Friday, November 5, 2010

Toronto Star: Marwencol

originally posted at Toronto Star:

Marwencol: A tiny world within

Editorial Rating: 3 (out of 4)

by Bruce DeMara

After five drunken yobs beat him nearly to death outside a bar, Mark Hogancamp is a changed man. After nine days in a coma and 40 days in hospital, the Kingston, N.Y. native has little memory of his past life. Not surprisingly, the U.S. health care system cuts him off from Medicaid, forcing him to pick up the shattered fragments of his life pretty much on his own.

Is it any wonder that Hogancamp retreats into a fantasy world he calls Marwencol, a miniature World War II town constructed of cardboard and hobby store accessories and populated with valiant action figure American soldiers, beautiful Barbie doll women and evil SS troops? Using a badly-functioning camera, Hogancamp creates a series of “stills” — similar to his own memory — and becomes an unlikely artist of sorts, attracting the attention of a magazine editor that eventually leads to having a show of his work in New York's Greenwich Village.

To say the chain-smoking Hogancamp is an unlikely subject of a documentary is an understatement. By his own admission, prior to the accident he was a serious boozer with a failed marriage behind him, stuck in a dead-end job at a local restaurant. Post-trauma, he remains a fearful eccentric who can be seen walking down the side of the road near his home towing a toy jeep filled with Marwencol characters to ensure its tires show a proper amount of wear. If nothing else, at least his appetite for booze is gone with the beating that has permanently scrambled his brain, leaving him a man-child naïf.

Director Jeff Malmberg sees something in Hogancamp that he wants all of us to see, an imperfect human scarred by horrific trauma who nonetheless finds a reason to live — even if much of his time is spent within a fantasy world — and a previously undiscovered artistic soul.

Like Hogancamp's understanding of himself, there are some pieces missing. We don't know what happened to his marriage, only that it is over. We see photos of the five creeps who attacked him and hear briefly from one of them via a police tape recording, but have little understanding of their motivation. Hogancamp does have one little kink — one the film's producers don't want revealed — that may have triggered the beating and no, it's not that he's gay.

Malmberg allows us to see Hogancamp, imperfect as he is, as a man worthy of empathy and respect, not just a victim but a man who strives to believe in the goodness of others and to find peace within himself. It's not an easy film to watch and Hogancamp isn't the most obvious protagonist. But the film carries a message of redemption and hope that all can heed.

Toronto Sun: Marwencol

originally posted at Toronto Sun:

'Marwencol' deserves Oscar buzz

Editorial Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

by Jim Slotek

A haunting movie about a haunted man, Marwencol is a revelatory documentary which is already generating Oscar buzz.

It manages to touch, in one personal profile, themes of consciousness, imagination and reality, indomitability of spirit, alternative lifestyles, the nature of art, even the sink-or-swim harshness of the American healthcare system.

And it defends the dignity of the documentary -- a genre that seemingly has been hijacked of late by polemicists and sophomoric pranksters (yo, Joaquin!).

The subject of Marwencol is Mark Hogancamp, a man who was beaten nearly to death by five men outside a bar in Kingston, N.Y., in April 2000 and left in a coma. After 40 days in hospital, he emerged with impaired motor skills, severe memory loss (he couldn't remember having once been married for several years) and myriad odd brain chemistry changes (a longtime alcoholic, he found his desire for liquor had completely disappeared).

A perfunctory state-funded therapy program quickly ran out, leaving Hogancamp basically alone. On his own, living in a trailer, he created a strange form of therapy, sort of dollhouse Gestalt. He constructed a town in Nazi-occupied Belgium named Marwencol (a collage of his name and the names of Wendy and Colleen, a co-worker and a friend), full of Barbies, G.I. Joes and other action figures dressed in carefully tailored period clothing to support their backstory.

The backstory: Hogancamp is an American airman who crashes behind enemy lines. Wandering about, he discovers Marwencol, a town where the men have either fled or been conscripted, and the women remain. It's his town now, and he creates a bar reminiscent of Casablanca's Rick's Café Americain, where American and German soldiers can drink in a state of truce.

All, that is, except for the SS, who hover about menacingly seeking the bar.

To Hogancamp, they represent the men who beat him. And in one of his cathartic plotlines, he is kidnapped and tortured by these very same men, with a different result.

In fact, everybody in Marwencol turns out to be a representation of somebody Hogancamp knows in real life. All his friends and co-workers, the married neighbour he knows he can't have (but whom he makes love to in miniature), the professional photographer who discovers his proxy life and deems it art, even the director of the film become characters.

There's a witch, there's a time machine, and there are paroxysms of Inglourious Basterds-style violence (yes, these are dolls we're talking about). Dutifully photographed in storyboard style by their creator with all the emotion and drama their frozen faces can muster, it's no wonder they'd end up in a gallery.

And that's the second half of Marwencol -- Hogancamp's New York debut, and no-less-than heroic attempt to represent himself at his own gallery show.

His "discovery" doesn't make Hogancamp rich, but it does free up other aspects of his damaged personality that paint a fuller picture of what went on that night in 2000.

Hogancamp's artificial reality is clearly so real to him, it demands respect. Credit director Jeff Malmberg, who takes what could have been simply presented as a freak show and allows it its dignity.

NOW: Marwencol

originally posted at NOW:

Marwencol: Model Subject

Editorial Rating: NNNN (out of 5)

by Norman Wilner

Outsider art has never seemed as riveting – or as revealing – as it does in Marwencol, Jeff Malmberg’s study of Mark Hogancamp of Kingston, New York, who’s constructed an elaborate scale-model world in his backyard as a way to cope with the after-effects of a brutal beating that left him with a brain injury and memory loss.

Hogancamp’s fantasyland is a Belgian village where Germans and Americans can wait out the Second World War in peace. Its unfolding narrative finds his avatar, “Hank,” dragged away by the SS and tortured until the local women rally to his rescue, attacking the evildoers and liberating their hero.

Arranged and photographed by Hogancamp as an action epic, the film is wish fulfillment and self-mythologizing at its most nakedly obvious, though its creator doesn’t quite see it that way. That’s clearly what fascinates director Malmberg, at least at first; as the documentary progresses and Hogancamp’s ever-expanding installation becomes more and more complicated, another story emerges.

When the images of Marwencol come to the attention of a Greenwich Village art gallery, everything changes – and Malmberg probes still deeper into his subject’s complicated, wounded soul.

It’s absolutely thrilling to watch the camera push Hogancamp closer and closer to confronting some elements of himself that he obviously doesn’t want to discuss, and what happens after that is even more incredible.

This is one of the best movies you’ll see all year. Don’t let anyone ruin it for you.

Globe and Mail: Marwencol

originally posted at Globe and Mail:

Marwencol: Dolls, Nazis and fiction as brain therapy

Editorial Rating: **** (out of 4)

by Liam Lacey

One of the oddest and most moving documentaries since Best Boy or Grey Gardens, Jeff Malmberg’s debut film, Marwencol, is a marvel. A portrait of a small-town drunk whose near-fatal beating turned him into a compelling outsider artist, it is both an inspirational back-from-the-abyss tale and an uncanny experience of watching a mind trying to heal itself by creating fiction.

In 2000, 38-year-old Mark Hogancamp lived in an upstate New York town where he was a part-time illustrator and “gallon a day” drunk. One night, outside a bar, he was viciously beaten by five men. After recovering from a nine-day coma, he had lost his taste for alcohol and most of his memory. When his health benefits ran out, he invented his own form of therapy to keep his hands and mind busy: he started playing with children’s dolls and action toys.

The result was a 1/6 scale Second World War-era Belgian town named Marwencol that fills his backyard, built of scrap construction materials and populated by more than 100 Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe action figures.

Marwencol (a contraction of the names of Mark and two women friends, Wendy and Colleen) is also a simulacrum of Hogancamp’s hometown, Kingston, N.Y., populated by dolls representing the artist, his friends, the occasional celebrity (Arnold Schwarzenegger, rock star Thom Yorke) and even his assailants, dressed as SS officers.

Because he was unable to draw any more, Hogancamp bought a camera and began photographing his dolls and creating stories about their world. Some of his ideas seem inspired by the 1960s Nazi-prison-camp comedy Hogan’s Heroes (a play on his surname) but there are also time machines, episodes of brutal violence and revenge, and, for the soldiers’ entertainment, evenings of girl-on-girl wrestling.

Malmberg treats Hogancamp, a down-to-earth guy with extremely specific aesthetic ideas, with non-patronizing fascination. We are placed in the world of Marwencol (including a bit of stop animation), shooting the dolls from low angles and getting to know them as characters in an imaginary movie.

But even in a town of plastic heroes and beauties with frozen stares, real life has a way of intruding. A local photographer managed to get Hogancamp’s work into a New York art magazine. A gallery called. Those developments set up the second act of Marwencol, in which Hogancamp deals with his private world going public.

Thanks to some of Malmberg’s own storytelling savvy – he holds back a significant detail of the night that changed Hogancamp’s life until late in the film – Marwencol doesn’t stop delivering surprises until its last frame.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Winnebago Man Q&A and QTV Appearance

Here's part of the Q&A with Jack Rebney from after the premiere at the TIFF Bell Lightbox last week:

And as a bonus, here's Jack Rebney attempting to do a station ID for Jian Ghomeshi's QTV show:

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Water on the Table Nominated for a Gemini

Acclaimed doc will make its Toronto premiere at Planet in Focus

Gemini-nominated for the Donald Brittain Award for Best Social Political Documentary, Water on the Table is a character-driven, social-issue documentary by Liz Marshall that explores Canada's relationship to its fresh water, arguably its most precious natural resource. The film asks the question: is water a commercial good like running shoes or Coca-Cola, or, is it a human right like air? Following its highly anticipated Toronto theatrical premiere at Planet in Focus at the ROM on October 14th at 7:00pm, Water on the Table will screen at the Royal Cinema on October 16th & 17th.

There will be a Q&A session with director Liz Marshall and subject Maude Barlow following the October 14th screening.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Globe and Mail: No Heart Feelings

No Heart Feelings: Nothing much happens, but it's a quiet triumph

Editorial rating: *** (out of 4)

by Rick Groen

Get past the rather laboured pun in the title, and No Heart Feelings is a quiet delight. Quiet, because nothing much happens. Delightful, because nothing much happens in sharply observed and revealing ways. What emerges is a thin yet credible slice of Toronto life among the hipster crowd, twentysomethings who wear their light irony like heavy armour, only occasionally lifting the visor to peer out at the world head-on. As they do, the characters and the city fuse neatly - both relatively young, both self-conscious, alternating between energetic bursts of construction and anxious bouts of de-construction.

Appropriately, then, the film is framed in break-up scenes, once-solid relationships razed by life's wrecking ball. Mel (Rebecca Kohler) is the early victim, sitting on a front stoop and sifting through the debris. Inside, a house party rages and there, in an Altmanesque flurry of overlapping dialogue, we hear someone or other making this non-commitment to something or other: "I don't think I can't not do it." Yes, a triple negative struggling to seem positive - the lingo of the ironic class, and it rings perfectly true.

From there, on park benches and bar patios, the script follows Mel and friends through their journey into tomorrow. Of course, that's well-travelled turf in the movies. But the distinguishing mark here is the picture's acute sense of time and place. Working with a Lilliputian budget and a non- professional cast, the trio of directors (Sarah Lazarovic, Geoff Morrison and Ryan J. Noth) has managed to do in Toronto what Whit Stillman did in New York with Metropolitan - precisely capture particular mannerisms, turns of phrase, modes of dress, then allow all that specificity to resonate. So the threesome has made a virtue of necessity. When you're poor in money and scant of plot, get rich by deifying the details.

Wielding a surprisingly fluid camera, they've taken the same approach to the city, offering up specific but telling glimpses - of Kensington market in all its fresh avocado/rotten tomato variety, of bike paths that weave theatrically from urban exhaust to pastoral retreat. There's even a cinematic sight gag that Toronto everywhere invites: a crane shot that is literally a shot of a crane, its vast steel arm nurturing yet another embryonic condo.

As for that meagre plot, it touches on Mel's slow-to-develop feelings for Lewis (Dustin Parkes), just arrived from Vancouver to start a new job. Speaking of which, the hipsters' attitude to work is fascinating. Most toil in web-related gigs, grateful for the pay cheque yet bemused by how they earn it. But if the work has changed, the workplace has not, and a drone's complaints are classic: "I've got five bosses and, all together, they've got, like, one sense of humour."

Classic too, even among the irony-clad, is the trodden path from flirtation to sex to mild regret, sometimes leavened with rising hopes. En route, the amateur casting succeeds for the simple reason that, in this case, self-conscious acting is a perfect fit for self-conscious characters. They, and the nothing much they do, are equal parts endearing and annoying. But the mix is deliberate, maybe even wise, a quiet argument that the search to "find yourself" is a dead end at any age. In a rare moment of unfiltered candour, dear annoying Mel puts it best: "You're always going to be the person you are, except a few years later."

National Post: No Heart Feelings

originally posted at the National Post:

No Heart Feelings: Fresh, local and organic cinema

Editorial rating: *** (out of 4)

by Chris Knight

Full disclosure: This film had the potential to produce the most conflicted review of my career. It was co-directed by my boss’s wife and features a lot of National Post friends and colleagues. I couldn’t, for instance, say that I found the actor playing Michael to be completely xxx, because he’s editing the story and would just strike out the offending term. See?

But the conflict would only have come into play if the film were bad. Thankfully, it’s not. No Heart Feelings is a simple, approachable little feature about the romantic travails of a pair of thirtyish Torontonians, set against the patio get-togethers and cottage getaways of a typical summer in the city. It’s not Scott Pilgrim, though it does feature a lot of local locales, TTC vehicles and Toronto streetscapes.

It opens with Melanie (Rebecca Kohler) breaking up with her long-distance boyfriend, Joe (Jonathan Goldstein, phoning it in -- really, he’s just a voice on her cellphone). “I think that we should stop not seeing each other,” she says haltingly. “We should not stop seeing each other?” comes the confused reply.

Clearly, communication is not this couple’s strong point. And yet time and again the halting dialogue manages to capture the mood of both the movie and its cast. “Pick yourself up and get drunk,” is the seemingly contradictory advice offered to another recently broken-up character. I also liked the accurate backwardness of “…and a 20 box of Timbits.”

Melanie, not long after picking herself up and getting drunk, runs into Lewis (Dustin Parkes), recently returned to the city after a stint at university in British Columbia. They amble through Kensington Market, have coffee, buy a used bicycle and then fall into bed together. Ron Sexsmith, as the bemused garage-sale guy, likes the look of them but declares: “Cute is the new annoying.”

Co-writers and directors Sarah Lazarovic, Geoff Morrison and Ryan J. Noth make do with a less-is-more ethos in which Toronto’s green spaces as well as its urban environment are used to create a wide array of settings. If the production values are a touch uneven, it can be set off against the fact that some scenes were filmed during actual thunderstorms.

The are-they-or-aren’t-they couple struggles to define their feelings for each other. With Melanie on the rebound and Lewis new in town, it’s unclear whether anything other than mutual loneliness and convenience is bringing them together. Contrasting with their confusion, their circle of friends are starting to buy condos, have babies and realize that most of the Blue Jays are younger than they are.

As such, the film feels like a slice of generational pie, cooked up using local ingredients -- a 100-mile movie, if you will. It’s light, but it’s tasty. And I’m not just saying that because Steve Murray, who plays Chris, has the power to draw funny pictures of me in the paper. For the record, though, Steve, I loved your performance.

Toronto Star: No Heart Feelings

originally posted at the Toronto Star:

No Heart Feelings: Modern Love

Editorial Rating: *** (out of 4)

by Jason Anderson

What with their newfangled social networks, fondness for hook-ups and reluctance to define intimate relationships in anything but the vaguest terms, today’s 20-somethings require a new kind of romantic comedy. Surely the old-school formula of boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl — and, in its Judd Apatow-favoured incarnation, girl-waits-for-boy-to-drop-the-bong-and-get-a-life — begs for an upgrade.

A Toronto-made indie feature that makes its local premiere with a run at the Royal this week, No Heart Feelings gets us closer to the mark. An almost-love-story with a summery feel, lively dialogue and plenty of perceptive observations about the mating rituals of the young and the aimless, it feels very much like a rom-com for the Facebook age.

One of a cast comprised largely of non-professional actors, Toronto comedian Rebecca Kohler makes her movie debut as Melanie, a 29-year-old who finally opts to end her long-distance relationship with her boyfriend (voiced by CBC host Jonathan Goldstein). Her friends eagerly help her sort out her next move over a brunch at Aunties & Uncles and a clandestine drinking session in Kensington Market.

The arrival of a new boy in town nudges her in a new direction. Sparks fly with Lewis (Dustin Parker) when Melanie gives him a tour of her neighbourhood, an odyssey that includes a strange encounter with a yard salesman played by Ron Sexsmith.

Yet Melanie is a little too comfortable with her own state of inertia. As she and Lewis are thrown together at patio drinking sessions and a cottage weekend, the would-be couple continue to suss each other out. Desire may exist in the lives of these characters but deciding what to do about it is a whole other matter.

The sarcastic chatter of Melanie and her friends fills the film with memorable lines that ring true to their social milieu. (Says her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend after she rebuffs his request to Skype, “We’ve had some nice video chats, I thought.”)

Largely improvised based on scenarios developed by the movie’s trio of directors — Sarah Lazarovic, Geoff Morrison and Ryan J. Noth — the scenes boast great vitality and authenticity even when the film’s exact direction is as unclear to viewers as it is to the people on screen.

No Heart Feelings also has no shortage of hometown appeal — like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and This Movie Is Broken, it’s another cinematic tribute to Toronto that captures the city in all its slacker splendor.

And given the characters’ enthusiasm for touring the town on two wheels, it’s only fitting to learn the screenings will be equally cyclist-friendly — patrons of the 9 p.m. screenings on Friday and Saturday at the Royal can enjoy bike valet parking and complimentary air and oil.

What more could the movie’s target audience of tender-hearted commitment-phobes possibly ask for?