[Screen It]


(2018) (Steve Carell, Leslie Mann) (PG-13)

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Drama: Having survived a beating by a group of neo-Nazis, a former illustrator turns to photographing dolls -- that he imagines as living beings set in a scale model of WWII era Belgium -- as a means of dealing with his PTSD.
Three years ago, Mark Hogancamp (STEVE CARELL) was beaten to within an inch of his life by five neo-Nazis after they learned that he occasionally liked to wear women's shoes. With most of his physical wounds now healed, he's still dealing with severe PTSD and has no memory of his personal life from before the attack. As a means of coping, he's created a scale model in his backyard of a fictitious WWII era Belgian town that he's named Marwen and where he stages various war-time scenes that he photographs. There, he imagines a doll version of himself, Capt. Hogie, who battles Nazis (representing the men who attacked him) while getting armed assistance from a group of female dolls representing real-life women who helped him get through his ordeal. While some of them are from his past -- including G.I. Julie (JANELLE MONAE) -- and another represents his favorite adult actress -- Suzette (LESLIE ZEMECKIS), the rest represent people still in his life.

That includes his nurse, Anna (GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE), who makes house calls and brings him his anti-anxiety medication; Carlala (EIZA GONZALEZ) who works with him at a local bar; and Roberta (MERRITT WEVER) who runs the local hobby shop and provides him with props and new dolls for his village. The latest such addition is a red-headed one to represent Nicol (LESLIE MANN) who's just moved in across the street and is quickly accepting of Mark's quirks and damaged soul, especially in contrast to her ex-boyfriend, Kurt (NEIL JACKSON), who occasionally shows up to harass her.

In Mark's imagination, the women are all gun-toting "dames" who have no problem blasting the various Nazi dolls, including their leader, HauptsturmfŁhrer Ludwig Topf (FALK HENTSCHEL). But the Nazis won't stay dead thanks to the sorcery of a Belgian witch, Dejah Thoris (DIANE KRUGER), who also stymies any romance Mark tries to pursue. All of which, of course, represents Mark's tormented psyche and his reaction to his lawyer urging him to appear in court for the sentencing of his real-life attackers, something he's not sure he can do.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
It's interesting that many people who started their lives playing with dolls, stuffed animals and action figures end up doing the same at the end of their time here on Earth. Of course, while those earlier times involve a lot of imagination and play, there's also a great deal of emotional comfort derived from being in the company of such inanimate objects that kids usually view as real to one degree or another.

That comfort returns in the later stages of life where people suffering from any number of age-related cognitive issues often gravitate toward dolls given to them, seeing such objects as their children, pets or friends.

Those who find themselves in between those stages of life and still like playing or at least collecting such figures, however, usually draw cautious or nervous reactions from others who find such behavior inappropriate, immature or downright creepy and disturbing. But for some, that comfort factor comes back into play, especially if they've suffered some sort of trauma and the use of such figures ends up being their coping mechanism for getting through life.

Such was the case for Mark Hogancamp, an artist who was severely beaten by a bunch of thugs back in 2000, suffered brain damage and memory loss, and coped by creating a scale model town filled with dolls. Staging and then capturing their "actions" in photos, the survivor went on to have his work not only featured in art galleries, but also a documentary about him and all of that, "Marwencol."

That intriguing tale now gets another big screen treatment in the drama "Welcome to Marwen" where Steve Carell plays Hogancamp. A former illustrator, he was beaten to within an inch of his life a few years back and has since created the fictional scale model town of Marwen complete with a heroic military figure, the gun-toting "dames" who often get him out of jams, and the WWII era Nazis who, well, need to have the "Inglourious Basterds" treatment applied to them.

I haven't seen Jeff Malmberg's critically acclaimed documentary about the real-life man, but I'm guessing said miniature characters didn't spring to life. Which makes perfect sense considering the real world, the film's "slice of life" format and the lack of a budget big enough to make that a reality.

Director Robert Zemeckis, however, doesn't have such monetary or tech wizardry restraints and thus -- apparently sensing that inanimate objects might be interesting in a documentary but sort of boring in a feature film -- opted to animate the inanimate. The result is flawed yet fascinating, not particularly gripping but sort of compelling, and the sort of offering that will likely divide viewers and critics alike about its artistic merits.

Working from a screenplay he penned with Caroline Thompson, the director returns once again to the world of motion capture performances, something he's dabbled in before with the likes of "The Polar Express," "Beowulf" and "A Christmas Carol." Yet, where that earlier work was criticized (including by yours truly) for featuring "dead-eye doll" characters, the technology has come a long way and it's pretty wild seeing real-life performers' faces looking quite realistic atop otherwise plastic toy bodies.

We're introduced to this right from the get-go as our imaginary doll hero, Hogie (Carell doing the motion capture bit) is shot down in his fighter plane somewhere in WWII era Belgium. With his boots having caught on fire and melted, he happens across some ladies high heels, dons them, and then encounters a small group of Nazis who make fun of that sight.

They also attack him, but then a group of gun-toting "dames" (Merritt Wever, Janelle MonŠe, Eiza GonzŠlez, Gwendoline Christie, and Leslie Zemeckis likewise performing via motion capture) come to his rescue and blast away the villains. We then pull away from that to see the real man getting a still photograph of the now static scene and quickly realize everyone we just watched are imaginary proxies for their real-life counterparts.

That's Mark's way of coping with his PTSD and trying to forge a new life for himself, what with the attack having robbed him of any memories of his personal life prior to that traumatic moment. And he doesn't go anywhere in town without pulling his alter-ego and those heroic lifesavers behind him in an oversized toy jeep.

The status quo gets shaken up a bit when a single woman (Leslie Mann) moves in across the street and befriends him. Due to her kindness and non-judgmental ways, Marwen suddenly gets a new inhabitant from the local toy store and Mark gets to act out his romance based fantasies by placing her look-alike doll alongside his.

I've still yet to figure out exactly how I feel about the film, especially given less than 24 hours to see it, write up the content portion of the review, and then assess the artistic merits. There's certainly a lot going on thematically and creatively, but the story itself -- where the only real drama, aside from the various in-the-moment action scenes, is whether Mark will go to court to confront his attackers during their sentencing -- sometimes feels as inert as the dolls whenever they're not on camera. And late in the film, Zemeckis does an odd bit of referencing one of his signature past works where a doll-sized time machine flies off into nothingness leaving fiery "tread marks" worthy of a miniature DeLorean.

Carell again gives a finely nuanced performance as the damaged man (a scene where he mistakes Mann's character's friendliness as romance is sort of heartbreaking), while she brings humanity and compassion to her part in a world (both in the film and in reality) that's sorely in need of more of just that.

I'm torn on Zemeckis turning the real-life therapeutic use and staging of said dolls into a special effects action extravaganza, but understand the concern that without that viewers might have grown antsy or bored. And that it was a visual representation of what was presumably going through the man's head while arranging his photo shoots. Still, it feels a bit odd and even a bit icky at times (especially with the added sexualization of some of the material).

So, until I get to see it again, I'm giving "Welcome to Marwen" a mixed review, albeit one partially leaning toward the positive side. It rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 19, 2018 / Posted December 21, 2018

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