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.

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BLOCKERS (2018)

April 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Teen sex comedies exploring new boundaries are a Hollywood tradition. ANIMAL HOUSE (1978), PORKY’S (1981), AMERICAN PIE (1999), and SUPERBAD (2007) all pushed the limits of decency for their era, and provided varying levels of laughter while doing so. In her directorial debut, Tina Fey protégé Kay Cannon (“30 Rock”, PITCH PERFECT franchise), offers up what has been called the first “Feminist teen comedy”, and the risqué humor is far more extreme than that of its predecessors noted above.

We have become quite accustomed to the all-too-common male-centric perspective in these types of movies, so kudos to director Cannon for taking a look from the other side: a Female-centric teen sex comedy. Co-writers Brian and Jim Kehoe unfortunately try to cram too much into what should mostly be a laugh-a-thon. We get the #SexPact2018 from 3 high school senior best friends who agree to lose their virginity on prom night. We get the far-too-involved parents trying to prevent that from happening. We get those same parents dealing with the pending empty nest syndrome, while those three friends are immersed in drugs, alcohol and sex talk. If that’s not quite enough, there is also a sexual identity awakening and a hotel party more extreme than you would find in Las Vegas.

Leslie Mann plays Lisa, the helicopter single mom to Julie (Kathryn Newton). WWE star John Cena is Mitchell, the overprotective dad and life coach to Kayla (an outstanding Geraldine Viswanathan); and comedian Ike Barinholtz (“The Mindy Project”) is Hunter, the estranged/absentee/banished dad to Sam (Gideon Adlon). Julie envisions the perfect romantic encounter, while Kayla just wants to be done with it, and Sam is still trying to figure out why she isn’t so attracted to boys.

Riffing off of the “one wild and crazy night” theme, prom night is chosen by the three amigas, and what follows is outrageous and periodically hilarious. Most of the humor comes courtesy of the parents on the ill-fated ‘blocking’ mission. The story bounces from heartfelt emotions of parents to ‘butt-chugging’ at a party. There is also a car explosion, felony breaking and entering, and projectile vomiting. Perhaps there is an overuse of hulking John Cena crying, but that’s less cringe-inducing than the role-playing of Gary Cole and Gina Gershon (parents of one of the girl’s dates).

Setting the story in Chicago allows the filmmakers to take on the conservative Midwestern attitudes toward sex, while also providing a teenager with the “I’m getting as far away as possible” (UCLA) comeback. It makes sense that SUPERBAD co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are Producers, as this film often feels like the female cousin to that 2007 film. Hannibal Buress has a small memorable role, as does Jimmy Bellinger, as fedora wearing Chad. The real standouts here are relative newcomer Geraldine Viswanathan, and John Cena, who previously has excelled with less screen time (DADDYS HOME 2, TRAINWRECK). Many will be offended on numerous occasions, and certainly most parents will be uncomfortable with the drug use and sexcapades of teenagers. However, the theater was often filled with boisterous laughter, proving that this is what constitutes contemporary cinematic comedy. Only you can decide if you are OK with that.

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THE COMEDIAN (2017)

February 2, 2017

the-comedian Greetings again from the darkness. It’s often seemed as if Robert DeNiro existed in two unrelated cinematic worlds. He’s a 7 time Oscar nominee and 2 time winner (The Godfather: Part II, Raging Bull) renowned for his dramatic work, while also seemingly intent on proving he’s as funny as he thinks he is. His work in Analyze This, Analyze That, and the Fockers franchise takes “playing against type” to an extreme. This latest is his return, 35 years after The King of Comedy, to playing a stand-up comedian.

Of course Jackie Burke (DeNiro) is no regular comedian. He’s pushing 70 years old, has anger issues, no close friends, a strained relationship with his brother (Danny DeVito) and agent (Edie Falco), and fights his popular legacy as “Eddie” from a decades-ago popular sitcom. He strives to be recognized not as Eddie, but as Jackie Burke, the king of insult comics.

That anger lands him in community service where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann) who is also serving her time. It’s kind of creepy to watch the 30 years older dude hit on her, but it’s explained away by her ‘daddy issues’ with Harvey Keitel. Of course, DeNiro and Keitel have a natural rhythm (that spans 5 decades of working together), but it’s really DeNiro and Mann who have the best scenes (outside of the unnecessary romantic interlude). Ms. Mann is especially fun to watch and brings a sense of realism to a film that’s mostly lacking.

Taylor Hackford directs a script written by a blend of 4 writers: a Producer of Fight Club, a standup comedian, an Oscar nominee for The Fisher King, and a writer best known for the Kennedy Center Honors. It’s a weird mix that explains the periodic flashes of genius and the overall mismatched parts.

There are no shortage of familiar faces that pop up, including Billy Crystal, Lois Smith, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, and Gilbert Gottfried. Patti LuPone is enjoyable in her role as DeVito’s wife and Jackie Burke-hater. It’s nice to see Charles Grodin in a Midnight Run reunion with DeNiro, and Cloris Leachman proves that comedy kills in her brief time on screen.

Although there is a more cutesy humor segment at a retirement center when Burke leads the residents through a make-shift version of “Makin’ Poopie” set to the rhythm of “Makin’ Whoopie”, anyone seeing this should be braced for raunchy humor. Lots of raunchy humor. Jackie Burke is an insult comedian in the vein of Don Rickles, only he adds a dash of Jim Norton and Amy Schumer. With all the uncomfortable laughs, it might best be described as that rare film genre – blue humor for the blue hairs.

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I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS (2009)

December 11, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. The real story of Steven Russell is downright fascinating. He is the ultimate con man and has been nicknamed “King Con”. A master of reading people, gaining trust and manipulating many systems, Russell was proved to have stolen from a major food service corporation and a major healthcare organization. Stolen, as in hundreds of thousands of dollars. The smaller cons are too numerous to count. And don’t forget his string of jail/prison escapes!

Glenn Ficarra and John Regua (the writing team behind Bad Santa) co-direct this story based on Steve McVicer’s book on Russell. Somehow they have delivered a hokey, boring film despite the man at the center of the story. Luckily for them, Jim Carrey drums up a terrific performance as Russell and provides some relief from the amateurish script and direction.

The role of Phillip Morris is tackled by Ewan McGregor in a manner we have not previously seen from him. His effeminate naivety offers a nice contrast to the domineering Russell/Carrey. The support work is minimal but provided by the very capable Rodrigo Santoro and the very talented (but totally wasted here) Leslie Mann.

The film shows us the beginning of the fall for Russell. His parents tell him he was adopted and he responds by tracking down his birth mother. He pretty much falls apart after that meeting and commences with his endless stream of cons. Is he a happily married man or is he gay? Is he a brilliant strategist or an embezzler? His life changes during one of his trips to jail. He meets Phillip Morris. Their life together is full of excess, thanks to Russell’s latest scam. As always, the con is exposed and Russell spends his entire life alternating between being on the lam or in jail.

I found the film inferior to Catch Me if You Can, a better (not great) film about another real life con man, Frank Abignale. The cat and mouse chases of that film held my interest. This film has little drama despite the obvious talents of this off-center man. My guess is that in the hands of better filmmakers, this could have been a much improved film.

Apparently, Russell’s biggest con was played on himself. He never really figured out who he is. He is now serving a life sentence in near-solitary confinement in prison. Mr. McVicker, the book’s author, has stated two very telling observations. First, he suspects Phillip Morris was not quite as innocent as he would have us believe. Second, his description of Russell as a man “who makes you want to believe” tells you all you need know about this ultimate con man.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: You still need proof that Jim Carrey is a real actor and not just a goofy side show OR the Enron scandal just wasn’t quite funny enough for you

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: You have read the book OR don’t find much humor in con men