Spiro Zavos: ‘Picasso of the Pass’ paints a sad picture

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QUADE Cooper grew up in the New Zealand idolising the extravagant rugby play of Carlos Spencer. Cooper has become a Spencer clone. There are the tats. And the cheeky grin when a clever play has come off. There are the outrageous passes (I once called Cooper, ”the Picasso of the Pass”), the sensational break-outs and the astounding variety of kicks that offer numerous chances for chasers to score tries. Why wouldn’t Robbie Deans pick this Wallaby wizard to bewilder the British and Irish Lions in their Test series?

The answer to this question, perhaps, is that Cooper has another trait of Spencer in his game, which is a tendency to make crucial mistakes in big games. And Deans knows crucial mistakes lose must-win matches. Roll the tape back to the semi-final of the 2003 Rugby World Cup tournament. The Wallabies are playing the All Blacks. As the All Blacks are leaving the field at the end of their warm-ups, Deans, then the assistant All Blacks coach, takes Spencer aside for one final instruction: ”Carlos, no cut-out passes!” After surviving a torrid initial onslaught from a fired-up Wallabies side, the All Blacks force a scrum 5 metres from the try line and near touch. They have the width of the field to score an easy try, if the ball goes through the hands. Spencer fires a long cut-out pass. Stirling Mortlock races on to it and runs to glory.

Roll the tape to the 2011 Cup semi-final. Deans is now the coach of the Wallabies. Cooper is his five-eighth. He kicks off. The ball goes out on the full. The All Blacks know this is their Mortlock moment. Then throughout the match, Cooper drops high balls under pressure.

There has been an intense Cooper v Deans debate in Australian rugby, before and after the naming of the Wallabies squad to play the Lions.

The case for Cooper: Deans has won 59.2 per cent of his 71 Tests. But this drops to 52 per cent for the 44 Tests when Cooper was not selected. The Wallabies have won 70 per cent of their matches (and 80 per cent of home Tests) when Cooper is the five-eighth.

The case against Cooper: in this year’s Super Rugby, Cooper has made 59 tackles and missed 12, for a completion rate of 83 per cent, the worst of all the five-eighths. The Reds have scored 26 tries this season. There are 9 other sides that have scored more tries. Cooper’s error rate, 29 for the season, is the highest in the tournament.

The case for Cooper is a historical argument. The case against him is a study in real time. Last weekend’s match, the Cheetahs v Reds at Bloemfontein, is instructive. We saw Cooper’s wonderful skills on display. There was a deft, exact kick early on in the match that Rod Davies chased through to score, but the try was overruled by the TMO for an obstruction off the ball that even the South African commentators disagreed with. Later, Cooper popped a slick inside-pass to Luke Morahan, for the fullback to burst through to score under the posts. Again, the TMO over-ruled the try, even though referee Craig Joubert watching the replays noted: ”Looks good to me”.

But early on in the match, the Cheetahs halfback burst clear. The commentator yelled out: ”He’s got Cooper to beat.” Moments later, with Cooper on his back after a feeble effort to tackle, the try was scored. Then towards the end of the match, Will Genia, under intense pressure, started to make uncharacteristic mistakes. Cooper was unable to hold the side together. Nor was he able to ”traumatise” the Cheetahs’ defensive systems. This was the explicit criticism of his current play that Deans made when he announced the 25-man Wallabies squad last Sunday.

Andrew Slack says Deans has not forgiven Cooper for his ”toxic environment” tweet of last year. It seems to me, though, the toxic impact of his mistakes on the field has more to do with his non-selection than his off-field comments.

Noosa Heads: Mantra French Quarter Resort

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The basics

Mantra French Quarter Resort

62 Hastings St, Noosa Heads

P: 07 5430 7100

E: frenchquarter.res@mantrau

W: mantru

Cost: The one-bedroom units can cost from $123 during the week, and rise to $181 on a Saturday night. The deluxe version, with spa, are $20-$30 more.

There are about 80 rooms in this complex, all but 20 of them newly renovated.The room

Mantra, after taking over the management of French Quarter, has spent $5 million to upgrade the rooms. Unfortunately, they’re not yet done which makes it a bit of a lottery.

