Then Playing — Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio; Violent Night; The Fabelmans

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson, 2022). It’s seem a fine idea for Guillermo del Toro to channel his enduring fascinating for grim fairy tales into a stop-motion animation take on the little wooden boy created by Italian novelist Carlo Collodi in the nineteenth century. In practice, though, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a tonal mess, sometimes enthralled by the beauty to be found in the macabre and sometimes overeagerly antic, as if del Toro and co-director Mark Gustafson are throwing in broad comedy as a respite from the plentiful content sure to be traumatizing for any young viewers mistakenly given access to this fairly adult version of the tale. The film is too long and saddled with narrative baggage it can’t bear, notably a consideration of the effects of Benito Mussolini’s brand of fascism that plays like a hazy replication of the stark shadows cast by Francisco Franco in the far superior Pan’s Labyrinth. Excepting a few characteristically lovely expressions in the design of various paranormal elements, the only real pleasure I found in the film was the vocal performance of Cate Blanchett as a mostly malicious monkey named Spazzatura, and even that was less due to what was on screen and more from picturing the regal thespian in the recording booth inventing the critter’s squeaks and squawks.

Violent Night (Tommy Wirkola, 2022). “He looks jolly as fuck, but who the hell is he?” snarls John Leguizamo, playing the leader of a group of terrorist mansion invaders, as he looks at security cam footage of Santa Claus (David Harbour) with his clothes stained by blood rather than tarnished with ashes and soot. The crass simplicity of that joke exemplifies Violent Night, a gory action movie that reimagines St. Nick as a drunken cynic who draws on his distant history as a Viking warrior to dispatch a platoon of villainous commandos, the plentiful bone cracking accompanied by Schwarzeneggerian bon mots. The only part of the film that rises above it’s one-joke premise is a sequence in which an intrepid youngster (Leah Brady) recreates several Home Alone booby traps, satirically demonstrating the horrifying viciousness of Kevin McCallister ad hoc defenses. Tommy Wirkola directs the action slickly enough without ever managing to make any of it interesting. Harbour has some fun with the more comedic beats, but even he’s ultimately defeated by the thudding din of it all.

The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg, 2022). Steven Spielberg’s latest feature is more overtly autobiographical than anything else in his filmography. There’s a reason The Fabelmans brings his first writing credit in more than twenty years (he last handled screenplay duties on A.I. Artificial Intelligence; here he shares credit with regular collaborator Tony Kushner). Spielberg mines his own family history and youthful ardor for films and filmmaking to tell the story of Sammy Fabelman (played as a young kid by Mateo Zoryan and then as a teen by Gabriel LaBelle). The narrative occasionally takes on the semi-randomness of memory, which is actually a strength. It’s invigorating to watch the most masterful of master craftsmen allow the messiness of life to invade his filmmaking and even more of a thrill when he brings some meta playfulness to the proceedings. On the latter point, the film’s ingenious final shot immediately vaulted to the top of my lengthy list of favorite Spielberg moments. The acting is exemplary throughout, right down the smaller roles built with a suggestion of stock character simplicity that only accentuates Spielberg’s central thesis about the built-in ability of movies to reveal and thwart truth at the same time. Even more than its liberal borrowing of specific details from his own life, The Fabelmans feels like a movie only Spielberg could make — or at least make with such exceptional results — because of its immersion in the dazzling art and artifice of cinema itself.

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