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Film critic Harlan Jacobson says the Toronto Film Festival sets the table with "The Fabelmans"

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Harlan Jacobson/The Fabelmans
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The Fabelmans

Festival is misleading or even a misnomer. The important A-list fests are really conventions, a cross between sales conventions to introduce the new line — in the garment industry parlance of my salesman father — and marketing launchpads for the coming season of film debuts. We’re in the festival year’s far turn with Venice and Telluride, just over, Toronto ending its session and the upcoming San Sebastian and NY film festivals soon to introduce films that will dominate the cultural conversation and maybe even the boxoffice for the next half year

Most notably there are three film director memoirs, Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated THE FABELMANS, which served as Toronto’s highest profile debut on the international festival scene and which Toronto secured exclusively before its November 11 opening, Sam Mendes’ EMPIRE of LIGHT, which played at both Toronto and Telluride and James Gray’s ARMAGEDDON TIME, at Telluride after having debuted in competition at Cannes last May.

The Fabelmans is the first film Spielberg has given to the Toronto International Film Festival, aka TIFF, which fought hard for the exclusivity. The 75 year old Spielberg is unabashedly sentimental in virtually every film, but The Fabelmans is like hitting a grownup’s home movie trove: it harks back to his family’s migration from Cincinnati – New Jersey in the film – to Phoenix and finally California. Tony Kushner, who wrote the new West Side Story for him, returned to Spielberg to fictionalize Spielberg’s Odyssey in the character of Sammy Fabelman. On seeing the trainwreck in The Greatest Show on Earth as a kid taken by his parents to the neighborhood movie theatre, Sammy has an almost instantaneous fascination with the movies. He doesn’t want to see more, he wants to make them—a passion supported whole heartedly by his Jewish mama, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) who made the 50’s deal of trading in her career as a pianist for housewife, and grudgingly tolerated as frivolous by his computer-engineer father, Burt (Paul Dano). The script is guilty of the usual Spielberg punctuation marks to make septuple sure the audience gets the points it wants to make — inserting a toilet paper movie mummy joke here, a scene there of losing their belongings, overstuffed Grapes of Wrath style into the family beater, as they tumble out into a puddle on their pell-mell migration west.

While I have come around on Spielberg over the years – how could one not?, his output has been astonishing, his impact inestimable —one always sees the economic imperative of the compact with Universal Studios to sell the movie to the shopping mall first. Even the title, the characters, The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s stab at not so subliminal messaging: this is the childhood of a man born to tell stories against not all odds, but those of a family that fractures in 50’s America, when marital affairs and divorce were whispered. Legions of A-list craftspeople have conspired to lure people with $20 bucks away from Trump, the Queen’s coffin, Godard’s last breath, whatever the day brings – to believe in Spielberg’s world, and to the extent that it happened here, in his America: What an incredible fable, man.

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The Fabelmans
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Gabriel LaBelle in The FABELMANS

As Mitzi the mom, Michelle Williams channels Shirley MacLaine a bit accented by some Shelley Winters ethnicity. Paul Dano plays the cyber-engineer dad, Burt, sweet like the Tin Man gradually grasping that oil only takes you so far. It doesn’t really replace desire. Gabriel LaBelle, the kid who plays Sammy, the filmmaker to be, is likable without sliding into unctuous Jewish kid parody territory — a distinct risk in this genre. There are also three obligatory wise men, Dad’s best friend, Seth Rogen, as Uncle Benny, whose goofy, friendliness counterpoints Burt, Dano’s engineer dad, which is played out along the story’s main axis of living in the workaday world vs. the creative one, the world of moving parts vs the one full of lions, tigers and love in the fifth reel. Benny lives inside his Mom’s emotional and philosophical dimensionality that Burt doesn’t see.

This is it, The Fabelmans, Spielberg, the John Williams score in full Nabisco sugar wafer form:

It’s young filmmaker Sammy who sees deeply into the frame—the magic of which captures all the information we overlook in daily life — and must reconcile Uncle Benny’s bounciness with his deep betrayal. Judd Hirsch arrives as Mitzi’s wizened Uncle Boris, a crazyman carny and stuntman, for a scene that is basically Yoda, the crazy Jewish mentor, out of whose mouth falls da troot about art. If Sammy missed the nuance of Uncle Boris’ shtick, he gets a parting shot with David Lynch doing a deep dive into a cranky legend that isn’t so much acting as exhuming in a short, hot master class on knowing where the horizon goes in the frame. Spielberg, umm, Sammy… got the memo.

In Toronto and Telluride, Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, his 10th film and first he wrote, felt less bedazzling and more plodding, as it alights on the Empire Cinema in the cold gray light of Margate, on the Southeast coast of England. To give you a feel for the place, Mendes points out it‘s where TS Eliot repaired to write the Waste Land and JMW Turner to paint ships at sea. The story here is of an ensemble—they could be any ensemble of characters – here working to put on a show in a theatre dressed up for its closeup by the film’s design department’s Mark Tildesley. The theatre looks a little better than the down on its heels state of such places in the early 80’s, a quite grand art deco old lady. The cast of characters who run the place are, as these things, go spread out among archetypes: Olivia Colman is the duty manager struggling with more monsters internally than ever make it up onscreen, Colin Firth is her boss whom Me-Too would’ve made short work of 40 years later, the obligatory side characters of Tom Brooke is the assistant manager who sees all, Hannah Onslow is the punk usher, Toby Jones is the gnome up in the booth – in a sequence I loved of threading the machine, teaching the mechanics of a craft that has gone the way of the slide rule to Micheal Ward, a gorgeous young black hire who starts as ticket taker but becomes the hinge whereby the story swings open.

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Harlan Jacobson
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Sam Mendes' EMPIRE of LIGHT

The film has stayed with me better than it played: Mendes has a great eye for theatre culture here, as opposed to cinema, though the film evokes a related response. And his 1917 cinematographer, Roger Deakins, is the emperor of light.

Armageddon Time, James Gray’s cinema memoir of growing up in Queens in the 80s, originated in Cannes and made its next stop in Telluride over Labor Day. True, the bones are the same as The Fabelmans, the back story of how the true hero of the piece, the director, came to cinema from a misspent, squashed youth. But Armageddon Time also hinges on the bad luck and stoic defeat played by race and so plays a major theme in a minor key that’s truthful in a more contemporary way. And I didn’t struggle with Anthony Hopkins as a Jewish grampa: some Jewish Grampas are Brits, some aren’t, and audiences are prone to projecting the Grampa they want to see. See Armageddon Time in concert with seeing The Fabelmans. It’ll be your own master class in how American filmmakers treat memoir.

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Harlan Jacobson
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Banks Repeta, Anthony Hopkins in James Gray's ARMAGEDDON TIME

Look out also for:

Todd Field’s return to filmmaking in TÁR, from Venice and Telluride, with Cate Blanchett laying claim to being the best actress of her generation by playing Lydia Tar—there’s a lot in a name remember -- a woman symphony conductor, the world’s most exciting and exacting symphony conductor, at the top of her career.

And at Toronto, BARDO, Albert Gonzalez’ Iñárritu’s sometimes brilliant, overlong three-hour plus story of a filmmaker reaching the end of the line —and like Fellini’s 81/2 taking stock of how he got to here.

Mary Harron’s DaliLand, with Ben Kingsley as Salvador Dali, is like crashing a masked ball on a 1950’s psych ward from which there is no escape.

Did I mention WOMEN TALKING from Toronto and Telluride—a half dozen Mennonite women sitting in a barn hashing out whether all of them walk out on their men and boys in Canadian actress-turned director Sarah Polley’s accomplished adaptation of Miriam Toew’s novel? It’s virtually a one-set play that goes way beyond Lysistrata in Aristophanes territory about withholding sex until things change around there—to the monumental decision made in the Book of Exodus and regretted as not made in Europe 5000 years later. The film’s a verbal skirmish in chambers until it becomes a powerhouse decision of a people.

More big titles to come from San Sebastian and New York coming up soon.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.