Spielberg directs his own origin story

A young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) is introduced to cinema by his parents, Bert and Mitzi (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams). (Photos by Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment)

By Richard Ades

If you ever wondered how Steven Spielberg became a cinematic wizard, your curiosity should be partially satisfied by his new semiautobiographical film, The Fabelmans.

Assuming the tale is to be believed, Spielberg owes his fascination with movies to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 blockbuster, The Greatest Show on Earth. His fictitious stand-in, a boy named Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord), sees the flick only after being dragged to the theater by his parents. Even so, he finds himself transfixed by the experience.

Sammy seems especially awed by the movie’s giant train crash—so much so that he asks for a model train set for Hannukah just so he can engineer a miniature crash of his own. The resulting damage to his expensive toy angers his father, Burt (Paul Dano).

On the other hand, his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), theorizes that Sammy had to recreate the chaos in order to feel it was under his control. Secretly, she urges him to borrow his father’s movie camera so that he can capture the crash on film and watch it over and over.

This sets up a pattern that continues throughout: Burt, a practical-minded computer scientist, doesn’t understand Sammy or his growing devotion to moviemaking, which he dismisses as a mere “hobby.” But Mitzi, a gifted pianist, has an innate appreciation for her artistically minded son.

Unfortunately, the incident also sets up the pattern of characters speaking in baldly descriptive and psychologically tinged terms. Even though Tony Kushner co-wrote the script with Spielberg, it lacks the finesse he brought to earlier Spielberg works such as Lincoln and last year’s West Side Story remake.

High school classmate Monica Sherwood (Chloe East) tries to convert Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) to Christianity.

Partially making up for the script’s heavy-handedness are committed performances by all involved, including Dano and Williams as the parents, Francis-DeFord as young Sammy, Gabriel LaBelle as a teenage Sammy in later scenes, and Seth Rogen as Paul’s best friend and co-worker. And the literary clunkiness all but disappears when Judd Hirsch breezes in for a cameo as a film aficionado who fully understands Sammy’s compulsion to make movies. Hirsch’s brief appearance is so memorable that Oscar buzz is inevitable.  

Sammy’s devotion to moviemaking grows amid a series of challenges, such as the antisemitism he faces after his father moves the family to a new home in northern California. This has painful consequences, but also amusing ones when an amorous classmate (Chloe East) takes it on herself to convert him to Christianity.

More devastating is the growing tension between his parents, leading to a painful discovery Sammy makes with the help of his beloved “hobby.” The experience nearly causes him to put his movie gear away for good.

But, of course, we know he won’t, because his real-life alter ego grew up to be one of the world’s most successful directors. For those who have long admired Spielberg’s work, The Fabelmans offers an interesting, if imperfect, glimpse at the forces that helped to shape him.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Fabelmans (PG-13) is available in theaters nationwide.

Columbus critics make their choices for 2021

The Columbus Film Critics Association (COFCA), consisting of critics from the Central Ohio area, recently released its picks for the best of 2021. The list is below:

Best Film

  1. The Power of the Dog
  2. Licorice Pizza
  3. West Side Story
  4. Belfast
  5. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  6. Pig
  7. C’mon C’mon
  8. The Tragedy of Macbeth
  9. tick, tick…BOOM!
  10. Dune

Best Director

  • Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
  • Runner-up: Steven Spielberg, West Side Story
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog

Best Actor

  • Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
  • Runner-up: Nicolas Cage, Pig

Best Actress

  • Alana Haim, Licorice Pizza
  • Runner-up: Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter

Best Supporting Actor

  • Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog
  • Runner-up: Troy Kotsur, CODA

Best Supporting Actress

  • Ruth Negga, Passing
  • Runner-up: Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog

Best Ensemble

  • The Power of the Dog
  • Runner-up: The Harder They Fall

Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work)

  • Benedict Cumberbatch (The Electrical Life of Louis WainThe MauritanianThe Power of the Dog, and Spider-Man: No Way Home)
  • Runner-up: Andrew Garfield (The Eyes of Tammy FayeSpider-Man: No Way Home, and tick,

Breakthrough Film Artist

  • Alana Haim, Licorice Pizza – (for acting)
  • Runner-up: Jude Hill, Belfast – (for acting)

Best Cinematography

  • Bruno Delbonnel, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Runner-up: Ari Wegner, The Power of the Dog

Best Film Editing

  • Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn, West Side Story
  • Runner-up: Peter Sciberras, The Power of the Dog

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
  • Runner-up: Tony Kushner, West Side Story

