EMPIRE OF LIGHT film review

Underwhelming. Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light tries to be too many things, and winds up being none of them sufficiently enough. Furthermore, it’s a story out of time that would have played better had it come out 30-40 years ago. Moreover, it’s poorly paced, and Olivia Coleman’s Oscar-reaching performance is simply not enough to save this film that so desperately desires your affection. Is it a story about the challenges of a mixed race couple in the 1980s? Is it a story about the love and healing nature of cinema? Is it a story commenting on and challenging ageism in romance? Or, is it a story about trauma and mental illness? It’s all of those subjects–and–none of those. None of them effectively enough, anyway.

A romance develops in a beautiful old cinema on the south coast of England in the 1980s.

In an age in which mixed-race couples are increasingly common, movies about the healing power of cinema have been done–and much better (ie Cinema Paradiso), and films about mental illness are common, the story that needed to be the central focus was the one on ageism in dating. And yet, that subplot takes the furthest backseat to the others. Empire of Light never lands on any one outside/action story paired with an inside/emotional story. Neither does Coleman’s character effectively go though a growth arc–she is largely the same at the end of the movie as she is at the beginning–save the healing power of cinema (which isn’t her chief struggle).

This film stands as another example of a director with an idea(s) that should have worked with a screenwriter, because any screenwriter with his/her weight in salt would’ve cautioned Mendes against the plethora of subplots and inner-needs. A closer look at this film suggests that Mendes desired to create this generation’s Cinema Paradiso, but the movie simply doesn’t deliver on that theme or subplot. Like with all the other themes and motifs, the narrative feels desperately forced. I’ll leave you with this: where the film does excel.

Empire of Light ‘shines’ best through the brilliant eye of director of photography Roger Deakins. It’s because of his incredible talent that the film looks as gorgeous as it does. Furthermore, the setting and production design shine brilliantly. I wish that the outside/action story included the renovation of the older auditoriums and ballroom. Would’ve made for a fantastic manifestation of one of the inside/emotional stories.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Ryan’s 12 Movies of Christmas

Christmastime is here again! And you may be wondering what to watch all month long. That is, unless you’re planning to watch Hallmark Channel or Freeform all month. If you’re looking for something that doesn’t follow the small town girl versus big city guy but falls for the small town heartthrob, then checkout this curation of titles! Some of my favorites are traditional Christmas movies, whilst others are more unconventional. But they all have one thing in common, the story, plot, and/or characters are significantly affected by Christmas.

With so many movies to watch at Christmastime, it’s hard to narrow down any list, much less down to 10! So, I thought I would go with 12 because of the 12 Days of Christmas.

Fun fact: Technically, the 12 Days of Christmas marks the time between Christ’s birth and the symbolic arrival of the magi (which, interestingly, wasn’t for about two years after the birth). The 12 Days of Christmas concludes with Three Kings Day in January. But I digress.

Here are my 12 Movies of Christmas (in no particular order)!

Batman Returns

Batman Returns, a Christmas movie? Why yes! Prologue to credits, the movie takes place at Christmas and we are reminded of it being Christmas throughout the movie. From the lighting of the Gotham City Christmas tree to the Bruce Wayne’s final line, “…peace on earth, good will towards men–and women,” Christmas is everywhere in this film! And who can forget the romantic exchange between Catwoman and Batman, “Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it. But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it.” No Christmas is complete without Tim Burton’s arthouse film masquerading around as superhero movie!

I regard this movie as the most Batman movie ever! Even though the title character is only on screen for about 15-minutes. While Keaton’s Batman is the definitive, in my opinion, we don’t love this movie simply because of that, we love it because of the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer’s tour de force performance as Catwoman! And with good reason, she’s Incredibly sexy, seductive, slightly psycho, playful, and conniving. Pfeiffer’s seductive Catwoman is juxtaposed against Danny DeVito’s monstrous Penguin, and throw in the self-centered and ruthless Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck, and you have a brilliant cast bringing to life.

