‘The Fabelmans’ aka Mr. Spielberg, Direct Thyself

1 Comment

What a Fabel, man. (CREDIT: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment)

Starring: Gabriel LaBelle, Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Jeannie Berlin, Judd Hirsch, Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten, Sophia Kopera, Robin Bartlett

Director: Steven Spielberg

Running Time: 151 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Cheeky Moments and a Few Bursts of Anger

Release Date: November 11, 2022 (Limited)/November 23, 2022 (Expands Nationwide)

What’s It About?: He’s been making some of the iconic movies in cinematic history for more than 50 years, and now he’s finally welcoming us into his personal life. I’m talking about Steven Spielberg, of course. Or actually I’m talking about Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), his fictionalized avatar in The Fabelmans.

Now, when I said a few sentences ago that Spielberg was “finally” letting us in, I was kind of joking, since certain aspects of his biography have been public knowledge for quite a while: the childhood in New Jersey and Arizona, the amateur moviemaking, his mother leaving his father for his father’s best friend, his dad making significant contributions to the history of computing. In fact, his background has already informed much of his filmography. So for plenty of cineastes, The Fabelmans is hardly necessary. But just because something isn’t surprising doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching, and there’s plenty to enjoy in Spielberg’s excavation of his own memories.

What Made an Impression?: You know, when I start reading a book, I often like to skip ahead to the last sentence to give myself a little preview of my future. So with that in mind, I’ll mention that The Fabelmans ends with a delightful bang in the form of Sammy’s encounter with a certain real-life legendary director, as played by another legendary director. I won’t say who they are, but I will say: you guys are gonna love it.

Anyway, what else should I spotlight that happens in the 2-plus hours leading up to that meeting? How about the fact that everyone in the cast is so fully committed? That’s certainly to be expected, considering their resumes and the level of professionalism around them. But seriously, everyone is such a character. Each member of the Fabelman family is bound to leave an indelible imprint on your heart. As Sammy’s mom and dads Mitzi and Burt, Michelle Williams and Paul Dano are exactly the sort of (usually, but not always) supportive mid-century suburban parents you’d hope they would be. And as the oldest of Sammy’s younger sisters Reggie, Julia Butters is wonderfully unrecognizable to those who know her from American Housewife and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… Even Uncle Boris is unforgettable despite only showing up for a few days to sit shiva. That’s what happens when you give a small but crucial part to Judd Hirsch, I suppose.

And there are plenty of other people to meet outside the family as well! Seth Rogen is the most avuncular he’s ever been as Burt’s coworker/best friend Bennie. And Sammy’s quite the friend-maker himself. He needs to round out the casts for all the ambitious home movies he’s making, after all. Then when he makes his way to high school, he can’t help but encounter bullies, and girls who help clean him up after he runs afoul of those bullies. On that note, one of the best scenes is a conversation that he has with his soon-to-be-girlfriend and another girl who’s just learned (from Sammy) that her boyfriend’s been cheating on her. You know how teenagers are! Similarly, you probably also know how Steven Spielberg is, and it’s lovely to see that play out in Fabelman Form.

The Fabelmans is Recommended If You Like: E.T., Just about any American movie or TV show set in the 1950s or early 60s, and probably Cinema Paradiso (which I haven’t seen in its entirety, but based on what I’ve heard, it sounds like a good comp)

Grade: 4 out of 5 Cameras

Just a Bit About Venom Letting There Be Carnage

Leave a comment

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (CREDIT: Sony Pictures Entertainment/Screenshot)

Starring: Tom Hardy, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Williams, Naomie Harris, Reid Scott, Stephen Graham, Peggy Lu

Director: Andy Serkis

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: October 1, 2021 (Theaters)

How much carnage did Venom: Let There Be Carnage let there be? Henceforth, “carnage” will refer to “stuff that I liked” (except when I need it to mean something different). Let me count the ways:

-That scene when Venom gives a heartfelt speech at a rave. That’s what it’s all about!
-The turmoil on Tom Hardy’s face as Eddie Brock tries to be happy for his ex’s engagement. That’s a lot of carnage in one man’s psyche!
-Dan (Reid Scott) gets to be heroic. That’s considerate chaos!
-Naomie Harris got the memo. A LOT of carnage in those eyes and that hair.
-Mrs. Chen gets in on the fun. Good call having her be in on Eddie/Venom’s secret.
-Michelle Williams really looks like she’s in a good place.
-Now onto the more literal aspects of carnage. When the subtitular symbiote makes his way into Woody H., it really starts pushing the limits of PG-13. A bunch of people caught in the mayhem get crushed or ripped apart. An entire truck is suddenly thrown off a bridge! What happened to the people in that truck? There’s no time to find out! All we know is the detective telling us that people keep saying they’re seeing monsters.

