Reviewing a movie like The Fabelmans is challenging because it’s clearly coming from such a personal loving place. It feels weird to be criticizing someone’s journey and basically saying ‘your story didn’t work for me.’ Alas, that is my job and what I have to do for this review of Steven Spielberg’s sentimental tale based on his own adolescence: The Fabelmans. I respect the effort and it has nice moments but as a whole the film rang flat and most of the endearing sections felt phony and inauthentic rather than moving.
The Fabelmans begins with young Sammy becoming inspired by a trip to the theater to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. In particular, a train crash sequence blows Sammy’s mind and he asks for a train set for Hanukkah so he can attempt to recreate it using his Dads super 8 camera.
Sammy has a computer programming father (Paul Dano), an eccentric composer mother (Michelle Williams) and 2 sisters. He also has a friend of the family “uncle” Bennie (Seth Rogan) who both his Mother and Father seem equally attached to. We then follow the family in its highs and lows throughout Sammy’s childhood until he graduates high school and goes to work in Hollywood.
The best section of the movie happens at the end when Sammy gets to meet with director John Ford played by director David Lynch. He gives the young filmmaker some very sage advice on what makes an image art and how to turn a scene into true cinema.
Unfortunately there was far too few of these compelling scenes. Frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski shoots everything in nostalgic sepia tones, which is sweet, but I would have liked to see the cinematography change as the decades wear on. It all felt a little samesies after a while.
Also I found Williams’ performance to be especially phony. It almost came across as a Mother version of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ rather than someone with a legit mental illness that needs help. She’s the perky one who believes in him instead of a real authentic human being.
Perhaps Spielberg was too close to this material to give it the nuanced script and direction it deserves? But then again most people seem to be loving it so what do I know? I thought I would love it because I love cheesy, wholesome films but I did not.
If you want something sweet and nostalgic from this year I recommend Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood.That worked so much better at creating authentic characters and moments I could relate with despite having grown up in the 80s rather than the 60s. I did enjoy the original score from John Williams in The Fabelmans and I think Sam Rechner and Oakes Fegley were strong as 2 of Sammy’s high school classmates. Other than that, this sentimental journey wasn’t for me.
I have a little podcast with my friend Conrado Falco called The Criterion Project where twice a month we talk about what is playing on The Criterion Channel (we actually talked about the original West Side Story here). As one of our regular topics each episode we pitch a remake of the film we are discussing. This can be very challenging as most of the films we are discussing are considered classics in one way or another.
The trickiest thing about a remake is how do you justify its existence? For example, we have projects like the 2019 remake of The Lion King which only addition was in the photo-realistic style that only detracted from the story rather than enhanced.
Now we have a new telling of West Side Story– an adaptation of the Broadway musical where the original film won multiple Oscars including Best Picture and 2 acting wins for Rita Moreno and George Chakris. How do you remake something so beloved?
Well, evidently the answer to that question is to assign the task to Steven Spielberg and hist team of professionals. I loved this new take on West Side Story and I think they took the right approach by treating it like a revival on Broadway. There are changes. Things are staged differently, songs are moved around and even sung by different characters but it still feels like an adaptation of the musical. Like I said, if I went to a revival of West Side Story on Broadway these are the kinds of changes and interpretations I’d expect. Still the same show but with a new flair.
As a whole the production is more workman-like than the original without the auteur feel of the Jerome Robbins choreography and Oscar winning cinematography and art direction. However, there are 2 ways this version far surpasses the original:
First, the chemistry between stars Rachel Zegler (in a stunning debut performance) and Ansel Elgort far exceeds the original’s Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. Beymer famously hated the movie and was embarrassed by his performance (which is a little harsh but there was room for improvement). Maybe part of it is the new couple read as teenagers much more than the original. Who knows? Chemistry is a weird ephemeral thing and here they have it. The whole cast has great chemistry.
Second, the singing is a big improvement over the original. Zegler was discovered on youtube because of her singing and her voice is absolutely stunning. In the original all the singing is dubbed and while I support that choice if the actor can’t perform the songs well enough I prefer casting singers and that’s what they did in the 2021 film. Everyone sings beautifully in this film and for a musical theater fan like myself that added a lot to the experience.
Some people have criticized Elgort’s performance (I am aware his personal life leaves something to be desired) but I don’t agree. I thought he had great screen presence and sold the part of Tony very well. I also love the sound of his tenor vocals.. Moreno also gives a strong performance as the drug store owner Valentina. Her character exists as a kind of bridge between the Sharks and the Jets and that was an effective change.
I also enjoyed Broadway stars Ariana DeBose as Anita and Mike Faist as Riff. Spielberg’s longtime DP Janusz Kaminski does a good job playing homage to the original film but adding new insight. I particularly liked how they staged the final brawl in a salt warehouse. The actors pitched against the giant piles of salt was striking and memorable.
As a theater fan I enjoy going to see revivals just as much as new musicals, sometimes more. That’s how you have to look at this version of West Side Story. It’s a fantastic revival by a cast and crew at the top of their game. I loved it and can’t wait to see it again!
8.5 out of 10
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“The book is better…” is an oft hurled accusation thrown at the world of cinema. I have no doubt those that love movies over literature tire of being told their medium of choice is always a second class substitute. Normally I stay clear of this conversation and try to appreciate both endeavors on their own merit; however, in the case of Ready Player One the book has been so unfairly maligned by many who have often read mere pages I decided it was worth an entry in my blog. I enjoyed Ready Player One as a fun adventure mystery movie but it is a step down from the book, and the more I thought about it the more changes bothered me. So, here goes…
There are two huge differences between the book and movie Ready Player One. The first is the time spent in the real world. The first third of the book is spent mostly in the real world of the Columbus Ohio stacks. This allows you to get to know Wade as a character in a way that the movie doesn’t. Wade is your classic nerd and in the movie he is much more of a cool, confident character. This helps make his bond and admiration for Halliday feel more understandable in the book. He knows there is something Halliday has to teach him through this quest and that’s what makes him continue when others have long since given up.
The search for the first key is all done in the real world in the book. He puts together all the pieces from the different parts of Halliday’s life and tries to find what is special or memorable about them. This is a lot more interesting to me than a race. In the book there is a book called “Anorak’s Almanac’ which lists all of the things that Halliday enjoyed (something that has been very criticized but never bothered me… It’s all part of the story of Wade researching to figure out the clues). In the movie they have “Halliday’s Journals” and the process of the research there feels easy and so you see less growth from Wade as a person. This makes his end takeaway when he meets Halliday not as impactful as the book’s ending. Wade comes to understand Halliday in the novel as a full person, and even a reflection of himself in many ways
In the book, Wade struggles with the fame he achieves when he gets the key which is interesting for a person who is literally surrounded by pop culture and knows so much trivia (which isn’t really trivia in the Oasis but survival knowledge). Wade is a character I loved in the book and was rooting for where in the movie he is a standard cocky teen male lead.
The other big difference is the changes to all the side characters. In the movie Art3mis is a standard avatar that doesn’t stand out much from the other avatars aside from her telling Perzival that he would be disappointed by her. One of my favorite things about the book is the reason Art3mis stands out to Perzival in the game is she is so confident and real. She is one of the few characters in the Oasis who has a realistic avatar. She doesn’t go with the sexed up version of herself and Wade finds that very attractive. I wish they had worked this into the movie more. She’s a positive yet still kick-butt character and in the YA literature world where every woman has to be a warrior I really appreciated her.
Much has been made about the pop culture ‘nostalgia porn’ of the movie and book. I personally think this criticism is a very surface-level analysis and misses the point. It’s like criticizing a Western for having too many horses. The pop culture is just the setting which the mystery takes place in. It’s not the story but where the story lives. That’s why in the book setting up the Oasis and all of the parameters of Halliday’s quest makes so much sense. We are in the real world and see all the research that Wade has to do so when we see the cornucopia of images in the Oasis it’s not just fun visual candy but clues Wade is ingesting and processing.
For example, in the book the jade key requires Wade to figure out he needs to recite the movie War Games, play a text game Zork (to get the key), unlock a Voight-Kampff machine from Blade Runner and play a game of Black Tiger (to unlock the gate) and more. This was exciting to read because we knew what Wade had been studying and it was unpredictable what would be asked of him next. Thus making the pop culture part of the puzzle/mystery more so than in the movie.
The other thing that wasn’t nearly as effective in the movie as the book is the villain. In the movie they make Sorrento a former intern who is generally resentful of Halliday and the Oasis. In the book it is more the world as a whole that is against Wade with them being envious and trying to stop him from winning. Sorrento is in the book but not as cartoonishly bad as he is in the movie.
Halliday and Morrow’s friendship is a lot more developed in the book and so their separation is more profoundly felt. It’s one thing to fall out of favor with a business associate as shown in the movie. It’s another to lose your best friend from childhood who you played Dungeon and Dragons with (making the first challenge being playing DandD all the more meaningful). Halliday’s clues are about his life not just nostalgia porn IMO.
The book also treats Aech very differently than the movie. He/she is more of a nerd who builds things and has a chat room as opposed to a warehouse. In the book none of the High 5 meet until very late in the story but it’s just all more layered, with harder clues, and characters than the movie. Aside from Art3mis giving herself to the loyalty center in the movie nobody else does much to find the clues or beat Sorrento like in the book. You even get a whole sublot with Daito and Shoto being hunted down by Japanese authorities in the book that adds to their story.
The last line of the novel is “It occurred to me then that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the Oasis.” This makes sense because Wade was only in the Oasis because of his connection with Halliday. Now that he has finished his quest he’s done. The mystery is solved. All the research, study, thought is done. That is the fun part of the novel and what makes Wade a great character. The movie ends with him as a moderate user of the Oasis and says that real life is important as well. That’s fine but not as satisfying as the ending of the book.
It might seem like I hate the movie Ready Player One but I don’t. I liked it quite a bit; although, it was not as satisfying on the second watch as the first but still good. Unfortunately, they changed a lot from the book and it makes the movie less special as a result. I enjoyed it and will defend it but probably won’t remember it like I remembered the book.
The reason I loved the book is it was finally a YA novel that felt positive and hopeful. Most of these novels are cynical and depressing but here we had Wade trying to make his life better and trying to understand another human being in Halliday. We had him seeing the beauty in Art3mis and she being confident in her own unique identity. All of these things were hopeful and positive. You had fun characters and a mystery that was fresh and new. Yes, there was the nostalgia but that was just the unique setting like the maze in Labyrinth or Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings. It was an imaginative, inventive narrative where good won over evil, and that is hard to find these days. Most YA novels have characters limping towards the finish line having sacrificed all that was important to them at the beginning (cough Hunger Games cough). Not Ready Player One and I loved the novel for it!
So in the end, my opinion on Ready Player One– the movie was good, fun ride that especially kids will love (although The Shining sequence may be over their heads)
But the book was great. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it
Opinions are an interesting thing. We can have a response to art at one time in our life that is a certain way and then at another it strikes us completely differently. So was my experience with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Directed by Steven Spielberg when I saw it in my 20s I was bored. I don’t know if I was expecting a movie like Independence Day with alien action (which ironically bored me on the rewatch) but at the time it seemed boring.
Now as a grown up adult I look at it and scratch my head at my earlier thoughts. How could I possibly think this movie was boring? It has so many characters and so much going on that it almost feels a little disjointed at times (especially in the beginning). Isn’t that funny? A completely 360 degree turn around for me on this film. Who knew!
I think what really struck me this time around was its commentary on media and communication. Perhaps it is just seeing the Republican Convention and the Democratic Convention starting, but I’ve seen so many people passionately trying to explain what is crystal clear to them (including myself I might add) and being told they are insane in response. There are so many scenes like that in Close Encounters. People know what they saw. They sometimes have the scars to prove it and yet they are told they are delusional.
Richard Dreyfuss is so good as an electrician who has a UFO encounter and his wife and others won’t believe him. He gets more and more manic as the signs grow and that makes people push away from him even more. The same thing happens with Melinda Dillion’s Jillian who’s son is taken by the spacecraft and people still don’t believe her.
We as the audience have seen the spaceship in bright technicolor so we know they are right but the other characters either ignorant (lots of scenes of people playing unaware of situation), or chose to not believe and some lie. Is that not also how communication is today more than ever? We either don’t know, chose to not believe or we are lied to and that goes for both sides of the political spectrum.
John Williams score is so great in this; although I did think the ending with the music was a little silly. In fact, I don’t know if I needed to see the aliens at the end because they weren’t really what the movie was about. Still, it’s not a huge problem.
My best shot is probably a strange one as there are dramatic shots of spaceships I could pick but my pick goes back to this commentary on media that impressed me. It’s a news conference where the leaders are trying to explain away what the people know they have seen. I think the way this guy is holding up the plate mocking their concerns shows how we often do the same today with people who hold passionate views different than our own.