Die Hard

Every year, the debate over whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie inspires many discourses on social media, and I am here to set the record straight. Indeed, Die Hard IS a Christmas movie. For many of the same reasons Batman Returns is a Christmas movie. The whole reason the plot of Die Hard exists is because of the office Christmas party! In fact, John McClane reminds us, “got invited to the office Christmas party by mistake. Who knew?” Moreover, it takes place on Christmas Eve. Not Thanksgiving nor the Fourth of July. It could have been set any week of the year, but wasn’t; it takes place at Christmas. And the soundtrack is full of Christmas songs.

This really is Bruce Willis’ most inconic role! He redefined what it meant to be an action hero! The fact he was an everyman made him more relatable than others and provided him with the platform to deliver the funny as well as the action. Moreover, we have one of the best villains of all time in the late Allen Rickman’s Hans Grüber. While he is incredibly ruthless, he is also highly entertaining. And it’s the balance between violent action and laughter that makes Die Hard a great film, and a fantastic Christmas movie.

A Christmas Carol (Patrick Stewart and Disney 2009 versions)

Charles Dickens’ titular Christmas ghost story was adapted early on in the days of cinema. In fact, there are silent movie adaptations dating back to 1901. And for good reason: it’s timeless! It has been adapted for big and small screens, radio, and stage more times than any other literary work. And because of that, everyone has his or her favorite versions of Scrooge’s powerful redemption story.

To boldly go where no Scrooge has gone before! Many notable actors over the decades have played the towering literary figure, but only one is also a Starfleet captain. Sir Patrick Stewart brought Scrooge to the small screen in the 1999 TNT movie-of-the-week. More than any other, Stewart’s portrayal as Scrooge is my favorite! Not only does the performative dimension of the character benefit from Stewart’s gravitas as a Shakespearean actor, but also benefits from his years as Captain Picard, completely with all the nuance that makes him the definitive Starfleet captain.

While Stewart’s Scrooge is my favorite Scrooge, my pick for best page to screen adaptation of the narrative as a whole is Disney’s A Christmas Carol from 2009. It’s an exhilarating visual array of breathtaking motion-capture animation with a touch of the macabre!

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it is an outstanding adaptation of the literary classic. One of the principle differences between this and other adaptations is just how supercharged it is with visual effects, intense chase scenes, and flying through the streets of London. But, as Scrooge himself acknowledged, spirits can do anything–they’re spirits. Zemeckis does not hold back on the dark elements of the story. After all, how else was Scrooge going be so scared that he would make a 180º and change his miserly ways??? He was scared by his future.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

While there have been several page to screen adaptations of Dr. Seuss’ masterful literary work, there is only one that I watch annually. And that is the original 1966 version narrated by Universal Monster veteran actor Boris Karloff. Some might argue that this version isn’t a movie, because it was on TV and only about 25mins in length. But I counter that argument with the simple fact that films are not films based upon run time, but based upon the structure of the narrative and intended purpose. Perhaps How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a short film, but a film nevertheless. After A Christmas Carol, no other fictional literary work has had a greater impact upon the Christmas season than HTGSC. At different seasons of life, we can all identify with both The Grinch and the Whos. Dr. Seuss wrote HTGSC as a critique on the increasing commercialization of Christmas. Something we can certainly identify with nearly 60 years later. While the decorations are beautiful and the giving and receiving of gifts is so much fun, Dr. Seuss reminds us through The Grinch, ” Maybe Christmas, he thought…doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps…means a little bit more!”

Black Christmas (1974)

Move over Ralphie for Bob Clark’s original Christmas story. Released in 1974 and predating John Carpenter’s Halloween by four years, Clark’s Black Christmas is actually the the first modern slasher film. It is one of the most terrifying horror films that I have ever watched. And it’s not because it’s particularly violent or gory, but because of its incredibly unsettling atmosphere caused by the mysterious, vulgar phone calls and the creepy POV of the slasher entering the sorority house during the Christmas party. That bit of dramatic irony paired with the sequence of disturbing events, work together to generate nightmare-inducing thoughts and imagery in the mind of the audience. If you’re looking for another holiday horror movie to add to your list of Christmas films to watch, then you definitely want to add this one to your lineup.

