What better way to tell your own life story than to disguise it as someone else? Co-written & directed by the iconic film director, Steven Spielberg, this film is about a kid growing up and wanting to be a film director. Hmmm. . . sounds familiar.
Spielberg told his life story (which you can also see in 2017’s HBO documentary, Spielberg) to frequent collaborator, Tony Kushner (Munich, West Side Story). From there, Kushner created a screenplay based on their conversation. And if you’re wondering how accurate this story is to Spielberg’s real life, I looked it up and yes, it’s practically scene-for-scene accurate. He’s only eight-years-old, but young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) is mesmerized by filmmaking after seeing his first movie, 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Feeding his interest, his loving and pianistic mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) buys him his first movie camera, something that his workaholic electrical engineer father, Burt (Paul Dano) thinks is just a fun hobby for his kid. Pretty soon, though, Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) grows up and becomes a noted filmmaker for his boy scout troop.
His three sisters, Reggie (Julia Butters), Natalie (Keeley Karsten), and Lisa (Sophia Kopera) even get in on his movie act as a supporting cast. However, problems arise after they move from New Jersey to Arizona, and Burt’s best buddy, Bennie (Seth Rogan) comes along for Burt’s work. But Sammy gets more than he bargains for when filming their camping trip! They also get a brief visit from Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) who gives Sammy some valuable advice about “art”. More life problems hit Sam when they move again (IBM wants Burt in California), this time to Santa Clara, where Sam finds that his new high school is steeped in anti-semitic jerks, like a-hole jock Logan Hall (Sam Rechner) and his cronie, Chad Thomas (Oakes Fegley). Good thing he meets lovely Monica Sherwood (Chloe East), an overly-devout Christian that Sam takes a shine to.
Sam goes through many tough times like his parent’s divorce, his mom’s mental breakdown, throwing his movie-making dreams away, and moving closer to Hollywood & getting rejected. This kid has seen some bad times and experienced so much more that, if you watched the HBO documentary on Spielberg, you already knew. Kushner and Spielberg’s screenplay is strong and moving, not some self-indulgent claptrap like some others I’ve seen. It’s like watching a time capsule of his life on film by the man who lived it without being narcissistic.
Every scene is calculated and perfectly shot in only the way Speilberg does; his simple, yet effective signature camera movements are like his fingerprints, once you see them, you know they’re his anywhere. He doesn’t so much film a movie, but crafts one. And the casting is just as impeccable. Paul Dano, coming off his demented Riddler role (The Batman), along with Michelle Williams are both outstanding and have so many emotional moments. LaBelle, looking like a young Dustin Hoffman or Richard Dreyfuss, is amazing and drives the movie without ever saying a word. These actors all are Oscar material, easy. Hirsch is great for his short cameo, and Julia Butters surprises again under a fake wig and glasses. Look for director David Lynch in a fabulous cameo as legendary director, John Ford.
At a lengthy 2hr and 31 minutes, I wasn’t bored or checking my watch. This wondrous, sentimental, and often funny journey through one family’s lives is vastly superior to other bio-pics of late, as the lead subject doesn’t descend into madness, drugs, booze, or sex only to rise again later on in life for a second chance. It’s just a story about a kid with a dream and how, against all personal obstacles, he achieved it. I’m predicting huge Oscar buzz on this film! On a personal note: this movie ends far too short and, if you want to know more about the man, the myth, the legend, then I suggest checking out the HBO documentary.
**Now showing in theaters only
All That Jazz (1979)
If you’re gonna make a movie about yourself, what better way to do it than having yourself co-write and direct it? That’s what happened with this terrific musical (??) by famed choreographer Bob Fosse, telling an alternate version of his chaotic life.
Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is a much sought-after Broadway choreographer, director, dancer, womanizer, and non-stop perfectionist. And he is dying. While talking to the Angel of Death (Jessica Lange) in some backstage limbo, he recaps his life, starting with juggling two gigs at once: putting up a Broadway musical called NY/LA, and editing The Stand-Up, his Hollywood film. When he’s not chain-smoking and constantly flirting with a stream of women, he downs Dexedrine to keep going while repeating his mantra, “It’s showtime, folks!”
Meanwhile, Joe’s ex-wife, Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer), is involved with the production of the show, but disapproves of his womanizing ways, while Joe’s girlfriend Katie Jagger (Ann Reinking) and young daughter Michelle (Erzsébet Földi) keep him company. As the weeks go by, his stress levels increase as the Broadway show backers want to make changes and his movie editing is becoming a nightmare. It becomes too much and Joe experiences severe chest pains and is admitted to the hospital with severe angina. Ignoring the doctors, he leaves to go back to rehearsal but collapses again from exhaustion.
As Joe goes through heart surgery and recovery, he hallucinates all manner of things, including his own death on a sound stage with dancers. . . and him directing it! The finale is a big production number with Joe singing and dancing with Ben Vereen to the song, “Bye Bye Life“, a parody of the song, “Bye Bye Love“. It’s both fun and disturbing at the same time. Perfectionist film director Stanley Kubrick called this film, “[the] best film I think I have ever seen”. And there’s no doubt about that. Bob Fosse was, in fact, referring to the struggle of getting his hit Broadway musical, Chicago, and the movie, Lenny up at the same time.
This movie is amazing, mostly for the uncanny performance of rail-thin Scheider as Gideon/Fosse, who sings and dances with perfection. Ann Reinking is also incredible in her dance numbers as well, as is young Földi, who never did a single movie ever again! This film made bank at the box office and garnered NINE Academy Award noms, carrying home four Oscars. The soundtrack alone is awesome, and if you’re a theater geek like me, you’ll love all the backstage goings-on (and backstabbing) when putting a musical up. Look for a young John Lithgow as a rival Broadway director to Gideon. If you get a chance, rent/stream this movie. You won’t regret it!