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Welcome to Marwen (2018)

When I saw the trailer for Welcome to Marwen my first response was pained wincing. Robert Zemeckis is one of the most daring, inventive, and imaginative filmmakers working today, but this movie just looked misguided with its approach. Welcome to Marwen is so fascinating, so tonally off, that I might almost recommend people watch it.

Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was a war illustrator until the day he was attacked by a gang of neo Nazis. In the ensuring months, Mark has lost portions of his memory, is unable to use his hands to illustrate any longer, and has become something of a shut-in. He has gained notoriety through his new artistic outlet. Mark has created a WWII era Belgian town called Marwen with a group of dolls fighting evil Nazis. We escape into fantasy sequences where Mark imagines himself as Cap’N Hogie and his gang of supportive ladies. Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in next door to Mark and he takes an immediate interest in her (she even appears in Marwen in doll form). Mark must grapple with his feelings and work up the courage to attend the court hearing to make sure the men who hurt him stay in prison.

I was amazed at how miscalculated Welcome to Marwen plays out. It feels like Steve Carell’s Patch Adams, a sentimental movie where every step seems strange, mistaken, maudlin, and false. Firstly, this is the second documentary that Zemeckis has taken and adapted into a live-action film, as if the man is spending the wee hours of his nights pouring over award-winning documentaries of the past and determining which he can add a little razzle dazzle to with visual whimsy. Look out The Cove because maybe an undersea realm of talking dolphins will open up that horrifying Oscar-winner to a whole new mainstream audience. I’d have less of an issue with Zemeckis remaking the documentary if it didn’t seem like his entire rationale was the fantasy interludes.

The original documentary is about one man and his unique brand of healing through art. He is becoming further whole by building an intricate world through his imagination. By visualizing the fantasy worlds, Zemeckis is turning the doll segments into literal escapism that becomes tedious, obvious, and often redundant. The doll segments are about his gang of girls supporting him, expressing his interest in his kind new neighbor, and tackling the Nazis in a safe space where he can win. Every time we cut to the doll sequences it feels like the movie is spinning its wheels with these ill advised fantasy cut scenes. It gets boring watching the doll segments without any sense of stakes. The special effects are creepy and there are aspects that amplify this, like one doll’s penchant for having her top ripped off in combat, revealing her stout, rounded chest. Keep in mind that the female dolls, with the exception of one, are all analogues for people in his life, so then Mark is consistently indulging in stripping one woman of her clothes. Even though the movie sets this character up to be a potential love interest, it’s still not a good choice. Zemeckis intends to literalize Mark’s struggles and fears so that he can triumph over them, but it feels like it’s minimizing the complexity of trauma into digestible whimsy. With every trip to Marwen, I was eager to return back to the land of human beings where they might still be over-the-top but at least I wouldn’t have to watch creepy doll CGI.

The most significant doll is the blue-haired Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) who is meant to represent Mark’s suicidal impulses. He keeps her atop his wall so that she can watch over him, and in his sleep he dreams about her whispering in his ear, “Nobody will ever love you like I do. You should just end it now.” Oh man, that’s heavy, but when applied through the prism of a talking Barbie doll it loses its sense of seriousness. If you don’t lose yourself in the central conceit and take the dolls seriously, the movie will fall flat. Take for instance the cross-dressing aspect of Mark, which is what lead to his brutal beating. It’s a delicate subject and something easy to get muddled, and that’s exactly what happens in the presentation of this movie. The shoe fetish is initially portrayed as wacky and then becomes serious and then becomes like an artifact of horror. It’s another sign that the tone for this movie is mismatched. These things require a delicate touch with some ambiguity and sensitivity. Welcome to Marwen turns these into a loud, noisy cartoon that bumbles into its messages. Things that are meant to be charming or endearing or emotional can come across as goofy or campy or even uncomfortable.

I felt bad for so many of the actors. Carell (Vice) is trying to maintain his character’s sense of dignity throughout, but the story often goes into contrived contortions to force him into dramatic confrontations. It turns out the court appearance is rescheduled to be the same day of Mark’s photographic exhibit. Will he be able to triumph over these forces to stand up for himself? Carell is a capable dramatic actor but he’s struggling here to find stable footing because of the mish mashing tones. The development of Mark makes him come across as a creep in some moments, like his one-sided advances for Nicol, and a simpleton at other moments, where he might have sustained brain damage. Mann (Blockers) is sweet and gentle but strangely the movie hides her most interesting character aspects, like the prospect of a deceased child. You would think overcoming tragedy would be a tool for Nicol and Mark to bond. Merritt Wever (Godless) is another sweet and gentle woman in a world that seems overstocked with them. It feels like everyone in this small town exists just to be nice to Mark. She’s clearly romantically interested in Mark but he doesn’t care until the very end. She deserves better than being someone’s runner-up choice, especially only after he was turned down.

A movie that deals with delicate issues through fantasy escapism can work, but it requires a precise hand with tone and with its storytelling detours. Guillermo del Toro has been able to prove he can tell rich, adult stories with the assistance of whimsical, weird fantasy elements. Charlie Kaufman has been able to weird the mundane and the fantastic. It can be done and Zemeckis has done it himself before, best evidenced by the masterpiece, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. However, Welcome to Marwen is a sizeable tonal misfire. The serious elements don’t blend well with the fantasy elements, and even worse, they are made less serious and approach the realm of camp. The fun, fantasy elements are given bizarre and unsettling contexts that make them creepy and inappropriate. Escaping into Mark’s imagination winds up stripping him of much of his agency, and literalizing his psychological push-and-pull feels like a misguided examination on depression. I left my theater in a daze, trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed. The filmmakers and cast certainly mean well and want the film to be a triumph of the human spirit. I found it to be two meandering hours of watching somebody play with their disused toys.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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The Reader (2008)

Every now and then, the assorted members that make up the Motion Picture Academy make, shall we say, quizzical selections. There are snubs and undeserving winners, but then there’s the crazy nomination where you see the movie and say to yourself, “What the hell were they thinking?” In recent years I’ve usually found at least one Best Picture nominee that left me scratching my head. In 2007 it was Atonement, in 2004 it was Finding Neverland. But I could at least fathom a guess as to why each of those movies appealed to the Academy and garnered a Best Picture nominee. I’m stumped when it comes to 2008 Best Picture nominee, The Reader. Based upon an award-winning novel, I can only surmise that Academy voters saw the words “Kate Winslet” and “Holocaust” and thought the movie had to be far worthier than the likes of WALL-E or The Dark Knight.

In post-World War II Germany, teenager Michael Berg (David Kross) begins a torrid affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). He’s 15 years old; she’s easily twice his age. She instructs her young lover to read to her before they engage in sexual activity, which turns reading into an act of foreplay. The summer affair ends abruptly when Hanna runs off after her employer has given her a promotion. Michael is heartbroken that his lover has flown the coop. Flash forward several years and Michael is attending law school in Berlin. He and his fellow students visit an ongoing trial that features a group of former female concentration camp guards. To Michael’s shock, Hanna is on trial as one of the murderous Nazi guards. The young boy is beset by his feelings of love for a person who has committed despicable deeds. Hanna is keeping a deeper secret and will go to her grave to keep it. Eventually an adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes, wasted) finds his life returning to an imprisoned, older Hanna, possibly his life’s greatest love.

The Reader contains interesting story elements: sex, guilt, romantic affairs with former Nazi prison guards. But rarely do any of these interesting elements actually transform into an interesting story. The movie just kind of lies there, basking in some phony reflective pause when the movie manages to be so distant and uninvolved. At times the movies seems to have little interest in its own self. This movie feels like it was made to be Oscar-bait because it deals with Big Themes and Important Topics, or at least the film wants to appear like it deals with said items. The Reader is mostly shallow. It pretends to present a moral quandary but director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) doesn’t bother to analyze the contradictions of his characters. The film alternates between characters shouting obvious declarations and just stumbling around in contemplation, bumping into the furniture. It’s simultaneously annoying and boring. The movie wants to put a human face on monstrous deeds, which can be a noble pursuit. The Reader fails to be a “challenging” movie when it can’t be bothered to challenge its characters to do something.

The message of quasi redemption at the center of this specific film is either laughably naïve or downright insulting. Hanna keeps a personal secret shame at all costs, and she would rather go to prison for life as a Nazi murderer than let people know she cannot read. I’m sorry, but that’s dumb. The fact that it seems like The Reader presents the theory that Hanna’s illiteracy mitigates her guilt is offensive. I’m sure the 300 people that were locked in a burning church to die would be sympathetic that their killer couldn’t read See Spot Run. In what world is illiteracy more shameful than genocide? If you’re going to float ridiculous notions at least commit to exploring their very ridiculousness, and therefore acknowledge that there is something amiss. The Reader instead seems to flutter from idea to idea without ever truly delving deeper. If you’re going to craft a character that’s more afraid of a library than a book burning, at least try and explore this enigma. There’s drama in the disconnect. But the movie never feels like this should be an issue. Can’t you see, silly movie goers, that Hanna is but a symbol for the German people who couldn’t read the signs to come and were ignorant to the extent of Hitler’s horrors. She would rather stick to her duty than claim moral responsibility. That’s fine, but there are a great number of movies, and countless more books, that have examined the psychological culpability that can turn a populace into silently willing participants in mass murder. The Reader would rather spend its closing moments exploring the magical healing power of literature. The fact that the film eliminates the novels’ section where Hanna reads news articles and novels about the Holocaust (thus gaining moral clarity) is dumb. Instead of gaining insight into her actions she reads Chekhov. The movie ends up transforming into a weird and wrongheaded episode of Reading Rainbow.

Winslet’s acting is fine. She’s such a gifted actress that I doubt you’ll see her give a bad performance even if the movie doesn’t live up to her talent. She isn’t doing anything showy to make Hanna a sympathetic character, which works out well, but the film’s distant perspective means that Hanna seems more like an aloof cipher. She’s this formless blob of a character that expresses a mixture of human emotions but doesn’t resemble a recognizable human. This is the fault of the director and screenwriter who chose to replace subtext with ponderous silent stares (note to all “deep” filmmakers: THEY ARE NOT THE SAME). Winslet slips into the character with the same ease she has slipping out of her clothes. The Reader is another nudity-filled performance for Winslet, her eighth movie featuring her nude (also her fourth Oscar nomination for a nude performance, there must be some connection). As readers can attest, I am no prude when it comes to the female form, but even I thought things were getting a little gratuitous. In the first 45 minutes, Winslet is naked in almost every scene she shares with Kross. It’s almost as if the nudity is supposed to disarm the audience and make Hanna a more intimate. Winslet is one of her generation’s finest actresses, which is reason enough that she shouldn’t be handed a Best Actress Oscar for substandard material.

The Reader may not be a traditional Holocaust film and in fact it’s really not so much about the Holocaust. Sure, that colossal event casts a shadow over Germany, but the movie is mostly about a cold and daft woman and the callow boy who loves her. It’s about two characters, but it the movie is too reserved and then some. Everybody just seems numb, which makes for a boring movie after a while. I repeat: a boring movie about underage sexual affairs with freaking’ Nazis! Winslet’s fine performance is not enough to redeem the whole movie. I think much was lost in translation from page to screen. The Reader actually was more effective when it was just a cradle-robbing unorthodox love story. But then, those flicks don’t typically get nominated for Best Picture Oscars.

Nate’s Grade: C

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