To Leslie, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Fabelmans

[NoHo Arts District, CA] – This month’s movie and TV reviews of To Leslie, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Fabelmans by Mike Peros.

The Oscars will be soon upon us, and I finally caught up with a few films that found their way into Oscar consideration. 

That includes To Leslie, an independent, low-budget film (Marc Maron is a producer and one of the stars) that might have escaped my attention had it not been for the developing controversy over the inclusion of Andrea Riseborough in the Best Actress category. However, I’m not here to discuss the controversy (he says while mentioning that the film would not have gotten on anyone’s radar had it not been for a few Hollywood heavyweights who championed the film and sponsored screenings to raise awareness—is this any different than a major studio holding screenings for Academy members? I wonder…) but rather the film and the performance. To Leslie is a watchable film as it tells a tale of an alcoholic mother (Riseborough) who wins the lottery ($190,000, less after taxes) and proceeds to alienate her son, her family, her friends, and the small town in which she lives. We see her (in an opening montage) win the lottery, and then we’re plunged into her current miserable state of affairs: drunk, now homeless, and staying in others’ homes (including her son), pledging sobriety while all the while craving (and consuming) the bottle. (Alison Janney and Stephen Root are among the friends with varying degrees of concern.)  

After the second (or third) stay results in another disaster (alcohol-induced), Leslie manages to convince a motel owner (Marc Maron) to hire her to maintain the premises in exchange for a nominal salary and room and board. Needless to say, complications of all kinds develop. To Leslie has things to say about addiction, family, support systems, and how best to deal with troubled family members. So here’s the thing: the movie is watchable but not exactly credible. Riseborough is a compelling screen presence, but one is always aware she is ACTING. There is little chance for us to read into her because she is telegraphing and magnifying all the little quirks and emotions. And then there is the fact that (in the film), most of her change occurs offscreen. (For a film trying to make a statement about addiction, it certainly wraps things up in a “gilding the lily” manner.)  Maron is fine but his character’s devotion to Riseborough seems hardly motivated by the events we’re privy to. Finally, Alison Janney’s character is so good at exuding hate and resentment that her later behavior seems to be…implausible at best and not grounded in reality. It’s not a bad film, but if you watch To Leslie expecting to see the greatest female film performance ever…you may be disappointed.

Other nominees…

All Quiet on the Western Front shows us yet again that war is indeed Hell, in the latest adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s famous anti-war novel. A German release (with English subtitles) written and directed by Edward Berger, the film is faithful (at times) to the source material and is certainly more graphic and explicit than previous film adaptations. (The blood is plentiful, the mud omnipresent and etched into the actors’ visages, especially Felix Kammerer’s Paul). Our protagonist Paul (and others like him) are swayed by rhetoric to fight for the honor their country in the last months of the war; their unfortunate involvement (war is nothing like the heroic excursion they were led to believe…is it ever) is juxtaposed with many scenes in which German bureaucrats and diplomats are trying to negotiate a peace. So the nightmare on the battlefield becomes (in this telling) also a battle against tine as Paul and others try to stay alive until peace/an armistice is declared. And we all can guess how that’s going to turn out. The battle scenes are indeed impressive, the performances are adequate (given the mud masks most are forced to act through) and some of the individual moments still retain their power (Paul and the mortally wounded soldier in no man’s land.) It’s been nominated for Best Picture and can be seen on Netflix (or on the big screen).

In Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical The Fablemans, he and co-writer Tony Kushner have created a poignant coming-of-age story that is also infused with Spielberg’s love of filmmaking and the power of the camera—to immortalize, illuminate and provided added dimension to situations that might not have been apparent at first glance, to the naked eye. Spielberg’s surrogate Sammy Fabelman (played first by Mateo Zoryan Francis-Deford, then Gabriel LaBelle, both quite good and affecting) is quite taken with film and is encouraged, especially by his loving (and creative) mother in his cinematic pursuits. (Early on, encouraging to film a “train crash” so as not to keep damaging his newly-bought expensive set of trains. Sammy’s computer genius/engineer father Burt (Paul Dano) is also encouraging, but he sees Sammy’s interests as a mere hobby and not as a means of pursuing a career. Did I mention Bennie (Seth Rogen) who is also a colleague of Burt’s, as well as a very close family friend? 

There are several scenes in The Fabelmans that might be familiar to those who are familiar with Spielberg, as he is certainly recounted stories of his parents, as well as his meeting with famed director John Ford. These tales are affectionately presented, even though the characters are complex and flawed. (Michelle Williams is getting many of the accolades as the mother, but Paul Dano does a good job as the practical and occasionally clueless father—especially effective in response to developments later in the narrative. The scenes depicting Sammy’s creation of his early films and his desire to have them seem real are also well done; the later scenes of Sammy at school, confronting prejudice and discovering love, don’t play as well as the early portions and tend to be a little too facile in their resolution. Overall though, the film is worth seeing (and let’s not forget Judd Hirsch’s powerful turn as the uncle who tries to inform Sammy of the cost of being an artist.), though my pick for Best Picture is still The Banshees of Inisherin.