Monday, January 14, 2019


It was inevitable. I couldn't help myself.

I'd be at a critics' function or at a party or in a screening room where other reviewers were huddled in a circle savaging a certain film. One of the least attractive qualities of American movie critics is their penchant for forming a lynch mob in response to a shared contempt for a certain film.

It isn't pretty.

Anyway, when it came my turn to weigh in on the reviled movie, I'd inevitably invoke four little words - "Well, I like it." I lost a lot of credibility when I did that but I felt emboldened, empowered. It was cathartic.

Four of the most popular (or unpopular) victims of what I call "critics' wrath" are Sam Mendes' "American Beauty" (1999), Rob Marshall's "Chicago" (2002), Paul Haggis' "Crash" (2004) and Shawn Levy's "This Is Where I Leave You" (2014). Reviewers went after each of those titles as if they were protecting moviegoers from something the approximate size of a world war. Their response, particularly towards something as trivial as "This Is Where I Leave You," was a tad excessive, to put it mildly.

But throughout the decades, there have been some truly amazing films that have been hastily panned, simply because critics didn't understand what they were reviewing. Critics regularly complain about the lack of originality and daring in films, but when they're confronted with just that, they seem to freak out and go in for the kill. A case in point:

Arthur Penn's "Bonnie & Clyde" (1967).

With the exception of Pauline Kael of The New Yorker, Penn's film was dismissed and degraded by major critics - chief among them Bosley Crowther of The New York Times and Joe Morgenstern of Newsweek. Morgenstern, who at 86 is still reviewing films, retracted his pan in the next issue of Newsweek. Crowther, who died in 1981 at age 75, stood firm.

Among the major film achievements that have been dismissed and derided are Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and "Marnie," Charles Chaplin's "A Countess from Hong Kong," John Huston's "The Misfits," Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love," Howard Hawks' "Monkey Business," Elaine May's "Ishtar," John Boorman's "Exorcist II: The Heretic," Francis Ford Coppola's "One from the Heart," Darren Aronofsky’s "mother!," Robert Wise's "Star!," Mike Nichols' "Day of the Dolphin," Steven Spielberg's "1941" and, most notably, Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Cleopatra."

All "hated" films, which is bizarre when one considers the execrable junk that critics sit through week after week and, sometimes, actually endorse.

These are films that took risks, something that one could hardly say about any recent Oscar winner. Quick! I challenge you to name the last three Best Picture winners. You probably can't because, after the celebration dies down, most Oscar winners prove to be not very memorable.

Then there's Robert Zemeckis' "Welcome to Marwen," a title that deserves a place on the august list above. It's an auspicious, in many ways difficult work that, for me, brought some excitement to an otherwise lackluster holiday movie season. It came, it was apathetically shrugged off by the critics or subjected to snarky comments, and it went away, now forgotten.

Given that this site is devoted largely to movies that have been unpopular and mostly misunderstood, "Welcome to Marwen" fits right in - and one of the qualities that I like and admire about the film is just how inscrutable it is, defying easy pigeon-holing. It's elusive and not exactly "audience-friendly" - or, at least, it's audience-friendly in an entirely different way.

Or maybe not.

It marches to its own beat. Which probably also made it a tough sell for Universal. Its trailer which played in theaters for months before it opened failed to capture just how special it is. "Welcome to Marwen" was made to look like a sappy TV movie about a grown man who plays with dolls.

In short, it looked off-putting.

The film is about Mark Hogancamp, an illustrator whose work and tragic situation are also the subjects of Jeff Malmberg's 2010 documentary, "Marwencol."  Hogancamp was viciously attacked outside a bar by five men after he joked (while drunk) about his preference for women's shoes.They called him the usual ugly names and beat and kicked him until his past disappeared from his brain. He was left with no memory.

Or only bits and pieces of it.

Hogie (as he is known by his friends) starts a new life engulfed in fantasy. He obsessive constructed a tiny, fictional Belgian village both outside and inside his home in Kingston, New York, where he populated it with the aforementioned dolls - brave Barbies and evil Kens - as well as accessories associated with World War II. It's all quite detailed. These figures and their "lives" helped him cope with the reality of his situation and gave him the strength to appear at the sentencing of his assailants.

The ever-inventive Zemeckis made the risky decision to use magic realism to tell Hogancamp's story, breathlessly mixing the otherwise naturalistic, straightforward narrative with elements of unconventional fantasy.

Steve Carell plays Hogancamp as both a wounded man and, via some incredible CGI, as a vainglorious doll - a daring soldier. He is surrounded both in real life and in his fantasy world by women who care about him - and fight for him. While the movie could have simply been an inspiration piece about a broken man's valiant and unusual attempts to heal himself, it is much more a celebration of women and the strength of their nurturing.

And Zemeckis doesn't use the fantasy sequences sparingly either. His film is equal parts of realism and fantastic imagery. And Carell and company play their roles alternately as human beings and as plastic facsimiles.

Speaking of Carell, he had a wealth of opportunities during the holiday season, appearing in no less than three films - "Beautiful Boy," "Vice" and "Welcome to Marwen" - and doing incredible work in each, never repeating himself. Is there any role that this man can't play? He's a great actor.

