The Whale(12/26/2022)

I must say, “Brendan Fraser comeback” is not something I had on my prediction card for the 2020s and it’s also frankly not something I particularly desired either.  Fraser’s careers in the late 90s and early 2000s was something that at least theoretically happened at a time that was right in the window for millennials like myself to have a lot of nostalgia for the guy but outside of The Mummy his movies were never really my thing.  He was essentially a comic actor, but he wasn’t really a “comedian” per se; he didn’t come from the worlds of stand-up or sketch comedy and I never got the idea that he wrote or improvised jokes.  Instead he seemed to just fall into that comedic milieu just because he had kind of a funny looking face and a bit of a childlike aura around him and that seemed to appeal to kids.  He also had a foot in the action movie genre through those Mummy movies, where he was kind of a precursor to what Dwayne Johnson does, but without the buff physique.  That might be why I don’t have the world’s most positive memories of the guy, I don’t think his influence on mainsteam film acting is entirely positive and his occasional dips into straight drama like his work in Crash is definitely not well remembered.  When he disappeared from movie stardom somewhere in the late aughts I can’t say I really missed him and I certainly didn’t see the groundswell of goodwill toward him as he re-emerges coming.  Some of it is nostalgia, some of it is public sympathy for some issues in his personal life, but people really want this comeback to happen and now it seems to be coming together through an unlikely project: a Darren Aronofsky movie that’s serious as cancer called The Whale.

The Whale is set somewhere in rural Idaho and looks at the life of a man named Charlie (Brendan Fraser), and we learn pretty much from the beginning that he probably only has a week to live.  Charlie is a man who has become morbidly obese: he weighs over six hundred pounds and can only barely stand up and walk with the assistance of a mobility walker and is largely confined to his small apartment where he works from home as an English professor for online colleges.  Over time we come to learn that he wasn’t always like this and meet various people from his past and present including his friend Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who was the sister of his former boyfriend, who had passed away several years earlier and we come to learn this loss is what pushed him into his current self-destructive cycle.  We also come to meet Ellie (Sadie Sink), his seventeen year old daughter from a marriage he had much earlier in his life which ended when he had an affair with the aforementioned boyfriend (it’s not clear if Charlie is bi or if his hetero marriage was the result of closeted denial).  As such his ex-wife hates him and he can only meet Ellie secretly and she’s not terribly interested in interacting with him herself for the same reasons but will humor him as she learns he has some money he’s willing to give to her if she visits.  During her visits he comes to learn that she’s extremely rebellious bordering on being a juvenile delinquent and is close to flunking out of high school, though he still enjoys her presence just the same but the end is approaching and it’s not clear if he’s going to get all his affairs in order in time.

The Whale is a movie I’ve been looking forward to seeing but kind of dreading talking about and reading about.  I’ve been looking forward to seeing it in large part because it’s the latest film from director Darren Aronofsky, a filmmaker who takes big swings and while I don’t love all of his movies he never fails to makes something memorable.  He is not, however, exactly a filmmaker who I’d call “sensitive.”  On the contrary, he tends to put his characters through the ringer in order to make larger, almost cosmic, statements about the world and about the extremes of the human experience, and though it’s less technically and stylistically audacious than some of his work The Whale is absolutely a Darren Aronofsky movie.  It’s about a recluse in an apartment like his very first movie Pi was, Charlie’s food urges could be viewed as a form of addiction like Requiem for a Dream depicted, religion is a theme in the film like it was in Noah and mother!, but the movie it most resembles is probably The Wrestler, which was another movie about a middle aged man who has hit something of a personal rock bottom and has kind of given up on his own health in the pursuit of other goals.  In fact you could probably put this, The Wrestler, and Black Swan into a trilogy of bodily self-destruction.

This is where I think the critics of the film’s depiction of “fatness” are, frankly, not engaging with the work in the way it was intended.  This is not a film that’s trying to be an “issue movie” and isn’t looking at a case that is “representative,” it’s instead looking at a very extreme case of obesity and doing so to dramatic ends.  And I would argue that the film presents some pretty searing drama.  The film is an adaptation of a stage play and doesn’t try to hide it, taking place almost entirely in Charlie’s apartment and built largely around dialogue between him, his friend, his daughter, and a strange teenage missionary who has made it his mission to “save” Charlie.  Fraser has been getting a lot of the press for his performance in the movie but these co-stars more than hold their own in his presence and over the course of his interactions with all of them you get a pretty strong portrait of what kind of guy Charlie is and the portrait painted is largely positive; criticisms that Aronofsky somehow “hates” this man are plainly off base.  This isn’t to say the movie is perfect by any means, I think the ending is a touch histrionic and it’s not as cinematically adventurous as some of Aronofsky’s best movies and never really fully transcends its stage origins, but it caught my attention early and had me interested in all of these characters and their respective plights the whole way through and that’s not easy.
**** out of Five



It’s probably not a coincidence that so many directors seem to have chosen 2022 to be the year they make their epic ruminations on value and importance of movies and movie making.  I mean, there isn’t exactly a shortage of those in any given year, but the fact they’re showing up in large numbers this year is likely a response to all the “death of movies” articles we’re constantly reading combined with how hard it is to make anything this year.  Truthfully the timing was a bit unfortunate, the same audiences that are letting movie theaters flounder are apparently also the same audiences who aren’t filled with reverence for cinema as an artform so maybe this was a bit of a tactical error from a box office perspective but maybe it was something the filmmakers needed to do regardless.  And truth be told a lot of these movies are actually coming at the topic of “the movies” from very different directions.  The Fabelmans is very specifically about movie-making more than the movies themselves, conversely Empire of Light is pretty specifically about movie watching and theaters.  Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths is mostly about the mind of a creator while Blonde is more about the cultural impact of a life in the spotlight.  So far the only ones to really hit a poplar homerun with movies about movies this year were the ones hiding their message deep in the subtext like Jordan Peele’s Nope and I’ve even seen readings of Top Gun: Maverick as being an allegory for blockbuster filmmaking.  But aside from those it’s been brutal out here for rhapsody’s to cinema, so I’m pretty worried about the box office prospects of Damien Chazelle’s epic opus of Hollywood and its debauched past: Babylon.

The film begins in 1926 at an outlandishly wild party at a Hollywood mansion where we meet most of our principal characters.  One of the most prominent invitees is a movie star named Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who manages to annoy his fourth wife into leaving him behind as he walks into the hedonistic proceedings.  A less prominent attendees is an unknown starlet named Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who crashes the party both for networking and just to get buck wild with the rest of the attendees.  Meanwhile behind the scenes is Manuel Torres (Diego Calva), a fixer who was hired to help coordinate the party but who has dreams of breaking into work at one of the studios.  We also meet one of the performers in the house band, a jazz trumpet player named Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) who seems separated from some of this craziness but still needs a place to play his music, and the cabaret singer Lady Fay (Li Jun Li) who does a bawdy routine at the party and seems to be able to move through these circles more effortlessly than most.  After the party we follow these people into their workdays shortly after and from there we follow them through about five years in Hollywood history as the introduction of “the talkies” and the enforcement of the Production Code will dramatically change everything for all of them.

The title of Babylon was almost certainly inspired by Kenneth Anger’s book “Hollywood Babylon,” which was written in 1959 and republished to greater success in 1974, which (with varying degrees of accuracy) dished out the dirt on all the debauched goings on in Hollywood during its golden age.  Though the book wasn’t necessarily revealing anything that hadn’t been public knowledge for those looking for it, there was still something rather subversive in the way the book still provided a collected and easy to digest account of how the silver screen stars of this much sentimentalized era were in fact just as wild as Dennis Hopper and Janis Joplin ever were.  The film is not a direct adaptation of that non-fiction book by any means and all the characters here are in fact fictional characters but if you’re in the know it’s not too hard to guess which real figures inspired the people we see here.  Margot Robbie’s character is basically Clara Bow, Brad Pitt’s character has a lot of Douglas Fairbanks to him, and Li Jun Li’s character has Anna May Wong written all over her, but you probably shouldn’t look at these people as one to one equivalents so much as composites of various film stars of the era and you don’t need to go in with that much prior knowledge in order to decode the movie.

So, like that Kenneth Anger book this movie is very much interested in pointing out to audiences that during the roaring twenties the stars of silent cinema used to get lit and fuck like bunnies and this is established pretty much right away as we witness these crowded bacchanalias that feel like something out of The Wolf of Wall Street or Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby but even more X-rated and energetic in some ways.  The staging of these scenes is really exciting with Justin Hurwitz’ music being played at full volume by live on screen bands, large crowds of extras going wild on screen, and various floor entertainers just kind of shocking audience sensibilities.  Occasionally I think this does go a little too far into downright gross scatological territory, particularly in the film’s much discussed opening scene in which workers delivering an elephant to one of these parties gets shat upon by said quadruped, soaking them and even the camera filming them and by implication the audience.  It’s a moment that seems to be trying to tell the audience upfront that “this won’t be your daddy’s Hollywood movie” but like a lot of the movie there is another layer there for people who know their Hollywood lore, particularly the old joke about the guy who gives enemas to elephants, whose punchline is “what, and quit show business?”  I get the joke, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I wanted to see this grossness or similar grossness elsewhere, and I think Damien Chazelle got a little carried away in trying to shock people in a few places like that.

And the thing is, while there’s plenty of crassness to go around here it’s not necessarily a nonstop party scene, in fact there are really only two scenes set at parties, the rest is more about these characters’ personal and professional lives, though there’s certainly plenty of wildness to be found there as well.  There are two particularly well done scenes in the first half looking at the chaotic filming of a silent film and later a sound film respectively which together show just how much of a painful transition that was for filmmaking.  Then late in the film there is an absolutely insane scene in which a deranged gangster played by Toby Maguire takes us into some sort of bizarre underground geek show that’s rife with tension.  The story itself is rather sprawling with three separate main protagonists as well as a network of small and mid-sized characters and this almost makes it feel like a sort of Robert Altman ensemble kind of thing, but ultimately the stories do mostly converge around its three leads though this can be a bit structurally messy at times.  The characters played by Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li are both interesting, but their screen time is definitely less than those of Pitt, Robbie, and Calva and that makes things feel a little unbalanced.  I’m also not quite sure that the Pitt story ever quite connects perfectly with the Robbie/Calva story and I think if Chazelle had made them intersect just a little more that might have made the balance a little clearer.

