The New York Times
Fall Films: More Bitter Pills Than Popcorn
ByÂ MICHAEL CIEPLY
July 31, 2012
LOS ANGELES â€” On Nov. 6 a contentious election season will presumably come to a close. But weâ€™ll still have the movies to fight about.
Last yearÂ â€œThe Artist,â€Â a silent Hollywood fairy tale, danced to a best picture Oscar in a nostalgic awards season. But films will be crackling with tension this fall and winter, as a number of high-profile pictures tackle tough, sometimes violent, sometimes politically tinged subject matter, while sorting through the usual traffic jams and rivalries on their way to the screen.
The seasonâ€™s tone is almost certain to be set by Harvey Weinstein and his Weinstein Company, an Oscar powerhouse that backed â€œThe Artistâ€ last year and a year earlier releasedÂ â€œThe Kingâ€™s Speech,â€Â another bit of heartfelt nostalgia that also became an Oscar-winning best picture.
At theÂ Comic-ConÂ International fan convention in July, Weinstein offered a glimpse ofÂ â€œDjango Unchained,â€Â one of its awards candidates for 2012. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, it is a bloody fable about a former slave, played by Jamie Foxx, who hunts white overseers in search of a lost love, played by Kerry Washington.
â€œIt canâ€™t be much more nightmarish than it was in real life,â€ said Mr. Tarantino, who was trying to describe his filmâ€™s celebration of deadly vengeance â€” he called it â€œspaghetti surrealismâ€ â€” in the Old South.
Set for release on Christmas Day, the film was being talked up at Comic-Con by Weinstein representatives as a contender on the order of Mr. Tarantinoâ€™sÂ â€œInglourious Basterds,â€Â which featured Mr. Tarantino as a scalped Nazi, had a climactic scene of movie theater violence and received eight Oscar nominations in 2010. (Last week Mr. Weinstein called for a Hollywood discussion of the effects of violence on screen. )
But to be a winner, â€œDjango Unchainedâ€ will have to edge aside â€œLawless,â€ directed by John Hillcoat, about bootlegging gangsters in Prohibition-era Virginia; â€œThe Master,â€ directed byÂ Paul Thomas Anderson, about a drunken drifter who falls in with a cult leader who resembles L. Ron Hubbard, the real-life Scientology founder; and â€œSilver Linings Playbook,â€ directed by David O. Russell, about an unemployed teacher just back from a state mental hospital.
In addition, thereâ€™sÂ â€œKilling Them Softly,â€Â Andrew Dominikâ€™s story about a hit man investigating a heist from the mob. And those are just the films on Mr. Weinsteinâ€™s schedule through the yearâ€™s end.
The producer Megan Ellison, who backed both â€œLawlessâ€ and â€œThe Master,â€ is also helping to finance â€œZero Dark Thirty.â€ Written by Mark Boal, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and set for release by Sony Pictures Entertainment on Dec. 19, it tells of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
â€œZero Dark Thirtyâ€ was originally supposed to open in October. But the film was delayed until after the election amid claims by Republicans â€” and denials from the Obama administration â€” that Mr. Boal and Ms. Bigelow had been given undue access to classified information that might help them dramatize one of the presidentâ€™s achievements at a crucial political moment.
The push and shove of politics may now touch another film, Steven Spielbergâ€™s â€œLincoln.â€ The movie, with its portrayal of a would-be national unifier under siege, was recently scheduled by DreamWorks Studios and Walt Disney for limited release on Nov. 9, with more theaters to follow the next week.
In a narrow sense that keepsÂ Mr. Spielbergâ€™s earlier promiseÂ to hold the film until after the election. But it opens the possibility of contemporary comparisons and partisan debate as the inevitable prerelease publicity for the movie begins just as voters head to the polls. (Mr. Spielbergâ€™s films typically have not played the fall festival circuit, and it does not appear that â€œLincolnâ€ will break that pattern.)
Marvin Levy, Mr. Spielbergâ€™s spokesman, said â€œwe wouldnâ€™t be surprisedâ€ if there were political discussion around â€œLincoln.â€ But the film, he said, is more about leadership than about particular policy positions, and the need to circulate trailers would probably cause talk even if it were to be released later.
â€œWeâ€™d be part of all that, no matter what,â€ Mr. Levy said.
Mr. Weinstein is apparently less concerned about political strife. His companyâ€™s â€œButter,â€ a comedy with anti-Tea Party overtones, was screened at festivals last year but is set for commercial release on Oct. 5, in the electionâ€™s full heat.
At 20th Century FoxÂ publicists have been bracingÂ for months in anticipation of controversy aroundÂ â€œWonâ€™t Back Down,â€Â which was produced by Walden Media. The film stars Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in a drama about parents and teachers who take over a failing school through a parent trigger law. (The fictionalized situation posits a law somewhat like Californiaâ€™s trigger statute, which allows parents to turn a school into aÂ charter school, replace the staff or even shut it down if 51 percent of the families involved agree.)
Two years ago Walden ran into criticism from some teachers and union leaders because it was among the backers of an education-reform documentary, â€œWaiting for â€˜Superman.â€™Â â€ Though â€œWonâ€™t Back Down,â€ with similar themes, will not open until Sept. 28, union leaders have already expressed wariness, and opinion writers are lining up for a look, according to people who were briefed on the studioâ€™s release plans but spoke anonymously because of the controversy surrounding the subject.
Inevitably, this seasonâ€™s documentaries, beginning with an expected crop at theÂ Toronto International Film FestivalÂ in early September, will bring more tough discussion. Among the toughest of the films, it appears, will be â€œMea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.â€ Directed by Alex Gibney, an Oscar winner in 2008 forÂ â€œTaxi to the Dark Side,â€Â and set for fall release by HBO Documentary Films, it examines the priestly abuse of deaf children at a Wisconsin school, and the caseâ€™s handling by the Vatican.
â€œThe film is explosive,â€ said a promotional message that arrived by e-mail last week.
Less explosive, it appears, will be any interplay between two customary seasonal rivals, Mr. Weinstein and the producer Scott Rudin. The two squared off in the past over conflicting plans for the release ofÂ â€œThe Reader,â€Â with which they were both at one point involved, and then they competed fiercely for Oscars in 2010, when Mr. Rudin hadÂ â€œThe Social Networkâ€Â up against â€œThe Kingâ€™s Speech.â€
In an e-mail last week, Mr. Rudin called it â€œvery unlikelyâ€ that hisÂ â€œInside Llewyn Davis,â€Â a period drama from Joel and Ethan Coen about a folk singer in New York during the 1960s, would be screened in the coming awards season.
Another near miss involves Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler. Ms. Streisand stars in a comedy,Â â€œThe Guilt Trip,â€Â currently to be released by Paramount Pictures on Christmas Day; Ms. Midler has a comedy of her own,Â â€œParental Guidance,â€Â scheduled by Fox a few weeks earlier, on Thanksgiving. (Mister D: Fox has confirmed Midler’s movie will be released Christmas Day – one of our Betteheads, Ron, predicted the media would pick up on this battle over a month ago!)
But two divas. One holiday season.