LOVING VINCENT: “Life can even bring down the strong.”

LOVING VINCENT – 2017 – 95 minutes – ★★★★

Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman

Starring:  Robert Julaczyk (Vincent van Gogh), Douglas Booth (Armand Roulin), Chris O’Dowd (Postman Roulin), Jerome Flynn (Dr. Gachet), Saoirse Ronan (Marguerite Gachet), Helen McCrory (Louise Chevalier), John Sessions (Pere Tanguy).

Oscar nomination:  Best Animated Feature

Where to watch:  Limited theatrical release, streaming on Amazon

When a movie opens with a title card explaining to the viewer how unique and special it is, I am immediately leery.  Oh, brother!   In this case, we are told that this is the first completely painted movie ever made. Each frame was painted with oil on canvas;   it took a team of over 100 painters to create the 65,000 images in the film.  In retrospect, I’m glad they did give us this information up front.  Fortunately, the film is in no way gimmicky.  It is a surprisingly rich and powerful story.

The movie is based primarily on the later years of the famous post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh.   The movie opens a year after van Gogh’s death, with an unopened letter that Vincent wrote to his brother Theo.   Vincent’s old postman, Joseph Roulin,  asks his son Armand to return the letter to Theo.   And this is the beginning of a great journey, that will send Armand first to Paris, and then to Auver-sur-Oise, where van Gogh lived out his last days, and ultimately where he died.

Along the way Armand will talk with several people, who fill in gaps in van Gogh’s past.  We meet van Gogh in several flashbacks, which are painted and filmed in a start black and white. Armand’s feelings about van Gogh shift as he uncovers more about the past.  There is also a mystery surrounding van Gogh’s suicide (or was it murder?)  which takes a prominent place in the story.

All of the main characters in the film are based on historical people, many of whom were painted by Vincent at some point.  The actors in the movie did not just provide their voices;  they were filmed practically, and later each image was painted over individually.  It is possible to recognize Chris O’Dowd’s face behind Postman Roulin’s great beard, and Saorise Ronan is instantly recognizable as Marguerite Gachet, a young girl who befriended Vincent in his last year.

Saorise Ronan “appears” in two Oscar-nominated films this year.

Film making is well into its second century now, and it is refreshing to see this joint Polish-British venture find a new way to tell a story visually.  If you are a fan of van Gogh, or of his style of painting, then this film is an absolute must-see.  It is rather like spending ninety minutes inhabiting a van Gogh painting.  Or better yet, seeing the world with his unique vision.  Many of the scenes recreate specific paintings.  But you don’t have to be an habitue of art galleries to enjoy this movie.  The story is well developed and told, the talent is strong, and the visuals unique.

Armand’s journey through the film is ultimately frustrating on some levels.  He is unable to deliver the unopened letter to Theo, who died just a few months after his brother.  And Armand is left with more questions than answers, as indeed is the viewer.   There are many specific details about Vincent van Gogh’s last days that we will never know.  But he certainly gave us plenty of detail, in his hundreds of paintings.   He left it all there, the pain and the beauty.  Shouldn’t that be enough?

 

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HEROIN(E): “We will not be defined by this problem.”

HEROIN(E) – 2017 – 39 minutes – ★★★1/2

Directed by Elaine McMillion

Oscar nomination:  Best Documentary Short Subject

Where to watch:  Streaming on Netflix

Documentary short features can be one of the most powerful forms of cinema.  Imagine wanting to tell a real story, that is original and captivating.  Now imagine doing so in 40 minutes or less.   All of the dross must be snipped away, until you are left with something that shines.  I suppose it’s a similar narrative challenge to short story writing.

This short film centers on the town of Huntington, West Virginia, known as the overdose capital of America.  The city averages over ten overdoses a day.

The movie views the epidemic through the eyes of three women who are giving everything they have to make a difference.  These women are Jan Rader (the first woman fire chief in West Virginia history),  Judge Patricia Keller (who oversees “drug court”) and Necia Freeman (who runs a ministry for women on the street).

Necia drives around at night, handing out food and hygiene supplies, helping women to get into a shelter, or a treatment program.  Judge Keller treats everyone in her court equally.  She can be tender, she can be tough.  But the addicts have to be willing to work towards change.  And Chief Rader responds to calls, overdose after overdose, day after day.

This movie is not intended in any way as an in-depth look at the drug crisis.  It doesn’t attempt to explain it, or offer widespread solutions.  This is a much more simple, human story,  a look at three women who are living with the stuggle every single day, and are trying to save lives, one person at a time.

DUNKIRK: “What do you see?” “Home.”

DUNKIRK – 2017 – 106 minutes -★★★★1/2

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring:  Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton), Mark Rylance (Mr. Dawson), Tom Hardy (Farrier), Cillian Murphy (Shivering Soldier), Harry Styles (Alex), James D’Arcy (Colonel Winnant), Barry Keoghan (George Mills).

Oscar nominations:  Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Music Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Production Design.

Where to watch:  Blu ray or DVD, streaming on Google Play.

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Dunkirk (n) 1.  a seaport in northern France 2. site of an amphibious evacuation, when over 300,000 British troops were evacuated while under enemy fire 3.  a crisis in which a desperate effort is the only alternative to defeat.

As you can see from the dictionary definition, Dunkirk began as a geographic location.  Then it became known as the site of one of the greatest evacuations in human history.  Then it became something more, something that perfectly encompasses the British demeanor of courage under fire.  Christopher Nolan’s movie encapsulates all three meanings, in one tense, gripping film.

The movie doesn’t build tension, it begins with it.  There is some text,  providing very basic detail:  In the early days of World War II, the Germans have pushed through France, backing the British up to the sea.  Trapped there in Dunkirk, they await the arrival of ships to evacuate them.

Nolan decided to tell the story in a very original  way.   There are three different narrative threads:  one on land, one on the sea, and one in the air.  They each cover a different period of time:  one week, one day, and one hour respectively.  On paper this sounds tricky to pull off, or perhaps a bit gimmicky.  But it works to perfection.  The movie cuts from story to story, and we never lose sight of what we are seeing or who we are following.  Sometimes the threads of the narratives overlap, or come together.

On the land we see most of the action through the eyes of young private Tommy (played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead), who is justifiably frightened out of his wits, and wants to get on a ship as soon as possible.  He meets up with another young soldier, a mystery man who may be hiding a secret, and their plans to sneak on a boat go from bad to worse.

On the sea, we follow one of the “little ships”, as they were affectionately called.  Britain put out the call to all willing private vessels to cross the channel and assist in the evacuation of soldiers.  Over 800 ships answered that call.  In the movie we follow the Moonstone, piloted by a middle-aged Mr. Dawson, accompanied by his young son and another young man.  Mark Rylance brings a quiet self-assurance to his portrayal of Dawson.  He is the perfect actor for this role, for he is representative of all of the little ship owners, who crossed the channel into a war zone because it was the right thing to do.

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In the air, we follow Tom Hardy as Farrier, the pilot of a British Spitfire.  Farrier never loses his cool,  even when engaged in a dogfight with an enemy plane.  The aerial photography in this movie is some of the best ever captured on film.  The entire movie was shot in large format, either 65 or 70 mm, and the aerial scenes in particular look glorious.

Eventually all three story lines will meet up, in time and space, bringing some of the now-familiar characters together.  Technically, every aspect of this movie is near-flawless.  Christopher Nolan eschews digital effects, and shoots as much as he can practically.  This adds to the realism of the film, which is almost unbearably tense.  I can’t recall a single other film I’ve seen which began with the tension this high, and then just kept increasing it.  The film score has a ticking clock sound, and the music itself has a metronomic quality which never lets the viewer forget that time is passing, that something is imminent.

When I saw this movie the first time in the theater, I thought it had the best sound quality of any movie I’d ever seen.  That holds up on the home theater as well.   The editing works flawlessly with the score, as the camera cuts from one story line to another, without ever confusing the viewer.   I think this movie may have the least amount of dialogue of any major film in quite some time.  It is so visceral that little dialogue is needed.   When words are needed, they are brief and to the point.  Kenneth Brannagh as Commander Bolton gets to deliver some of the most memorable.

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On the surface, the Dunkirk evacuation is about a failure, not a success.  Hundreds of thousands of British soldiers fleeing from the enemy and abandoning the French.  But of course, it was so much more than that.  Those same British soldiers would live to fight on, and many would give their lives in the years to come as Europe was reclaimed from the Axis armies, foot by foot, inch by inch.   Had the British not succeeded in getting off the beaches at Dunkirk, the war could have taken a very different turn.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to those men, who stood there watching, waiting for a ship.  And a particular debt goes to those people who got into their fishing trawlers and pleasure cruisers on the English coast, not because they had to, but because they were asked.

 

 

 

 

ICARUS: “Ignorance is strength.”

ICARUS – 2017 – 121 minutes – ★★★1/2

Directed by Bryan Fogel

Oscar nomination:  Best documentary feature

Where to watch:  Streaming on Netflix

So every year I try to watch all Oscar-nominated movies in every category.  It’s a tradition I started with my son Kevin several years ago.  It has deepened our appreciation of movies.  This year I will review all nominated films leading up to the Oscar ceremony on March 4, 2018.

Some of the most powerful, and memorable movie moments I have experienced in recent years have come from movies nominated in the documentary feature category, so I have decided to start with a film from that category.

Many of us heard the news, announced in December, that all Russian athletes are banned from competition in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.    This movie explains not only how the Russians beat the anti-doping testers at the Sochi winter games, but details decades of state-sponsored doping of Russian athletes.

Funnily enough, the movie started out as something completely different.  Director Bryan Fogel set out to make a movie about doping, focusing on the world of cycling.  Fogel has been an amateur cyclist and cycling enthusiast since childhood.   The downfall of Lance Armstrong was a personal blow to Fogel, as it was to many fans of the sport.  So he set out to demonstrate how easy it could be to use banned substances in the cycling world.

Fogel participated in the most challenging amateur bike race in the world, the Haute Route.  The course is grueling, covering 500 miles in seven days, with an astonishing 65,000 feet of climbing through the French Alps.  Fogel was no slouch, finishing 14th in a field of over 400.

The movie demonstrates how he plans to institute a doping regimen, to improve his position in the next year’s race.  He is put in touch with Grigory Rodchenkov, the man who runs Russia’s anti-doping laboratory, and this is where the movie really takes off.

Fogel is put on a regimen of banned substances.  Rodchenkov gives him detailed instructions, telling him to begin saving pee samples and freezing them.  Rodchenkov then comes to the US, meets with Fogel, and smuggles the pee samples back to Russia, where he will begin the process of “cleaning” them.

Rodchenkov, Fogel and lots of pee.

It is right at this time that the first wave of the doping scandal breaks.  A documentary airs on German TV, alleging systematic doping of Russian athletes.  Rodchenkov is asked to resign his post.  He comes to the US, fearing for his safety in Russia.  He talks openly, first to Bryan Fogel, and later to the New York Times.  And he drops a pretty big bombshell, admitting that virtually every Russian athlete at the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia was doping.   He explains how “dirty” urine samples were swapped for clean on a daily basis during the games, how supposedly tamper-proof bottles were indeed tampered with.  There is a lot of pee talk in this movie.  I can’t recall any other movie in which urine was such a major plot point.

Rodchenkov alleges that not only were Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking officials aware of the doping, but they officially sanctioned it. Other officials involved include Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko (a man with arguably the worst hair ever, in a country with a history of bad hair.) A friend and colleague of Rodchenkov dies suddenly, under questionable circumstances.  Any student of recent Russian history will see a common thread at play here.  Putin has left a trail of questionable deaths in his wake for decades.

The movie gets off to a slow start, but is very engaging.  The key to the movie’s success is the unfettered access to Rodchenkov.  He is a fascinating guy.   Here is a man who was supposed to be running one of the most highly respected anti-doping laboratories in the world, and yet he was doing precisely the opposite.

Early in the movie, Rodchenkov struts around with cocky self-assurance, making jokes.  In later scenes, after he has fled to the US, it is clear he is shaken.  Fogel presents him in a very sympathetic light, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.  Fogel mentions how Rodchenkov had to leave his wife and children behind in Russia.  Leave is one word you could use.  Abandon is another one that comes to mind.  Granted, were he to travel back to Russia now that would be a death sentence.  But he was quick to fly out when the scandal broke.   Couldn’t he have made arrangements for his family to get over the border?  Their passports have been confiscated now, so they have in effect been sentenced for the crimes that he committed.   I don’t want to minimize the risks that Rodchenkov took in speaking out, but I do feel like his family got a very raw deal.

Another major thread in the movie is George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984.  The book was banned in the USSR, for obvious reasons.  When Rodchenkov got his hands on a copy in 1989, it was an eye opener.  He realized that it described in exact detail how things were in Russia.  He used it as a sort of primer, a way of reconciling how he could be both the doper and anti-doper at the same time.  These elements give an added layer to the film, and help it find structure.  This movie works best as a character study, and Grigory Rodchenkov is definitely an interesting character.

It would be nice to think that the uncovering of this massive scandal will bring about change.  But as long as athletes compete, there will always be a handful who will do anything to obtain an advantage.  And as long as men like Putin are in power, endemic corruption will be the status quo.  With a new Olympic games about to start, one hopes the Olympic Oath will be honored in good faith by all.