So, what’s the point of all this?  Well, in Chazelle’s viewing the Hollywood of 1927 was an industry facing technological revolutions that were going to leave a lot of people in the dust while also struggling with how they’re going to incorporate diverse performers into their work all while having their own off screen conduct increasingly scrutinized and judged by outside observers… he sees some parallels to today is what I’m saying.  These aren’t exactly original observations in the case of the whole “introduction of the talkies” thing; the movie references Singing in the Rain overtly on multiple occasions and The Artist also covered similar territory as a metaphor for modern Hollywood some ten years ago.  There’s also definitely a healthy dose of the various versions of A Star is Born to be found in the various careers chronicled here.  As for the potential comparison the movie is making between #MeToo and the wave of house cleaning that Hollywood needed to do in response to the bad press that the Fatty Arbuckle scandal gave the industry.  That particular scandal is kind of echoed in a moment early in the film but otherwise isn’t really discussed and I almost wonder if material along those lines was left on the cutting room floor because it does feel like a bit of context that would be missing for the non-film historians in the audience.  The comparison is a bit fraught because in introduction of the production code is generally viewed as the doing of a bunch of puritanical prigs who ruined everyone’s fun, but this movie suggests that maybe there was a bit of a rot in Hollywood at the time and while it might not have been corrupting the youth it was surely leading to a lot of self-destruction and maybe a bit of a cleaning house was in order.

If that’s what Chazelle is saying here, at least on some level, it’s a little ironic because, well… this is a movie with at least four different scenes that wouldn’t have been completely out of place in a Jackass movie.  It’s… very much a movie that could not exist if the Production Code were still in place and while it might concede that Hollywood’s decadence in this era went too far it isn’t really judgmental about the characters themselves.  If anything the movie could almost be seen as something of a western: a movie about a bunch of pioneers in an untamed land who eventually had to be discarded as civilization came in.  As for Babylon itself, well, it’s not going to be for everyone.  It’s kind of a movie meant for people who watch a lot of Turner Classic Movies but who also aren’t going to be offended by a scenes that occasionally feel like something out of Motley Crue’s “The Dirt.”  Frankly I think that’s a Venn Diagram that doesn’t have a whole ton of overlap and I’m not sure even I fit in it entirely, but the filmmaking craft on display here really sells the movie in a way that’s too invigorating to deny.  I don’t know how Damien Chazelle conned a major studio into funding this thing, but I’m sure glad he did.
**** out of Five

Avatar: The Way of Water(12/15/2022)

            You know, it seems quaint today, but even back in 2009 it seemed like Avatar becoming a box office success would be of essential importance in fighting back against franchise tyranny and allowing for original IPs to have a shot in Hollywood.  Then it did succeed beyond anyone’s wildest hopes and yet thirteen years later here we are, franchises dominate the box office beyond even the most dire fears back then and a sequel to a prior success can’t even claim to be a threat to that trend.  And yet the box office success of this sequel seems far more important to cinema (and far more uncertain) than that first movie ever was.  At stake isn’t even a kind of blockbuster so much as the notion of the theatrical blockbuster itself.  We’ve just lived through what sure seems like a disastrous year of box office performance where even the MCU seemed to be slipping and outside of the weird fluke of Top Gun Maverick basically nothing seemed to capture the imaginations of audiences in any kind of lasting way.  That’s… a lot of pressure for any one movie, but especially for a movie in this weird of a position.  Avatar was of course a phenomenon but it was also kind of divisive; its visual and technological prowess was undeniable but its new agey sincerity wasn’t going to be for everyone and there were legitimate criticisms to be made about the film’s adherence to archetypes and formulas as well as its sometimes questionable dialogue.  Personally, I really liked Avatar, in fact I was positively giddy leaving the theater when I saw it but there were limits to how much I could defend it and I’d be lying if the years of “dances with smurfs” mockery hasn’t gotten to me a little.  It may or may not be a great movie but it certainly doesn’t seem like a cool movie to me in 2022, so even I wasn’t quite sure what I’d make of the long awaited sequel Avatar: The Way of Water but it’s finally here and I was there day one for sure.

            This sequel picks up about fifteen years or so after the events of the first movie and we get something of an exposition dump at the beginning.  We learn that Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now permenantly a Na’vi has married Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and the two have had three children: The responsible older son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), the more impulsive younger son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and much younger daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss).  Additionally, we learn that the deceased avatar of Grace Augustine mysteriously gave birth to a daughter named Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) who Sully and Neytiri adopted as their own who is now a young teenager, and they have also essentially taken in a human child named Spider (Jack Champion) who was left behind after the humans left and has taken on the Na’vi culture for the most part.  We learn early on that Spider’s biological father is Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the villain from the first movie, and we apparently haven’t seen the last of him either.  Though he was killed in the first movie, we learn that the humans had a backup plan in which they had a copy of many of the consciousness and memories of Quaritch and other soldiers on the Pandoran front on file and implanted them into avatar bodies as part of their plans to reconquer Pandora, plans we see them begin to implement early on in the movie as they violently land back on the planet and build up another beachhead.  From there we flash forward a year to when the Na’vi are once again taking part in a guerrilla war against these colonizers.

            This first half-hour to forty five minutes of the movie does feel very expository and kind of exists to bridge the first Avatar and its sequel as quickly as possible and is probably when the film is at its weakest.  It sort of yadda-yadda-yadda’s the existence of Sigourney Weaver as a teenage Na’vi in this movie a bit too quickly and other odd little connections like making Spider the literal son of the last movie’s villain also seems a touch convenient, as does the return of that villain as a Na’vi in the first place given that I’m not sure that was a character the masses were really demanding more of.  All of this is leading to a moment that will finally drive the Sully family to run away from their war against the “sky people” and go into hiding amongst a different group of Na’vi that dwell in the ocean/reef area of the planet, a motivation I never quite bought given Sully’s warrior chief ways, nor do I exactly understand why the humans are so hell bent on targeting him even after he has ceased to be an active leader of the resistance.  It’s all a bit too convenient, all there basically to bring the characters do a different milieu where the movie wants to take place.  However, once the movie does get to where it wants to go it really starts to sing.

            James Cameron is rather famously fond of oceans and ocean life and oceanic preservation is a cause close to his heart so it probably shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that he went in the direction of looking at Pandora’s ocean life and unsurprisingly he’s really good at it.  This new seaside village that the family embeds themselves in is an interesting new side of Na’vi culture that we haven’t seen before and the flora and fauna around them is about as imaginative and colorful in its own way as anything we saw in the first film and this is where much of that big screen 3D awe factor we remember from that first movie comes into place.  The movie also finds interesting ways to depict the sci-fi boats and hunting strategies that the human villains come up with in order to exploit these sections and the eventual conflict between the two sides are very well rendered.  I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by this but… the action scenes in this totally rule.  The film’s trailers I think kind of oddly undersell that aspect of it, especially in the beginning and the end, when this does function as a war movie that is very interested in showing open warfare between the Na’vi and the humans.  The climactic battle scene in particular goes on for nearly an hour but also manages to be something more interesting than simply being two CGI armies smashing into each other and is choreographed pretty beautifully.

            Beyond all of that the movie has its ups and downs to be sure.  Like the first movie this is definitely a work that brokers in archetypes and its dialogue is at best straightforward and workmanlike.  Jake Sully probably remains the most boring part in his own movie, sort of a bland male hero, but he feels less like a central figure here so much as a figure within the greater ensemble with his immediate family taking over more as a collective protagonist.  The Sully kids are, like their parents, essentially archetypes.  Cameron probably would have done well to differentiate the family’s older brothers both physically and personality-wise because to be honest I couldn’t really tell them apart a lot of the times (yeah, I’ll admit it, all blue people kind of look the same to me), and the youngest sister is mostly there to be an adorable moppet.  I also kind of went back and forth on the character of Spider, who had a lot of potential but who I’m not sure entirely worked in execution and the “daddy issues” aspect of this character doesn’t work and frankly overestimates how much of an impression that Stephen Lang character left on audiences.  I was pretty interested by the teenage Sigourney Weaver character despite the relative oddness of the character’s creation and the casting of a seventy three year old woman in as this adolescent character.  She seems to be taking over for Sully as the series’ central “chosen one,” which is probably a smart move and I think that’s the character that Cameron was most able to tap into an authentic vain of moody teenager-ness to.

            Of course the film’s general focus on “family” feels a bit like a concession to popular tastes and despite James Cameron’s recent surly interviews, he’s absolutely trying to tailor these movies to be one-size-fits-all blockbusters that will appeal to a very wide range of audiences around the world.  An uncharitable way of saying that would be to say that he’s dumbing things down for the lowest common denominator, but that does not mean that he’s chasing all the trends that Hollywood obsesses over.  Rather, this Avatar sequel like its predecessor is defiantly sincere in its outlook in a way that most Hollywood blockbusters are not.  It’s certainly not devoid of humor but it isn’t a movie that’s interested in being self-reverential and hip and it sort of wears its tree hugging heart on its sleeve.  It remains to be determined how that will be received in 2022.  The original Avatar turned out to be pretty well timed coming out in the first year of the Obama administration when people were looking for escape from the Great Recession but still had a lot of hope and optimism for the future.  I’m not sure we’re really in the same place in 2022 and political division may make certain audiences less tolerant of even a visual effect spectacular with some badass action scenes if it’s also something of an environmental screed that wants to save the whales (even though the whales have already kind of been saved in the real world).  This isn’t like Top Gun: Maverick, which had its glorification of the military to rope those audiences in despite its own apolitical apathy and absence of cynicism.

On some level it feels kind of gross to turn a review into a work of box office prognostication like I kind of have at this point, but on some level a movie like this sort of invites that, it’s a movie that exists to entertain the masses and it wears that on its sleeve.  There are things about this that I think will help it quite a bit in that regard.  The new child and teenage characters in this one will probably appeal to younger audiences pretty well, so expect there to be more fanfiction about this one than there was about the first.  I also think if people looking for an action movie give this a chance they will likely be impressed by what they get, because some of these battle scenes are indeed quite cool.  But it’s also possible that people won’t be willing to give this a chance and that people will continue their agoraphobic refusal to leave their homes for entertainment and that kids today just won’t be impressed by the giant screens and 3D effects without some elaborate continuity driving them.  I had a blast with it though, and thought it found canny ways to leave things open for future sequels without feeling unnatural about it.  I suspect that the reason this took so long to make is that, unlike the recent Star Wars sequel trilogy, Cameron really wanted to hammer out his franchise sequel plans without writing himself into more corners with the first sequel and I hope that doesn’t backfire because I do think he has more very cool things to show us in the future if we keep this train going.
**** out of Five

The Fabelmans(11/26/2022)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

The number of film directors that “normies” know by name is pretty low.  I could suggest Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick, but I’m not sure how many film illiterate zoomers will know who they are.  Alternately I could suggest Christopher Nolan or David Fincher but I’m not sure how well known those guys are by the over-70 crowd.  I suppose Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and M. Night Shyamalan have been successful enough at promoting themselves that they qualify as household names, but they’re divisive figures who many people love but many other people love to hate.  Then of course there’s Martin Scorsese, but ultimately his audience is a bit limited as well.  The one name that so obviously stands out as the truly universally beloved filmmaker is almost certainly Steven Spielberg, a man who accomplished more in the first ten years of his career than most filmmakers manage their entire lives.  That having been said, it’s not entirely clear that Spielberg’s grip on the public imagination is what it once used to be, in part because he’s come to focus on making movies for adults during a rather juvenile time box office history.  His West Side Story remake last year basically bombed at the box office despite being some of his best work in a while.  One can blame the pandemic for that, but still, it’s hard to get around.  His smaller dramas like The Post and Bridge of Spies have generally done pretty well for what they are and the one time this decade that he threw up his arms and made an effects vehicle with Ready Player One it was lucrative, but outside of that he hasn’t really had a blockbuster since Lincoln and I’m not sure he’s made something that can truly be called an earth quaking popular game changer since Saving Private Ryan.  That having been said, I’m honestly kind of glad that (Ready Player One notwithstanding) Spielberg has followed his muse into mellower places rather than chasing trends and trying to be hip with the youths.  And he’s certainly followed that muse into personal territory with his latest film, an autobiographical coming of age film called The Fabelmans.

The Fabelmans is a very lightly fictionalized retelling of Steven Spielberg’s childhood and adolescence.  His alter ego is Sam Fabelman (played as a child by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) and the film starts with him being taken to a movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, which leaves him enamored with the idea of trains colliding with things.  His father, an engineer named Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), eventually buys him a toy train set but gets angry when he learns that the boy is crashing these devices so his mother Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman (Michelle Williams) suggests that he instead film a single crash on the family 8mm film camera and watch that.  This sparks a lifelong fascination with filmmaking in the boy which blooms after the family moves him and his sisters to Arizona and as a teenager (now played by Gabriel LaBelle) he starts making increasingly elaborate amateur films with his boy scout troop.  A family friend and co-worker of Burt’s named Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogan) also comes to Phoenix and is ingrained in the family to the point where he’s viewed as an uncle to the kids, and together they all make for a pretty happy family.  Things will not remain happy forever though and after Sam’s maternal grandmother dies it leads to a bout of extreme grief in his mother that will result in a series of events that will leave this family wounded in such a way that it could affect Sam and his art for the rest of his life.

While Sam’s movie obsession is seen in several different places there are two specific movies that are highlighted as having influenced Sam early in life.  The first is the aforementioned The Greatest Show on Earth, which is certainly a believable film to highlight as an early influence because who would make that up?  That movie is lousy, it’s a bloated commercial for the circus that is today considered to be one of the weakest movies to ever con its way into winning a Best Picture Oscar.  But watching the clips in the movie you do sort of get how it could have impact as a six year old’s first exposure to cinema, particularly its finale which involved a car derailing a train.  That, one could say, appears to be the genesis of Spielberg’s interest in spectacle and action and sparked the early films that made him a household name.  The other film highlighted, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is more emblematic of the more conflicted films about American history that Spielberg would make later in his career like Munich, Lincoln, and The Post.  Obviously that movie is highlighted because it’s a western that came out in 1962 and which could inspire him to make a western film as one of his projects, but I think it’s here for a bigger reason as well, namely because of its famous last line: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

In many ways The Fabelmans feels like a project that exists to print the legend of Spielberg’s life.  Anyone with even a casual knowledge of Spielberg’s work and life story has heard the stories of him growing up as a movie obsessed tyke who used his family’s home video camera to make mini-movies.  It’s a concept of his life that’s so widely repeated that it once inspired J.J. Abrams to make a big budget science fiction film called Super 8 about similarly inspired young people making a their own movies with similar technology.  The recreation of these no-budget film shoots are, interestingly, the most Spielbergian moments in The Fabelmans and there’s a great deal of fun to be found in the ingenuity of these junior filmmakers and the extent to which Sam seems like a natural at this clear to be seen.  One could accuse Spielberg of a certain vanity to all of this and the scale and talent of these movies within the movie would seem to be a bit hard to swallow.  However, I’ve seen clips from Spielberg’s actual juvenilia and they’re actually not that far removed from what you see here, it’s legitimately amazing that the teenaged Spielberg in the early 60s was still able to make things that look more like “real” movies than what many people today are able to make despite having every technological advantage.

Of course the other part of the Spielberg legend comes from the fact that he’s said to come from something of a broken family that had been torn apart by divorce and that this gave him“daddy issues” that would be very detectable in his films, which tend to be filled to the brim with absent fathers and a desire for familial reunification.  This is where The Fabelmans throws a bit of a wrench into the gears of printing the legend and makes a major change from the narrative we all know.  In the film a teenage Sam discovers through some of the home video footage he shot that his mother has been having an affair with his “uncle” Bennie Loewy and builds resentment for her.  This affair is factual, but in the 2017 HBO documentary simply titled Spielberg the filmmaker said that he never knew anything about it until well into adulthood leaving him to resent his father because he didn’t understand what led him to leave, so unless he was lying in that documentary this plot development in The Fabelmans would seem to be a divergence both from the facts and the legend.  In a way this would seem to be setting up an alternate universe version of Steven Spielberg where events have set him up to have “mommy issues” instead of “daddy issues.”  That’s pretty interesting, but it’s also something that the movie doesn’t have much time to actually do anything with.  It ends before Spielberg has started his professional film career, and we’re kind of left to imagine what effect this parental figure reversal would have on films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

One does not, however, need to be a Spielberg nut in order to enjoy The Fabelmans as it is simply a very well-constructed coming of age movie.  Spielberg did not grow up in a dramatic warzone like Kenneth Branagh or John Boorman and wasn’t a borderline juvenile delinquent like François Truffaut, so he is examining a more privileged adolescence and he isn’t really interrogating that privilege the way Alfonso Cuarón and James Gray did with their recent efforts in autobiography.  Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner make up for this by just filling his movie with a lot of wit and relatability.  Spielberg has long been something of a master of getting good performances out of child actors and hasn’t lost his touch here and he’s also able to make the rest of the family here seem believable even if the adults here are largely played by movie stars.  He’s also able to make some of the angstier moments of the teenage version of himself feel understandable rather than annoying and the film also does a good job of handling some of the antisemitism he experienced while living among the goyim in California and some amusing anecdotes like an early romance Sam has with a girl who keeps trying to convert him to Christianity.  And of course it also leads up to a very amusing final scene on the Paramount backlot which I will not spoil here.  So, by and large this is a very enjoyable and satisfying movie but I’m going to have to stop short of calling it top tier Spielberg.  Partly that’s just because he’s set the bar inanely high for himself but even last year’s West Side Story displayed him in a more adventurous place as a visual stylist and other dramas he’s made like Lincoln and Munich deal with weightier topics.  But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth, Spielberg is bearing his soul to the film going populace and that’s not something you get every day.
**** out of Five

The Banshees of Inisherin(11/5/2022)

It seems like every year “Film Twitter” sees a movie that they suspect could win the Academy Award that year despite being unworthy and proceed to lash out at it out of all proportion in an attempt to prevent that.  Don’t get me wrong, sometimes they have it coming (everything that was said about Green Book is true) but all too often it means a lot of silly hyperbole gets thrown at perfectly decent movies like La La Land, Belfast, or The Trial of the Chicago Seven.  But the movie that I think received some of the most savagely unfair criticism that will seem bizarre in retrospect might be Martin McDonagh’s last film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  I don’t want to re-litigate the whole thing here but the extent to which that movie seemed to get distorted in “the discourse” bordered on the ridiculous and what was a really sly tragicomedy just turned into an argument about whether it’s broken idiot side character was sufficiently punished at the end as if this were subject to some sort of Production Code restriction where everyone has to be a “good guy” or a “bad guy” with the bad guys are killed off or put in prison before the credits roll.  One of the strangest turns this discourse took was to throw around the notion that as a foreigner McDonagh somehow “botched” his take on the United States, as if this absurdist dark comedy was supposed to be a super literal documentary of what life in the Show-Me state was like.  But perhaps he took this criticism to heart as his new movie, The Banshees of Inisherin, is (as the title might suggest) one of the more aggressively Irish films to come along in a while.

The Inisherin of the film’s title is a fictional island somewhere off the coast of Ireland which seems to be a very modest agricultural community.  It’s 1923 and the Irish Civil War is going on nearby, but does not seem to have spread to Inisherin itself, so most of the population is pretty disconnected from it.  Our main point of view character is Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell), a not very bright but mostly well-meaning farmer who lives with his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), a bookish lady who seems to mostly hang around to help her brother out.  It would seem that his main means of passing time for a while has been to hang around with his friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), a solitary man who plays the violin and seems to be in something of a depressive phase.  One day Pádraic tries to sit down with Colm at a pub to have a drink when Colm rather abruptly tells him he no longer wants to hang out with him or be his friend.  He says he’s come to realize he was wasting his life away listening to Pádraic’s inane stories and the he just simply does not like him anymore.  Distraught, Pádraic keeps trying to interact with Colm until Colm finally snaps and issues an ultimatum: if Pádraic tries to talk to him one more time he’ll use a pair of sheers and cut off one of his own fingers and will keep mutilating himself this way until he’s left with no fingers left to play his violin with.

The whole situation at the center of the film is kind of an interesting bit of a moral quandary as you contemplate how much you sympathize with what Colm is doing here.  On one hand, Colm has a right to hang out with whoever he wants to and Pádraic is not somehow entitled to continued friendship with Colm or with anyone else.  On the other hand, Colm is being awfully cold about all of this and while a friendship isn’t exactly a marriage there is a point where if you willingly build an identity around hanging out with someone it sure seems hurtful to just leave them hanging like this, especially when you live on some desolate island in a time before mass communication where there aren’t many other people to hang out with and not much else to do.  That Pádraic is also “dull,” possibly to the point of having some sort of undiagnosed mental disability, and generally doesn’t seem to have much going on in his life also makes you increasingly feel like he has some increased duty to be his brother’s keeper here.  As a priest tells Colm in the movie at one point, what he’s doing is “not a sin, but it’s not very nice either.”

