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”

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Super 8

Posted on June 9, 2011 at 6:09 pm

A couple of kids who are deeply in love with making movies have made a movie about kids deeply in love with making movies, and it is one of the most joyously thrilling treats of the summer, a love letter to childhood pleasures that last a lifetime.

Producer Steven Spielberg and writer-director J.J. Abrams may be chronological grown-up, but as this movie makes clear, they could have just as much fun with a super-8 camera and a box of M-80’s.  Representing them in the film are Charles (Riley Griffiths) and Joe (Joel Courtney), middle schoolers in 1979 Lillian, Ohio, who are working on a movie to enter into a competition.  In that pre-digital time, they are making it with a Super-8 camera, on film that is bought and developed at the camera store.  Charles is the writer and director.  Joe is in charge of make-up and special effects.  Cary (Ryan Lee) in charge of explosions and Martin (Gabriel Basso) is their star.  It is a zombie movie.  But Charles has been reading about film-making and realizes that he has focused too much on scares and special effects.  An article explains that the movie works better if there is a reason to feel something for the characters, so he decides that Martin’s detective character will have a wife.  And that is how Alice (the luminous Elle Fanning) joins the group.

They sneak out one night to film a scene at the train station.  When a truck drives onto the tracks as the train approaches, there is a spectacular crash.  The kids run, but the camera keeps filming.  What it shows will be the key to solving the real-life mystery about what was on the train.

As they wait for it to be developed, increasingly disturbing developments occupy Joe’s father, Lillian’s deputy sheriff.  All the town’s dogs disappear.  Engines are ripped out of cars.  The sheriff and a gas station attendant are missing.  The army has taken control of the crash site and will not tell anyone what is going on. The adults are so distracted that the kids are able to pursue their investigation — and their film-making — almost without supervision.

It feels in the best possible sense like a newly discovered Spielberg film from the “Goonies”/”E.T”/”Close Encounters of the Third Kind” era, with its suburban setting and kids’-eye sense of wonder and adventure.  The meta-humor about the film within a film (stay through the credits to see what the final version looks like) is witty and heart-warming.  “Production values!” says Charles as though it is a magical incantation.  Which, in a way, it is.  No one understands the language of film better than these guys and their evident pleasure in the economical story-telling through visuals adds to the dazzle.  A worker silently removes the “784” from the sign that says “safety is our most important goal” and replaces it with a 1.  When we then see Joe sitting by himself outside, we know what happened and feel his loss.  Later, he pins a lost dog notice to a bulletin board and the camera pulls back to show us the entire board is covered with notes about lost dogs.  The camera is in every way a part of the masterful storytelling here.

Like Charles, Abrams and Spielberg know that all the special effects and jump-out-at-you thrills in the world won’t resonate unless we care about the people in the story.  This is definitely a movie about characters.  The themes of parental estrangement are not always gracefully handled, but Abrams’ ability to put us inside the children’s world is breathtaking.  All of the kids are great but Courtney and Fanning are marvels.  A scene where he applies zombie make-up to her face is filled at the same time with longing, amazement, and unspoken understandings and is almost unbearably tender.  Best of all is the way Abrams shows us that it is not just the happenstance of the movie footage that gives the kids the unique ability to solve the mystery and get everyone home safely; it is the way that particular moment poised between childhood and growing up gives them for a brief moment the unfiltered sense of wonder that makes everything in the world a discovery of equal magnitude and a universe of endless possibilities.  It is a privileged moment that he lets us share, and a rare film that makes use of genre without getting overwhelmed by it.  We get all of the popcorn pleasures of the stunts and special effects but we get the deeper pleasures of a great story, masterfully told.

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