The birth of a storyteller: “The Fabelmans”
Updated: Feb 15
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) gives her young son Sammy (Mateo Zoryan) his father’s 8mm film camera to capture his new Lionel train crashing into a toy car to mimic what he saw at the movies during Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2022; PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence, and drug use; streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: “The Fabelmans: A Personal Journey” featurette
I’VE BEEN a Steven Spielberg fanboy ever since his TV movie “Duel” was broadcast November 13, 1971, on ABC. Sometimes that’s all it takes, just that one moment.
Loosely based on Spielberg’s childhood in New Jersey, “The Fabelmans” begins with young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan). Seated with his parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) in a local theater, he sees his first movie, a Cecil B. DeMille (“The Ten Commandments”) epic, “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952) featuring a terrifying train derailment. The family, including his three sisters, then pack their bags and transplant to Phoenix and later to Northern California, where Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) develops into a teenage filmmaker, and eventually discovers a splintering family secret.
“The Fabelmans” premiered September 2022 at the Toronto International Film Festival, earning rave reviews from critics, and becoming an early Oscar front-runner. Yet, when it finally arrived in American theaters, it bombed. It wasn’t the only prestige drama (“Tár,” “She Said”) that struggled to find its targeted audience – mostly older moviegoers slowly returning to theaters after COVID-19. Domestically, “The Fabelmans” only made $17 million and worldwide $28 million against a $40 million budget. While James Cameron’s VFX extravaganza “Avatar: The Way of Water” rocketed to $2.1 billion in just seven weeks.
(1-3) Seven-year-old Sammy Fabelman sees his first motion picture “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), featuring a terrifying train derailment, with his parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi. (4) The Fabelmans return home and their house is the only one on the street not lit up for Christmas. (5) Burt Fabelman places the first candle of Hanukkah into the menorah. (6) Sammy’s Lionel train set was a series of Hanukkah gifts. (7) Family friend and Burt’s co-worker Uncle Bennie Loewy (Sean Rogen) has dinner with the Fabelmans. (8) After dinner Sammy and his mother go secretly into a closet to watch the 8mm footage of his Lionel train derailing.
During this year’s award season, it’s also been hit or miss for “The Fabelmans.” It won Best Drama and Spielberg won Best Director during the more inclusive Golden Globes from the Hollywood Foreign Press. Meanwhile, the British Academy Film Awards (BAFA) only honored it with one nomination for the screenplay written by Spielberg and Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Tony Kushner (“Angles in America,” “Munich,” “Lincoln”). Back in the U.S., Spielberg’s personal film received seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for Michelle Williams as Sammy’s mother, Best Supporting Actor for Judd Hirsch as Uncle Boris, a former circus lion-tamer; Best Screenplay, Best Score for John Williams (his 53rd nomination) and Best Production Design. The American Film Institute selected it as one of the 10 best films of the year.
“When I saw the film for the first time, I was just overwhelmed. It’s Steven’s beating heart on a plate.” — Producer Kristie Macosko Krieger
The 4K disc, Blu-ray, and digital include three featurettes. The first and best is “The Fabelmans: A Personal Journey,” which opens on Spielberg’s traditional final shooting day champagne toast October 6, 2021. After 59 days of shooting, he dreaded coming to the end. “I’ve had the time of my life, literally, because this is a time of my life,” he says as the cast and crew laugh. Then continuing, “I have felt completely embraced and supported by all of you who knew what this film meant to myself and to Tony [Kushner].”
A year earlier in October 2020 during the middle of COVID-19, Spielberg and co-writer Kushner commenced writing an 80–90-page script. Once finished they called co-producer Mocosko Krieger, to get the production rolling. “How soon do you wanna make this movie?” she asked. Five months later and still in the middle of the pandemic, cameras began rolling.
The Fabelmans transplant to Arizona
(1-4) To earn his Boy Scout merit badge in photography, Sammy decides to make his first serious 8mm film, “Gunsmog” (1959), influenced by John Ford’s western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962) and the TV series “Gunsmoke.” Scout troop 275 watches the western.
Nearly two decades ago during the filming of “Munich” (2005) on the small Mediterranean Island of Malta, Spielberg first told Kushner his personal stories, which became the core of “The Fabelmans.” “But we wanted to give the audience as well as Steven, a kind of distance from autobiography,” Kushner says. So, while Spielberg and Kushner made sure nothing was wholly invented in terms of the events, they did take liberties with sequences and timing. Some characters turned into “amalgamations of a couple of characters,” Kushner explains. Still, overall, the main characters are based solely on people that did the “things in Steven’s life, and he shows them doing it.”
Spielberg’s mother, Leah, was “whimsical and fun and carefree,” and a concert pianist Macosko Krieger says. While his father, Arnold, an electrical engineer for General Electric, “was a steady Eddie. He was just the salt of the earth. Straight, kind, and the most intelligent man,” involved in the early development of computer technology. Spielberg reflects on his parents, “I can’t even imagine going through my career without having told this story, probably at this time, so soon – two years after my father passed away, and five years after my mom died.”
