Netflixable? Chloe Grace Moretz is a reporter suffering from a mystery illness in “Brain on Fire”

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They used to be called “disease of the week,” melodramas about some heroine or hero fighting a strange, usually deadly illness filmed and consigned to the weak midweek time-slots of network TV.

Not all of them migrated to Lifetime.

“Brain on Fire” didn’t get theatrical release, even though at one time Charlize Theron was slated to do it. It still attracted a solid B-list cast, now headed by Chloe Grace Moretz, and made it to the Toronto Film Festival after completion. And now it’s on Netflix.

Susannah Cahalan (Moretz) is barely done narrating her pleasure at having  “my dream job at the New York Post,” at 21 (the real Cahalan was a slightly-more-realistic 24), just finished joking around with her more worldly colleague (Jenny Slate) who calls her “”So bright-eyed I need major sunglasses right now,” with the “get OUTTA my office” gruff-bemused bark of her editor (Tyler Perry) ringing in her ears when it hits her.

She zones out at her 21st birthday party. She glazes over, lies to cover, confesses to “not being myself,” and coughs — a lot.

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Before she knows it, she is “trapped in your own body, lost in your own mind.”

Her musician-boyfriend (Thomas Mann, oh so bland) doesn’t quite take her symptoms seriously.

“Hungover? You’re not PREGNANT, are you?”

In interviews, she seems stoned. Colleagues tease her, but the camera captures “concern.” Of course it does. That doesn’t keep her editor from blowing his stack (Well played, Mr. Perry).

And thus begins the medical mystery — bed bugs, “any history of Lyme Disease?” “Stroke? “Blood clot?” “MRI?”

Filmmaker Gerard Barrett visualizes her growing confusion, sleepless madness and isolation. She sweats, freaks out at the slightest noise and then…convulsions.

The film limits itself to the alarm any of us would feel when we don’t know what’s happening. Meltdowns from her divorced parents (“Do you CARE for her, or not?”), pushing the live-in beau aside, mass confusion and the ripple effects of this disruption — to her life, her love, her career, her family — all are staged with a kind of perfunctory chilliness.

Carrie Anne Moss, playing her mother, plays the most interesting variation of concern. She probes, suspects her child is doing that overwhelmed/stressed-out/flip-out thing she might have seen before. Maybe she’s drinking. Maybe drugs. And then, another seizure and manic mom kicks in, for just a moment.

The lack of answers makes one and all alittle crazy, and from the reactions from her family you wonder just what they’ve seen in her behavior before.

There’s a puzzling passivity that plays out among everybody else, right up to the moment Cahalan just…loses it. Moretz takes this so far over the bipolar top in these moments you cannot believe the white-suited guys with the straight-jackets aren’t called.

That’s when “Brain on Fire” loses its footing in reality. Colleagues take her tirade indulgently and seriously. Seriously? After that “performance?””

“I’m bipolar.”

“How do you know that?”

“I Googled it.”

Moretz has been an actress to watch since playing the too-wise, supportive little sister in “(500) Days of Summer,” the worldwise female friend of the “Wimpy Kid” crowd and then Hit-Girl to Nic Cage’s Big Daddy in “Kick-Ass.”

This role probably calls for her least subtle work, and we never for a second see this as anything other than a performance. It contrasts too much with the calmly passive-even- after-they’re-scared-witless parents (Richard Armitage plays her hard-pressing Dad).

The one “funny” element to the character is her determination to self-diagnose. Susannah corrects every medical professional who offers an opinion with this or that new theory that she’s certain is fact. She keeps Googling.

Barrett doesn’t save Moretz with more effects and moments that show her mania from inside her head. It’s all externals, vexing seizures, tantrums and manic outbursts. Something more like “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” might have worked.

And the script doesn’t help her by creating more empathy for Cahalan, more connection with parents, boyfriend and medical professionals (unsympathetic, many of them). It all feels so perfunctory, a string of characters with no “arc.”

