This week in Australian cinema

July 30, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince continued in first place in the Australia theatrical box office over last weekend, but dropped substantially (55%) over the week before, down to Aus$6,462,870 from its record-setting week before.  Similar things have happened in the USA and the UK, although the film will be very popular no matter what.  It its first two weeks of release, it has done very well outside the US (or proportionately not as well inside North America, depending on your viewpoint):  63.8% “foreign” box office and 36.2 “domestic” box office, reports Box Office Mojo.  The current average, as I read it, runs just under 50% domestic, so this is quite an “outlier” of a film.  Also to date the Australia box office for this film is third in the world, but it’s early days yet and that may change as it continues release patterns.  The short answer is Australians love Harry, proportionately more than Americans do.

It’s not a great film:  I was very disappointed, and it must be the adaptation.  “Why should I care?”  I thought a number of times during the film.  Why are people doing the things that they do?  Not an ideal way to be thinking.  But it still has its many pleasures, particularly the all-star British cast … Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman (as silky and snaky as ever), Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent (new to the series), Helena Bonham Carter (under-utilised here) and Timothy Spall (also under-utilised).

The Hangover is the film to watch – keeping hold on 6th place in the Australian box office after seven weeks of release, only down 6% from the week before, with a total gross of Aus$19,489,532 to date.  No big stars but has done very very well in the USA and almost as well in Aus.

Opening this week in Australia:

Cedar Boys – Australian film directed by Serhat Caradee about Lebanese-Australians not unlike The Combination which played a few months ago to some controversy.  It does some interesting explorations of the relationships between Lebanese-Australians and Anglo Australians.

Lake Mungo – Another Australian film, very influenced by David Lynch (down to the major teen character being names “Palmer” after Laura Palmer, who died in Twin Peaks).  A “mock” documentary about the supernatural.

My Sister’s Keeper – Cameron Diaz in a film directed by Nick Cassavetes, from the novel by Jodi Picoult.  A weepy, emotional family drama and surprisingly affecting.

Public Enemies – Johnny Depp in US crime drama directed by the master Michael Mann (Heat, Miami Vice).  This is the big film of the week, although reportedly not the best from Mann or Depp.

Rudo Y Cursi (translated as “Rough and Vulgar”) – Spanish film reportedly a good comedy about soccer, starring Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna.

Sources: and

The Power of Film

July 23, 2009

Does one film have the potential to change people’s beliefs, ideals, actions and behaviours, and impact culture, society and politics?  There is substantial evidence (see below) to assume that it does – although with certain limitations.  Just as Bambi (1942) cut deer-hunting in America by 80 percent the year after its release and It Happened One Night (1934) singlehandedly stopped most American men from wearing undershirts until the USA entered World War II in 1941, the story of Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) motivated Swiss bank guard Christoph Meili to become a whistle-blower about Swiss cooperation in the Nazi looting of Jewish funds during the Second World War.  [See Robert Johnston’s Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (2006), pp. 25-39 for an extended discussion on the power of film.  Johnston is a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.]

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) is widely credited with easing America’s return to segregation in the early 20th century and President Richard Nixon reportedly decided to invade North Vietnam after watching George C. Scott in Patton (1970) (see Rollins 2007, p. 6).

Another example is The China Syndrome, first released in the USA on March 16, 1979. In the film, a television reporter in California visits a nuclear power plant and accidentally witnesses a potential major a accident that could “render an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable”.  (The film was directed by James Bridges, with Jane Fonda starring in the role of the reporter, along with Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon.)  Just twelve days later, a major nuclear accident happened at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.

The coincidence between these two events produced significant panic and a major shift in public opinion, which Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt term the “Jane Fonda Effect”.  The accident at TMI was shown live on national news networks, and included shots which were uncannily like those from The China Syndrome.  Although the TMI accident did not produce any deaths or injuries, it did – coming coincidentally with the release of a major film – cause a virtual halt in the production of nuclear power plants in the USA.  In this case, the eerie coincidence of the film being released at the same time as the accident enormously magnified the potential impact of the film and was instrumental in a major shift of energy policy in the USA away from nuclear with a continued emphasis on coal and other fossil fuels.  As Dubner and Levitt put it: “Anyone hunting for a global-warming villain can’t help blaming those power plants – and can’t help wondering about the unintended consequences of Jane Fonda” (see Dubner and Levitt 2007).

Films are creatures of their times, and when they are released can and will play a significant role not only in their relative box office success, but in the sort of cultural (as well as political – and in the case of The China Syndrome – economic and even ecological) impact which they have.

Movies have the power to motivate great actions by individuals and groups, and reflect the spirit of our times.  The Nazis knew and understood this, and were the first political regime to use film as an extensive nation-building, values creation and propaganda tool.  Within one week of the Nazi takeover of power in 1933, Goebbels had established a propaganda ministry with a major focus on film (see Tegel 2007, pp. 17-19).  In 1933, Goebbels described film as “one of the most modern and far-reaching media that there is for influencing the masses today” (Leiser 1975, p. 47; also see Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film).

As Robert Johnston states: “Movies are life stories that both interpret us and are being interpreted by us. The power of film can change lives and communicate truth; it can reveal and redeem” (Johnston 2006, pp. 33-34).


Boorstein, Daniel J. (1961) The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Reprinted 1987.  New York: Atheneum.

Dubner, Stephen J. and Levitt, Steven D. (2007) “The Jane Fonda Effect”, New York Times Magazine, September 16, 2007.

Gabler, Neal (1999) Life The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.  New York: Alfred A Knopf.

Johnston, Robert K. (2006) Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (2nd edition).  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.

Kracauer, Siefried (1947) From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Revised and expanded edition edited by Leonardo Quaresima (2004). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Leiser, Erwin (1975) Nazi Cinema, translated by Gertrud Mander and David Wilson. New York: Collier.

Marsh, Clive and Ortiz, Gaye (1997) “Introduction”, in Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz (editors), Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning.  Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 1-6.

Martin, Joel W. And Ostwalt, Conrad E. Jr (editors) (1995) Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth and Ideology in Popular American Film.  Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Rollins, Peter C. (2007) “Introduction: Film and History: Our Media as a New Frontier”, in Lights, Camera, History: Portraying the Past in Film, Richard Francaviglia and Jerry Rodnitzky, editors.  College Station, Texas: Texas A & M University Press, pp. 1-10.

Tegel, Susan (2007) Nazis and the Cinema. London and New York: Continuum Books.

(This is an extract from my PhD thesis currently in progress.)

This week in Australian cinema

July 22, 2009

This week in film in Australia is all about four words:  Harry Potter and school holidays.  Since Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Price opened in Australia on Wednesday July 15th up through Monday July 20th it had grossed $18,705,212 at the box office on 510 screens.  Its opening day was $4.37 million, making it the third biggest opening day (NOT inflation-adjusted!) of all time in Australia. Roadshow Distributors reports the following top five Australian opening days:

1. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King $5.29m

2. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers $5.23m

3. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince $4.37m

4. Matrix Reloaded $4.17m

5. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring $4.12m

Put it this way:  of every two dollar spent at the Australian cinemas in the last week, more than one dollar of it went to Harry Potter.  We Australians love it almost as much as the British do, and more than the Americans:  although it was popular in North America, the equivalent five-day US & Canada figure was US$158 million. Applying to the so-called “ten percent rule” (i.e. North American box office divided by 10 = Australian box office), it was more about ten percent more popular here: equivalent popularity would have predicted $15.8 million, and not $18 million.  The other interesting thing is the audience:  in the USA, distributor Warner Brothers has run exit polling that has indicated that 60 percent of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’s audience was 18 years of age and older and 57 percent was female. This is not exactly a kids film.

Also at the Australian box office, Ice Age 3 is hanging in at second place and Bruno in third place (down 65% on its first week, meaning it will probably drop reasonably fast).

Opening this week in Australian cinemas:

Drag Me to Hell, Sam Raimi-directed horror movie which critics are raving about – if you like this sort of thing. I have seen the trailer twice and have bad dreams from that alone.  Alison Lohman plays a bank officer who rejects a loan application from a “Mrs Ganush”, with disastrous results when she is cursed.

Cheri, based on two novels by Colette, directed by Stephen Frears (one of my favourite directors – The Queen, High Fidelity) collaborating with Christopher Hampton (screenplay), the first time they have worked together since Dangerous Liaisons in 1988. Michelle Pfeiffer – at age 50 – stars as a retired courtesan who has a affair with “Cheri” (Rupert Friend), who is the son of her colleague Charlotte (Kathy Bates). Pfeiffer is reportedly captivating.

Limits of Control by master of vague Jim Jarmusch, all filmed in Spain. Despite a strong cast (Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal), it wanders.  Not for me this time.

Red Cliff, the film of the week for me: by Hong Kong director John Woo (Face Off, Mission Impossible II), filmed in China and centred on the 208 (CE) Battle of Red Cliff, and starring Tony Leung (Lust, Caution and In the Mood for Love).

Box office sources: 

Box Office Mojo 

Urban Cinefile 

Roadshow Films media release 16 July 2009.