And United is not a nickname

Sport maintains a critical position in Australian culture. Not only is it seen as a manifestation of our perceived defining values such as “having a go” “playing fair” and mateship, it is the lingua franca of our cities and towns; it’s how we talk to one another and express our fears and hopes. Our teams’ seasons help us measure out the years. And it’s big business, too. In short, sport is important to Australians.

That’s why it’s so confounding that the naming (or, if you will, the branding) of institutions to which we’re expected to dedicate our passion, time and money is often given meagre, unimaginative consideration.

Consider the case of Big Bash League franchise the Hobart Hurricanes, a name that gives the impression of having been conjured up as a last-minute replacement for something even less appropriate – the Hobart Hogwash, perhaps.

“Alright, how about Hurricanes, then?” you can hear a defeated marketing consultant ask.

We don’t, however, have hurricanes in this country – not in the tropical north (where such meteorological events are known as “cyclones”). And certainly not in the cold-climate capital of Tasmania.

Another sports sobriquet that rankles is basketball team Melbourne United.

Now, the NBL has some form when it comes to ill-thought-out monikers.

Indeed, apart from a brief period when the Townsville Crocodiles and Cairns Taipans came into being, franchises have tended to avoid proudly Australian nominative representation.

Perth (one of the competition’s most successful clubs) even selected “Wildcats” for its nickname. Though this is a popular choice for college sports teams (Kentucky, Arizona, Northwestern and Kansas State among many others), a wildcat is something of a pest – if not a scourge – in this country.

Adelaide’s “36er” nom de guerre refers to the city’s 1836 founding, but always struck me as somewhat derivative of the renowned Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA.

So, what’s wrong with “United”, you ask?

First, it’s a quintessentially English soccer naming device – Manchester United, Sheffield United and Newcastle United, for example.

Yet in each of these cases United is not a nickname as such, with these teams cheered on as the Red Devils, Blades and Magpies, respectively. Rather, the “United” component usually refers to the fact clubs were formed from the combination of others.

(Although it’s true that many NBL franchises have risen and fallen in the Victorian capital, United is the direct descendent of the Melbourne Tigers rather than a bastard child of multiple franchises.)

Plus, let’s face it: there’s a space where the club’s nickname should be – the Melbourne United Somethings.

For me, great team nicknames involve the tantalising combination of originality (although not at all costs – the University of California Santa Cruz Banana Slugs is a tad silly) and geographical, cultural or historical appropriateness.

“Celtics” is a successful name for the storied Boston basketball institution because it calls to mind the Massachusetts city’s Irish history, heritage and continued links.

The Ravens of Baltimore references the famous poem by Edgar Allen Poe, who called the city home.

Essendon’s Australian rules Bombers links to the fact the northern Melbourne suburb was home to the city’s only airport until the 1970s.

The Rabbitohs of South Sydney refers not, as you might think, to the pesky but cute myxomatosis-affected fluffy rodent but rather the men who captured and sold them during the Depression early last century. Standing on street corners, these chaps would shout “rabbitoh, rabbitoh!” in order to sell their wares.

Many traditional sports nicknames convey aggression – think Eagles, Tigers, Bears, Rams – but there are other approaches.

The Temple Owls, Harvard Crimson, New York Liberty (great logo too), Green Bay Packers, Manhattan Jaspers, Stanford Cardinal and Centenary Gentlemen (alma mater of Celtics great Robert Parish) are all cool without being in any way tough.

The passage of time can bestow a certain authority on the most benign of monikers – the LA Lakers (Minnesota, where the team was originally located, was known as the “Land of 1,000 lakes”, hence Lakers), Geelong Cats, Sydney Swans and Everton Toffees (also known as the Blues) all have a certain something about them.

In place of Hurricanes, I’m suggesting the Hobart Hat-tricks, Hitters, Hammers, Devils, or Islanders might be better options. No wait, I have it: the Able Tas Men!

What about the Melbourne United True Blues, Mob (as in kangaroos), Larrikins, King Browns, Kookaburras, Goannas, Mistrals, or Thoroughbreds?

Since I am on a roll with my self-initiated re-branding exercise for Australian sports franchises, I may as well continue on to two club names that rankle every time I hear them.

The North Queensland Cowboys of the NRL are one. Here’s the thing: We don’t have cowboys in Australia – it’s an occupation most closely associated with the Old West.

We do, however, have jackaroos, drovers, ringers, jumbucks, even Wild Colonial Boys.

I’m also not a huge (get it?) fan of Giants as a nickname for AFL expansion club Greater Western Sydney. It’s just so … generic.

How about the GWS Great White Sharks – that way the “GWS” does double duty.

There are many precedents for sports teams changing their identity. When baseball club the Montreal Expos moved to Washington they became the Nationals; the SuperSonics of Seattle transformed into the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Thinking that his NBA basketball club’s nickname was not helping out-of-control gun culture in the US capital, Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin changed it to the Wizards.

It’s surprising that in a world so focused on marketing and brands that the powers that be behind new Australian sports franchises don’t have much in the way of new ideas. Makes you wonder what became of the old team effort.


The show within a show

In a week of TV viewing, we’re presented with everything from vampire slaying to backyard makeovers; everything that is except watching TV itself. Outside of Gogglebox, that’s an activity largely restricted to cartoon shows.

In the animated world, “the show within the show” reflects the way audiences engage with the media while satirising it for laughs.

On 70s program Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, the superhero show The Brown Hornet was used to distil the moral message of each episode into easily digestible nuggets for both the kids on the show (Fat Albert, Rudy, Mushmouth et al) and the viewing audience.

But writers of contemporary programs know their audiences are too savvy and cynical to buy into such warm and fuzzy messages.

