Harvey Weinstein and the birth of Miramax Films: From the April 2015 Buffalo Spree

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I wrote this piece on Harvey Weinstein for the April Spree, and in a wonderfully unexpected surprise, I received an email from Harvey himself, complimenting the piece. VERY unexpected.

“Our outsider status is very important to us,” Miramax Films founder and indie heavyweight Harvey Weinstein told New York Magazine in 1998, referring to himself and brother Bob. “It keeps us human, normal.”

It is fitting, then, that Miramax, the company that revolutionized and transformed independent cinema, began life not in Los Angeles or New York, but in the human, normal city that is Buffalo. How “outside” was Miramax? Its first home was a hockey arena. (The dearly departed Memorial Auditorium, to be exact.) Harvey—one of the few behind-the-scenes figures in moviedom who is on a first-name basis with the world at large—infamously attended the University at Buffalo from 1969 through 1973. Stories from the time period that followed—first came the concert promotion business called Harvey and Corky Productions (cofounded with “Corky” Burger), followed in 1979 by the birth of Miramax—have taken on mythic status. Yes, Harvey Weinstein lived and walked the streets of Buffalo during his man-who-would-be-king days.

Writes Peter Biskind in 2004’s Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, “Across the country in Buffalo, two frizzy-haired, unprepossessing brothers from Queens named Weinstein … were preparing to move their tiny film company, Miramax, named after their parents, Miriam and Max, down to New York City where the action was. … In the late 1970s, Harvey Weinstein had acquired the Century Theater in downtown Buffalo, and to keep the seats warm when it was not being used for concerts, he and Bobby, as his brother was then known, began showing movies.” They were “bottom-feeders,” writes Biskind, of the soft-core flicks and concert films. In 1981, they even put together a slasher film of their own.The Burning, produced by Harvey and cowritten by Bob, was a modest success. (More on The Burning later.)

From these inauspicious beginnings came (take a deep breath) My Left Foot, Paris is Burning, Truth or Dare, The Double Life of Veronique, Delicatessen, Reservoir Dogs, The Crying Game, Strictly Ballroom, The Piano, The Three Colors Trilogy, The Crow, Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Heavenly Creatures, Bullets Over Broadway, Exotica, Priest, Il Postino, Kids, Chunking Express, Dead Man, Trainspotting, Swingers, Sling Blade, The English Patient, Good Will Hunting, Life is Beautiful, Velvet Goldmine, Shakespeare in Love, The Lovers on the Bridge, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Amélie, In the Bedroom, Gangs of New York, Chicago, City of God, The Hours, The Station Agent, Kill Bill, The Aviator, and so many more.

These are not all classic films, and many suffered at the hands of recut-mad “Harvey Scissorhands.” (Here’s looking at you, 54.) But they are all of great importance in the history of modern cinema, and independent cinema specifically. These culture-defining works can trace their lineage, in some ways, back to Buffalo.

This is no great revelation; tales of Harvey in the Queen City are oft told, and Weinstein mentions his Buffalo era with great fondness and startling frequency. (The first paragraph of a Harvey-authored guest column for Variety after January’s Charlie Hebdo tragedy saw the mogul remembering his love of “Tom Toles’ cartoons from the Buffalo News (I went to school in Buffalo).”)

But the long-term effects of this knowledge—that the Harvey Weinstein was here, in Buffalo—cannot be overstated. When Harvey gave a lecture at UB in September 2000 on the occasion of his receiving a SUNY Doctorate of Humane Letters, the Center for the Arts was mobbed with film-crazed students like myself. I was one of the many Media Study majors whose life was changed (or seemed to be changed at the time) by Pulp Fiction. Some had scripts in hand, and the looks on their faces when Harvey referenced the legal issues that prevented him from accepting unsolicited screenplays was priceless. Even so, for those who went on to a career in the entertainment world, the thought of Harvey stomping down Main Street was both reassuring and a tad absurd. It would be like a kid in Wheatfield hearing that Wayne Gretzky got his started playing hockey at Sabreland. (I’m dating myself with that one.)

Harvey and Bob were famously ousted by then-Miramax owners Disney in 2005. The Miramax of the present is untouched by the hands of Harvey, who instead runs the successful Weinstein Company, a studio whose recent slate included The Immigrant, Begin Again, St. Vincent, The Imitation Game, and the delightful family film Paddington, among others. Harvey himself is as powerful, feared, and cunning as ever before. So it is quite interesting to return to The Burning, the Weinstein brothers’ Friday the 13th rip-off. It’s a fun, lovably gory thing, notable for featuring the pre-fame likes of Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter. But what I found most intriguing was the scenery, as the film was shot in North Tonawanda and Buffalo. After thank yous to the Statler Hotel, Mickey Rats, and Dial Cleaners, the final words of the end credits (not counting the copyright info) are as follows: “FILMED IN WESTERN NEW YORK.”

I like to think that the Harvey and Bob Weinstein of 2015, while born in Queens, were formed in Western New York. And I think Harvey, the human, normal outsider who made Hollywood bow to his wishes, would agree.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

 

The power of Marilyn—and the Falls: An excerpt from Buffalo Spree’s April issue

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One of the many faces on the cover of Buffalo Spree’s film issue is Marilyn Monroe, who famously starred in 1953’s Niagara. As I write in the issue (and below), it’s an odd picture, but certainly an interesting one.

“Marilyn Monroe and Niagara—a raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control!” So screamed the poster for 1953’s Niagara, an enjoyably stodgy film that is, of course, particularly captivating to Western New Yorkers. This Technicolor thriller—dig that red satin dress!—was shot in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and watching it today one is touched by its aesthetic beauty, its importance in cinema history, and its sheer oddness.

This is a stodgy, rather silly little thing redeemed by Monroe’s smoldering performance. In her book The Marilyn Scandal, author Sandra Shevey refers to “the scenes with her lover (filmed in long shot) of their rendezvous in the bowels of the falls—those amazingly torrential downpourings as backdrops—are some of the most erotic scenes ever filmed. … It was in Niagara that Monroe really discovered where she was going and how to get there.”

It is downright shocking how little screentime Monroe actually has; the star of the movie is really the soon-to-be Mrs. Howard Hughes, Jean Peters. But it is Marilyn who fascinates, whether she is staring down her wet-blanket husband (Joseph Cotton) or contemplating how to cross back into the States. This era, of course, is when Niagara Falls was really Niagara Falls, “Wonder of the World.” This combination, of the Falls and Marilyn, still intrigues. Even the suite the actress stayed in, room 801 at the Crowne Plaza, draws curious visitors.

It is entirely possible that no film shot in or near Buffalo has had a greater impact. It might not be very, well, good, but there is no doubting Niagara’s significance.

‘Human Capital’ is imperfect, but worth a rental

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“Human Capital” is one of many interesting foreign films to have made a brief stop in Buffalo so far this year. As my Buffalo News review explains, this is not a great movie, but certainly one worth watching. Note an error with the review, however. I submitted a review with a 2.5 star grade, but it is listed here as 3.5. Oh well.

Two families and a bicyclist meet with combustible results in “Human Capital,” a sharp, ambitiously staged drama about life in modern, post-Berlusconi Italy. “Everything is collapsing,” says one character after financial forecasts prove disastrously incorrect. That collapse, director Paolo Virzi demonstrates, is not just monetary, but personal, emotional and even physical.

Like recent Italian cinema successes “The Great Beauty” and “Reality,” Virzi’s film is focused on the severe clash between the haves, the have-nots, and those stuck in the middle, aching to get ahead.

Dino Ossola is in the latter category, a likable if slightly buffoonish sort whose daughter Serena is dating the son of a wealthy hedge fund kingpin. Dino (played by Fabrizio Bentivoglio who looks like a cross between Eric Roberts and Bob Seger) sees an opportunity to get in with Giovanni Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni). Giovanni can tell: “You want to buy into our fund,” he says with the air of a man who is used to such requests.

It is quickly clear that Dino is in over his head, but bigger problems develop. When a waiter on his bicycle is struck by a passing SUV on the night before Christmas Eve, Dino’s daughter and Giovanni’s son are suspects.

This news arrives at a particularly bad time for Carla Bernaschi (the wondrous, wounded Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), a seemingly bored wife and mother attempting to save a small theater until her husband announces that he must sell it.

“Human Capital” buzzes along nicely for the first hour, but makes a crucial error in turning its focus to Serena. It is not the fault of actress Matilde Gioli that Serena is so dull – we can blame director and co-writer Virzi – but no matter who is responsible, the Serena section causes the film to screech to a halt.

Placement also is an issue. The stories of Dino and Carla are so involving that perhaps whoever followed would seem rote by comparison. But Serena’s tale, and the love story at its center, seems particularly weak. Also rather pedestrian is the final explanation of who is responsible for causing the accident.

Yet for the most part, “Human Capital” is compelling cinema. And while Italy’s submission to the Academy Awards failed to secure a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, it is a smarter, more ambitious production than most adult fare being burped out in Hollywood.

Virzi is known for his Italian comedies, but “Human Capital” is a dark, somber piece. Except for a few issues (sorry, Serena), he has created a unique, timely drama. And “50 Shades of Grey” devotees should note that Virzi also stages one of the more erotic love scenes in recent memory.

The cast is uniformly strong, but it is Valeria Bruni Tedeschi who truly impresses. Her Carla is a vulnerable woman stuck in a powerless position, and every moment she is on screen is riveting.

It is hard to quibble with the decision to divide “Human Capital” into character-focused chapters, but the viewer cannot help but wonder if a film centered on Carla alone might have proven even more successful.

With a bit more focus, “Capital” could have gone down as another modern Italian cinema great. Even so, it’s close, and that is an impressive feat.