As for the film itself, it works both as a major achievement and as an acquired taste, an uneasy combination that has historically put past similar films on the periphery for a while (ok, for decades) but that also has made them ripe for rediscovery, reassessment and belated praise. I've a hunch that this is what "Welcome to Marwen" will experience. It should.

Note in Passing: And a shout-out for Leslie Mann, who delivers a nuanced performance, her best to date, as Hogancamp's neighbor - the one woman whom he (mistakenly) believes is his salvation.

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(from top) 

 ~Kim Novak in "Vertigo"
~Photography: Universal 1958© 

~Poster art for "Welcome to Marwen"
~Universal 2018©

~Doll versions of Leslie Mann and Steve Carell dance in "Welcome to Marwen"
~photography: Universal 2018©


Brian Lucas said...

I planned to see this film, despite the lynch-mob mentality of the initial reaction to is. It sounds like the kind of challenging movie that most people find easier to revile than try to understand. I can't wait to see it - on DVD!

toby said...

What a fascinating film -- on so many levels. It's a true story. It's a story about discrimination, small-mindedness, physical and mental challenges, PTSD, relationships. Leslie Mann was fantastic, as were all of the characters. I agree with you on Steve Carell. Anyone who thinks of him from "The Office" has just not kept up. Fortunately I saw it before it moved on from my local theaters. My other favorite small film he did, with Keira Knightley, no less, was "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World."

mike schlesinger said...

Nothing new. Many now-classic films were panned on initial release, from GREED to DUCK SOUP to BRINGING UP BABY to FANTASIA to THE SEARCHERS to THE PRODUCERS to THE WILD BUNCH; Hitchcock once noted that PSYCHO went from filth to masterpiece in almost the blink of an eye. As Jonathan Winters, of all people, once observed, everyone remembers CITIZEN KANE; nobody remembers the critics who trashed it.

joe baltake said...

Mike- So many good films, so many clueless pans. There's a book in this, methinks. -J

Buñuel said...

I'm one of the few who saw "Welcome to Marwen," but I try to see everything. I liked it. A lot. But I agree, the film is definitely a tough sell. It is so much more than the trailer for it implies. Toby is correct when she (he?) writes that it works on so many different levels. A special film.

Gary G. said...

I loved "This is Where I Leave" you. It was very underrated and underappreciated. The kinda forgettable title didn't help, but it was based on a book. Now I must see "Marwen!"

joe baltake said...

Gary- I agree. There is nothing wrong with "This is Where I Leave." It's a perfectly fine little family comedy with a terrific cast. Not a great film, but certainly not the offense that the critics described. It's the kind of vulnerable movie that becomes the target of critics' stored-up venom after they've favorably reviewed too many other films in a row. It can't appear that one loves everything - that one is an "easy" critic. When a critic is in that state of mind, the first not-great movie that comes along becomes the subject of an attack, excessively so. -J

Sheila said...

I also admire all the films you liked that suffered at the hand of "critics' wrath." And I know what you mean about how critics react to films that don't follow the usual formula. They act as if something is wrong with it - and yet they damn formula movies. Can't win.

Lisa Delman said...

It's difficult to imagine that some of the films you listed opened to scathing reviews, only to be validated many years later. It's something to keep in mind with contemporary movies. Today's embarrassment could be tomorrow's classic.

mike schlesinger said...

Joe, I know there's an "Alternate Oscars" book, but not one which is directly about this topic. I have bound volumes of Variety reviews from 1920-1967, and I enjoy browsing them and seeing how wrong their reviewers could be. Even the B-pictures that routinely get rave reactions at Cinecon get hammered, and it's become a running gag when I write program notes that I'll excerpt the review to show how bone-headed they were.

But as the old saying goes, a critic is just another film buff with an opinion...and a printing press. (Nothing personal, of course!)

joe baltake said...

Mike- I started to obsessively retain my weekly Varieties in '69 when I was reviewing in Philadelphia. They came in extremely handy for research. But when we moved to the West Coast in '86, I had to make a tough decision about whether to keep them or not. And it was not realistic to pack up hundreds of old newspapers and schlep them cross country. I tried to find a home for them but couldn’t. So I trashed them. Very painful. -J

k.o. said...

This is why I love The Passionate Moviegoer - you understand what was trashed for no plausible reason. (Although "Ishtar" really was trash!)

Vanessa said...

Joe! You forgot the Elizabeth Taylor "Cleopatra"!

joe baltake said...

Vanessa! Oversight corrected. "Cleo" has been added to the text. Thanks for the heads-up. -J

Jonathan said...

How about Cary Grant's "Monkey Business"? That film is always referred to as an inferior follow-up to "Bringing Up Baby" and it's actually quite good.

joe baltake said...

Jonathan: I agree! "Monkey Business" is a terrific comedy, with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers in top comedic form. You didn't mention it but Howard Hawks directed both "Bringing Up Baby" and "Monkey Business." And look who wrote the script - Ben Hecht,
Charles Lederer and I.A.L. Diamond. Three of the best. I made the addition. -J