Monday, December 31, 2018

Welcome to Marwen

I haven't found myself fretting over Robert Zemeckis's remaking great documentaries very much, not so much because I hold them less sacred than some fans, but because I can at least see what he's been trying to do with them in terms of taking a couple of stories that had this really emotional element to them that the docs couldn't quite address and putting that on screen. The different trade-offs The Walk and Welcome to Marwen made were kind of interesting. The Walk gets dinged big-time for Josh Gordon-Levitt not being able to capture the whimsy of Philippe Petit (who proved a raconteur as well as a daredevil), but made up for it by putting the audience on the high-wire with him in a way that Man on Wire couldn't; Welcome to Marwen does a better job of getting the audience inside Mark Hogancamp's head, but one of the funny things about Marwencol is that part of what I remember liking about it is that it acknowledged that most of us couldn't get in there, that what had happened to him was almost literally unimaginable, and he probably wouldn't ever be normal again. Welcome to Marwen has a more conventional, reassuring ending, and while it's not necessarily less honest or less affecting, it trades a lot of what made the documentary feel special in order to get inside his head.

As much as I don't really love this movie, and really wish he would do something that harkened back to that great Romancing the Stone-to-Death Becomes Her run, I do have to respect that Zemeckis is always trying to impress with his movies. Those motion-capture films aren't very good, but he was dedicated to finding a way to combine the absolute freedom of animation with the way actors connect with audiences, the Cast Away/What Lies Beneath combination was interesting scheduling, and other movies have showstopping effects sequences. Even when he fails, there's often something about his movies that is interesting or unique. He's much like James Cameron in that he's often as fascinated by technical challenges as pure storytelling, and that's not really how we see filmmakers or other artists these days: They're supposed to have a vision which the hired hands who do effects work will then execute to the artist's specifications, invisibly, while sometimes Zemeckis seems to grab onto scripts that will let him try to do something technical. I half-suspect that this is because nobody really falls into filmmaking or film writing any more; it's been their goal since childhood and they've gone to school for it and been taught the technical end as necessary skills.

This movie, on the other hand, kind of makes you wonder if Zemeckis saw the chance to do something neat with motion-capture in the story and built the film that way. It's not invalid, and I'm kind of amazed by some of what he does here, shifting scales like it's nothing and blending live-action with animation with utterly incredible smoothness (the dolls freezing up as the audience re-enters the real world is absurdly seamless).

On the other hand… My jaw kind of dropped at how close this movie comes to directly referencing Back to the Future. It's genuinely weird and kind of off-putting to see Zemeckis putting something he made into a film about another artist. Maybe Hogancamp was influenced by BTTF and it's just one of those things you kind of have to shrug off the full-circle nature or be amused by it, but it kind of felt like the same sort of pop-culture oroborus as Steven Spielberg playing around with The Shining after having had Kubrick hand him his own legacy with A.I.

It's weird. But it's an interesting sort of weird, one I likely won't forget as easily as Flight or Allied, and if one of my favorite filmmakers won't make the exact films I want any more, at least he's doing stuff worth talking about.

Welcome to Marwen

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 December 2018 in Regal Fenway #2 (first-run, DCP)

I swear, this movie is Robert Zemeckis trolling every one of us who has grumbled about the latter portion of his career and how we wish he'd do more of the sort of comedic fantasy that made him his name. Instead, Welcome to Marwen not only seems to be a compilation of every questionable choice he's made since Contact, but the climax practically taunts you with the reminder that, back in the 1980s, he made a damn near perfect movie. This doesn't get close to that high-water mark, but it may also be the most memorable thing Zemeckis has done in a good long time.

Inspired by the documentary Marwencol and the true story behind it, the film focuses on a month or so just a couple of years after Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was beaten nearly to death for talking about his penchant for wearing high-heeled shoes while drunk. The attack not only left him with almost no memory of his old life, but destroyed the illustrator's ability to draw, though a new project - a 1:6 scale circa-WWII Belgian village in his backyard, populated by army and fashion dolls - serves as both a creative outlet and a sort of art therapy. An exhibition of his photographs of this setting is about to open, but first his case's prosecutor (Conrad Coates) would like him to read a victim impact statement at the sentencing of his attackers. On top of that, a new neighbor has just moved in, and he feels an immediate spark when he meets Nicol (Leslie Mann).

Marwencol is not the first acclaimed documentary that Zemeckis has adapted into a dramatic feature, and as with The Walk, the idea seems to be to get the audience to directly experience something that the documentary by its nature finds just out of reach, with the gamble being that the audience's awareness of the artifice, compared to the documentary subjects' lack of such. It's risky but has potential - those who saw The Walk in Imax 3D wound up getting more than a less-charming Man on Wire - but his means for getting into Hogancamp's head is animating the dolls with the motion-captured CGI which had many associating his work in the Aughts with dead-eyed homunculi. Pair these uncertain choices with a script (by Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson) that almost immediately gets off on the wrong foot and makes more odd leaps than can really be explained by being from Mark's wobbly perspective, with dialogue that seems anachronistic or patronizing, and that's before the obvious music selections. The material with "Dejah Thoris" (voice of Diane Kruger), the witch doll which seems to sneak into his photos unbidden never quite gets to the point where it makes sense.

Full review at EFC.

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