The Fabelmans (PG-13)
Steven Spielberg directs and co-writes this movie adaptation of what appears to be his childhood in The Fabelmans, a very sweet story of a boy and his camera.
Look, I’m going to use words like “sweet” and “cute” and I mean all of them sincerely even though I realize there may be a damning-with-faint-praise quality to them. But this is a sweet tale of a movie-loving Boomer’s childhood and I think you just have to go with that kid’s-eye-view approach.
We meet Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan as a very young child; Gabriel LaBelle as a teen) as he waits in line with his parents to go see his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. He’s anxious about the experience and his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), explains the magic of it all while his father, Burt (Paul Dano), explains the science that makes a series of photos move. It is the dichotomy that will follow Sammy through the movie — an artistic, emotional, searching mother and a quiet, rationality-focused father. Little Sammy isn’t thinking about that, though; he’s focused on the on-screen train crash. Later, he asks for a train set for Hanukkah and then almost immediately recreates the movie scene. Burt gets mad that Sammy would be so rough on such an expensive train set; Mitzi suggests that Sammy crash the train just once more and film it with the family’s home movie camera so he can watch it again and again. Thus we see the first film of a young Steven — I mean, Sammy — projected inside his closet and featuring the crash depicted with close-ups and from multiple angles.
We catch up with teen Sam as he makes movies with his buddies for a Boy Scout patch. He shoots an elaborate Western, figuring out special effects to make the gunshots look real. Later, he films what feels like a Saving Private Ryan precursor with some 50 kids, squibs, dust kicked up to look like explosions and an emotional arc for a central character. But at the same time, he’s also filmed something else during a family vacation. Without quite realizing it, he captures a romance between Mitzi and Ben (Seth Rogen), Burt’s best friend and a sort of adopted uncle. Once a pianist with big dreams, Mitzi seems to struggle with the narrow role of housewife and need something more from her life.
The Fabelmans feels like two things. One is a collection of events significant to Sam — not his life story, exactly, but more the moments that stand out, the moments he might discuss if giving an extended interview about his life. The other is Mitzi’s story as filtered through Sam. I think because Williams is a skilled actress, because she can bring complexity even when her character is going big, that is the more compelling story, for all that the Sam-focused moments are cute and often kind of mirror iconic bits of Spielberg’s filmography. The movie gives us Sam’s view of Mitzi but also is able to imply what parts of that view are the “only part of a story” any kid gets of their parent and also suggests how each of the Fabelman kids (Sam has three younger sisters, as Spielberg did, according to Wikipedia) have a different portrait of Mitzi.
There is something very sweet and earnest about the story we get here, with a lot of information delivered very plainly and upfront, very text, but just enough richness to the details of the story to make it pull you in. B+
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, The Fabelmans is two hours and 31 minutes long and distributed in theaters by Universal Studios and via VOD for rent or purchase.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (PG)
Down to his last life, the swashbuckling cat Puss in Boots ponders mortality while heading out on a quest for a fallen star and its one wish in Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, a mostly exciting animated adventure story/hour and 40 minutes of kid entertainment.
I say “mostly exciting” because there were some moments of fidgeting when I took my kids to this movie. Yay to swashbuckling, “how much longer is this movie” to characters working out their inner turmoil.
After liberating a governor’s gold (and wigs and fancy clothes) and fighting an earthen giant, Puss (voice of Antonio Banderas) finds himself waking up from his eighth death and thus he is entering the ninth (and final) of his cat lives. Shaken by approaching death — as personified by the bounty-hunting Big Bad Wolf (voice of Wagner Moura) — Puss decides to take his doctor’s advice and retire from adventuring, finding a home at Casa Luna, where the most dangerous characters are the health department officials chasing Mama Luna (voice of Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and her way-too-many cats. Having left his boots and sword behind and sporting a David Letterman beard and a collar that says “Pickles,” Puss is spending his days wallowing in self-pity and being friended at by Perrito (voice of Harvey Guillén), a small lonely dog pretending to be a cat to hang out with the Casa Luna crowd.
But then Goldilocks (voice of Florence Pugh) and Mama (voice of Olivia Coleman), Papa (voice of Ray Winstone) and Baby (voice of Samson Kayo) Bear show up looking for Puss in Boots to hire his thieving skills. He convinces them that the legendary Puss in Boots is dead but overhears their plan to steal a map from Jack Horner (voice of John Mulaney) that will lead them to a fallen star, which can grant one wish. Puss decides to search for the star by himself, tailed, like it or not, by Perrito. He learns, of course, that such a map is a prize for several thieves, including his old rival/romantic interest Kitty Softpaws (voice of Salma Hayek).
Eventually, the characters are in a sort of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World scenario, withJack Horner and his collection of magical items and hired henchmen chasing Goldi, and the Bears chasing wary reluctant partners Kitty and Puss, who are joined by eager Perrito, who soon names their trio “Team Friendship.” The wishing star lies deep in the Dark Forest, which is filled with psychological obstacles set up specifically for whoever holds the map; thus does the good-hearted Perrito get a path filled with flowers and rainbows while Puss gets a kind of hall of mirrors featuring reflections of his own bravado.
The Last Wish is largely full of questing, silliness and occasional moments of Dreamworks-y tartness (a put-down session that includes some bleeps). Banderas makes full use of his vocal talents —that blend of overinflated ego, dramatics and, in this movie, vulnerability — to craft Puss, who is selfish and vain but also kind and ultimately sort of lovable. There is also some sweetness going on with the Goldilocks and Bear family storyline. When we initially meet them they are basically a gang of thieves, but Coleman gives Mama a kind heart and Pugh makes Goldi more than just a pushy low-rent Cinderella, as Baby calls her.
The Shrek universe, of which this is a part, was always one of the better aspects of Dreamworks Animation, and this Puss in Boots tale is a solid, entertaining entry. B+
Rated PG for action/violence, rude humor/language and some scary moments, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Directed by Joel Crawford and Januel Mercado with a screenplay by Paul Fisher and Tommy Swerdlow, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is an hour and 40 minutes long and is distributed in theaters by Universal Studios.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (PG-13)
Detective Benoit Blanc is invited (maybe?) to a murder mystery weekend (with a real murder?) in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, a fun sequel that takes the comedy at least as seriously as the mystery.
Blanc (Daniel Craig) is one of the guests who meet at the dock for a boat to take them out to the Greek island where tech bro Miles Bron (Edward Norton) has a big, elaborate, weird home and has planned a big, elaborate, weird weekend for his friends circa early spring 2020. The friends include politician on the rise Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn); Bron’s company head scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.); faded model and leisurewear company owner Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) and her assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick); influencer Duke Cody (Dave Batista) and his girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline), and former friend to them all Andi Brand (Janelle Monae). Andi was until recently business partner with Miles but was, as the others explain, Eduardo Saverin-ed out of the company. We don’t know the cause of the break, exactly, but it seems that Miles got the friends in their split — possibly because, as we learn, all of the friends have some financial stake in Miles’ friendship.
At first, the assembled crowd — delighted to take a break from the isolation and masks of the early pandemic — believes that Benoit Blanc, the world’s greatest detective, is with them to add authenticity and a bit of challenge to the promised mystery game. Miles is always whisking his friends away for a theme weekend and his invitations come this year in ornate mystery boxes. But once the party arrives at the island, we learn that Miles is as surprised to see Benoit as everyone else was (well, almost everyone else — clearly someone reset their invitation box and sent it to him, Benoit posits to Miles). Why has one of the guests arranged for Benoit to come to what is supposed to be just a carefree weekend away? Why has Andi shown up for a weekend with frenemies? And is someone using the murder mystery theme to plot a real muhrr-derrr?
This is a mild spoiler but stupidity plays a big role in the central mystery of Glass Onion and I truly appreciate that, both for the wider messaging and for how clever the movie is about turning the conceit of the cunning Moriarty-like killer on its head. This movie is fun, at times even goofy. It (or maybe I should credit writer/director Rian Johnson) really enjoys sending up the different flavors of rich person — the careless rich, the cynical rich, the head-up-its-rear techie rich. But it is a handcrafted bespoke goofiness; the movie’s fun is all specific and organic to the story it’s telling and the characters it’s building. Perhaps it was Norton’s presence that initially got me thinking about Wes Anderson movies and how everything is perfectly crafted and intentional down to the grains of sand. This feels similar, not in tone but in its purposefulness.
Also having a specific blast is, well, everybody involved. Hudson is lively and so good at being a very particular kind of daft. Hahn is, well, Hahn but just always brings a certain martini-with-lime quality to everything. Monae gets a heavier lift than the others and does some really fun stuff with it. And Craig, much like Chris Evans in the last movie, seems to be enjoying shaking off his franchise and playing everything just a little sillier.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is a thorough pleasure. B+
Rated PG-13 for strong language, some violence, sexual material and drug content, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is two hours and 19 minutes long and is available on Netflix.
The Banshees of Inisherin (R)
Two former friends become strange enemies in The Banshees of Inisherin, a quirky comedy with a dark and melancholy heart.
Pádraic (Colin Farrell) stops to get Colm (Brendan Gleeson) for their regular walk to the pub for a pint in 1923 on an island off the Irish mainland. Pádraic can see Colm sitting in his house but Colm ignores his knocks and, when Pádraic finally does run into Colm, Colm tells Pádraic that he doesn’t want to talk to him any more. After what’s implied to be years, probably decades, of friendship, Colm has decided he doesn’t like Pádraic, whom he thinks is “dull.” Colm wants to spend his time writing music that will be remembered through the centuries, like Mozart, and just being a nice guy doesn’t get you remembered.
Pádraic is shocked — he doesn’t understand Colm’s request for silence from him. Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) tries to get Colm to knock it off and Pádraic recruits the local priest to try to talk to Colm. But Colm is determined to have nothing more to do with Pádraic and threatens to start cutting off his own fingers and throwing them at Pádraic if he ever speaks to him again.
It’s a strange and gruesome threat but it’s a strange and gruesome island. Siobhán gets a piece of mail that has been opened “in the heat,” the mail woman tells her on the grayest of days — we and Siobhán know that the woman is desperate to hear any news of anything. Pádraic’s pal after Colm dumps him is Dominic (Barry Keoghan), a young man who has a troubled home life with his father (Gary Lydon), who is the local police officer. One of Siobhán’s few visitors is Mrs. McCormick (Sheila Flitton), a black-clad widow who might very well be a banshee herself. One of the other regular visitors inside the family home is Jenny, Pádraic’s beloved pony, despite Siobhán’s demand that he keep his animals outside. While gunshots and cannon fire from the mainland occasionally suggest that the island is a refuge, there is lots of evidence that it is also something of a prison keeping these people trapped in lives without a lot of choices.
Despair, civil war and wacky pony comedy — The Banshees of Inisherin is very much an unexpected mix of tragedy (Dominic’s truly horrific abuse at the hands of his father, Siobhán and Pádraic’s grief over the deaths of their parents, Colm’s feelings of despair and meaninglessness) and laugh out loud moments of comedy. There are times when the residents of the island have a real “what a bunch of characters” feel and you could see a version of this movie that was all cutesiness and charming affectations. But the more performative aspect of their lives seems to be, more than anything, the coping mechanism for the problems people have — the uncertainty of the outside world, the stucked-ness of the island. It is occasionally a little jarring to go from thick brogues and a vaguely witch-like neighbor to child abuse and self-mutilation. But it works? I mean, but it works. Sometimes the question mark pushes its way in there but then the truly heartfelt “you can see all the years piling on” performances, particularly of Farrell and Gleeson, push the questions away and give you real people having internal struggles. B+
Rated R for language throughout, some violent content and brief graphic nudity, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin is an hour and 54 minutes long and distributed by Searchlight Pictures, for rent or purchase via VOD and on HBO Max.
Featured photo: Puss in Boots: The Last Wish