Those who score one of the rooms yet to get a makeover will easily see why the new owners had to splash out. Older units have stained blinds, a couch out of the 80s, and other furniture not quite up to modern demands.

On the upside, there is a spacious balcony with dining table and sun lounges, spa bath below the shower, a fully equipped kitchen, and the price is right for a family getaway. Sure, open bathrooms are on-trend and this one is clean and tidy. In this case, however, the designers seem to have put the bedroom in the bathroom, rather than the other way around.

On the downside, if this place was to undergo a tenants’ exit inspection, it’s unlikely it would pass the cleanliness test. Dirty sliding door tracks, and ash stains in the ashtray – perhaps this isn’t the case in the newer rooms, so it might be worth insisting on one of those at the time of booking.The Food

Just outside the Hastings St entrance to French Quarter, there is an ice cream shop across the road, and within 50m of the door there is an organic foods stall full of tasty treats.

One of the main attractions to this resort is its location. Hastings St still carries plenty of charm, and there isn’t any shortage of food options. If it’s a family holiday, there’s a supermarket at Noosa junction.

For weekend getaways, however, it can be fun to explore. The cheapest option is the food court, but lunch times offer some bargains at many of the eateries. Zachary’s Gourmet Pizza Bar is well worth a try, as is the Surf Club just across the road.

At around 4pm on weekends people migrate from the beach to the street, and the footpath becomes a bustling crowd of hungry travellers, many of them perusing the menus which sit outside most of the more upmarket dining options.The Activities

Mantra French Quarter is all about location. There is a pool inside the complex, but most people venture across the road to the beach. And with the national park well within walking distance, the outdoors is very much the place to be.

Some will enjoy the boutique shopping of Hastings St. Alternatively, venture down to the wharf at the back of the Sheraton and jump on the hop-on hop-off ferry. It stops at seven places along Noosa Sound, from the tourism centre to Tewantin where there are small markets and a couple more restaurants.

The captain provides a commentary of each stop and never seems to tire of offering handy shopping suggestions.

Another option is to take the boardwalk down to the national park. It’s well worth the effort, particularly if there’s a drink waiting at the surf club at the end of the round trip.The Weekend

It’s obvious that plenty of work has gone into renovating the lobby, and when all rooms are equal, this place is sure to lift a notch. The pool is great for families, and the central location on Hastings St, Noosa Heads, is a key attraction.

For those with children, the rooms are at the right price for such a high-end location. A quick word of advice around Noosa, though – pick your weekend carefully, as there is often plenty going on in the small but vibrant beachside resort town.

Triathlons, food festivals, other events – if that’s what you’re after, book early. If not, be sure to check the calendar.Simon Holt was guest of Mantra French Quarter.View other great Queensland escapes.

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Revenge off menu but Brumbies desperate to halt mini-slump

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ACT coach Jake White says ”we will never forget” the heartbreak the Auckland Blues inflicted on his side last year.

But while the trip to New Zealand looms as a revenge mission, White insists the Brumbies’ motivation is keeping alive their season instead of focusing on redemption. Rewind 10 months and the Brumbies trudged off Canberra Stadium licking their wounds as a last-round choke against the Blues cost them a golden opportunity to make the play-offs.

In just 80 minutes they slipped from top of the Australian conference, lost the right to host a home final and were relegated to seventh on the ladder. White admits that pain ”still burns” but wants his players to focus on moving forward.

But he said the lessons learnt from the 30-16 meltdown last year can be used to get the Brumbies back on track after consecutive defeats. ”Yes, [last year’s result] burns a bit but we’re not using the word revenge,” White said.

”The bottom line is it hurts so much because we were so close to something that’s so special in Super Rugby – making the play-offs. I don’t want [the players to put it out of their minds], I want them to be reminded of that for as long as we have to so we get to where we want to be. We should have won last year and had we won we would have made the play-offs. But if it was that easy, everyone would make the play-offs. We will never forget it so that we use it to make us better when we’re in that situation again.”

The equation is simple. The Brumbies are still at the top of the Australian conference and if they win their remaining four games they will make the play-offs.

But a loss to the Blues would throw the race wide open and put the Brumbies’ finals aspirations on the edge of disaster. It’s the Blues who can again be the destroyers.

Last season Auckland were ranked near the bottom of the table and struggled to win games all year before firing up in the last round to crush the Brumbies.

This year the Blues are also fighting for a finals berth.

The Brumbies have struggled in the past two months, winning just three of eight games. They have lost three and drawn two in that period.

Wallabies World Cup-winning captain Nick Farr-Jones says the Brumbies need to stabilise their play-off bid.

”At this time of year it’s important to get into a culture of winning tight games. It’s a culture of digging deep, not giving up and working hard for the victory,” Farr-Jones said.

”It’s dangerous to defend leads. You’ve got to keep playing attacking, aggressive football that you’ve trained and worked towards. Whether there’s a bit of mental scarring from last year and it’s starting to come to the surface, who knows.

”But the Brumbies just have to play open, free, attacking rugby and enjoy themselves or you can get into a rut.”

The Blues are having a stronger season this year and have been bolstered by the appointment of head coach John Kirwan and All Blacks World Cup-winning mentor Graham Henry as his assistant. They have a team of All Blacks – including Rene Ranger, Piri Weepu and Ali Williams – but White said the contest was about restoring the Brumbies’ confidence. ”We’ve created an opportunity for us to win the competition; we don’t want to knock over hurdles when we know we can get results,” he said. ”Talking about it is easy but it’s about making sure actions speak louder than words.”

Roberts puts on brave face for his rematch with Wallabies

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The last time British and Irish Lions centre Jamie Roberts was in a team that beat the Wallabies he played 10 minutes and came away with a fractured skull.

Despite the head injury, Roberts remembers the 21-18 victory at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium five years ago with fondness.

”Me and [Wallabies centre Stirling] Mortlock bashed heads, so I got credit for winning us the game by taking the captain out of the game,” he said. ”Since then I haven’t beaten Australia and not a lot of guys in the squad will have beaten Australia, and that’s a huge factor. Hopefully we can come together, be a stronger force as one and beat the Wallabies.”

That process of integration is well under way and steps up a notch on Monday, when the Lions squad flies to Hong Kong for the first leg of their month-long tour.

Roberts, who will graduate from medical school in July, is one of a small group he has dubbed the ”three disciples”, a deferential nickname for himself and the other young centres Jonathan Davies and Manu Tuilagi, who were named alongside veteran centre and former Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll in Warren Gatland’s powerfully built midfield.

The ”disciples” are the physical manifestation of Gatland’s strategy for this three-Test tour. Powerfully built, hard-running backs who will look to run up and over the Wallabies come the first clash in Brisbane on June 22.

But Roberts said there was flexibility to complement the back line’s physicality that would be deployed at will when the game required it.

”Warren has picked very good rugby players, very big athletes and guys who can cross the gain line and play an expansive game but also play a power-based game,” he said.

”I think we have to adapt our game accordingly, it will be interesting to see how we go in the provincial games leading up to the Tests. By choosing that sort of player, it gives us options to … chop and change our game plan accordingly.”

Despite a large number of Lions players coming from the Welsh side Gatland has coached for the past six years, Roberts said the team’s game plan would be ”completely different”.

”I can’t give too much away but it’s a completely different group of players and you have to adapt your game plan according to what sort of players you have in the team,” Roberts said.

The Lions’ past three consecutive series losses will no doubt be a motivating factor for Gatland and every player in the squad. Roberts nominated the Welsh Test team’s poor recent record against the Wallabies and England’s loss at Twickenham on the spring tour last year as extra fuel for players from the four nations.

”Everyone’s motivated to beat Australia; from our part of the world Australia [is] viewed as a country that prides [itself] hugely on [its] sporting background and heritage, it’s a massive part of what you guys do and to beat Australia away from home is a huge goal of everyone in the squad,” he said. ”I played in that [spring tour] game in November when we lost to that last-minute try to Kurtley Beale. It was probably the toughest result to take, [it was] absolutely brutal, losing in that fashion, but that becomes motivation. You learn with each game you lose and you have to use it as motivation to win next time around.”

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Truth behind Cambodian tale

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The Killing Fields …. Under the Khmer Rouge in 1975-79 life was a struggle in Cambodia. Photo: Jack AtleyIN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN.By Vaddey Ratner. Simon & Schuster. 322pp. $29.99.

It has always puzzled me that Buddhists who avoid killing even a mosquito, have a history of bloodily slaughtering other humans – Burmese, Sri Lankans, and Nepalese among them. In the four years after the Vietnam War, a million Cambodians – a third of the population – were rounded up and sent to the killing fields by their Khmer Rouge compatriots, raised in the same Buddhist tradition.

Not that those elsewhere from other faiths have behaved any better. But we usually expect Buddhists to be above all this, setting an example by contemplation and serenity.

Few accounts by Cambodians of the Khmer Rouge years have appeared in English. This may be because most educated Cambodians spoke French, and also because so many of them died.

Vaddey Ratner was one who survived, and her first novel is based on what happened to her and her family when she was five to nine years old. Speaking no English, she reached the US as a refugee in 1981, completed high school 10 years later, and went on to graduate from Cornell University.

Now, the epitome of refugee success, she is married to an American and lives in Maryland. Among the many refugee novels and memoirs that have appeared since the 1990s, hers is unique.

Under the Khmer Rouge in 1975-79 life is a desperate struggle for Cambodians, but Raami, Ratner’s character in the book, has two other disadvantages: she has a leg crippled by polio, and is a descendant of King Sisowath.

All families like hers are driven out of Phnom Penh, and are then constantly moved on, from town to village to work camp to killing fields. At every stage they lose more family members, possessions and dignity. But Raami’s family, and her father, Prince Ayuravann, are particularly targeted by the boy-soldiers and their ruthless Khmer Rouge leaders.

In the end, only Raami and her mother are left, and as a result of the trauma of her experiences, including nearly being shot dead, Raami refuses to speak. It is as if she cannot waste her last reserves of toughness and determination on mere words.

Ratner made a return visit to Cambodia to research her roots, and she tells Raami’s story eloquently. Some indifferent poetry and passages of rather saccharine moon-gazing are offset by plenty of authentic detail.

Cambodian frogs, for example, we learn, say ”Oak”, toads go ”Heeng hoong”, and roosters crow ”Kakingongur”. Raami watches Cambodian peasants tap chilled juice from a palm tree, and sees how they deal with a cluster of leeches. She observes a boy, caked in dried mud, washing his albino water buffalo that ”stood as transparently pink as a peeled pomelo”.

The revolution not only introduces the Phnom Penh aristocrats to their rural compatriots, it reduces them to barely surviving. Once, a person’s head was sacred in Buddhist tradition, Raami’s uncle muses. ”Now it can be cracked like a coconut.”

As well as narrating the awful fate of her family, Ratner’s story contemplates what drives the Khmer Rouge to seek to ”bury a whole civilisation”.

The revolution was released by the departure from Indochina of the French and then the Americans, but as Raami’s mother comments, it originated in Cambodia’s distant past. It is ”an old blaze reignited, decades, possibly centuries of injustice manifesting itself like a raging inferno”.

Raami’s father takes his share of responsibility for that injustice, and meekly surrenders to ”the Organisation” in the hope that his family will be spared.

How a few boys with guns can turn intellectual Cambodians and those in ”modern professions” like taxi drivers and clerks, unresisting, into undesirable refugees to be eliminated, remains a mystery.

But the process is not unknown elsewhere: think of Mugabe’s gradual eviction of white farmers in Zimbabwe, and the grinding down of wealthy Jewish families in pre-war Austria. Although all that seems long ago and far away, think of the opinions now expressed about intellectual ”elites” in Australia by Nick Cater in The Lucky Culture and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class.

His ”undesirable” Australians, on academic or ABC salaries, are hardly wealthy like the Cambodian aristocrats, the Zimbabwean farmers, the Ephrussi family in Vienna, or the Murdochs who employ Cater. Nor do they rule over anyone. If Cater wants to start class warfare in Australia, lets hope he meets stronger resistance.

Dr Alison Broinowski reviews and researches Asian fiction.

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In defence of Aussies at war

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Prime Minister Robert Menzies talks to Australian troops in the Middle East during his 1941 visit.ANZACS IN THE MIDDLE EAST: AUSTRALIAN SOLDIERS, THEIR ALLIES AND THE LOCAL PEOPLE IN WORLD WAR II. 

By Mark Johnston. Cambridge University Press. 255pp. $59.95.

Like most other Australian wartime prime ministers, Robert Menzies visited his troops in the field – in this case, in Libya in February 1941. He ”traversed their recent battlefields and celebrated their successes with them”, his biographer Allan Martin wrote.

Menzies also spoke to the Australians’ overall commander in Libya, Britain’s General Maitland Wilson. He asked how the Australians had performed.

”They’re troublesome, you know,” the general replied. Menzies was quick with his response: ”I understand the Italians have found them very troublesome.” The general persisted: ”It’s not that,” he said. ”They’re not disciplined, you know.”

It is the aim of this book to explore that and similar perceptions. Mark Johnston has written good solid books on Australians in action in World War II and knows his subject thoroughly. He has written histories of three of the Australian divisions in the war and he tells us that this book is a companion piece to his earlier books, At the Front Line and Fighting the Enemy. Like them, it draws on the letters and diaries of hundreds of soldiers and others who observed the Australians and has a detailed and most personal touch.

The focus is not on battles and strategy but how the Australians engaged with the locals among whom they lived and fought; how they perceived their allies; and how they were perceived by locals and allies alike.

Johnston reveals that he has been thinking about this book for more than 20 years and it shows. There is such a breadth of reading, such a wide range of evidence and one word springs to mind as the reader engages with the book: judicious.

Johnston will not be rushed to judgment; nor will he allow the actions of a few thoughtless, boisterous or unruly Australians to dominate his evidence or opinion.

Johnston tells us that he teaches at Scotch College in Melbourne – in his words, ”one of Australia’s best private schools”. Strangely, it was the image of a school that occurred to me as I was reading this book. I went to school not far from where Johnston teaches and endured long journeys each day. We had it drummed into us by our teachers that we were always on display in our uniforms as we made our journeys. Most of us would have been well-behaved from natural inclination but a few might be a bit rash or over-excited. These few could trash our reputation no matter how good the rest of us were.

Perhaps Johnston tells his boys this on a fairly regular basis for this is the overwhelming theme of the book. As one of his eye-witnesses writes: ”It seems to me most ungenerous as well as silly to seize on the nastiness of a few to belittle the whole.” Johnston is determined to defend the reputation of the Australians and he goes about his task with overwhelming success.

Of course, some Australians, in their letters home, made remarks that would now be described as crudely racist. Of course, some Australians drank to excess and caused trouble. Others visited houses of ill repute even if the ”heads” had put them off-limits. Some of them – too many – contracted resulting infections. This is an army, for goodness sake. But Johnston shows that most men treated most locals generously and personably. They were eager to learn local customs and to see local sights. Johnston makes the important point that the soldiers were appalled by the poverty they witnessed in many of the host societies. But, as they were largely from the working class themselves and had just emerged from the Australian poverty of the Great Depression, their reaction was rarely condemnatory. More usually, the Australians engaged with local poverty with sympathy and understanding.

To explain how their allies viewed their capacities as fighting soldiers, Johnston takes his readers, briefly, into accounts of the fighting in Libya, Greece, Crete, Syria and elsewhere. He has a sure touch and his battle summaries seem to me to be interesting and fair.

Johnston concludes that most of the time most of the Australians fought bravely and with individual initiative. It was this initiative and professionalism that distinguished them from the troops of other countries, occasionally. He explains that every nation will have fighting units that serve somewhat better or somewhat worse than the norm. The conclusions in this book are not remarkable or sensationalist but they are agreeable and fair.

Menzies stuck up for the reputation of his troops, too, and made one of the more sensible points in Mark Johnston’s fine book. He took up the cudgels against General Wilson: ”These men haven’t spent their lives marching round parade grounds. They come from all walks of life and they’ve come over here to do a job and get it over.” Precisely. Or, as another observer put it: ”Their discipline under fire is immense … it does not matter a lot if they shave irregularly and like to go about their duties wearing underpants and no trousers.” Cut them some slack, both these men were saying, and Mark Johnston most strenuously agrees.