At the end of the day, what Colm is doing is plainly not reasonable.  He may well have logical reasons to not indulge Pádraic at all times but there’s a lot of middle ground between listening to this guy talk about literal horse ship for two solid hours and cutting him off completely under threat of self-mutilation.  A reasonable person would have simply set off some boundaries with which he would remain somewhat amiable with Pádraic without hanging out for hours with him for hours on end, or at least more slowly ween Pádraic off of this friendship.  And of course the self-mutilation threats are just deranged.  This is, at the end of the day a movie about unreasonable people, and I think this is where the Irish Civil War that’s happening on the film’s periphery comes into it, which I think this whole thing is meant to be something of a metaphor for.  I’m not an expert about that conflict and I don’t think the specifics necessarily matter, you could probably replace it for any other intractable conflict of that sort where former comrades have a falling out over something that doesn’t seem terribly important to outsiders and things start to get bloody and painful quickly.

Amidst all of this, Martin McDonagh’s dark wit is still very much on display here.  The film is perhaps a bit closer to his stage roots than some of the other films he’s made, in part because it’s ultimately a story about interactions between a small handful of characters and it’s in the kind of contained universe of Inisherin, but that isn’t to say that the movie feels “stagebound” and it was definitely written for the screen.  Perhaps more importantly it he’s displaying a playwrights skill for turning the interpersonal conflict of a few people into something representative of much larger and more universal themes.  And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this is a bit of a reunion for McDonagh and stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson after the three made In Bruges together and clearly all of them have a strong rapport with each other. That said the movie is a bit less commercial than In Burges, and for that matter it’s also less experimental than Seven Psychopaths and also feels a bit smaller scale and less topical than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri so I’m not sure I’d say this is a real leap forward for McDonagh, but it will likely be less divisive than some of his previous work and stands on its own pretty well.
**** out of Five

Armageddon Time(10/21/2022)

Warning: Review contains oblique spoilers

One of the best movies of 2018 was the movie Roma, in which Alfonso Cuarón looked back on his childhood in the titular Mexico City neighborhood during the early 70s.  The movie didn’t quite end up being the Oscar juggernaut everyone hoped in what turned out to be a pretty disappointing Academy Awards year, but still, big time critical favorite that got pretty far despite some obvious commercial disadvantages.  But a funny thing happened in the next couple of years, suddenly every time a director put out a movie with autobiographical elements about their childhood everyone started calling it “their Roma.”  The movie Belfast was deemed to be “Kenneth Branagh’s Roma,” The Fablemans is being called “Steven Spielberg’s Roma,” and I suspect that if Lee Isaac Chung had been a big more famous people would have been called Minari his Roma.  It’s all a little baffling since, well, it kind of seems to imply that Alfonso Cuarón invented the autobiographical coming of age movie in 2018, which is plainly ridiculous.  François Truffaut is probably rolling in his grave every time this gets invoked.  These movies are in fact all part of a very long lineage encompassing everything from John Boorman’s Hope and Glory to Spike Lee’s Crooklyn to Fellini’s Armarcord and I have no doubt that if you searched long enough you can find examples of this going back to the earliest days in cinema.  Making a movie reflecting on their childhood is almost a right of passage for filmmakers.  And it’s a right of passage that director James Gray embarks on with his latest film Armageddon Time, a movie that’s plainly inspired by his own childhood growing up in Queens during the early 80s.

Specifically, the movie is set during the year 1980 and looks at a twelve year old boy named Paul Graff (Michael Banks Repeta) living in a somewhat upwardly mobile Jewish family.  His father Irving (Jeremy Strong) is a plumber and his mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) is heavily involved in the PTA, a position which Paul seems to over-estimate the power of.  Paul doesn’t really seem to respect his parents much but does have a lot of affection for his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), who tells him stories about his immigration to the United States back in the day.  Paul goes to a public school which seems to have been integrated recently through bussing, which is controversial amongst the adults in the area and leads to some social stratification amongst the students, but Paul doesn’t know about any of that and he befriends an African American kid in class named Johnny (Jaylin Webb).  The two bond over, frankly, a shared interest in misbehaving in class but they both live very different lives.  Johnny lives with his grandmother, who seems to be senile, and it becomes clear pretty quick that the teachers and school administrators are much less interested in letting Johnny get away with certain things that they seem to tolerate to some degree from Paul.  This stratification becomes even starker when Paul is pulled out of that public school and put into a private prep school.

Though this is Gray’s first time examining his childhood it is nonetheless something of a return to his usual milieu.  Gray came to prominence making movies like Little Odessa and We Own the Night, which are these gritty crime dramas but ones rooted in and noticeably interested by the various outer boroughs New York settings Gray placed them in.  His 2013 film The Immigrant was also a New York story, but one set in the early 20th Century, and with his 2016 and 2019 films The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra he finally removed himself from the big apple and made a pair of movies based in the UK and space respectively.  Ad Astra in particular, while in my view a very interesting film, seems to have been something of a financial boondoggle so making this movie appears to be something of an attempt to re-ground himself and get back to basics.  It’s a move that seems to have paid off artistically however because this is clearly a world that Gray feels in his bones and after all these years he seems to have developed a lot of perspective about this era.

The film is set in 1980, and Gray certainly has some degree of nostalgia for this time and about his family but it’s a very sober nostalgia which re-asses the past through modern eyes which highlight that era’s casual racism in a way that something like “Mad Men” might look at the various social issues of the 1960s.  Here early 80s Queens is not exactly a “hot bed” of racial animus but certainly a stew of it that’s simmering away.  For example Paul’s teacher at the public school is, to be blunt, kind of awful.  I don’t think he’s meant to be seen as “evil” or something but he plainly has no idea how to deal with a kid like Johnny and has not gotten the memo about building kids’ self-esteem, a trait of future generations that is often mocked but watching how this teacher operates you can kind of see where the desire comes from.  Meanwhile Paul’s family, while certainly tolerant of African Americans in broad strokes, will still find themselves talking about public schools in not so subtly racialized terms with one aunt being so bold as to speak the quiet part load about her concerns over integration at one point with only minimal pushback.  Paul’s parents aren’t immune from this either and once he finds himself sent to the private school for dubious reasons the kids there don’t even claim to have such ideals, with one of them showing no hesitation whatsoever to use a nasty racial slur in casual conversation.   It’s also probably not a coincidence that it’s established that Fred Trump is something of a bigwig at the private school that Paul is sent to, perhaps trying to establish the kind of world that you-know-who came out of.

This isn’t to say that the movie is all race relations all the time.  It is, at its heart a movie about young Paul and his moving from the simplicity of childhood into the more complicated world of adolescence and at its core it’s about Paul first starting to build a consciousness about the world that he doesn’t really have the skills or the perspective to really act on.  Racial issues are the domain by which he does this, and having the story of a black kid’s struggles act as something of a sub-plot to a white kid’s personal awakening is something that could easily be… fraught.  This is very much a movie about a white (more specifically, Jewish) perspective of racial relations in America and if people are kind of sick of seeing those stories I can kind of understand.  However, racism is ultimately a problem within white people and it’s a problem that white people are ultimately going to be responsible for solving, so the white view of racism is going to be relevant for better or worse for a long time.  The film is also wading into dangerous territory when it dips into the waters of essentially being a “I had a black friend once” story, in which a black and white kid become friends by seeing the world with more innocent simplicity than their prejudiced parents.  You know, The Fox and the Hound but with humans.  I can’t say this movie completely avoids some of the pitfalls of a story like that but it does approach the idea a bit more sober-mindedly than some movies would.  It understands that “the power of friendship” is not enough to overcome a world that’s stacked against someone like Johnny and it avoids white-saviordom by making Paul someone who’s in no position to successfully save much of anyone despite his best intentions.

“Best intentions” is kind of the key concept of the movie.  The film’s moral center is Paul’s grandfather, played by Anthony Hopkins, who clearly wants to instill the family’s Jewish heritage and immigrant background in Paul and when he learns that Paul didn’t act to defend Johnny at one point he gives him a show stopping speech (some of which is in the film’s kind of spoilery trailer) telling him, in a less modern vernacular, to use his privilege to help the less privileged and to be a “mensch.”   As tends to be the case this is easier said than done, especially when you’re a twelve year old.  When Paul does finally decide to stand up and live by his grandfather’s ideals he does so with the logic of a twelve year old who doesn’t know the ways of the world and it largely ends up backfiring.  This is the harsh reality of the world: the best intentions often aren’t enough.  Ideas that aren’t thought through often backfire and make things worse and there are going to be times where, no matter how deep your convictions are, the deck is too stacked and there’s just nothing you can really do beyond futile self-sacrificing gestures that help no one.  But that doesn’t mean having principles like this is a fools game.  Even if there wasn’t much Paul could do this time around, he did live to fight another day and the principals instilled in him aren’t going away and one can hope he may one day use them to more productive ends.

James Gray is a filmmaker who is in some ways kind of cursed to make good movies that everybody seems to like but which kind of can’t get past a certain level of success and acclaim.  His movies tend to feel a little too “big” to seem like little indies that need to be championed in earnest but too “small” to really be mainstream and in terms of awards and critical accolades they always seem to just get overshadowed by other flashier projects.  Armageddon Time does not seem like it will be an exception to that.  In particular Gray has the misfortune of releasing his fictionalized memoir of Gen X Jewish family life less than a month before Steven Spielberg releases his own fictionalized memoir of Jewish Baby Boomer family life and it doesn’t take a lot of effort to guess which of these movies is ultimately going to get more attention.  Beyond that though it’s just generally hard for a drama like this to get a whole lot of shine these days and the movie doesn’t quite have that novelty factor that will get people lining up for it.  That’s a shame though because this is a strong little movie with smart insights about the world of yesterday and today being made by a filmmaker who’s clearly in a very thoughtful place and it trying to add his piece to the conversation.  It’s not necessarily a movie I’m going to go to war championing either but I think it’s coming from a good place and is well worth a look.
**** out of Five