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    Spielberg looks back in vanity in ‘The Fabelmans’

    Mark Kennedy

    AP – A movie by one of Hollywood’s most successful directors that’s based on his early life begins, appropriately enough, at a movie theatre and ends in a movie back lot.

    The Fabelmans is clearly a very personal film for Steven Spielberg and it’s as much a coming-of-age journey as a form of expensive therapy with John Williams offering lovely mood music.

    The script – Spielberg reteams with playwright Tony Kushner – charts both fledgling director Sammy Fabelman’s first 20 years as well as the cracks appearing in his parents’ agonising marriage. The focus sometimes gets a bit blurry, to be honest and the whole thing often doesn’t add up to much.

    For a film by a director about a director, the main character is surprisingly callow. We first meet a frightened little Sammy Fabelman outside a New Jersey movie theatre that is playing Cecil B DeMille’s 1952 classic The Greatest Show on Earth. He’s suddenly too scared to see his first motion picture.

    “Movies are dreams you never forget,” said his mother, a frustrated concert pianist played by Michelle Williams, trying to coax him in.

    “Dreams are scary,” he replied.

    This image released by Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment shows Gabriel LaBelle in a scene from ‘The Fabelmans’. PHOTO: AP

    That film – with a horrific train crash which traumatises the boy – changes Fabelman forever. Over the next decades, filmmaking is his passion, despite his engineer father’s pooh-poohing it as a mere hobby. Why Sammy must direct, we are told, may have something to do with his wanting to be in control. But that’s as far as we get with him on the couch.

    We then jump in time to a teenage Sammy, who moves with his family to Arizona and casts all his Boy Scout pals in a makeshift Western inspired by John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. This Sam is played with real honesty by Gabriel LaBelle and he’s turned it into a sweet, star-making vehicle.

    Meanwhile, an overacting Williams has come into focus – a mom who is a little batty, sometimes goofy and sometimes downright dangerous, as when she drives all four of her kids into a tornado. You may leave the theatre knowing as much of what’s going on with her as when you arrived. “You really see me,” she said to her son at one point, but the rest of us really don’t.

    We learn not all is honky-dory at home and there’s maybe something going on between mom, dad (a superbly stiff Paul Dano) and dad’s best friend (really good Seth Rogen).

    Audiences will not be surprised when this is revealed. And the way our hero figures it out is pure cinematic – he sees clues in his own home movies. And he confronts the offending party as only an auteur would – instead of talking, he shows an edited film.

    The Fabelmans gets a needed jolt of energy when Judd Hirsch arrives as an estranged uncle who once was in the circus.

    He immediately sees in his nephew a fellow artistic spirit who will have to pick between family and his art, just as his mother has done. “It will tear out your heart and leave you lonely. Art is no game. Art is as dangerous as a lion’s mouth,” his uncle tells him. “We’re junkies and art is our drug.”

    A big wet valentine to filmmaking, The Fabelmans fits into the latest wave of directors looking backward, including Alejandro Iñárritu’s Bardo, Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and James Gray’s Armageddon Time.

    And Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age Almost Famous just landed on Broadway in musical form.

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