Their characters are more likely to watch programs that reflect the kind of society television has forged and manipulated.

South Parks’s talk show Jesus and Pals, for instance, is forced at one stage to compete in a ratings war with wildlife program Huntin’and Killin’. When Jesus’s message looks threatened by Huntin’ and Killin’s growing popularity, His show fights back with a trashy, Jerry Springer-style makeover, complete with an all-in-brawl that ends when Jesus calls for everyone to shut the f… up.

The show that does the best job of featuring television as a powerful force in the lives of its characters is The Simpsons.

Indeed, watching TV is a defining activity for Bart, Lisa, Marge and, especially, Homer.

In the opening sequence, the family races home from various activities to spend quality time in front of the box. It sets the tone for what is to come.

Now the longest-running American sitcom, The Simpsons is frequently scathing about its own medium, often depicting television as a negative influence, or simply a waste of time.

In one episode, Marge, the moral centre of the family, campaigns to water down the extreme violence of The Itchy and Scratchy Show (the bellicose cat and mouse duo who appear on Krusty the Clown’s program – which makes it a show within a show within a show).

When Marge succeeds, the children of Springfield, now freed from their TV trammels, actually leave their lounge rooms to go outside and play.

TV in the world of The Simpsons is a strictly lowbrow affair. In one episode we see bartender Moe competing on a Who Wants to be a Millionaire-like quiz show called Me Wantee!, where literal wheelbarrows full of cash are up for grabs.

The local reality TV show, Bad Cops, highlights the incompetence of Springfield’s finest.

“Subject is hatless, I repeat, hatless,” advises Police Chief Wiggum in an APB as an offender speeds away.

In sending up their characters, the writers of The Simpsons also send up their audience.

In one episode, Homer is given 24 hours to live after swallowing a piece of poisonous Japanese fish. He decides to pack as much life as possible into what he thinks is his last day alive.

Later given a reprieve, he vows never to waste another moment. Yet in the final image, there he is, lounging in an armchair, munching a packet of pork rinds as he stares, fascinated, at his flickering TV. Just like us.


This article first appeared in the September 2003 issue of Good Weekend. I wrote it with input from Derek Agnew.





Justified left


Don’t you think it’s time some order was restored to our footpaths?

“Golf,” renowned perambulator Mark Twain once remarked, “is a good walk spoiled.”

Twain’s disdain was focused on the game of birdies, albatrosses and bogeys. It’s fair to say the pastime did not rate highly in his regard.

Were Samuel Clemens alive today, however, I feel confident it’s not golf he’d be railing against for the disruption of his jaunts, ambles and constitutionals.

Rather, the monographer would doubtless be aghast at the frank paucity of manners and consideration displayed on our city footpaths.

A lunchtime stretch of the legs has become an obstacle-course negotiation.

Admittedly, I work in one of the city’s busiest and less salubrious locales, and in recent times foot traffic has increased considerably.

Indeed, it’s a jungle out there, full of pitfalls and minor predators.

Generally, if I can, I try to stick to the left, using our helpful road rules as a rough guide.

But I’ve discovered to my chagrin and consternation that often times I am not in the majority with this way of thinking.

One of the most common offences is committed by young students, strolling at an ever-so-leisurely pace, four or five abreast. They’re not going anywhere quickly, and neither are you. Time’s winged chariot is racing near, children. Tarry not.

Packs of young male office workers get my goat. In their too-tight suits, they strut, slink, or hurtle along in a contest to see either who can hold up the most pedestrians, or knock them out of the way, depending on the day.

Tourists choosing the most opportune time and place – here, in the middle of the footpath will do – to consult maps; pettifoggers dragging along steamer trunks full of homework; thousand-yard starers; high-heel totterers; distracted shufflers; general lollygaggers; graffiti-photographing Instagrammers; nicotine-addicted office rubes smoking in large groups;  and insistent right-side adherents. Collectively they are the scourge of our footpaths.

In a recent trip to Sydney I noticed the train stations have signs advising folks to stick to the left on stairs and ramps.

That’s a great start, but doesn’t go nearly far enough. Let’s place those signs all over the city, and enforce guidelines around proper prescribed pavement practice (the Four Ps).

And I propose a citizens’ action group to enforce the codes of behaviour: the Walking with Purpose Collective will issue infraction notices, generally acting as stewards of sensible ambulatory behaviour.

It’s time, as Mr Twain would inarguably agree, to take a stand. To walk the walk.

The 10 essential assassin movies

The American blog“Killing’s a helluva thing,” says the eponymous character (Clint Eastwood) in The Outlaw Josey Wales. “You take away everything a man has, and everything he’s gonna have.”

As they are depicted in movies, professional killers – hitmen, mechanics, assets, cleaners; there are many names – can roughly be divided into two types.

There are those who revel in their lethal skills and the bounty it can yield – think Anton Chigurgh (Javier Bardem) in No Country for Old Men, who sadistically asks his victims to flip a coin to determine their fate.

And then there are those who are greatly perturbed by the terrible impact of their deadly adroitness.

Jack (George Clooney) in The American is haunted by the innocent lives he’s taken, and a sense that his own days are surely numbered.

Although they usually work alone (accommodating others can have serious consequences for career and well-being), a common trope of the assassin genre is the notion of the guild – that, like printers or jewellers, cold-blooded killers belong to union-like collectives that boast rich histories, mores, and even apprenticeship systems.

Indeed, Assassins Creed and Ninja Assassin both suggest killers have been trained and mentored in hitman schools for centuries.1

Yet the apotheosis of this idea must be John Wick, in which assassins observe a clearly defined set of rules and even have their own currency, which is good for everything from after-deed clean-ups (aka “dinner reservations”), to chi chi hotel accommodation, and (of course) weaponry.

