Spielberg’s ‘The Fabelmans’ is a juicy ode to the magic of cinema

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An overtly autobiographical Steven Spielberg film seems superfluous at first glance, as the illustrious director’s canon is packed with features – especially led by Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET the alien-soaked in very personal childhood and family issues. This idea is confirmed by the fables, a two and a half hour therapy session in which the author depicts his own origin story in a frustratingly literal way. Serious to a tee—and often to a flaw—it’s a drama about the magic of the movies that itself is far too often lacking in that department.

Co-written with his Munich, Lincoln and West Side Story collaborator Tony Kushner, the fablesPremiering at the Toronto International Film Festival prior to its theater debut on Nov. 11, is a story about Spielberg proxy Sammy Fabelman, who is transformed as a 1950s New Jersey kid (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) by his maiden journey. to the theater to see The greatest show on earth, whose centerpiece of the train wreck is the spark that ignites Sammy’s imagination. “Movies are dreams,” declares his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a once-promising piano prodigy who has now traded her own aspirations for dutiful domesticity, and Sammy is entranced by those 24-frame-a-second musings of light, shadow, and shadow. sound, so that he soon mimics the train crash with his own Hanukkah-current toy — the first of many instances where art and life mirror each other in mesmerizing and destructive ways.

While Sammy, like his mother, is a budding creative type, he also has the logistical problem-solving know-how of his father Burt (Paul Dano), a computer scientist who goes everywhere, and takes his best friend and colleague Bennie (Seth Rogen) with him. ). Given her overly rambunctious laugh at his mediocre jokes, it’s abundantly clear that there’s something going on between Mitzi and Bennie. Nevertheless, that thread stays in the background for a while so Spielberg can focus on Sammy’s initial enchantment with moviemaking, which Mitzi helpfully explains to her husband is the boy’s attempt to exert control over the chaotic world. Mitzi does this too, albeit not through art, but instead a mantra – “Everything happens for a reason” – that comforts her in the face of the escalating turmoil of her own design.

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The first third of the fables is captivatingly attuned to its protagonist’s burgeoning cinephilia, especially when the clan moves to Arizona in the early 1960s and teenage Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle, in a charismatic twist) begins staging larger productions with his sisters and his Boy Scout troupe, the latter of whom double as his first enthusiastic audience. One does not have to look too closely during these passages to spy on the seeds of Raiders of the Lost Ark, War of the Worlds and ET, the latter of which is powerfully evoked in a nighttime campfire scene in which a nightgown-wearing Mitzi spins and smiles in car headlights for Sammy’s camera—and the two grown men in her life—as a translucent angel who foretells both bliss and doom. It’s a moment of mesmerizing beauty and danger, and it wasn’t long before the Fabelmans’ family situation collapsed, due to a move to California, Mitzi’s depression (and the ensuing decision to buy a monkey to heal her broken heart). to calm down), Burt’s repressed suffering and Sammy’s tumultuous high school experiences are haunted by anti-Semitic bullies and dating a devout Christian girl (Chloe East) who likes him because he reminds her of another cute Jewish boy: Jesus.

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the fables is full of details so specific they feel like they’ve been ripped from Spielberg’s memories, whether it’s the sight of a throbbing vein in the throat of Sammy’s dying grandmother, or Sammy selling baby scorpions for money to land film roles. to buy. Such details, however, beautify a story that never gets under the surface. Rather than stacking the material with conflicts and contradictions, Spielberg and Kushner describe each idea, either through cursive statements (“You can’t just love something – you have to take care of it”) or through self-conscious compositions. Aside from a few early close-ups from Sammy and a late low-angled from Burt, there’s little evidence of the visual imagination Spielberg brought to his earlier musical remake, let alone the softly lit glow of his seminal ’70s. and ’80s Amblin exit. Its polished but ho-hum aesthetic, from Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography to John Williams’ score, reflects his drama’s interest in playing things as straightforward and clear as possible.

In a short, scene-stealing performance, Sammy’s visiting great-uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) warns him of the potential dangers of mixing art and reality, and The Falbemans repeatedly returns to the idea that Sammy’s films are proof of cinema’s ability to amaze, celebrate, horrify and – most importantly – reveal truths about the world. Sammy’s work is a means of confronting Mitzi about her and Bennie’s relationship and neutralizing a spiteful jock, but its transformative power doesn’t quite get through as Spielberg takes the action away from each spiky complication. The result is a slightly fictionalized fable (hence the name of the film and the family) about the circumstances that led to his consuming cinematic passion and lifelong calling.

Spielberg’s latest is a heartfelt and compassionate effort to consider his parents’ strengths and weaknesses, and the role the films (and this film) played in helping him better understand them. The problem is that the fables understands them too well, by which I mean, too neatly. There is nothing mysterious about these numbers or this pursuit; rather, it’s just an alternately sweet and meandering summary of the director’s formative early days, sprinkled with the occasional palatable nugget of wisdom. aim for Fanny and AlexanderWith depth and nuance, Spielberg comes up with something more like an informative explanation for his superior genre gems and their recurring fixations on suburban dysfunction, absent fathers and tormented single mothers.

Of the talented cast, Williams does most of the heavy headlining-A acting, madly emotional like a woman trapped in a figurative cage not unlike the one she builds herself for her monkey. But despite the actress’s flash, there’s only so much to do with a happy and gloomy character whose thoughts and feelings are written on her face, and who’s prone to saying things like, “You do what your heart tells you to do.” you gotta do.” In any case, a late cameo from David Lynch as one of Spielberg’s idols earns a few chuckles—though, like the proceedings as a whole, it’s largely cine nostalgia for cine nostalgia’s sake.