Robert Zemeckis

Welcome to Marwen

05/01/19

Robert Zemeckis is a veteran director who refuses to rest on his laurels. Over the years, he’s been responsible for some major hits – Back to the Future, Forest Gump, Who Killed Roger Rabbit?  – and, of course,  there’ve been a few misfires –  Beowulf for example? And The Polar Express is a film that tends to divide viewers.

Welcome to Marwen is a ‘so weird it must be true’ story, based on the life of artist, Mark Hogancamp, though it should be noted that, like a lot of ‘true’ stories, the scriptwriters don’t hesitate to jettison those facts that don’t fit with their vision of the tale.

Hogancamp’s backstory is a harrowing one. A talented artist with a passion for World War 2 imagery and an obsession with wearing women’s shoes, he drunkenly confessed this to some strangers he met in a bar, who then ambushed him and beat him mercilessly, putting him into a coma for nine days. When he finally came back to his senses, he found that he had lost all memory of what happened to him before the night of the attack – and he could no longer remember how to draw.

When we first encounter Hogancamp (Steve Carell), he is engaged in a long-established photography project that is an attempt both to rekindle his artistic abilities and to come to terms with the awful hate crime that has robbed him of his former life. In his garden, he has constructed Marwen, a miniature Belgian town, occupied by Nazis and populated by dolls. It’s here that his avatar, Captain Hogie, a fearless maverick (who also has a liking for high heels) is running an energetic resistance movement, backed up by five female freedom fighters – all based on women who are important in the artist’s life,

It must be said that the women in question seem to take his somewhat creepy depictions of them with unbelievably good grace, but I guess they knew him before he was attacked, and are prepared to cut him some slack.

Of course, this being a Robert Zemeckis film, Hogie’s adventures are recreated through state-of-the-art motion-capture and there’s no denying that the ensuing scenes are an extraordinary technological achievement. But the main problem is that the film can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. For the most part, it’s about a man going through a slow healing process and gradually gaining the necessary strength to confront his assailants in court, but the real life scenes are regularly interspersed with more of those mo-cap sequences and I can’t help feeling there’s rather too many of them and that – until the very end – they all seem to play out in exactly the same way, without really advancing the story.

There’s a tendency too to punch home the film’s messages with a heavier hand than seems strictly necessary. Déja (Diane Kruger)’s significance, for example, is immediately apparent, but spelled out laboriously for the hard of thinking,

Carrell, it must be said,  is terrific in the lead role and Merritt Wever is appealing as the manager of the local toy shop who quietly carries a torch for him.

Welcome to Marwen is never less than interesting – but, despite all that cutting-edge brilliance, there’s something here that doesn’t quite add up to a satisfying night at the cinema.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney 

 

 

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The Walk

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11/09/15

In 1974, tightrope walker Philippe Petit performed a stunt that defied belief. He strung a wire between the twin towers in New York (illegally) and walked backwards and forwards across it eight times while an entranced audience of passers-by watched in stunned amazement. The ‘Coup,’ as Petit called it, has of course already been the subject of a film, James Marsh’s riveting documentary, Man On Wire (2009), but Petit only had a couple of still photographers with him. So this is Robert Zemeckis’s attempt to reconstruct the event.

We open with Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) talking directly to camera. Gordon-Levitt is a charming performer (considerably more charming than Petit himself who was famously unfaithful to his long-suffering girlfriend, Annie, played here by Charlotte Le Bon the night after the Coup, a fact that the film makers choose to ignore). Indeed, the charm offensive may be what skewers the early sections of this, as a young Petit conceives his dream of walking between the towers (in a dentist’s waiting room, as it happens), enlists the help of circus stalwart, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) to teach him the secrets of wire walking – and mawkishly romances Annie, who, when we first meet her is a street performer, bashing out drippy ballads on an acoustic guitar. The tone here is too whimsical for what follows, too self consciously comic for comfort and at times it threatens to derail the film completely. Matters aren’t helped by one of the murkiest 3D prints I’ve ever seen, which sets the first half of the story in deep shadow.

The momentum is happily regained somewhat once Petit and his ramshackle bunch of accomplices actually set about trying to achieve their objective. This section is filmed like a heist movie, with the tension steadily rising as the team try to get everything in place for the walk.

The Coup itself is a hair raising, terrifying, vertigo-inducing nightmare. I sat there, desperately reminding myself that history has already assured us of the outcome of the exercise, but it was to no avail. I’m not particularly good with heights and watching Gordon-Levitt walk back and forth, kneel down and at one point lie down on that narrow steel cable must have taken several years off my life. If the rest of the film had been up to this standard, it would doubtless have been granted five stars much higher score.

As it is, that uncertain first half is hard to forgive, particularly when it’s coming from a director of Zemeckis’s stature. A warning though. If you genuinely suffer from vertigo, this really may not be the film for you.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney