Movie Review ~ The Fabelmans

The Facts:

Synopsis: Growing up in post-World War II era Arizona, from age seven to eighteen, young Sammy Fabelman aspires to become a film director as he reaches adolescence. But he soon discovers a shattering secret about his dysfunctional family and explores how the power of films can help him see the truth.
Stars: Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Julia Butters, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Chloe East
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 151 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Let’s get this straight. To me, Steven Spielberg is the most outstanding director of all time. Stop right there. I don’t want you to get out your well-worn movie journals or pull up your bookmarked film history pages that point to other celebrated directors whose films helped shape cinema as we know it today. For this guy right here (I stopped typing and pointed to myself), Spielberg is just the #1; thank you, and goodnight. It’s not just the JAWS of it all (the best movie ever made, you’re welcome), but his career has taken him through many different genres and styles. His constant need to innovate and create has kept him at the forefront of film and made him a game-changer. We flock to see his movies in the theater because he makes them for that theatrical experience. He made the best film of last year, West Side Story, fulfilling his long-held desire to make a musical, and some argue it surpassed the Oscar-winning original.

It’s a shame West Side Story didn’t repeat that acclaim at the box office and with awards, but it was, to me, a culmination of his work up until that point. The cinematography, score, screenwriting, technical elements, and directing all came together into one cohesive unit to create that modern masterpiece. What could follow that? The answer is arriving in theaters in time for Thanksgiving, and it’s The Fabelmans, a sometimes loosely autobiographical and often strikingly accurate portrayal of Spielberg’s life growing up and his family’s influence, specifically his mother. There’s already a lot of churn that the film will earn Spielberg his third Best Director Oscar (his last was 1999’s Saving Private Ryan) and that it’s currently the one to beat for Best Picture. But…is it?

You’re talking to a hardcore Spielberg fan here. Someone that will fondly bring up 1989’s Always in the same conversation as 2002’s Minority Report and who thinks 1991’s Hook continues to be overlooked all these years later. So, take it from this fan when I tell you that as moving and laudable as The Fabelmans is, there’s something oddly formal about it that also kept me about ten paces away from it. Part of that emotional lengthening is wrapped up in the very plot of the film. Still, it goes beyond that to a more significant issue with the screenplay (co-written with Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner) and its structure which is episodic as the years go by yet strangely frozen in time.

Spielberg opens his movie with young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) having to be talked into a theater playing 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth by his beleaguered parents. He’s at an age where theatrical movies are still intangible, he fears the big images about to tower before him. After, on the drive home, the wide-eyed boy has been changed for the better and sets out to recreate the film’s famous train crash with his Hanukkah gifts of toy train cars that form a large locomotive. That’s not enough; mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) recognizes that. So, she borrows her husband Burt’s camera and lets Sammy film the crash so he can watch it repeatedly. And a filmmaker was born.

As Sammy grows up (eventually played for most of the film by Gabriel LaBelle, The Predator), he and his camera witness a tidal wave of change in the people and places around him. Family dynamics that went over his head as a child can now be replayed and reexamined frame by frame, driving a wedge between Sammy and his parents as a pair and individually. He trusts his mother to care for them but can’t reconcile a betrayal that goes unspoken, and he laments that his father (Paul Dano, The Batman) has blinders on for more than just what his children take an interest in. Joining a new suburban high school only intensifies his feeling of being an outsider, made more apparent when he’s targeted by bigots and begins dating an ultra-Christian girl that can’t keep her hands off him.

There’s a lot of movie to go around in The Fabelmans, so you can understand how audiences feel like they’ve walked away richly rewarded with various dynamic scenes and performances. And Spielberg’s eye for detail and knowledge of technique put the film on a completely different plane of existence. It’s beautiful to look at, and the production design should win the Oscar now and be done with it. Newcomer LaBelle is a true discovery as Sammy, taking us through complex emotional arcs without much set-up from Kushner or Spielberg’s script. No one is incredibly well served by some of the dialogue, which never sounds like anyone other than a Pulitzer Prize winner wrote it. There’s one scene between Sammy and his younger sister Reggie (Julia Butters, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) that sounds like a conversation between two Central Park intellectuals on their way to a be-in. While it works better for Judd Hirsch’s (Ordinary People) hysterical cameo and some of Dano’s excellent work, Kusher’s phrasing doesn’t sound right coming out of teens/youngsters, and they occupy much of the latter half of the film.

The end of the finale credits for West Side Story had a simple message, “For Dad,” and it does not surprise The Fabelmans ends with a similar message to Spielberg’s mother. Williams is playing the cinematic realization of Spielberg’s mother, so a gentle touch is granted the character, even when confronted with behavior that may get a more dramatic hand if the story hadn’t been so personal. The extent of Mitzi’s close friendship with Burt’s co-worker Bennie (Seth Rogen, Sausage Party) is hinted at, but Spielberg stops short of clarifying or speculating too much. In many ways, that’s admirable. A son wants to honor his mother by telling her story but doesn’t want to create trouble in the telling. Williams is on board with this and gives Mitzi that inner glow that radiates into her castmates. It’s not the slam-dunk award-winning role I was hoping for, so her competition need not worry, but it’s yet another sign Williams will be one of our lasting talents.

I’ve sat with the film for a few weeks now and hoped I’d want to see it again immediately, but it hasn’t hit me yet. There’s not a Spielberg film out there I wouldn’t watch again (actually, sorry, Bridge of Spies is a pass), and I’m sure I’ll meet up with The Fabelmans again, and I hope next time I’ll come away feeling closer to them than I did the first time. For now, you go on ahead and see if you get along with them better than I did.

Movie Review ~ Uncut Gems


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A charismatic jeweler makes a high-stakes bet that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. In a precarious high-wire act, he must balance business, family and adversaries on all sides in pursuit of the ultimate win.

Stars: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield, Judd Hirsch, Eric Bogosian

Director: Benny Safdie, Joshua Safdie

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I feel like I usually start some of these review posts with “I was too old for” or “This was before my time” but today I get to say that I’m the perfect age to remember when Adam Sandler rose from a popular utility player on Saturday Night Live to a blockbuster movie star.  Happening almost by chance if you really think about it, his dimbulb comedies that played on his goofball charms became quotable and rewatchable fluff that made Sandler millions but didn’t exactly endear him to critics.  Audiences and studio heads loved him but his movies became 90 minutes to fear for reviewers as the years went on.  Truth be told, the quality took a nosedive as well the more Sandler looped in (and relied on) his stable of friends.

Efforts to go straight netted good feedback, like 2002’s Punch Drunk Love and, to a lesser extent 2004’s Spanglish.  In these films it was evident that when Sandler took himself seriously there was something more to him than silly Cajun accents and arrested development man-child characters.  Yet he always fell back on these easy riffs, making it difficult to figure out what he really wanted to do with his career.  A recent multi-million dollar deal with Netflix gave him freedom to create his own projects and the results…haven’t been spectacular.  Only a slight caper comedy, Murder Mystery earlier in 2019, had some spring to its step and that was largely due to costar Jennifer Aniston dragging Sandler along.

So why are we back at the tail end of 2019 again talking about Sandler?  Well, after gaining considerable attention for his work in 2017’s serio-comic The Meyerowitz Stories with director Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), he’s teamed up with another buzzy director (actually directors) for Uncut Gems and not only has it brought Sandler the best notices of his career but it might just earn him an Oscar nomination.  He’s already picked up numerous critical acclaim, a few early awards, and a handful of nominations in upcoming ceremonies but the real test will be if Academy voters can look past the dreck he’s participated in and appreciate what he’s put into his performance here.

Howard Ratner (Sandler, Blended) is in trouble.  It’s 2012 and he’s in debt up to his ears.  Borrowing money from one person to pay another, his life is in a constant state of motion of over the counter offers and drop in deals where his bad investments and gambling has put a target on his back.  Operating as a jeweler in the Diamond District of New York City, he thinks his luck is about to change with his acquisition of an uncut opal just arrived from Africa he plans to put up for auction.  Unable to resist showing off his nest egg, when an recruiter (Lakeith Stanfield, Knives Out) Howard pays under-the-table snags basketball superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself, admirably) and brings him by to look at some merchandise, Howard lets the opal out of his sight…and that’s when things start to go downhill rapidly.

Balancing an estranged wife (Idina Menzel, Frozen II) and a mistress (Julia Fox) with her own eccentricities and complications, Howard spends the next days tracking his opal while staying ahead of a swarm of the NY loan shark underbelly that have come to collect.  His brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian, The Stuff) and his henchmen are ones he’s most wary of, for good reason, and a tense family dinner masks the deadly animosity present between the two men.  As the auction draws near and Howard continues to make wrong turns that get him deeper into the dirt, can he right his sinking ship without taking others down with him?

Written and directed by brothers Benny and Joshua Safdie, I suspect audiences will respond to Uncut Gems the way they viewed most of Sandler’s earlier comedies, with a mixture of exasperation and exhilaration…but for different reasons.  This is 135 minutes of stress for Howard and, in effect, the viewer as we are sitting right on his shoulder throughout.  With an almost voyeuristic nature, we watch as Howard interacts with all manner of people that work around the Diamond District.  I’m not sure, but I’d bet many of the people appearing in these scenes actually worked in the stores where the scenes were filmed.  There’s an authenticity to the dialogue (it has to have taken the prize for most uses of f**k in 2019) that almost instantly lends credibility to the film and Sandler in particular.

As indicated by the advance notices, Sandler is remarkable.  Though playing a character hard to root for because you see him making the wrong turn five blocks ahead of the street sign, there’s a charisma he lends Howard where you can’t totally write him off.  A scene late in the film where he explains himself exposes a openness that doesn’t soften him so much as documents the path some vulnerable people take when their self-destruction goes unnoticed for too long.  There’s a burden this character carries from the moment we meet him, you can almost see it weighing him down the minute he appears on screen and Sandler keeps that sense of needing to unload right through to the end.  It’s real follow through and a mature performance from someone that has peddled so long in immaturity.

In addition to Sandler, there’s several supporting performances of note.  I wasn’t familiar with Fox before this film but you can bet she’ll be turning up on Hollywood’s radar after enough people have seen this.  Taking what could have been a thankless cliché riddled role and making it far more complex, Fox might first seem intrusive to the proceedings in the first hour (which is intentional, I think) but hold fast, the wait for her usefulness is worth it.  On the other side of the wedding ring, Menzel is dynamite as Howard’s annoyed wife who can’t wait to divorce her cheating husband and just wishes she could tell more people about it.  Known more for her stage work and voicing the Frozen films, Menzel impresses big time in her first substantial dramatic role in front of the camera.

I don’t think Sandler will have a problem getting critics to see his performance in Uncut Gems but I’m wondering if his longtime fans will turn out to see him put his ribald routine to the side, at least for the moment. (His next film is titled the not-promising Hubie Halloween and is directed by Steven Brill who has been behind the camera for numerous Sandler gigs).  He’s amassed a new generation of fans via Netflix, hopefully they’re willing to follow him into this new-ish territory and my wish for Sandler is that he sees how green the grass is on the serious side of the street.  Even if he makes a movie like Uncut Gems for every two dumb comedies he makes, I think we’ll have made some progress.

The Silver Bullet ~ Independence Day: Resurgence

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Synopsis: Decades after original ID4 alien attack, Earth is threatened with a new extra-terrestrial threat, but will the planet’s installed space defenses be enough?

Release Date:  June 24, 2016

Thoughts: I don’t know about you, but I haven’t exactly spent the last 19 summers wishing for a sequel to 1996 megatron-huge blockbuster Independence Day.  If I’m being honest, I don’t think I’ve seen the movie all the way through since it was first released in theaters, officialy launching star Will Smith onto Hollywood’s A-List.  Smith’s not back for the sequel but a lot of familiar faces are, like Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park), Bill Pullman (American Ultra), and Vivica A. Fox.  Director Roland Emmerich (White House Down) has had his fair share of misses in the past two decades but if this energized first look at Independence Day: Resurgence is any indication; he could be walking toward another hit.