Review: ‘The Fabelmans,’ An Origin Story By Steven Spielberg

Michelle Williams, Paul Dano and Seth Rogen star in a coming-of-age story, directed by Steven Spielberg. 

After directing dozens of films, Steven Spielberg goes home to tell his own story. 

In its very first scene, The Fabelmans throws down the gauntlet between art and science in cinema. Trying to convince the reluctant young Sammy that he will enjoy the experience of watching his very first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), in a New Jersey theater as they wait for the doors to open, his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), herself an artistic type who gave up any career hopes in favor of raising a family, argues in behalf of of the film’s artistic merits and how it will make Sammy feel. Simultaneously, his father Burt (Paul Dano), a scientist, explains how movies are exhibited 24 frames per second, and so forth. 

Once they start watching the movie, young Sammy is caught up completely in the experience. Realizing at once his purpose in life, he knows he must somehow make his own movie. From there, of course, a star (filmmaker) is born. 

Even before I knew his name or understood (faintly) what he did as a director, Steven Spielberg captured my attention, first with the television shows he helmed (Colombo, Name of the Game, Night Gallery) and then with the films he made. Starting with his second feature, Jaws (1975), I have endeavored to see everything he has directed on a big screen, if possible, and if circumstances did not permit, then certainly on television. 

I believe The Fabelmans is his 33rd feature film, so far, and certainly ranks in his upper percentile. With the passage of time, he is able to look back upon his own youth, fictionalizing it for dramatic purposes — he receives his first writing credit since A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), collaborating with writer Tony Kushner (Munich, 2005; Lincoln, 2012; West Side Story, 2021) — and softening the edges, without eliminating entirely the painful stabs of memory that are inherent in recalling any great love. We can learn from the past, but only if we are honest with ourselves. 

In Spielberg’s telling, he enjoys a happy family life with his parents and sisters, along with their “Uncle” Bernie (Seth Rogen), Burt’s gregarious best friend and fellow worker, who is also a special friend of Mitzi. When Burt gets a new job with greater responsibilities in Arizona, they all move cross-country together. 

It’s in Arizona that Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle) becomes more ambitious as a filmmaker, gathering like-minded friends to help him realize his dreams on film, and gaining recognition among his peers. From there, however, a fateful camping trip and another big move awaits to deepen the story and raise the stakes for everyone. 

Spielberg’s films are always a pleasure to watch, and this one flew by, belying its extended running time, without aliens or spaceships or the horrors of (genuine) war. Instead, the battles are interpersonal, as Sammy wrestles with what is happening to his parents as they slowly drift apart and the children are left hanging. 

Michelle Williams gives a remarkable performance as Mitzi, much of it with subtle graduations of her facial expressions and body language, as she captures the highs and lows of an artistic woman at a time when women were expected to conform to stilted cultural preconceptions as to their behavior. She doesn’t always need to say anything; sometimes, it’s the way she cuts off her own desire to say something that speaks volumes.

Playing the more contained, conservative parent, Paul Dano is no less effective as Burt. In his own modest, scientific manner that favors analysis over emotion, his face ripples with love and pain, adoration and suffering, as he records everything and files it away for later absorption.  

Entirely absorbing and eminently entertaining, The Fabelmans is a true marvel to behold, a jewel that will last a lifetime. Or more. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities Wednesday, November 23, 2022. For more information about the film, visit the official site

Review: ‘Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me’ Reflects Deeply Upon the Perils of Stardom

The musical star and actress talks about her many serious, personal challenges in a documentary directed by Alek Keshishian, now streaming on Apple TV+. 

Born and raised in Grand Prairie until she was seven, Selena Gomez became an instant star on Disney, which meant that she moved to Hollywood as a child and came of age under the magnifying glass of ever-increasing fame.

Some seven years ago, Alek Keshishian, (Madonna: Truth or Dare, 1991) helmed a music video for Gomez. Shortly thereafter, Gomez began experiencing crisis-level personal problems that threatened to derail her career. As documented in Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me, her eventual diagnosis for lupus and its effect upon mental health struggles she was already experiencing distinguish her troubles from those self-inflicted wounds that have plagued many, many other young stars over the years. 

Gomez’ honesty also marks the documentary as different from other confessionals, although the film as a whole makes me wonder if anyone connected to a young, rising star ever stops to watch any of them. If so, I’d think they would question whether they can afford the price of fame and its attendant disastrous consequences, which are too frequently fatal. 

As those of us who live in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex know, Grand Prairie is a lovely community, with a large portion of the residents being Hispanic/Latino. Gomez, whose return to the city is showcased in the film, never appears to stay far from her roots; her genuine engagement with friends and former neighbors, and her desire to give back by visiting young school students, is genuinely touching. 

So is her willingness to discuss her mental health struggles, exacerbated, it seems, by her diagnosis with the serious condition of lupus. None of these struggles are over for her; she will have to deal with them for the remainder of her life, so her struggle will never entirely cease. It’s more a matter of coping with these gigantic challenges. 

Of course, she could end her musical and performing career any time she wishes to do so, but says in the film that she feels that her entertainment talents have gifted her with an enlarged opportunity to help others. Keshishian keeps the pace moving at a brisk pace, so that even if you’re not necessarily a fan of Gomez’ music or other work, the documentary works effectively, in large part because of its emotional intimacy. 

The film is now streaming on Apple TV+.

Review: ‘The People We Hate at the Wedding’

This may sound very old-man-shouting-at-the-clouds, but when did comedy diffuse itself into pretty horrible people enmeshed in uncomfortable situations abetted only by dialogue comprised of witty quips and abrasive reactions? That seems to be the shift of ‘funny’, and Claire Scanlon’s The People We Hate at the Wedding deals in this modern cache of comedy completely. If it’s not the most apt title for a film in years, by the time the film tries to give everyone involved a redemptive finale, one will be left wondering was all the sour humor worth it?

The wedding of Eloise (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) is what brings the patchwork family together. Step sister Alice (Kristen Bell) is in shambles over the push and pull relationship she’s involved with her married boss. Step brother Paul (Ben Platt) is likewise churning over his relationship with Dominic (Karan Soni) who seems to be pushing for a threesome with anyone willing. Mother Donna (Allison Janney) seems blind to the emotional suffering of her children, but doesn’t untangle her own life by falling back into a relationship with Eliose’s father (Isaach de Bankole). What ensues as the family lands in England for the wedding is a mass of drunkenness, jealousy, and failed attempts at romance. Luckily for them, their possessiveness and in-fighting is still days away from the wedding itself and instead makes life miserable for everyone over the course of the bachelorette party, the pre-wedding dinner and pretty much any enjoyable night out on the town.

And by the time we get to the geographically beautiful setting of the wedding, the fisticuffs erupt and the ugly Americans threaten to disrupt everything. The fact that the family pretty much pisses on everything and everyone they come into contact with is exemplified in the film’s best running gag as Eliose’s boss Tom (Rufus Jones) seems to stumble into Paul, Ben and Donna at the height of their awkwardness. This clash of cultures probably wasn’t the intended focus of The People We Hate at the Wedding, but it serves as a far more interesting diversion than anything else Scanlon’s film offers.

Shoehorned around the voice of a verbose narrator as if everything we’re watching should be ensconced in a stone tablet fairy tale ledger, The People We Hate at the Wedding sells itself as a romantic comedy, but instead it should be a very dark comedy…. or at least a comedy with very dark hearts at its center. It doesn’t make it a better film, but perhaps then, the script that’s built around abrasive quips as dialogue and uncomfortable characters who exude more prickliness than warmth would be tolerable. I suppose I should have understood the black center of this family when we first meet Platt’s character as some sort of therapist making his patient stand in a trash can in order to face her fears. That this is probably his most humane moment in the entire film speaks volumes about the ugly Americans about to invade other shores. Old man screaming indeed, but I yearn for other comedy.

The People We Hate at the Wedding begins streaming on Amazon Prime on Friday November 18th.

Review: ‘Armageddon Time,’ Refracting the Past Through the Eyes of a Young Man 

James Gray writes and directs a very personal story, featuring Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong and Anthony Hopkins. 

The past is a funny thing. It’s always changing. 

Filmmaker James Gray has said that Armageddon Time is inspired by his own personal experiences as a young Jewish boy growing up in New York City. As we all know, though, the past is a minefield planted with destructive bombs. We remember certain events very well, especially those that had a lasting beneficial impact upon us, while we do our best to release memories that we don’t wish to recall. 

In Gray’s telling, his stand-in family is dramatized as the Graffs, a family in Queens that was founded by the declining patriarch, Grandpa (Anthony Hopkins), who fled Europe ahead of Hitler. His son, Irving, broadly caricatured by a thickly-accented Jeremy Strong, and daughter-in-law Esther, captured lovingly by Anne Hathaway, are parents to Paul (Banks Repeta) and his older brother Ted (Ryan Sell). 

Young Paul is filmmaker Gray’s personal stand-in and his coming-of-age story is told through his eyes, so nearly eveything in the film reflects his memories as a young man on the cusp of adulthood. Gray, however, avoids the usual traps of nostalgic sentimentality; thus, the film feels different from nearly evey other coming-of-age story, with the characters acting in a manner that is not always praiseworthy, yet feels relentlessly authentic. 

The story begins in September 1980 with Paul beginning a new school year as a troublemaker who quickly makes a new friend in Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), who is apparently the only Black kid in Queens, or at least in the neighborhood where the Graff family lives. (Personal aside: I visited New York City in 1981 and 1982 before moving there in 1984, but I can’t recall spending much time in any neighhorbood like the one depicted in the movie. Maybe that was a good thing for my health and safety.)

Paul’s grandfather dotes on him, but his careless, non-studious behavior and his restless antics with Johnny very much concern his mother and father, who eventually decide to enroll him in the same private school where his brother attends class, with the hope that he will cease any association with Johnny and start applying himself to his studies.  

Without ever giving way to dramatic flashiness or creating extreme moments of thunder, the film still pulses with life, beautifully shot by Gray’s usual collaborator, director of photography Darius Khondji, and edited by Scott Morris to enhance gently every key moment. The performances are finely modulated. Director Gray gives each key actor, notably Hopkins and Hathaway, at least two scenes in which it’s the actor’s subtle graces that makes the scenes dramatically effective.

For much of its running time, Armageddon Time doesn’t call attention to itself. This can present a daunting challenge to viewers, including myself, who are accustomed to films — especially ‘coming-of-age’ stories — that shout out their narratives and give advance warning about their narrative direction. For most of his filmmaking career, however, James Gray has defied expectations and created his own path forward. Now it’s resulted in what may be his warmest, truest film yet.

Review originally published by Screen Anarchy. The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, November 4, via Searchlight Pictures. For more information about the film, visit the official site

Review: ‘Aftersun’

In the midst of flailing bodies on a strobe-lit dance floor, Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) reflects on a summer vacation with her father (Paul Mescal) that took place years earlier. Lucky for us, her remembrances aren’t infused with the same splintered visual aesthetic that has trapped her, almost motionless with sadness. Instead, Charlotte Wells’ magnificent Aftersun almost feels too personal for the way in which it textures a relationship between father and daughter that’s acutely aware of the perceptions, mood swings, and minor infractions that color the most intimate of our relationships. This is a film that wallops the viewer in its final moments, accumulating its power gently along the way.

Also written by Wells (and based on an idea of a father and daughter on vacation and not tied to any autobiographical cues), Aftersun follows the lengthy summer vacation of Sophie (played in her eleven year old self brilliantly by newcomer Frankie Corio) and her father Calum (Mescal). All seems bright and cheery on the surface, besides the fact that Calum seems to share custody of Sophie only briefly through a divorce.

The two check into a resort and the remainder of the film observes the two as they interact with one another in both big and small moments. There’s poolside horse play, Sophie’s emergence into the world of older kids and a first kiss, and darker moments of tension, such as the karaoke event that turns sour and reveals a hidden side to Calum that Sophie senses but never sees for herself. Through all of this, Mescal and Corio have immense chemistry as a splintered family trying to block out the rest of the world and enjoy themselves for their short time together.

And enjoy themselves they do. Most of Aftersun is a tender, joyous celebration of father-daughter compassion, proven by the humane camcorder footage of their time together that quickly reverses its happiness by film’s end. But bittersweet old recorded images aside, writer-director Wells maintains not so much a coming-of-age drama, but a drama that understands the fleeting memories of youth sustain us later in life. As the adult Sophie reconciles the time spent at Ocean Park with her father, (in a sequence of dancing that collides both past and present in a thundering movement of melancholy) Aftersun becomes a film about treasuring the now and here.

Aftersun opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday November 4th.

Review: ‘Young Plato’

We all have that one teacher that stands out as a guiding figure in our formative years, whether they served as an emotional crutch or a source of newfound knowledge and inspiration. Now imagine that person having to navigate the lives of young boys in Northern Ireland and reconcile that land’s troubled history of violence.

That’s the situation Declan McGrath and Neasa Ni Chianain’s documentary Young Plato situates itself within. For the young boys of Holy Cross, it’s probably disconcerting having a camera follow them around and film their most emotional moments, but it’s a film that excels not only as a straight forward document of a particular place and time, but as a sensitive exploration of the humane teacher-student relationship. In the swath of recent news stories of teachers striking due to poor working conditions or the deplorable fights over recent facial mask regulations, Young Plato strikes at the core of the educational relationship. Empathy, patience, understanding, and discipline. At times, it feels like we’ve lost the ability to extend any of these, so it’s refreshing to see a film that honors these attributes.

Centering on two figures at Holy Cross in 2019 and 2020- philosophy teacher Kevin McArevey and administrator Jan Marie Reel- Young Plato shows these two to be real saints. I doubt they’re faking it for the camera. Anyone like Kevin who genuinely likes Elvis Presley’s music (right down to his phone’s ringtone) is incapable of falsehoods. Likewise, Jan-Marie is often seen as the therapist for certain boys when they’re having pretty terrible days. Her interactions with one student in particular range from understanding to gentle in a matter of seconds as the young boy lights up about his baby sister. It’s these moments that prove the film is coming from a sincere place and could never be scripted.

Outside of the small outbursts or various fights- the most memorable being between two boys who are cousins and, like the violent divide of the area’s past, seem to flare up for no reason other than they can fight- Young Plato exists as an observer to a year in the life of this school. Snatches of videos in the year 2001 are shown as young children are being led into the school while gunshots and vicious taunts are being hurled at them. The boys are asked to reflect on what they’ve seen. Larger portions of the film are given to McArevey as he teaches a philosophy class where the boys are asked to talk about the morals around being hit and their thoughts about whether to fight back or not. It soon becomes clear Young Plato is a document on the perpetuation of violence. Hopefully, this generation will be the one to break it.

Filmed in the handheld style that’s colored the genre for decades, Young Plato is a wonderful documentary that not only makes us care about the students, but the institution of education as a whole. Like Frederick Wiseman’s brilliant and affecting Deaf and Multi-Handicapped (both 1986) and Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and to Have (2002), Young Plato makes us believe children truly are our better angels.

Young Plato opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday September 30th at the Dallas and Plano Angelika locations.

Reviews by Joe Baker and Peter Martin

%d bloggers like this: