Loving Vincent


This week I received three suggestions for the library’s Fall Movie Challenge, which I chose “Groundbreaking” for my challenge. One of the films chosen for me was Loving Vincent, an animated film that investigates the end of Vincent Vah Gogh’s life.

The film was made from Van Gogh’s paintings and oil paintings inspired by his style. It’s a visual feast. The story is engaging. The hero is a young man whose father was a good friend of Van Gogh’s and the village postman. The father sends his son on a mission to take a letter of Van Gogh’s to the artist’s brother Theo. Soon the hero learns that Theo is dead so now the hero doesn’t know what to do with the letter and embarks on a journey to discover what exactly happened to Van Gogh at his death.

The film then goes back and forth in time  with black and white flashbacks of what took place at the time of Van Gogh’s death and shows how murky the the interpretation of what really happened is.

With Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson of Poldark, Chris O’Dowd of Moone Boy and Saoirse Ronan, the film stars Douglas Booth, who was new to me, but who does a great job as a stubborn young man learning to figure out life as he puzzles out what to do about this letter from a dead man to his dead brother.

Below there’s a short video on how they made this groundbreaking film.

Monsieur Vincent

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Vincent tries to get someone to adopt this orphan

When Monsieur Vincent opens, we see Vincent Depaul entering a deserted town. Whenever he knocks on a door, someone throws rocks at him from the second floor. Finally, Vincent who’s the new priest in town gets let inside. He discovers that the aristocrats inside are hiding hoping to avoid the plague. They’re in the midst of a wild party just in case they don’t escape the plague.

As the new priest, and one that lives the gospel, Vincent tries to convince the nobles to take in a girl whose mother has just died. They’re all to scared. He winds up taking her in a very modest room he’s rented.

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Vincent’s wisdom is revered by the rich. He’s soon the mentor and spiritual guide for a wealthy couple, but he wants to help the poor. When he tells his patrons that he plans to leave they keep him near by supporting his charity efforts more. This works for a while, but eventually Vincent goes to Paris where he begins a charity for the poorest of the poor.

Throughout his work with the poor, Vincent recruited wealthy women to help him and found great frustration when they didn’t agree with his ideas of expanding and expanding their charity programs. Eventually, realizing that people who understand the poor may be better to work with, he taps a poor girl to become one of his first nuns. Actually, she came to him and the light bulb went off.

I went to a high school named after Louise de Marillac, a wealthy woman, who became key to Vincent’s outreach to the poor. In the film, she’s just in a couple scenes. You can see that she’s a peer of the wealthy women, so Vincent wants her to lead them, though it’s tough to convince these opinionated women to trust Vincent. (St. Louise de Marillac wound up leading the Daughters of Charity, an order of nuns that serves the poor.)

This bio pic was interesting and well done. I was surprised that so much of the time Vincent Depaul dealt with administrative issues and trying to persuade the aristocracy to help him more. I thought he was more “hands on.” In any event, the film moved along well and introduces people to this 17th century saint.

In French with subtitles.

The Life of Émile Zola

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The film character doesn’t look like this

As I’ve recently finished Germinal, when I saw the film The Life of Émile Zola (1937) displayed with Oscar Best Picture winners, I had to watch it. Starring Paul Muni, The Life of Émile Zola begins with Zola sharing a cold garret apartment with Cezanne. Both are struggling to launch their creative careers, while trying not to freeze to death. Soon Zola meets a prostitute in a café, hears her life story, writes a novel based on it. When it’s published it’s criticized for its immorality and it flies off the bookstore shelves. Still poor, Zola goes to the book seller who published the book to beg for a small advance. Instead he gets a check for 30,000 francs. He’s rich!

Zola continues to write popular books and lives in comfort and luxury with his wife in Paris. One day his still struggling friend Cezanne drops by to announce that he’s off to the South of France to paint. Paris is no longer the place for him. Before leaving, he feels compelled to point out that Zola has become materialistic and complacent. He’s lost his ideals. This opens Zola’s eyes.

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The story shifts to the army office where treasonous letters are found and the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus is soon arrested and sent to prison. The Dreyfus Affair is a dark corner of French history, showing how quick the army leaders were to allow their Anti-Semitism to condemn an innocent man with out fair due process. The very odd aspect of this Warner Bros. film is that the anti-semitism is never mentioned. If you didn’t know about the history, you wouldn’t realize that Dreyfus was Jewish and that was a factor in his arrest and imprisonment. A 2013 New York Times article stated that studio head  Jack Warner, who was Jewish himself, insisted that any mention of Jewish heritage be removed from the film.

When Dreyfus’ wife pleads with the comfortable bourgeois Zola, she convinces him that the right thing to do is to take up Dreyfus’ cause. The famous article “J’accuse!” results and Zola’s soon arrested for libel. A fierce courtroom battle ensues where Zola is the David to the powerful government’s Goliath. (This time David loses though.)

While this chapter of history is worthy of a film, this production is outdated. To whitewash the events by editing out anti-semitism makes no sense. Muni’s Zola hops around the scenes and is so almost comical in his vibrancy, that it’s hard to take him seriously. Other characters like his wife, Cezanne and the military leaders are one dimensional. The film was the Best Picture of 1937 and won other awards, but it doesn’t stand up to the test of time.

Moulin Rouge

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I didn’t know John Huston directed Moulin Rouge in 1952. A friend, who also likes old movies,  shared a couple DVDs with me and this is one of them. I never saw the 2001 Moulin Rouge (and probably won’t because it sounds like a very different story).

Huston’s Moulin Rouge is a biopic, the story of the famous painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Lautrec, played convincingly by José Ferrer, frequents this cabaret where all the colorful characters of 19th century Paris convene to dance, drink and often fight (not only the men, but he ladies). Lautrec was born into a noble family. At and early age he is injured falling down the stairs and the doctors fail to repair his bones as they should. Thus Lautrec’s growth is stunted making him a social misfit.

Yes, he’s witty, smart and talented, but when his first love rejects him running from the room when he declares his love, Lautrec decides he’ll never fit in the country, in his father’s world so he heads to Paris and paints the dancers and clowns at the Moulin Rouge and shares drinks and barbs with the best artists of his day: Cezanne, Monet, etc.

Twice in his life he meets a pivotal woman. The first is a low class manipulator and I pitied Henri as he pined for this deceptive sponge. Later he meets a woman worthy of love, but he’s too jaded to expect that a woman would really love him.

I didn’t expect much of this film, mainly because I’d never heard of it. I found it an absorbing biography of a witty, fascinating artist.

Steve Jobs Movie

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I knew Steve Jobs of Apple Computer fame wasn’t warm and fuzzy, but the film Steve Jobs refined my image of him. If Aaron Sorkin’s script got it right, Steve was one cold, driven man. With a superb cast including Michael Fassbender as Jobs, Kate Winslet at his “work wife,” Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak and Jeff Daniels as John Scully, Steve Jobs shows it’s main character minutes before three big product launches as all his personal chickens inevitably come to roost.

The first part of the film shows Steve barking at an engineer who can’t guarantee that the new Mac will be able to say “Hello” on cue, fighting over money with the mother of his first child, whose paternity he questions despite a judge ruling to the contrary, arguing with Wozniak, his friend from way back when, by refusing to acknowledge the Apple II team, whom Woz feels needs some credit, and listening to Scully impart fatherly wisdom. In Sorkin’s hands the bickering and arguing are dramatic rather than annoying. The film does convey a group of talented people coping with an egotistical talented man, who may be a genius, while asking the whether a “great” man can’t also be a good one? With Wozniak, I think the audience hopes the answer’s yes.

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The next launches we see are for the NeXT computer, which wasn’t even designed to really be sold but more as a tactic for getting back at the helm of Apple, and for iMac.

While all the performances were strong, I found both Steve Jobs’ and his illegitimate daughter Lisa, the most compelling characters. Sorkin’s story focuses on Jobs’ own feelings of rejection as an adopted child and his rejection of his first daughter as a means of explaining his personality and life. We never see his wife or other children, who apparently weren’t as interested in his launches as Lisa and her money-grubbing mother. (A bit hard to believe, but okay, it’s fictionalized, I get that.) The film ends with Steve and Lisa negotiating some stormy waters in their relationship, leaving me with the question of what role did this girl have with his other children.

All in all, it’s a compelling film, that left me with some questions. I don’t doubt that Steve Jobs was a misanthrope, but realize that this film is fictionalized to so the hero change, in a way that the real man may or may not have. It also brought home the point that Jobs wasn’t a designer, an engineer or programmer. He was a conductor, who can’t play an instrument.

 

Chaplin

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Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Chaplin offers a fine biography of the creative genius cum movie pioneer who created the Tramp. Starting with Chaplin’s debut at the age of about 4 when he wowed a London music hall audience and continuing till he was an 80 year old married to a child bride, Chaplin acquaints viewers with a view behind the Little Tramp.

Some highlights were Chaplin meeting and wooing Hetty Kelly, “the one who got away,” and a slapstick inspired sequence when Charlie, his brother, sister-in-law and editor hide film that the government wants to confiscate. It was a delightful way to show Chaplin’s style while showing his real life. Robert Downey Jr. does a fine job capturing Chaplin’s sensitivity, though the scenes when he plays 80-something Chaplin, I felt his make up was overdone.

There were some actors whose fame overshadowed their character. Dan Ackroyd did a fine job, but while watching I kept thinking “that’s Dan Ackroyd as Mack Sennet or “is that Anthony Hopkins as the editor”? (It was.) I’m not sure why their character didn’t shine through more.

Roger Ebert criticized the film because the focus was more on Chaplin’s sex life than on his creative life. That was true and it would be interesting to see a genius struggle more with his creations. Since Chaplin would redo scenes and scripts hundreds of times till they were perfect, we know he struggled. While his penchant for young, very young women, is unusual and should be covered in a biopic, I’d have liked to see a more sophisticated look at his personal life, while keeping it in the background and moving his achievements to the front.

A Man Called Peter

man called peterI didn’t know what to expect when I started watching A Man Called Peter (1955). It turns out it’s a biopic about Peter Marshall showing his life from the seminary. Of Scotch descent, Marshall (played by Richard Todd, whom I’ve never seen before) comes to America for seminary and by dint of his riveting oratory, becomes a popular preacher in Atlanta, New York and then Washington, DC. He preaches real deal Christianity, which is hard to take, especially for some a rich society lady who donates a lot of money Marshall’s unapologetic about his bold ministry but the main theme isn’t rebellion so eventually the movie doesn’t dwell on that conflict.

We see a minister who’s a whirlwind, so energetic it’s exhausting to watch. His wife was captivated by his charisma but soon he wears her out. It’s not that they divorce, but she does get ill and I don’t know how I’d deal with someone who’s constantly in motion. She does manage though.

In Washington, DC Marshall is named chaplain of the U.S. Senate and I loved watching him challenge the powerful. It was a shame that his life was cut short. That came as a complete surprise, but you can’t rewrite biography to suit your wishes.

The film would mainly interest Christians as Marshall’s pretty earnest. He’s very dynamic, but doesn’t go through any periods of doubt or dark night of the soul, which I think many modern viewers expect in their cinematic (or televised) clergy.