He’s been called one of America’s greatest filmmakers. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, Steven Spielberg is certainly its most commercially successful. His 33 films to date have taken in more than US$10 billion at the box office worldwide and, at age 76, he doesn’t look to be retiring anytime soon. He’s currently working on a new film about Frank Bullitt, the character made famous by the late actor Steve McQueen in the 1968 film, BULLITT. Bradley Cooper is set to star. He’s also produced the new INDIANA JONES movie, which is scheduled for release at the end of June 2023. For now, Spielberg fans can content themselves with THE FABELMANS, which is the filmmaker’s most autobiographical film to date.
The time is 1952 and six-year-old Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) is about to see his first movie in the cinema. It’s Cecil B. DeMille’s THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH and his parents, Burt (Paul Dano, THE BATMAN) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams, VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE; THE GREATEST SHOWMAN; MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), have decided the time is right to introduce their young son to the magic of movies… or maybe this is just Mitzi’s idea as Burt is heavily grounded in reality. He’s an engineer who is involved in the burgeoning computer industry and he would like nothing more than to have his son follow in his footsteps. Mitzi, however, who is an accomplished classical pianist, wants to nurture Sammy’s creative side. Sammy is mesmerized by the film, particularly the train crash scene and, after the movie, Mitzi secretly offers Sammy Burt’s 8 mm movie camera so that the boy can start making his own films. This quickly becomes Sammy’s passion, especially as the family moves from their very Jewish enclave in suburban New Jersey to Phoenix where other Jews are few in number and their extended family is far away. Coming with them, though, is Burt’s best friend and business partner, “Uncle” Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen, AN AMERICAN PICKLE; THE LION KING; THE DISASTER ARTIST). As Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle, THE PREDATOR) grows into a teenager and he continues to make movies of and starring his family and friends, he begins to see the three adults in his life in a new light. At the same time, he struggles to manage his relationships amongst his own peer group.
Directed by Spielberg and co-written by him and Pulitzer Prize, and Tony and Emmy Award winner Tony Kushner, THE FABELMANS is both a richly crafted story and a beautiful movie to watch. But if this is about the Spielberg family, why are they called the Fabelmans? Although the story is grounded in truth, it is a fable, and names, places and events have been tweaked to fit the narrative. One could also look at the name “Spielberg”. A “spiel”, like a fable, is a story.
If you know your Spielberg films, THE FABELMANS offers up a plethora of homages to his vast body of work including Sammy filming his model train crash (SUPER 8, which Spielberg produced), the light from the movie projector coming from under his closet door (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), his emotionally distant father (HOOK, LINCOLN and BRIDGE OF SPIES), his boy scout trip to the Arizona desert (INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE), his war epic (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), Mitzi’s pet monkey (INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM), his scrutinizing his film footage under a magnifying glass (MINORITY REPORT) and many others. All these and more remind us of the magic that movies can make.
LaBelle, Dano and Williams all do outstanding work here, and it’s a pleasure to see Rogen in a serious role for a change. While Jeannie Berlin (THE HEARTBREAK KID) makes a welcome but brief appearance as Burt’s mother, it’s Judd Hirsch (UNCUT GEMS; TV’s TAXI) who gives a performance for the ages in his five minutes on screen as Mitzi’s wizened Uncle Boris. Expect to see the 87-year-old take home the Best Supporting Oscar award in March. Remember you read it here first.
THE FABELMANS opens in Hong Kong’s cinemas on Thursday (December 29th). It’s sentimental to a fault (it’s a Spielberg film, after all) but the fabulous performances and the direction make this film a must-see. It has already been nominated for over 120 awards with more still to come.
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