Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

Current Reviews

The Paris Opera

What one might call the “institutional” documentary has its most avid exponent in the venerable Frederick Wiseman, who has been making them for 50 years. More recently, Wiseman has taken on major cultural institutions—as in “La Danse” (2009) and “National Gallery” (2014) —after years of observing more pedestrian entities. Other such efforts have included “Music from the Inside Out” and “The New Rikjsmueum” both of which mix the just-the-facts camera of Wiseman (no interviews, no narration) with more conventional styles showing a mosaic of the featured institution.

Latest of this type is “The Paris Opera,” conceived by Jean Stéphane Bron, which shows a rough year-in-the-life of one of France’s (and of the world’s) great artistic operations, and it is fascinating to behold (in French with subtitles).

Leading the operation is director Stéphane Lissner, a rotund, silver-haired fellow who must make all the parts work and must make them work in two contexts, because the collective “Paris Opera” is uniquely split among two venues for its performances, the Palais Garnier and the Palais Bastille. He is the guy who contends with tricky schedules, disaffected unions, the Ministry of Culture, fiscal pressures, and a host of outside forces to make sure the show goes on.

And the show that goes on is fascinating. In varied segments, we see prepping and performances of the grandiose Schoenberg opera, “Moses and Aaron” (complete with a real bull as the “golden calf”), the classic ballet “La Bayadere,” the Opera’s Youth Orchestra, and ongoing productions of “The Damnation of Faust,” “Rigoletto,” and “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” A series of most amiable professionals (e.g., singers Bryn Terfel and Gerald Finley) interact with another star of the documentary, the youthful and brilliant music director Philippe Jordan, a conductor with smarts, panache, and a great smile. He is a paragon of the creative spirit, urging his performers to display their best.

There are also intriguing sub-stories in the film. One of the best is the Opera’s discovery of a young (21 years old) Russian baritone Mikhail Timoshenko, who is selected to participate in their Youth Academy and who plunges in—knowing no French—to learn his craft. His enthusiasm shines through and his exposure to mentors like Terfel are priceless to watch. Another moody character, the director of ballet Benjamin Millepied, clashes with his charges but still mounts intriguing works. And, most dramatically: the lead for “Die Meistersinger” cancels with two days to opening,
and Lissner and his staff scramble for a replacement in a most difficult role—which they find in the person of a genial German baritone who saves the day!

Besides the creative artists of the company, Bron doesn’t neglect the people behind the scenes, showing set makers, seamstresses, back stage and production folk, and—to sweetly wrap up the show: the custodial crew cleaning up the theater stage and seats...

film is not rated but contains nothing objectionable and runs 110 mins.)
(October 2017)

Photo Credit: Philippe Jordan is the music director of "The Paris Opera" in a new documentary of the same name.
Distributed by Film Movement

Loving Vincent

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