‘The Fabelmans’ aka Mr. Spielberg, Direct Thyself

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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

‘The Batman’ for The Birthday

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The Batman (CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/Screenshot)

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell

Director: Matt Reeves

Running Time: 176 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: March 4, 2022 (Theaters)

The Batman was my Cinematic Birthday Viewing of 2022. So I got a little festive and chowed down a little more than usual. The star of the lineup was a matcha chocolate milkshake garnished with a sesame seed cookie and boozed up with some ginger liqueur (though I hardly noticed the booze), while I also dabbled in some popcorn, loaded fries, and even pizza. (Not to mention I had an Impossible burger for dinner beforehand.) So now you know what state of mind (and state of stomach) I was in.

Anyway, as plenty of moviegoers have already noticed, this is a version of the Dark Knight that really emphasized the detective aspect. That made for a lot of Pattinson-Batman and Geoffrey Wright-Commissioner Gordon looking all confused at all those dang riddles! And when they realized that they might have made a major mistake with their deciphering, you could really tell how much they felt like chumps. I appreciated that vulnerability!

I also appreciated that Colin Farrell was both unrecognizable and indelible, and that Peter Sarsgaard was very recognizable (even though I spent the whole time thinking he was Corey Stoll).

In conclusion, would I ever like to be The Batman myself? Hardly! But I’m pretty sure I’ve now fully realized the value of having new versions always waiting for me as the world turns.

Grade: Gimme All Your Cyphers

This Is a Movie Review: Bong Joon-ho Wants ‘Okja’ the Super Pig to Be Your New Best Friend

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This review was originally published on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Giancarlo Esposito, Lily Collins, Shirley Henderson

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: Not Rated, But Watch Out for Factory-Grade and Mano-a-Mano Violence

Release Date: June 28, 2017 (Theatrically in New York and Los Angeles/Streaming on Netflix)

There are some people who are perfectly fine with consuming animal products, and then there are others who are staunchly vegan. If a multinational conglomerate were to engineer adorable giant pigs to cure world hunger, I do not imagine that most people would change their stances. Nor, if his latest film Okja is any indication, does Bong Joon-ho. But we are not here to focus on the masses (save for a decadent prologue that establishes that they are here to lap up whatever innovation/new species is fed to them). This is a story about a girl and her super pig, and all the zany, brainy, insane-y forces of the world that get in her way.

It might be possible to find Okja – who looks like a land-dwelling hippo with big ol’ floppy ears and a stretched-out porcine face – completely adorable and still be okay with eating bacon. I know I certainly do. Or perhaps this film will convince to swear off all pork products forever. No matter where you fall on this spectrum, it cannot be denied that Okja’s young farmgirl companion Mija (newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun) has been done wrong in so many ways. Her grandfather sells Okja to the Miranda Corporation, which will purportedly parade her around as the winner of a Super Pig contest, but of course that is just a distraction away from how the sausage is made. A visit to the factory makes it look practically genocidal. A group of activists known as the Animal Liberation Front teams up with Mija to expose Miranda for what it really is, but their motives may not fully align with each other, as Mija just wants to take Okja back home. And taking it all back to the beginning, Okja and Mija’s friendship was practically engineered by Miranda for its marketability.

Despite how grossly its animal characters are treated, Okja is not about shaming its audience. Its purpose is holding up a cracked funhouse mirror to global capitalism. Or is it just a normal mirror? In which version do we ravenously consume faces and anuses? (They’re American as apple pie!)

Befitting a Bong Joon-ho film and a world in which people feel that they can get away with anything, the production design is a beautiful and lavish rainbow, but also probably extravagantly wasteful. The characterization is similarly outsized, with the heroes, villains, and half-hero/half-villains alike displaying a range of delectable behavior. As the braces-wearing Miranda CEO, Tilda Swinton is an anxious mix of demonstrating her power and proving that she does in fact have power. Her underlings include the preternaturally calm Giancarlo Esposito and the bizarrely squeaky-voiced flibbertigibbet Shirley Henderson. Jake Gyllenhaal is deep in character work as usual as a sweaty, shorts-sporting zoologist TV host. And as the head of the ALF, Paul Dano offers up scary commitment. His brand of ethics is admirable, but not above violent enforcement. Okja asks: do we really want to free the animals if it requires such militancy?

When the film gets into specifics, though, the questions are never that simple. It all rests on the shoulders of little Mija, who has the most clear-cut motivation of anyone. Her focus and resolve allow her to achieve her purpose, but it is not clear that that result makes the world a better place. What do we make of life when every individual story is a MacGuffin?

Okja is Recommended If You Like: Orphan Black, Free Willy, The Hunger Games

Grade: 4 out of 5 Magical Animals

This Is a Movie Review: Swiss Army Man

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SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano

Swiss Army Man is a lot like the recent X-Files episode, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” in that a human-esque creature learns the rules that govern human civilization and then offers a rejuvenating perspective to a fully human companion. In this case, that creature is the corpse of Daniel Radcliffe,henceforth known as “Manny” (not unlike Rhys Darby as “Guy Mann”), whose presence revitalizes suicidal Hank (Paul Dano), most strikingly with the propulsive power of his flatulence. But there is so much more to Manny. He combines a blank slate, sophistication, and bluntness for a new form of wisdom. As Manny develops the ability to talk, his and Hank’s conversations tend toward the discomfort (both physical and social) of bodily urges and functions, but they are treated with the tenderness worthy of deeply connected friends. Swiss Army Man threatens to lift the veil of its fantasy, but it keeps its corpse fart-engine running, because magic exists.

I give Swiss Army Man 721 New Uses for the Human Body out of 1030 Possibilities.