Although there are scenes that take place outside of the house, the horrific events largely take place inside a house. A house–more specifically–a home–where you should be and feel safe. The invasion, the penetration of safety is a terrifying prospect for anyone who has ever walked into their home alone wondering if someone may be there. The idea that someone may be in your house sticks with you long after the movie ends. And that is the power of the unnerving horror of Black Christmas.

Silent Night Deadly Night (1984)

Silent Night Deadly Night is a wildly uneven horror movie that jerks audiences around from the deadly serious to the highly campy. Seen as controversial when it released in 1984 to today, this is one bonkers Christmas horror movie, and one of the most unique out there. This movie takes the idea of simply plot, complex characters to all new dizzying levels. At its core, it’s about a traumatized young man going on a killing spree while dressed as Santa Claus. Not so unusual, right? But therein is where the film lulls you into a sense of expectation of that to which you may be more accustomed. After the simplistic beginning, the film goes off int he most bizarre and entertaining direction. You may ask yourself “what did I just watch,” but you won’t care because it was that much fun!

The Polar Express (2004)

This big screen adaption of the children’s literary (modern) classic The Polar Express is a complete delightful! Sure to thrill and stir the hears of audiences of all ages. While it may seem like another children’s Christmas movie on the surface, there are really two films here (1) the one for children and (2) the other for adults. For children, it’s a fantastic adventure, full of excitement, splendor, and prolific Christmas cheer. For adults, the film goes much deeper. The film forces adults to reconcile adult maturity and cynicism against childhood innocence and hope. Our central character finds himself–albeit begrudgingly–on a quest for a renewed belief in the spirit of Christmas. Along the way, he meets others on a magical train to the North Pole that are seeking their own goals finding or growing in confidence, courage, and humility. We never know if the adventure is merely in the mind of our central character, or if he really did board The Polar Express, but there is plenty of heart to perhaps help you hear the silver jingle bells of Christmas again.

The Christmas List (1997)

My mom and I watch this every year together when I go home over Christmas break! We were first introduced to it on the (then) Family Channel, and caught it on TV for many years thereafter (even as the Family Channel got absorbed by other companies. Eventually it wasn’t shown anymore, so I bought it on eBay. So, if you want to watch it, you’ll need to find it on eBay or perhaps you can catch it on YouTube. But I digress.

Mimi Rogers stars as Melody Parris, a perfume sales professional at Montgomery Ward style department store. When her best friend places her Christmas list in Santa’s mailbox, Melody suddenly begins to get everything on the list, but it doesn’t always turn out how she imagined it would. The Christmas List is an incredibly uplifting Christmas movie that is sure to bring joy to all those that put in a little effort to find it. It’s especially relatable for those of us that are in our 30s and still single, perhaps even waiting for our lives to start. When we realize that the waiting for life to start, has become our life. Sure, the plot is a bit whimsical, but that’s part of what makes this a fun movie! It’s also quite funny! And not in an ironic way, genuinely hilarious at points. You don’t want to miss out on sharing in the journey as Melody discovers the spirit of Christmas and refocuses her life in a more productive direction!

Krampus

Twas truly a nightmare before Christmas! What would happen if Charles Dickens, Dr. Seuss, and the Brothers Grimm would combine their unparalleled literary social commentary and storytelling abilities for a Christmas movie? The answer is Krampus. Based on an actual legend of German origin, Krampus is the antithesis of Santa Claus. Whereas this narrative is not based solely on the legend per se, many of the insidious characters are rooted in the legend. In an unconventional way, this movie highlights what Seuss and Dickens wrote about in their timeless tales: Christmas becoming more commercialized and about selfish material gain rather than the spirit of sacrifice, giving, and relationships. Just like Scrooge was so terrified emotionally and physically by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to come, that he believed in Christmas with all his heart, you may also call your behavior, this holiday season, into question as a result of coming face to face with Krampus. Directed by Michael Dougherty, of Trick r Treat fame, you don’t want to miss adding Krampus to your Christmas lineup!

Last Christmas (2019)

Paul Feig’s Last Christmas is a heartwarming Christmas movie that is surprisingly deep and thought-provoking. It stars everyone’s favorite Mother of Dragons Emilia Clark as our central character of Kate! Follow Kate on a transformational journey that explores how constantly playing the victim and blaming everyone else for your problems can lead to destructive behavior.

I appreciate the unconventional approach to Christmas movies this one takes. It doesn’t hold back on the cynicism that many people have about life or about the holiday season. The movie depicts true-to-life people that experience real struggles within the family unit and from the outside. In addition to the interpersonal relationship conflict, Kate’s family is also from the former Yugoslavia. This is an important subplot in the movie because the movie seeks to comment on the prejudice that some refugees-turned-citizens experience, especially in the midst of political turmoil. Like I said, this Christmas movie is surprisingly deep.

The most powerful Christmas story ever (other than the Nativity) is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and why is that? Because it’s a story of redemption. If Scrooge can be redeemed, we can all be redeemed. Kate is our Scrooge in this story. Perhaps that is why so many people love it, it parallels A Christmas Carol in beautiful ways, yet it doesn’t–on face value–appear to be an interpretation of it. Do yourself a favor and plan to make Last Christmas part of your holiday season.

Gremlins

Can’t you hear that infectious theme music by Jerry Goldsmith now?!? Joe Dante’s Gremlins is one of the most brilliant horror comedies ever! And I say comedy because the entire movie is played for laughs! All the way down to how a young lady learns there is no Santa Claus. The campy violence and juxtaposition between Christmas imagery and horror is uncanny! Lightning in a bottle, that’s precisely what this is. It’s as if Joe Dante and Spielberg said “let’s take the idyllic, cozy suburban setting from It’s a Wonderful Life and use it as the backdrop of a creature feature! The setting and characters in it manage to simultaneously be timeless, nostalgic, and ridiculous.

Like Die Hard and Batman Returns, this movie could have taken place any any other time of year, but Christmas was selected because there is no time of year that is more idyllic than Christmas. It really is an ingenious movie! Gizmo, the cuddly magwai, yanks at our heartstrings, all the while, fantastic suspense is building because we know the rules. And when the gremlins hatch, the idyllic town becomes a wacky, satirical, spectacle of total chaos.s! But even in the darkest moments, Dante finds a way to increase the levity so nothing is ever too dark. At its core, Gremlins is a satirical spin on materialism, but it never forgets to have fun and thrill audiences all at the same time.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra’s masterpiece is timeless! I can’t imagine a Christmas going by without watching it with my parents. What’s funny, is that this movie is considered by many to be the greatest Christmas movie of all time, but most of the movie doesn’t even take place at Christmas. It starts at Christmas and ends at Christmas (although it is the same day), but most of the narrative takes place at other times of year in George Bailey’s past.

Films concerning suicide or suicidal thoughts are not new today, but back in the 1940s, it was nearly unheard of. Much like Gremlins pits the idyllic suburban Christmas backdrop against violent (yet playful) creatures, Philip Van Doren Stern’s screenplay combined with Capra’s genius work together to juxtapose real-world, relatable feelings against the most wonderful time of the year. Capra’s film would not be the classic that it is without the outstanding cast that brings the story to life for the screen. I love how the film takes audiences on a rollercoaster through conflicts big and small. Paired with visceral mood swings the film gets to the very heart of what it means to be human–and the value every life has on this earth. While it would have been easy for the film to maintain a somber tone throughout, it is not without comedy. The end result is a supremely entertaining film that takes that which is most relatable and simple to craft a compelling narrative. No matter what one faces, “no man is alone whom has friends…”

Honorable Mentions

The Rankin-Bass Classics

No Christmas movie list would be complete with out mentioning the Rankin-Bass claymation and traditionally animated mid-20th century classics! The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty, Rudolph, Kris Kringle, they’re all here! Chances are, you make one or more of the Rankin-Bass television specials part of your Christmas every year. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is actually the longest continually airing television special in TV history! Outside of Frosty and a new others, the majority of the RB specials are claymation, which is an artform that is nearly gone, save the recent Pinocchio and 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings. It’s not simply witnessing the hand of the artist in these specials that make them–well–special, it’s the uncanny ability for each of these to transport you back to your childhood home, sitting in your PJs with hot cocoa or a bowl of popcorn, watching the television specials with your family or friends. RB’s love of the whimsical, relational, and spiritual dynamics of Christmas rings loud and clear in each of their specials.

Violent Night (late add, but had to mention!)

Highly entertaining and hilarious! Better watch out burglars, Santa’s coming to town. Universal Pictures’ Violent Night hits theatres this week. And you don’t want to miss this fantastically fun horror-adjacent Christmas action movie, which is equal parts Die Hard and Home Alone with some Krampus thrown in for good measure–and it that still has plenty of Christmas spirit! Not since Krampus have we had such unconventional Christmas movie in cinemas. Not quite unsettling enough to be a horror movie, but gorier than a typical action movie, Violent Night sits comfortably in the middle (but a little closer to action). One of the things that makes both Gremlins and Krampus work so well is that the violence is played for laughs, and audiences will find that to also be true in this movie. Even though the violence is prolific, it is schlocky and even campy, at times. Despite the creative, gory kills and pulse-pounding action sequences, Violent Night takes times to impart valuable lessons in family, hope, and even redemption. It simultaneously acknowledges how hard the holidays can be on folks that have become disillusioned with Christmas and yet manages to show the importance of never losing hope in the magic of Christmastime. Even though we may not know how it works; it’s important not to allow cynicism of this world to overpower the optimism of hope the holidays bring. With a solid screenplay, effective direction, and entertaining kills, Violent Night is an instant modern classic

Merry Christmas!!

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

VIOLENT NIGHT Christmas movie review

Highly entertaining and hilarious! Better watch out burglars, Santa’s coming to town. Universal Pictures’ Violent Night hits theatres this week. And you don’t want to miss this fantastically fun horror-adjacent Christmas action movie, which is equal parts Die Hard and Home Alone with some Krampus thrown in for good measure–and it that still has plenty of Christmas spirit! Not since Krampus have we had such unconventional Christmas movie in cinemas. Not quite unsettling enough to be a horror movie, but gorier than a typical action movie, Violent Night sits comfortably in the middle (but a little closer to action). One of the things that makes both Gremlins and Krampus work so well is that the violence is played for laughs, and audiences will find that to also be true in this movie. Even though the violence is prolific, it is schlocky and even campy, at times. Despite the creative, gory kills and pulse-pounding action sequences, Violent Night takes times to impart valuable lessons in family, hope, and even redemption. It simultaneously acknowledges how hard the holidays can be on folks that have become disillusioned with Christmas and yet manages to show the importance of never losing hope in the magic of Christmastime. Even though we may not know how it works; it’s important not to allow cynicism of this world to overpower the optimism of hope the holidays bring. With a solid screenplay, effective direction, and entertaining kills, Violent Night is an instant modern classic that is sure to find its way onto annual watch-lists every December.

An elite team of mercenaries breaks into the Lightstone family compound on Christmas Eve, taking everyone hostage inside. However, they aren’t prepared for a surprise combatant: Santa Claus is on the grounds, and he’s about to show why this Nick is no saint.

I often remark that some of the best movies are those with a simple plot and complex character, and that is what we have here! On the surface, it may be a horror-adjacent heist movie, but beneath the creative kills and campy characters lies a movie that has a lot to say about the various feelings about Christmas (and the holidays in general).

Before you dismiss this movie as just a schlockfest, there is discernible depth to this story that will resonate with audiences of all walks of life and opinions on the magic of Christmas. The commentary on the Christmas season is witnessed in the characters, specifically Santa, Trudy, and Scrooge. By extension, other manifestations of holiday feelings are expressed through the rest of the cast of Lightstones and mercenaries. Santa has become a Christmas cynic himself, because of the rampant entitlement and greed of the world, Trudy holds true to the magic of Christmas despite the negative stressors of her family, and Scrooge represents the idea that Christmas is nonsensical and worthless. All real feelings. Furthermore, the film does not shy away from discussing the gross consumerism that is so often, yet unfortunately, at the forefront of Christmas.