Michael McKernan is completing a book on Victoria in the Great War.

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True tragedy in a lost time

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Hannah Kent: Burial Rites is a ”dark love letter to Iceland”.BURIAL RITES 

By Hannah Kent. Picador. 338pp. $32.99.

Hannah Kent’s $1 million two-book deal with Picador and Little Brown came after her debut novel, Burial Rites, won the 2011 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award and she was mentored by Geraldine Brooks.

Burial Rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman executed in Iceland in 1829. Magnusdottir was found guilty of the murders of her lover Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson at a remote farm in Illugastadir, where she worked as a servant. Kent, who now teaches English and creative writing at Flinders University, first heard Magnusdottir’s story when living in Iceland as a Rotary exchange student.

Kent says that Magnusdottir was represented “as a monster or a witch, the Lady Macbeth behind the murders, a very manipulative, scheming woman. It didn’t take into consideration her experiences or the struggle that she probably suffered.”

Kent, therefore, reimagines the last months of Magnusdottir’s life, after the District Commissioner, Bjorn Blondal, sends her to live with Jon Jonsson, his wife Margret and their two daughters on their farm, Kornsa, “a custodial holding until the date and place of execution have been agreed upon”.

Blondal believes that living with “upright Christians” will “inspire repentance by good example” and a priest will visit to “inspire … an acknowledgement of justice”. Magnusdottir asks for a young priest, Thorvandur Jonsson, known as Toti, as she remembers him for an act of kindness in the past.

Initially, the family at Kornsa resent and fear the presence of Magnusdottir, but her humility and hard work win their respect and, to a degree, their affection. Magnusdottir tells Toti the truth about what happened at Illugastadir and the appalling life of servitude and poverty she has led since being abandoned by her mother, at the age of six.

Her suffering establishes her as a human being rather than ” the whore, the murderess, the female dripping blood” of legend.

Kent has called Burial Rites a “dark love letter to Iceland … my paean to this place where beauty and horror, and tradition and deprivation … were all woven together”. Certainly, Kent’s beautiful prose recaptures evocatively a lost time and a true tragedy.

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Complex thriller in the shadow of terror

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Pleasant surprise … Kate Hudson and Riz Ahmed. Dialogue is occasionally brilliant in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST

★★★★

(M) Palace Electric

It’s nice to be pleasantly surprised by a movie, as I was by Mira Nair’s new film. Nair began her career winning the Camera D’Or at Cannes for Salaam Bombay! and her films since have vacillated between the terrific – Mississippi Masala, Amelia – and the certainly-high-profile-if-not-actually-amazing, such as her take on Vanity Fair or Monsoon Wedding, which everybody in the world except me adored.

She dedicates this film to her father who died during the production. Her dad grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, and this is the hometown of the film’s protagonist Changez (Riz Ahmed). Changez hails from a family of the Pakistani upper class in decline, driven by his family’s fading fortunes to excel on scholarship at Princeton, and win himself a graduate spot on Wall Street as a business analyst under the mentorship of Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland). Changez is a man going places – until the attack on the World Trade Centre.

As the film opens it is a decade later and Changez is now a lecturer at Pakistani University, being interviewed by an American journalist (Liev Schreiber) with a hidden agenda, and to whom he explains the radical change America’s increased xenophobia and treatment of its foreign guests had on his life thereafter.

Screenwriter William Wheeler has adapted Mohsin Omid’s Booker Prize-nominated novel. The lady at the pay-parking machine after my screening tells me the film was told completely differently, but still very well. Ah, to have the time to actually read a book!

The dialogue is occasionally brilliant, occasionally annoying exposition, but there is a lot of plot to get through, and Nair employs some interesting visual devices to help sweep us through the morass of characters and history as she tackles big themes in a complex layer of issues.

The film belongs to British actor Riz Ahmed, who some will remember from the comedy Four Lions. His handsome, expressive face draws you to his character, though Nair keeps you guessing his motivations to the end.

The rest of the cast is a bit of a who’s-who from three continents, with Kate Hudson as Changez’s conflicted girlfriend, Erica, Nelsan Ellis (LaFayette from True Blood), Pakistani pop star Meesha Shafi as Changez’s sister Bina, and noted Indian actors Om Puri and Shabana Azmi.

Nair’s camera is worked by Declan Quinn who made Nair’s Monsoon Wedding look so lush. He does equally good work here, helped by some stunning locations. Michael Andrews’ score is enhanced by vocal performances from the likes of Peter Gabriel and Pakistani heart-throb Atif Aslam.

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Hitman misses mark

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Revenge plot … Colin Farrell in Dead Man Down. Moody and stylish … Dominic Cooper and Colin Farrell.

DEAD MAN DOWN (MA)

★★½

Hoyts Belconnen and Woden, Limelight Tuggeranong

Part love story, part gangster thriller, this is a moody and stylish first Hollywood outing from Niels Arden Oplev (Danish director of the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), but Oplev’s bleak Euro-sensibilities and focus on central characters sits uneasily with a convoluted – and at times ludicrously unbelievable – Hollywood revenge plot.

Colin Farrell, who continues to have trouble getting his international career into top gear, plays Victor, a Hungarian hitman who’s infiltrated the gang of crime boss Alphonse (Terrence Howard), in order to avenge the death of his family. Methodical, cool and emotionally closed, Victor has a secret workshop where he does his plotting, carefully studying images of the evil gang that plaster the walls while replaying video clips of his wife and daughter: you know the drill.

But Victor is being watched by a neighbour, Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), and the two form a tentative bond. When she discovers he is a killer for hire, she asks him to take revenge on the man who disfigured her in a drunken car accident. A strange and fascinating relationship builds around their inner pain and need for revenge, with the new feelings that start to emerge between them threatening to undermine their resolve to harm those who caused their grief.

The scenes between Farrell and Rapace show their acting skills and Oplev establishes an intriguing tenderness and depth to the relationship between these two complicated and damaged souls – it’s this that makes the film watchable despite the silliness of the plot. For those after some darker thrills, there are some well-executed action scenes, but J.H. Wyman’s screenplay gets increasingly tedious and obvious.

There are also some obvious questions to be asked, such as: why doesn’t Victor just get revenge when he easily could? And why doesn’t Alphonse recognise Victor? Oh yes, Victor has put on a strange Irish-American-European accent, guaranteed to confuse any paranoid gang boss. And more importantly, what is Isabelle Huppert doing in this film as Beatrice’s deaf French mother? Je ne sais pas.

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The boys are back in town

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Too genial … John Goodman as Marshall. No hangover? … Zach Galifianakis (Alan), Bradley Cooper (Phil) and Ed Helms (Stu) in The Hangover Part III.

THE HANGOVER PART III

★★½

(MA) General Release

This is billed as being the conclusion in the series, and let’s hope so. The first Hangover had clever plotting to make up for its sometimes obnoxious characters and a slightly cruel tone; the sequel offered more of the same, to diminished effect. But this time, the storyline is a little bit different.

Alan (the ever-irritating Zach Galifianakis) is off his medications and his behaviour is even more childish, selfish and destructive than usual. After an intervention, the rest of the Wolf Pack – Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha), who have (somewhat inexplicably) stuck by him, are driving him to an interstate treatment centre when they are kidnapped.

Their captor is gangster Marshall (a miscast John Goodman: he seems rather too genial for this role) who has had millions of dollars in gold stolen by Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong), their depraved criminal ”friend”. He’s heard Chow has escaped from prison in Thailand and figures they will be able to find and fetch him – and to make sure they do, he holds Doug hostage.

So, yes, it’s a variation on the theme. Chow plays a much bigger role than previously, which is a mistake – his weird and wild antics were funny in small doses, but there’s simply too much of him (in every sense), though Jeong is certainly committed in the role.

There are bright moments, including a scene where Alan – miracle of miracles – finds a woman who is attracted to him (Melissa McCarthy), and a reasonably inventive and well-staged sequence at and around Caesars Palace (which has a perhaps unintentionally funny disclaimer in the credits). But although the camaraderie is still there, it’s a bit like catching up with old friends you haven’t seen in a while and realising you don’t have as much in common any more (and maybe never did).

And there isn’t an actual hangover this time around, unless you stay until midway through the end credits: let us hope they keep their word, though, and end the series here.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.