Welcome to Marwen Review: The Most Disappointing Movie of 2018

There was no film in 2018 I anticipated more than Welcome to Marwen. Based on a true story, Welcome to Marwen tells the story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), an artist who suffers from PTSD after being assaulted by a group of Neo-Nazis. Having lost his memory and ability to draw from the attack, he now lives out his life through a fictional village he created in his backyard called Marwen. Marwen, a mock WWII-era Belgian village, serves as a place for Mark to project his life experiences. This includes the many women of Marwen, who protect Mark’s fictional version of himself Captain Hogie from the occupying Nazis.

As Mark must soon face the reality of his torment, he uses Marwen and his characters to help cope, for better or worse.

To my utter amazement, Welcome to Marwen turned out to be one of the least compelling, boring, and melodramatic films I’ve seen in a while. How could a film with such a unique and heartfelt premise be such a box office bomb? Well, I’ll tell you.

For starters, Welcome to Marwen attempts to overexplain and describe the story instead of showing it. Exposition is lazily shoved in the audience’s face in the form of monologues, obvious dialogue, and even old photographs in Mark’s/Steve Carell’s scrapbooks. Several characters practically look at the screen and address the audience as they nonchalantly deliver exposition. Because of this we don’t get to fully experience a lot of pivotal events in the life of Mark which makes it harder to relate to him. The whole film is building up to a courtroom confrontation between Mark and his bigoted assailants, and what was meant to be a satisfying conclusion was rushed and left me feeling discontent.

All this overexplaining leads a lot of the symbolism in the movie, which is sprinkled throughout the entire picture, to feel on the nose and rather pointless to the viewer. Overlying themes of courage, addiction, and accepting those who are different beat you over the head so hard you’ll have to check for bruises when you leave the theater.

Welcome to Marwen’s plot was sappy and often confused in what emotions they wanted the audience to feel. Dramatically sad moments are undercut by awkwardly humorous ones. Scenes meant to evoke panic or fear have hammy acting and include inappropriate music swelling. The best example of this is when Kurt (the ex-boyfriend of Mark’s neighbor Nicol) mistakes him as a Nazi sympathizer and proceeds to harass him. The scene was intended to be suspenseful, but everything from the hokey acting to the soundtrack made it unintentionally funny.

And at the center of this mess is a story worth telling, and an actor/ director combo that should’ve been a match made in heaven. Carell has done some great dramatic work (The Big Short and Foxcatcher) and Zemeckis has made many iconic American movies (like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump).

Sadly, Welcome to Marwen is a testament to what happens when filmmakers get lazy and indulge in excesses. Having your drama movie be too whimsical and sentimental makes it sappy and far-fetched. Too much exposition leads the audience to not care about the characters. And too much forced symbolism mixed with melodramatic acting makes a mockery of the inspiring story the film is based on.

If you want a condensed, captivating version of Welcome to Marwen that gets the point across without being too overdramatic, just go watch the trailer. This was without a doubt the most disappointing film of 2018.

The Verdict: D-

-Zachary Flint

Mary Poppins Returns Review

After a 54-year gap between the release of both films, Mary Poppins Returns now ranks among the longest gaps between movie sequels (right next to Disney’s own Bambi and Fantasia).

Mary Poppins Returns picks up many years later, as Michael and Jane Banks have grown up, and their parents have long since passed. Michael now owns his parent’s old house; and after the recent death of his wife Michael is in trouble of losing the home to foreclosure. With all his energy put towards figuring out his financial situation, Michael reluctantly enlists in the help of the magical English nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to watch over his three kids. Mary Poppins and the new Banks children then proceed on a magical, exciting adventure that’s fun for the whole family.

Mary Poppins Returns was full of all the childlike wonder and imagination that I desired in Christopher Robin but didn’t get. In the same vein as the original Mary Poppins, this is a great feel good flick that you can watch at any age and still enjoy it all the same.

Even the most skeptical viewer could notice the originality within the story. This so easily could’ve been a simple copy and paste job for Disney to make a quick buck (like so many of their recent remakes). Yet, Mary Poppins Returns was written from the ground up, doing its best to be a faithful sequel while sprinkling its own imaginative ideas throughout.

Several scenes sported bright, vibrant animation that practically leapt off the screen, and it contrasted well with the gray London backdrop of the film.

The song and dance numbers are catchy stand out from each other and are full of that magical Disney whimsy we all love. My personal favorite was Trip a Little Light Fantastic, the song performed by all the lamplighters in the dark streets of London. The beautiful choreography and set design during this number really helped solidify my enjoyment of this film.

I’m sure it was no easy task for Emily Blunt to fill the shoes of Mary Poppins, as Julie Andrews portrayal is considered among Disney’s best characters. Therefore, with great admiration I report that Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins was remarkable. The spirit and charm of the character were captured well, and the so-so characterization was made up for by the acting talent of Blunt.

If I had to identify a weak spot of the movie, it would be William Wilkins, the president of the bank played by Colin Firth. His character is unreasonably rude and without sufficient motivation for being the “bad guy”. Colin Firth does a nice job putting some personality into his role, but ultimately even he couldn’t save this character from the evil corporate banker stereotype.

I also felt, strangely enough, that Mary Poppins services weren’t exactly needed in this story. The Banks children were already well-behaved and their father payed as much attention to them as he possibly could. And Mary Poppins herself tends to be a bigger troublemaker and overall inconvenience than any of the children. It’s a minor nitpick, but this did come to mind every now and then.

Sure, some of the magic is inherently lost in translation, and this simply won’t be as timeless as its predecessor. But I doubt anyone was expecting this to be of the same creative and colorful magnitude as the first Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins Returns was a truly heartwarming experience, and it makes me sad knowing we won’t be getting any clever Disney sequels like this in the foreseeable future. Up next are the remakes of The Lion King, Aladdin, and Dumbo, and none look to be as cheerful, thoughtful, and impassioned as Mary Poppins.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Review

It seems like Sony Animation has been on a losing streak for several years now. After releasing several films I would describe as mediocre (Hotel Transylvania 3) and critical failures (The Emoji Movie), they were due for a hit. That being said, I don’t think anyone could’ve accurately guessed just how stunning and wonderful Sony’s next film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, would be. All the right writers, voice actors, and animators melded together to make one adventurous, beautifully animated movie.

We begin with our protagonist Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), your typical kid caught in an awkward stage of life, forced into a new school system by his stern, police officer father Jeff (Brian Tyree Henry). Miles’ life changes forever when he is bitten by a radioactive spider, giving him heightened senses and a whole host of new “spider-like” abilities. Soon after he meets the web-slinger himself Spider-Man (Chris Pine), who inspires Miles to follow in his footsteps.

And after a strange twist of events (all involving interdimensional travel), Miles meets several other Spider-Men from other universes. Including the likes of Spider-Man Noir (a black and white Spider-Man from the 1930s voiced by Nicholas Cage), Peni Parker (an anime take on Spider-Man voiced by Kimiko Glenn), and Gwen Stacey, a.k.a. Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld). Together they must work to stop the evil doomsday plot of Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who wants to open a portal to another dimension.

The art direction of Spider-Verse gives the illusion of being like an animated comic book. Full of onscreen onomatopoeias, text bubbles, and unique scene transitions. Objects in the background (and anything else not in focus) have this slight blurred discoloration, like what an old 3-D movie might look like if you took off your glasses. It can be quite hard to describe something as visually trippy and detailed as this, and it’s best understood from just viewing the movie. Let’s just say the creators of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse skillfully tested the boundaries of imagination through animation.

The depiction of Miles Morales as Spider-Man is one I quite enjoyed, as he embodied the image of the coming-of-age teen. He’s awkward, flawed, and the kind of individual a lot of fans could really connect to. Really, Miles stands out a lot from the other major depictions of Spider-Man in film, and he’s probably my favorite among them.

I’ve also noticed the superhero genre become more self-aware as time goes on. To remain fresh and relevant, movies like Deadpool and Spider-Verse flip the superhero genre on its head and directly address the ridiculousness and predictability of these films. Spider-Verse knows we’re sick and tired of origin stories, doomsday weapons, and predictable villains; actively satirizing all these clichés in a variety of clever in-jokes.

Here, Peter Parker constantly makes jokes pointing out overused villain dialogue like “You have 24 hours…”, as well as the lack of serious threat bad guys pose because the superhero always saves the day anyways. It’s all similar to what Scream did for the horror genre in the 90’s, it cleverly subverted the formula by directly satirizing the stereotypes. It’s fascinating to see movies like Spider-Verse broach this topic, and the nonchalant way they go about it is laugh out loud hilarious as well as poignant.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is jam-packed with so many characters, plot lines, and backstories that it’s kind of overwhelming. Kind of like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, except actually good. Rarely do I say this, but I think this film could stand to be a bit longer. Flesh these people out even more and give us even better backstories to characters like Kingpin and Aaron Davis (Spider-Man’s uncle voiced by Mahershala Ali). I would’ve also liked to see more of the alternate universe Spider-Men/Women. They each had such unique personalities (given to them by their respective voice actors) that really deserved more screen time.

Overall, Spider-Verse was super character-driven, with enough raw energy and good humor to drive the plot towards one visually trippy, mind-boggling climax. A satisfying ending, to one helluva movie. The film ends with a commemorative quote from Stan Lee (creator of Spider-Man) that perfectly embodies the message of Spider-Verse. It reads as follows:

“That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed, without a doubt, a real superhero,”

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Die Hard (1988) Review

Picture this. An everyday guy, trapped in a skyscraper with foreign terrorists, thirty plus hostages (one being his wife), and inept law enforcement making a mess of the place.

Sound familiar? Of course it does, it’s Die Hard!

Even those who haven’t seen the 1988 action classic know the plot, because it’s been replicated time and time again by countless films that only manage to exist in its shadow. Films like Under Siege and White House Down mimic the style and setup of Die Hard but they both that the substance and emotion it brings to the table.

Really, Die Hard is an anomalous movie for me. Outward appearances would chalk it up to be a standard action picture of the 80’s, and not the pinnacle flick of the decade. There’re movies like Aliens, The Terminator and The Empire Strikes Back, yet Die Hard frequently ranks as number one. There’s a reason for that, and I think it starts with the characters.

One thing I’ve always loved about this movie was the villains, mostly because each is unique and memorable despite having minimal screen time and restricted dialogue. There’s the goofy tech guy drilling the vault, the Asian guy who awkwardly grabs the chocolate bar, and the two blonde European brothers with a bloodlust. Where the filmmakers could’ve easily just written in generic bad guys, they instead gave us something a little more.

And who could forget Alan Rickman’s role as Hans Gruber, the charmingly devious mastermind behind the heist. Clad in an expensive suit and tie, Gruber’s a tad cleverer than your average bear. His methodology comes across as sophisticated and complex, and when I first saw Die Hard, I thought his motives would be intricate. Yet, his master plan is quite the contrary, as he’s nothing more than a common thief looking for a big payout. What a villain.

And with that we’re left with John McClane. The badass. The hero. The everyman. There’s no better guy for the job than 1980’s Bruce Willis. With every memorable punch, gun shot, and one liner he makes, I just want to throw my fist in the air and shout machismo nonsense. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator, Willis is an emblem of the masculine hero archetype. But more importantly, he represents a flawed but morally just man willing to sidestep corrupt authority figures in the name of justice. Isn’t that something we all could get behind?

I’ve spent so much time writing about the many personalities that inhabit Die Hard that I didn’t even mention the wonderful writing and direction. The film takes all the right twists and turns, with several reveals that continue to up the ante over time.

One unique thing I’ve always noticed about Die Hard is John McClane’s deteriorating condition as the film progresses. He goes from perfect shape to beaten, battered, and bloodied. That’s something you don’t see even modern action flicks doing too often, and it’s interesting seeing the change in McClane over the span of the movie. Again, it calls back to how much work was put into making Bruce Willis’s character a relatable, tangible human.

You know, there’s an age-old debate about whether this is technically a Christmas movie, since it takes place on Christmas but doesn’t have that much to do with the holiday. While I remain on the “Pro-Christmas” side of things, I think the argument itself speaks to the degree at which people hold Die Hard. It’s pretty much universally held as an action masterpiece, and there aren’t many who criticize its status.

Die Hard is a yearly watch for me, and I recommend it become one for you too.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Ralph Breaks the Internet Review

If there were ever a film I was cautiously optimistic about watching, it’d be Ralph Breaks the Internet. As a huge fan of Wreck-it-Ralph, hearing that there would be a direct sequel was exciting. I mean, the potential is limitless with this kind of flick. But when I heard the plot would focus on current internet trends, my heart skipped a beat. All I could think about was the abominable movie that came out just the previous year, The Emoji Movie. Surely Disney wouldn’t make the same mistake as Sony, right? Right?

Taking place several years after the events of the first Wreck-it-Ralph, we see that all is relatively good in the gaming world for our likable heroes Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). That is, until one day a part breaks on Vanellope’s video game Sugar Rush, causing the arcade owner to unplug it. This leaves many without homes and causes Vanellope to question her place in the pixelated world of the arcade. To fix this mess, she and Ralph decide to travel to the vast, sometimes overwhelming world of the internet, where they hope to order her game a new part on eBay and save the day. Coming across many unique characters and situations in the process.

Making a movie about internet culture is practically a death sentence for your longevity as a film. Make the wrong joke about a fly-by-night app or defunct social media platform, and your movie is suddenly labeled as “dated”. Destined to be either hated or forgotten. Take a look at the most extreme case of this, The Emoji Movie. An embodiment of everything wrong with the internet and social media, it’s become one of the most hated movies of recent years.

It’s no surprise that initially Ralph Breaks the Internet was giving off bad Emoji Movie vibes, as both plots essentially deal with the same topic. Thankfully Ralph handles the topic of internet culture with much more grace, humor, and creativity. All things Wreck-it-Ralph fans are sure to respect in this installment. The visualization of eBay, pop-up ads, and the Google search engine are quite cutesy, and viewers are sure to get a kick out of imagination that went behind them.

This isn’t to say there weren’t references that were DOA, dated on arrival. Numerous jokes simply didn’t work because, as the film itself so bluntly puts it, that was trending fifteen seconds ago. Unless you’re still obsessed with screaming goats, hot pepper challenges, and Fortnite dances, you’ll probably find some of this humor a tad out of touch.

Early on there is a clear side plot established featuring Fix-it Felix Jr. and Calhoun that is immediately abandoned. In fact, we don’t see those characters again until the end of the movie. Not that the film needed a story involving these old side characters, I just found it odd that they teased the audience with a plot thread they had no intention of sticking to.

Regardless of dumped side stories, the true focus of Ralph Breaks the Internet is on the budding (yet soon to be strained) friendship of Ralph and Vanellope. We’re given a lot of great moments between the two, which really fleshes out the characters beyond what was seen in the first movie. Both voice actors bring a lot of well-defined personality to the roles, and the unlikely pair have so much chemistry together it’s kind of mind-boggling to think about.

There’s also a clear message worked in about friends keeping close despite growing apart and having different goals to achieve in life. It’s touching and a little complex, but easy enough to understand for young kids.

And I think that’s where the real strength of Ralph Breaks the Internet lies. Not in the trendy jokes or many callbacks to Disney products, but in the fascinating people that inhabit this very thought out world. Ralph doesn’t rely on past characters and environments to prop up its new story, as we get a whole host of new ones in their place. The film hardly even has a villain per se. The most villainous act in the movie is actually carried out by one of the protagonists, how interesting.

Even with some plot flubs and cringe-filled humor, I feel that Ralph Breaks the Internet is a genuinely solid sequel to a wonderfully imaginative family movie.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

First Man Review

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

A quote from one of the United States’ most iconic figures in history, and depicted in the latest Hollywood biopic First Man.

The film documents the major life events of American hero Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling); all leading up to his Apollo 11 mission that made him the first person in history to step foot on the moon. We see his trials and tribulations, and how the loss of his infant daughter (and several close friends) impacted his psyche, as well as his drive to complete his mission to the moon. Also depicted is the strain on Neil’s family life, and how his wife Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) coped with his emotional reclusion from her and the kids. An added level of storytelling that was almost as fascinating as the main plot.

The space flight sequences here are shot with this cinematic, visceral intensity that I imagine was quite difficult to capture. I felt myself getting physically anxious for Aldrin and Armstrong, and the excitement was a roller coaster ride. Without knowing a single thing about space flight, I was left feeling hopeless when random knobs were frantically being pulled as Armstrong and friends soared through space in their claustrophobic shuttle. Effective, nerve-racking filmmaking at its finest.

I highly enjoyed Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong, as he gives him this distant, almost reclusive personality you wouldn’t expect here. And even though Armstrong felt emotionally distant, deep down the audience could empathize with him and his personal struggles. Through Gosling’s performance it’s clear he never came to terms with the traumatic grief of his daughter’s death. This theme of grief is present throughout the entirety of the flick and is perfectly (and most likely fictionally) all resolved in the dramatic, heartwarming climax.

Towards the end of First Man I really started to feel the runtime weighing down the film. It seems to be that way for a lot of dramas (and biopics), where they become less impactful as they progress simply because they’ve been drawn out for way too long. In reality, this just isn’t the kind of movie that necessitates a two plus hour runtime to share its message, no matter how wonderful or touching that message may be. A solid fifteen minutes could’ve been shaved off First Man to condense it into an even stronger, more emotional film.

First Man is a kindly Hollywood tribute to a cherished American hero. Whether the real Neil Armstrong wanted or felt he deserved all the showing praise, it doesn’t matter. He gets it here.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint

Venom Review

With only a few weeks till Halloween, I was expecting to review more seasonal movies this time of the year. Instead, I’m stuck reviewing yet another divisive superhero movie to split critics and audiences right down party lines. It comes as no surprise that this divisive movie was made by Sony and is their loose interpretation of the fan favorite Marvel character Venom.

Venom tells the origin story of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a renowned investigative journalist who hits rock bottom after doing a hit piece on a notorious businessman, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). While investigating one of Drake’s scientific investments, Eddie becomes fused with an alien entity known as Venom. Now filled with a dark and twisted split personality, Eddie must try to control his new superhuman powers as Venom slowly consumes his identity.

The mood of Venom was a weird blend of dark and goofy, an immediate indication that this film wasn’t taking itself seriously.  Some scenes are frightening and given as much raw intensity as it’s PG-13 rating can muster. Police and criminals are thrown about, killed, and eaten, all in a somewhat mild manner. Other scenes simply have Tom Hardy going bananas. Throwing rage-filled tantrums and engaging in bizarre dialogues that were so perfectly timed that I couldn’t help but laugh. The tone of the writers tended to ape this humorous sentiment, leading me to assume that the film was supposed to be bizarre.

Major continuity issues plagued Venom from start to finish. Poor day and night consistency, unusual (or nonexistent) character arcs, and characters being in two places at once are just a handful of examples displaying the botched editing job. I’m not sure whether the studio or the filmmakers are at fault for these problems, but on several occasions they became a hindrance to the enjoyment of the film. I was left scratching my head when an important scientist in the film appeared in two back to back scenes in different locations, all with no indication of a time-lapse.

Venom was a bit of a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, I can see where people would be disappointed with the turnout of the film, it basically being one big comical farce. Nothing is taken seriously, some characters don’t have story arcs, and some people just duck out of the movie altogether.

On the other hand, I rather enjoyed the nonsense of Hardy’s “symbiotic” relationship with Venom. The unpredictable antics and wild outbursts of Hardy were laugh out loud hilarious, and the personality of Venom provided a nice contrast in the overall tone. I never found myself too bored with the film and I quite enjoyed some of the action, despite the sub-par editing that made certain scenes confusing.

I wouldn’t recommend that typical superhero movie fans go and see it, but Venom definitely doesn’t deserve the harsh feedback it’s received from critics. Venom differentiates itself enough from the Marvel “happy-go-lucky” blend of movies for those craving something a little unorthodox.

The Verdict: C+

-Zachary Flint