A growing trend for films that aim to be character studies is to neglect the plot. Not true with Violent Night! Again, the surface is a gory action movie, but at its core, it is a character study on reactions to Christmas. Even character studies need to have a well-structured plot, because the outside/action story is a visualization of the inside/emotional story. We get both in this fantastically fun movie! Santa must reconcile his purpose with the state of the world, Trudy must reconcile her belief in the magic of Christmas within her dysfunctional family, and Scrooge (more specifically pre-Christmas Eve Scrooge) gets his just desserts for reining terror. Moreover, I appreciate how the movie provides thoughtful commentary on some of the worst people–and I am not talking about the mercenaries (tho they are deplorable people), but the Lighthouse family members represent people we know from our own lives.

Much like Krampus (but far more violent and a little less scary), Violent Night is a cautionary tale on the dangers of selfishness, greed, and toxic celebrity-ism. We’ve all been Santa, Trudy, or one of the other characters in the movie. Don’t miss the schlock, hijinks, and heart of the action-packed Violent Night this Christmas season.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO motion picture review

Positively avant-garde! Easily among the best pictures of the year, period. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a brilliant stop-motion picture that will stir the hearts and minds of any audience! In many ways it’s reminiscent of 80s dark fantasies such as The NeverEnding Story and The Dark Crystal. Which should come as no surprise that del Toro worked in collaboration with the Jim Henson Company. Audience will be completely transported to the post-World War I Italian world that del Toto meticulously recreates, complete with the fascist movement, which underscores much of the film. Not since Kubo and the Two Strings have we had such a gorgeous, imaginative animated feature film–a film that was robbed of its deserved and earned Beast Animated Film Oscar (no, Zootopia is in no universe a superior film). Let’s hope that the Mouse doesn’t rob Pinocchio of it’s well-deserved Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

The story may seem familiar: A father’s wish magically brings a wooden boy to life in Italy, giving him a chance to care for the child. But you’ve never seen Pinocchio like this before!

Before you dismiss Del Toro’s Pinocchio as another soulless, cash-grab remake, this much more macabre version of the titular puppet’s story delivers immense depth and dimension. Not only of technical achievement, but of theme, plot, and character development. This animated film proves that animation isn’t only for kids, because this film is far more thoughtfully crafted than most live action films this ear. And yes, I agree with recent comments from Quintin Tarrantino that we are experiencing one of the worst eras of cinema in history. No doubt this is true. However, this year has seen some real winners such as Top Gun: Maverick and now Pinocchio. Suffice it to say, this is not your kid’s Pinocchio. And, although there are important life lessons in the film, it goes to places, both figuratively and literally, that may not be appropriate for kinds under 12 years of age. While Pinocchio is in its limited theatrical run, see it on the BIG screen!

While there are certainly plot beats which are shared by the original 19th century story, the 1940 Disney adaptation, the wretched Robert Zemeckis’ remake earlier this year, and countless stage adaptations (funnily enough, I saw the operetta Pinocchio this week as well), Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio takes on a life of its own. It isn’t often that the filmmaker added a possessive to the film title. Whereas it’s commonplace for Disney to add Disney’s… to literally everything, it’s uncommon for director’s or producers to add a possessive to the film’s title. Notable exceptions include Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas (directed by Henry Selick), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (directed by Francis Ford Coppola), and now Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. This possessive form of title is often employed to signify (1) the filmmaker’s confidence in his or her work of motion picture art and (2) to separate it from all other versions of the same story (and/or title). Moreover, this often indicates to audiences that they are about to witness the work of a true auteur (not the case when we see Disney’s…–that’s just plain branding).