Ultimately, Spielberg’s story is about family, parenting, siblings, bullying, and “the good and bad things that happen when you’re growing up,” he says. “Life is full of things that are ridiculous and silly and abstract and existential and very sad and traumatizing, but I simply wanted this to be a coming-of-age story.”
(1) Mitzi Fabelman a concert pianist prepares for an upcoming performance of Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano Op 3. (2) Sammy drives the family station wagon to the Arizona mountains for a short vacation. (3) Fabelmans and Uncle Bennie sing around the campfire. (4) Burt and Mitzi kiss even though their marriage is struggling. (5) Burt asks Sammy to edit a short film from the camping trip as a gift for his mother. (6) Mitzi’s brother Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a former circus lion-tamer, arrives at their doorstep and gives Sammy advice about being an artist.
The second featurette “Family Dynamics” includes interviews with Spielberg and his co-stars Williams, Dano, Seth Rogen as Uncle Bennie Loewy, and Gabriel LaBelle as the older Sammy. “The hardest part to cast was Sammy because it forced me to ask myself this question: How well do you really know yourself?” Spielberg says. “But the one thing I knew about myself consistently in my entire life, I’m curious about so many things, which is why I make so many different kinds of movies.”
The third featurette “Crafting the World of The Fabelmans” includes interviews with production designer Rick Carter, who got hand-drawn floorplans of Spielberg’s different childhood homes, and plenty of input from his sisters Anne, Nancy, and Sue. Plus, conversations with costume designer Mark Bridges, who had Williams wear some of Steven’s mother’s jewelry, and longtime collaborators Janusz Kaminski director of photography, Michael Kahn editor, and composer John Williams. Spielberg was speechless when he first heard the simple piano theme song, “Mother and Son.” “He was standing here and started to weep,” Williams says.
“For us to have been able to come together on this picture, which I consider my most personal. It’s a wonderful way for Johnny [Williams] to finish up his career as a film composer.” — Steven Spielberg
(1-4) Sammy’s 40-minute World War II film “Escape to Nowhere” (1961) was filmed in the Arizona desert. His parents and Uncle Bennie show their approval of the film.
Spielberg and Kaminski continue their long tradition of capturing drama on 35mm film stock, then scanning and mastering in 4K (1.85:1 aspect ratio). There’s a slightly desaturated look throughout using a cooler color palette during the scenes on the East Coast, and everything turns to the warm side in Arizona and during the senior Ditch Day sequence, with saturated colors filmed in one day on a California beach with 180 extras. Two days later, the same extras and lead teenage cast members dressed for the prom sequence and to watch Sam’s 16mm short film “Ditch Day.” The cast and extras’ reactions were authentic, seeing the footage for the first time.
The added resolution of the 4K disc extracts a more defined film grain, which is nicely balanced and controlled from start to finish, all encoded onto a 100-gigabit disc. The average video bit runs in the 60 megabits per second range, while its HDR10 peak brightness is at 300 nits and averages on the low side of only 80 nits. It has a flat contrast level throughout, a darker tone on 4K, and an expanded color spectrum for more accurate colors, just as I saw in a theater in December. From the many wide shots – a Spielberg trademark – to the tighter expressive facial shots, the resolution is excellent, with distant objects including the fine print on the movie posters in John Ford’s office, to facial markings on close-ups.
The simple and quiet score from John Williams runs throughout the eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Dialogue is front and center as expected, and never gets lost, while the rears get their biggest push during the short tornado scene. Don’t expect your subwoofer to get much action here. This is mostly a talking drama, with a nice balance of environmental effects from height speakers and rears.
Spielberg continues to lead the pack with the most 4K Ultra HD format titles with “The Fabelmans” making No. 17. Here’s a list of additional films that have made the transition: “Jaws” (1975), “Close Encounter of the Third Kind” (1977), “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984), “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989), “Hook” (1991), “Jurassic Park” (1993), “Schindler’s List” (1993), “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” (1997), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), “War of the Worlds” (2005), “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (2008), “The Post” (2017), “Ready Player One” (2018) and “West Side Story” (2021).
FYI: It’s rumored Universal will release “Duel” on 4K Ultra HD disc in 2023. Who knows what other Spielberg surprise we may get by year’s end?
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
The move to Northern California
(1&2) Sam encounters anti-Semitic bullying at his new high school. (3&4) He meets Claudia Denning (Isabelle Kusman) and Monica Sherwood (Chole East), who are fascinated with him being Jewish. Monica is an outspoken Christian and tries to convert Sammy while becoming his girlfriend. (5&6) Sam volunteers to film senior “Ditch Day” at the beach with Moncia’s dad’s high-end 16mm camera. (7&8) He and Monica attend the prom and his film is a smashing hit.
College & Director John Ford
(1&2) Sam and his father now live in Southern California, and he attends college while writing letters to Hollywood studios looking for any work. Sam has a panic attack as his father checks his heart. Burt continues to struggle with the separation from Sam’s mother Mitzi. (3-6) Sam gets an opportunity to meet director John Ford, who at the time was considered Hollywood’s greatest. Ford asks Sam, “What do you know about art, kid? Where’s the horizon?