New This Week
Welcome to Marwen and On the Basis of Sex pose the same conundrum. What should we watch first, these recent narrative films about the real-life people portrayed, or the more acclaimed documentaries about their lives? I would say that if you have limited knowledge of them, watch the narrative film first, you might learn something. You can then watch the documentaries for additional insight. If you think you already know a great deal about them, it doesn’t matter which you watch first.
Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen is a dramatization of the 2010 documentary Marwencol about Mark Hogancamp, an upstate New York man who was attacked and nearly beaten to death in a vicious hate crime in 2000. He was attacked outside a bar by five men he had been drinking with after he admitted that he was a cross-dresser.
After spending nine days in a coma, Hogancamp had no memory of his previous life. He is kicked out of the hospital after two weeks due to his inability to pay, and in time, provided his own recovery by collecting dolls and building a village in his backyard where he imagines the dolls to be American and Nazi soldiers, along with local women, in a World War II Belgium village.
The documentary unfolds through Hogancamp’s eyes in two directions, his real-life recovery and his imaginary tales of the dolls. Zemeckis’ film does the same, except that the dolls come to life in what sometimes appear to be hallucinations. Zemeckis, of course, made his reputation with such fanciful films as 1985’s Back to the Future, 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and 1994’s Forrest Gump for which he won an Oscar so he is easily at home with this material.
Zemeckis’ 2015 film The Walk was criticized for being a weak adaptation of the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire. Welcome to Marwen drew the same complaints from the same critics, but there were others who found hidden gems in the film. Several reviewers compared the relationship between Steve Carell as Hogancamp, Leslie Mann as the woman he obsesses over, and Merrit Weaver as the woman who waits.
Hogancamp was one of three real-life characters that Carell played in 2018 films. I personally preferred this one to his David Sheff, the supportive father of drug addict Timothée in Beautiful Boy, and his despicable Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Vice. Welcome to Marwen is a film worth seeing at least once.
Welcome to Marwen is available on Blu-ray and standard DVD.
The only thing Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex has in common with Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s RBG is that both 2018 films are about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Whereas RBG is an insightful documentary exploring Ginsburg’s extraordinary life and career, On the Basis of Sex is a routine biopic that barely scratches the surface in its depiction of her remarkable story. This is astonishing given that the film was in development at least since 2014 when Natalie Portman was attached to star.
Making a movie about Ginsburg that begins with her attending Harvard Law School and ends with her first court case is like making a movie about The Life of Emile Zola that ends with him writing his first novel or Lincoln that ends with him meeting his Illinois neighbors. Although it touches on some of her early struggles, there were others that aren’t even mentioned. As played by Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), the film might be about any young married woman with a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s who had to fight for everything she had. As written, Armie Hammer (Call Me by Your Name) has the more interesting role as her husband, Marty, whose diplomacy and charm never waver even under the most difficult of circumstances. Kathy Bates has an even more interesting one as Dorothy Kenyon, the legendary feminist and political activist, who lights up the screen in her all too brief scenes.
Director Leder is mostly known for her TV work, but has had some success with occasional theatrical films, the last one being 2000’s Pay It Forward. Like that film, you may find On the Basis of Sex somewhat rewarding, but if you really want to learn something about Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, you need to see RBG.
On the Basis of Sex is available on Blu-ray and standard DVD.
René Clément was one of the leading French directors of the post-World War II era. Three of his films, 1952’s Forbidden Games, 1956’s Gervaise, and 1960’s Purple Noon are still held in high regard, but his later work left something to be desired. A case in point is 1970’s Rider on the Rain, newly released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in both its French and English versions.
Although the practice of making films in different languages was a staple of early talkies (Anna Christie, The Blue Angel, Dracula), the practice had long been abandoned when Clément, still trying to prove he was the French Hitchcock, made Rider on the Rain, a strange film about a woman who kills the escaped lunatic who raped her the night before when she finds him holed up in her basement and about to rape her again. Instead of calling the police, she dumps his body in the river. The following day, an American detective comes to investigate the disappearance of a man he has been following. It gets even stranger after that.
Marlene Jobert (Masculin Féminin) plays the woman, Charles Bronson (Death Wish) the detective. The supporting cast includes Gabrielle Tinti, Jean Gaven, Jill Ireland, and Annie Cordy. The same cast is used in both versions. Although Jobert supplies her own voice in the American version, Bronson is dubbed in the French version. Although scenes are identical, the French version is four minutes longer. A box-office success at the time, it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film, to distinguish it from their Best English-Language Foreign Film, an award that went to Women in Love.
This week’s new releases include Bend of the River and Becky Sharp.