The Fabelmans

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Universal;
Drama;
Box Office $17.12 million;
$19.98 DVD, $24.98 Blu-ray, $34.98 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use.  
Stars Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Gabriel LaBelle, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, Jeannie Berlin.

It can be argued that a surefire formula for a director making it into the Pantheon is a continued commitment to perpetual growth through experimentation, reenvisioning life as seen through a lens, and transforming even the most mundane studio assignment into a demanding journey to the heart of cinema. Rather than following in the footsteps of such prolific filmmakers as Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, after a self-imposed 3-year hiatus Steven Spielberg returned to multiplexes with West Side Story, as unnecessary a remake as anything this side of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. Next up, the second installment in the “I’ve Run Out of Things to Say” trilogy: the personal narrative, which, for many a green director, provides an ideal jumping off point. Once upon a time there was a colleague who assured me that no matter my level of dislike, there was at least one positive thing to be found in every picture. I promise you dear reader, that in the end, I will have found something praiseworthy to say of The Fabelmans.

George Lucas and Spielberg swapped intergalactic box office hits before teaming on Raiders of the Lost Ark, the structure of which had more climaxes than a James Deen compilation. It was Raiders that started me on the rocky path to Spielbergia. And so it went: the director, who has never revealed a pronounced allergy to fudging, couldn’t get E.T. to phone home, yet the little feller managed to pilot a full-grown boy, on a bicycle, past the moon for the film’s money shot. Then there’s the director as historian. Remember the 24-sheet ballyhooing Gone With the Wind on display in Empire of the Sun? Do you think Jean-Luc Godard or Martin Scorsese would have been careless enough to use 1968 reissue artwork in a film set in the 1940s? In Schindler’s List, or as a friend took to calling it, Oskar Schindler and the Temple of Doom, the only way Spielberg could get a character to stand out in a black-and-white film was through colorized attire. And given the film’s lumbering pace and “Hall of Presidents” anamorphic tableaus, if Abraham Lincoln was as dull as the biopic, could you really blame the South for seceding from the Union? The only Spielberg film I found myself returning to is 1941, and then more for A.D. Flowers’ special effects and cinematographer William Fraker’s sublime nightwork.

Meet The Fabelmans. Little Sammy Fabelman’s (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord as a youth and Gabriel LaBelle in his teens) introduction to the movies arrives in the form of a cuddly meet-cute. The future Cecil B. De Mille stands trembling in line with mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and dad Burt (Paul Dano) to see the greatest showman on film’s Oscar-winning circus picture, The Greatest Show on Earth. Anticipatory anxiety rode high when Sammy confessed to being overcome with fear, terrified that sitting in a dark room filled with strangers could be too much for him. Brainiac Burt talks the tyke down by bringing him up to speed on the merits of visual perception and persistence of vision. Burt Fabelman is a decent man, an upright figure endowed with the kind of moral turpitude that would make Ward Cleaver look like Alex Murdaugh. Spielberg came up with the story decades ago but couldn’t bring himself to directing a film he feared might hurt his parents.

Spielberg used the first camera his folks bought him to trace De Mille’s spectacular trainwreck. This was soon followed by Escape to Nowhere, a 40-minute war film he directed at age 13 with a cast composed of high school cronies. He completed the film in 1959, three years before the release of How the West Was Won, yet a piece of Alfred Newman’s score is heard as background accompaniment. As a historian, Spielberg was a terrific popcorn salesman.

Burt is by all accounts a genial genius who adored his work almost as much as he did his family. In the mid-fifties, Burt becomes a valued member of General Electric’s computer department. The work called for considerable relocation; it was his job that gradually brings the Fabelmans to California. Mitzi is a concert pianist who grows cold living life in her husband’s shadow. Mitzi eventually takes up with Burt’s best friend Bennie Lowey (Seth Rogan). When the Fabelmans divorce in 1965, Sammy goes to live with his father. Mitzi and Bennie eventually wed, but one can’t help but think Sammy had a hand in the breakup going public. There’s something uber creepy about Sammy and Mitzi’s relationship. Spielberg told 60 Minutes that Leah Spielberg was like an older sister. Even though mom was the one caught cheating, Spielberg blamed his father for the break-up. “I kind of put her up on a pedestal,” Spielberg continued. “And my dad was much more terrestrial, much more grounded, much more salt of the earth. And for some reason, it was easier for me to blame him than it was to someone who I had already exalted.”

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While on a family camping trip, Mitzi, who has a few too many, dances seductively, her see-through negligee back-lit by a car’s headlights. Rather than aborting the shot, a turned-on Sammy keeps the camera rolling. This isn’t the only time his lens spied something it shouldn’t have. The next day, he surreptitiously captures footage of the cuckolders openly cavorting in deep focus behind his father and sisters. Acting as though nothing happened, it isn’t until the footage comes back from the lab that Sammy is overcome with shock. How could he not have noticed the kiss while filming? Hell, he panned up to it! It was Kurt Vonnegut who once said, “Nothing’s real to some people unless they’ve got photographs.” In Sammy’s case, truth comes to light only when projected. He ultimately blames himself for filming it in the first place.

Scenes of anti-semtism are as clumsily addressed as they are inevitable. The first confrontation takes place after a high school volleyball match. The dialogue and situations are such, one keeps waiting for Beaver Cleaver to enter and say, “Gee, Wally. Eddie Haskell called us ‘kikes.’” Once again, Sammy blames Burt; the family never might have crossed paths with anti-semites had his father not moved the family from Arizona. A subsequent relationship with Monica Sherwood (Chloe East), a sugary, hot-to-trot gentile classmate looking to make it with a handsome Jewish boy (just like Jesus) has nothing on Screech and Lisa Turtle.

Jeannie Berlin and Judd Hirsh pop up in a couple of memorable cameos, but the film’s biggest laugh arrives when Sammy’s sister asks when he’s going to make a film with girls. Judging by Spielberg’s track record, the answer is never. And as advertised, here’s the positive note I promised to close on. It can be summed up in five words: David Lynch as John Ford.

Bonus features include a trio of fawning behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The Batman

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 5/24/22;
Warner;
Action;
Box Office $369.3 million;
$19.99 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray, $29.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for strong violent and disturbing content, drug content, strong language, and some suggestive material.
Stars Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Jayme Lawson, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell.

Director Matt Reeves’ The Batman brings an indie sensibility to the realm of the big-budget superhero. The film feels more like a 1970s crime saga than the slick, CGI-heavy spectacles most blockbuster comic book movies have become lately.

Unlike with many of the earlier adaptations, The Batman emphasizes the character’s skills as a detective rather than as a gadget-happy vigilante — though there is plenty of that to go around as well. The story finds Batman (Robert Pattinson) teaming with Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to investigate the murder of Gotham City’s mayor by the Riddler (Paul Dano), who leaves a series of clues that threaten to unravel Gotham’s criminal underworld and bring chaos to the city.

Drawing inspiration from the grittier Batman comic storylines of the late 1980s and 1990s, the film presents the caped crusader as raw and unpolished, so obsessed with his vigilante pursuit of justice that he neglects his life as Bruce Wayne, much to the chagrin of his butler and caretaker, Alfred (Andy Serkis). Along the way, Batman finds an unlikely ally in proto-Catwoman Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), who has her own motivations for taking down the city’s mob bosses, including Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and the Penguin (Colin Farrell, unrecognizable in heavy makeup).

Taking place a couple of years into Batman’s war on crime in Gotham City, The Batman almost feels like it could take place after Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, sharing that film’s interest in grounding Batman more in realism than his more fantastical comic book roots. The film’s darker mood is helped immensely by a relentless, haunting musical score by Michael Giacchino.

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The Batman clocks in at a lengthy three hours and feels it, taking its time to establish the grungy hopelessness of Gotham City and not rushing through the particulars of the case at hand. Just as the film seems to reach an emotional catharsis through the resolution of one central mystery, it still has 50 minutes or so to contend with the Riddler’s grand plot, a pivot that feels more akin to a streaming miniseries. Ironically, after two hours of aping film noir, the film’s third act is the one that starts to feel most like a traditional Batman movie.

The film’s production design gives Gotham an appropriately worn out look, with a color palette awash in oranges and browns, grays and blacks, toning down any potential splashes of real color. The Batsuit and Batmobile feel homemade — Pattinson’s Batman a crusader with dirt under his fingernails as he tours the city on a motorcycle with his costume in a backpack, ready to jump into action.

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The Blu-ray includes a couple of deleted scenes. The most notable, running nearly six minutes, features Batman visiting a familiar Arkham Asylum prisoner to gain insights into the Riddler case, a la Silence of the Lambs. While interesting on its own, the scene spoils the character’s more-effective cameo that’s in the final film, and overall just doesn’t seem to mesh well with the proceedings. The other scene, running about two minutes, provides some interesting character dynamics as Selina is propositioned by the Penguin as she’s trying to infiltrate his nightclub to gain clues for Batman. Both scenes contain optional director’s commentary by Reeves.

A comprehensive and insightful commentary for the entire film is offered by Reeves as an iTunes exclusive — available to those who purchase the film directly from Apple or use Apple TV to view a digital copy redeemed through Movies Anywhere.

Also included with the home video extras are about two hours of behind-the-scenes material featuring interviews with the key filmmakers, including Reeves sporting a bushy mustache that makes him look like a Commissioner Gordon stand-in himself.

The headliner, running nearly 54 minutes, is “Vengeance in the Making,” which provides a comprehensive look at the entire production. 

The eight-minute “Vengeance Meets Justice” looks at some of the parallels between Batman and Riddler; the six-minute “The Batman: Genesis” offers Pattinson and Reeves exploring their approach to Batman; the eight-and-a-half-minute “Becoming Catwoman” and the eight-minute “A Transformation: The Penguin” look at Kravitz’s and Farrell’s takes on their iconic characters; the 11-minute “The Batmobile” unveils the creation of this film’s iteration of Batman’s famous car; the five-minute “Looking for Vengeance” focuses on making the fight sequences; while the six minute “Anatomy of the Car Chase” and six-and-a-half-minute “Anatomy of the Wingsuit Jump” break down two key action scenes. The six-minute “Unpacking the Icons,” which is the only one of the featurettes offered on the DVD version, looks at the film’s tone and costume design.

Movies Anywhere offers an additional minute-long featurette called “Discover: Batmobile, Batsuit & Gadgets.”

Showtime’s ‘Escape at Dannemora’ on DVD April 16

Paramount Home Media Distribution and CBS Home Entertainment will release Showtime’s award-winning limited series Escape at Dannemora on DVD April 16.

Escape at Dannemora follows the true story of two convicted murderers (played by Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano) who escaped a correctional facility with the help of a female prison employee (played by Patricia Arquette, who won a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award for best actress in a limited series).

The cast also includes Bonnie Hunt, Eric Lange and David Morse. The series was executive produced and directed by Ben Stiller.

The DVD features all seven episodes plus special features.