I Love Vinnie

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So, there is a grand ol’ two-prong consensus about the Polish animated Vincent Van Gogh crypto-biography Loving Vincent by this point that’s beaten me down since my initial enthusiasm after seeing it well back in October and it is this: On the first part, the movie is wonderfully gorgeous, absolutely miraculous to see on the big screen (and I pity those who will only have the opportunity to see it on a laptop or something at this point in their life). It has to be. For a long while it was anticipated by some (including yours truly) as a… not-revolutionary (despite the marketing’s insistence on Loving Vincent being the first of its kind) but highly unique animated experience on the basis of its craft.

Let me get the unpleasantness element out of the way first though, because the second part of that consensus deals with the content of the film and it’s an unfortunate blunt one: the script is bad. In this world of a narrative-focused cinematic experience, when you keep hearing that the script of a movie is bad, that’s a dealbreaker regardless of how brilliantly the craft is. My attitude of the script by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman & Jacek Dehnel (Kobiela & Welchman perform double duty as co-directors, Welchman TRIPLE as co-producer) is not nearly as damning, but it’s certainly not enthusiastic.

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The concept of a Rashomon-esque attempt at individuals attempting to deal with the aftermath of a suicide and trying to rationalize why somebody so gifted would be brought to the point of killing himself, spurred on by the young Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) being tasked by his postman father (Chris O’Dowd) to deliver the painter’s (Robert Gulaczyk) last letter to the art dealer brother Theo van Gogh (Cezary Lukaszewicz), only to discover Theo himself had passed away suddenly in the wake of his brother. And in his waiting game, Armand begins to take an interest in the circumstances of Vincent’s last years in suspicion of the how he died.

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel beaten down by the continuous pointing out that the script quickly de-evolves, despite its attempt at structual exercise, into a cyclical series of talking heads all coming to the same dead end in how the late 1800s had no understanding of clinical depression and how because of that repetition, every inch of the movie’s 95 minutes is felt. And I understand that but the one piece of the script that really irks me (other than its overbearing coda and garbage ending credits song very labored) is how it attempts to give a finite answer to the source of van Gogh’s desperate depression and is weirdly satisfied about that answer. Given the subject matter, it feels icky to me.

So there’s that. That’s the script. If you’re a content-over-form type of person, you will more likely than not hate Loving Vincent and I’m sorry that you would. I am not at all that type of person and I found myself totally wowed and affected by the execution of the film’s core style.

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Directors Kobiela (a painter herself) & Welchmann overlooked 125 painters working on 65,000 frames intended to imitate the style of the legendary Dutch painter’s impressionistic oil works for its modern day, including pencil sketches for flashback sequences. A portion of these paintings are rotoscoped, but enough of them are from scratch to seriously impress upon anyone even slightly interested in the matter of fine art or even just the works of van Gogh (I can’t imagine how the two interests aren’t correlated though. Are there art hipsters?)

And maybe that might seem like a gimmick to some, but for someone like me who has never had the opportunity to witness any of Van Gogh’s works in person (but one dreams), seeing it on the big screen as opposed to a trailer on my computer makes me more aware of the physical element of the art short of actually reaching out and touching the thing (it’s something that makes me kind of wonder how the film would look in 3D, possibly akin to Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams). It’s impossible to ignore the inadvertent contours of the art, the gloopy swirls and strokes that maps all around the frames. Kobiela & Welchmann did very well with photographer Tristan Oliver to translate that beyond the flatness of the screen, they want you to feel the depth of the lines, like the landscapes extend beyond the frame, like the portraits betray the wear of the individual’s face.

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And then there’s the fact that you’re witnessing this in motion. Very little of the shots are stilled in place, you are literally watching art’s textures move little by little. This is obvious in sequences where water is on-screen and most especially obvious in sequences with rain pattering on its steps. And because this isn’t really frames so much as flat-out paintings being presented as frames, you feel the shifts in colors (and idiosyncratic colors doesn’t seem to cut describing van Gogh’s works – he seems to have a dark earthy sensibility to the colors of the world and a lack of scrutiny in using different shades and the film captures that beautifully) and contours being presented more as a visual progression than standard animation’s necessity to turn movement fluid and seamless. It’s fascinating work and while I was just dismissing the marketing’s claims of it being the first of its kind, I can still happily claim that the movie is unlike anything I personally have ever experienced in a cinema.

So therein is a choice to be presented to the prospective viewer of Loving Vincent, one that certainly lives inside an audience member since they began watching movies: Are you looking for content or are you looking for form?* I mean, the answer is pretty obvious to me, given I had just recently defended Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, so it’s no surprise I pretty much loved Loving Vincent. Because if you’re there to see some out of the box storytelling and intelligent storytelling, Loving Vincent is incapable of making most people very happy on that end and I am sorry to say that you might be happier selecting another movie. But if you’re sitting in that theater seat** because you’re an animation or fine art enthusiast or scholar and you’re looking for something to change the way you look at the works of one of the most influential painters in history (excusing my admittedly limited knowledge of the art form), you’ve made the right choice.

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*Ignoring the understanding that in a medium as aesthetically based as film and especially animation, content IS form sometimes.
**Assuming it will have a second-run thanks to its Oscar nominations pls

25 for 25 – Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

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Carl Theodor Dreyer is, in my opinion, one of the greatest filmmakers of silent age, an era in cinema history that has absolutely no want for great filmmakers. In an era where many of his fellow European artists were indulging in the arch stylings of Expressionism (which Dreyer himself took a dip into with the 1932 Franco-German horror film Vampyr), Dreyer maintained a much larger interest in grounded realism and focusing on more rigid ways to bring out emotion in the audience. And that is not to say Dreyer’s storytelling isn’t arch, but it has to come in other forms beyond shadow and angular sets. Such as, in the case of The Passion of Joan of Arc, a steadfast focus on close-ups and the natural corners of walls and a powerful central performance, one that Pauline Kael herself called possibly “the finest performance ever recorded on film”. She’s hardly the only one to have that sentiment about Maria Falconetti as the Maid of Orleans herself and I would have to stand alongside that hyperbole. Falconetti’s performance is exactly the kind that earns the hyperbole.

Mind you, we almost wouldn’t be able to see that performance or this movie. The negative was destroyed long away in a fire and with it the only copy of the original version, before canisters of Dreyer’s original cut were discovered in a Norwegian sanitarium (OF ALL PLACES!) and maintained in the Norwegian Film Institute. This wouldn’t be the first time the original copy of a Dreyer film was lost given the unfortunate state of the German and French negatives for Vampyr and all of its copies. Film has to be preserved y’all! We’re losing great movies here!

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But let us not weep over what we lost (ok, weep a bit), but instead celebrate over what we still have with us: The Passion of Joan of Arc stands highly as a picture where every frame invokes drama and the very title implicates the kind of passion play waiting for us within the silent film. Except instead of Christ being the subject of judgment and execution, it is Joan of Arc (Falconetti) after her many victories for the French against the English in the Hundred Years War. Captured and brought to Normandy, Dreyer subjects her to eyes of the audience within his fixed lens and the leering aggressive eyes of her judgers: the infamous Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Eugène Silvain) who condemned her to death, a prosecutor (André Berley), the Dean of the Normandy province they preside in (Antonin Artaud), and several other inquisitors and judges that outnumber and surround Jean in such an overwhelming manner that the close-ups feel like an absolutely mercy. When Dreyer and his co-editor Marguerite Beaugé indulge in rapidly moving from several angry or self-satisfied faces during the first part of the film’s trial, it’s disorienting enough that Falconetti’s face barely feels like an anchor from all the accusations flying at her (David Bordwell noted the negative space around the close-ups – an element of Dreyer neglecting the allegedly magnificent sets constructed for the movie – adding to that dislocation, by not allowing us to know the actual spacing or distance between the characters).

I feel like I’ve waved enough into the direction of the close-ups without truly recognizing what makes them work so well, which has to be the intimacy towards Falconetti’s entranced performance to me. Dreyer denied make-up for the actors, which leads to more defined facials and contoured shapes from the hard lighting (much much softer on Falconetti herself for obvious reasons) and while it’s not as expressive as a more controlled aesthetic, but it is definitely a lot more human and the actors’ intensity carries the viewer. Most intense of all is Falconetti’s wide-eyed daze, all provided in different shades of strong emotions like sorrowful melancholy for her mother, fatigued persecution when the questioning becomes so much more overwhelming, solemnly tragic resignment when her jailors dress her up in a mock crown and make fun of her “Daughter of God” claim (and for a filmmaker as religious as Dreyer, God – despite being a source of contention in Joan’s trial – has no presence in this film), inner conflict (eyes dashing around) as she grapples with choosing between her physical safety or her spiritual convictions, subtle reservation at her confidence against her tormentors as she is immolated. It’s an unfortunate fact that Dreyer had been cruel to Falconetti for the performance, but the morality of that aside, Falconetti demands our alignment with her through the simplicity of her face and she earns it in so well that Dreyer could have made a boring visual film (and yet he didn’t – The Passion of Joan of Arc doesn’t get enough credit for how inventively it uses zoom progressions, how it inverts shots, and frames things off-center) and it still would have been full of drama. It’s completely alien to me how people can claim The Passion of Joan of Arc‘s little amount of incident makes it boring, but there they are. It’s so ready to burst with that titular passion before halfway its brisk 82 minutes that it barely gets mentioned how the film ends on its most incendiary note, not only with the execution of Joan by fire but a riot breaks out (the biggest dramatic liberty made with a film that’s not all that historically accurate) by the inhabitants of Normandy, moved by Joan like we have been.

The only last word to give is to recognize how Dreyer and Falconetti together provided the strongest accomplishment in film craft and performance in my eyes. I can’t imagine how it could be bettered or improved. The challenge is out there, as far as I’m concerned.

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P.S. if you have a chance, I would very much recommend watching the film with the Voices of Light soundtrack on the Criterion Collection DVD (why is this not on Blu-Ray?!) composed by Richard Einhorn.


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Behind Every Space Man…

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A disclosure that I can only get away with on a personal blog: the reason that the concept of a movie largely involved with academics in general puts me usually is the same as one of the (many) reasons that I, Grad student of computers, hate school. I can’t stand chalkboard sounds. Something about the silent scraping of chalk against that calcium sulfate material always gets my teeth grinding and on edge about how easily it could go wrong. There’s always a fine gravelly tone for the contact, no matter how softly you write. Chalkboard makes me anxious.

Anyway, part of the reason why Hidden Figures kept me from enjoying it was the fact that, because it revolved around characters needing to make calculations that are apparent to the audience and that means literal visual representations and that means a lot of chalkboards. It’s imperative to the plot of the film after all, which is to follow on three of the unsung heroines of the NASA Project Mercury between 1961-62 (the project lasted from 1958-1963, early in the Space Race). Which, being a Space enthusiast, obviously interested me heavily enough to forego the fact that I couldn’t even finish director Theodore Melfi’s first feature St. Vincent. To be honest, his bland “history class movie” work here is not good either and yet another reason why I didn’t dig Hidden Figures enough to understand why it’s such a heavy contender for the Best Picture Oscar.

Those unsung heroines of the field are notably African-American women working in a dungeon-esque basement in a bland building in NASA away from the real projects at the beginning of the film. The three central ones in our focus are Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who spends the majority of her screentime going through a painstaking academic crucible to be promoted from mathematician to engineer, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the much-labored de facto supervisor-without-the-title of all the Afro-American female calculators who ends up getting ahead of NASA on their integration of IBM’s computers, and very much at the front of the picture, Katharine Johnson nee Goble (Taraji P. Henson), whose accuracy with complex calculations meant that she was able to figure trajectories and landing points better than the IBMs and helped send John Glenn (Glen Powell) to space and back again.

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If I do admit I somewhat dug Hidden Figures, it’s by the skin of its teeth and thanks entirely to its cast. You see, Hidden Figures is the sort of movie that under a director as lazy as Melfi pushes everything right into the indiscernable background of the film just to prostrate itself to actors (this as opposed to the much more skilled Pablo Larrain’s Oscarbait biopic this year, Jackie, which is undeniably a showcase for Natalie Portman’s performance but also an overall brilliantly crafted examination in trauma, grief, and identity). And when I say indiscernable, I mean, I can’t waste any more words trying to think of a manner that Melfi tries to make the movie have any personality beyond its soundtrack – a mix between Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch trying to use unrecognizable motifs to make this feel like a Kevin Costner vehicle from the late 80s to Pharrell Williams writing original songs trying so hard to recreate the James Brown stylings of 1960s rhythm music. Otherwise, it’s the least effort I’ve seen in a visual vocabulary.

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Part of why this movie needed to have its cast – especially its three leads – do the heavy-lifting is from the frank fact that there is not as much fascination made with what the three did than it is with the fact that they ARE black women and unlike Tim Brayton, I really have no problem with that being the point of the film. The film portrays Johnson’s mathematical capability like it’s practically casual for her and the bigotry is the only real roadblock to seeing her accomplishments. In the meantime, the only reason Jackson has a tough time being allowed to join the engineers or Vaughan getting the recognition she deserves for being overworked as a supervisor without the recognition she earns for it is because of their color while their gender leads to them being doubted by many of the black men surrounding them, including briefly Johnson’s obvious to-be-husband Lt. Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, because he’s everywhere in 2016 and I don’t mind with the life he gives to a functional role pretending the story is about his eagerness to marry Katherine). Could the film be less lead-footed about it? Lord, YES. There are two speeches by Henson given to Johnson and her supervisor Al Harrison (Kevin Costner as the good white man who again makes it work in his Costner wholesomeness) and they are brilliantly delivered, especially the latter in its exhausted fieriness, but the dialogue does her no favors overstating themes and the script by Melfi and Allison Schroeder never gets better.

And yet Monae provides more proof that with enough screentime, she can use sparks to make a presence even when her character is only driven by step-by-step plotting (Jackson’s academic pursuits are the least-developed area in the script). Spencer uses her usual screen persona to embody a mother hen role that portrays not only how easily she can have a relationship with our leads and the rest of the computers and defend their jobs, but even lets that extend to Vaughan’s skill with machinery, continuously remaking “that a girl” when she maneuvers a computer or car or tv or radio with ease and making it totally not hokey. And Henson… Henson’s facials alone embody a weariness and lack of confidence that translates to more focus on her work. And then Henson uses that build into an arc of growing confidence to call things how she sees it and finally get a seat at the table. It’s a performance deserving of a better movie. All of the performances are (save for Jim Parsons being… a non-entity). It’s a story deserving of a better director. The movie may have finally given these real-life heroines credit, but I’m cannot give it much more beyond its actors.

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