Category Archives: 2010s

Lady Macbeth (2016)

*. The story is an old one, originating in an 1865 novella by Nikola Leskov but with tentacles reaching even deeper. Katherine is less Lady Macbeth, climbing the social ladder only to be overtaken by conscience and events, than Medea, with a bit of Lady Chatterley and Madame Bovary thrown in. She is destructive female passion, overthrowing the traditional — yes, we can even use the word patriarchal here — order.
*. This time out (Leskov’s novella has been filmed several times, and made into an opera) we’re moving in a different direction. I mentioned in my notes on the 1962 film directed by Andrzej Wajda that Katrerina is larger than her fate. Which is to say there is something of the tragic hero to her. Not so this Katherine, played by Florence Pugh.
*. For one thing, as the message is made more determinedly feminist, she’s not a victim. For another, we’re no longer in the boonies of old Mother Russia but in an altogether more barbaric and backward place: the north of England. In Wajda’s movie the barren Katerina seeks fertility by chanting to a mare and rubbing its belly. In Wiliam Oldroyd’s telling she can’t get pregnant because her husband only masturbates as she stands in the corner. Get it? Her stepfather is also a much nastier piece of work, running the household a bit like a domestic Guantanamo and, thanks to the casting of black actors as the hired help, he’s not just a misogynist but a racist to boot.
*. Some of these changes seem intended to make the story more contemporary. Others only make a mess of things. Instead of a nephew showing up on their doorstep looking for his share of a business his family had invested in, Katherine and Sebastian (he’s the hired help, or stud) have to deal with an illegitimate child who apparently has some kind of claim to be adopted. I was really fuzzy on that part though and thought it didn’t make a lot of sense. I didn’t think an arrangement like that would fly in Victorian Britain.

*. In some ways it’s a film that’s a lot more obvious in its messaging. When the maid meets the stud in the forest he remarks of his dog that “the bitch gets restless if she’s tied up too long.” In case you missed the point, the maid responds “She was.” Ah-ha!
*. Luckily the rest of the film doesn’t content itself with pushing such a simplistic message. We suspect something is a little off when Katherine is basically raped by Sebastian . . . and she likes it! That doesn’t seem very progressive (or does it?). But the big change comes at the end, where Katherine reveals herself to be a boss bitch in the extreme, inverting the fates of the characters in the original story.
*. The point being? Better bad than dead. Much better, in fact. Morality and politics seem to have become separated in our time. Which is too bad for morality.
*. Well, at least there’s an honesty to such an approach. The problem here is not with the message but with the rather leaden presentation, which really blunts the impact of what should be the highlights. But then this Katherine is, finally, not a creature of passion like Medea but a calculating survivor. Pugh’s face is a composed mask, which makes it even more threatening. Many of her most dramatic actions are inaction, like not opening a door. She’s a negative force, mostly by being inert. She doesn’t even have to defend herself from the charge of murder. Instead she just denies it and the system takes care of the rest.
*. The way the film is shot reinforces this static quality. Pugh is often presented as something unmoveable, like a corseted statue, or flattened in a strong horizontal. The interiors have the appearance of Vermeers in their quality of moments that have been frozen in time. It’s a world that isn’t going to change, so one had best adapt to it.

Gebo and the Shadow (2012)

*. I’ll confess that I wasn’t familiar with the work of Portuguese director Manoel de Oliviera before picking up this one. In fact, based only on the DVD case, I thought it was a horror film. It has a giant pair of hands hovering in the darkness over Michael Lonsdale’s face, which I thought signaled something scary going on.
*. It’s not a horror movie. And I really should have known of Oliviera seeing as he’d had a long, productive career. How long? This film, his last, was released when he was at the tender age of — are you ready for this? — 104. It’s based on a play dating back to 1923, which he might have remembered when it was first produced, as he was a young man at the time.
*. As a filmed play it at least wasn’t a difficult shoot for such an old man. Almost all of the action takes place in a single, small set, and is shot with long takes and a motionless camera, with most of the actors sitting down. So in that sense it’s not very demanding, either for Oliviera or the cast, who weren’t exactly kids and might have had trouble standing for long periods of time. In addition to Lonsdale there’s Claudia Cardinale and (in her penultimate film role) Jeanne Moreau. Ricardo Trêpa, Oliviera’s grandson and an actor in many of his films, is one of the younger faces.
*. The idea here is that an old couple (Lonsdale and Cardinale) live with their daughter-in-law Sofia (Leonor Silveira, another Oliviera favourite). Mama worries about her son João, who seems to have disappeared. Papa and Sofia know that João has turned to a life of crime, but don’t want to tell Cardinale because it would upset her. So they bury themselves in lives of routine drudgery without meaning or purpose. Then João shows up, steals some money, and Lonsdale takes the fall for him when the police come calling.
*. It’s interesting that the play continues on, with the father going to prison and taking to the life of crime, which helps explain the “shadow” of the title. I think this may refer to a kind of genetic predisposition or hereditary shame. But Oliviera left this part out, which has the effect of making Lonsdale a more Christ-like figure.
*. That’s it, and it’s not a lot. Nor is it a story that I think resonates much with a contemporary audience. The morality and family dynamic seem pre-modern, the house with its lamp a kind of cave dwelling. It’s also very talky in a stage manner, with characters often breaking into intensely personal and poetic speeches that lay their hearts bare. I doubt this was naturalistic even in the 1920s.
*. Having said all that, I did like the look of the movie. It has a weird unreality to it, as though the actors are performing in front of green screen, with little movement beyond what you’d expect from animatronic models. And even though the proceedings should be pretty dull I found myself fascinated by much of the talk. It’s weird how often the characters eavesdrop on each other, but at the same time nobody seems to be listening to anyone. And time has given it all a sepia-toned filter of the absurd.
*. So not a bad little movie, given that it isn’t at all what I was expecting. My one big complaint was with Sofia’s constant sniffling. This got really annoying and I don’t understand why it didn’t register when they were doing the sound mixing. It’s not just constant but excessively loud. I found myself screaming at her to blow her damn nose already. In domestic settings it’s always the little things that trigger us the most.

Snowden (2016)

*. What happened to Oliver Stone? Nothing out of the ordinary. His most creative years are now long past and he hasn’t been able to reinvent himself in an interesting way. In his prime he was a passionate, forceful filmmaker, but more recently he seems to have lost focus. Not mellowed so much as become tired and disoriented.
*. When did he lose his mojo? I’m not sure, but Savages and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the two dramatic features before this film, were both terrible. Snowden isn’t much better.
*. Though I think you could make an argument that it’s actually worse. What I mean is that it takes a true story, ripped from the headlines, dealing with matters of global importance and everyday application, bound up in a thrilling plot involving a heroic whistleblower and intrepid journalists. How do you mess that up?
*. It’s not as though Stone was uninspired. I think material like this really turns him on. But he just can’t make anything of it.
*. This is a movie with no sense of tension or outrage or much of anything going for it. It’s almost comfortably sure of its convictions about the idea of America triumphing over its enemies. As Stone remarks in his commentary for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, he’s really a romantic at heart and this kind of stuff comes naturally to him.

*. The thing is, most whistleblowers are complicated and not always likeable people. Just look at Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning. Or, if you’re a film buff, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) in The Insider.
*. The same could be said for most computer geeks, and I suspect Edward Snowden is cut from the same cloth. I support the stand he took, but I don’t know if I’d want to have a sandwich with him. And yet Stone seems determined to make him into an All-American Hero.
*. This makes the whole movie into something dull and formulaic. The script is full of stuffy speeches even in the most informal of settings (Snowden going on about the Nuremberg trials at a party, O’Brian lecturing on how secrecy is security while out hunting with Ed). And the look of it!
*. What was I just saying about dull and formulaic? The dialogue has nothing on the direction here. It’s hard to believe a younger Stone so un-ironically indulging stuff like (1) Snowden walking out of the tunnel from the surveillance headquarters into the blinding light of justice and freedom; (2) pointless filler shots of him playing “cute young couple in love” on the beach with his long-suffering girlfriend (a conventional part in such stories); (3) a final scene of an audience rising to give Snowden a standing ovation, which is as subtle as a sit-com laugh track in telling us what our response to the film we’ve just seen should be.
*. There are glimmers of originality. It seems at times as though they were thinking of making more out of the screen as a motif, including Snowden’s glasses often being shot in extreme close-up and reflecting some other shiny surface. The giant face of Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) as Big Brother is about the only interesting visual in the entire movie. But when Robot-Snowden wheels on to the stage at the end he seems to have shrunk, and been made less real, in a way that I don’t think could have been intentional.
*. You’re in pretty bad shape when your movie on a dramatic and important headline story is a lot less interesting than the story itself. I’m afraid Oliver Stone is in bad shape.

The Vanishing (2018)

*. Lighthouses are symbols that have long had a grip on the imagination. What they’re symbols of is often sketchy though. They remain mysterious, from Edgar Allan Poe’s final, unfinished (or was it?) story “The Light-House,” to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, to one’s obelisk-like significance at the end of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (also there in the film version).
*. In 1900 this mysteriousness took a real form when the three keepers of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to them, though it’s assumed they were swept out to sea by a rogue wave. Their disappearance would, in turn, provide the germ of this film, which is set on the Flannan Isles. I’d thought it had also inspired Max and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse but apparently that one was based on an unfinished Poe story. Or at least that’s what they say. I didn’t see much of a connection to Poe.
*. But back to The Vanishing. Perhaps the main thing to say here is that it’s not as weird a movie as The Lighthouse. In fact, its naturalism is almost a gimmick. Three men arrive at a lonely lighthouse station: the old man (Thomas/Peter Mullan), the burly family man in his prime (James/Gerard Butler), and the kid (Donald/Connor Swindell). A nearly-dead man with a chest full of gold washes ashore. They’re rich! But then two other guys, Locke (Søren Malling) and Boor (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) show up. They were shipmates of the (now fully) dead guy and they were just sort of wondering if the lighthouse keepers might have seen anything suspicious in the last couple of days. Like a guy with a chest of gold.

*. So the set-up has us expecting the usual sort of moral fable you get with all such tales of discovered gold, from Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There are, of course, eruptions of violence, but the real theme the movie wants to address is guilt. These aren’t zipless kills. The men have to assure themselves that all this isn’t their fault. Even Gerald Butler breaks down! How many people have we seen Mike Banning kill without batting an eye? Now there’s some serious casting against type.
*. It’s a new take on what I thought going in was going to be more of a straight action-thriller. I’m not sure that’s enough though to recommend it. And I can’t help thinking a big part of the problem is Butler being miscast. Also, for a character study I didn’t think it had enough traction. I just didn’t feel I knew these people well enough, or cared enough about them and their problems. Tom had a family, and they’re gone. So what? James has a family back on the mainland we don’t know anything about. It’s hard to feel any of these connections.
*. Instead, the two visitors provide all the spark. Malling is great as the sinister Locke, eyes just dripping with malice and menace. And I love it when Boor rages at James, calling him a pig. Because he’s right! The money isn’t his! So where’s the damn gold? And what happened to the other guy they took it from? From Boor’s point of view the lighthouse keepers are pigs, and probably murderous pigs at that.
*. A good looking movie, as you should expect given that lighthouses are among the most photogenic locations imaginable. But the direction by Kristoffer Nyholm never dials up any suspense and the whole thing just felt like a bit of dead weight. If they were going to tell such a story and make it about the men then somehow it had to find a way for us to care more about them, and I feel almost a little ashamed to say that I didn’t. Maybe it’s just a case of falling between two stools — action film and existential drama — with neither really taking hold. It’s a tough trick they tried to pull off and I want to give them credit for trying but that’s the best I can do.

El Camino (2019)

*. Subtitled A Breaking Bad Movie. The producer thought it was a standalone movie (well, he would), but showrunner/writer/director Vince Gilligan thought he was making it for fans. I think Gilligan had it right.
*. It picks up directly where the series finale left off and I couldn’t imagine someone getting much out of it if they didn’t know all the back story and the various characters. Personally, I barely remembered the girlfriend (Jane) who reappears at the end. Didn’t she die in the third season? I thought it was pretty early in the show.
*. I loved Breaking Bad, thinking it was the best thing on television at the time, and I’m a big fan of a lot of the cable series that were contemporary with it. They set a new standard in television drama and long-form storytelling. But is this movie more than just a coda, and a not very necessary one at that? A farewell to Albuquerque and the gang of deceased and soon-to-be-deceased, loveable and not-so-loveable, rogues? Badger and Skinny Pete. Walter and Mike. The chilling psychopath Todd. But no Saul. He had his own show by now.

*. I don’t think it is much more than that long good-bye. And while it’s a nicer send-off than the show’s final episode (which I thought was awful), the dramatic highlights don’t measure up to any of the most memorable moments from the series. There’s a Western-style showdown which feels contrived and improbable. A dry negotiation between Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Ed (Robert Forster). And really that’s about it. Not much happens and there isn’t a lot of interesting interaction going on between the different characters.
*. While Aaron Paul is a decent actor, I’m not sure Jesse Pinkman is that interesting a character. He was basically Walter White’s sidekick in the series and while he travels a bit of an arc here it’s mostly what you’d expect. Meanwhile the story itself is quite downbeat and, as noted, it plays out as a long denouement.

*. One thing I do have to credit them for, or at least credit the producers of the DVD on, is the “super-commentary!” they put together. This isn’t the usual monologue by a director or writer. In fact Gilligan isn’t on it at all (he’s featured more in the “making of” documentary also included with the DVD). Instead you get insight from a line-up of not the usual suspects: wardrobe, make-up, gaffer, editor, co-supervising sound editor, special effects coordinator, prop master, sound mixer, key grip, casting directors . . . dozens of voices in all. Everyone takes turns talking a bit about what’s going on and they’re all in a good mood and enthusiastic because, let’s face it, this is their Super Bowl.
*. Along the way you learn lots of interesting things. Like when the prop master talks about the scene where Jesse consults a phone book. Apparently this was difficult because phone books aren’t that common anymore. In addition, all the names and numbers you see on screen, however briefly, have to be cleared for legal reasons. I like these bits of insight into the amount of work that goes into a production like this.

*. And it is a good-looking production. Gilligan has a real eye for expressive sets and settings and he gets to indulge that eye here in widescreen. It’s well written in the tense and dry style of the show. But at the end of the day there isn’t much of a story to tell, and nothing much to say. Fans were keen to know what happened to Jesse, and Gilligan winds that part of the story up, but that was really the only loose end. It’s more satisfying than the series finale, and much better than Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me as far as big-screen codas to popular television shows go. But it’s not a standalone feature and even plays more like an alternate ending or extended director’s cut to the series than a sequel. One for the fans, in other words, and I don’t think they have any cause to be upset.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

*. This movie is based on a famous story by James Thurber that was published in 1939. I say famous, but while I think a lot of people have heard of it and know what it’s about it (an everyday man who likes to daydream about being a hero), few have actually read it. It had previously been made into a movie in 1947 starring Danny Kaye, which I think even fewer people today have seen. Which does make you wonder what the draw was for doing it again now.
*. I think the people making it had much the same question in the back of their heads, at it was a project that spent nearly 15 years in development hell, with various stars, writers, and directors attached to it. At the time Ben Stiller was a hot property so in 2013 it was his turn, to both star and direct.
*. The results are dismal. This is another movie where a load of money and talent was thrown up on the screen with almost nothing to show for it. As I’ve pointed out in some of my other notes (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Get Smart), there’s something about going big in comedy that rarely pays off. The budget starts to work against you, and you end up with scenes that look like they cost a lot of money but which aren’t funny at all. What’s funny about Walter swimming with sharks? Or getting in a superhero-style fight with Ted over a Stretch Armstrong doll? Those scenes must have cost a fortune to shoot, but they’re worthless.
*. Not that there’s anything funny going on in the quieter moments either. The plot is stupid, and it’s all set in motion by some mistake that doesn’t make any sense in the first place. Why wouldn’t Walter just say the 25th frame from the roll of film was missing? Why would he be blamed for that?
*. Instead he has to go visiting Greenland and Iceland so we can see some expensive locations and watch a volcano erupt, etc., with lots of useless musical interludes thrown in. What kid would trade his skateboard for a Stretch Armstrong doll? That’s dumb. And the only reason for it is . . . so that we can see Walter riding a skateboard into town. Wasn’t that fun? Not really.
*. I think Ben Stiller is a very funny guy. At least he’s done some really funny stuff in the past. He doesn’t even have the chance to be funny here. And he’s still given way more to work with than poor Kristen Wiig, an actor who needs to spend some more time thinking about the roles she’s accepting. Adam Scott steals the show when he’s allowed to. Patton Oswalt is a character so unreal I wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be an imaginary friend. Shirley MacLaine and Sean Penn show up and have nothing to add, which is too bad because I thought Penn might have been really interesting. But the script is awful. Aside from just jerking us from one splashy set-piece to another nobody has anything to say.
*. There is the usual moral lesson about living life to the fullest. Or something along those lines. Unlike Thurber’s story, the dreams become reality and Walter becomes an actual hero and gets the girl and the cover photo and all the rest of it. Instead of a character study with all sorts of complex angles to explore it settles for being a big-budget rom-com that’s a total waste of time.

Come to Daddy (2019)

*. Not much to say here, though I don’t mean that Come to Daddy is a bad movie or not worth checking out. It’s quirky and decently put forward. But “quirky” has come to seem less quirky in the crowded field of horror-action-comedy these days. If this movie had come out in the 1970s it might be regarded today as a cult favourite, but today it seems like a typical production of the zeitgeist. If they’d added some barely-remembered rock song from the ’80s they would have assembled all the essential ingredients.
*. Elijah Wood plays Norval, a young man with a strange caterpillar moustache and a very, very strange bowl haircut (he works in the music industry in Los Angeles, you see) who is summoned by his estranged father, a reclusive figure he has never known, for a visit to the father’s fashionable, and isolated, coastal chateau. Norval shows up and is met by a weird old alcoholic crank played by Stephen McHattie. McHattie is always fun to watch, but he’s not with us for long and soon Norval is discovering that things are not what they seem.

*. I can’t say much more, as there’s a big median break in the plot that actually sends things spinning in a not entirely predictable new direction. So full credit there. Unfortunately, once we start going off in this new direction the movie unravels in a mostly formulaic way without ever picking up speed. It remains interesting, in that quirky way I mentioned, but at the same time never feels as fresh as you’d imagine.
*. Billed as a horror comedy it’s neither scary nor funny, but it gets by on its X factor. The violence is quick and nasty, particularly the scenes involving various improvised stabbing weapons like a pen, a roasting fork, and a bill spindle. The sexual tension is enjoyable, especially in the unconventional but touching desire Norval feels for an attractive coroner. There’s a message about father-son bonding that thankfully only gets introduced as an afterthought. So there’s stuff here to enjoy, if not be enthusiastic about. A good little movie in the genre of dark quirk, but it has to be said that this is a genre now so it’s not as challenging as it wants to be.

Dr. Feelgood (2016)

*. I don’t know when the term Dr. Feelgood first started being applied to doctors who obliged their patients with the abuse of prescription drugs to help ease their pain or to just get them through the day (“momma’s little helpers”). Both John F. Kennedy’s and Elvis Presley’s personal physicians were referred to as Dr. Feelgoods, so it goes back a way.
*. The profession, of Dr. Feelgood really took off with the opiate epidemic in the United States though, where pills like OxyContin became a drug of choice and then an addiction for sufferers of chronic pain. This documentary examines the case of one such Dr. Feelgood, Dr. William Hurwitz.
*. Was Dr. Hurwitz a caring professional or an unscrupulous pusher running a pill mill? Healer or dealer? If you’re familiar with the way these docs work you know that they’ll set you up to think one thing at the beginning and then pull the rug out from under you at some point with a disturbing revelation. That’s basically what happens here, as we hear from a couple of patients who are sad cases and who claim Hurwitz saved their lives. But then we hear from the police, and the families of less fortunate patients (who committed suicide or died of overdoses), as well as tape recordings made by patients who went in to the clinic wearing a wire. On this evidence it seems like Hurwitz was basically a pusher. He is convicted at trial, though much of this is reversed on appeal. To this day he has his defenders, but there are also those who think he got off easy.
*. There’s a third alternative. Hurwitz’s wife calls him a fool, which is just possible but unlikely. It’s the way some of his peers also saw him, and he may have indeed been foolish, but more than that he was terribly irresponsible. It was obvious he was giving a lot of pills to people who shouldn’t have been getting them. That part is on him, and his defence that he was just doing his job and he wasn’t a cop doesn’t come across as very convincing. Everyone will have their own take, but I didn’t find him a very sympathetic figure when being interviewed.
*. I also didn’t find this true-crime part of the movie particularly interesting. What it does draw attention to, however, is the whole question of personal choice vs. the public good. If you want something, and can afford it, should you be allowed to have it regardless of the consequences? That would be the libertarian judgment. Prohibition doesn’t work! And isn’t it better to do this through these sort of channels instead of having junkies hooked on heroin out on the street?
*. But of course substance abuse doesn’t just affect the addict, and so the government has to step in because when dealing with a product this powerfully addictive people can’t stop themselves. It’s a message that could have been more powerfully made here, as Dr. Feelgood never rises much above the level of a rather average Frontline episode.

Welcome to Marwen (2018)

*. Welcome to Marwen is a biopic based on the life of the photographer Mark Hogancamp, whose story had already been told in the acclaimed documentary Marwencol. As I said in my notes on that film, Hogancamp’s story is compelling but it’s really a pretty humdrum doc that didn’t give me much insight into his personality. Welcome to Marwen tries to do more, but left me even more frustrated.
*. First and foremost, I wasn’t sure how much of it was true and how much only “inspired by” Hogancamp’s story. Did the real Mark Hogancamp have a breakdown during a sentencing hearing for the men who nearly killed him, running screaming from the courtroom? Did he really propose to Nicole, the woman who lived across the street from him? Did she really have a scary ex? Or were scenes like these just made up for the movie?
*. You can tell what would have attracted Hollywood, and Robert Zemeckis in particular, to the material. Hogancamp is, after all, an auteur: building sets, creating characters, writing a script, and shooting film of an alternative reality that provides an escape and an antidote to reality. All that and the chance to do some state-of-the-art animation as well. How could you miss?
*. Well, miss they did. By a mile. I got the sense that Steve Carell literally didn’t have any idea how he was supposed to play Hogancamp so just settled on distant. But then he wasn’t given a lot of help. Despite foregrounding a lush psychodrama I still have no idea what makes the guy tick. He’s lonely, sure. But what exactly does his obsession with women’s shoes and stockings amount to? Is it even sexual? The movie offers us nothing.
*. I could go on here but I don’t want to because I really hated this movie. Why so strong a reaction? Because they took a dark and difficult story and dressed it up as the usual Hollywood tripe about the triumph of the human spirit. Some of that might have to do with making a biopic of a living figure, which means any sort of critical attitude or exploration was off the table. But the rest of it?
*. And so Hogancamp’s male friends, who we met in Marwencol so we know they exist, disappear completely and we get a message about how women are the greatest (I think at one point the title was actually going to be The Women of Marwen). Then, as the music soars, the Nazis are finally defeated, Mark stands up to his tormentors in court, and his anxiety pills all get tossed down the sink! His photography show opens at a swank gallery and his gal pal tells him “Gosh darn Mark, you did it.” Did he ever!
*. To take a story that is, as I say, as dark and complicated as this and turn it into such feel-good cartoon pap is inexcusable. And it’s all very dull too. In any event, critics weren’t impressed and audiences hated it, turning it into one of the year’s biggest bombs. A fate that this time was entirely deserved.

Marwencol (2010)

*. Marwencol was one of the most acclaimed documentaries of the past decade, winning raves from critics, appearances on a pile of year-end lists, a plethora of awards (there are ten listed on the front of the DVD box), and even the ultimate accolade of a (less well-received) dramatic adaptation: Welcome to Marwen (2018), starring Steve Carell.
*. Given all this, and the genuine feel-good nature of the story, it seems churlish to register any doubts and reservations. But I will anyway.
*. The first thing I’d insist on is the difference between a great documentary subject and a great documentary. This is a pretty basic distinction but one that few people seem interested in or capable of making anymore. Put simply: one test of a great documentary is to make a difficult or boring subject accessible and interesting, or a seemingly simple one complex. That’s not what happens here.
*. Mark Hogencamp, the man whose life and work is documented in Marwencol, is a fascinating character with a compelling story. Beaten nearly to death outside a bar in his hometown of Kingston, New York, he recovered by way of creating a world of 1/6 scale dolls and toys populating an imaginary Belgian town of Marwencol during the Second World War. I don’t think it would be possible to make a documentary out of this story and for it not to be interesting. Throw in a twist like Hogancamp’s crossdressing, and give it all a happy ending with a successful Greenwich Village show, and you’ve got a movie that can’t miss.
*. But is it a great movie? I don’t think so. Is it particularly well filmed? Does it do anything inventive with the documentary form? No. It basically plays like an extended 60 Minutes profile. The DVD contains a pile of deleted scenes and when I was watching them I tried to figure out why they were left out. I didn’t see how the movie would have been any worse if they’d been included, or if they’d been substituted for some of the material that made the final cut. Most deleted scenes are left out for what are pretty obvious reasons. Here I just didn’t have a sense that they were any better or worse, significant or less important, than the parts that made it in.
*. The structure is also formulaic for this kind of a movie. As soon as we’re told the story of Hogancamp’s horrific beating I wanted to know what was being left out. Five guys don’t usually just jump another guy outside a bar and beat him to a pulp. I assumed Hogancamp was gay and it was a hate crime. But the movie has to wait until it’s halfway over before springing the “surprise” of Hogancamp’s being a crossdresser on us. I thought this was just being coy, and in an obvious, manipulative way.
*. A lot of complicated ideas could have been explored further. Art as obsession. Art as therapy. Art as the sublimation of sex. Art as world-building. Now by “explore” I don’t mean they had to explicitly address any of these topics, but I thought they could have used Hogancamp’s story to examine and develop them in insightful ways. But this is a movie that really doesn’t have anything it wants to say. It basically lets Hogancamp tell us his story, but he’s a very private person and doesn’t seem especially introspective or articulate anyway.
*. In short, it’s a movie I’d recommend to anyone but not because I think it’s a particularly good movie. It’s a documentary about an interesting personality that doesn’t dig very deep. I don’t know how much of that was by necessity and how much by design. To take one example, I was wondering throughout just how much of a catalyst the attack was for Hogancamp. Did he play with dolls and toys much before the beating? Did he build tiny towns? What about his marriage? Hogancamp says he doesn’t remember anything about his life prior to the attack, but doesn’t somebody know something? All we know is he was an alcoholic and isn’t now, which tells us nothing.
*. So if you want to just enjoy the art, which I think is marvelous, you can buy the coffee-table book. I think it might be more revealing.