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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: 'Users' tackles life on tech, Spielberg makes...

Screen Grabs: ‘Users’ tackles life on tech, Spielberg makes a ‘small’ film

Plus: 'A Couple' gives voice to Tolstoy's long-suffering wife, and 'The Swimmers' beats the crowdpleaser formula.

This holiday weekend is one of those that’s supposed to be all about family (well, plus shopping) and the entertainment world is duly affirming that focus by releasing a number of relevant new features. Most prominent among them is The Fabelmans from Steven Spielberg, who’s not generally known as a writer, but wrote this with frequent latterday collaborator Tony Kushner (of Angels in America.)

Spielberg’s movies have often contained vaguely autobiographical elements—notably, an idealization of loving-if-flawed suburban childhoods—albeit never to the blatant degree displayed here, in which his hero (first played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-Ford, then Gabriel LaBelle as a teen) is the sole son in a postwar middle-class Jewish family. Said progeny becomes enamored with filmmaking from an early age, something appreciated as an artistic pursuit by his free-spirited mother (Michelle Williams), a former professional pianist, but only tolerated as a “hobby” by his father (Paul Dano), an engineer in the emerging field of computers. While our protagonist may be called “Sammy,” this outline and a lot of individual details are very true to their primary creator’s own offscreen backstory.

No director—I’d count Spielberg’s colleague George Lucas more as a producer in this regard—has had more impact than Spielberg on the general direction of commercial cinema in the last half-century. He’s made several great or near-great films, an equal number of great entertainments, plus some misfires and flops. But he’s always stayed interested. Unlike practically anyone else who’s ridden the mainstream so long and so successfully, he almost never seemed to be simply fulfilling a contractual obligation, or doing a project just for the box-office.

By his standards, The Fabelmans is a “small,” personal film (even if that means it cost about $40 mil), and it is unquestionably one from the heart. You can easily rattle off a list of Spielberg movies that, good as they are, would be better if he’d resisted opening the floodgates to sentimentality at the end. But he can’t seem to help it—implicit as the message and moving as the content might already be, he often cannot restrain himself from closing on the equivalent of a tearful group hug.

This movie is that hug from the get-go. There was much drama still to come (marital discord, anti-Semitism at school, etc.), yet by the 45-minute mark in this 2.5 hour film, my admittedly low tolerance for schmaltz had been breached. The Fablemans is going to charm and delight a lot of people, deservedly. Still, it was a treat too cloyingly sweet for my palate. It opened in theaters nationwide this Wed/23.

Other new films roam the globe to probe in other ways how family ties do (or sometimes don’t) weather adversity. This Fri/25 the Roxie is opening two very different films by documentarians. Natalia Almada’s Users is, in line with her prior work, much less straightforward reportage than a sort of poetic visual essay in which pressing larger sociopolitical issues are addressed in a meditative, idiosyncratically personal way. Here, her own concerns as the mother of a young child lead to speculation on how rapidly-evolving technology will impact his life—much of which already seems to be spent online. But her freeform inquiry also embraces developments from organ transplants to Alexa-type “virtual assistants,” as well as such consequences from humanity’s resource-gobbling as recycling plants and (of course) climate change.

Users won the nonfiction directing prize at Sundance last year, and is certainly an exercise in auteurist individuality within the form, even if Almada’s own somewhat listless voiceover narration (dispensing tidbits of personal experience and scientific wisdom) is perhaps its weakest element. The wide range of striking imagery captured by cinematographer Bennett Cerf is often phenomenal, and Dave Cerf’s original score is performed by no less than Kronos Quartet. But I also found the film’s catch-all approach to our collective future a bit vague and pretentious, solemn about making a point that doesn’t ultimately feel very specific or original.

As minutely focused as Users is expansive, A Couple (or Un Couple) is a huge departure for legendary US documentarian Frederick Wiseman: At age 92, he’s made his first conventional narrative feature, discounting a prior photographed stage play. Although, this one may well also have roots in a stage performance, and its conventionality is highly relative. The 64-minute film is a “one woman show,” a monologue pieced together from Sophia Tolstoy’s journals and letters, spoken by sole actor and co-scenarist Nathalie Boutefeu in French, shot almost entirely outdoors on an island off the southern coast of Brittany.

Married to the already-famous Russian author Leo Tolstoy when she was just 18 (and he was nearly twice her age), Sophia bore 13 children, and a lot more—Tolstoy’s open infidelities, his intense yet changeable philosophies, the burden of running a large household, his often inexplicable shifts between affection, neglect, and emotional abuse. Even during her lifetime, she became a sort of cautionary-tale definition of a “Great Man’s” muse-slash-spouse, haplessly whipped about by his quixotic passions like someone who has the proverbial “tiger by the tail.”

So this chance to hear the “other side” of a fabled “couple” is largely a series of agonized laments, delivered by Boutefeu as she strolls about an exquisite woodsy terrain framed in painterly widescreen shots by John Davey’s camera. When not delivering grim assessments to the absent-yet-omnipresent husband like “I spent my time stifling my talents for you” and “You only live in your head,” her thoughts often take the form of beseeching questions: “Do you see me as a person? An object?” “Should the pleasure of sacrifice be stronger than the pleasure to live?”

The joy of their partnership early (and sporadically later) on only heightens the pain of his “eternal demands” and variably deliberate or unconscious cruelties. (At one point she notes that in 30 years he never spent time at the bedside of a sick child, including the five of theirs who died.) Their nearly half-century relationship was once all-nourishing; yet increasingly, she tells us, it starves her. Worse, she still loves him in spite of everything.

Though necessarily just a visual footnote to an extremely complicated history (much of which Sophia recounted in diaries and memoirs published after her 1919 at age 75), A Couple is nonetheless satisfying, both as a handsomely crafted miniature and as an encapsulation of marriage in another time and place—that of wedlock as a woman’s sole accepted purpose, duty, and tomb. It opens at the Roxie Fri/25.

In contrast to these disparate but troubled reflections, two large-scale dramatic narratives posit family as the one thing that can pull us through all horror and strife. Both are fact-based tales of survival amidst violent political unrest. Welsh-Egyptian writer/director Sally El Hosaini’s first feature since My Brother the Devil a decade ago is The Swimmers, which began streaming on Netflix this Wed/23. It is the story of siblings who fled their native Damascus in 2015, as the Syrian Civil War laid waste to the city. Yusra (Nathalie issa) and Sarah (Manal Issa) were still teenagers then, though toughened up physically and otherwise by their ex-competitive-swimmer father’s (Ali Suliman) relentless push for excellence, which Yusra dutifully obeys while Sarah resists. “You aren’t a true athlete unless your dream is the Olympics,” he says, offering a clear case of adult ambition levied onto offspring.

When it’s clear the family has little choice but evacuate (unless they want to die in a bombardment), Dad reluctantly allows the two older daughters to go abroad, with the idea that the rest of the clan will follow once they’ve acquired residency status as refugees in Germany … where the good swim coaches are, apparently. But their ultimately successful path to that end is perilous, not least in a near-fatal crossing of the Aegean on an overloaded raft whose passengers are only saved from drowning by the sisters’ aquatic prowess. The Swimmers is slick, propulsive, and well-cast, an inherently compelling true story. But from the start, it hits “inspirational” notes so blunt and familiar that I found the whole too much a formulaic “crowdpleaser” to actually be pleasing.

Memories of My Father, which opens at the Opera Plaza this Fri/25, is the latest from veteran Spanish director Fernando Trueba, who won the Foreign Language Feature Oscar with Belle Epoch almost 30 years ago. Here he’s adapting an internationally translated memoir by novelist Hector Abad Facioline about his father, a prominent Colombian academic and activist whose public criticisms of sociopolitical injustices finally led to his assassination in 1987.

Dad’s story provides a powerful window into a beleaguered nation’s power struggles between intellectuals, the church, drug cartels, right-wing paramilitary, leftist guerrillas, different governmental regimes, interfering foreign interests, et al. But Memories does not much bother delineating those complex conflicts, even when they directly impact genially crusading patriarch Hector Abad Gomez’s career and safety. Instead, it throws primary emphasis on nostalgic reminiscences about the family in the early 1970s, and in particular bratty little Hector Jr.’s (Nicolas Reyes Cano) status as indulged sole boy amidst a gaggle of five daughters.

This slightly chaotic household’s mild comedics are pleasant enough. But they seems rather beside the point given the seriousness of the larger issues here—which only gain prominence in the film’s final section, which (like its prologue) is in B&W. Nor does Javier Camara, whom you may recognize from roles in several Almodovar films, render Hector Sr. quite so vividly heroic as he might in a turn whose cuddly-goofball-dad air would feel more apt in a sitcom.

Trueba (whose brother David wrote the screenplay) has been a major figure in Spanish-language cinema since 1980. Memories has the somewhat old-school mixture of laughter ’n’ tears, as well as the kind of confidently splashy style, that can turn a “personal project” into a relatively mainstream audience favorite—not unlike The Fabelmans. But enjoyable as it frequently is, this film ultimately feels too lightweight a take on a dark recent-historic chapter whose bloodshed hasn’t quite dried yet.

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