I guess that is one blessing about this film. Because I hated this so much I didn't waste another three hours watching The Majestic.

I was at a party a few years after seeing this, and someone said how The Green Mile was their favourite film. I blithely stated how much I hated it (I was in a mood to be a bit argumentative). The person then stated how they also loved Pay it Forward. I didn't bother arguing - such people are beyond reason.

5. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

To be honest I could have put here Being John Malkovich, or Adaptation because I think all three of Charlie Kaufmann's screenplays are vastly over-rated. I choose this one, because it has probably got the most popular reception.

The thing about Kaufmann's films is that to me they seem amazingly try-hardy. They also seem to me to be pretty amazing so long as you haven't read any literature written since WWII. Nothing he has done should impress anyone who has read any Jorge Borges - try Labyrinths if you really want to blow your mind. The guy was messing with memory and time and truth only about 60 years ago.

But look, props to Kaufman for trying to push film to "new boundaries", but would it kill him to write a character who was actually likeable? Here's a love story, and yet I didn't give a damn whether the two leads end up together. Sure Jim Carrey is good, but while watching I couldn't help thinking how the Carrey role could have been played by Nick Cage, or John Cusack, and then I thought how interesting it would have been to see Carrey play the Cage role in Adaptation, or Cusack's role in Being John Malkovich. But of course this is because Kaufman's male protagonists are always the same - they are all him.

His films lack heart. Malkovich lacks sense (really what the hell is it trying to say, or is it just weird for the sake of being weird?). Adaptation was obvious, but apparently because he came up with the idea of doing a film about how hard it is to write a film he is suddenly clever.

And yet I'll keep giving his films a go. I'll get out Synecdoche, New York (even if the title is very wanky). But to be honest, I found Stranger than Fiction, written by Zach Helm, more interesting and better told, even though it was often referred to as "Kaufmann-lite".

So that's it: five films I just don't get. No doubt there will be more (and there are many others I could mention - The Wizard of Oz for starters). But hey, that's why film and opinions go so well together.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Song a Year: 1984, 99 Luftballoons

By 1984 I was starting to really take an interest in music. The unfortunate thing is my taste was horrible. I had no idea what was good or bad or plain awful. Though a quick look at the top 10 selling singles in the USA for '84 suggests that taste probably didn't matter:

1. When Doves Cry, Prince
2. What's Love Got To Do With It, Tina Turner
3. Say Say Say, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson
4. Footloose, Kenny Loggins
5. Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now), Phil Collins
6. Jump, Van Halen
7. Hello, Lionel Richie
8. Owner Of A Lonely Heart, Yes
9. Ghostbusters, Ray Parker Jr.
10. Karma Chameleon, Culture Club

I mean, geez! That is a bad list. Let's be honest 1984 was not a music highpoint.

My song of the year was to be Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl". I can recall spending the summer that year at my cousins. They had a tennis court and on new year's eve we were out playing on the court listening to Casey Kasem do the year's countdown (why this was on the local AM radio station I have no idea, but when you're dealing with country AM radio you are in beggars can't be choosers territory). I can recall confidently predicting that the Number 1 song would be "Uptown Girl". I was close: it came 39th.

It was a good song for its time, though the An Innocent Man album has probably fallen in standing over time - it's a bit gimmicky. The video featuring Christie Brinkley was lots of fun - especially for any teenage boys who had seen her driving the red Ferrari in National Lampoon's Vacation.

But all the videos of it on YouTube have had their enabling disabled, so I'm not able to put it on this blog. So Billy Joel, bad luck you miss out.

I was tempted to go with Wham! 'Freedom', which was also one of my favourites of that year, but for me, the song which screams 1984 is Nina's 99 Luftballons.

In 1984, I started High School. At our school the foreign language choice was between German and errrr well actually there was no choice (until you got into Year 9, when you could choose between German and Ag Studies - amazingly there was a very high correlation between those who felt no need to know a language other than English, and those who enjoyed learning about farming).

Now teachers, being who they are, search for anything going around in the public culture to link to their subject. When I was studying Economics at uni, one lecturer, while we were studying International Finance, pointed out that much of what we were learning about was what the Richard Gere character in Pretty Woman did - ie buy up companies, and them sell them off in little pieces at a huge profit. Sad to say it didn't really grab us (though the fact I can recall this lesson 18 years later perhaps suggests he was smarter than I give him credit). However, if you are a high school German teacher, and suddenly a song sung in German becomes the most popular song going around, well now that be all your Weinachtens come at once.

It also was helped by the fact that the song's lyrics were topical - talk about educational! A German lesson and a world studies lesson all wrapped up in 4 minutes and 6 seconds.

It is amazing at this distance to think about the Berlin Wall. When I was younger I badly wanted to get to Berlin to see the Wall. Die Mauer was pretty well etched into my consciousness as a young political aware teenager. The Cold War seems now to be so remote, so otherworldly - did we really worry that the Soviet Union and America would actually destroy the entire world?

The fall of the Wall is one of those "I remember where I was moments". In 1989 I was in Japan on a student exchange. On the day I found out (Nov 11 - though the Wall actually came down 2 days before) a Canadian exchange student friend of mine and I were going into Tokyo for a bit of a night out. I met him at the train station in my town (he lived 20 minutes further down the line). He had a copy of The Japan Times - the best English language newspaper in Japan. I asked him what was the news. He said... oh not much.... Gretzky scored again (I was into Ice Hockey - as you must be if you have a Canadian friend)... oh ... oh yeah, the Berlin Wall came down...

The two of us - as young politically aware teenagers are want to do jumped up and down in the train screaming about this moment in time. (You have to realise we were the type of guys who would talk about Glasnost while drinking beer...yes... so serious, so self important).

And yet I was also somewhat chagrined, because now I would never get to see the divided city (a fact which I guess the people of Berlin no doubt were able to live with).

'99 Luftballons' is a song the like of which we won't see again. Germany is no longer the political consciousness of the West. The events of importance have moved decidedly to the east. But for 1984, if you were young and wanted to grasp the importance of the Cold War, well it was all there in a nice heart felt pop ditty.

And if you were a German teacher, it meant you had a good two weeks of lessons planned for you without even trying. I don't know about any other school in Australia; but if you were studying German at mine in 1984, you sure as heck were doing a translation of Nina's words.

I can recall some of what it means, but rather oddly, I can still remember all of the German, which proves I guess, that a good song doesn't need to make sense, it just needs to make a connection.

My previous post on the 2001 Oscars left out a mention of the amazing Australian film Lantana.

I actually thought it came out in 2000, and so was going to mention it in my next Oscars entry. For mine, it is the second greatest Australian film of all time (my number 1 will get a mention later). The plot involves the intertwining lives of people in Sydney, and of all the many, many films with multiple plot lines, I believe it is the best - better than Short Cuts, Magnolia, Nashville (and definitely Crash).

It is an incredibly adult drama - not for children, and not for the immature, because at times this film is utterly shattering in its intensity.

The acting is just amazing. Kerry Armstrong should have also got nominated for Best Actress (though I'll stick with my pick of Naomi Watts), but perhaps they could have nominated her as Best Supporting Actress - she would've been a better choice than Marica Gay Harden in Pollock (good though she was).

Anthony LaPaglia in the lead role as the detective trying to solve a murder while his marriage and life is falling apart is better than he's ever been (though I'm looking forward to Balibo due out next year). Geoffrey Rush as the husband whose daughter was murdered, and now whose wife is missing is absolutely breathtaking. How can a guy play that role and also be so brilliant as the buffoonish theatre producer in Shakespeare in Love (or for that matter also be the villainous Walshingham in Elizabeth AND the great cartoon villain in Pirates of the Caribbean)? If there is a better character actor going around today I don't know him.

Perhaps best of all is Paul Kelly's haunting score - though unfortunately I couldn't find a YouTube clip featuring it.

This clip of the final 4 minutes of the film (which doesn't actually give much away) features a dance song (Te Busco) - some of the couples in the film are taking dancing lessons. I could just about write a thesis on the final scenes of Armstrong and LaPaglia dancing. Such acting by the pair! With no words, and in an embrace the whole time they let the reader into their minds - Armstrong seems to almost be running away, while LaPaglia desperately clings to her, hoping against hope that she will stay, and things will be like they once were.

The film ends without resolution, and it is all the better for it.

I don't know whether I would give it Best Picture - I still love Mulholland Dr - but I'd put this as runner up.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Oscar is always wrong (except when it's right) Part III: 2001

Wow what a year. The Academy pretty much ballsed up everything! Get this: in a race between David Lynch, Robert Altman, Ridley Scott, Peter Jackson and Ron Howard for Best Director, Ron Howard won! Yep it was that kind of year.

Ok let's get started; lots of work to do here:
Best Picture: A Beautiful Mind
Nominees: The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, Moulin Rouge!

Now A Beautiful Mind has copped a fair bit of flack since winning this prize. Basically, the story of mathematician John Nash, who suffers from schizophrenia, starts seeing people who aren't there, and yet who wins the Nobel Prize for Economics was pretty much mucked up by the screenwriter. Akiva Goldsman pretty much took the basic premise and turned it into a spy-thriller. As someone who had studied economics, and thus knew of Nash, I was prepared to accept such sloppiness with the truth, but when they couldn't even get the concept that won Nash the Nobel Prize right, well they lost me.

I wouldn't even give it a nomination now. A few films missed out that deserved Best Pic nominations: Ridley Scott's brilliant war flick, Black Hawk Down; Christopher Nolan's bizarre Memento, and the brilliant and influential (but now somewhat declined in value due to the sequels) Shrek. The French film Amelie has its fans as well. All four would be more deserving than the winner.

Of the nominated films, I am very tempted to go with the first Lord of the Rings film. I went into the theatre not having been able to get through the novel, and really not even wanting to see the film all that much. By the end I was desperate to know what would happen next, and wanted to see the whole thing again. It was brilliant film-making, and I think it is the best of the three films.

I also love Gosford Park. It's a great film for adults - in that there is no sense in the film that it has been made to capture the teenage market at all. It is brilliantly acted all round - Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Kristen Scott Thomas, Jeremy Northam, Emily Watson, Maggie Smith, and the fantastic Kelly Macdonald (among many others). I have most likely seen it the most of all the films from that year, as I like putting it on when I'm in the mood for two hours of intelligent fun. I would select it as my runner-up.

But my pick for Best Picture is another film that didn't get nominated: The truly amazing expose of Hollywood by David Lynch, Mulholland Dr.

There have been many excellent films about Hollywood, but for my money the two best are Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd and Mulholland Dr. The first is a brilliant evocation of the studio era, the Lynch film, the startling reinterpretation of Sunset Blvd through the fractured mirror of the 21st Century - pointedly, like the road sign title for Wilder's film, Lynch's film also uses the abbreviation.

It is part mystery and part love story; it is a riddle, a satire, a thriller, a dream, a nightmare. It makes no sense, is perfectly sensible.

The plot is almost impossible to distill - so much is going on - but essentially it concerns young fresh faced Betty who arrives in Hollywood all set to make it big, and who discovers a woman (Rita) with amnesia in her bungalow. The two set out to work out who Rita is while Betty also auditions for a role in a big Hollywood film directed by hot-shot director Adam Kesher, who is being forced by sinister figures to cast a particular woman in the film. Betty and Rita discover that Rita is actually Camilla Rhodes and then.... well and then at a certain point it all goes mad. Betty is now Diane; Rita is not Camila Rhodes, because Camila Rhodes is someone else.. and oh geez, it all goes bad for all concerned really.

Is it all a dream? Possibly. Is there a twist in the end? Yes but also no. It's not a dumb twist like in Vanilla Sky or The Sixth Sense (in which you realise you have been played as fools by the film makers), but rather it is a twist that reveals there is more than one way to view the film; that perhaps there is no true meaning.

My thesis - such that it is - is that Lynch decided to revel in the illusion of Hollywood, and that rather than make a film which showed how fake everything was; how much of an illusion Hollywood is, he instead made a film that is fake and is an illusion. It is Hollywood. It is sexy (very sexy), it is dangerous, shallow, deep, implausible and unreal.

Whereas Sunset Blvd is a film told from the point of view of a dead person about an aging Hollywood star who we see go progressively insane; Mulholland Dr is a film told from the point of view of a struggling Hollywood actress who already is insane, and perhaps dead.

Or not. I don't know. Perhaps I'm right (I'd need a few more words to really set out my argument), perhaps I'm not. It doesn't matter. The film survives misunderstanding. It is a wild ride on a roller coaster driven by mad man.

It would have been an incredibly bold pick for Best Picture. But unlike the actual winner, it is a film whose stature will only grow in time.

Best Actor: Denzel Washington (Training Day)
Nominees: Will Smith (Ali), Russell Crowe (A Beaut Mind), Sean Penn (I Am Sam), Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom).

Should have won: Guy Pearce, Memento

Russell Crowe probably would have won this award until he tried to punch the director of the BAFTAs for cutting off his speech. From then on his chances were pretty much stuffed.

Washington won, as an Academy desperate to right all wrongs and give the award to a black man, went all out and gave the award to him and Best Actress to Halle Berry (and also gave a honorary award to Sidney Poitier). Look maybe I'm being very cynical, and maybe they all deserved it, but it smacked to me as though the fix was in, and it was black person payback night.

And anyway, Washington is not the lead in the film - Ethan Hawke is, and Guy Pearce's performance as a man suffering short term memory loss while trying to track down his wife's killer in the weird Memento was infinitely better than any of those nominated.

It was a good year for weird film - Mulholland Dr used a fractured narrative, and Memento told the whole story backwards. It was the type of year where you found yourself going on the net after watching a film to find out just what the hell happened.

Pearce as "Leonard" puts in a performance that reveals a man who may or may not be good, who may be a man much wronged, and who is trying to do good, or who may in fact be pure evil. We the audience don't know, and Pearce suggests that Leonard himself doesn't know - and if he does, he doesn't know for long.

It could have been totally incomprehensible, but the great script, and Pearce's performance make it a truly amazing experience. Pearce has to do a lot of voice-over narration, which usually makes for a bad film, but in this his voice is perfectly pitched, and helps us to understand a man who doesn't understand himself.

I can't find any good scenes on youtube, so the trailer will have to do:

Best Actress: Halle Berry (Monter's Ball)
Nominees: Renee Zellwegger (Bridget Jones's Diary), Sissy Spacek (In the Bedroom), Judi Dench, (Iris), Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!)

Should have won: Naomi Watts, Mulholland Dr

Halle Berry won this award and since then hasn't even got close to being near the set of a film which could possibly have a role for her that deserved critical acclaim.

I am tempted to give it to Renee Zellwegger for her great rom-com performance as Bridget Jones. For someone who was roundly criticised when she was given the role, she ended up being bloody perfect.

But the great acting performance that year was Naomi Watts as Betty/Diane in Mulholland Dr.

When Betty arrives in Hollywood at the start of the film she is like a young Doris Day, and yet as the film goes on she morphs into a brilliant actress - her screen test is truly jaw dropping, and then when the change comes of her suddenly being Diane, she is perfect as a bitter spurned lover. In all aspects she is believable - even when the unbelievable is happening around her. And it is a performance that holds little back (except when it needs to). It was as though Watts knew this was her one chance to show her stuff. At the age of 31 her breakthrough role had finally come, and she grabbed it with all her might.

To think the film was originally to be a TV series. Thankfully the TV executives didn't like it, and so Watts was able to become a great movie actress. Since this film she has consistently been among the best female actors going around. And after having a break to have a child, I see she is up to play Goneril in a version of King Lear (with Gwyneth Paltrow as Regan, Keira Knightly as Cordelia, and Anthony Hopkins as Lear) - should be worth seeing - in 2010!

This award would have rounded out three brave choices, and would have marked the awards of 2001 as one of the best years, rather than one of the most forgettable.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Newspoll: ALP 59-LNP 41

Well that's a nice way to end the year isn't it? How would you like to be Malcolm Turnbull - you reach the end of the parliamentary year, having been leader of the Liberal Party since the beginning of October, and in that time, according to newspoll the ALP primary vote has gone from 41% to 48%, while the Liberal-National Primary vote has gone from 38% to 35%.

Job well done I'd say.

And on the two party preferred it's gone from 55-45 to now 59-41. Oh for the days of "Game On!".

And you know you're in trouble when even the Liberal Party's most ardent supporters in the media can't even muster a silver lining, but instead are reduced to writing:

THIS Newspoll is a disaster for Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition. It's everything they didn't want just when they didn't want it.
Every indicator for the Coalition is down, and not only down but back to, or dropping towards, levels of support they suffered under Brendan Nelson, the Liberal leader they said had to go only 10 weeks ago.

Kevin Rudd and Labor have shot back to record levels of voter support - with the biggest single rise in the ALP's primary vote since the election, and with the Prime Minister's satisfaction rating back up to 70 per cent.
Mr Rudd now leads the Opposition Leader as preferred prime minister by the same massive margin - 47 percentage points - he held over Dr Nelson the weekend before the Liberal leadership changed 10 weeks ago.

Geez; not much Christmas cheer there. And when you think that on the preferred PM stakes, Rudd is now up 66% to 19%, well you can't say the populous has flocked to Turnbull.

Now sure 59-41 is idiotic. There is now way such a result would occur at an election. It's what's called an "outlier poll". And yet the thing is all the odd polls always go in the ALP's favour (or at least they have for the last 2 years). Were the result to be say 52-48, the Libs would be beside themselves with joy, forgetting for the moment the fact that that was the result at the election last year. I seem to recall one group being beside themselves with joy last November... hmmm who was that?

The interesting side note to this poll was the question on whether Wayne Swan or Julie Bishop was more capable to be treasurer. Swan won 45%-21%. The result produced this from Denis Shanahan:

Julie Bishop, who opted to take on Treasurer Wayne Swan, has crashed and given Swan his first lead over a Liberal opposite number after hopelessly trailing Peter Costello and being pipped by Turnbull.

Hang on. His first lead? That couldn't be right. Because I recall writing in a September post that:

And given that back in May after the budget was delivered newspoll showed that voters saw Wayne Swan as the most capable person to handle the economy over Turnbull by 40% to 26%, I don't see why Rudd would want to go with the runner-up.

Sure enough you click on the link and go to the last page, you'll find this from 20 May 2008:


Swan: 40% ; Turnbull 26%

Looks like a win to Swan to me.

And yet if you look at the chart provided in today's The Australian, the polls on best economic manager only show the result of Swan v Turnbull on April 20 (which Turnbull won 35%-29% - yeah a huge victory).

So it's a bit of a lie by Shanahan really, especially when you consider on 20 May he wrote the following:

The Treasurer has also reversed his position in relation to Malcolm Turnbull - a 20-point turnaround from a deficit of six points has given him a lead of 14 points on economic management over the Opposition's Treasury spokesman

Now I'm no fan of Julie Bishop. But if they're going to try and bring her down, it would be nice if they could at least use the facts.

If you are wondering why Turnbull is doing so poorly, here's a good example of why.

Last week in a vote on use of the "Communications fund" in the Senate, the Coalition cabinet decided that its senators would not vote against the bill. What happened was complete disarray. All the National Senators voted against the Bill; 2 Liberal Senators also voted against it. 5 Liberal Senators voted for the Bill, and the other 30 abstained.

No one knew what the hell was going on. Laurie Oakes reports were that some Liberal senators, unaware what was going on fled the Senate floor before the doors were locked for the vote!

And yet, what do we read tonight:

MALCOLM Turnbull has not ruled out a federal merger between the Liberals and Nationals as he called for unity between the parties.

"We work very closely together in coalitions,'' Mr Turnbull told reporters in Melbourne.

Yes Malcolm, you can't even get the two parties to agree on a vote in the Senate, but you will be able to get the entire national memberships of both parties to agree to a joint constitution with joint governance arrangements and a binding set of principles and voting rights that are acceptable to those in country QLD and inner Sydney.

It's his one big failing, and he can't stop himself. His initial reaction is always to go over the top and promise or say too much. He'll pledge full support for the Government's economic package, then he'll criticise it the next day. He'll say Work Choices is dead and buried, but then refuse to say whether the coalition will vote against the Government's IR policy in the senate. He'll say how big an environmentalist he is, and then come across all dithery about when an emissions trading system should start.

He needs to think first, before making the grand statement. In private-sector life you can get away with such things - it's part of the sales pitch; it gets the buyers interested. In politics it makes you look shifty and shallow.

Unless he changes that style, he'll struggle to ever get within cooee of Rudd.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Kerryn McCann RIP

The day got off to a horrible start when news came through the news sites that marathon runner Kerryn McCann had died this morning of breast cancer.

McCann had been diagnosed when she was pregnant with her third child, and she began treatment after giving birth. Unfortunately, despite early hopes that it had been caught in time, her cancer appears to have been particularly aggressive, it took hold and within a year of diagnosis she is gone.

She leaves behind a husband and three kids. She was 41. It would be nice to be eloquent about such things, but you know there are times when life is just shitty, and cancer is particularly shitty.

There are those who think sports people don't deserve funding, or even special treatment, because all they do is play games and they add nothing to other people's lives. I have long argued that such belief is bullshit. Kerryn McCann's win at the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games is a case in point.

She defended her Commonwealth Marathon title that she had won four years earlier in Manchester. But her win in Melbourne was (to borrow from Bruce McAvaney) special. She won by 2 seconds, and had to out kick her Kenyan opponent. After 42km, you're not meant to have to sprint for the line. McCann did, and a packed MCG cheered for her like they cheered for no one else.

It was truly a spine tingling moment. If you were watching that and you weren't on your feet cheering and most likely crying after she won, well then it's time you checked your pulse to see if you have one. I felt lucky to have seen it live on TV, felt proud to be Australian, and in general, just felt good about life. Sport does that - she wasn't a rich superstar, but she sure as hell earned any funding she did get.

The commentary from this clip of her victory is all the more poignant now. If you have tears, prepare to shed them now:

McCann's death is tragic of course because of her age and young family, but no one can deny she didn't achieve everything she could on the sports field. She will be remembered as one of the good ones - a woman who seemed like she could be your next door neighbour and yet who was as good as anyone on the day in the hardest event on the athletics program.

It seems incongruous that an athlete could die so soon after being in such peak condition. But as I say, cancer is shitty.

Consider the case of Hector Hogan. In 1956, Hogan won bronze in the men's 100m at the Melbourne Olympics - still the only Australian male to have won a medal in the event. After competing in the Cardiff Empire Games in 1958 his health deteriorated rapidly, and he was diagnosed with Leukaemia. He died at the age of 29, on 2 September 1960, exactly one day after the final of the men's 100m at the Rome Olympics. Not even a novelist with an overly tragic sense of timing could be that cruel.

As Matt Price (another victim of cancer) said: Life is fragile, hug your loved ones.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Flick of the Week: Monet's unknown masterpiece, "Dogs At Cards"

This week's Flick of the Week, takes us from In the Line of Fire, with Renee Russo to The Thomas Crown Affair, a 1999 remake of the Steve McQueen, Faye Dunnaway 1968 flick of the same name.

This is not my favourite Renee Russo film - Get Shorty is brilliant - but I have a plan with these choices, and Thomas Crown gets me there, whereas Get Shorty takes me off to other areas of the film world (so I'll get to it later).

This flick is a bit of fluff about a millionaire banker, Thomas Crown (probably billionaire, and like all good billionaires, he comes from a poor background, and because he is played by Pierce Brosnan he is from Scotland - never mind that Brosnan is actually Irish) who steals Monet's painting, San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk, from a museum in New York (notionally the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Brought in by the insurers of the painting, is hot shot artwork investigator (wonder how you get that job?) Catherine Banning, played by Renee Russo. Russo quickly suspects Brosnan, and thus begins the game of cat and mouse.

The original featured McQueen playing the millionaire who for the fun of it orchestrates a bank robbery. By 1999 the producers of the remake thought this might makes the Crown character somewhat unattractive, and thus they made him an art thief, because, as the grizzled NY detective played by comic Dennis Leary says, they're just bits of paint on a wall.

The 1968 film has dated incredibly badly. At the time it was thought to be charged with sexuality, featuring a "sexy chess scene". I hadn't seen the original until a few years ago, and I have to report it's exceedingly dull. McQueen does not look good as a rich guy - and can hardly pull off the 'cultured' personality.

This version features at least a guy who can wear a tux (hey, he was James Bond after all), and he also comes across as someone who would not look out of place in the world of high finance or as a connoisseur of fine art.

And it's important, because this film is all about the look. As all good films that are in reality bits of fluff (think To Catch a Thief), the whole thing disintegrates if you think about it too much. And while this is certainly not up there with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly matching wits on the French Riviera, there's still lots of fun to be had.

Russo is as sexy as any woman can possibly be, she plays her character with a hard edge - a woman who is used to getting her way and who likes to swim with sharks. She and Brosnan interact brilliantly (but heck, Russo always makes her male leads look good - even Tim Allen in the hilarious Big Trouble). She would have been great in a Bond film, but alas, this marked a sharp decline in her film fortunes. Since this film she has been in the woeful Showtime, the very funny but ignored Big Trouble, the Pacino and Matthew McConaughey flick Two for the Money (as with all McConaughey flicks, it died) ,and Yours, Mine and Ours which was made in 2005.

2005?? What the hell?! For crying out loud, somebody give this woman a role!

Mainly I like this film because I can remember when I first saw it. My wife and I saw it on our wedding anniversary in 1999. We spent the night at a hotel, had dinner at our favourite Chinese restaurant, saw the film, then came back to the room and caught the end of the Brownlow Medal count. Now if that ain't a romantic night, then I don't know what is! (errr...).

But for all its weaknesses (do we really care if Crown gets caught?), it's a fun couple of hours, that never really asks to be treated any more seriously than it should be. It also features a great jazz/blues based soundtrack by Bill Conti, and the classic blues song "Sinnerman" sung by Nina Simone is used in the pivotal scene below (beware, if you haven't seen the film there's a big spoiler at the end):

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

On the QT: Almost stumps

All this week, despite the odd attempt by Christopher Pyne to have a go at Julia Gillard, or Malcolm Turnbull yet again beginning a question with "And I refer to the statement by the Prime Minister...", Question Time has been a bit by the numbers.

Everyone knows this is the last week. Everyone knows no real big political points are going to be scored, because the public are switched off politics and are themselves thinking about Christmas and the like.

Yes the Government (Julia Gillard in particular) have had fun at Julie Bishop's expense, but what of that? Give me that barrel and let's put some fish in it to shoot at.

Pyne has been trying to coin the adjective "bungled" when referring to the computers in schools policy. But while he has tried well, he bungled himself yesterday when during one answer by Wayne Swan, when Swan rhetorically asked the opposition what things the Government shouldn't be spending money on, Pyne yelled out "computers in schools". So from now until the next election Julia G will be throwing that interjection back in Pyne's face.

Rudd has had fun referring to Andrew Robb, Peter Dutton et al as wannabes for Julie Bishop's job, and it must be said Bishop hasn't done a lot of asking of questions this week. I thought Turnbull might dump her over Christmas, but now I'm not so sure. I don't think he has the numbers to do it. West Australian Liberals account for 20% of the party room, and on this issue, I think they'd vote in a block. And with a poll coming out yesterday that showed Turnbull is behind Julia Gillard in the Better PM stakes, you just know he can't walk into the Liberal Partyroom and demand whatever he wants.

And so with two QT's to go, the test match of 2008 is already over. The ALP won by an innings and with lots of wickets to spare - after all they needed one less leader than the opposition did, so I think we can call that an innings defeat.

But elections are a best of three test series. The ALP are one up with two to play - and in politics, the last test always counts for double.

The ALP has been fortunate to have the best player on the park in Julia Gillard - she can open the bowling and batting - her batting against Julie Bishop in particular recalled Sobers against Graham Nash.

Kevin Rudd, the Captain of the side, is a boring opening bat in the Boycott mode. He doesn't lose his wicket cheaply, and does have all the shots, it's just that he prefers defence to attack. His batting also seems more suited to international pitches than those in Australia.

In Anthony Albanese the ALP have a wicket keeper who can come in deep into the innings and make a quick half century even if the ball is starting to swing reverse - which is often the case when the bowling is being done by members of the National Party.

Wayne Swan at Number 3 has not had a consistent year, but batting on dodgy wickets, in bad light, he has at least kept his wicket intact even if he hasn't scored many runs. He may benefit from being dropped down the order, but the word from the dressing room is that the Captain likes him at first drop.

Lindsey Tanner, the demon bowler from Melbourne Ports, has carved up the Liberals. He obviously hates the opposition batsmen, and loves nothing better than coming off the long run and delivering a fatal sandshoe crusher. And in those times when he has shared the new ball with Julia Gillard, they have looked like Lillee and Thommo incarnate.

In the middle order has been the capable Nicola Roxon and Chris Bowen. Roxon is a bit of a dasher, who no doubt fancies her chances of being promoted up the order. Bowen, batting with Swan, had a good partnership going and was on his way to a marvelous century, before he was out hit wicket when he confused his Yen and his Yuan.

Tony Burke at number 6 has been a dependable all-rounder who together with his fine batting has a good right arm medium pace. He has been playing on a lot of country pitches this year, and faced a number of mystifying deliveries from Bob Katter, but has done well - especially when batting with Anthony Albanese against the National Party attack.

As first change bowler, Stephen Smith has not done a lot wrong. He doesn't make the ball move much, in the air or off the pitch, and the Captain has a tendency to want to bowl all his overs for him, but he continually puts the ball just short of a good length, and has notched up a stack of maidens, if not many wickets.

Jenny Macklin is a left arm spin bowler, who doesn't spin the ball much, but doesn't seem to go for many runs. She was fortunate in that the opposition decided to let Tony Abbott try and hit her out of the attack, and really it was a grade cricket level effort from the Member for Warringah.

Joel Fitzgibbon at Number 10 is a steady medium pacer, who got through his overs with a couple wickets - notably when he found the opposition's defence was pretty limp when it came to helicopters.

The Opposition was led at first by right arm spinner Brendan Nelson. Unfortunately he bowled neither leg nor off spin, and instead hoped his specialty of straight-breaks would garner some wickets. It didn't. He was hit out of the attack, and only the lack of any team cohesion kept him on the team sheet for as long as he was.

He was taken over in the Captaincy by the right arm fast medium, Malcolm Turnbull. Malcolm does have promise, except he thinks he is a mixture of Glenn McGrath and Dennis Lillee. Unfortunately he bowls more like a mixture of Paul Reifel and Rodney Hogg - good but not great. Too often he takes such a long run up that by the time he delivers the ball, he has run out of puff. He would be better served coming off a short run, and spending less time thinking that he is Bradman with the bat - for while he has scored some quick runs, he has not put together a decent partnership with anyone, and has yet to make a century.

His captaincy also warrants questioning. He has kept Julie Bishop in the attack for far too long, and often seems to want to change the field after each delivery. This means his bowlers don't know where to pitch the ball, and end up invariably pitching it either too short, or down legside for easy runs.

As the opening bowler, Julie Bishop has failed to show any ability. She hasn't caused the batsmen to play and miss once, and late in the match seemed to be losing all composure and looked all set to take her bat and ball and go home. Most of the time she seems to be bowling a line that didn't work in the last year's series, and yet she persists with it, as though she has no choice but to keep working away at it.

As the Opposition wicket-keeper, Joe Hockey has been more Wayne Phillips than Adam Gilchrist. He talks a good talk to the slips cordon, and is forever being heard on the effects microphone calling "Bowled Shane" (or perhaps it's "Hear, hear!"). As a batsmen he has been out cheaply in both innings. He is an old style wicketkeeping batsmen - hits a six, then gets bowled the next ball. Probably would be captain at state level, but is struggling at the moment for form and consistency.

Andrew Robb has opened the batting with Peter Dutton, and they would both get a place in the New Zealand side... with a bit of coaching. Neither seems to be capable of displaying any tight defence, indeed Robb doesn't seem to know whether he wants to bat or bowl, as he keeps suggesting to the Captain that he should take the new ball instead of Julie Bishop. Dutton is much the same - not one shot of his is memorable, and he hasn't been able to score any runs off of Nicola Roxon at all.

At number 3, Warren Truss himself knows he is only in the side because of his membership of the National Party. He really is a Number 7, but somehow is always selected in the top order - and given the opening pair of Robb and Dutton, he is often having to bat against the new ball. He is a handy swing bowler, but too often this year he has bowled short against the batsmen, allowing for easy runs hit to cow corner.

At Number 4 Tony Abbott, scored a pair in this test match. He is finding the going tough after spending 11 years batting on flat tracks with a bribed umpire. He did fancy himself as an opening bowler, and also captain, but when he decided to tell the media that he was sick of batting at number 4, new Captain Turnbull decided to keep him there just to spite him.

The all-rounder of the team, Peter Costello, didn't know what to do this year - concentrate on his bowling or his batting. At times he told everyone he was going to be a specialist bat, and then he would laugh and wonder why anyone would think he was other than a specialist bowler. In the end no one cared what he did, because they realised he did neither very well. In any other team he would have been dropped, but in this team there are still those who think he should be captain.

The young firebrand first change bowler Christopher Pyne suffered due to his always being brought on to bowl after Julia Gillard had settled in. He went for a lot of runs, but unlike most of the others in the team he kept hitting the pitch hard and at a good length - it's just that his pace is not quick enough at this level. His tendency to argue the decision with the umpire is also to his detriment, and won't help in any close LBW decisions. He also seems to have no confidence in Hawkye, deeming that computers are just costly gimmicks.

The other young bowler, Greg Hunt, has impressed with his leg spin. He is future Captain material, and with better fielding may have returned better figures. He is a dasher with the bat as well, and looks to be given a greater role in the next two tests.

Finally, Steven Ciobo as representing Small Business, Independent Contractors and the Arts, hasn't seemed to know what to bowl, nor to whom. Too often he is forced to bowl his right arm predictables to Julia Gillard, or Chris Bowen, and too often he has watched the ball being hit back over his head for four easy runs.

But the Opposition hasn't been helped by occasional heckling from the former Captain, John Howard, now sitting comfortably in the member's stand. His calls from the sideline have distracted many - especially Bishop, Abbott and Hockey, and have left Turnbull wondering just who is the real captain of the squad.

But with the game finished, and only Richie Benaud left to wrap up the match, we look forward to the next match, where the pitch is likely to be less batsman friendly, and containing dangers for both sides.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A song a year: 1983, Bop Girl

I really only started taking a particular interest in music in 1983. Before that I was aware of songs on the radio, but I wasn't personally involved with any songs or bands. In 1982 for example I knew of "Ebony and Ivory", or "Physical" and "Up Where We Belong", but I wasn't living my days by the Top 8 at 8 on the local AM radio station, and I certainly didn't have any posters on my wall.

But in 1983, perhaps because I was in my final year of primary school, music started to take hold. Rather than just knowing of a few songs in the charts, I knew all the songs. And it was a great time to become involved with music - bands such as Culture Club singing "Karma Chameleon", Kenny Loggins getting "Footloose", Deneise Williams singing "Let's Hear it for the Boy", and Stevie Wonder reaching the high point of his career with "I Just Called to Say I Love You".

Ok, maybe it wasn't such a great year, but who cares? When you're young every song that you think is the best is axiomatically also the best song ever. It took me a couple years to realise the correlation between Number 1 song and quality was pretty low, but it probably wasn't until I was in my very late teens that I stopped paying full attention to the charts.

In the great music-lovers' novel, High Fidelity, the main character rearranges his LP collection autobiographically. Which, when you think about it, is the only way to think of music.

Music matters because of when you heard it, and the memories it invokes. Music that is very good but which has no connection to your biography will never be considered great. It's why The Beach Boys Pet Sounds is listed in the greatest all time albums, but Brian Wilson's Smile album which was made around the same time and is just as technically brilliant, but which was only released in 2003, will never be a truly great album - ditto Bob Dylan's Live From Albert Hall - perhaps one of the best live albums ever, but which will never hold the affection that his albums released in the 1960s have.

Now, the usual case is that a song will invoke a time or place, and thus throughout a year numerous songs will invoke numerous memories, which makes it pretty hard to limit one song to encapsulate one year. But what the heck I shall try. And bear in mind these songs encapsulate the year for me, not the year for everyone.

Why does "Bop Girl" remind me of 1983? I have to admit there were a few runners up for the title - among them Taco "Puttin on the Ritz", which sticks in my mind because my sister had a gotten the great compilation tape "1983 Summer Breaks" for Christmas, of which that was one of the songs, and it was the one that stuck in my head the most. Also close to being my song of 1983 was the fantastically bizarre number from New Zealand band Monte Video & The Cassettes, "Shoop Shoop Diddy Wop".

But as great as those songs were (geez what a year for music!), it is Pat Wilson's "Bop Girl" that takes me back to 1983. My Year 7 teacher that year had it stuck into her head that the class should do dancing for PE instead of, geee I don't know, PE! And thus instead of playing soccer or basketball or learning how to play volleyball, she choreographed some moves for the class to learn to perform. Some were horrible folk dances, but two were for modern songs. The entire class had to learn to do dance steps to The Nolans' "Gotta Pull Myself Together", and a select few girls (a favoured six, I recall) got to dance to "Bop Girl".

It was essentially a preamble into music for me. I was at the crossroads of liking music because I liked it, and liking it because my friends liked it. I can also remember watching Countdown around at a friend's house and "Bop Girl" was the Number 1 song that week. I think it was the first time I had watched the Countdown Top 10 and known all the songs and even been able to guess the Number 1. From there I never looked back.

Like a lot of songs in the early 1980s, "Bop Girl" is incredibly stupid. It makes no sense; it's beat is inane, and the video not even remotely connected with the lyrics. The video is now of note only for the fact it features a very young Nicole Kidman (no doubt coming off her win in the Dolly Covergirl competition). She was 15 and in the video she sits around smoking and looking very stuck up. It may be her best role. (Ok that is harsh. She was damn good in BMX Bandits).

But, be that as it may, the song has its hooks into me, and should I ever need to invoke the feelings of what life was like for me in Year 7, I need only hear the opening few bars, and I am right back in class, sitting down watching the girls perform some bizarre robotic type dance to this classic 80s One Hit Wonder song.

Of interest for those who were teenagers during the 80s is this absolutely fantastic blog, called The 80's Tapes which features all the compilation tapes of the era (and lots of other great stuff). It was a time when a compilation tape couldn't be called Video Hits 27, or Hit Machine 22. Nope, it had to be "1982 Up in Lights", or "1981 Over the Top".

If you ever had a mono tape player and you got a tape for Christmas that featured such classic songs as Billy Field's "You weren't in love with me", or Kajagoogoo singing "Too Shy", then check out the site and spend a hour or so looking at the covers of those tapes and shaking your head as the song lists come flooding back.

Oh and bugger it, here's "Shoop Shoop Diddy Wop", because it so perfectly captures early 1980s weird.