Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

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Loving Vincent

One thing Landesman decided early on was that—unlike “All the President’s Men”—he would not depend on Washington locations, like so many recent DC-based films. Thus, the picture was essentially shot in Atlanta, with a sprinkling of images of the Watergate complex, the Justice Department, and nighttime Washington to give some sense of place. Since the bulk of the film features men in suits in offices, Atlanta can serve almost as well.

If you are looking for something completely different at the movies, check out “Loving Vincent.” It is an elaborately animated artistic whodunit, the puzzle here being to learn the real circumstances of the untimely death of the painter Vincent Van Gogh in 1890.

A young man, Arnaud, son of the postman in the Village of Auvers-sur-Oise,
where Van Gogh spent the last months of his life, is driven to find out how and why the painter died and plays the sleuth around town, interviewing people who knew the artist and trying to construct a theory of his demise. In doing so, he inevitably talks to the figures familiar to us from Van Gogh’s portraits, from Arnaud’s own father, the painter’s physician and his daughter, the maid from his hostel, a boatman, a housekeeper, inter alia. These key personages are mostly played by an array of English actors familiar to
viewers of British film and TV, players such as Douglas Booth, Chris O’Dowd, Helen McCrory, Aidan Turner, Saoirse Ronan, Eleanor Tomlinson, and others. The filmgoer can play a kind of guessing game to see if he recognizes the individual actor from his animated version. (Note: in flashback scenes Vincent himself is voiced by a Polish actor, Robert Gulaczyk.)

But the slim plot of this film is hardly the principal reason to see it. That reason is a unique cinematic effort of five years by Polish animator Dorota Kobiela and English producer Hugh Welchman. This tour-de-force required the painting of 65,000 images, representing every frame of the feature-length film. Most of the more than 120 painters who painted the images were based in Danzig, Poland, but dozens had to be recruited from other countries to complete the work. Once the script was ready, the laborious
“rotoscoping” process began with months of shooting the story with the real actors performing in costume against a “green screen,” which imagery was later converted to landscapes and interiors in the Van Gogh style, many of these recognizable from his most famous paintings. The actors’ images were likewise copied on to individual canvases by each painter, frame by meticulous frame.

Fans of the painter will recognize many of Van Gogh’s iconic works in the picture such as the “The Yellow House,” “The Starry Might,” “The Night Café,” “Girl in White,” and numerous portraits of his friends and acquaintances, but all flowing into the action. Since the story is of his last, troubled, but amazingly productive years, the imagery evoked is principally from that period, 1888-90.

The filmmakers also decided to show flashback sequences in black-and-white, a choice that changes the film’s tone. Because we have no “black-and-white” Van Goghs, these sections do not attempt to mimic his famous flurried brushwork but rather photographic material of the time. While the visualization achieved in these scenes is often striking in itself, the flavor and momentum of the story droops a bit, while the abundance of the swirling Vincent style in full color and motion is always exhilarating.
The better one knows and admires Van Gogh’s work, the more likely they are to cherish this labor of love dedicated to this unique artist.

film is rated “PG-13” and runs 94 mins.)
(October 2017)

Photo Credit: A painted image of Vincent Van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk) as he appears in "Loving Vincent."
Image courtesy of
Breakthru Films and others

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

A movie about Washington’s most abiding secret—the identity of “Deep Throat” of the Watergate era—has finally made it to the screen in Peter Landesman’s “Mark Felt,” an inquiry into the character who, as Deputy Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation during 1972-73, spilled the beans about Executive Branch shenanigans to a youthful Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.

Consider it “All the President’s Men” turned on its head and christen it instead “Not the President’s Man.” This narrative begins in spring 1972, when Felt (Liam Neeson), a 30-year-man with the FBI now in his deputy spot, expects a promotion to Director when J. Edgar Hoover dies on May 2. The loyal Felt is crushed when he is passed over for Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), a naval officer and lawyer, who becomes Acting Director. With a team loyal to him, including Ed Miller (Tony Goldwyn) and Charlie Bates (Josh Lucas), Felt begins investigating the Watergate break-in, early on intuiting that it leads to the White House and the Nixon campaign committee, and that Gray himself is involved in the cover-up of illegal activities with White House counsel John Dean (Michael C. Hall).

The ins-and-outs of the details of Felt’s investigation, the pressures on him and the FBI lifers, and the journalistic probing of Watergate all lead to his famous parking garage meetings with Woodward (Julian Morris, no look-alike) and the unraveling of the scandal. The film also adds other elements to Felt’s workplace motivation, specifically his parallel concerns about his alcoholic, troubled wife Audrey (Diane Lane) and his rebellious daughter Joan (Maika Monroe) a political radical who has left home for
possible involvement with groups like the Weather Underground.

Through it all, Felt is a stolid, knit-browed figure draped in a blue-gray suit and unvarnished integrity—though he is not above holding back information from his superiors. The film clearly means to offer a profile of the dogged, principled whistleblower, but Neeson’s granitic presence reveals little with which to sympathize. He’s resolute, perhaps, but not heroic. The story provides some ingrained suspense, of course, but a parade of decent actors (like Lane) is little used when the plot’s the thing. One thing missing is poignancy.

“Mark Felt” was a long-time project of writer-director Landesman (“Parkland”), a journalist who was commissioned for a script when Felt’s “Deep Throat” identity as revealed in the 2005 Vanity Fair article. Finally getting his chance to mount the production, he comes through with a workmanlike effort, one that will appeal especially to DC denizens who lived through the Watergate story.

(The film is rated “PG-13” and runs 116 mins.)
(October 2017)

Photo Credit: A pensive Liam Neeson plays "Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought down the White House."

Photo by Bob Mahoney
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics