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:


ALLIED (2016)

November 22, 2016

allied Greetings again from the darkness. Every writer, director and actor dreams of being part of the next Casablanca … a timeless movie beloved by so many. It’s rare to see such a blatant homage to that classic, but director Robert Zemeckis (Oscar winner for Forrest Gump) and writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) deliver their version with an identical setting, nearly identical costumes, and the re-use of a song (“La Marseillaise”) which played such a crucial role.

Spy movies typically fall into one of three categories: action (Bourne), flashy/stylish (Bond), or detailed and twisty (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). This one has offers a dose of each blended with some romance and a vital “is she or isn’t she” plot. The “she” in that last part is French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour played by Marion Cotillard. Her introduction here is a thing of beauty, as she floats across the room thrilled to be reuniting with her husband Max Vatan. Of course the catch is that Max (Brad Pitt) is really a Canadian Agent and their marriage is a cover for their mission to assassinate a key Nazi. Yes, it’s 1942 in Morocco.

The two agents work well together and it’s no surprise when this escalates to a real romance between two beautiful and secretive people. It seems only natural that after killing Nazi’s and making love in a car during a ferocious sandstorm that the next steps would be marriage, a move to London, and having a kid. It’s at this point where viewers will be divided. Those loving the action-spy approach will find the London segment slows the movie to a crawl. Those who prefer intelligence gathering and intrigue may very well enjoy the second half more.

What if your assignment was to kill your beloved wife if she were deemed to be a double-agent? Max finds himself in this predicament, and since no one ever says what they mean in the community of spies, he isn’t sure if the evidence is legit or if it’s really a game to test his own loyalty. This second half loses sight of the larger picture of war, and narrows the focus on whether Max can prove the innocence of Marianne … of course without letting her know he knows something – or might know something.

Marion Cotillard is stellar in her role. She flashes a warm and beautiful smile that expertly masks her true persona. The nuance and subtlety of her performance is quite impressive. Mr. Pitt does a nice job as the desperate husband hiding his desperation, but his role doesn’t require the intricacies of hers. Supporting work comes via Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, August Diehl, Marion Bailey, Simon McBurney, and Matthew Goode.

The Zemeckis team is all in fine form here: Cinematographer Don Burgess captures the feel of the era, Composer Alan Silvestri never tries to overpower a scene, and Costume Designer Joanna Johnston is likely headed for an Oscar nomination. For a spy movie, the story is actually pretty simple and the tension is never over-bearing like we might expect. While watching the performance of Ms. Cotillard, keep in mind her most telling line of dialogue: “I keep the emotions real.” It’s a strategy that is a bit unusual in her world. How effective it is will be determined by the end of the movie.

watch the trailer:

 


BACK IN TIME (2015, doc)

October 24, 2015

back in time Greetings again from the darkness. Thirty years is an eternity in the filmmaking world. Only a few dozen movies even get a cable run in the year after their theatrical run. So, it’s worth noting, and maybe even magical, when a movie is beloved and worshipped by a rabid fan base some three decades after release. Such is the case with Back to the Future, the story of Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett Brown and their time-travelling escapades. First time director Jason Aron offers up a look at the BTTF community of fans, and some behind-the-scenes scoop from those involved.

Talking heads abound in the first part of the movie, as we see and hear from the masterminds of the classic: Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, as well as Michael J Fox, Lea Thompson, Steven Spielberg, Huey Lewis, Christopher Lloyd, Claudia Wells, Alan Silvestri, Dean Cundey, Dan Harmon, Frank Price and others. Very little new information is served up, and in fact Mr. Zemeckis doesn’t seem especially excited to be involved, whereas Mr. Gale seems quite pleased and comfortable with his role in film history. The best “making of” anecdotes come from Michael J Fox, though it is interesting to note just how difficult it was for the film to get studio backing – “time travel” movies didn’t have a successful box office track record.

The middle third of the movie is dedicated to the iconic Delorean car, and all that entails. This sequence would have been effective were it completed in 10 minutes, but instead it brings the film’s flow to a dead stop. Sure, it’s amazing that this many have a hobby related to this obscure car and its role in a classic film, but enough already!

Fan-based clubs and the accuracy of the film’s “future” predictions for 2015 make up the final third of the run time, as we get a glimpse of how close we are to real hover boards and flying cars. The question that seems unanswered is just who is this film aimed at? Most of the insight has been long ago discussed in DVD “bonus” coverage or previous interviews with the key players. The fan communities are certainly of interest if one is part of it, but the vast majority of those who have held the film close to their heart for 30 years care little for the obsessive fringes, and only for the emotions and imagination delivered by the film that needs no roads.

watch the trailer:

 


FLIGHT (2012)

November 4, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. What is a hero? There have certainly been no shortage of super hero movies these past few years, but those are mostly comic book characters brought to life through the magic of Hollywood. Can a heroic act turn a flawed man into a hero? Should his flaws change how we treat him after the heroic act? All these are questions raised by the script from John Gatins. The easiest answer of all? If you are a movie producer looking to cast a flawed hero … the obvious choice is Denzel Washington.

Director Robert Zemeckis returns to live-action after more than a decade of experimenting with animation. Of course, Zemekis is firmly entrenched in Hollywood lore thanks to his Back to the Future trilogy, as well as Forrest Gump (for which he won an Oscar). This is quite dark material for Zemeckis and he handles it very well. The trailer tells us what we need to know about the premise. Denzel plays a pilot who, under extreme circumstances, “inverts” the commercial jet he is flying so it can be crash-landed in an open field. Yes, invert means to fly the plane upside down. If you are queasy about flying, this is one to avoid. And don’t count on this being the in-flight movie on your next business trip.

The first 30 minutes of this movie are as strong as any seen on screen this year. We quickly get a sense of Whip Whitaker the flawed man, and then we see the remarkable Captain Whip Whitaker and his actions during an incredibly well filmed crash sequence. Unfortunately, I found the second half of the film played like a heavy-handed advertisement for AA (not American Airlines). Whitaker is exposed for his absurdly high blood alcohol level and existence of cocaine … so clearly presented in the film’s opening. Over the years, many films have tackled addiction: Leaving Las Vegas, Clean and Sober, When a Man Loves a Woman. Rarely have we seen the expert talent of deception and lying that Capt Whitaker displays.

There is little doubt that Denzel’s performance will warrant Oscar consideration … and it should. The film depends on an actor skilled enough to reach the depths necessary for us to believe this guy, despite his cocky pilot strut and unmatched flying skills, is little more than a mentally weak addict.  This is no Sully.  In fact, Denzel’s chubby, bloated Whitaker is impossible to like or respect as a man.

 There are a couple of outstanding supporting performances here: John Goodman as Harling Mays, a colorful and energetic, free-wheeling dealer who works miracles with Whitaker when he appears too gone to function; and Kelly Reilly (Mary Watson from the “Sherlock Holmes” movies) as fellow addict Nicole, who connects with Whip and tries to help him. We also get solid work from Don Cheedle, Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie, Peter Geraty and Melissa Leo. There is also an odd scene featuring James Badge Dale as a cancer patient/philosopher.

The Alan Silvestri score is effective, as is the soundtrack featuring the somewhat obvious songs from Joe Cocker, The Rolling Stones and Cowboy Junkies. The issues with the script are minor, though the inconsistencies with Whitaker’s “limp” were bothersome.  This is one to recommend in spite of the Bruce Greenwood factor. Every frequent movie goer has their acting nemesis and Greenwood’s presence usually indicates a disappointing movie for me … not the case here.

**Note: couldn’t help but chuckle at one of the VHS tapes stacked by Whitaker’s TV … Top Gun

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can handle a ferociously realistic plane crash sequence OR you want to see one of Denzel Washington’s best ever performances

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: 2 hours of severe alcoholism is not the kind of entertainment you desire OR your fear of flying needs no ammunition

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhUrWRV1cxs