The Fabelmans

Posted on November 20, 2022 at 3:16 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief violence, some strong language, and drug use
Alcohol/ Drugs: alcohol, marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Bullies
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 23, 2022

Copyright 2022 Universal
A small boy is about to see his first movie, and it is 1952, so it is in a big, dark theater, on a big, bright screen. His engineer father is explaining persistence of vision, the optical/neurological factors that make us think that still pictures shown to us 22 times a second are moving. “The photographs pass faster than your brain can keep up.” His artist/musician mother has a different description of what movies are: “They’re like dreams that we never forget.” And of course, both are right.

That boy will be dazzled by the movie, which would go on to win the Oscar for best picture in 1952, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” an exciting story of a circus. The train crash sequence was so big and so real that he could not get it out of his mind for days and days. He asks his parents for a train set for Hanukkah, and as he opened up a new train car each night he imagined re-creating — understanding — controlling — that crash. His father (Paul Dano as Burt) chides him for breaking the train. His mother (Michelle Williams as Mitzi) suggests that he take the family’s home movie camera and film one last crash, so he can watch it as many times as he likes.

As the title suggests, “The Fabelmans” has a touch of myth, of movie magic, as Mrs. Fabelman would say, a dream. But it is also as Mr. Fabelman would approve, grounded in facts and mechanical reality. Steven Spielberg co-wrote the film with Tony Kushner, based on his own life as a child and a teenager. It brims with love for his family, with the kind of understanding that it takes decades to achieve, if ever. And it is told with the true mastery of a brilliant filmmaker equally grounded in the mechanics of movies and the creation of big, engrossing dreams for us to watch together in the dark.

No one understands cinematic storytelling better than Spielberg, and seeing him tell his own story using the very techniques this film gives us a chance to see as they develop makes this one of the best films of the year and one of the best films ever from a master storyteller. Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and music by Spielberg’s longtime favorite John Williams gorgeously evoke the past without making it seem musty or distant. Watching it feels like a gift.

As the movie begins, money is tight and Burt has to supplement his salary by fixing televisions. But his gift in designing the fundamentals that would lead to personal computers leads to a new job offer in Phoenix. The Fabelmans move, and Burt brings along his best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), so beloved by everyone that he feels like family. Burt is a loving husband and father but very serious and methodical. Bennie is fun, always making everyone laugh.

Sammy keeps making movies, casting his younger sisters and later his Boy Scout troop in remarkably ambitious and creative films (you can see the real ones, meticulously re-created here, on YouTube). As a teenager, now sensitively played by Gabriel LaBelle, his movies get more complex. In one lovely moment, a hole punched in sheet music by a high heeled shoe inspires a brilliant and very analog special effect only the son of both an artist and an engineer could concoct.

Form and content follow each other and intertwine, especially with a sensational final shot, as Sammy/Steve begins to understand the potential and the power of story-telling. When his mother is sad, his father asks him to make a movie to cheer her up. When he is editing one of his family films, he sees on celluloid what he missed when he was standing there. When he cannot tell his mother why he is upset, shows her a film to explain. In an agonizing moment, he cradles the camera like a teddy bear. Through chance, he is able to use a professional camera and through a combination of determination and chance he meets and gets some surprising advice from one of the all-time movie greats.

He is confronted with the challenges of family conflict and adolescence. He is bullied for being Jewish. He wants to kiss a girl. He feels betrayed by two people he loves. An uncle in show business (a terrific brief role for Judd Hirsch) tells him that he will always be torn between love and art — and that he will choose art.

Williams and Dano are superb as the Fabelmans. As Mitzi watches the movie Sammy made for her and as she tries to explain a difficult decision to Sammy we see clearly the range of emotions she is feeling, including the perpetual struggle of all parents between her needs and the wishes of her children. Spielberg and Kushner bring compassion to these characters that they themselves struggle to find.

They also convey the exceptional ability to observe and analyze that is the great gift of any artist, to be cherished and nourished by imagination, but that must be reined in to allow for personal connection. Only the rarest of talents can bring both to their work and that is what makes this film a joy.

NOTE: My daughter worked on some of the costumes of this film which are, of course, outstanding under the direction of Oscar-winner Mark Bridges.

Parents should know that this film includes family tensions, adultery, and divorce, some strong language, alcohol and marijuana.

Family discussion: Why could Sammy see things more clearly through the camera than he could without it? Why was Logan upset by the Ditch Day movie? How did each of his parents influence Sammy?

If you like this, try: “Belfast” and Spielberg movies like “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

Related Tags:

 

Based on a true story Coming of age Family Issues High School Inspired by a true story movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews

I Feel Pretty

Posted on April 19, 2018 at 5:17 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and accidents, some graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 20, 2018
Date Released to DVD: July 16, 2018
copyright 2018 STX Entertainment

Amy Schumer shines in I Feel Pretty, an adorable fantasy that both draws from and slyly subverts the classic Cinderella story.

I’ve written before about the “makeover movie.” From the original Cinderella fairy tale to movies that range from “The Breakfast Club” to “Gigi” to “Clueless,” “Princess Diaries,” and “Now, Voyager.” There is something thrilling and akin to superheroic about the idea that a klutzy doof in glasses can be transformed into a capital B Beauty. And beauty has often been depicted as the primary power that a female character has, with an almost magical ability to control others, particularly men.  This is the story of someone who thinks she has had that makeover but everyone around her — including us — knows that she has not.

Renee (Schumer) desperately wishes she could be “undeniably pretty.” She works for a cosmetic company, where most of the employees look like — or are — supermodels. 1960’s real-life supermodel-turned-actress Lauren Hutton plays the company’s founder, and it is now run by her granddaughter, Avery (Michelle Williams). Renee is convinced that if she could just be conventionally beautiful she would have all of the love, attention, and fun she dreams of. When she meets a model (Emily Ratajkowski) she asks whether just walking off a plane in another country leads to an invitation to a fabulous trip on a yacht with beautiful and wealthy people, and the answer is, well, pretty much yes.

And then one day, Renee has a SoulCycle accident and hits her head badly. When she regains consciousness, somehow she sees herself as the beauty she always dreamed of being. She is immediately and irrepressibly confident, which leads her to apply for a more visible job as the company’s receptionist and to flirt with the guy in line behind her at the dry cleaner shop. Both are very successful. But she is less successful with those who knew and loved her as the “old” Renee, her best friends (Busy Phillips, married to the film’s co-writer/director, and Aidy Bryant).

I’m a bit mystified that this film has had some blowback from viewers who see it as exactly what it is opposing — a body-shaming underscoring of rigid standards of beauty.  On the contrary, this is the opposite of the makeover movie (including those listed above and many many others like “The Mirror Has Two Sides,” “Ash Wednesday,” “She’s All That,” and “Strictly Ballroom”), those films where a female character has to pretty up to be worthy of male attention.  Makeovers are to girl movies what origin stories are to boy movies — they reveal a transformational source of power.

This movie makes it clear that everyone — from the beauty industry itself to the standards of guys who use online dating sites to screen romantic prospects on the basis of looks to the snooty attendants at the gym who seem to think you have to have a perfect body to work out — is trying to meet standards that are (1) superficial and (2) impossible.  Some online commenters criticized the trailer for making fun of Schumer’s character for participating in the bikini contest.  But like her date and the guy who runs the bar, the movie expects us to be charmed by Renee’s pure pleasure in participating and feeling good about herself, and we are.

Characters in the film include a cosmetics executive who could be a supermodel who is insecure about her ability and her childlike voice and an actual model played by an actual supermodel (Emily Ratajkowski) who has her own reasons for low self-esteem.  It also makes it clear that confidence is itself an extremely attractive quality, as is consideration for and interest in others and competence on the job.  And when Renee herself briefly is almost swept away over a man’s good looks (and his confidence), she realizes that it is character that matters.  She learns that confidence in her looks can get her noticed, but being good at her job gets her respect.  She also has to learn that too much confidence can be a problem when her joy in her new persona makes her inconsiderate to her friends. 

There are elements in this story of Tom Hanks’ “Big” (which Renee watches) and “Never Been Kissed” (by the same screenwriter), and of the traditional cautionary fairy tale that wishes never turn out the way you hope.

It is fresh, funny, and heartwarming, with a genuinely beautiful performance by Schumer, ably supported by Williams, Bryant, Phillips, and Scovel, with some real insights about confidence, class, and empathy and a sparkle of romantic comedy magic.

Parents should know that this film includes some comic peril and violence including accidents with some graphic images, some strong language, and sexual references and a non-explicit situation.

Family discussion: Where is the line between being confident and being obnoxious? Why did strangers appreciate Renee’s new attitude while her friends did not? What did Renee see when she looked in the mirror?

If you like this, try: “Shallow Hal” and “Pitch Perfect”

Related Tags:

 

Comedy DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy movie review Romance

The Greatest Showman

Posted on December 20, 2017 at 8:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including fights and mob threats, fire
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 20, 2017
Date Released to DVD: April 9, 2018
Amazon.com ASIN: B077R32LVQ
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox

I am in no way dissing “The Greatest Showman” by saying that when it is available on DVD and streaming it is destined, even designed to be popular for sing-alongs at middle school slumber parties. Or that it is a good old-fashioned movie musical to take the whole family to, including grandparents and grandchildren, over the holidays. “The Greatest Showman” is differences-make-us-great personal empowerment tuneful fantasy inspired by impresario P.T. Barnum, who revolutionized entertainment flavored with unabashed hucksterism in the 19th century.

This highly romanticized and simplified version of PT Barnum’s life has the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) the son of a poor tailor, very much in love with the daughter of his father’s wealthy customer. She is sent away to boarding school and he is left an orphan and has to survive on the streets, but they write to each other (an “I wish” musical number, of course) and when they grow up, he returns to her family’s mansion so they can get married. Her father warns that she will be back.

At first, Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams) are poor but very happy and devoted to their two daughters. But Barnum loses his desk job and has to come up with some new way to support his family. To get a loan from the bank he presents documentation that falls somewhere between exaggeration and outright fraud, then uses the money to rent a warehouse and sets up a series of exhibits.

No one comes to see it.

And so, inspired by his daughter, he decides to add “unusual” people to the displays. Attitudes toward disabilities and differences were very different almost 200 years ago, and many people who were unusual — little people, women with facial hair, people with albinism, conjoined twins — had no opportunities for school or jobs and were abandoned or hidden by their families. In the world of this movie, handled with as much delicacy as is possible in the context of a big, brassy musical, Barnum tells them they were beautiful and promises to make them stars. If there are echoes here of the unforgettably eerie “we accept her, one of us” in “Freaks,” consider this a refutation, not repetition. At one point, when Barnum is successful, he wavers, not wanting his circus “family” to mingle with the society patrons. But he rejects Charity’s society family as well. And the circus performers remind him that once they recognized their beauty, he cannot take that away from them with the stirring anthem, “This is Me.”

And really, and appropriately given the subject matter, it’s the stirring anthems and the pageantry that this movie is about, not the melodrama of its thin storyline. Barnum tours with his star, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), straining his marriage. Barnum has a partner (Zac Efron), who falls for an African-American performer (a radiant Zendaya–can’t wait to see more from her in the next “Spider-Man” movie), straining his relationship with his family. And there are those in the community who are offended by Barnum’s performers.

But it’s just part of the show, there to give everyone a chance to sing and dance, with songs from the young Oscar and Tony Award-winning team from “La La Land” and “Dear Evan Hanson.” There’s no attempt to be true to the period; another reminder we’re just here to have some fun, the closest most of us will ever get to running away to the circus.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild language, family tension and drama, sad loss of a father, bullies, a scary fire, a brawl, and a racist remark.

Family discussion: Would you buy a ticket to see a Barnum show? What would you want to see? How would his show be different today?

If you like this, try: “The Great Houdini” and “Moulin Rouge”

Related Tags:

 

DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week

Manchester By the Sea

Posted on November 23, 2016 at 10:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, substance abuse and recovery
Violence/ Scariness: Fighting, tragic deaths of parent and children
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 23, 2016
Date Released to DVD: February 20, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01LTHZVKG
Copyright 2016 Pearl Street Films
Copyright 2016 Pearl Street Films

We think the hard question is why bad things happen to good people, but really the hardest question is this: when the hard things happen, how do we go on?

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan likes to explore this question in films that are complex, layered, and respectful of the audience’s intelligence and attention span. He lets the story bloom in its own time. He lets his characters lead messy lives, even after the story ends. He does not lay out all the backstory with voiceover narration or the kind of exposition-heavy dialog (“It’s been three year since it happened. Don’t you think it’s time to move on?”) that writers often use as shortcuts. As we go back and forth in time, it is not clear whether we are seeing incidents from the past that the characters are recalling now or whether it is just Lonergan himself, letting us deepen our understanding. Either way, it is presented with exquisite care, and exquisitely calibrated performances that reward our careful attention.

Lee (Casey Affleck), his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), and Joe’s son Patrick (Ben O’Brien as a child, Lucas Hedges as a teenager) enjoy an afternoon on Joe’s fishing boat.  And then we see Lee, shoveling snow, doing repairs in an apartment building, dogged and remote. He overhears a tenant telling someone she thinks he is attractive, but he does not respond.  He argues with his boss.  He overreacts at a bar and gets into a fight.  Later, we will hear someone refer to him in hushed tones as “the Lee Chandler.” But it will be a while before we learn the tragic details that led to his notoriety.

Lee gets a call.  Joe, who had a bad heart, has died. Lee is calm and capable, driving to the hospital and making arrangements.  But he is shocked to find that Joe has made him Patrick’s guardian. We know that Lee is a limited, damaged man. And perhaps we know that the unexpected guardianship of a teenager is his opportunity for redemption. We’ve all seen that movies, probably often enough we can predict how many minutes until the big hug scene. But Lonergan has something different in mind, something more layered and complex. It is sad, but not dreary. There are moments of great humor, especially as Lee and Patrick try to find a way to figure out what they are going to do next. Each, in his own way, is disconnected from his feelings and not interested in trying. Patrick cares about his two girlfriends and his band. He wants to hold onto his father’s boat, even though Lee cannot afford it. He wants to stay in the film’s title town, even though Lee works in Boston. Lee — well, he pretty much just wants to whatever task lies in front of him without having to feel too much.

It all literally pieced together for us gradually as moments from the past are revealed, perhaps as recalled by Lee, perhaps just Lonergan’s sure sense that only putting the pieces of the puzzle together slowly, leaving some spaces for us to fill in ourselves, will give us the deeper sense of recognition. Individual scenes are exquisitely composed and performed, especially a conversation between Lee and his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), another in a police station, and an awkward meal with Patrick, his mother, a recovering substance abuser (Gretchen Mol), and her tightly-wound new partner (Matthew Broderick), poised between protective and controlling. The cumulative power sneaks up on you, until the perfectly imperfect ending.

Parents should know that this film includes disturbing material with very strong and crude language, a deadly fire, tragic deaths including parent and children, attempted suicide, sexual references including teen sex and brief nudity, drugs, drinking and drunkenness, and some fighting.

Family discussion: Why did Joe pick Lee? Why didn’t Patrick show more emotion? Why does this movie wait to tell us what happened to Lee?

If you like this, try: “You can Count on Me” and “Margaret” from the same writer-director

Related Tags:

 

Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week

Oz the Great and Powerful

Posted on March 7, 2013 at 6:00 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images and brief mild language
Profanity: Brief mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy action/peril/violence, scenes of desolation and loss, scary monsters and jump out at you surprises, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 8, 2013
Date Released to DVD: June 10, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B00C7JG0KG

A prequel to one of the most beloved films of all time is a daunting challenge, but Disney’s prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” manages to balance respect for the original with some fresh and appealing insights into the story. But the real star of the story is the enchanting, rapturously imagined setting, brilliantly designed by Bob Murawski and directed by Sam Raimi. From the captivating opening credit puppet theater, we are immediately in the world of magic and mystery — and hokum.

Like the 1939 Judy Garland classic, the movie opens in black-and-white.  The screen is shrunken to the proportions of the 1930’s. And, like the Garland version (but not the books), the characters and themes of Oz are echoed in the scenes set back home.  Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, known as Oz for his first two initials, is a showman and a con man, a magician in a small traveling circus.  Personally and professionally, his life is about fooling as many people as possible.  He is constantly either trying to impress a pretty girl or trying to avoid any personal entanglements, romantic or friendship.

It is telling that his big trick is to select a pre-arranged “country girl” from the audience apparently at random, making her seem to float in the air, and then wait for the viewers to think they’ve figured out the trick by noticing the wires that appear to keep her suspended.  This makes possible the dramatic flourish — he cuts the wires to reveal that he has not just made her float — he has made her disappear.  Oz is eternally poised on the brink between reality and illusion, between connection and distance, between appearing (no one is more visible than those whose profession is to perform in public) and disappearing (he always seems to have a means of escape handy).  At the same time, the “country girl” is discovering that he lied to her, the circus strong man is coming after him for flirting with his wife, and he receives a visit from the only woman we sense he has ever really cared for (Michelle Williams), who asks him if there is any reason she should turn down a proposal from another man.  He tells her to accept, though it is clear that he has some regrets.  And then, he does what he does best — he escapes, jumping into the circus hot air balloon, which is whipped into a twister, and which deposits him in a strange and wondrous land of lush and vivid color — Oz.

The first creatures he meets are nasty little water fairies with big teeth and a stunningly beautiful woman with a splendid brimmed hat named Theodora (Mila Kunis).  She seems to think that he is the wizard from a prophecy — a man with the same name as their enchanted land, who would arrive to rule as king and free their people.  Freeing the people does not have much appeal for Oz, but he is definitely intrigued by the notion of a palace, a throne, and a scepter.  “Is the scepter made of gold?” he asks, to make sure that this deal is as sweet as it sounds.

We know that Oz will be come the wizard and live in the palace.  We know he will become “a good man but a bad wizard,” hiding behind the curtain as he works the controls of a huge face with a booming voice.  We know he will bestow gifts that show people the greatness that is already within them.  And we know he will have to take a journey to get there.  Writers Mitchell Kapner and Pulitzer Prize awardee David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole“) weave in characters and themes inspired by some of the other Oz books as well, including a girl made out of porcelain, rescued from her shattered “China Town.”  Oz meets up with two other witches as well, including one who has a very bad reaction to moisture.  And he is not the only one who has to decide which side he will be on.

The visuals are fabulously imaginative, consistently surprising and new and yet consistent with our ideas about Oz from the books and the 1939 film.  That’s consistent but not identical — Disney had to be careful not to get too close to MGM’s copyrighted designs.  So there are flying monkeys, but very different (and even scarier), a poppy field, and an Emerald City gatekeeper (who will be familiar to fans of Sam Raimi’s less family-friendly films).  The 3d effects are effective, especially during the twister.  Franco’s characterization wavers at times and he never quite persuades us that he is at heart a showman.  The big reveal about what prompts a witch to turn evil is disappointingly under-imagined.  Indeed, for a movie with three significant female characters played by three of Hollywood’s most talented women and the China Girl (voiced by Joey King), the film’s conception of women is unfortunately superficial, simplistic, and male-oriented.  It is an enchanting journey — but at the end you may wish to click your heels three times to return to the peerless Garland version and the books.  There’s no place like home.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy peril, action, and violence, with scenes of devastation and loss, jump out at you surprises, and scary monsters, some disturbing images, brief mild language, a character who makes advances at many women, and scenes of jealousy, anger, and sadness.

Family discussion: What is the difference between being a great and a good person?  Why did Glinda believe in Oz?  How did the characters in the prologue relate to their counterparts in Oz?  What elements of the classic Oz story are explained in this film?

If you like this, try: the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, and the classic film with Judy Garland

Related Tags:

 

3D Action/Adventure Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy Series/Sequel
THE MOVIE MOM® is a registered trademark of Nell Minow. Use of the mark without express consent from Nell Minow constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition in violation of federal and state laws. All material © Nell Minow 1995-2024, all rights reserved, and no use or republication is permitted without explicit permission. This site hosts Nell Minow’s Movie Mom® archive, with material that originally appeared on Yahoo! Movies, Beliefnet, and other sources. Much of her new material can be found at Rogerebert.com, Huffington Post, and WheretoWatch. Her books include The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments, and she can be heard each week on radio stations across the country.

Website Designed by Max LaZebnik