WELCOME TO MARWEN (2018)

December 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The main thing to keep in mind while watching this movie is that it’s based on the true story of a real guy – Mark Hogancamp – and it’s also a dramatization designed to entertain, enlighten and even inspire. Most of the time it’s pretty discomforting to watch, but what would you expect with a grown man who spends his time creating and photographing fictional and fantasy-laden WWI scenes in the model-scale village he built in his backyard? And he frequently does so while wearing women’s shoes.

When we first meet Mark Hogancamp (played by Steve Carell), he is three years removed from a brutal and savage attack by a group of men outside a local bar. While intoxicated, and after having been called a derogatory term, Mark confessed to the men that he sometimes wears women’s shoes. Not long after, he was being pummeled to near death in the parking lot. When Hogancamp awoke from the coma, he had no memory of his past, no taste for alcohol (he had been an alcoholic), and a shaky hand that prevented him from continuing to earn a living as an illustrator.

In his new world of mental and physical challenges, Mark does manage to tap into his artistic side and deal with his trauma in quite an unusual manner. He creates a WWII era Belgian village named Marwen – fused by his first name and that of Wendy, a neighbor he was quite fond of. Using dolls and action figures and other accessories found at the local hobby shop, Mark sets up elaborate battle sequences that feature the German SS standing in for his attackers outside the bar, and a battalion of courageous machine-gun toting ladies who protect US Air Force Captain Hoagie (a stand-in for Mark himself). He is also haunted by Deja Thoris, who he calls the Belgian Witch of Marwen.

Director Robert Zemeckis has long capitalized on unusual visuals and special effects in his films such as FORREST GUMP, BACK TO THE FUTURE, THE POLAR EXPRESS, and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, and here he uses motion-capture for his excellent action sequences. Rather than the lifelike images we’ve come to expect with motion-capture, Zemeckis and his team allow the figures to keep a touch of their doll-like attributes, so that we easily distinguish between reality and Mark’s fantasy escapes.

Opening with an action packed and vivid battle sequence, we slowly pull back through the viewfinder on Mark’s camera to see him and get our first glimpse at Marwen and its inhabitants. In time, each of the characters is unveiled – real life person and the Marwen counterpart (doll). The tough-as-nails women are Diane Kruger as Deja Thoris (Belgian Witch), Gwendoline Christie as Anna the visiting nurse, Janelle Monae as Julie the physical therapist, Merritt Weaver (“Godless”) as Roberta the hobby shop owner, Elza Gonzalez as Carlala and Mark’s meatball-making co-worker, Leslie Zemeckis (the director’s wife) as Suzette, Stephanie von Pfetten as Wendy (of Marwen fame), and Leslie Mann as new neighbor Nicol.

The screenplay was co-written by Caroline Thompson and director Zemeckis, and the dramatization effects could be noted if compared to the 2010 documentary MARWENCOL (the doc explains the truth behind the full town name) which details Mark’s story. It was a 2000 attack that left him in a coma for 9 days, and resulted in his transition to photography and war reenactments as a form of therapy. His photography is so exceptional that Mr. Hogancamp is featured in gallery showings and publications. In the film, we see his attempts to face his accusers in court, and how he was finally able to personally come to grips with his own shame and guilt in regards to the hate crime that changed his life.

As if the actual story doesn’t provide enough strange elements, director Zemeckis adds a few dashes of bizarre by having Nazis that come back to life, a time machine so similar to the BACK TO THE FUTURE Delorean that we can’t help but smile, a bell tower scene seemingly taken straight from Hitchcock’s VERTIGO … including a fall and landing that recalls THE OMEN. There is also Julie London’s surreal version of “Yummy Yummy Yummy”, and enough women’s shoes to stock a department store. Mark’s story is simultaneously tragic, unconventional, deserving of empathy, romantic, heart-breaking, redeeming, twisted, and uplifting. It’s rare for a feel-good movie to leave us feeling so ‘not good’ due to its nature, but I am still not sure I’ve fully evaluated what was presented.

watch the trailer:

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HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)

December 21, 2016

hidden-figures Greetings again from the darkness. The space program has created many iconic images over the years: rhesus monkeys in space suits, the Mercury 7 Astronauts press conference, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin erecting a flag on the moon, and numerous Space Shuttle missions – some successful, others quite tragic. We’ve even been privy to cameras inside the space station and the NASA control center. Despite all of that, director Theodore Melfi’s (St Vincent, 2014) latest film uncovers a part of history of which most of us knew nothing.

Adapted from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film stuns us with the story of the “Colored Computers” … the African-American female mathematicians who manually checked and cross-checked the endless calculations, formulas and theories required to launch a rocket into space and bring it (and the astronaut) back home. It’s a crowd-pleasing history lesson and an overdue tribute to, and celebration of, three intelligent women of color who played crucial roles in the success of the American space program

We first meet a young Katherine Johnson as a child math prodigy whose school can’t provide her the challenge she needs. Next we see her as a bespectacled adult (Taraji P Henson) on the side of the road beside a broken down car with her friends and co-workers Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (musician Janelle Monae). They are on their way to work at Langley in the computing department. Dorothy is the ad hoc supervisor of the group and is in a non-stop battle for the title and increased pay that comes with the job. Mary is the razor-tongued one who is striving to overcome all of the obstacles on her way to becoming the first female African American Engineer at NASA. These are good friends and smart women caught up in the racism and sexism of the times and of the organization for which they work.

Soon, Katherine is promoted to the Space Task Group run by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). This is a group of true rocket scientists, and Katherine is charged with checking and confirming their work … a thankless job for anyone, but especially for a black woman in the early 1960’s. Her supervisor (Jim Parsons) refuses to give her the necessary security clearance – huge portions of the work are redacted, making it increasingly difficult for Katherine to run the numbers. This is a seemingly accurate and grounded portrayal of racism in the workplace. At the time, racism and sexism were mostly woven into the fabric of society … it’s “just the way things are”. It’s almost a passive-aggressive environment with separate coffee pots and restrooms clear across campus.

There are numerous sub-plots – probably too many. We even get an underdeveloped romance between Katherine and a soldier named Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, so great in this year’s Moonlight). We follow Mary as she goes to court in pursuit of the right to take the engineering courses required for her certification. We see Dorothy with her kids, as well as her ongoing head-butting with her condescending supervisor (Kristen Dunst), who claims to have nothing against ‘you people’. Dorothy’s response is clever, crowd-pleasing and a reminder that this is an air-brushed version of reality … but also a view that we rarely see. As the Mercury Project progresses, we note how Harrison (Costner) is so focused on getting the job done, that he is oblivious to the extra challenges faced by Katherine – that is until her emotions erupt in a scene that will have Henson under Oscar consideration.

The slow implementation of the first IBM mainframe is important not just to NASA, but also to Dorothy and her team. They see the future and immediately start self-training on Fortran so that they are positioned for the new world, rather than being left behind. Eye-opening sequences like this are contrasted with slick mainstream aspects like no slide-rules (not very camera friendly, I guess), stylish and expensive clothing for the underpaid women, and a steady parade of sparkling classic cars in vibrant colors – no mud or dents in sight. Sure, these are minor qualms, but it’s these types of details that distract from the important stories and messages.

The film does a nice job of capturing the national pride inspired by the Mercury project, and astronauts such as John Glenn (played here by Glen Powell, Everybody Wants Some!!). It even deploys some actual clips and captures the pressure brought on by the race to space versus the Russians. There is an interesting blend of Hans Zimmer’s score and the music of Pharrell Williams that gives the film a somewhat contemporary feel despite being firmly planted in the 60’s. This mostly unknown story of these women is clearly about heroes fighting the daily battles while maintaining exemplary self-control. It offers a positive, upbeat and inspirational message … believe in yourself, and don’t pre-judge others. Don’t miss the photos over the closing credits, and don’t hesitate to take the family to the theatre over the holidays.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


MOONLIGHT (2016)

November 27, 2016

moonlight Greetings again from the darkness. It’s uncertain whether writer/director Barry Jenkins has developed the story from Tarell McCraney in order to highlight stereotypes, explain stereotypes, or both. The interpretation is up to the viewer, but what’s clear is that the film is one of the most sensitive portraits we’ve seen of growing up young, black, and sexually confused, while being mostly neglected by a drug-addicted mother.

Told in standard triptych structure, the film chronicles 3 stages in the life of a young male, with the chapters titled Little – Chiron – Black, for the names he is known by at each stage. As a 9 year old boy, “Little” (a nickname due to his small stature) is a wide-eyed near-mute who gets bullied and called names by the bigger boys. It’s at this stage where he is taken under the wing of local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who offers a “safe place” to sleep and eat, with the bonus of swimming lessons accentuated by life lessons from Juan and his understanding girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). It’s a poignant and painful moment when Little connects the dots between his mother (Naomie Harris) and Juan.

As a high school adolescent, Chiron is now a nervous, totally-withdrawn kid who simply doesn’t fit in – and doesn’t understand why. His high-crime Miami neighborhood is even more dangerous for him now as the schoolyard bullying is often accompanied by violent behavior. His surrogate father figure Juan is no longer in the picture, but Teresa is still there for him – always at the ready with a meal, clean sheets, and a spoonful of wisdom.

In the final chapter, we catch up with a hardened “Black” (another nickname) 10 years after high school followed by a stint in prison. He has moved from his Miami roots, and it’s at this stage where we fully understand the influence of a role model on a boy who has few. When he reconnects with childhood buddy Kevin, we see the shredded remnants of young “Little” still present in the older, experienced “Black”. This circle of life is understandable, while at the same time being nearly unbearable.

In addition to Mr. Ali and Ms. Monea (both who are excellent in the upcoming Hidden Figures), and the standout work of Ms. Harris, the six actors who play Chiron and Kevin through the years are fascinating to watch. Alex Hibbert perfectly captures the confused “Little”. Ashton Sanders plays the awkward, dreading-each-day Chiron; and Trevante Rhodes (former University of Texas athlete) plays the adult “Black” with a quiet uneasiness that resonates on screen. The 3 Kevin actors are Jaden Piner, Jharell Jerome, and Andre Holland (a standout as the adult Kevin).

Beautifully filmed in all three segments by cinematographer James Laxton, the film reiterates the importance of role models, especially in the life of those whose path seems pre-ordained by circumstance. The harsh realities of drug addiction, absentee parents, schoolyard bullying, and the almost inevitable stint behind bars are contrasted with a plate of fries, the chef’s special from an old friend, and the soothing effects of sand and sea. Encouraging our kids to be true to themselves is a lesson that can fall on deaf ears when surviving the moment is first and foremost. This incredibly sensitive film is likely either a necessary reminder or an eye-opening education … depending on your own situation.

watch the trailer: