Best Pictures of 2023, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture Oscar Extra Credit – Part 4

I don’t know if I have a theme with this pair this time. Fair enough.

The Fabelmans

The main character’s name may be “Fabelman”, but this is pretty much Steven Spielberg’s origin story. Which makes me feel like that much more of a heel when I admit that I was…a little underwhelmed. Not by the quality, mind you; it’s perfectly fine, with Gabriel LaBelle doing a perfectly fine job as the Spielberg stand-in “Sammy Fabelman” and Paul Dano and Michelle Williams doing perfectly fine as Sammy’s parents. Seth Rogen also does great work as the ultimately challenging “Uncle Benny”, a family friend, and I can also see why Judd Hirsch got a Best-Supporting-Actor nomination for a cameo as Sammy’s great-uncle Boris. And the script is fine – swinging nimbly from laughs to sorrow as the Fabelmans’ luck changes and as Sammy’s parents tussle over Sammy’s “hobby”, one of the many things putting a strain on their marriage.

My biggest issue, though is…why are we hearing this story? I mean, I understand that Spielberg has always wanted to tell an autobiographical story – he’s been sitting on this story for about 20 years, since his sister Anne wrote the screenplay and they agreed to wait until both their parents had passed away. But a lot of the thing we hear in this story are things we’ve already heard in interviews – that Spielberg got into film as a kid when he saw The Greatest Show On Earth, that he would make little movies with friends as a kid, that his father was an engineer and moved the family around a lot, that his parents ultimately divorced. It all left me with a sense that the film was all stuff I knew already, and that’s why I left wondering “why this story, why now”.

I still feel like a heel admitting that, but there it is.

Although, speaking of things I’ve seen before….

All Quiet On The Western Front

Interestingly enough, I’d expected to have to stream this Netflix-distributed film at home; but I was very surprised to see it was screening at a local theater. Netflix is likely making a big push to capitalize on the Academy nod, because there was a free promotional booklet about the film waiting at everyone’s seats, full of lots of stills from the film captioned with quotes from the filmmakers or lines from Erich Maria Remarque’s original text.

Speaking of which – this adaptation differs from the book and thus also from the 1930 adaptation, and that’s a story in itself. I note in my original review that the 1930 is “a pretty faithful adaptation” – and I’ve since learned that Remarque made that a condition when he sold the film rights. The book effectively vanished from Germany in the 1930s and 40s – thanks to the particular powers in charge at that time – but has become available in Germany again; Malte Grunert, this film’s producer, mentions he has read it several times, as have much of the creative team. And even though it’s been nearly a century since Remarque wrote it, it seems that the creative team got his message loud and clear: director and screenwriter Edward Berger said that it’s a story about how “a group of young people are manipulated by populist hate speech, convincing them that an aggressive war is perfectly legitimate…this relentless machinery of war, crushing everything that stands in its way, is the essence of the book.”

Berger has indeed preserved the essence, while making some changes from the original to make it more suitable for audiences today. My biggest complaint about the original was its habit of taking entire passages from the book, things the main character Paul simply thought to himself, and made him speak them aloud. It felt terribly clunky and forced. Berger has left a lot of those Lengthy Monologues out, trusting that his actors can….well, act. In the scene where Paul is trapped in a foxhole alongside a French soldier he’s just stabbed, instead of a lengthy speech where he pleads with the wheezing soldier to be quiet and then muses about how they’d probably be friends if they met during peacetime and then apologizes to him for killing him and yadda yadda yadda, this Paul simply shouts “shut up” at him a couple times, then looks terrified and remorseful in turns, then crawls over and tries to bandage his wounds and make him more comfortable as he dies – and then closes his eyes, finds a photo of the man’s wife and child, and whispers a promise to the corpse in halting French that he’ll make sure they get his things.

The biggest changes are additions – instead of starting with Paul’s schoolteacher giving his students a call to arms, we start watching another group of soldiers race into battle, and then watch how the war machine deals with the aftermath; soldiers strip the corpses of uniforms before burying them, the uniforms are sent back to a laundry at the home front where the blood and mud is cleaned, then a warehouse full of seamstresses mend the various rips and bullet holes before sending all the uniforms to the recruitment centers, where an excited Paul receives one as he enlists. We also see more of the upper-level forces at play – scenes where a German politician named Matthias Erzberger negotiates peace terms with the French, and where a German general idly enjoys lavish meals as he sends Paul and his fellow soldiers out on various missions. Erzberger and the general also foreshadow the impact the peace treaty had on Germany – Erzberger warns the French about the sore state of the German economy and how that could lead to some…internal strife, and the general rails against the peace treaty, vowing that he’s going to send his men out to keep fighting up until the very last second. Those are both changes that Remarque couldn’t have seen coming in 1930, but have resonated very clearly in hindsight. I did miss the scene – a bit – where Paul goes home on leave for a couple weeks, and realizes his family has absolutely no idea what he’s going through and are all still seduced by the Glories Of War stories they’ve been hearing about the battles. But the general’s utter callousness makes up for that.

There’s also a chilling sequence I also thought did some future forecasting; there’s a couple sequences where Paul and his fellow soldier Kat sneak out of their base camp to raid a nearby French farmer, stealing one of his geese or chickens for food. Both times they are nearly caught with the farmer and his young son chasing them off and then firing after them with a rifle as they run. On their last raid, the camera gives us a lingering close-up of the son angrily watching Paul and Kat run off – and I realized that you know, that kid’s only about eight or nine…young enough that he could be first to enlist in the 1930s when France needed people along the Maginot Line.

I’m fairly sure that this will get the Best International Feature award as a sort of “consolation prize” so the Academy can award Best Picture to something else. But at least it earned that nomination.

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