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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Welcome to Marwen

“Holmes & Watson” is also new to Blu-Ray this week. 

The human mind is an incredibly complex yet fragile thing. When confronted with a truly traumatizing event, the mind has protectors in place that help the person cope. Blackout periods as well as auditory and visual hallucinations are some of these coping mechanisms, which are characteristic of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), the assault victim at the center of “Welcome to Marwen.”

After a brutal homophobic beating at the hands of five neo-Nazi thugs (if this wasn’t based on a true story I’d call this very lazy writing), Mark went into a mental retreat. Director Robert Zemeckis very wisely breezes through the background exposition portion of the narrative with flashbacks and a scrapbook to show what Mark went through following the assault. It’s now three years later, and Mark lives alone in a house where he spends most of his day posing and photographing dolls in a fictional World War II scenario.

The plastic doll World War II portions of the story are an exciting fantasy that masks a sad reality. The protagonist in Mark’s fantasy is an aviator named Cap'n Hogie (Carell again). After he crash lands near a fictional Dutch town called Marwen, Hogie is attacked by five German soldiers. Lucky for Hogie, he is rescued by the women of Marwen, who take him into their town and give him shelter. In turn, Hogie helps them to defend themselves against the same five Germans over and over again, whom the wicked witch Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) keeps resurrecting after they’re killed.

Mark’s fantasies make two things clear: He hates his attackers for what they did to him and he is desperate to reconnect with women. The five German soldiers, who represent the neo-Nazis who assaulted him, die in increasingly bizarre, torturous, and protracted ways. They don’t just die—they die viciously and are made to suffer. The interesting thing is that Hogie is usually the one in some kind of peril, so it’s up to the women to rescue him. In doing so, they are the ones who do most of the brutal killing. This is a call back to the real life situation in which Mark’s life was saved by a bar maid named Wendy (Stefanie von Pfetten), who found him after he was beaten.

This, coupled with his loneliness and self-imposed isolation, causes him to fantasize about and idealize women. At one point, Hogie even refers to women as the “saviors of the world.” Kind of a heavy burden to drop on an entire sex, no? This view toward women leads to an imbalanced infatuation with new neighbor across the street Nicol, played by Leslie Mann. She’s a kind, understanding figure who sympathizes with Mark and shows him compassion—exactly the kind of woman a mentally troubled man like Mark would gravitate toward and fall for way too hard and way too fast.

One of the fun aspects of “Welcome to Marwen” is seeing how Mark’s real-life inspirations play out in his fantasy stories. The German soldiers are based on the neo-Nazis and we only see Wendy briefly in doll form when she rescues Hogie, but we know the real Wendy saved Mark. Then there are the other women: Carlala (Eiza González), a cook at the bar where Mark works mopping floors; Anna (Gwendoline Christie), a caregiver who shows up monthly to look after Mark; Julie (Janelle Monáe), a Gulf War combat vet who helped Mark with physical therapy; Roberta (Merritt Wever), the hobby shop worker who’s sweet on Mark; and Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis), who is Mark’s favorite actress in certain movies he watches. All of these women have machine-gun wielding counterparts in Mark’s fantasy. Once Nicol comes into the picture, she joins the group and becomes the most idealized of them all.

While “Welcome to Marwen” may have its fun moments, it also gets dramatically serious as the prosecutor (Conrad Coates) in the assault trial wants Mark to face his accusers and read a statement. In these moments of stress, we see Mark’s psyche put up major barriers as Hogie comes to full-size life in Mark’s mind and takes action, becoming Mark’s protector. Mark is certainly a quirky man, but not in a funny way, and I appreciate the movie for neither being condescending toward Mark nor treating him with kid gloves. He’s a man who suffered a tragedy and has issues. What makes Mark unique is that he took his pain and turned it into amazing art rather than letting it get the better of him. Rent it.

Also New This Week

Holmes & Watson

I’ll start off by dealing with the elephant in the room. When “Holmes & Watson” was released last year (on Christmas day, in an attempt to serve as counter-programming to the Oscar bait releases of the same day), stories soon followed that it was so atrocious that many theatre-goers walked out midway through. Just google “holmes and watson walk out” and you’ll get a sampling of the stories. Perhaps it’s the low expectations that I had based on these stories, or perhaps it is that as a movie critic I have a much higher tolerance than most for what is bad, or perhaps both, but after watching the movie I have to say that this reaction was a bit extreme. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a bad movie—but it’s not aggressively offensive, walk out level bad.

The problems are of premise and of comedy. First, the premise. Was anyone really clamoring for a movie in which literature’s arguably greatest detective duo, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, here played by Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, are idiotic, cocaine-addicted blowhards with haughty speech and mannerisms?

Even if I missed the memo that this is something audiences want, there is still the problem of the comedy. I will admit that I did laugh now and again. Holmes finding a hat that looks good on him is a running gag that worked for me, and the movie’s funniest line seriously made me wonder why no one thought to use the common expression “No sh!t, Sherlock” in a movie before (looking at you, “Without a Clue”…). 

However, these moments were few and far between for the movie’s ninety minute run time, most of which is taken up with a shoestring plot that is not worth mentioning and is just an excuse to hang bad jokes on. But it’s worse than the fact that the jokes are bad—they’re beaten into the ground. Unfunny scenes like the one in which a swarm of killer bees are set free, or the one in which the duo thinks they inadvertently killed Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris), are trying way too hard to be funny and go on for way, way too long, probably to pad the run time to get to ninety minutes. Director Etan Cohen seemingly operates under the philosophy that if you play a bad joke for long enough, it eventually becomes funny. I have seen that work before. But it doesn’t work here. Skip it.

More New Releases: “On the Basis of Sex,” the story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, directed by Mimi Leder and starring Armie Hammer, Felicity Jones, Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux, and Kathy Bates; “A Dog’s Way Home,” in which a dog travels 400 miles in search of her owner, starring Wes Studi and Ashley Judd; “Berlin, I Love You,” an anthology feature of ten stories of romance set in the German capital, starring Keira Knightley, Diego Luna, Mickey Rourke, and Helen Mirren; and “We Die Young,” which takes place over the course of twenty-four hours in the gang controlled slums of Washington, D.C., starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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