Is it del Toro’s arrogance or an ego trip that prompts such chutzpah in this film’s title? Not at all. Del Toro has been working on this passion project for over 15 years. Before you feel that’s an exaggeration, let the finished motion picture be the demonstrable evidence of meticulous work frame-by-frame in this nearly two-hour film. Images are most often captured at 25-frames-per-second, so to achieve the fluid motion del Toro has, you just do that math. Del Toro crafted intricate animation captured by a camera that is repeatedly started and stopped over the course of day, weeks, years. Each mouth, arm ear, eye, literally any object that has movement, is moves a little at a time, frame-by-frame. Not only does del Toro’s craftsmanship translate to beautiful, seamless movement by the characters and environment in the film, he successfully captures the visual and emotional miracles that can only be accomplished through stop motion animation. There’s a reason why we go back to the Rankin & Bass Christmas classics every year; there is immense simplicity and beauty in stop-motion animation. Why? Same reason why practical effects will always be superior to (overt) CGI effects–depth, dimension, the way real light bounces off objects and into the camera lens.

Even though the film is quite dark from the moment the atrocities of war are witnessed, it is not without its levity and uplifting scenes. To get into a central theme of the film involving stages of grief (which makes it unique compared to other iterations), would mean venturing too far into spoilers, which I would like to avoid, and with that theme, there are many scenes that force the audience to confront what many fear most. Because of this theme, one might think the film is somber most of of the time, and fortunately, this is not true. There are plenty of moments that break up the sadness to inject a healthy dose of laughter. And more often than not, we have Sebastian J. Cricket to thank for that! (I’m sure the “J” is a playful jab at Disney). DelToro’s sardonic, raconteur cricket always has the perfect witty remark or anecdote to provide insight into a given plot point or emotional beat. Because of Sebastian J. Cricket’s running commentary and moral/ethical guidance, the audience is willing to go on this emotional roller coaster. The moment of levity allow for an emotional and psychological reset to face the darker moments.

Outside of the imagery of the stages of grief, there are other fascinating areas of social commentary in the film as well. I love how del Toro moves the real boy imagery, how it’s traditionally interpreted: wood vs. flesh, to one that posits ideas of what it means to be a real man. These arguments are mostly seen in the Mussolini’s youth armies scenes. In the world of fascist Italy, to be a real man meant taking up the arms and creeds of Mussolini’s Italy to fight the allied forces. Pinocchio must decide what it means to be a real man. Another area that is interesting is the relationship between Geppetto and the village (Catholic) Church. While there may be various ways of interpreting this imagery and these scenes, which are bookends for the film, I feel it is best interpreted as Geppetto never compromising on his faith in God even though the Catholic Church, at that time in Italy, was being infiltrated by Mussolini’s fascist ideals (cleverly disguised to sway some in the faith community).

Lastly, we cannot talk about this film without highlighting the moving score and outstanding original songs. While Pinocchio is not a musical, it has several original songs that will move audiences! Not only does this film boast exquisite animation, but it delivers outstanding original music and lyrics as well. Audiences will find both diegetic and non-diegetic musical numbers in the film. This combination works incredibly well to wrap audiences in the mesmerizing story!

Even though Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is coming to Netflix in December, look to see if it’s playing at theatre near you for the full experience!

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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THE FABELMANS film review

An intimate portrait of an ultimately underwhelming quasi autobiographical story. Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans looks gorgeous and delivers a performative dimension with heart, but the story, largely inspired by his own life, struggles to capture the magic in which it so eagerly wants to wrap audiences. Tony Kushner’s screenplay, with story by Spielberg, starts and finishes well; however, the middle (or development stage) lacks focus and stakes, and even ventures into needless satire. If audiences are seeking a film about the transformative power of filmmaking and following one’s passion–despite the odds–then they will be better off with the Italian cinematic masterpiece Cinema Paradiso. This film is best experienced on the big screen because of the beautifully crafted cinematography, so if you plan to see it, do not wait for it to hit Peacock or Amazon Prime to view at home. Clearly this is the most personal motion picture from the king of the box office form the late mid 1970s to mid 1990s, but hopefully now that he has made his fictionalized autobiographical picture, he will get back to thrilling and entertaining audiences with pictures that are talked about decades later.

Young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) falls in love with movies after his parents take him to see The Greatest Show on Earth. Armed with a camera, Sammy starts to make his own films at home, much to the delight of his supportive mother. But a dark family secret threatens his idyllic family.

