Tag Archives: steven spielberg

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: ‘The BFG’

dfn-the-bfg-300Once upon a time, Steven Spielberg was known as the king of family-friendly entertainment.

That began to change with his eighth feature film, The Color Purple (1985), but it didn’t change dramatically until he tackled Schindler’s List in 1993, the same year that saw the release of Jurassic Park. It’s safe to say that the harsh, intense concentration camp drama changed audience perceptions about the veteran filmmaker in a profound manner.

Since then, his choice of subject matter has skewed largely toward the adult side of the ledger. Five years ago, though, Spielberg made The Adventures of Tintin, a generally lackluster family adventure that felt more like an experiment than anything else. Could he ever tap into the psyche of young viewers again?

Coming off a trio of finely made, yet somewhat dry historical dramas — War Horse, Lincoln and Bridges of Spies — Spielberg collaborates once again with Melissa Mathison, whose original screenplay for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial cemented her reputation after her fledgling success from writing The Black Stallion, and gave flight to one of the great cinematic sensations of the decade.

Mathison passed away last year, but her blueprint for The BFG feels like something that was hatched in the 1980’s. [Later research confirmed my initial impression: Roald Dahl’s immensely popular book was first published in 1982, though its origins stretch back to a short story by the author from 1975.]

In dramatizing Mathison’s script, Spielberg and his usual army of key collaborators — led by Janusz Kaminski (director of photography), Rick Carter (production design), Michael Kahn (film editing), and John Williams (original musical score) — have fashioned a movie for children that looks at home in modern cinemas while retaining an “old-fashioned” pacing and temperament.

The story begins with young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) living in an orphanage in Britain. The nuns who run the place are unpleasant and unkind to their charges, pocketing money intended for their care and providing a bare minimum for their survival. So when Sophie catches sight of an immense creature stalking about the city streets outside the orphanage, she is more than ready for a great adventure. Almost before she can blink, she is taken in hand by the creature, who sprints back to his homeland.

Thus begins an unusual friendship. Sophie is precocious; her instincts tell her to flee the creature’s home, but that only lands her in more trouble, for it turns out that, as large as the creature appears to her, he is, in fact, quite a little thing in comparison to the other giants in his homeland.

It’s a delightful invention by Dahl to establish that the creature, who becomes known as the titular “Big Friendly Giant” (or, BFG) and appears so overwhelming to her, is quite like a mouse in the eyes of his fellow, brutish and menacing giants. The other giants quite like to eat humans — though one imagines munching on Ruby would be like humans munching on bite-sized candies — in contrast to BFG, who contents himself with eating a nourishing stew of distasteful vegetables.

Superficial comparisons could be made to The Adventures of Tintin, as far as Spielberg stretching the boundaries of animation, yet The BFG has the advantage of the very human Ruby, a tiny thing who inspires sympathy and admiration because of her plucky and positive attitude. Likewise, Rylance manages to invest his character with a great deal of soulful modesty, which is a very becoming quality in a would-be hero.

Good actors providing quality voice-work / inspiration for the appearance of the giants include Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader; they stand clearly apart by their ravenous, selfish personalities. The third act sees the presence of a squad of human actors, who deliver performances that are well-tuned to the story’s tone.

All that is thanks to Spielberg, folding himself back into childhood to imagine what it would be like to encounter a giant who could, in effect, grant wishes. It’s a childish fantasy, to be sure, but quite a heartwarming and endearing experience.

The film will open in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, July 1.

Steven Spielberg Will Direct ‘American Sniper’ With Bradley Cooper As Chris Kyle

Actor Bradley Cooper and director Steven Spielberg attend the 18th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards held at Barker Hangar on January 10, 2013 in Santa Monica, California.  (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for BFCA)
Bradley Cooper and Steven Spielberg attend the 18th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards held at Barker Hangar on January 10, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for BFCA)

Steven Spielberg will direct American Sniper, based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL (and Texas native) who became a military assassin and recorded more kills than any other American. Bradley Cooper has been developing the project; he will serve as a producer and play the title role. Jason Hall has completed a script, and production is tentatively scheduled to begin early in 2014.

Born in Odessa, Kyle enlisted with the U.S. Navy in 1999 and served four tours of duty. He was wounded in service twice and was awarded the Bronze and Silver Star medals multiple times. He was honorably discharged in 2009 and wrote about his experiences in American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, which became a bestseller after its publication in January 2012. He was shot and killed by a fellow military veteran he was endeavoring to help in February of this year.

Cooper’s production company acquired the big-screen rights to the book in May 2012. He received an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor for his performance in David Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, losing out to Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, directed by Spielberg. He is currently filming Russell’s followup, American Hustle, which is due out at the end of the year; it’s based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late 70s / early 80s. He will next be seen in The Hangover Part III, heading to theaters on May 24.

As for Spielberg, he put production for science-fiction action-thriller Robopocalypse on hold in January of this year, stating that he “found a better way to tell the story more economically but also much more personally. .. I’m starting on a new script and we’ll have this movie back on its feet soon… I’m working on it as we speak.” Theoretically, Spielberg could finish up work with the writer(s) on the script for Robopocalypse and then move on to American Sniper. Or he could just leave the robo-action flick for another director to pursue.

Spielberg has not tackled anything approaching contemporary life — without a fantasy or science-fiction angle — since the beginning of his career. (The Terminal (2004) was set in the modern day, but that verges on fantasy territory.) His first feature, The Sugarland Express (1974), was inspired by a true incident and was set in Texas, following a husband and wife who kidnap first their infant son and then a police officer; they end up pursued by dozens of law enforcement officers across the state of Texas (toward Sugarland, of course).

Though I haven’t read Kyle’s book, it evidently spends a fair amount of time with his wife as she deals with his military career and the strains that it places on their relationship. The book is 448 pages in paperback, so obviously big chunks will have to be condensed or omitted for the big screen, as always, so it will be fascinating to see what it is, in particular, about Kyle’s story that has drawn Spielberg. Clearly he has respect for the military, so that’s not an issue, but can he get out of his own way, as a director, as he tried to do with last year’s Lincoln?

If all goes well, American Sniper could be heading to theaters in late 2014.

Source: The Hollywood Reporter. Portions of this article originally appeared in somewhat different form at Twitch.

Review: ‘War Horse’

Jeremy Irvin in 'War Horse'
Jeremy Irvin in 'War Horse'

Joey is loyal, steadfast, encouraging, high-spirited, and self-sacrificing, always putting the interests of others ahead of his own. He’s a hard worker, but he loves to run and play, too, and is smart enough to take shortcuts, as long as doing so doesn’t hurt anybody. He’s a quiet sort, yet he’ll make his opinion known when needed. In short, he’s an ideal friend and a heroic character.

Here’s the thing: Joey is a horse.

As the protagonist in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, therefore, Joey presents certain dramatic challenges. Unlike Francis, the titular talking mule in Arthur Lubin’s 1950 wartime comic fantasy, Joey’s thoughts can only be surmised from his actions. Fortunately for Joey, he encounters a series of humans who are sympathetic to his steadily-worsening plight in the early part of the 20th Century.

Joey is lucky, too, in that his story is told by Spielberg, who applies all of his considerable skills as a filmmaker to what is, at heart, a trite tale about the horrors of war and the ultimate moral superiority of animals. Consider the opening sequence, in which Joey is born, as young farm boy Albert watches with growing excitement.

Glowing, heavenly light shines down, notably on the beaming face of Albert, eyeing the proceedings through a wooden fence. Janusz Kaminski, who has served as Spielberg’s director of photography for nearly 20 years, beautifully captures the soft gaze of a young man falling in love — his eyes, his smile — and the physical details as well: the boy’s worn clothing; the gorgeous, open, rural setting. Accompanied by John Williams’ full-bodied musical score and edited with an easy, assured rhythm by Michael Kahn, War Horse is established as an epic in the style of wide-screen classics from the 1950s and 60s, married to a storytelling sensibility dating to the mid-to-late 30s.


The horse is sold at auction, and Albert’s father Ted (Peter Mullan) wildly overpays for the animal, motivated by animosity for competing bidder Lyons (David Thewlis), his wealthy landlord. Ted’s purchase meets with disapproval from his wife Rose (Emily Watson), who has legitimate concerns about their precarious financial situation; she fears the loss of their farm. Albert (Jeremy Irvine), however, assures his mother that he will personally train Joey and mold the high-spirited animal into the plow horse they need. And it works! But then the Great War breaks out, Joey is sold into slavery the war effort for the British, and is shipped off to Europe, where his episodic adventures continue.

Splendidly staged, the battle sequences are sometimes astounding, such as when a British cavalry unit charges across a wheat field early in the morning, hurtling toward a German unit caught unawares. It resembles a John Ford Western, the mounted soldiers riding through camp, slashing and shooting, cutting between a ground-level view and a “God’s Eye” perspective, surveying the extent of the damage from above.

Just as impressive are the recreations of the trenches, from which frightened soldiers charge out into the desolate hell of “No Man’s Land” through barbed-wire barriers. Historical details accumulate: valuables being placed into buckets before a charge, to be distributed among the survivors; the massive collection of young men, difficult to tell apart in the smoke, dirt, grime, and panic of battle; the exquisite costume design by Joanna Johnston.

Spielberg’s distinctive, top-notch direction often overpowers the material, which finds its basis in Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel. I haven’t read the book, but evidently it contains dialogue between Joey and Topthorne, another horse who plays a prominent role, and expresses Joey’s thoughts on the page. An adaptation mounted for the London stage in 2007 featured horses portrayed by life-sized puppets. Spielberg’s version, with a screenplay credited to Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, renders the horses mute, and favors close-ups of their eyes to connote intimate communication, followed immediately by action(s) meant to illustrate their thoughts.

For all the glories of visual storytelling that are on display, War Horse cannot escape its episodic nature, calling to mind another Spielberg picture about the horrors of war and its devastating effects upon soldiers and civilians. While Saving Private Ryan shocked with horrific scenes of carnage, it relied on a company of easily-delineated characters and a focused storyline that endeavored to drive home heroic themes. The film’s message may have been diluted by a weak resolution that dissolved into nostalgic sentimentality and undermined much of what came before, but the imagery still resonates.

Like that movie, War Horse clings to a series of characters who display courage in the face of danger, not only Albert, but also British officers (Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch), French civilians (Niels Arestrup, Celine Buckens), and German soldiers (David Kross, Leonard Carow, Nicolas Bro). There’s only one “villain,” a cartoon of evil, but otherwise everyone who comes in contact with Joey is either already in touch with their inner angel or is quickly moved to become more humane. It’s a lovely sentiment, but it doesn’t add up to more than the power of individual sequences.

Calling this beautiful, dramatically incomplete movie Saving Private Joey is, therefore, entirely justifiable.

Originally published at Twitch.

‘War Horse’ opens wide across the Metroplex on Sunday. 

Review: ‘The Adventures of Tintin’

'The Adventures of Tintin'
'The Adventures of Tintin'

Steven Spielberg may have just turned 65, but he’s still in touch with his childhood sense of awe and wonder. Thus, calling ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ a “movie for kids” can be considered a compliment; it’s easy to imagine that children will be completely captivated by the story of a young man and his dog who go chasing around the world in search of … er … something or other.

For adults, however, the movie plays more like a greatest hits collection, with the novelty of motion-captured animation to dazzle the eye. (The bonus distraction of 3D is splendid, though perhaps not essential.) Of course, since we’re talking about Steven Spielberg, even recycled action sequences are very dazzling indeed.

Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a newspaper reporter who consistently makes the headlines, smashing crime syndicates and discovering hidden treasures. He buys a model ship from a marketplace vendor for a modest price and is immediately approached by two different men offering to buy it. Soon after, the model ship is stolen and Tintin is off on a new adventure with his faithful little dog Snowy. He crosses paths with fun-loving drunk Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who joins the team on their globe-trotting quest.

The script, credited to Edgar Wright (‘Shaun of the Dead’), Joe Cornish (‘Attack the Block’), and Steve Moffat (‘Doctor Who’), is based on parts of three different books by Tintin creator Herge, which may be why the plot was difficult for this Tintin neophyte to follow. To the film’s benefit, however, the screenplay is a source of much amusement and creative wit, with sharp jabs in the dialogue poking fun at the rather bland, anonymously heroic (and villainous) characters and situations.

The voice work is also quite good, with well-known names such as Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, and Cary Elwes disappearing behind their very different-looking on-screen characters. Such is the freedom allowed by motion-capture performance with animated characters; the body language may be preserved, but the body (and face) of the actors can be changed at will.

What’s most fascinating about the movie is probably that Spielberg’s recognizable style of directing — the signature camera movements, pans, push-ins, dissolves, and the like — is preserved. This week offers a unique opportunity to see two new movies by a major director in theaters at the same time. While watching ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ and ‘War Horse’ back to back is not necessarily recommended, the films serve as a stirring reminder of Spielberg’s continuing, and distinctive, talents.

And if ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ adds up to nothing more than a sugar rush, it’s still one of the more consistently delightful family films of the year.

‘The Adventures of Tintin’ opens wide across the Metroplex today.