Loving Vincent (2017)

It’s near impossible to discuss the animated biopic Loving Vincent without focusing on the stunning visual achievement of its form. In a painstakingly meticulous animation process, the film combines rotoscoping technology with hand-painted, Impressionist oil paintings to provide a real, tangible texture to its morbid exploration of the final days of Vincent Van Gogh. The movie wants you to pay special attention to that process, opening with a title card that reads “The film you are about to see has been hand-painted by over 100 artists.” Between those painters, the two credited directors, the rotoscoped cast of in-the-flesh actors, and the film’s crowdfunding backers, Loving Vincent is a massive collaboration that finds entirely new avenues of expression in its visual form. As impressive as that visual achievement can be, however, it’s a shame that the film’s narrative is so creatively restricted. If the exact same script were presented as a live action production, this by-the-books biopic of the final days of a troubled artist would be more befitting of a BBC miniseries than an arthouse film, which points to there not being much substance here beyond the surface of its visual form.

In 1891, one year after Van Gogh’s death, a family friend is tasked to deliver a fundamentally undeliverable, posthumous letter to the artist’s brother. This mission of honoring a dead man’s request evolves into a kind of historical revisionism murder investigation that calls into question whether Van Gogh actually killed himself or if he was shot by a second party. Our makeshift sleuth (actually just a dutiful son of a postman) goes on a Magic Schoolbus-style tour of the various sets & characters that filled the frames of Van Gogh’s most infamous works. Just as the animation style approximates the Impressionism of Van Gogh’s brush, a series of black & white flashbacks emerge from these interviews to provide fractured sketches of who he was as a person (not unlike the structure of Citizen Kane). In a typifying line, one interviewee asks, “You want to know so much about his death, but that do you know of his life?” in-between the sweeping orchestral flashbacks that eat up half the runtime. The film is a re-examination of Van Gogh’s life & art both in its story & its form, but ultimately doesn’t have much to say except that he was a deeply depressed man who made beautiful paintings, something we all already knew.

Like Russian Ark, Loving Vincent is a stunning visual achievement that will prove useful as a classroom tool that actually holds students’ attention. Unlike Russian Ark, it could have used more imagination & lyricism in its content to match the intensity of its form. There’s a mind-blowing animated work to be made out of this oil painting rotoscoping process now that the idea’s out there, but much like how The Jazz Singer was never going to be the all-time greatest example of the talkies, Loving Vincent isn’t representative of the extremes where that technique could be pushed. The texture of the canvas surfaces & malleability of reality (especially in the way movement leaves a barely-perceptible trail) are promising of a strong future for this aesthetic, but Loving Vincent is a little too muted as a biopic to experiment with its full possibilities. There are obvious limitations to this visual style: the bizarre intrusion of recognizable faces like Chris O’Dowd & Saoirse Ronan, the internet cheesiness of seeing a Starry Night dorm room poster come to life, the eye’s search for details in texture while essentially running through an art gallery at full speed, etc. Mostly, though, Loving Vincent is an admirably ambitious proof-of-concept visual project that opens the door to a new mode of artistic expression: a brand new, but paradoxically traditionalist tool in the animator’s arsenal. Its worth is entirely tied to the audacity of its form.

-Brandon Ledet

Mascots (2016)

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Christopher Guest’s brilliance as a comedy director has always relied on a kind of subtlety & understatement that lends his behind-the-camera work to being overlooked. Guest’s best films, titles like Waiting for Guffman & Best in Show, are densely populated with cartoonishly over-the-top, attention-hogging characters, so the director wisely takes a back seat in a lot of his own works. He fosters an improv-loose environment & sets a distinct narrative stage for his performers in each film, but otherwise isn’t especially flashy in his own directorial style and a lot of the humor in his films is derived from that dynamic. He’s like the improv comedy version of Robert Altman. As time goes on, Guest continues to return to that tried & true formula and his work starts to feel even more understated & undervalued. The mockumentary style Guest established in his early work has since infiltrated every corner of American television. The Office, Parks & Recreation, Modern Family, Arrested Development, the most recent version of The Muppets: Guest’s humor has almost completely replaced the traditional laugh track sitcom, so it has become even more difficult to parse out exactly what makes him special as a hand-off director with a consistently even keel. There’s no better example of what I’m describing here than Guest’s latest work, the Netflix-distributed comedy Mascots.

Mascots has been generally received with an underwhelmed shrug, largely due to the perceived career-long sameness of Christopher Guest’s catalog as a whole. In all of his films a group of hubris-oblivious weirdos in a highly specific field meet for a climactic competition where their personalities clash in both public & private forums. Instead of a dog show or bluegrass concert or an Oscars race this time, Mascots instead stages its climactic showdown at a sports mascot competition. Other than the setting, the Christopher Guest formula remains more or less the same, with the director even reprising his role as Corky St. Clair from Waiting for Guffman (along with Parker Posey’s Cindi Babineaux from the same film) to drive that established tradition home. It’d be reductive to assume that because Guest continually returns to his old grooves & rhythms, though, that Mascots is worthless as a comedy. If the director has proven anything by staging all of his films in a similar fashion, it’s that the formula works. Mascots may not feel as fresh or unique as Guffman did in the early 90s, but it’s still damn funny. Its setting-specific references to “mini tramps” & “Fluffies” combine with dark, perverted tangents about furries, yeast infections, and penis-in-ear sexual intercourse to make for a bizarrely understated comedy that only doesn’t feel strange because its creator’s voice has infiltrated so much American television in the past decade that it’s started to feel normal. By the time Mascots reaches its predetermined climax it can be just as funny as any of Guest’s most well-loved films. It only feels slight due to its modern context.

If anything has shifted in Guest’s insulated world, it’s been the gradual expansion of his usual cast of weirdos. Along with Posey, the director’s regular cast of Jane Lynch, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge, and whoever else fits in that specific set returns to the screen. What’s more important, though, is that Guest has picked up more weirdos along the way. Chris O’Dowd, who had worked with Guest on a short-lived HBO series, steals some spotlight from the director’s veterans as “the badboy of sports mascotery.” He’s joined by familiar character actors from shows like Parks & Recreation and The Office that have sprung up in the wake of Guest’s best-known works. He may not be an especially flashy or experimental filmmaker, but I have great respect for the consistency & the quality of laughs his films deliver, especially since he acknowledges his own influence by recruiting comedians who’ve made a name in the mockumentary television field launched in his shadow. As long as Guest wants to continue to film weirdos in highly specific fields discussing “passion” & “craft” in his tried & true mockumentary formula, I’ll continue to afford him my attention. Nothing made this so clear to me as moment during Mascots‘s climactic competition where the crowd was applauded a literal piece of shit, freshly plunged, and I felt the urge to join them. Christopher Guest has earned my laughter in any context he asks for it.

-Brandon Ledet