Though the weapon of choice for any pro killer worth his or her salt is a firearm – a rifle for long-distance targets, a pistol for closer work – the mark of a top-drawer assassin is the ability to improvise, to turn anything – a rolled-up magazine, a car door, a piece of luggage, an electrical cord, a curtain rope, even a pen or pencil – into an implement of lethal force and ultimate consequences.


John Wick
Little did we know that existing alongside our own quotidian world there is another milieu: that of the hired heavy hand, of whom there are legions from which to choose. Yet the crème de la crème is John Wick, a man, we are told, of singular focus, commitment and sheer will. A man who has mastered the tricky art of gun fu, who leaves his marks behind in piles, and whose grief for his recently deceased wife is matched only by his anger at the loss of his car (a ‘69 Mustang, sweet rides being another hitman movie calling card) and dog. Here is the assassin film recalibrated.

The Bourne Identity
Most decent films in this genre portray private contractors at work, exhibiting their elite particular set of skills for a specific price. In this film, we see the government version, in this case physically and cognitively enhanced, and boasting advanced linguistic, tactical, fighting and survival skills. A mystery even to himself, Jason Bourne is also damaged, a victim of the Treadstone program that created him, unleashed him, and now must suffer the consequences as it tries to rein him in.

Leon the Professional
He appears from nowhere, stepping stealthily from the shadows, and has but one rule: “no women, no kids”. On a diet of milk, intense abdominal training and the occasional Hollywood musical, New York’s peripatetic trigger man for the mafia doesn’t know he’s looking for his own family and for roots until he reluctantly opens his door to the last survivor of a bent cop’s (Gary Oldman in a memorable performance) mad, sanguinary free-for-all. A slow-building classic.

The American
In this moody, atmospheric film, there is no escaping “the life” for old-school assassin and gunsmith Jack (George Clooney). Like heist flicks, films centred on hitmen often have at their core a “last job”, one final pay-day before fading off into the dappled light. The trick for these assassin protagonists is in avoiding being the career-ending big score for a rival. Will Jack escape and find love with beautiful whore Clara? And how did the Swedes find him, tucked away there in the Umbrian mountains?

John Wick Chapter 2
Taking place only days after the original, we discover in this arty sequel that the world of the assassins is considerably more substantial than we might have imagined; it has its own (stridently analogue) accounts department; a Roman version of the Intercontinental Hotel; and is headed by the mysterious High Table. As for the titular character, well, he exudes what Esquire writer George Frasier coined “duende” – a combination of charisma, aptitude and panache.

The Mechanic
Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) believes in planning; for him, each hit represents an “assignment”, and the method of elimination is only revealed through rigorous study and meticulous preparation. As is inscribed on the pistol of his mentor: amat victoria curum (victory loves preparation.) In this tight remake of Charles Bronson’s signature film, Bishop is pretty good at winging it too, when necessary.

As an ageing contract killer who has lost his nerve, Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is a teary, faltering mess struggling after all this time with his profession’s occupational hazards. He’s also a bit of a jerk – equal parts vain, annoying and self-loathing. Yet just beneath the surface is a charming, urbane soul (and of course, a crack shot). Maybe – just maybe – he and everyman adman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) can help each other out. A neglected little gem, boasting an arresting against-the-tide performance from Brosnan in the early days after his time playing that other suave killer.

La Femme Nikita
Some might argue that the career of iconoclastic director Luc Besson has been more pothole than road. But he had a brilliant idea that formed the genesis of this now (admittedly somewhat aged) classic. What if a teenage criminal was given the choice between a lethal injection or joining an elite unit of French government killers? And what if that teenager was a girl (Besson’s future wife Anne Parillaud) who Besson forced to shoot some scenes 28 times, only to use the first in the final version? Well, add Jean Reno as Victor the Cleaner and Tcheky Karyo as the first of many morally compromised bastards and you’d have yourself a cool (and hugely influential) yarn.

The Day of the Jackal
All that I really recall about this film are the black Citroens, the gun cleverly concealed in crutches, and the brilliant disguises of the titular hero played by Edward Fox. That’s enough, non?

Originally this musing was going to chart the 10 essential assassin films, but I came up one short. Certainly there are plenty of decent flicks to consider: the Kill Bills come readily to mind, The Specialist (exploding tea cups and Rod Steiger chewing scenery anyone?), Assassins (another Stallone vehicle), The Assassin, American Assassin, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Hana, The Equalizer, Ghost Dog, Mr and Mrs Smith, Columbiana, Point Blank, Grosse Pointe Blank, two decent versions of Payback – but none that I felt like watching right now.

I suppose, yes, I could be persuaded otherwise. I mean, let’s not argue about it. There’s no need for violence. Wait, put that down …


  1. The notion that assassins belong to clans also hints to the word’s origin. “Assassin” with a capital A refers to a member of a secret order of Muslim fanatics who terrorised and killed Crusaders. The name derives from the Arabic word hashshash or “hasish eater” (originally referring to members of an Ismaili sect who took the drug before attacking their enemies).


Get yourself sat, Matt

Catching the bus is no joy ride.

You can pretty much tell what kind of bus driver you’re going to have from the time you get on board. If you’re greeting to the man (it’s usually a man) sitting in the big chair is returned, you’ve probably encountered one of the vast majority of these essential professionals: even-tempered souls who will very likely transport you to your destination without incident. Some of these might even wait for you if they see you heading towards the bus stop.

If your “Good morning” is met with a grunt, you’ve come across that selection of drivers who probably see their vocation as akin to the transportation of toxic waste: irksome but necessary.

Then there are those who don’t respond at all. Beware this small sample, and make your way to your seat as quickly as possible. The driver won’t wait for you (and secretly I wonder if there’s a competition among these thousand-yard starers to see who can take down the most passengers in a day), or perhaps they’re simply in a hurry. It’s best not to ask.

Of all the methods of facilitating getting from A to B, doing so via bus must surely be one of the least glamorous, for all concerned.

For suburban passengers, the convenience of having a stop outside your door is countered by the fact few routes seem to run in a straight line anywhere, very likely skipping down several side streets, stop every 100 metres, seldom run on the weekend, are usually late but sometimes frustratingly early (and of course don’t stop at all in this instance if no passengers are waiting), and frequently don’t run at all. Coordination with other forms of public transport is ad hoc.

Some routes seem to have little logic; from Box Hill in Melbourne’s east, buses issue forth to Altona, Mordialloc and Chadstone. If you so desire you can catch a bus from St Kilda to Sunshine, and from Hampton to Berwick.

It’s rare to ride a bus where at least one piece of equipment isn’t faulty or out of commission. There’s a very good chance the AC has stopped working. Early in the morning or late in the night, you’re usually riding in the dark, which makes it harder to read, and on those occasions, underlines the interminable time this form of public transport can grindingly consume.

For drivers, the hassle of dealing with traffic and misbehaving passengers is a constant. Little wonder they often look frazzled.

I suspect those who live in rural and regional areas might think of buses more affectionately than city folk, providing as they do an essential form of transportation in places where others don’t run at all.

My own relationship with bus travel has become far more intimate than I imagined it ever would. Having lost the use of my mostly reliable Magna sedan a while back – and taken some time to come to grips with the price of used cars – I’ve gradually (but not warmly) learned to accept (but not embrace) its usefulness.

I guess I should stop my grousing and either buy a car for those five to 10-minute trips to the local train station, or accept the reality of bus travel. And the truth is, we need our buses to take us where trains and trams can’t go.

Alas, the bus hasn’t earned the cachet of other transport modes.

For instance, its place in pop culture has never captured the romance of other forms of mass transit, such as submarines (The Hunt for Red October, Das Boat) ships (Pirates of the Caribbean, Titanic); motorbikes (Easy Rider, The Great Escape); balloons (Around the World in Eighty Days); cars (any Bond film) or trains (Some Like it Hot, Murder on the Orient Express).

Planes, Buses and Automobiles lacks a certain something. Ditto for Throw Momma from the Bus or Runaway Bus – although of course, that’s basically what Speed is. And Speed is admirable, if not awesome.

The Italian Job (original version) made the bus pivotal (bad pun intended) to its plot.

Yet when I think of the bus on screen, it’s not in the depiction of a grand cross-continental journey, but rather the prosaic and the everyday: the bad jokes and casual racism of On the Buses, Otto’s suspect driving and social skills in The Simpsons, or Principal Rooney forced to ensure a bus ride with his students at the conclusion of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, not by choice, but because it’s the only option. That’s how it rolls.

There is no Laburnum

They have no official status, but they exist anyway. They are Melbourne’s secret suburbs.

Recently I met someone who claimed to reside in Laburnum. Laburnum? He was having me on, surely. Having spent some of my formative years living in a beautiful rambling house at 42 Laburnum St, within easy walk of Laburnum Train Station and the Laburnum shops (Mum and Dad had also briefly considered sending my brother and me to Laburnum Primary School) I recognised this claim for what it was: a bald-faced lie. A deception. An inaccuracy.

As anyone familiar with the area knows, there is no Laburnum: that part of Melbourne falls within Blackburn, in the City Of Whitehorse.

If you glance at a Melways (a hardcopy version, preferably) you’ll notice that official suburbs are listed in capital letters. It’s all pretty straightforward.

Look a little closer and you might observe that some places are printed in lower case. Rather than official ‘burbs with their own postcodes, these areas are pockets, precincts, neighbourhoods and localities that for various reasons have had a different, individual moniker bestowed upon them.

Some of these are semi-official titles thought up, it seems, by some rather unimaginative government apparatchiks or construction company marketers. I’d put Beacon Cove, NewQuay, Waterfront City, Digital Harbour, Victoria Harbour, Batmans Hill, Kensington Banks and Yarra’s Edge into this category.

Other locality sobriquets are merely geographically descriptive. Epping North, Macleod West and Ascot Vale West fit in to this sub-group. Given how big some of these areas are, it makes sense to informally subdivide them.

Indeed, other locales seem to evolve in spread-out suburbs, where a modicum of differentiation is helpful. Bellevue, Deepdene and Greythorn in Balwyn; and Newlands and Merlynston in Coburg North could be examples of this.

There are a bunch of pockets based around train stations that are not named for suburbs. Hartwell, Jolimont, Newmarket, Syndal, Westgarth.  (I’d always just assumed these were all official stand-alone suburbs), Glenferrie, Merlynston, Macaulay, Rushall and Anstey are examples.

Mont Albert (originally just plain old Mount Albert) was a train station before it was a locality and then later earned official suburb status.

Part of Frankston, Karingal, meaning “happy home” or “happy camp” in an aboriginal dialect, was given its name in the 1960s when land in the area began to be developed, largely as an AV Jennings housing estate.

Merlynston had similar commercial origins. When in 1919 Donald Bain bought the 31 hectares known as Station Heights Estate west of Coburg North railway station, he subdivided it into housing blocks and renamed it after his daughter Merlyn. The station was subsequently renamed too.

Some Melbourne places seemed to have been unofficially sub-classified in an attempt to lift exclusivity; to redefine by their difference. Perhaps Gardiner (Glen Iris), South Kingsville, Glengala (Sunshine West), Westbreen, Westgarthton and Regent (Preston) come into this category. The name “Regent” simply exudes exclusivity, even if the locale itself may not.