Compare this to “The Big Sick” or “Lorenzo’s Oil” or any of a legion of similar films, and the emotional disconnect sticks in the craw. Best selling memoir or not, it’s probable that this story, where the mania needs a softer edge, where the confrontations between parents and the Medical Establishment are the real drama, was not really good fodder for a feature film, “disease of the week” or not.

1half-star

MPAA Rating:PG-13 for thematic elements, brief language and partial nudity

Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Jenny Slate, Thomas Mann, Tyler Perry, Carrie-Ann Moss, Navid Negahban

Credits:Directed by Gerard Barrett, script by Gerard Barrett, based on the Susannah Cahalan memoir. A Broadgreen/Netflix release.

Running time: 1:29

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Weekend Movies: Pans for “Jurassic,” “Catcher,” raves for “Damsel” and “King”

jur1In sports, they call it a “make good” call. You blow your evaluation of one play, and bend over backwards to find a way to benefit the player/team your previous mistake hurt.

It happens in film reviewing, too. When the world embraced Jim Carrey’s “Ace Ventura,” a passably funny/goofy comedy that in any event announced a major new screen star, “Siskel & Ebert” crucified it.

Carrey’s next two films, blockbusters as well, got genuflecting notices from the two Chicagoans on TV. “Mask” might have deserved that, but “Ace 2?” Pure “make good” call.

Same thing is happening with “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” Generous, indulgent reviews greeted “Jurassic World,” which was crap. It sat with a tomatometer rating in the ’80s for much of its run. Mostly late-filing “me too” critics panned it. Except for me. I was an outlier pre-opening day, a “cut and paste clone of the original.”

The latest sequel is even worse, but other critics, maybe even the ones who called “Jurassic World” “the best sequel in the series,” are back-pedaling. A 51 on Metacritic, 50 on RT at the moment. And falling. Yeah, I am aggregated on all the “most brutal reviews” compilations for that one. So?

This won’t hurt the junk food juggernaut that it is. The overseas receipts (China loves this garbage) are over $450 million already, and it earned $15 million plus Thursday night in North America. It could clear $130 by midnight Sunday. Because it’s this weekend’s “popcorn” event.

Nothing is opening wide opposite “Fallen Kingdom,” but there are alternatives entering limited release. The watchable, conservative and truncated “The Catcher is a Spy” is earning mixed notices (mine is here), “Damsel” is a dark and grimly funny delight, all agree including me, and “Boundaries” is a  just-cute-enough to get by grandpa stoner road trip comedy.

“The King” is further evidence that this is a Banner Year for Documentaries. We’ve have “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and a pretty good “Always at the Carlyle” so far. Now, an impressionistic portrait of Elvis from Eugene Jarecki. Well-worth digging into. 

“Incredibles 2” should hang onto enough audience to at least give the appearance of a box office race to the weekend. Will it clear $90. Probably.

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Preview, Lea Seydoux and Ewan McGregor let a “Synthetic” Theo James come between them in “Zoe”

It’s science fiction about a near future where compatibility can be ascertained well in advance, in which synthetic people are showing up on shelves and being taught to act more human.’

Ewan and Lea are the couple whose prototype (James) hastens the inevitable in “Zoe.” Rashida Jones also stars in this late July release from director Drake Doremus (“Like Crazy”). 

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Movie Review: Icelandic Grudges get grim “Under the Tree”

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It helps to remember these people were Vikings, once.

Get past the whole polite and smiling, tourist-friendly, global-financial-crisis exacerbating blondes taking daily dips in the volcanic hot springs, the almost unpronounceable names, the grey-black landscape of lava usually covered by snow.

Iceland is greener than you think — and maybe meaner.

“Under the Tree” is an acrostic essay in grief, repression, guilt and bitterness. It’s all out there in the open, lines being crossed, psychic, verbal and even physical violence suggested, threatened looming. And nobody can seem to stop it.

Agnes and Alti (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir, Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) are a married couple with a daughter, living under a glacier that settled on the marriage some time back. When she catches him watching sex on the computer, she is shocked and hurt.

Until she learns it is him having sex with another woman. Doesn’t matter when that happened, or that she interrupted him before he masturbated. There’s no coming back from that. A shouting match leads to separation, the separation leads to more and more frantic stalking, harassment and dragging their little girl’s school into their custody fight.

Alti has a temper, and Agnes holds a grudge like a pro.

Alti’s mom, Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) lost her other son and cannot properly grieve for the bitterness. She takes out her frustrations on the annoying neighbor (Þorsteinn Bachmann) who ditched his wife and took up with a younger woman, Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir), who further annoys Inga with her cycling, exercise togs and the German shepherd she lets roam over the shared backyard of their duplex.

Inga’s husband Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) is the reasonable one here, but even he thinks the neighbor’s niggling complaints about a tree that “shades our patio” is too much. 

“That tree is coming down!”

Want to bet?

Their feud starts with a certain decorum and escalates, comically and tragically, with each bare-bottomed garden gnome prank, every increasingly intemperate remark, most of them from Inga.

“Just admit what you’ve done, you cow.” Sounds even worse in Icelandic (with English subtitles).

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At every turn, co-writer/director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson confronts the viewer with people concerned with rules, manners and decorum, and others flouting them — a heated argument at the apartment building coop meeting over the young couple having noisy, uninhibited sex at all hours, colleagues trying not to see the menacing harassment by a husband chasing his wife into their office, the hapless teachers trying to maintain “rules” and the letter of the law in a community-nation so small everybody knows or is related to everybody else.

It’s jarring and stereotype-smashing, for starters, and just plain disturbing on top of that.

The interlocked scenarios take their share of melodramatic turns, which the average viewer can anticipate too easily, thanks to Sigurðsson hitting the foreshadowing button too hard. But “Under the Tree” is still as disturbing a Scandinavian domestic collapse as we’ve seen in any drama since Ingmar hung it up, lives lived in the open under the midnight sun, but with darkness lurking in the shade, “Under the Tree.”

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MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sex, nudity, alcohol, smoking

Cast:Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Selma Björnsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Steinþór Hróar SteinþórssonLára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir

Credits:Directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson script by  Huldar Breiðfjörð and Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson. A Magnolia release.

Running time:

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Netflixable? Boseman’s still got the African accent as he stalks LA with his “Message from the King”

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Since achieving leading man status, Chadwick Boseman’s made a couple of decent and dignified if stolid biopics, and a musical one that ventures from pathos to cruelty and all the way to hilarity.

He’s collected the big paydays for donning the Black Panther suit and African accent a couple of times.

But here’s a neo-noir thriller he never should have made.

“Message from the King” is a sordid LA underworld tale of drugs, conspiracy, porn and pedolophilia. It’s obvious, clunky, trite and utterly generic and beneath the man’s talents, even if it allows him to ditch the burden of “dignity” he’s worn in most of the roles he’s inhabited since he became famous.

He plays Jacob King, a man of mystery lured from his native South Africa to LA thanks to a frantic phone message from his sister. Bianca is beautiful, married and must have moved there with dreams of screen stardom. But her phone call was alarming.

“I have something they want.”

Jacob, with just the clothes on his back and a few hundred dollars, intends to find her.

But everybody from her flirtatious neighbor (Natalie Martinez) to her no nonsense landlady (Dale Dickey) is either cagey about the last time they saw her  — “You know Bianca.” “I used to think so.” — or blunt.

“Beat-up and strung out.”

That “I used to think so” is the first worn-out cliche this Oliver Butcher/Stephen Cornwell script serves up. The second is “She left some stuff with me.”

That’s always true in lazy mysteries like this one. The box of stuff is a veritable collection of “clues” from a dozen other missing person thrillers — matchbooks and business cards, a supermarket bag and just enough photos to make our hero flash back to the sister (Sibongile Mlambohe knew.

The trail leads him from market to morgue, orgiastic coke party to car was and on.

We never have to hear the phrase “He has special skills,” another crutch of such films. That first fight, mere minutes into the movie, tells us this is a man who knows violence. That, and the chainsaw chain he buys at a hardware store. As if he couldn’t score a gun in America, no sweat.

“Whoever you work for,” he shouts in that Wakanda accent, “TELL him, ‘This was a message from ‘The King!'”

Tom Felton of the Potter pictures, Alfred Molina and Luke Evans play predictable ingredients in the mix. Teresa Palmer, looking Jodie Foster-in-“Hotel Artemis”-rough, is the worn out single mom/hooker with the heart to give Jacob a hand.

The direction doesn’t get in the way of the action, but the script gets tangled up in its own two feet, time and again. “How’d he get THAT?” “How’d he get THERE?” “Why are guys with guns scared of the dude with the chain?” Lapse after logical lapse.

The dialogue is mostly of the “This isn’t about money,” “It nearly always is” variety.

Every interruption of a big bad guy begins with “This better be good.”

It never is. America’s film schools and online screenplay courses are letting us down.

Palmer acquits herself with the usual ferocious commitment to veracity. Evans should be hunting around for a better agent at this point.

Boseman carries himself with confidence in every role, but the rat hole this picture twists into must have left even him shaken.

But the very nature of “Message from the King” does something no film he’s starred in can claim. It diminishes him. Let’s hope that “Panther” cash ensures it doesn’t happen again.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for brutal violence, grisly images, strong sexual content/nudity, language throughout and some drug use

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Teresa Palmer, Tom Felton, Luke Evans, Alfred Molina

Credits:Directed by Fabrice du Welz, script by Oliver ButcherStephen Cornwell A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:42

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Preview, “The Night Eats the World” aims to bring something new to the Zombie film

They still rot right in front of our eyes. But can anybody remember the last time zombies lurched and lumbered after their victims? Because, you know, they’re supposed to be “The WALKING Dead.”

No, they started sprinting years ago, fell in love (“Warm Bodies”) and got organized in oh so many ways (“Walking Dead,” “World War Z” etc.).

I mean, you still have to shoot them in the head, and all. Even when they reach Paris.

“The Night Eats the World” comes to VOD on July 13.

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Preview, “The Darkest Minds” lets Mandy Moore get paid, for starters

Yet another YA sci-fi dystopia about kids hunted and imprisoned and feared for who they are.

Hey, it’s as topical as today’s headlines, right? Even though it’s based on an Alexandra Bracken novel.

These kids have special powers, and no idea who Professor Xavier is. So they’re on the run. Mandy Moore, finally a big star with “This is Us,” is among those helping.

“The Darkest Minds” opens Oct. 5. 

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Movie Review: “Bernard and Huey” bring Jules Feiffer’s cartoon characters to the Big Screen

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Chatty, self-absorbed, streetwise and sex obsessed, even if he wasn’t drawing his quintessential “New York types,” we’d call Jules Feiffer’s characters “cartoons.”

They’re intellectuals on the pseudo-intellectual end of the scale, funny in biting, verbose flashes of self-realization. As in “maybe I’m not as smart as I thought.”

A classic Feiffer gag that turns up in his script for “Bernard and Huey,” the new film based on two of his most famous New Yorkers. Bernard is on the phone (in a flashback), trying to talk a woman the womanizer Huey once set him up with into going out with him.

“There’s a new French film screening — ‘Shoah.’ I don’t know anything about it, but…sounds like a muuuuuuusical!”

Get it? If not, there, I saved you the trouble of watching this or for that matter reading on.

Feiffer’s grand Hollywood statement, filmed in the 1970s, was “Carnal Knowledge,” a coarse and almost-comical sad-faced male wish fulfillment fantasy, and “Bernard and Huey” has something of that about it. It’s a biting midlife crisis  dramedy about two old friends who reconnect after 25 years and struggle to settle back into the dynamic that used to rule their relationship.

Back in the ’80s, Huey (Jake O’Connor) was an omnivorous sexual adventurer, in pursuit of any and all women, but especially New York “urban” women.

“The urban chick is trained for combat…If I had any respect for girls, I’d NEVER make out.”

Bernard (Jay Renshaw) was his bespectacled, already-balding poet-pal, fretting over “not progressing” in his life — at 25. He needs Huey’s little black book to have a prayer of getting a date in the cold, cruel city.

Twenty-five years later, Bernard (Jim Rash) is divorced, living in a permanently-unfurnished apartment and a mid-level functionary at a publishing house. Poetry is out the window, with the rest of his hair. But he’s now attractive to stewardesses (Remember, “male wish fulfillment fantasy.”) and has a beautiful, age-appropriate on-and-off lover (Sasha Alexander of “Rissoli & Isles”), a psychotherapist willing to celebrate “ten years since we started breaking up with each other.”

Then Huey shows up — wealthy, lost, “fat bald and old and…defeated.” Naturally, he’s played by David Koechner, the character actor best built for coarse, comically embittered and lovelorn.

They’re hurled back into each other’s lives, and even if you don’t live in New York, you know how this is supposed to go. At least one of them tries to ignore the intervening years and slip them back into their old power dynamic.

That would be Huey, who just “escaped” from Zelda (Mae Whitman), his shrill, man-hating failing graphic novelist daughter. He abandoned her at 10, so she has her reasons. Huey still has the patter, if not the looks and gruff charm of a “challenge” worth taking on — for a woman.

To hear Koechner’s Huey go off and the “80s chicks” and the city he misses (chasing away the stewardesses Bernard has mysteriously lured to their table) is to hear misogynistic, faintly homophobic slam poetry. He cooly rants about the “no frills mean…the mean queers” who wait on you in every store and restaurant, “meanness of a higher sphere” that New York is infamous for. He clears the room.

The situations involve coupling and uncoupling, an old flame (Nancy Travis) and ex-wife (Bellamy Young of “Scandal”) and strained efforts to “right” this universe by putting these old friends back in their former places.

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The casting is spot-on, and one other decision by director Dan Mirvish pays dividends. He has the leads talk in duologues – each muttering narcissistic musings about “MY problems” while the other is talking about is. Occasionally, their topics of interest intersect and they switch the duologue to dialogue.

Huey and Bernard’s flashbacks are where the film gives us flashbacks to the Oscar (for a 1961 animated short, “Munro”) and Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist, satirist and playwright’s sweet-spot — young guys, sitting in a bar, in an apartment, guys at their most sexist. Be brusque to women you want to pick up, was Huey’s counsel way back when — “Never ask a personal question, never pick up a check.”

He never grew out of that.

“I’m NOT sleeping with you, Huey.”

“Yeah, but 20 years ago you would have. Yeah, you would!”

His daughter? “She treats men just like you treat women,” and yes, that’s fascinating to watch.

As much as I enjoy “faintly repulsive,” like New Yorkers themselves, the movie’s a bit exhausting to be around, even at 90 minutes. All these self-absorbed “types” (even peripheral characters), self-conscious swipes at “hipsters,” self-inflating references to “Shoah” and Bukowski and August Wilson and Tom Stoppard, Black Flag and The Circle Jerks.

That’s a Woody Allen crutch, drop a lot of names and titles to give the script and screenwriter the veneer of cultural currency and seriousness. Not buying it.

This is just two aged sexual opportunists struggling to prolong the fantasy, an anti #MetToo moment that slyly asks, “What will 50ish lechers do when twentysomething young women stop using them to advance their careers?” The jury’s still out on that one, and it may be pure Feiffer nostalgia to go there, but props for still having the guts to ask the question.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, sexuality,  profanity

Cast: David Koechner, Jim Rash, Mae Whitman, Sasha Alexander, Nancy Travis, Bellamy Young, Richard Kind

Credits:Directed by Dan Mirvish, script by Jules Feiffer . A Freestyle release.

Running time: 1:31

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Preview, “Creed II” is more obviously just another “Rocky Redux”

The sleeper boxing hit “Creed” was basically a “Rocky” movie extending Sly Stallone’s franchise into a new, temporally impossible timeline via the son of a fighter who died in 1985.

It’s a boxing picture operating on comic book “universe” rules — time travel, right? “Immaculate conception” and all that.

Michael B. Jordan was OK, I guess, Tessa Thompson made a fiesty foil, the fight scenes gave us a little long-take brio, but the whole thing was recycled, hachkneyed, filtered through a “fresh lens” and critically praised as if all of America’s movie critics had been born years after 1985 as well.

Honestly, I can’t remember much about the plot except for what it stole from.

Now here’s “Creed II,” following that same path with even less in the line of fresh ideas. So, his new moment of truth is fighting the son of the boxer who killed the Dad he Never Knew? And Rocky is there to not talk him out of it?

Yes, one third of America needs to be reminded why we hate Russia (it has nothing to do with boxing). And three quarters of North American movie reviewers need reminding that “originality counts.” But anyway.

Sure. This’ll sell tickets. It did 33 years ago.

 

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Movie Review: “Marwencol,” the documentary that inspired “Welcome to Marwen”

marwen1Mark Hogancamp is a sometime cook, dishwasher and busboy at a bar in Kingston, New York, a man who lives a strange and rich interior life with dolls.It’s not what you think.

Back in 2000, Hogancamp survived a savage beating on his way home from work. The “dolls” are his self-designed form of mental and physical therapy.

Using military dolls and Kens and Barbies, he creates vividly detailed World War II scenes set in the imaginary Belgian town of Marwencol, a place where his alter ego is a heroic airman who also runs a local bar. Marwencol is a place where Hogancamp’s imagination takes flight.

Filmmaker Jeff Malmberg’s “Marwencol” follows Hogancamp as he buys his toy militaria, poses and sets up dolls and wanders the roads near his home, creating combat wear and tear by tugging a model Jeep loaded with dolls, often in uniform and named for friends, co-workers, an ex-wife — people whose alter egos he then puts in harm’s way in “his own world” — “Marwencol.” Then he photographs those dolls and the work becomes not therapy, but art.

Hogancamp, an ex-sailor, uses this modeling (and photography) to “get back my senses, my motor skills.” And without saying so, he also uses it to work out his rage at those who beat him all those years ago.

He creates elaborate tableaux of combat scenes, sexual situations, executions and mass murders. He photographs them. Then he buys and builds more models, comes up with another set of poses and tells another story involving these characters in that war in this place that exists only in his mind.

marwen2Malmberg presents some of these photos in time lapse, animating the work. He interviews friends, co-workers, the district attorney who handled Hogancamp’s case as well as one person from the art world who can vouch for the aesthetic validity of the artist’s quirky work. The hook here is more the artist’s “real story” than the work, and filmmaker leaves out much of that, saving a big “reveal” for the movie’s third act.

 

Hogancamp seems a pleasant, offbeat and intuitive fellow who probably takes all this less seriously than those who “discovered” him. He’s a “town character” who had the good fortune to get noticed doing those things town characters do — wandering roads towing a toy Jeep.

I was reminded of the 2004 documentary “In the Realms of the Unreal” about unpublished novelist, artist and mentally off janitor Henry Darger, who constructed a similar fantastical world for himself.

It’s only when those within the art community and filmmakers get hold of them that they are truly transformed. As one publisher says enthusiastically of Hogancamp’s work, “There’s no irony in it.”

That’s true of the movie, which sorely lacks context and authority in trumpeting these photos of bloodied GI Joes as more than what they were intended, as therapy for a wounded man and his obsessed vision of a world where the wrongs that happened to him can be made right.

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Unrated: Probably worthy of a PG-13 due to descriptions of violence, and depictions of violence using dolls

Credits: Directed by Jeff Malmberg

Running time: 1:24

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