While The Fabelmans attempts to inspire audiences through its central character of Sammy’s journey, audiences may find it difficult to connect with a central character from an upper middle, if not, upper class family that experiences fewer obstacles to the pursuance of art than does a typical working class individual. Why is this important? Because the film focuses on Sammy’s struggles (primarily during his teenage years). While Sammy certainly experiences emotional and psychological struggles, it’s difficult for audiences to connect with a central character that has far fewer financial and time obstacles than most people experience when pursuing passions. It’s far easier to pursue art as a career when sufficient financial backing is present. It’s characters that have to scrimp, save, and balance making a living while pursuing art (or other less conventional passions) that impact audiences most.

Michelle Williams (Mitzy, Sammy’s mom) delivers an outstanding performance! Moreover, Gabrielle LaBelle (Sammy), and the rest of the cast all display exceptional chemistry and dimension. There is a surprising cameo at the end of the film that is the icing on the cake of this exemplary cast. From the cast to the characters themselves, audiences will be impressed by the authenticity of the Fabelman family. Unfortunately, that same authenticity is not reflected in all the ancillary characters. Even in Spielberg’s big blockbuster films like Jaws, ET, and Jurassic Park, the cast is always excellent! That’s likely because each of the characters feels like an everyman, someone that could be you or someone in your life.

A closer look at the plot reveals a lack of a substantive goal(s) for Sammy. Fortunately, his mother Mitzy has a goal, but I won’t get into spoilers. Kushner’s screenplay neglects to provide Sammy’s outside/action story with high stakes. He’s never at risk of losing anything–personally–anyway. Therefore, he’s always in a safe position. One may be able to attempt an argument on losing his family, but that is more relational than an actual goal to achieve or fail to achieve. Dealing with life or a day in the life of are NOT plots nor goals. Aside from remaining alive, there is nothing measurable to gain or lose. For example, his goal could be to complete a particular picture or to land a job with a studio, but neither are that to which all the scenes point. Much like with many other movies and films as of late, this one isn’t written well. Lots of ideas, some of which are refreshing, but not woven together in a compelling narrative.

In terms of the relationship between Sammy and his camera, and Sammy and his family, I appreciate the film’s commentary on how a true artist experiences great pressure from family and friends as they work on their art. It can mean, making self-centered decisions that support the creation of art versus being emotionally or physically available to family and friends. Furthermore, the film teaches us that the camera itself never lies–it captures that which is placed in front of it–but it’s the editing (or montage) process that can selectively tell a particular story from the collection of raw footage. Sometimes the camera shows us things that we are afraid to confront otherwise.

Undoubtedly, there will be critics and general audiences that praise the film for being Spielberg’s most personal. And it is–but–therein lies part of the problem with the storytelling. A filmmaker directing a film that is ostensibly about their life demonstrates a huge ego trip. It also means everything that is dramatized is highly subjective, giving way to feelings weighing greater than facts. When a motion picture is biographical in nature (even when it’s a fictionalized account), audiences want to know how it really happened.

The middle of the film, specifically when Sammy’s Jewish family is relocated from their beloved Arizona to northern California, is plagued with caricatures of both school bullies and Christians. Due to the subjective nature of this narrative, one cannot help but wonder if the bullies were exaggerated and if the ridiculous level of cult-like fanaticism of his Christian girlfriend were misrepresented and mischaracterized for dramatic purposes. If Spielberg and Kushner were making fun of any other faith group, it would be seen as disrespectful. But they will get a pass because in Hollywood, it’s perfectly acceptable to make fun of members of the Christian community–but–completely unacceptable to stereotype or satire any other faith group or subset of the general population. If it’s evaluated as in poor taste to treat other groups with disrespect, then it should be viewed the same way here. Spielberg and Kushner could have found more tasteful ways to highlight the religious conflict in Sammy and his girlfriend’s relationship, and methods that were good-natured teasing or fun, but it was clearly more of an importance to show the girlfriend as a fanatic.

The opening sequences and scenes paired with the final scene of the film are thoughtfully crafted to transport audiences to a world of awe and wonder, and for those scenes, I applaud the film. Unfortunately, the film gets bogged down with a convoluted mess of ideas in the middle that do not add to the experience of the film, or send constructive messages to the audience.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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