Nathaniel at The Film Experience is doing a week-long series of best shots for the 1977 Cinematography nominees, so Close Encounters best shots will be posted today, and the rest on proceeding days. None of the others sounded very interesting to me so I’ll probably just stick with this but you should check out the blog for the posts.
So The BFG came out while I was in Spain but I have been able to catch up and saw it on Monday. And what did I think after I saw it? It was okay but it could have been much better. Like Bridge of Spies last year I left feeling underwhelmed by Steven Spielberg’s latest offering. I will still never understand why Bridge of Spies got nominated for best picture and was on so many top 10 lists. Beats me! To me both films have the same problems. Neither are awful films but they are both kind of boring and forgettable.
The BFG was my 4th most anticipated film of the year so suffice it to say I am very disappointed by this response but this year seems to be the year of the disappointment at the cinema. Oh well! It’s not a total disaster by any means so let’s talk about it.
Written by Roald Dahl, The BFG, tells the story of a little girl named Sophie who is taken from her bed in an orphanage in the middle of the night by a giant named BFG (Big Friendly Giant). He takes her to Giant Country where he is the only nice giant. The rest like to eat humans or “beans” as they call them. It turns out that the other giants are bullying (another tolerance message for 2016) the BFG and Sophie will have none of it. The BFG is kind of like the Sandman and he brings dreams to humans. Sophie and BFG create and execute a plan to involve the Queen of England to capture the Giants and live happily ever after.
The casting is probably the strongest part of The BFG. Little Ruby Barnhill is a revelation as Sophie. She’s not too adorably cute and precocious but is still very charming. She feels like a real little girl. Also Mark Rylance is warm and natural as The BFG. I also enjoyed seeing Penelope Wilton of Downton Abbey fame as Queen Elizabeth. She gets some much needed laughs especially trying frobscottle, the flatulence inducing soda BFG loves.
In some ways watching The BFG felt a little bit like what a Richard Linklater film would be like if he tried fantasy. It doesn’t have a strong plot but is mostly about relationships and characters talking. The problem is Linklater is a master of dialogue where let’s be honest that has never been Spielberg’s strength. It takes an hour and a half for anything to really happen in the film. Most of it is BFG explaining the world to Sophie.
One thing that confused me is why is BFG the only giant who has a house and a job? He’s the only one that has heard of a snozzcucumber? The giants are never shown going into London to get ‘beans’ as they call it so what do they eat? What do they do all day? It’s like they exist just to bother BFG. They literally sleep right outside his house. Isn’t that odd? They seem horrified when a rainstorm comes in the film but they live outside. Surely they would be used to rain? I don’t remember in the book, but I thought they went and did things in the city. Why is BFG the only one who collects dreams? Who gave him that job? Who told him how to do it? Are there other giants doing it in other cities and towns? You get the idea. There are lots of questions
The production design is wonderful throughout. I loved the jars of dreams and when BFG and Sophie dive into the dream world it looked magical. This will probably sound like an unflattering comparison but the way the dreams looked kind of reminded me of the fairies in The Black Cauldron. I also liked the labels on all the dreams like ‘I is naked at my wedding’. That was very creative. The motion capture on Mark Rylance as BFG was also excellent. It felt like a real character that actually looked that way- not the pasty look in early motion capture films like Monster House and Polar Express.
Spielberg does make an odd choice that I don’t really understand in the narrative. They add a backstory to BFG that is not in the book. In this version BFG had a previous boy that he raised who wore a red jacket. Sophie gets taken to his little room still full of drawings and things. The boy even taught BFG how to read and write. But he was eaten by the Giants. I don’t see what this adds to the story? I don’t know if this was supposed to create tension but it felt unnecessary to me. Sophie is already threatened by Giants. We don’t need them to be more threatening. Is it supposed to make BFG more sympathetic and wounded? I guess but that never really pays off. It kind of ends up feeling awkward more than poignant.
There is some nice humor particularly towards the end which I enjoyed. The scenes where they are preparing breakfast for BFG was a lot of fun. However, it does seem like a little too late.
A film that did this story a lot better was last year’s Paddington. It’s about a creature coming to London and meeting ordinary people, with a baddie out to get him. But Paddington is so much sweeter, funnier and has much more story to keep it going. And Paddington’s visuals are equally strong as in the BFG.
One thing Paddington did not have is a score from John Williams. Honestly I think The BFG is one of the best we’ve heard from Williams in a long time. I loved it!
So in the end The BFG is a mixed bag. Great production values, performances, music, with its heart in the right place. It’s not a bad watch it just could have been great and it’s not. The writing isn’t strong enough for how little plot there is, and I was left asking a lot of questions about the giants and the world presented. If the dialogue had grasped me enough I would not have cared about such questions.
I’m bummed because if this had been better it could have been a real catalyst for new stories instead of remakes for Disney. Oh well. On to Pete’s Dragon, which I don’t care what others say I’m excited for. Ha
I don’t know what grade to give this one because it’s not like I was miserable. It’s passable. I guess I will give it:
Today I had the chance to see the new Steven Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies, and to be honest I was a little disappointed. Maybe even a lot disappointed.
When you have a movie directed by Steven Spielberg, based on historical events, co-written by the Coen Brothers you expect it to be one of the best of the year but I found it kind of a dull procedural. In fact it was both a dull courtroom movie and diplomatic negotiation movie in one…The trailer is also very deceptive in making you think it is going to be a tense thriller when it really isn’t.
Tom Hanks is great as Jim Donovan who is assigned to represent a Soviet spy Rudolf Abel played by Mark Rylance. Abel is a character that will either work for you and you will find charming or will seem false. For me it was the latter, but I’ve heard a lot of people rave about the performance . I can see the Coen Brother’s influence particularly on that character. He’s very deadpan and funny, but I found him kind of one-note after a while.
Hanks is normally an insurance lawyer and is hesitant (along with his wife played by Amy Ryan) to take the case but decides ‘everyone deserves representation’. That brings us to the first hour of the film which is a fairly standard court procedural. The acting is good and you see the pressure Donovan is under to help this guy that everyone hates. The two form a bond but again Abel is so deadpan that I didn’t sense any closeness on his side, only sympathy from Donovan.
It’s a fine but fairly routine courtroom drama and Spielberg does a good job staging it but it wasn’t anything new or that different from say Woman in Gold earlier this year (there were a lot of things in this movie that reminded me of Woman in Gold, which really isn’t a good thing in my book).
Eventually Donovan argues before the Supreme Court and the resulting verdict ends the first half of the film. It also reminded me during the courtroom sections of The Conspirator in its attempts to relate to modern issues but not as awful as that film did. It’s fine if a movie relates to current situations but don’t beat us over the head with it. There is a lot of speechifying in the first half of the movie mostly by Hanks but others as well.
Spielberg is great at capturing little details. It almost reminded of Mad Men in that regard. Like it is the only movie I’ve seen from that era where you see the flash bulbs littered around the photographers covering a story.
There are also segments that are picked up once and then never talked about again. For instance, we get a little story about Donovan’s daughter going on a date with his assistant and then that is never talked about again. We get little bits with his kids and at their school showing Doomsday videos but that is never really addressed again. Someone shoots up Donovan’s house but we never hear anything about that or any further danger to the family or him again. Those kind of things bothered me.
The second half of the film is when 2 Americans are detained by Communists- one by Russia, one by East Germany. The US Government recruits Donovan to work with Russia to get fallen soldier Gary Powers and they don’t want him to get the American student from the Germans. However, Donovan believes in ‘saving the one’ and meets with reps from both countries until a prisoner swap is orchestrated (which is telegraphed by the opening scene of the film when Donovan is discussing a 5 motorcycle crash with another lawyer).
There are some good things about this section. Spielberg does a great job creating a sense of cold and Hanks feels very human as he is making these negotiations without any real experience as a diplomat. You feel his fatigue and frustration.
But I think part of the problem is I didn’t really get to know either of the prisoners so I didn’t care that much what was happening to them. It is kind of like Woman in Gold in that sense. I loved Helen Mirren’s character but everyone else I didn’t really care about. Same here with Hanks and the prisoners. Also the other CIA guys seemed one note and predictable stick in the muds.
I also thought a section where a plane is shot down looked kind of cheesy. I expected better special effects from Spielberg.
It does end in a satisfactory way and over all it isn’t a terrible film, just disappointing. I actually nodded off twice which is a bad sign in the movie (only for a few seconds). It was nearly 2 1/2 hours and most of that is just people talking with little suspense or intrigue.
I know I’m in the minority on this one but perhaps this will be my 2015’s Birdman or Gone Girl where I disagree with the critical mass. It’s not awful but I was let down.