In conclusion: not as revelatory as the first one, but more heartwarming.

Grade: A Mostly Good Match

This Is a Movie Review: Venom

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Sony Pictures

How do you make a gelatinous black alien goo-villain like Venom the hero of your movie? As the makers of Venom have decided, you have it (him?) fall in love with Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). Although, it’s not so much love as it is deep platonic friendship. But maybe developing a deep platonic friendship is a kind of falling in love? Whatever you call it, it works.

Overall, this movie is filled with delights because of its unerringly playful approach. That applies to the action scenes, with Venom’s fluid presence shooting out in unpredictable directions. It of course applies to the back-and-forth repartee between Eddie and Venom inside his head. (Wisely, a few other key characters are aware of what is going on during these conversations, but that doesn’t make them look any less insane.) And it absolutely applies to Eddie/Venom’s constant attempts to figure out how to feed their ravenous hunger. And then there’s that tongue. Oh yeah, that tongue. We could’ve used more of the tongue, honestly. But Venom, and Venom, is more than just that tongue, and it’s better for it.

I give Venom 400 Tater Tots out of 500 Host Bodies.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘I Feel Pretty’ Mines Humor and Self-Confidence Out of Cognitive Dissonance

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Mark Schafer/STX Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in April 2018.

Starring: Amy Schumer, Rory Scovel, Michelle Williams, Aidy Bryant, Busy Philipps, Lauren Hutton, Tom Hopper, Emily Ratajkowski, Adrian Martinez

Directors: Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Strategically Filmed Nudity

Release Date: April 20, 2018

A friend who accompanied me to the I Feel Pretty screening remarked afterwards that Amy Schumer was the wrong fit for the lead role and that an actual plus-size actress like Nicole Byer or Aidy Bryant (who plays one of Schumer’s close friends) would have made more sense. Her point is salient, for while Schumer does not have a supermodel’s stereotypical rail-thin body, she is hardly anywhere near obese. But this movie, in which a cosmetics company employee suddenly starts believing that she is transcendentally beautiful, is about perception more than reality. What it requires in the lead then is someone with a body that can both convincingly cause self-esteem issues and be stunningly attractive. That is to say, it could be anybody, and that is the underlying message. I Feel Pretty is not about a fat girl who starts to believe that she is skinny, but rather, it is about someone with low self-esteem who transforms into the most self-assured woman ever.

Writing/directing duo Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein take their cues from the likes of Big (even featuring clips from that 1988 Tom Hanks classic to make the connection even more obvious), as Renee (Schumer) wishes at a fountain that she can be one of the beautiful people that commands the attention of any room she walks into. The next day at SoulCycle she gets knocked out after hitting her head, and when she comes to, she looks in the mirror, and voilà! Her wish has come true, and she proceeds to admire and shamelessly caress all her assets. But here’s the kicker: her appearance has not changed, and there is no indication that she is hallucinating an idealized version of herself. The audience sees the same body she has had the whole time, and presumably that is what Renee sees, too. It is only how she sees it that has changed.

I Feel Pretty walks an unceasing tightrope, as it is built on a foundation of cognitive dissonance. Schumer has to play a character who is insane enough that she has a sort of inverted body dysmorphia but not so insane that she cannot function in society. (Appropriately enough, one of the biggest laugh lines comes from her being assured that her company offers plenty of mental health services.) She gets away with it by maintaining a relaxed energy befitting the self-confidence she achieves. And besides, while constant confusion may not be the best formula for logic, it is a perfect formula for laughter, as the brain attempts to make sense of the nonsense of self-discovery.

Much of the humor derives from the reactions of those around Renee. Her best friends Vivian (Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philipps) humor her assurances of “It really is me” while subtly worrying that she has lost her mind. As for those who meet her after her “change,” Rory Scovel, as Renee’s love interest, and Michelle Williams and Lauren Hutton, as her co-workers, get a lot of comedic mileage out of just looking on in stunned amazement at this truly singular woman in their presence. What they are responding to has almost nothing to do with her body and everything to do with her self-assurance. (Williams, for her part, is unforgettable in her affectation of a breathy baby-doll voice that is supposedly her character’s natural way of speaking.)

The story falters a bit in the middle for the sake of fitting into the genre’s typical denouement. Renee initially remains as nice as she always been after her transformation, but after a taste of life on the other side, she starts displaying some casual cruelty that feels less like a natural regression and more a betrayal of character consistency. These conflicts lead to some sweet resolutions, but they are not quite satisfying enough to make the means of getting to that point easy to stomach.

I Feel Pretty’s message that self-confidence and self-acceptance are the keys to success and happiness is no great revelation, but that does not make it any less true or not worth repeating. But I am left wondering: would it have resonated more if the lead had a less normative body type? From a business standpoint, it would be positive if more starring roles went to those who are plus-size, queer, trans, and/or people of color. But the point is that self-confidence and self-doubt are both available to everyone, no matter how traditionally attractive they are or are not. So theoretically the lead of I Feel Pretty could have been anyone, but in practice it had to be one person. At least there is a genuine invocation of inclusivity with a conclusive speech. It is the sort of speech that has been co-opted to sell cosmetic products (both within and outside the film), but it is nonetheless worth holding onto its positivity and running with it.

I Feel Pretty is Recommended If You Like: Big, Laughing While Being Confused, Finding the Inspiration to Achieve Your Dreams

Grade: 4 out of 5 Diffusion Lines

This Is a Movie Review: ‘All the Money in the World’ Brings the Life-or-Death Thrills, But Could Go Deeper in the Psychology of Vast Wealth

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Sony/Columbia TriStar

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg, Christopher Plummer, Charlie Plummer, Romain Duris

Director: Ridley Scott

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: R for Kidnapping-Related Dismemberment and the Vices of the Rich and Organized Criminals

Release Date: December 25, 2017

First off, for those of you wondering: yes, director Ridley Scott has seamlessly replaced Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in the role of J. Paul Getty. No distracting editing or effects tricks appear to have been necessary, and anyone unfamiliar with the backstory should not have any reason to suspect an unusual production.

As All the Money in the World states explicitly, the Getty family’s massive fortune makes them practically an alien species living among human beings. Is it J. Paul Getty’s billions that make him see the world differently, or has he always been that way? Certainly his instinct for negotiating every possible deal is unprecedented, but his particularly uncompromising worldview goes beyond that. How else to explain a man who takes extreme measures not to ensure that his grandson is freed from kidnappers, but rather to ensure that he gets the best possible deal out of the exchange?

Ridley Scott’s knack for ruthless efficiency makes it difficult to really plumb those psychological depths. (It also means that there are moments when characters are staged partially in shadow and I am not sure if it is an artistic decision or just poor lighting.) It is impossible to avoid them entirely, because of Getty’s singularity and Plummer’s inherent understanding of the role. The audience is left to draw its own conclusions, but we are nudged towards just accepting that this man is totally inscrutable.

While this efficiency may skimp on the thematic depth, it at least ensures the satisfaction of a nail-biting thrill ride. The kidnapping victim, John Paul Petty III, who goes by Paul, (Charlie Plummer, unrelated to Christopher) is adrift by his familial station, but he has still enough of a survival instinct to give his scenes plenty of verve. Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams, with a distractingly self-aware but perhaps historically accurate Mid-Atlantic accent) is understandably constantly on the verge of an emotional breakdown, but she remains steely, surprising herself perhaps most of all. And Mark Wahlberg is unusually upright and decent as the former CIA operative assisting J. Paul and Gail. In the moment of watching, the rescue mission grips you, but in the long run, the mark of J. Paul Getty leaves you existentially disoriented.

All the Money in the World is Recommended If You Like: Films About Real Life Rescue Missions and the Most Notorious Criminal Enterprises, Attempting to Understand the Wealthiest People on the Planet

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Negotiations

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Greatest Showman’ Promotes P.T. Barnum’s Brand of Happiness with Enough Surface-Level Charms

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya

Director: Michael Gracey

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: PG for Unruly Crowds Violently Demanding a Good Show

Release Date: December 20, 2017

PT Barnum, the famed 19th Century circus purveyor, just wanted to make audiences happy. Sure, he trafficked in exploitation and probably a fair bit of flimflam, but his name lives on as one synonymous with showmanship. So why shouldn’t he have a foot-stomping big-screen musical celebrating his life and legacy? Thus, we have The Greatest Showman, with Hugh Jackman donning the top hat and cane, which zips along and finishes up in just over 100 minutes, thus avoiding the exhaustion that musicals are always at risk of. Its delights are mostly surface-level, but not to be dismissed, as it celebrates freaks and tolerance, while pooh-poohing stuffiness and losing sight of what’s important.

The songwriting, courtesy of La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is unrelentingly bombastic. It both fits the subject matter and forces the audience to surrender to the spectacle. The effect is initially chaotic. The opening number drops us right into the lavishness, starting off not so much in media res, but rather in finis res. Eventually it settles into a bearable rhythm, but do prepared for some dizzying and overstuffed cinematography.

There are a few classic conflicts to this story that have me a little distressed for how long they remain inadequately unaddressed. For example – and this is the crux – what really drives Barnum? Is he more concerned about putting on a great show or paying off a lifelong grudge by showing up his rich, pompous father-in-law? Do his loyalties lie more with the freaks who made his name or the opera singer (Rebecca Ferguson) who can win over high society for him? I mean, the answers he seeks should be super obvious, as all he has to do is look at and listen to his wife (Michelle Williams) and daughters and know that he has already won at life. And what of his business partner (Zac Efron) – when he will be willing to publicly display his love for the black trapeze artist (Zendaya) who has won his heart?

These issues are all eventually resolved to sufficient satisfaction, though they do skimp a bit on the hard work of rectification and forgiveness. But that speed works according to the logic of musicals. Emotions are so outsize that genuine reunions can be forged over the few minutes of a reprise. Ultimately, it works out well enough that it leaves me with a smile, and if it has you feeling the same, then The Greatest Showman has fulfilled P.T. Barnum’s hope for happiness.

The Greatest Showman is Recommended If You Like: Hugh Jackman singing more often than Zac Efron, Musicals at their most achingly earnest

Grade: 3 out of 5 Trapezes

This Is a Movie Review: Wonderstruck

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Roadside Attractions

Todd Haynes tries his hand at crosscutting concurrent (but not contemporaneous) narratives with the lovely Wonderstruck. The 1927-set and 1977-set portions ultimately converge around the Museum of Natural History in ways that are more than just thematic and geographic. Are the mechanics that get us there smooth or perfunctory? I for one find it satisfying. The earnest performances and fastidious pastiche-y touches go a long way in that regard. I am also impressed by the communication with, between, and around the deaf characters. Here’s the big question: was I wonderstruck? Yah.

I give Wonderstruck 7 Wolf Visions out of 9 Miniatures.

This Is a Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea

Leave a comment


This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2016.

Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Running Time: 137 Minutes

Rating: R for Adult Themes Discussed and Left Undiscussed

Release Date: November 18, 2016 (Limited)

In Manchester by the Sea, Boston handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) must return home to his Massachusetts fishing village hometown after the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). He is then shocked to discover that Joe has entrusted him as the sole guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). As he struggles to settle back into life in Manchester-by-the-Sea, he must deal with returning to a place where his existence is practically an urban legend and crossing paths with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) after their marriage ended in tragedy.

That sounds like a formula for a bummer, and indeed the emotions are often heavy. But if you come in stealing yourself for non-stop depression, like I did, then you will be pleasantly surprised by how much humor there is. At times it plays like an odd couple buddy comedy between Affleck and Hedges, even when long-simmering familial tensions are at their most contentious. The two even act as impromptu wingmen for each other. The film’s sexual politics involving adolescents and how much parents are privy to them are both progressive and screwball.

But Manchester by the Sea undoubtedly belongs to Affleck. I had heard his is one of the best performances of the year. So I was on the lookout for any clear techniques that would show off his emotional prowess, which are not obvious. Do not be fooled though. I have been won over, even though I cannot pinpoint any one at which I would say, “There it is!” Perhaps you will feel the same way.

The question of why Lee’s life has ended up the way it has is pressing at every turn. He has been the victim of multiple tragedies, but that can hardly be the entire source of blame, as his hotheadedness is constantly betraying him. For anyone who has ever had loved ones drag themselves and everyone else down, take a breath, and then take several more, as you stick with the duration of this film. It will reward you for your patience.

Manchester by the Sea is Recommended If You Like: Hanging out with the family, Bah-ston accents, A Surprise Cameo from a Cinematic Icon

Grade: 4 out of 5 Sucker Punches from Casey Affleck