3 January 2019 | bob-the-movie-man
Going against the trend by using more plastic.
It's unusual for me to go into a film knowing so little about it: no trailers other than a snippet that showed it was Steve Carell starring and appearing as a plastic figure of himself. That's it. Period. After watching the film this evening, I've been astonished to see that it has TOTALLY BOMBED at its opening weekend in the US. Because personally I really enjoyed it.
For once, I'm not going to go near the plot, since going into this movie cold was a genuine pleasure. All I'll do is set up the situation: that Steve Carrell plays Mark Hogancamp who is an artist who's constructed a model installation of a WWII Belgian town - Marwen - in his back-yard. Against this backdrop he is photographing epic WWII encounters between his plastic alter-ego, Captain Hogie, and various other figures, some friend, some foe.
It sounds completely bonkers. And indeed it is. For the first quarter of the film, I was really trying to grasp whether I should be reaching for a very low IMDB rating or not. But the screenplay, by director Robert Zemeckis and "Edward Scissorhands" writer Caroline Thompson, is clever in only disclosing its hand slowly and with the minimum of exposition. For me, the very best sort of storytelling. (Even at the end of the film there were some elements of the story still left unexplained... who, for example, was Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) based on? I can guess... but only guess). Gradually the pieces of the jigsaw came together and I started to warm to it more.
But then something odd happened. Steve Carell got in my head. I suddenly got 100% invested in what happened to Mark to the point where - with a car tyre involved... you'll know the bit - I suddenly realised I was sat bolt upright on the edge of my cinema seat. I don't get that level of emotional engagement that often.
Carell is without doubt a superb actor. We saw it with "Foxcatcher". I've seen it again in the (soon to be UK-released) "Beautiful Boy". Here he delivers what I think is an EXTRAORDINARY performance: and if it wasn't for the sniffy reviews, and the bad box office word of mouth I feel Carell should surely have been - no pun intended - a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination.
Elsewhere in the cast, most of the other characters - many female (it's certainly not the most on-trend politically correct movie!) - spend most of their time in plastic form, so it's difficult to comment on their performances. But the talented combination of Janelle Monáe, Gwendoline Christie, Eiza González (from "Baby Driver"), the statuesque Stefanie von Pfetten and Diane Kruger all turn up. Getting the most 'real world' screen-time though is Leslie Mann as Mark's new neighbour Nicol ("without the e"). And very good she is too.
The repeated and seamless flips between the real-world and Marwen are artfully done and the plastic characters are beautifully realised. Yes, it's CGI but its really cleverly done CGI. A delicate balance between the photo-realism of Pixar and the clunky puppetry of Team America.
We even dip in at one point to some full on Sci-Fi where Zemeckis can't help but delve into an aspect of his past filmography: scenes that made me laugh out loud.
One of the benefits of the model scenes is that they can get away with some pretty extreme puppet-on-puppet violence that would have definitely not got it a UK-12A certificate otherwise! A shout out also to Zemeckis-regular Alan Silvestri, who delivers a lovely soundtrack including a really cheeky Great-Escapesque little motif.
I've praised the screenplay for its reserve and intelligence, but on the flip-side there are a number of elements that don't sit well: There are a few extremely dodgy lines that jerk you out of the story (and I'm not talking about the deliberately tongue-in-cheek ones, as many of them are); some of the humour (and there are some good gags in here) seems somewhat misplaced within the overall tone of the film; the film verges towards the overly melodramatic at times, bringing to my mind the old Harrison Ford flick "Regarding Henry"; and a few of the characters seem to be messily discarded without further comment (Nicol's 'boyfriend' Kurt (Neil Jackson) for example).
I didn't pay much attention to the opening statement on the screen. Which made the closing caption, after so much fantasy, act as a stun grenade on me. Mark Hogancamp is a real American, and the film is based on real events! There is a 2010 documentary based on the guy called "Marwencol" which I haven't seen but would like to: many people on the internet rave about it. This seems to be part of the negative reaction: many who love the documentary don't want to see the memory sullied by a dramatic work of fiction.
But I really enjoyed this one. It has its flaws, sure, but my rating completely ignores the critics and the public view (which irritatingly seems to be largely based on "word of mouth" - what an evil phrase - rather than people who've ACTUALLY SEEN IT). My recommendation would be to ignore the bad press, go see it, get through the first quarter with your mouth agape ("We are not a codfish Michael") and then go to One Mann's Movies and tell me what YOU thought.
(For teh full graphical review, go to One Mann's Movies on the web or Facebook. Thanks).