Review – Carell’s a Doll of a Guy (“Welcome to Marwen”)

Based on the 2010 documentary film, Marwencol, this is one odd-duck of a movie. It deals with the story of Mark Hogancamp, a WW2 Navy veteran who was brutally beaten outside a bar one night, miraculously recovered, and then healed himself through self-therapy using dolls and photography. It’s based on a true story (sorta).

Robert Zemeckis (the Back to the Future franchise) co-wrote & directed this curious Hollywood-ized retelling of Hogancamp’s terrible ordeal, but through the man’s haunting, wild, and vivid imagination. Mark (Steve Carell), in his recovery, has built outside his upstate New York yard an imaginary town called Marwen (actually called Marwencol–an amalgam of Mark, and his friends, Wendy and Colleen, but for reasons this movie calls it Marwen). This detailed 1/6 scale town, complete with a working fountain, miniature buildings and a church steeple is set in WW2 Brussels. Here he uses GI Joe’s & Barbie dolls as doppelgangers for himself and the women in his life… and he always plays the hero, Capt. ‘Hoagie’ Hogencamp, in his made-up stories.

In his imagination (and as he photographs them), the dolls ‘come to life’, using Zemeckis’ own CG performance-capture method, which looks both creepy and fascinating. The female dolls, all bad-ass, gun toting, and scantily-clad are based on Anna, Mark’s Russian caretaker (Gwendoline Christie), Suzette, a porn actress (the director’s wife, Leslie Zemeckis), Caralala, a Spanish bar maid (Eiza Gonzalez), Julie, a war vet (Janelle Monae), and Roberta (Merritt Wever) who runs a toy shop in town and is Mark’s BFF. Screwing up his life is fictional Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), a Belgian Witch doll (representing Mark’s persecution subconscious) who constantly taunts him. Mark and the Marwen girl dolls fight off the same five Nazi dolls (based on the five who beat him up) on a daily basis, but with ever-changing storylines.

With Mark’s court case coming up that will sentence the five monsters that nearly killed him and a NYC art exhibit that will feature his incredible photographs, a new neighbor named Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in across the street. Struck by her innocence and beauty, Mark falls for her instantly and adds her (doll-wise) into his Marwen population rotation, as a love interest for Capt. Hoagie, his much braver and stronger alter-ego. Nicol, finding this out (and much more about Mark – like his women’s shoe fetish), doesn’t run for the hills, but enjoys/understands his quirkiness and fragility.

But things don’t well for Mark as suffers daily from a form of PTSD; his dolls being his only comfort and solace. With each ‘dolls vs the Nazi’s’ scenario playing out, Mark moves one step closer to rehabilitation, even though it’s only him that can see these dolls move, talk, and even fly in a DeLorean-like time machine (a shameless Zemeckis BTTF callback, complete with the same music!). I’ve seen the original documentary, Marwencol, and this movie doesn’t even scratch the surface of the real Mark Hogancamp and his life. I suggest you rent/stream that doc for a more insightful movie.

Zemekis and Caroline Thompson (Corpse Bride, Nightmare Before Christmas) wrote this very strange screenplay that attempts to explain WHY the title has “Marwen” in it instead of “Marwencol”, like the documentary it was culled from. It eventually does, but it makes no sense if you’ve seen the doc. And then there’s the tone: is this a comedy, a drama, a ‘feel-good’ movie, a fantasy, a poignant psychological study? What? One thing’s for sure, them ‘living’ dolls is sure weird looking. Plastic-faced and lacking emotion, they fire off guns, bombs, and kill each other with gleeful delight. I can see where this is Mark’s inner rage letting loose, but that’s never conveyed properly and so it comes across as something like all those Puppet Master B-movies using stop-motion puppets.

However, I will say that Carell is wonderful here as the tortured Hogancamp, giving another bravura performance. Mann is also excellent, especially during a moment where the awkwardness factor is dialed up to 11; it’s a cringe-worthy scene that deserves an Oscar. Wever is very good as the best friend and, for the little amount of time he’s on camera, Neil Jackson as Nicol’s twisted ex-boyfriend is frightening. All in all, it’s not a BAD movie, but it’s not a very good movie, either. Zemekis is one of the very best directors in Hollywood, but he should have dialed back the silly ‘dolls story’ and given us more of Hogancamp’s tragedy and his story instead.                             

Puppet Master 3: Toulon’s Revenge (1991)
A man who makes puppets to kill Nazi’s? Sure, why not! This third in the impressive nine movie series that you probably never heard of, deals with the hijinks of one Andre Toulon, a master marionette maker. He also has some 2-ft tall puppet friends that are extremely lethal when it comes to assassination.It’s 1941 in war-torn Berlin, them nasty Nazi’s are everywhere, but kindly old Toulon (Guy Rolfe) just wants to entertain the children with his amusing marionette shows. However, when his shows contain political jabs with a Hitler puppet getting shot by a six-armed Cowboy, a brown-nosing brown-shirt driver (Kristopher Logan) discovers that these puppets are actually (*gulp*) ALIVE! He reports his findings to the curious Dr. Hess (Ian Abercrombie), who’s desperately trying to make zombies for der Fuehrer, and Major Kraus (Richard Lynch), a soulless dick who just wants to kill something or someone.After Toulon’s beloved wife, Elsa (Sarah Douglas) is killed by Kraus, Dr. Hess gets a hold of his secret magic green elixir that gives the puppets life (looking alot like the same strange glowing green reanimating liquid used in 1985’s Re-Animator. Hmmm–coincidence?), and wants to use it on dead bodies to… well… re-animate them! On the run, Toulon vows his revenge. He makes a new Elsa puppet to kill others (with giant leaches that vomit from her tiny mouth), and then makes plans for the others.He calls upon his ‘friends’ to do his bidding: Tunneler (he head is a spinning screw-top that burrows into you), Pinhead (a tiny head, but a massive little body that is super-strong), Six-Shooter (a six-armed Cowboy), Jester (a knife-wielding court jester), and Blade (a hook & blade handed fedora-wearing ‘spy’). As Major Kraus is hunting for Toulon to kill him, Dr. Hess just wants to talk to him to find out more out his incredible green serum. As the body count increases, things get complicated when young fanboy Peter (Aron Eisenberg) and his dad come a’callin’.Will Toulon make good on his killing promise? Will the puppets be discovered by the bad guys? Will the boy and his papa make it out alive? And how come the ONLY people in this movie that speak any German are two extras playing guards? It’s supposed to be Berlin in 1941, yet only these two guys speak German? Strange. As far as story, acting, and directing goes, this movie was light-years better than parts one & two. True, it’s a simple dumb revenge story about killer puppets in Nazi Germany, but it has a certain silly quirkiness that stands out from the others.David DeCoteau, who has made a very long career (1986-2016) directing practically every made-for-DVD movie out there you’ve never heard of, does an adequate job here. The acting ranges from very good (Rolfe & Douglas) to terrible extras that look like they were just plucked off the street that afternoon. Lynch, who always plays the bad guy, chews the scenery nicely, and Abercrombie lends his “Mr. Nice Guy” talents to a thankless role. Special credit to the SPFX: the stop-motion puppets are very good and creepy, and this movie finally gives us some background on WHO they are (were) in a previous life.

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