Best Original Screenplay

  • Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
  • Runner-up: Kenneth Branagh, Belfast

Best Score

  • Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog
  • Runner-up: Jonny Greenwood, Spencer

Best Documentary

  • Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  • Runner-up: Flee

Best Foreign Language Film

  • Drive My Car (Doraibu mai kâ)
  • Runner-up: Flee

Best Animated Film

  • The Mitchells vs. the Machines
  • Runner-up: Flee

Best Overlooked Film

  • Riders of Justice (Retfærdighedens ryttere)
  • Runner-up: Nine Days

Maria soars, Moreno returns, Spielberg triumphs

Anita (Ariana DeBose), Bernardo (David Alvarez) and a host of others take to the street in a colorful dance number from West Side Story.

By Richard Ades

After a preview screening, critics usually clear the room as soon as the end credits start to roll. But after a recent screening of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, several critics (including this one) remained in their seats. Either they were too mesmerized to move or they couldn’t resist the opportunity to hear a few more minutes’ worth of those iconic tunes.

First presented as a stage musical in 1957, West Side Story transposes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to a New York neighborhood divided between two rival gangs: the Puerto Rican Sharks and the non-Latino Jets. Trouble brews and inevitably leads to tragedy when a former Jet named Tony falls in love with Maria, sister of the head Shark, Bernardo.

With a book by Arthur Laurents, a glorious score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the musical caught fire and inspired a classic, multiple-Oscar-winning 1961 movie directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.

Full disclosure: As a fan of the stage play and particularly of the original flick, I approached this new Spielberg remake with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Would it deviate from the Wise-Robbins version, thus marring perfection? Or, conversely, would it offer a slavish clone, thus raising the question “Why did they bother?”

Maria (Rachel Zegler) catches her first sight of Tony across the dance floor.

The welcome answer is that the new movie, with a script by the great Tony Kushner (Angels in America), stays true to the spirit of the original. When it deviates, it does so in ways that are tasteful and often necessary to bring the story up to date with modern mores even though the action remains in the 1950s.

On the surface, the most obvious change is that Maria and the rest of the Puerto Rican characters are now played by Latino/Latina actors rather than Gringos in tan makeup. In a more subtle innovation, it’s announced from the beginning that the neighborhood shared by both gangs is marked for demolition to make way for ritzier dwellings. The underlying message is that the Sharks and Jets are fighting each other in a battle that ultimately will be decided by forces beyond their control. (Its relevance to modern-day America is hard to miss.)

Still, at its core, this remains the story of the dangerous romance between Maria and Tony. And it’s still told by way of the most beautiful music ever written for a stage musical, and punctuated by deliriously spirited dance steps (adapted by Justin Peck from Robbins’s original choreography).

My only serious disappointment with the new film is that one of the leading actors seems miscast. Ansel Elgort was fine the title character in 2017’s Baby Driver, but he often makes an inexpressive Tony, and he sings with a voice that’s good but not great. In compensation, Rachel Zegler’s Maria has a vulnerable face and the voice of an angel, hitting those high notes with ease. It’s largely thanks to her that their duets, such as “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart,” are among the film’s many highlights.

Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) share their first dance.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong, starting with Ariana DeBose as Bernardo’s mind-of-her-own girlfriend, Anita. Though DeBose doesn’t create quite as many waves as Rita Moreno did in her Oscar-winning 1961 performance, she’s a powerful presence and dances up a hurricane in colorful numbers such as “America.” In other key roles, David Alvarez is mercurial but dignified as Shark leader Bernardo, while Mike Faist projects pride mixed with desperation as Jets leader Riff.

Best of all, Moreno herself (who turns 90 on Dec. 11) plays Valentina, a Puerto Rican shopkeeper who has helped Tony get his life back together after a brief stint in prison. In a surprising twist, she’s given the honor of singing “Somewhere,” the wistful lament sung by Tony and Maria in 1961. It turns out to be one of the new film’s most touching moments.  

Though I originally worried about what Spielberg might change, one of my minor quibbles has to do with something he didn’t change: The Jets’ comic number “Gee, Officer Krupke” now seems dated, a blast from the past that’s turned into a dud amid the new film’s heightened sense of reality.

But that and other qualms fade away as the story heads into its final half-hour and the gears begin to turn toward its inescapable outcome. The feelings run as high as ever, and Bernstein’s music is as tender and majestic as always.

Thankfully, West Side Story endures.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

West Side Story (PG-13) opens Dec. 10 at theaters nationwide.