Wishing Upon a Weinstein: A Look at TWC in 2012
Bob and Harvey know what they’re doing. Or at the very least, they’ve obtained enough success to convince us that they do. Hollywood has always been a dirty business, and despite the rise of independent filmmaking in America (giving a decent amount of authorship to contemporary directors), indie distributors haven’t escaped unscathed. After co-founding Miramax Films in 1979, Bob and Harvey Weinstein distributed and served as executive producers on several films that spawned this ongoing movement, including The Thin Blue Line, Sex Lies and Videotape, The Crying Game, Clerks, Pulp Fiction, Heavenly Creatures, Good Will Hunting, and Shakespeare in Love. And what did these critically-acclaimed movies bring the Jewish-born, New York natives? Lots of press, followed by lots of money, followed by lots of Oscars … usually followed by more money. In 2002, Best Picture winner Chicago earned over $300 million worldwide; not a bad haul by any means. But success came not without tremors.
In 1993, Disney bought Miramax for $60 million, provided that Bob and Harvey would remain leaders of the company. It just so happened that Disney made the Weinsteins’ dreams come true; the considerable leverage provided by Disney enabled Miramax to take independent fare deemed unprofitable by major studios and develop them into Oscar-worthy blockbusters. Pulp Fiction was released the next year, followed soon by the company’s first Best Picture winner with The English Patient in 1996. Two years before the Disney deal, Bob had cemented Dimension Films, a production company within Miramax that would distribute genre franchises such as Spy Kids, Halloween, Scream, and Scary Movie. But not all attention the brothers received was favorable. Harvey was noted for his confrontational, “hothead” behavior when dealing with certain writers and directors, in addition to cutting certain Asian films whose rights the company had obtained; not a good reputation for a man to have who was supposedly fostering the growth of both independent and foreign cinema in the United States. But despite such publicized incidents with the likes of Sydney Pollack and Julie Taymor, Miramax continued to thrive, developing an impressive body of films and directors who had their work continuously distributed. In fact, it wasn’t until 2005 that Bob and Harvey decided to leave and form The Weinstein Company (TWC), after Disney’s expressed interest in significantly reducing the output of Miramax. So much for the dream.
After steadily developing a new catalog of critical and commercial hits (albeit a decent number of failures along the way), TWC has claimed Best Picture for two consecutive years, first with The King’s Speech, closely followed by The Artist. And here we are faced with yet another year of Weinstein releases, and even though I express significant doubt that they will claim a third statuette for 2012, I do believe it to be one of their more intriguing years. After hosting Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut with his modernized adaptation of Coriolanus, TWC distributed the buzz-worthy documentary Bully, which drew considerable attack against the MPAA for the R-rating it received, “blocking” the film from adolescents who would likely benefit from viewing it. Although the Weinsteins decided to release Bully unrated, they later came to a compromise that widely released a PG-13-rated cut in April.
Meanwhile, French film The Intouchables has received considerable acclaim for the performances of its two leads, if not for a sentimental narrative (it currently holds a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film). Sure, there have been some eyebrow raisers, such as the critically-panned comedy Butter starring Jennifer Garner, an action-comedy (starring Miley Cyrus, nonetheless) that has been postponed for a direct-to-video release in 2013, and Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place, the film that stars Sean Penn as a rock star and a subplot involving Nazism, which managed to just slip through the cracks. On a different note, John Hillcoat’s Lawless was pulpy fun; a violently drab tale of Franklin County’s moonshining days, although it never quite met its aspirations to place among the gangster giants (it did compete for the Palme d’Or, after all). But with a cast boasting the likes of Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, and Guy Pearce, I would have expected it to be considerably more successful than it was; maybe if the Weinsteins had released it earlier in the summer, they might have had a commercial success that far outweighed the mixed body of reactions from critics. Although this would have possibly interfered with its play at Cannes, the Weinsteins should’ve known that they’d have a higher chance of blockbuster appear than critical success. As for other awards prospects, I am pleased to say TWC may be slightly more successful. But only slightly.
I’ll be the first to claim that The Master is the best film of the year. This is the type of movie that the Weinsteins were born to distribute; a picture that would perplex mainstream audiences, yet remain in the psyches of critics and cinephiles as a spellbinding experience, as the story unfolds of a broken war veteran who stumbles into the hands of a charismatic cult leader. While viewing The Master, you consistently retain the sense that Paul Thomas Anderson crafted the exact film he wanted to make; nothing is out of place, it is simply asked of the viewer to derive from the film whatever conscious “ideas” they choose to associate with the narrative. Overall, it is a fascinating study of the various masters that manipulate our lives (and thoughts regarding them, past and present), in addition to how we choose to live in response to those aspects, or even acknowledge that we are rarely in control of them. Too many factors surround us to be free of their influence, and because of that very reason, PTA’s latest film (coming off 2007’s Oscar-nominated There Will Be Blood) will unlikely obtain the awards that it deserves.
