Film review of Lion

January 27, 2017

(This film review of “Lion” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on January 26, 2017.)

Directed by Garth Davis; written by Luke Davies, based on the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley; starring Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Priyanka Bose, Deepti Naval, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui


When the history of Australian film of the early 21st century is written, “Lion” will take its place as one of the best of its era, a film both totally unique and fully realised. While its story of childhood loss, displacement, the search for identity and ultimate redemption is universal, it is also thoroughly Australian.

And it’s a true story.  Saroo Brierley became separated from his family in India at the age of five and was adopted by an Australia couple who lived in Hobart.  Some 25 years later, he discovered the potential of Google Earth; after months of searching satellite photos, he recognised his hometown, leading him to a reunion with his birth family.

The first half of “Lion” takes place in India, with young Sunny Pawar playing the role of Saroo, and Abhishek Bharate playing his older brother Guddu.  One fateful day Guddu takes young Saroo on one of his many train expeditions in search of things to sell, and Saroo becomes too tired and is left to sleep at a train station.  Upon waking up in the night, he searches for his brother and gets trapped in an empty train that travels for days – and almost 1500 kilometres – from Saroo’s home in regional Khandwa to Kolkata (Calcutta).  For weeks, Saroo wanders the streets, unable to speak the local language (Bengali; his native tongue is Hindi) and avoids the fate of many homeless young people who are ruthlessly trafficked by unscrupulous adults.  He winds up in an orphanage that is truly Dickensian, filled with screaming kids presided over by uncaring adults.  Too young even to remember his last name, the attempts to find his mother and family fail.

The first hour of “Lion” is possibly one of the best cinema hours you will see this year:  much of the time, the film proceeds wordlessly, mutely viewed from young Saroo’s standpoint.  The media attention has focussed on the “name” stars – Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”), who plays the 30 year-old Saroo, and Nicole Kidman his adoptive mother Sue Brierley, both have Oscar nominations – along David Wenham as adoptive father John Brierley.  But the emotional strength of “Lion” comes from the performance of Sunny Pawar as the young hero.  Like the best of child actors, he brings a stillness and focus to the role that astonishes, illustrating just the ordeal that many young Australian migrants have experienced prior to their arrival here.

The second half of the film focuses on the emotional journey of Saroo (played by Patel), as he slowly works through his traumatic separation.  Patel inhabits his character perfectly, with a great Australian accent and a cool swagger that only just hides the emotional insecurity he still feels at the early loss of his biological family.  American actress Rooney Mara (“Carol”, “The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo”) plays Saroo’s girlfriend, and Divian Ladwa plays Mantosh Brierley, Saroo’s adoptive brother who suffers from psychological demons much greater than Saroo’s.

The second half of the film does not achieve the greatness of the first half, hampered by Saroo’s story that is so internalised that it is hard to show on screen.  But the acting and the settings (Hobart and Melbourne) ground the film in the reality of the present day, setting up “Lion” for the emotional pay-off – yes, Saroo does find his family and learns new things about himself at the same time.

Great films are never the result of one person or one factor.  So it is with “Lion”.  It was not enough that it’s such an amazing “needle in a haystack” story: despite extensive publicity in 2014 given to the publication of Brierley’s memoir “A Long Way Home”, too few of us here in Australia were aware of it before this film. The film “clicks” because of so many interwoven parts.  Director Garth Davis’ background in directing commercials brings a stunning visual style, one that brings the story to life in a way in unforgettable ways.  Scriptwriter Luke Davis (deservedly Oscar-nominated) understands how to surmount life’s demons – he overcame heroin addiction and later turned it into a book and film (“Candy”) – and has fashioned Saroo’s biographical book into a screen story that rings true emotionally.  And someone had to bring it all together, to see the screen potential in the story and to enlist those to make it:  this was role of Sydney Jewish producer Emile Sherman (previous Oscar winner for “The Kings Speech”) and his partners Iain Canning and Angie Fielder.

There are only five to ten films truly worth viewing on the big screen each year.  This year, “Lion” – also nominated for the Oscar “best film” category – is one of them.

lion-nicole-kidman-and-sunny-pawar(photo above: Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar in “Lion”)

Australia’s first-ever Jerry Lewis film festival opens in Melbourne

July 31, 2016

(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News, Melbourne edition, on 28 July 2016 in a different form.)

Australia’s first-ever Jerry Lewis film festival has opened in Melbourne, as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).

Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch to Russian-Jewish vaudeville entertainer parents, stands as one of the towering American-Jewish comics of the 20th century.  Although he acted in numerous film and television shows during a career that began in 1949 through the present day (he appears in this year’s “The Trust” with Nicholas Cage), during the 23 year period from 1960 to 1983, he also directed himself in 12 films.  All of these films will screen at this year’s MIFF: “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), “The Patsy” (1964), “The Family Jewels” (1965), “Three on a Couch” (1966), “The Big Mouth” (1967), “One More Time” (1970), “Which Way to the Front?” (1970), “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), “Hardly Working” (1981) and “Cracking Up” (1983).

Two of Lewis’ best-loved films are “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy”.  “Professor” (re-made in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy), is a romantic comedy crossed with science fiction parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.  Jerry Lewis’ persona as Julius Kelp – prone to accidents, socially awkward and buck-toothed – has never been on better display than on this film, and was so popular that Lewis later reprised the character in both “The Family Jewels” and “The Big Mouth”.

“The Bellboy” captures another side of the Lewis persona, taking a “bow” to classic silent comedians, in particular the pantomime artist Stan Laurel, who Lewis consulted on the script.  “The Bellboy” also has a lovely “backstory”:  Lewis – who directed, produced, wrote and stars – shot the film in less than four weeks on location at the historic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, filming during the day while performing in the hotel’s nightclub at night.

“Which Way to the Front” – although a minor addition to the Lewis body of work – tackles the Second World War, where Lewis plays a rich playboy who volunteers to fight against the Nazis and impersonates a German general.  It was Lewis’s only overt attempt – in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” – to ridicule the Nazis, and although it failed as a film, it’s worthwhile viewing for both Lewis fans and film historians.

The Bellboy(poster of Jerry Lewis’ film “The Bellboy”, shot on location in Miami Beach)

Portraying cancer in Australian film

November 3, 2015

(I originally published the following article on Croakey, Australia’s independent, in-depth social journalism for health blog, on 9 September 2015, under the title “Cancer on Screen”.  Click here to view the original article.)


One in two Australian men and one in three Australian women will contract cancer in their lifetime. Cancer is a killer, second only to cardiovascular diseases as the cause of deaths in Australia. Cancer is also responsible for 35% of the “fatal burden”, or years of life lost by Australians due to premature death, way ahead of cardiovascular disease.

Despite this widespread prevalence in our lives (who does not know someone affected by cancer?), cancer is rarely presented in Australian film. Think about all of the deaths we witness on-screen, how many of them are from cancer? Lots of deaths, many of them violent (war, accidents, murder), but not much from cancer.

There’s a reason for this. Dying from cancer rarely pretty, it’s usually quiet and often hidden. A once clandestine and “whispered about” illness, it is now “often described as the defining plague of our generation”, writes Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee in his 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

It may be a “defining plague”, but you wouldn’t know it by watching Australian films. For reasons we can only guess at, two Australian films featuring cancer are now playing in Australian cinemas. It’s too soon to know if this is the beginning of a trend, or – more likely – a simple coincidence. However a cinema release, with its attendant large marketing budget and effort, indicates that a number of people think the topic worth portraying on-screen.

Last Cab to Darwin

Last Cab to Darwin stars Michael Caton as a Broken Hill taxi driver who travels to Darwin to commit assisted suicide because he is dying of inoperable stomach cancer and wants to avoid palliative care. Since its cinema release in early August, it has already grossed $6.2 million in Australian cinemas, and may still be playing long after the latest Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (current large release American films) have disappeared. Despite its seemingly depressing euthanasia theme, Last Cab to Darwin – already listed by The Sydney Morning Herald as one of the 10 “greatest Australian road movies” – manages to be entertaining, wryly funny, uplifting and filled with heart-felt meaning. It sweeps its characters along its way with effective sub-plots that illustrate Aboriginal reconciliation (few recent Australian films have shown such intimate connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous characters), the unique wonders of the Central Australian landscape and learning the ability to express and receive love.