Others have names derived from natural features; consider Mt Cooper and Coonans Hill.

So is there any harm in telling folks that you live in an area that doesn’t really exist – in saying Paisley when you mean Altona North, or Darling when Malvern East is more accurate?

Well, if mail or emergency services not being able to reach your abode isn’t an issue, then possibly not.

For many years before it was finally made official in 1999, the area south of Richmond Station bound by Swan St and Punt Rd was known and referred to as Cremorne.

We are talking about a small realm of some historical and cultural significance, home to the sprawling Cremorne Gardens established in the 1850s. Referred to as a “pleasure garden” (what we might call an amusement park), the area housed a menagerie of exotic animals, a bowling alley, cyclorama, and offered balloon rides.

Here was the official departure point for Burke and Wills’ infamously ill-fated journey. Cremorne existed as an entity long before the powers that be acceded to acknowledge it.

Perhaps by 2099 it might be Laburnum’s turn. By the way, did I mention that I grew up there?

































The 10 most enjoyable films of 2016

Not necessarily the best movies of the past 12 months, the following list of flicks are the ones that kept me most entertained. The list is roughly in order.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – the Touring Years
My introduction to the Beatles’ music was through hearing them on radio on family car trips in the 1970s and later through compilation tapes. Even as I grew to love the tunes, I don’t think I ever really understood the phenomenon of Beatlemania – 200,000 fans turned out to see the band in Adelaide in the early 1960s – or even the impact of the music itself until this clever (admittedly somewhat hagiographic) documentary. Assembled from concert footage, still photographs and a combination of archival and new interviews, here is a film that enthrals and informs. Good job Ron Howard.

Rosalie Blum
A sad-sack mummy’s boy hairdresser, a hard-smoking middle-aged grocery store owner, her drop-out niece and a slew of fringe-dweller associates doesn’t sound like the most encouraging cast of characters. Yet it all comes together in this cleverly crafted and beautifully executed small-town French dramedy.

The Accountant
This surprising shoot-’em-up could be described as “John Wick meets Rainman“, or as my buddy Derek Agnew puts it, “autistic Batman”. As strange as that sounds, it absolutely works.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The best film of the long-running franchise hands down. Highlights were Ben Mendelsohn’s turn as an ambitious Imperial higher-up, the toughest blind swordsman since Zatoichi, and the most fearsome Darth Vader yet (even if James Earl Jones’ voice sounds a little off in a young villain).

Our Kind of Traitor
Adaptations of John Le Carre can get bogged down in the characters’ internal struggles and torments, expressed through interminable periods of waiting and anguish (for the audience). Yet this lively intrigue is expertly paced, and buoyed by great turns from Stellan Skarsgard as a whistleblower Russian mobster, and Damien Lewis as an MI6 operative bent on revenge.

The old maestro Clint Eastwood does it again in this telling of the day an airliner made an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York City. It’s way more moving than that sounds. (Idea: I’d love to see directors sneak in a shot of Wilson the volleyball from Castaway into all future Tom Hanks movies, just for old times’ sake).

There is a small sub-genre of films (Music Box, High Crimes) where a character is made to look so guilty the audience thinks they can’t possibly be the culprit. Is the lovely Marion Cottilard really working for the Germans?

The Sweeney Paris
Gee it’s good to see the hangdog yet charismatic Jean Reno back on screen in this French (of course) police procedural, which features the best street gunfight since Heat. Zut alors!

The Secret Life of Pets
For this animated treat I found myself being that idiot who laughs loudest in the cinema. Enough said.

David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive 3D
Part of the attraction was no doubt the free ticket and choctop, but my first trip to the Imax cinema was a thoroughly enjoyable one.

Explanations and extras
Looking through this list, what stands out is the lack of depth, nuance and variety. I definitely was drawn to the escapist flick in 2016. And for this I do not apologise. Surely since the moment the Lumiere brothers showed footage of steam trains coming and going, the point of cinema is transport (no pun intended) rather than edification?

I have no doubt a good part of the enjoyment of the Beatles docco and Rosalie Blum was pleasant surprise – the sense of low expectations being easily exceeded.

The decision to see both movies resulted from sessions for other preferences being sold out, filled by the organised and well mobilised silver foxes of Cinema Como and Palace Balwyn, respectively.

After reading a glowing review on The Onion AV Club, I felt pretty let down by Midnight Special and its very silly cop-out ending. But the whole thing, really. Just dumb.

I had problems with Arrival too, the main ones being understanding how giant squid could build spaceships, and the deus ex machina of the aliens’ “gift”. What a come-down from Sicario for director Denis Villeneuve!

La La Land was quite good, but after it received a record number of Oscar nominations, I’m wondering if I missed something. Many of its tunes sounded like the forgettable filler in an Andrew Lloyd Webber production. And like the director’s previous film Whiplash, the conclusion was astonishingly discordant  with what came before.

I walked out on the creepy, exploitative The Witch.

Hell or High Water was a film I wanted to like more, but couldn’t (and didn’t).

Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea were two films I didn’t get around to seeing before the Australia Day deadline.

I also heard Korean zombie epic Train to Busan was worth a look, too. The trailer makes it look like Snowpiercer meets World War Z. I probably won’t see that one. In 2017 I am going to be more discerning, I swear.

Same, same but different

Motion picture sequels don’t have to go through the motions.

Directors and writers who take over a movie series have two choices: they can continue to shepherd the franchise down the well-grooved path it’s been on – same tropes, characters, and narrative arc – or they can pursue a different route.

In the former category you could put Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Admittedly this is part seven in an epic series spread over 40 (Earth) years. So there’s an expectation that the storylines established in the first six parts will continue to unfold – and perhaps even satisfyingly conclude.

But still. As enjoyable as it was, JJ Abrams’ nifty effort was derivative in the extreme. So much so that it was basically a remake of the original Star Wars (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope), but with a female lead standing in for the young Luke Skywalker.

In the latter category could be placed Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Though set in the carefully circumscribed and increasingly self-referential Star Wars universe, it is a stand-alone off-shoot – something of a prequel to the George Lucas-directed 1977 film.

Like the original, Rogue One is a pastiche of a bunch of different influences, yet the action is considerably more propulsive, and the overall tone somewhat darker.

In a series that has had its share of misfires (Jar Jar Binks and little Anni Skywalker, for instance), it’s a stunning achievement.

The original Alien is admirable for its incredible production design, its masterful build-up of suspense, and for its ground-breaking use of special effects. (Who could forget the film’s signature scene of an extra-terrestrial bursting forth from its host?)

And yet I much prefer the visceral action of the James Cameron-helmed sequel, with its gung ho cadre of military specialists pitted against an icky foe.

Having made “tension” the defining feature of the original, the quintessential space creature feature, Aliens takes us on a thrilling head-long ride that barely lets up.

The Rocky series had taken far too many body blows by the time Creed stepped into the ring. Having stayed past its welcome, it was punchy, against the ropes even, and surely due for the figurative white towel to be tossed in.

However, with Sylvester Stallone relieved of directing and script duties, Creed is easily the best film in the series since the Oscar-winning original.

Featuring the most realistic depiction of the sweet science in the Rocky films, it boasts a charismatic lead in Michael B. Jordan, and a knock-out plot.

Can Adonis Creed fulfil his pugilistic destiny? Can trainer Rocky Balboa impart the essential ringside lessons to the son of his most worthy opponent while himself fighting the biggest foe of his life?

Boasting a stirring score and the essential training montage sequences, it’s a terrific yarn well executed.

Based on the books by Robert Ludlum, the Jason Bourne series appeared as if it had reached a logical end by the time credits rolled on The Bourne Ultimatum (with the best-forgotten Jason Bourne released a few years later).

No longer a complete enigma to himself, super-agent Jason Bourne had outlasted all the agents in the Treadstone program, discovered his true identity, and seemingly closed the door on a life of black ops, clandestine morally indefensible activities, and the ominous engagement of assets.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy, who had worked on the first few Bourne films, then put his hand up to deliver a side story.

In The Bourne Legacy, a frantic Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) must use all of his lethal training and enhancements to outwit and outfight a merciless government determined to erase all trace of him, going so far as to burn to the ground the Outcome program that provided Cross’s advanced capabilities.

In this intelligent actioner there is less emphasis on the protagonist’s inner journey and more on his determination to survive. And not only is it a worthy addition to the series, it seamlessly integrates into it.

Gilroy’s deft touch can also be seen on Rogue One, for which he served as co-writer.

Just like The Bourne Legacy, it involves the critical search for a MacGuffin.

Somehow it brilliantly references the universe from which it was generated – Darth Vader has never looked more lethal – without ever, er, forcing it.

Caught by a tag

Whatever happened to movie taglines?


Not so long ago in a cinema quite close by, I was leaving a Saturday night screening of a film (Midnight Special, an OK flick with a pretty ridiculous conclusion) when I happened to notice a poster for a forthcoming attraction.

The film in question was The Nice Guys, starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. What a cool poster it was too, boasting an eye-catching colour and interesting font to complement a picture of the somewhat-less-than-heroic leads. What really caught my attention, however, were the words towards the bottom: “They’re not so nice”.

A tagline.

A phrase usually comprising of just a few pithy words, a tagline is a neat, punchy device that works with other advertising tools – trailer, interviews and print collateral – to sell a movie. A slogan.

Yet it had been years since I’d even noticed one. The last time I’d really paid any sort of attention to taglines was before I even knew what one was, back in the 1970s.

I heard, read and had ingrained in my impressionable psyche, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, far away” well before I had a chance to see George Lucas’s sci-fi mash-up epic.

In those long-ago days of yore taglines had time to work their magic. They could filter down from the marketing types who invented them all the way to dorky suburban sci-fi fans such as me. They could percolate, infiltrate and resonate.

In the time before the internet, even before video, it took years before films of note reached television.  (Compare this with the situation now, where movies of quite considerable stature often make their free-to-air debut on minor digital channels, and then might screen regularly there for a while.)

There were less big screens in the 70s. The big movie houses were mostly based in the city, and the suburban multiplex had yet to have its day. Most cinemas outside the CBD were stand-alone screens, or at best, doubles.

This meant if you wanted to see a popular film and not wait a good while, it had to be at the cinema. But the good news was you had time to do this, because if a film was decent, or popular, or both, it might stay on the big screen for months or longer.

Word of mouth was the most important form of recommendation, ahead of the judgements issued forth from the avuncular film critics of the day, such as Ivan Hutchinson or Bill Collins.

I remember my nine-year-old self thinking of the famous Star Wars (sorry, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) tagline: “Wow, if that was a long time ago, imagine what the technology is like now!”

Nowadays, many films might have just a week in the cinema, and even by that time, they are readily accessible on streaming services for those willing to chance the FBI knocking on their door. And courtesy of a global commentariat, we usually know a lot more about a film than a mere tagline can tell us.

I wonder if that’s why the most memorable movie taglines seem to date from the 70s and 80s.

“In space, no one can hear you scream”. That tagline worked a treat, its warning (a promise well kept as it turns out) drawing many to Ridley Scott’s dystopian creature feature Alien in 1979.

Ditto for “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water,” which ushered fans aplenty in to see Jaws 2.

And the same again for Poltergeist II’s “They’re back”.

“Be afraid. Be very afraid.” This said it all, really, about David Cronenberg’s icky The Fly, which really was rather gross. Here was a caution, but also a tease. “How bad could it be?” you might have wondered. A stunning performance made Jeff Goldblum’s career, and the film became a minor classic of the “mad scientist” genre.

It also brings to mind the taglines proposed by Dudley Moore’s character in Crazy People.

An advertising copywriter suffering a nervous breakdown (hence the film’s sensitive title), he decides the only way he can live with himself is to embrace a platform of extreme honesty.

This explains a tagline for a Jaguar car ad – “For men who’d like to receive hand-jobs from women they hardly know” – and for a horror film called The Freak: “This film won’t just scare you, it will f*ck you up for life.” The campaigns, of course, are wildly successful.

The best taglines are so effective they are forever associated with the films they were coined to promote. In the next category down are those that although funny and clever, you probably haven’t heard.

“Does for rock ‘n’ roll what The Sound of Music did for the hills.” It’s just silly enough to be the tagline for This is Spinal Tap.

Chicken Run’s “Escape or die frying” and Scott Pilgrim Saves the World‘s “An epic of epic epicness” are pretty cute.

“Love is in the hair” from Something About Mary is a strange one in that it requires knowledge of the film’s signature scene to make sense.

When a studio’s high brass aren’t impressed with a tagline, you won’t see it anywhere.

Now that I have become re-attuned to looking out for them, I’ve noticed that those that have received a tick of approval from the powers that be earn prominent positions on soon-to-be ancient artefacts such as posters and DVD covers.

Though, “The longer you wait the harder it gets” is an appropriate double entendre for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it perhaps doesn’t quite do the film’s genuine hilarity justice.

Before I saw the film, I hadn’t noticed “Action. Lights. Abduction” for the Coen brothers’ Hail Caesar! It’s brilliant!

Another tagline that passed me by was one for Central Intelligence, which stars the diminutive Kevin Hart and huge, muscle-bound Dwayne Johnson: “Saving the world takes a little Hart and a big Johnson”.

How typical. Those Americans are always talking about their johnsons.






























































Life sentence

Subject, verb, predicate – what makes one group of words sound better than another, have more resonance, greater meaning or deeper impact? This post explores the sentences that sustain us.

Every year the cultural cognoscenti gather to award the literary arts’ most prestigious baubles: the Nobel, the Man Booker, the Miles Franklin.

There is criteria by which the awarded tomes are judged, but also intangibles. No one can say definitively what made one book prove more alluring, dazzling or intriguing than another. Yet a consensus is reached, somehow.

It’s certainly not judged solely on technical merit – on the quality, say, of individual sentences. And that makes sense. Sentences are writing’s basic building blocks, and you don’t assess the quality of a skyscraper merely on the impressiveness of its stone, steel and glass.

Also, what metric or index could be applied to assess sentence quality? Trying to explain what makes one group of words more memorable, meaningful or powerful than any other is incredibly elusive. Most people when asked can’t say why something sticks in their mind, or why it sounds “nicer” to them. They just know.

“I’m not sure how to describe what makes a good sentence for me,” says graphic designer Frank Ameneiro, a prolific reader. “I just feel it.”

Frank really likes this quote from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead:

“We cross our bridges as we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and the presumption that once our eyes watered”.

There is considerable restraint in that group of words, and as much power in what’s left unwritten as what’s penned. It’s also skillful in the manner in which it evokes smells and sensations and a sense of wanton destruction. Why were they burning bridges? Why only a guess as to lachrymose eyes?

Still working the Bard angle (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are side characters in Hamlet that Tom Stoppard put centre stage) Jonathan Irwin, a senior sub-editor at The Sunday Times, references a line from Shakespeare, a snippet from The Tempest spoken by Prospero:

“We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.”

Jonathan says, “For me it sums up the beauty, wonder and sadness of human existence, whilst inspiring by its genius and eloquence. I find the thought of sleep being our before and after very comforting too. It also implies an atheism that reflects my own.”

Sentences, Jonathan says, are good for different reasons. Text needs context. A group of words in isolation, however appealing, often won’t have resonance.

“My favourite sentence is wonderful on its own,” he says. “But seen in the context of the whole speech by Prospero, it becomes more powerful … as it does seen in the context of the whole play … as it does seen in the context of Shakespeare’s whole oeuvre. The Tempest is about a magician who creates characters, and was written near the end of Shakespeare’s career and life, so the poignant parallels with him as a writer are clear.”

Without explanation, Sophie Patrick put forward two nominations for this prosaic pantheon. They are two more from “Capital L” literature.

The first is from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

“This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.”

The second is from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

“The correction, when it finally came, was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle let-down, a year-long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to seriously hurt anybody but fools and the working poor.”

Although neither of these offerings are what could be described as pithy – compare “Jesus wept”, and “Call me Ishmael” ― they both offer astonishingly perceptive observations on the human condition in just a few simple lines.

They both have a certain something: cadence, flow, rhythm; call it what you will, both of these examples “sing” for want of a better expression. Sure, the sentiment they express could be conveyed more simply. But these are not sentences extracted from news stories, and their aim is not simply to pass on facts.

To return to the building analogy again: a nice sentence must have form as well as function. And while the former serves the latter, they both do matter.

Publisher James Weston has always liked this:

“Fame is fleeting, money has wings, popularity is yesterday’s child. The only thing that endures is strength of character.”

“Honestly, I have no idea where I read it,” James says. “It was in the front pages of a book – probably sport – that I read long ago, and it stuck with me.”

He has since discovered it was a derivation from a quote from Horace Greeley (1811–1872), editor of the New-York Tribune in the mid-1800s: “Fame is vapour, popularity an accident; riches take wings; those who cheer today will curse tomorrow, only one thing endures, and that is character.”

A couple of respondents to this article chose two samples of writing: one, like JW’s example, that means something to them, and inspires in moments when required – some words of wisdom. A maxim.

The other is an example of pretty prose that affects them in a way they can’t necessarily explain, in the same manner that great design might work its magic, even when you might not notice how.

Digital producer Finn Bradshaw provided two excellent examples, name-checking the great Dr J, non-fiction maestro David Halberstam, and the original gonzo scribe along the way.

“There’s a great quote by Julius Irving that went, ‘Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them’,”says Finn, quoting Halberstam on the high-flying hoopster’s work ethic.

From a purely “I like the sound of it” point of view, Finn gives us this from Hunter S. Thompson: “And that, I think, was the handle ― that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting ― on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave …
“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark ―that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Perhaps it’s best not to try to analyse or deconstruct Thompson; one could go crazy attempting this. And you’d be ill-advised to attempt to mimic it. Thompson took his craft seriously (at least as seriously as his pharmacological experiments).

Yet his was an approach that was as self-styled as it was perspicacious. Your regular scribes should no more attempt imitation than a local ‘baller try to copy the balletic grace of Dr J on the hardwood. Best advice: master the basic moves first.

Like Finn, writer and owner of Resonance Communications Diana Elliott also puts forward two samples.

“From the time I visited Abu Simbel I’ve forever thought about the quote I heard there: ‘For you, the one for whom the sun rises every morning.’ It was the dedication by the egomaniac Ramesses I to his wife – well one of them – whom he loved the most, Nefertiti,” Diana recalls. “I always thought it was beautiful, and still do.”

The second sentence Diana nominates – “Planes are ships on borrowed time” –  is from her favourite book, Still, by Adam Thorpe.

“It’s a funny quote,” Diana says, “and one that I often think about when I board a plane!”

Sometimes a compelling word combination will stick in one’s consciousness in a way you can’t explain properly. It doesn’t need context; it might not even make much sense. But there it is.

Writer Melinda Sweetnam likes Top Gun’s “I feel the need, the need for speed.” It gets her going.

I encountered this while reading Murray Bail’s The Pages: “Hemmed in countries produce all manner of limps and missing limbs in their men.” There is a whole anthropology in that sentence, and yet it is offered with no further explanation or qualification. It is what it is. You deal with it as you will.

After much prompting, musician and teacher Angus Grant offered this, from liner notes by Julian Budden from The Operas of Verdi, vol 1.

“The instrumental palette is calculated to bring out all the velvet depths of the baritone voice-clarinets, horns, bassoons and pizzicato cellos. Flute, oboe and violins give an added sense of plangency to Gilda. The mood is cathartic, one of grief purged by weeping and transfigured into serene melody.”

Someone, somewhere must have done a collection of the best record liner notes. The combination of (usually) journalists writing about subject matter about which they’re passionate is often irresistible.

This quote from a recent newspaper article (Caroline James, The Age, April 16) about how life is changing for Australian circus families jumped out at me. It quotes Anna Gasser from Silvers Circus: “There were a few operators here in the 70s. It was tough. We only had our eldest son, three donkeys, two ponies and a midget, and did everything ourselves.”

You wonder how the midget and the Gasser boy like being including among the circus inventory. Still, I love the incongruous inclusion.

If you keep your eyes and ears open, there are wonderful sentences everywhere.

Using the examples of Finn and Diana, I’m offering two examples too.

For my “wise words” sample I like this from Seneca: “Count each day a separate life.”  When I’ve struggled to reconcile mistakes I’ve made, sometimes huge life-changing blunders, or if I fret about what’s coming, I come back to these words, or try to. What if today is all that there is? No past, no tomorrow, but only this moment?

As for word combinations that appeal, I could have chosen one of many from Stephen Marlowe, or Peter Robb, or Evelyn Waugh, or Elmore Leonard, but I went for this from Colin Harrison’s Manhattan Nocturne:

“I sell mayhem, scandal, murder, and doom. Oh, Jesus I do, I sell tragedy, vengeance, chaos, and fate. I sell the sufferings of the poor and the vanities of the rich. Children falling from windows, subway trains afire, rapists fleeing into the dark. I sell anger and redemption. I sell the muscled heroism of firemen and the wheezing greed of mob bosses. The stench of garbage, the rattle of gold. I sell black to white, white to black. To Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Muslims and transvestites and squatters on the Lower East Side. I sold John Gotti and O.J. Simpson and the bombers of the World Trade Center, and I’ll sell whoever else comes along next. I sell falsehood and what passes for truth and every gradation in between. I sell the newborn and the dead. I sell the wretched, magnificent city of New York back to its people. I sell newspapers.”

It’s more than one sentence, of course. Indeed, it’s longer than a standard paragraph, but I like Harrison’s playful use of language, and his obvious reverence of it. I like its craft and heft, its rhythm and tone, its authority and acuity. I get drawn in by its sweep and scope, its roiling images and evocation of time and place. New York City as a character? It’s right there. And the idea that the narrator may not be upstanding and sincere; that’s there too.

The quest for a choice combination of words is one that doesn’t have to cease. I’ll keep looking and adding so long as I’m above ground, I suspect. By noticing what’s good in others’ writing, I hope I can improve my own.

And learning from wise words can’t hurt either. I love this simple philosophy found in The Sea, The Sea, from Iris Murdoch: “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats, and if some of them can be inexpensive and quickly procured, so much the better.”

And one more from Seneca: “As long as you are alive, keep learning how to live.” That’s a good one.