Despite the critical acclaim it has received, it is fair to say The Master has been faced with very divisive reactions, resulting in Golden Globe nominations only for the superb performances of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. If it doesn’t receive a Best Picture nod from the Academy, I won’t be surprised. This is a film that asks more of viewers than it gives to them, and for that reason among others, it will hopefully become a staple entry in the Weinsteins’ catalog. Gone are the ’90s, when you could release Good Will Hunting or Shakespeare in Love and everybody would be happy. We live in a different world now, one where Americans feel considerably less secure. However, the ambiguity of The Master will ultimately prevent too many from perceiving it as a genius piece of work.
And while audiences sat puzzled by The Master, they were appalled by the heavy-handed, brutal, and talky flick entitled Killing Them Softly. I wouldn’t say that Andrew Dominik’s film is worthy of the ‘F’ CinemaScore that unassuming moviegoers spitefully gave it (hey man, they just wanted to see Brad Pitt), but it certainly is a movie obsessed with its own ugliness, beating the flaws of capitalism over our heads in nearly every scene. The film successfully insinuates what it believes to be the bitter state of our country, portraying the collapse of a criminal economy in New Orleans as an allegory for our entire institution, yet conveys its ideas through painfully obvious television speeches and radio broadcasts circa the end of the Bush era. Meanwhile, the fresh, criminal banter of Pulp Fiction and its imitators has been reduced to the talk of obnoxious twits who you wish would just shut their faces. But maybe that’s part of the point.
In a way, Killing Them Softly is a send-up of the gangster genre’s repetitive premise – finding the American dream through a prominent rise in criminal power, and eventually being crushed under its weight. I’ll allude to my earlier statement regarding Miramax. The dream is dead. And despite how annoyingly persistent the film is in relaying this message, people still won’t get it. Not even Brad Pitt, backed by a fantastic supporting cast of Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, and Ray Liotta, has received enough recognition for playing a man who actually does get it. Along with Lawless, Killing Them Softly failed to snatch the Palme d’Or (honors eventually went to the acclaimed French film Amour), yet fared decently well with national critics.
So what then, can the Weinsteins offer as heavy-hitters? At this point in the Oscar race (before we even have nominees), I’d say that the most likely contenders for Best Picture are Argo and Zero Dark Thirty (Les Miserables and Lincoln are also up there). It is unlikely that the Weinsteins can compete with such predestined Oscar bait, but a few other films they have brought to the table do have a chance of obtaining various awards, that which they rightfully deserve. For instance, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained might be as close as the Weinstein favorite will ever come to a genre masterpiece, his slice of blaxploitation, spaghetti western movie-love not quite reaching the heights of Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, or what I might even believe to be his finest work, Inglourious Basterds, but settling right in the middle among the groundbreaking work he did with the Kill Bill films. Not only that, but his stylistic playfulness complements the serious issue of slavery surprisingly well, driving forth a meaningful film that continues the director’s motif of how important it is to remember, in both life and cinema. Nobody but Tarantino knows how much longer he can keep this up, but he has proven once again that he is a necessary element in Hollywood. As far as the Golden Globes go, Django has been nominated for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay for Tarantino, and well-deserved Supporting Actor nominations for both Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio.
TWC’s other frontrunner is Silver Linings Playbook, a phenomenally uplifting romantic-comedy with genuine, dramatic elements, emotional investment that doesn’t feel manipulative, an ensemble cast who we quickly learn to love, and a script that actually dares to be both funny and romantic. It never quite goes where you’re expecting, and in that regard, shares the unpredictable characteristics of its two lead characters. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are both nominated for Golden Globes, as is the film itself, in addition to the screenplay by writer/director David O. Russell. I’m a bit disappointed in the lack of a nom for Robert De Niro’s Eagles-obsessed father (c’mon, the guy finally has a role that utilizes his talents again!), but I’ll get over it. What truly bugs me is how little distribution Silver Linings is getting, considering how appealing it could be to universal audiences. Even living in the Washington, D.C. area, it was a struggle to find so much as two theaters carrying it. Although awards attention will likely broaden the release, this is something the Weinsteins desperately need to take note of. They’ve got something special here, and hopefully, they might even have a contender.
It’s been an interesting year, and I suppose Bob and Harvey have tried their best to adapt to a developing world; that which has affected both audiences and filmmakers. Any such transition will have its successes and failures, and in the mix, I believe we have a fine selection of films (both with and without the TWC label) that are truly representative of the time in which we live. All things considered, 2012 has been a great time at the movies, and The Weinstein Company has certainly been an essential component. The era of Miramax is long gone. Welcome to a country in which independent film is no longer in the trial stages, and the “correct” choices for Bob and Harvey to make are no longer so black-and-white; much like the choices we now face as a modern society, and much like those that are portrayed onscreen. So what’s next for TWC? Scary Movie 5 will be released in just a few months. For those opposed to change, be grateful that some things never do.
What do you think? Leave a comment.