Force of Destiny

The other Australian cancer film, Force of Destiny (tagline: “A journey of love on a transplant waiting list”), the latest by iconic Dutch-born Australian director Paul Cox, opened last week and stars David Wenham as a sculptor who contracts liver cancer. Fresh from the Melbourne International Film Festival and with an astonishingly beautiful production, the story focuses more on Wenham’s character’s actual battle with the disease.

Cox based Force of Destiny in part on his own life story: he is a cancer survivor and a transplant recipient. The film’s producers and distributors have taken an increasingly popular approach to Australian film marketing: setting up a series of special events, many of them associated with cancer charities, in order to reach the audiences that might not normally go to a small Australian film.

Any others?

The only other Australian cancer film I can easily recall is 2012’s Not Suitable for Children, an improbable but moderately successful romantic comedy in which Ryan Kwanten played a character diagnosed with testicular cancer who attempts to father a child before he becomes sterile. The comedy comes not from the cancer, but Kwanten’s character’s desperate attempts to find a suitable mother to bear his child.

The truth is that best films about cancer are not actually “about” cancer, but use cancer as a mechanism to illustrate other important, human emotional needs. This is why Last Cab to Darwin almost certainly will reach a much larger audience than Force of Destiny, with its particular focus on, well, cancer, as its main topic.

The American approach

Despite the clear popular success of Last Cab to Darwin and Force of Destiny’s marketing creativity and the strong will of its creator Paul Cox, Australian films have not yet moved to copy the American “weepie” formula where … let’s be honest, no spoilers are required … one of the main characters always dies from cancer. From Ali McGraw in 1970’s Love Story to Debra Winger in 1983’s Terms of Endearment to last year’s The Fault in Our Stars (from the pen of John Green, with three teen characters with cancer, two of whom die), Americans have created literally hundreds of films with cancer, especially teens, so much so that one commentator has asked that films “stop using cancer as a plot device”.

The latest American film in this genre, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – in which the dying teenage girl has leukaemia – also opened last week, fresh from audience awards at both the Sydney Film Festival and Sundance. This gives Australia two cancer film releases in one day, with three in the cinemas. Is this a record?

Partisan film review

June 14, 2015

This film review of “Partisan” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on June 4, 2015 (Melbourne edition) and June 11, 2015 (Sydney edition)

Directed by Ariel Kleiman
Written by Ariel Kleiman and Sarah Cyngler
Starring Vincent Cassel, Nigel Barber, Jeremy Chabriel and Florence Mezzara

I have no doubt that if Australian-Jewish director Ariel Kleiman’s film “Partisan” was produced in a central or eastern European language such as Russian, Ukrainian or Georgian rather than English, it would be touted as a hot prospect for Best Foreign Language film at next year’s Academy Awards. It’s that good.

Shot partly in Melbourne (at a Mount Eliza winery) and partly in Georgia – yes, the country of Georgia, located between Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, “Partisan” is set in a mythical “middle Europe”. It features a multicultural cast headed by French actor Vincent Cassel, whose breakthrough role was the rage-filled Jewish character of “Vinz” in Mathieu Kassovitz’s “La Haine”. Here he plays Gregori, the charismatic leader of a cult-like sect where he is the alpha (and only adult) male, part Pied Piper, part saviour and part unquestioned intimidating master to a number of needy and vulnerable women and their children, who he both protects and preys upon.

The film looks and feels vaguely eastern European, although shot in English with a range of different accents. The result is much more accessible for we English speakers, but the loss of cultural verisimilitude may put off some viewers. (How ironic that I criticise an Australian film for including an occasional Australian accent.)

If viewers are put off by the language, it would be a shame, for Kleiman has created one of this year’s most haunting and disturbing films, one that starts slowly and gradually accretes to create a picture of emotional horror. With its creeping sense of dread, “Partisan” has much in common with “Ex_Machina” (currently screening), Alex Garland’s Frankenstein-like meditation on the potential horror of artificial intelligence. This is not classic horror like last year’s acclaimed “Babadook”, but something that – for me at least – operates far more effectively.

Part of the power of “Partisan” is in our experiencing much of the story through the increasingly less innocent eyes of a young boy, Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel). This perspective operates in the same way that we viewed the world through the eyes of Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character in “The Road” (also by an Australian director, John Hillcoat), a film that haunted me for months afterwards. Gregori has raised Alexander from birth, and the tension in “Partisan” arises when Alexander begins to question his upbringing and role. Because here is the catch (minor spoiler alert): Gregori has trained his young charges for a particular mission: to conduct assassinations, reminiscent of the film “Hanna”.

“Partisan” falls squarely in the category of films about cults; its closest recent neighbours are “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “The Master”. Because I lived in California during the times of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple massacre and the Charles Manson murders, I find any strong evocation of cults particularly chilling. “Partisan” captures this claustrophobia.

The beauty of “Partisan” – and it is physically stunning, shot by Germain McMicking, who won a special award for cinematography for this work on “Partisan” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, also lies in its ability to illustrate its emotions through simple visuals.

Director Kleiman – at the tender age of 30 and working with his co-writing partner Sarah Cyngler – has full control of all the elements of his film. Aside from the cinematography, he even commissioned three original songs for karaoke sequences in the film. The film’s themes are universal – parenting, mentoring, human need – but “Partisan” has a dark core that will not appeal to everyone: it is rated MA15+ “for strong themes and violence”, for good reason. Kleiman is a director to watch, an assured auteur with a powerful imagination whose future accomplishments are likely to be many.


(photo above:  Vincent Cassel in “Partisan”)

2014 Film Critics Circle of Australia Nominations Announced

February 3, 2015

The Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA), of which I am a member, has announced the nominations for the 2014 FCCA Awards.

The nominations for Best Australian Film of 2014 are The Babadook (producers Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere), Charlie’s Country (producers Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr and Nils Erik Nielsen), Predestination (producers Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan and Michael Spierig), Tracks (producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman) and The Water Diviner (producers Troy Lum, Andrew Mason and Keith Rodger).

Leading the nominations with nine nominations is The Water Diviner, followed by The Babadook and Predestination both with eight. Five nominations have been awarded to Charlie’s Country, Felony, The Rover and Tracks. The awards have been spread over twelve films released across Australia during the 2014 calendar year.

FCCA President and ABC Radio host Rod Quinn said, “This year’s nominees show the diversity of the Australian film industry – from a scary movie set in a haunted house, to a modern day epic, and stories that cover our entire continent. The filmmakers nominated include the biggest names in Australian film and many talented newcomers.”

The 2014 FCCA Awards Ceremony will be held on Tuesday 10 March, 2015 from 6.30pm at Paddington/Woollahra RSL, Paddington. During the ceremony there will be a tribute to three eminent members of the FCCA who have recently left their long term positions, Evan Williams who has retired from his position as film critic for The Australian, and Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton who have departed their 28 year television careers as hosts of SBS TV’s The Movie Show and ABC TV’s At The Movies.


BEST FILM (producers)
THE BABADOOK: Kristina Ceyton, Kristian Moliere
CHARLIE’S COUNTRY: Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr, Nils Erik Nielsen
PREDESTINATION: Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan, Michael Spierig
TRACKS: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman
THE WATER DIVINER: Troy Lum, Andrew Mason, Keith Rodger

Russell Crowe: The Water Diviner
John Curran: Tracks
Rolf de Heer: Charlie’s Country
Jennifer Kent: The Babadook
Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig: Predestination

Essie Davis: The Babadook
Sarah Snook: Predestination
Mia Wasikowska: Tracks

Russell Crowe: The Water Diviner
Joel Edgerton: Felony
David Gulpilil: Charlie’s Country
Don Hany: Healing
Guy Pearce: The Rover

Justine Clarke: Healing
Melissa George: Felony
Erin James: The Little Death
Jacqueline McKenzie: The Water Diviner
Susan Prior: The Rover

Jai Courtney: Felony
Adam Driver: Tracks
Yilmaz Erdoğan: The Water Diviner
Robert Pattinson: The Rover
Tom Wilkinson: Felony

Tilda Cobham-Hervey: 52 Tuesdays
Ashleigh Cummings: Galore
Angourie Rice: These Final Hours
Noah Wiseman: The Babadook

Matthew Cormack: 52 Tuesdays
Rolf de Heer, David Gulpilil: Charlie’s Country
Joel Edgerton: Felony
Jennifer Kent: The Babadook
Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig: Predestination

Ian Jones: Charlie’s Country
Radek Ladezuk: The Babadook
Andrew Lesnie: The Water Diviner
Ben Nott: Predestination
Mandy Walker: Tracks

David Hirschfelder: Healing
David Hirschfelder: The Water Diviner
Antony Partos: The Rover
Peter Spierig: Predestination

Bryan Mason: 52 Tuesdays
Simon Njoo: The Babadook
Matt Villa: Predestination
Matt Villa: The Water Diviner

Jo Ford: The Rover
Alex Holmes: The Babadook
Chris Kennedy: The Water Diviner
Matthew Putland: Predestination

FCCA logo


The Water Diviner a great success despite too many themes

January 11, 2015

Australian actor and screen hero Russell Crowe’s first film as a director, “The Water Diviner”, has become the most successful film of last year (2014): in just five days of release. Opening on Boxing Day (26 December), the film grossed $5.68 million in just six days – through New Year’s Eve, 31 December – to top all other Australian films in 2014. As of a week ago on Sunday (4 January 2015), the film had grossed $8.4 million in Australian cinemas, and was still pulling big audiences.

Last week (5 January 2015) The Sydney Morning Herald (Karl Quinn) also reported that “The Water Diviner” had also become the biggest box office draw in Turkey (where the film is partly set), with more than half a million viewers in its first week, and grossing more than $3,000,000 (Australian) – even reaching the number one theatrical spot in that country.

“The Water Diviner” is a very enjoyable film, but Russell Crowe seems to have been taking lessons from the Baz Luhrmann school of film making: like Luhrmann’s film “Australia”, Crowe decided to throw a number of movies in one in “Diviner”, but I liked it anyway. Karl Quinn in The Sydney Morning Herald describes it as three or four movies: “outback-struggler tale, war movie, history pic, father-son drama, romance, a bit of “Zorba the Greek” tossed in with Lawrence of Arabia and seasoned with a dash of magical realism.”

There are a lot of themes, yes, but there’s only one point where the screenwriters go too far: a moment when the Russell Crowe character seems to have stepped into another movie, one about Turkish nationalism. Look for that point, and see if you can agree.

But these are quibbles. “The Water Diviner” is hugely enjoyable, Rural South Australia “stands in” for Gallipoli (as it did for Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” in the early 1980s). The best dust storm (northeast Victoria) in Australian film history takes place, there’s loads of tragedy, a nice romance and a good child performance – as well as some excellent Turkish actors, Russell gets to fight again (didn’t we all love him in “Gladiator”, a much better film than “Exodus”, by the way, by Ridley Scott, the Exodus director) and coincidences like you wouldn’t believe (including one notably embarrassing one that I won’t repeat as others have already). Shoot the screenwriters, I say, but enjoy the film anyway – the biggest Australian film in a year or more.

Water Diviner

Film appreciation in a time of war

July 20, 2014

Did you ever wonder what it’s like to attend a film festival in a time of war? Tal Kra-Oz’s recent article in Tablet  (18 July 2014) gives a good, insider’s perspective of this month’s Jerusalem Film Festival, where screenings are interrupted by sirens and the obligatory temporary removal to basement rooms filled with old film reels.

Israel’s artistic elite – of which film-makers are a solid part – are notably more left-wing and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than the majority of the population.  Thus, the pall cast on this year’s Festival is yet another tragic by-product of the Israel-Hamas conflict now taking place.

But, as Kra-Oz writes, the show does indeed go on: “even when the cannons and sirens are heard, the muses are anything but silent”.

And what a show the Israelis had to boast about. In a country of just 7.8 million people, last year the country produced and released 40 feature films.  In the May Cannes Film Festival, seven Israeli films had official screenings: five features, one documentary and one student film.  Compare that to Australia, almost three times as large (population 23,537,000) , which released 26 films in 2013 and had three films in official Cannes categories (The Rover, Charlie’s Country and These Final Hours).

Kra-Oz’s article captures the spirit of the dynamism of Israeli film-making.  How this relates to the country’s on-again, off-again conflict with the Palestinians is clearly complicated and overlaid with more than 100 years of history.

After some 22+ years of unbroken economic growth, is life too good for us here in Australia?  Do we not have enough to worry about to make good films?  It may be no coincidence that Australia’s greatest success at Cannes this year was Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country, in which lead Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil – playing a role in part based on his own life – won the “best actor” award in the “Un certain regard” competition.   Indigenous Australians are among this country’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and those living in remote regions – such as Gulpilil’s character – even more so.

David Gulpilil(photo above:  David Gulpilil in Charlie’s Country)

The Great Gatsby watch down under, part 6

July 28, 2013

For some months now, I have been following the success of Baz Luhrmann’s film “The Great Gatsby”.  After eight weeks of release, the film is still playing in 161 Australian cinemas with a total box office of Aus$26,918,096, according to Urban Cinefile.  As of 28 July 2013, it still achieved a weekly box office of $467,788, although that was down 31% from the previous week.

The North American reception of “Gatsby” is fascinating:  “Gatsby” is by far Luhrmann’s most successful film there, having grossed US$143,888,405 as of 25 July 2013 (according to Box Office Mojo), with a recent increase to 302 cinemas (for reasons I do not know).

Gatsby has grossed approximately US$186,200,000 outside of North America (56.4% of its worldwide US$330million total).  Outside of North America, the film has fared best in Australia, closely followed by the United Kingdom.

Compare “Gatsby” to “Australia”, Luhrmann’s next “biggest” film.  According to Box Office Mojo, “Australia” grossed US$211,342,221 worldwide, a full 76.6% of that outside of North America.  Although “Australia” is, at heart, a very “Australian” story, the Australian box office for that film in 2009 (US$26,521,500) is very close to the “Gatsby” box office (US$24,588,158).  Given the four years difference in ticket prices and the fact that “Gatsby” is still playing in Australian cinemas, it’s highly likely that the two films will end up performing similarly here in Australia.

So, two conclusions:

  1. “The Great Gatsby” is definitely Luhrmann’s American hit.  While $143 million is not “break out”, it’s certainly strong – and places Luhrmann for new projects.
  2. Following the “ten percent rule” (see David Dale in The Sydney Morning Herald of 19 May 2008), which states “movie distributors have relied on the formula that a big US movie will make in Australian dollars roughly one tenth of what it makes in US dollars”, “The Great Gatsby” is over-performing here in Australia almost by a factor of two:  Aus$26,918,096 compared to US$143,888,405 is not 10%, but approaching 19% of the North American box office.  So the “local” Luhrmann/produced in Sydney/Australian stars factors all certainly have made a difference.

The Great Gatsby Watch down under, part 3

June 5, 2013

The film “The Great Gatsby” continues to fascinate Australians, with Sydney-siders particularly engaged.

The Australian distributor of the film, Village Roadshow, released a fascinating news item this Monday 3 June 2013, headlined “The Great Gatsby:  Biggest Australian Film Opening Ever”.  As I detailed in my post of May 20, 2013, “Gatsby” is not actually an Australian film – although it was fully made in this country.  The word “Australia” or “Sydney” never appears.  Not one character is identified as Australian or speaks with a recognisably Australian accent.

But yet.  But yet here we are claiming the film as our own.  Yesterday even Sydney Morning Herald film writer Garry Maddox referred to it as an “Australian film” in his interesting article entitled “Great Scott: Sydney is Gatsby scene-stealer”, which features a number of the actual locations in Sydney where “Gatsby” was shot (many likely to become shrines, if this excitement keeps up).

The Roadshow release starts this way:

Not only is Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” the number one film at the Australian Box Office …. It is also the biggest opening weekend for an Australian film ever.  “The Great Gatsby” has grossed an amazing $6,789,193 on 587 screens (includes 2D & 3D) nationwide from Thursday to Sunday.

There is no doubt that “Gatsby” is a hit (and I am relieved to hear that).  It has passed $100million (US) in the North American box office.  According to Box Office Mojo, as of Monday 3 June, the box office sat on $129,315,576, plus an additional $120million outside North America.  The opening North American weekend (10-12 May 2013) ran about $50million (US), compared to an Australian opening weekend of about $6.8million (Aus).  There is a well-known adage that the standard American box office should receipts should run about ten times the Australian box office for a “typical” film, setting aside exchange rates (which are currently close to parity in any case).  On that basis the Australian opening box office should have been close to $5million, but instead came in about 1/3 above that ($6.7million) – in other words, the initial results appear to show that “The Great Gatsby” is likely to be more successful, pro rata, than in North America (which includes the USA and Canada).

Not that surprising, I guess – but remember that this is a fully American story, not an Australian story.

If we accept “The Great Gatsby” as an “Australian” film, we must then accept the following films as all Australian, as all were shot in this country:  “Accidents Happen” (shot near where I live in Sydney’s north), “Matrix”, “Matrix Reloaded”, “Matrix Revolutions”, “Mission Impossible II”, “Star Wars – Attack of the Clones”, “Star Wars – Revenge of the Sith”, “Narnia – Voyage of the Dawn Treader”, “Dark City” and more.  Last I looked, I don’t think any of these films were ever counted as “Australian” in box office results or were entered in the “Australian Film Awards”.  So then why “Gatsby”?  Three words – marketing to Australians.

I don’t mind the marketing hype; that’s one of the reasons I love film – the hype is great fun.  But it’s foolish to pretend that an adaptation of one of America’s great novels is somehow an Australian film.   It also diminishes Australian stories.

To be continued.

(Below: “The Great Gatsby” outdoor illuminated bus shelter poster in Sydney on Mona Vale Road, May 2013.)

Gatsby outdoor poster Sydney bus shelter

The Great Gatsby down under – part 1

May 20, 2013

If you live in Sydney (as I do), you would be forgiven for thinking that “The Great Gatsby” is an Australian film.  It was shot here in Sydney – at the Fox Studios not far from downtown, as well as a number of other nearby locations.  (It opens in Australia on Thursday 30 May.)  Gatsby is directed by an Australian (Baz Luhrmann), working with a mostly Australian crew – including his talented partner, production designer and costumer, Catherine Martin.  A number of Australian actors appear, some in reasonably significant roles (Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher), although not, I hasten to say, as Australians.  They play Americans, because – in case you missed it – “The Great Gatsby” is a classic American story, originally a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald first published in 1925.  And this is the fifth time that the novel has been filmed.  The screen version most people current remember was the 1974 movie that starred Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby, a mis-fire of a film (ponderous, slow and surprisingly un-memorable).

As the extremely large sign (see photo below, taken today – Monday 20 May 2013) on the wall of 150 William Street, Darlinghurst (East Sydney) shows, even Screen Australia is claiming the film.  The sign prompted me to ask if Screen Australia – Australia’s national government film production and culture funder – has invested in the film (why else promote it in this way?), but alas it does not appear that it did.  This is a Hollywood studio film, William Street notwithstanding (funding from and major distribution by Warner Brothers).

The Great Gatsby poster Sydney 20May2013

Don’t get me wrong.  I am looking forward to watching “The Great Gatsby”.  A great deal.  But remember, I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel as a teenager and loved it then.  I remember a long argument at age 20 where I defended Fitzgerald as a much better writer than William Faulkner (you don’t notice Luhrmann doing a film adaptation of “As I Lay Dying”, do you?), was disappointed in the Redford version and like Luhrmann’s work (click here for my post about his film “Australia”).  I just don’t think the film’s very Australian.

And who will be watching this film?  A short article by Garry Maddox in The Sydney Morning Herald on 16 May 2013 (“Women Take Lead Role in Gatsby’s Great Success”, p. 36; online headline reading “Baz woos the women”) reports that the “The Great Gatsby” is about to overtake “Moulin Rouge” as Luhrmann’s most successful film in the USA (easily outstripping “Australia”).  This is substantially due to “an audience otherwise ignored by Hollywood blockbusters lately – women”.  Audiences have been mostly female (59 percent) and older (69 percent).  There’s only one downside of what is assuredly going to be a hit in North America – people don’t want to see the 3-D version, with Box Office Mojo reporting that “a third of the opening weekend sales came from <that> format – ‘ an incredibly low figure for a live-action movie’”.

Does this surprise you?  Not me.  How many men do you know proclaim they loved “Moulin Rouge!”?  Not many, but sure enough the women did.  And despite his “tough guy” roles (“J. Edgar”, “Gangs of New York”, “Django Unchained”), Leonardo DiCaprio still appears to be a pretty boy, more appealing to women than to men (“Titanic” anyone?).  And seriously, are the >25 women so keen on 3-D?  No.  DiCaprio looks just fine in normal 2-D resolution.

Here’s a safe prediction:  Gatsby will be a great success in Australia, reaching many of the same audience as it has in North America – that “over 25 female” quadrant.  Yes, and some others.  Me, for one.

Interested in watching the red carpet opening here in Sydney at Fox Studios this Wednesday (22 May)?  I reproduce below part of the media alert from the distributors, Roadshow.  That’s a hefty (and all-star) list of celebrity guests, yes?


Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013 at Hoyts, The Entertainment Quarter

WHAT: Red carpet arrivals at the Australian premiere of THE GREAT GATSBY

WHO: Filmmakers Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin, together with cast members Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Steve Bisley, Vince Colosimo, Ralph Cotterill, Max Cullen, Arthur Dignam, Brendan MacLean, Kate Mulvany, Hamish Michael, Heather Mitchell, Barry Otto, Jack Thompson, Matthew Whittet, Felix Williamson, co-writer Craig Pearce and choreographer John ‘Cha Cha’ O’Connell.

Other celebrity and VIP guests include Premier of NSW, The Hon Barry O’Farrell; Simon Crean MP, George Souris MP, Andrew Stoner MP, Gillian Armstrong, David Berry, Emma Birdsall, Rafael Bonacela, Alice Burdeu, Simon Burke, Ita Buttrose, David Campbell, Sarah Jane Clarke, Collette Dinnigan, Laura Dundovic and James Kerley, Marta Dusseldorp and Ben Winspear, Kym Ellery, Larry Emdur, Dan and Marni Ewing, Manu Fieldel, Emma Freedman, Rebecca Gibney, Kylie Gillies, Delta Goodrem, Josh Goot, Peter Helliar, Deborah Hutton, Akira Isogawa, Kerri-Anne Kennerley, Damien Leith, Emma Lung, Joel Madden and Nicole Richie, Ricky Martin, Reece Mastin and Rhiannon Fish, Darren McMullen, Heidi Middleton, George Miller, Peter Morrisey, Lachlan and Sarah Murdoch, Sally Obermeder, Gracie Otto, Neil Perry, Kate Ritchie, Benedict Samuel, Seal, Ryan Stokes, Maurice Terzini, Brian Walsh, Callan Ward, Kate Waterhouse and Luke Ricketson, Fleur Wood, Richard Wilkins, Dan Wyllie, Lincoln Younes and Carla Zampatti.

WHEN: Wednesday, May 22nd
Check-in 4pm Arrivals begin 5.45pm
Screening begins 6.45pm

WHERE: Hoyts, The Entertainment Quarter, Bent Street, Moore Park

From the uniquely imaginative mind of writer/producer/director Baz Luhrmann comes the new big screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby”. The filmmaker created his own distinctive visual interpretation of the classic story, bringing the period to life in a way that has never been seen before, in a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role.

“The Great Gatsby” follows would-be writer Nick Carraway as he leaves the Midwest and comes to New York City in the spring of 1922, an era of loosening morals, glittering jazz, bootleg kings, and sky-rocketing stocks. Chasing his own American Dream, Nick lands next door to a mysterious, party-giving millionaire, Jay Gatsby, and across the bay from his cousin, Daisy, and her philandering, blue-blooded husband, Tom Buchanan. It is thus that Nick is drawn into the captivating world of the super rich, their illusions, loves and deceits. As Nick bears witness, within and without of the world he inhabits, he pens a tale of impossible love, incorruptible dreams and high-octane tragedy, and holds a mirror to our own modern times and struggles.

Warner Bros. Pictures presents, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, in association with A&E Television, a Bazmark/Red Wagon Entertainment Production, a Film by Baz Luhrmann, “The Great Gatsby.”

Opening in Australian cinemas on May 30, 2013, the film will be distributed in 3D and 2D by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company, and in select territories by Village Roadshow Pictures.

Trailer can be viewed on Roadshow Films youtube channel: