THE FABELMANS is the new Steven Spielberg joint that we can safely call the most personal of his career. At first glance it may seem like just another fictional story about a Jewish kid who makes 8mm movies in Phoenix, Arizona in the ‘50s and moves to Saratoga, California and his mom buys a monkey and his parents split up and he moves to L.A. with his dad and goes to USC and tries to break into the film business, but in my opinion it is not a coincidence that this character “Sammy Fabelman” was born at the same time as Spielberg to a similar family and lived in the same towns and did the same things and had the same experiences. From what I’ve read this is not even a loosely autobiographical story, but a pretty direct one about his childhood and specifically about what he got from each of his parents and why their marriage didn’t work out.
It’s also about him becoming a filmmaker, but those things are related. Just like Batman’s origin story, Spielberg’s starts with a kid being taken to the movies. (Had it not been for that mugger, maybe Bruce Wayne would’ve directed READY PLAYER ONE.) Five-year-old Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-Deford) is in line to see THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH at a theater in New Jersey. He’s never seen a movie before and doesn’t really understand what it is, but he’s scared because he heard something about the people being giant. We get a handy encapsulation of his parents Burt (Paul Dano, TAKING LIVES) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams, SPECIES) in the differing ways they try to comfort him. Burt, a computer engineer, tells him about the projector and the projectionist, the still photos moving really fast, the concept of persistence of vision. Mom, a talented pianist, says it’s like a dream that you don’t wake up from. As Sammy grows up he’ll apply Dad’s scientific brain to his obsessions with cameras, editing and effects technology, and his mom’s artistic soul to everything else. (read the rest of this shit…)
WEST SIDE STORY – it’s very clear when you see it – is a film by Steven Fucking Spielberg. That’s why I saw it. Usually when I write about a remake of a beloved classic I like to be somewhat knowledgeable about the source material, but this late in the game you’ve had plenty of time to read reviews from people who know the musical or the earlier Robert Wise movie forward and backward, can tell you all the things that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (MUNICH, LINCOLN) added, cut, updated, etc., and the significance of those alterations. Or at least from someone who has seen the original. I have not. I would’ve, but Spielberg didn’t direct it.
I don’t really gravitate toward Broadway musical type stuff, but I do have a thing for great filmatism, so this thing knocked me out. As even I kind of knew, it’s the story of two gangs, the Jets (white guys) and the Sharks (proud Puerto Ricans) stubbornly fighting over territory in a dilapidated Manhattan slum that (this part is new, I believe) is on the verge of redevelopment. In the opening, Janusz Kaminski (COOL AS ICE)’s camera hovers over what remains of the neighborhood, climbs up the side of a structure under construction, past a billboard advertising the fancy apartment building and entertainment center it will become (featuring the sort of upper class white people who will inhabit it), then hangs out a while next to the wrecking ball waiting to get the process started. Meanwhile, the percussion section (David Newman [CRITTERS, ROVER DANGERFIELD, CONEHEADS, THE SPIRIT] arranging Leonard Bernstein’s music) playfully percolates like the build up to a heist sequence.
There was only one movie in 1985 that was bigger than RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, at least box office-wise, and it was considerably bigger. It would inspire two sequels, a cartoon and a movie ride at Universal Studios, though you could argue that its cultural impact was smaller than RAMBO’s merely because it couldn’t really be copied as much. How would you imitate something as high concept and specific as BACK TO THE FUTURE?
Its success surely comes from a combination of factors – the zippy direction of Robert Zemeckis, the unusual squeaky-voiced-nerd-who-carries-himself-as-a-rock-star appeal of Michael J. Fox (after MIDNIGHT MADNESS and CLASS OF 1984), the heart-pumping score by Alan Silvestri, the comic support of Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson and Lea Thompson – but all of that hangs on the ingenious premise: kid gets sent back in time to his parents’ high school days and endangers his own existence when his mom gets eyes for him instead of his dad. (read the rest of this shit…)
I have long held a stance on THE GOONIES that was highly controversial: I found it annoying. I don’t think I’m alone on that anymore, but it used to get me into trouble because of how many people of a particular age group hold that movie as a sacred relic of childhood.
For most of my writing career I’ve had a policy of being ambiguous about my age, because I wanted to seem like a crusty old man, regardless of how little that seemed to fit with the particular things I was knowledgeable about. As I get closer to being authentically old and crusty I’m starting to be more lax about that, so at last the truth can be told: I am exactly the right age to have grown up loving this movie. In fact, I did grow up loving this movie. And I’ll even go you one further: I saw it twice in one day. My mom took me and my friends to see it on my birthday, and since there wasn’t room in the car for my siblings, she brought them to see it later in the day, and I went that time too.
But when I saw it again as an adult I learned something disappointing: those fucking goonies never fucking shut up! This despite one character putting their hand over another character’s mouth to shut them up being a major motif. It’s a movie starring a group of pre-teen boys, and though they’re not quite as naturalistic as the kids in E.T. (which I think they were deliberately modeled after) they do have an accurate 12-year-old-boy energy, which means they’re constantly joking and giggling and bickering and yelling over each other and telling each other to be quiet. I was less patient with them than my mom must’ve been with my carload of friends, so for years after that viewing I would say that GOONIES feels like being tricked into chaperoning somebody else’s kids at Chuck E. Cheese. I didn’t remember that Martha Plimpton’s slightly older character actually sums up the movie well when she says something similar: “I feel like I’m babysitting except I’m not getting paid.”
Fast forward to today. The futuristic year of 2020. That figurative trip to Chuck E. Cheese was considerably longer ago than the double-screening birthday party had been at that time. Since then I’ve learned things. I’ve been through things. My tastes have changed. The world has turned more goonie. I was kind of excited to see it again and find out if I still hated it. I had no idea if I would. (read the rest of this shit…)
When INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM came out two years after RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK it was off-putting to many, and its PG-rated monkey brain and human heart munching outraged enough parents to inspire the more hardcore PG-13 rating. So five more years passed before director Steven Spielberg and producer/story-provider George Lucas came up with the next one, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, for summer of ’89.
To pull it off they had to back away from everything new they’d tried in TEMPLE OF DOOM and walk right up to everything old we all loved in RAIDERS. So it’s less mean, less weird, less gross, and more directly built onto the template of RAIDERS. Not that it was a total rehash. Nazis are involved, but not necessarily in charge. Marion isn’t there, and the new love interest follows a very different arc. There’s less desert and more water. There’s a wacky old man sidekick played by Sean Connery (ENTRAPMENT). And a whole sequence from Indy’s childhood. But he steals an artifact and brings it to school and then finds out about a quest for another artifact and offers his expertise and travels to different countries and looks at ancient texts that lead him to a series of riddles that he solves while pursued by Nazis, murderers and betrayers and teamed with Brody and Sallah and ultimately when they find the thing it kills the bad guys in cool face-melting special effects sequences and etc. So it’s kind of the same thing. But they did a good job of hiding it. (read the rest of this shit…)
We all live on the planet Earth, we all know Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL is a great fucking movie. I don’t have to tell you that. I was gonna point you to what I wrote about it in 2002 in case I did, but it turns out that was mostly a collection of jokes about walkie talkies and the dog shitting all over the place if he had run all the way into the space ship. So maybe try googling “is e.t. good” or something. I don’t know. You can figure it out.
Like anybody I’ve loved that pudgy little rascal since he first introduced himself to us in 1982, but I’ve managed to be pretty disciplined about waiting years between viewings so I don’t wear it out. I think last time was when it came out on Blu-Ray (six years ago), with at most one DVD viewing between that and when the special edition played in theaters (sixteen years ago).
But on Tuesday I saw it in the 70mm Film Festival that the Cinerama has here in Seattle every year, and I wanted to share a few new thoughts. (read the rest of this shit…)
Steven Spielberg’s shiny, digitally new movie READY PLAYER ONE is about a virtual reality treasure hunt for people who are obsessed with ’80s and ’90s pop culture references even though it’s the year 2045. Which is not as far-fetched as it sounds at first. The hero of the story drives the car from BACK TO THE FUTURE, the #1 hit movie of sixty years prior, so it’s just the same as the teens you see now who model their lives on SOUTH PACIFIC.
Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, THE TREE OF LIFE, MUD, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE) is a nice young man and first person narrator living in a futuristic trailer park, and I guess poverty ain’t that bad because everyone spends their days playing around in this virtual reality video game called OASIS.
Wade is part of a subculture called “gunters” who know about old Atari 2600 games and Robert Zemeckis and everything because they study the journals of the late Oasis inventor Halliday (Mark Rylance, BLITZ), and he was obsessed with that shit. The gunters need to understand all that to win the puzzle contest he left behind as a sort of a last-willy-wonka-and-testament to award his majority share of the company to some random nerd he never met who can solve some riddles. Also they gotta be good at video games, because the first challenge involves a giant car race. Wade drives the DeLorean, his friend Aech (pronounced ‘H’) (spoiler – it’s not a boy, it’s Lena Waithe from Master of None) drives Bigfoot, a famous girl he has a crush on and just met named Artemis (Olivia Cooke, OUIJA) drives the red motorcycle from AKIRA (weirdly the only reference the characters feel they have to explain to the audience). (read the rest of this shit…)
THE POST is Spielberg’s newspaper movie. Specifically it’s about the Washington Post in 1971 struggling for relevance, banned from a first daughter wedding, in the process of taking an inherited family business public, when suddenly their more exalted rivals the New York Times get a court injunction for breaking the story of the Pentagon Papers (a secret study proving that the government had known for years that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable and stayed in just to put off the humiliation of a loss). Can The Post’s reporters get ahold of these Papers for themselves, will they have the balls to print a story about them, and will they get away with it? I think you know the answers, but tune in to find out how it goes down.
Like LINCOLN or MUNICH, this is one of Spielberg’s very good grown up movies that doesn’t necessarily light the world on fire, seems destined to be buried in his catalog of iconic classics, but gets some nice reviews and an “it’s an honor just to be nominated” slot in the best picture category at the Oscars. Another movie like that was BRIDGE OF SPIES, the year SPOTLIGHT won best picture. SPOTLIGHT was a good movie with a big cast doing great work in a story about the importance of journalists uncovering dangerous secrets and standing up to powerful institutions that have covered up their own complicity in atrocities. THE POST is all those things with the added bonus of being thrilling and cinematic. Spielberg might be doing a smart-people-talking-and-figuring-things-out movie, but he’s gonna do that with an eye for imagery, period detail, and visual explanations of processes: stealing and reproducing a massive document, puzzling together the order of said document when the pages get mixed up, delivering a message across town, creating the plates to actually print a newspaper, running the printing press, the list goes on.
The Flintstones are an example of a pop culture phenomenon that’s long past its relevance, but it’s so simple and recognizable that it lingers like a ghost in the public memory. Or like a fossil! As the first prime time cartoon, it originally aired between 1960 and 1966, but more than half a century later – whether because of the spin-offs and TV movies, the vitamins and cereals, or just cultural omnipresence – almost any American could identify the show on sight.
That doesn’t mean they’ve given it much thought, though, because there’s not much to chew on here. I know I watched it for some period of my life, but couldn’t point to a favorite episode, or even a specific one. There are different stories, technically, but the joke doesn’t really go beyond “what if there was a Honeymooners type family sitcom, but with cave men?,” and with the gimmick that modern lifestyles and technology (cars, drive-in theaters, kitchen appliances) exist, crudely constructed out of rocks, bones, wood, animal skins, and talking, subservient prehistoric animals. The plots reflect the same middle class concerns as a normal show would – trying to keep your job to pay for the house, trying to make your wife not mad that you spend too much time out with your buddies – but mostly it’s that one anachronistic joke of “the modern stone age family.” It’s humor with one wink and a whole lot of taken-for-granted cartoonist ingenuity. (read the rest of this shit…)
THE BFG is the latest BFD from Steven Spielberg (E.T., A.I.) and it’s an LSM (Lesser Spielberg Movie), but still won me over PDQ. Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl (Charlie and the CF, James and the GP, The Fantastic MF), it’s the story of a 24-foot tall individual (Mark Rylance, BLITZ, BRIDGE OF SPIES) whose thing is he comes into town at 3 a.m. with a trumpet that blows dreams into people. But this time he’s seen by Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a little night owl girl at an orphanage, and he doesn’t want her to burn his whole operation so he reaches into her window, picks her up in his palm and absconds with her to Giant Country.
I love the way this giant sneaks into town. It’s not one of those things where he’s invisible to people who don’t believe in him or something. No, he just comes in late at night and knows how to hide when people are around. He wears a cloak that he wraps around himself and he’ll move into the shadows, curl up on the bed of a truck or stand in the shape of a tree. I like that it’s not all that convincing of a tree, because it shows that there could be crazy shit going on right under our noses that we just don’t notice because we’re not looking for it. Nobody expects giants. (read the rest of this shit…)
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