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

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Snowpiercer – the best film you may never see this year

August 9, 2014

If there was any justice in the world of film distribution, the new English language post-apocalyptic climate change thriller “Snowpiercer” by Korean director Bong Joon-ho would be taking the world’s box office by storm.

It’s a stunning film, technically brilliant, hilarious in parts and fabulously designed, paced and directed. It’s torn from tomorrow’s headlines, and shamelessly borrows from numerous recent films such as “The Hunger Games” series, “The Road” (which still gives me nightmares five years later), “The Day After Tomorrow” (global cooling), “Divergent” and “Elysium”.

Instead, despite a 95% positive critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, excellent acting turns by John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and from Chris Evans (“Captain America”) in the heroic lead, it is only playing in a handful of cinemas here in Australia (just two in Sydney, by last count) – with an Australian box office gross of about Aus$100,000. As of yesterday, it was only in 100 cinemas in North America, where it has grossed a paltry US$4,213,337.

By contrast, the film has pulled in some US$60million in South Korea. All of the reasons for this murky release pattern are unclear but seem to have something to do with arguments between the director and the Weinstein Company, and may well become an unfortunate case study of the decline of theatrical release of films.

“Snowpiercer” may well fall into the category of one of the best films you may never see, and what a shame if it does, because this is a big screen film if there ever was one. It’s winter here in Sydney, and the cinema I saw it in was running on the cold side in my mid-morning session (with just six other patrons), so I acutely felt the cold shown on screen – the only time I have felt this way before was when watching “The Day After Tomorrow” in the cinema some years ago.

The plot, outlandish as it is: scientific attempts in 2014 to avert global warming have resulted in a catastrophic global cooling that has virtually killed off all living life. Picking up the story 17 years later in 2031, the only humans left are those on a high-tech train – invented by mastermind Wilford – that circles the globe. But the situation on the train reflects the worst sort of social engineering and fascist inequality, with severe deprivation and brutality visited on the masses in the last few cars, who are fed with gelatinous protein bars, kept in concentration camp-like conditions and occasionally recruited to do special jobs for the rich and spoiled elite who live, work and – especially – party in the front cars. As a special delight, the film presents a great mixture of white, Asian and brown faces, neatly capturing our “multicultural” present.

The dirty masses dressed in rags are perpetually scheming about how to revolt, and when an opportunity arises they take it, led by Curtis (Evans), with the support of his grand master Gilliam (Hurt), attacking the ideologue “Minister Mason” (Swinton, in a role uncomfortably close to Margaret Thatcher at her worst). As Curtis and his supporters battle their way to the front, they meet one surprise after another: I won’t present any spoilers, because this is where “Snowpiercer” is simultaneously at its most wondrous and barbaric (those who fear gore, be warned).

“Snowpiercer” is an achievement of major proportions. Sure, it liberally uses ideas presented by others on-screen, but does so in a way that is unique, riveting and ultimately very personal. Like the best of films, this one reflects our present anxious moment of both climate change and inequality of wealth (see authors such as Thomas Piketty and “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”) in exceptional and unexpected ways.

Snowpiercer poster


Book review of Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings

July 12, 2014

This book review of Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings, edited by Harriet Margolis, Sean Cubitt, Barry King & Thierry Jutel. Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2008 (358 pages), originally appeared in Metro Magazine, issue 165, July 2010, pp. 142-143.  I am reprinting it here to make it more accessible.

*****

Although the term ‘blockbuster’ has been in use since the 1920s – describing queues of patrons that extended beyond a city block – it is widely accepted that the films The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and the first Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) ushered in the modern age of blockbuster films.  These also were ‘film events’, creating a whole new way of reaching audiences quickly and, not coincidentally, making loads of money.  Thomas Elsaesser points out how blockbuster films in North America have now even become miraculous phenomena in that they ‘rival nature, by dividing the year and ringing the changes of the seasons.  The movies now colonize the holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, and they announce the summer vacation or the start of fall’ (see reference below).

A prime example of this phenomenon is the Peter Jackson The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy (2001, 2002 and 2003).  According to the Box Office Mojo film website, as of September 2009 the trilogy had grossed more than US$2.9 billion in cinemas, and is one of the most successful film franchises of all time, rivalling James Bond, Harry Potter, Shrek and Spider-Man.  Between them, the three films won seventeen out of the thirty Academy Awards they were nominated for, and – using box office figures unadjusted for inflation – sit as the second, ninth and sixteenth highest grossing films worldwide.

In her introductory chapter to the new book Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Harriet Margolis notes the numerous ways we have attempted to describe this phenomenon, including the terms ‘experience film’, ‘dispersible film’, ‘megapic’, ‘popcorn film’, ‘tentpole film’ and ‘franchise film’.  It is clear that our own language is struggling to catch up with rapid changes in film marketing, distribution and the widely shared cultural spectacle the biggest films have now become.

Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) is an edited collection which ‘sets out not to study LOTR itself so much as to use the trilogy as an acceptable example of a significant development in the history of filmmaking’. Although it is generally well-known that the films were all produced in New Zealand in a project that lasted more than eight years, the economic, social, cultural and tourism impact on New Zealand was profound in a way that few films have so influenced one country.  In their chapter entitled “Dossier: economics”, Sean Cubitt and Barry King point out that the films’ production budget was close to NZ$500 million and ‘was directly responsible for 23,000 film industry jobs’.  Again and again, this book makes the unique nature of these films clear.

Studying the Event Film is loaded with this sort of fascinating information, and students of non-Hollywood film production will be engrossed in the details.  What this book also shows is that the production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy had – and still has – profound meaning to New Zealand, almost a decade after the filming took place, easily outstripping the importance of the James Bond or Harry Potter films to the United Kingdom, or any equivalents to Australia or Canada.

This book has twenty-three contributors, nineteen of whom teach in New Zealand universities, and almost all of them also attempt to deal with what makes the LOTR trilogy particularly New Zealand-ish.  As a result, this particularly ambitious book deals not only with event films, but also the process of film study itself, Peter Jackson the film-maker, New Zealand filmmaking, and the development, production, marketing, distribution and reception of LOTR.  It is a rich brew.

The book has twenty-eight chapters divided into seven sections entitled ‘A gathering of materials’, ‘Creative industries/national heroes’, ‘Stardom and the event film’, ‘Making a film trilogy’, ‘Reading for meaning: The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth and Aotearoa New Zealand’, ‘There, back again, and beyond: production infrastructures and extended exploitation and ‘The Lord of the Rings: credits, awards, reviews’.

Studying the Event Film is unashamedly a detailed academic collection, clearly intended more as a reference book on LOTR and event films, and will be of great value for students of film marketing and especially New Zealand film history.  In common with many academic collections, it does suffer from ‘time lag’, but unusually so in this instance. Most of the research for the collection was completed by early 2005, but the book was only published in 2008.  As a result, no recent literature has been included or reviewed, a distinct drawback in what is otherwise a high-quality set of references and bibliography.  For a book with such a wealth of detail, the index is also needlessly brief and not well-structured, making it difficult for the casual reader or researcher to access the riches it contains.

Studying the Event Film is filled with information, although has an odd structure: the first three chapters are about DVDs followed soon after by LOTR reception in Germany (why only Germany?).  These chapters are all well-written to be sure, but this is not a strong start to a book about film ‘events’ where you would expect to examine the nature of such events before delving into such post-release reception detail.  It is also delightfully quirky, making connections that surprise and delight.  For instance, Danny Butt’s chapter is entitled ‘Creative industries in Hobbit economies: wealth creation, intellectual property regimes, and transnational production’.  Brett Nichols’ chapter on the trilogy’s integration with the game and film industries is also notable.

But in fact all of the chapters are good without exception.  Although a bit messy in structure, and somewhat outdated even prior to publication, Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings is an unusual approach to a phenomenon many of us are attempting to understand.  This book’s scope gives much to ponder and savour.

Reference:  Thomas Elsaesser, ‘The Blockbuster: Everything Connects, but Not Everything Goes’, in Jon Lewis (ed) The End of Cinema as We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, New York University Press, New York, 2001, p. 21.


How’s Noah doing now?

May 17, 2014

Back on April 3, 2014 I published my review of the film “Noah”, and observed privately that the film was under-appreciated by critics but would turn out to be popular.

So how’s “Noah” doing now?

As of 15 May 2014, the film had grossed just over US$100 million in North America, plus an additional US$239 million outside North America (“foreign”, in the Americo-centric view of the world). This is by no means an American “hit”, but the international box office – comprising some 70.5% of the total – will give much comfort to the studio (Paramount) and the director/co-writer (Darren Aronofsky). It’s fair to say that “Noah” has not “broken through” to the American Christian audience, especially the “high value” Evangelicals that supported “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004. But almost $340 million (and counting) in the international box office is no small change.

Here in Australia, after seven weeks of release “Noah” has grossed Aus$12,433,000. The “rule of thumb” comparing film popularity in Australia versus North America is the “law of ten”: Australia expects about 10% of the North American box office, setting aside differences in exchange rates. At $12.4 million/$100 million, we are running just over 12%: proportionately a bit more popular than in the USA. The Russell Crowe factor (although born in New Zealand, he – mostly – lives here in Sydney, so we claim him; sorry Kiwis) may be part of it. Not a great hit here, but respectable, very much so.

However the Box Office Mojo figures from other countries tell an even more interesting story: $30 million in Brazil, almost $5 million in Colombia (Colombia?), about $11 million in each of France, Germany and Italy; a staggering $33 million in Russia (1/3 of North America, surely this may be some sort of record?); $14 million in South Korea; and more than $6 million in Turkey (all $US).

You can do the sums. Increasingly, “big” films are being supported by international box office takings, and that’s no small thing.


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


Why do films come in pairs?

December 4, 2012

So, why do films come in pairs?  I wonder.

For that, I mean two films with very similar themes being released in cinemas – unexplainably – almost simultaneously.  How did this happen?

I am not the only person to notice this; here are some examples:

1993/1994 – Tombstone and Wyatt Earp
1998 – Armageddon and Deep Impact
1998 – The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan
1998 – Antz and A Bug’s Life
2003, 2004 – Finding Nemo and Shark Tale
2004, 2005 – Ray and Walk the Line
2006 – Flight 93 and World Trade Center
2006 – The Illusionist and The Prestige (Can you remember which is which from the titles?  I can’t.)

And how about body swap stories, end of the world stories, Truman Capote biopics, baseball films, Joan of Arc biopics, etc.

The latest pair – both currently playing in Australian cinemas – is “completely disabled man finds happiness and sexual fulfilment”.  We have The Sessions (from the USA) and The Intouchables (from France).  Both are quality films, but this time – incredibly – the French film is easily out-performing the American one in the box office in both countries, as the box office table below indicates (figures current as of 3 December 2012, although The Intouchables North American box office does not include Canada, which would improve its standing by at least ten percent, and possibly more because of French Canada.

Film North American box office (US$) Australian box office (AUS$) Ratio: North America to Australia
The Sessions

$4,582,181

$1,012,435

4.5

The Intouchables

$10,056,772

$4,419,343

2.3

Note:  the standard projected North American box office to Australian box office is 10:1; on that basis both films are doing comparatively very well in Australia and much more popular than would normally be expected.

(Prediction: The Intouchables may feature high on Oscar nominations, especially for best foreign language film and its two lead actors.  It’s a crowd-pleaser.)