Movies This Month: Both High Crimes and High Art

At the Movies

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A pensive Liam Neeson plays “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” Photo: Bob Mahoney, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House
A movie about Washington’s most abiding secret—the identity of Watergate’s “Deep Throat”—arrives in Peter Landesman’s “Mark Felt,” an inquiry into the man who, as Deputy Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation during 1972-73, spilled the beans about Executive Branch shenanigans to the Washington Post. Consider it “All the President’s Men” turned on its head and call it “Not the President’s Man.” (Now in theaters, the film is rated “PG-13” and runs 103 mins.)

It’s spring1972, when Felt (Liam Neeson), a 30-year-man, expects a promotion to FBI Director when J. Edgar Hoover dies on May 2. The loyal Felt is crushed when he’s passed over for Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), who becomes Acting Director. With his loyal team, including Ed Miller (Tony Goldwyn) and Charlie Bates (Josh Lucas), Felt begins investigating the Watergate break-in, intuiting that it leads to the White House and the Nixon campaign committee and that Gray is involved in the cover-up with White House counsel John Dean (Michael C. Hall).

The advance of Felt’s investigation, the forces against him and the FBI lifers, and the journalistic probing of Watergate all lead to his famous parking garage meetings with Bob Woodward and the unraveling of the scandal. The film adds other pressures on Felt, specifically his parallel concerns about his alcoholic wife Audrey (Diane Lane) and his rebellious daughter Joan (Maika Monroe) a political radical who may belong to the Weather Underground.

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

“Mark Felt” was a long-time project of writer-director Landesman, who was commissioned to write a “Deep Throat” screenplay after the Vanity Fair article exposed Felt. Finally getting his chance to direct it, he produces a workmanlike effort, one to appeal especially to DC denizens who lived through Watergate.

A painted image of Vincent Van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk) as he appears in “Loving Vincent.” Image courtesy of Breakthru Films and others

Loving Vincent
If you want something completely different at the movies, try “Loving Vincent.” It is an animated whodunit, investigating the real circumstances of the untimely death of the painter Vincent Van Gogh in 1890. (At selected theaters, the film is rated PG-13 and runs 94 minutes.)

Arnaud, son of the postman in the Village of Auvers-sur-Oise (where Van Gogh passed away) is driven to find out how the painter died and plays the local sleuth, interviewing people who knew the artist to find the truth. He thus inevitably talks to 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, inter alia. These personages are mostly played by English actors familiar from film and TV, players such as Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Turner, Saoirse Ronan, Eleanor Tomlinson, and others. (Note: in flashback scenes Vincent is voiced by a Polish actor, Robert Gulaczyk.)

But the slim plot is hardly the principal reason to see “Vincent.” Rather, it is a unique cinematic effort by Polish animator Dorota Kobiela and English producer Hugh Welchman, a tour-de-force requiring painting 65,000 images, representing every frame of the feature-length film. Most of the some 120 painters were based in Danzig, Poland, but dozens had to be recruited from other countries. Once the script was ready, the film was shot with real actors performing against a “green screen,” after which the laborious “rotoscoping” process began. Van Gogh’s familiar landscapes and interiors were painted on canvas, then the actors’ images were copied on to individual canvases by each painter, frame by meticulous frame.

Fans will recognize many iconic works in the picture such as the “The Yellow House,” “The Starry Might,” “The Night Café,” and numerous portraits of his friends and acquaintances, but all flowing cinematically. Since the story is of his last but amazingly productive years, the imagery evoked is principally from that period, 1888-90. The core of this exhilarating film is that abundance of the swirling Vincent style in full color and motion.

Philippe Jordan is the music director in the documentary “The Paris Opera.” Distributed by Film Movement

The Paris Opera
What one might call the “institutional” documentary has its most avid exponent in the venerable Frederick Wiseman, who has recently taken on major cultural institutions—as in “La Danse” (2009) and “National Gallery” (2014) —after years of observing more pedestrian entities. Other such efforts include “The New Rikjsmueum,” a film that mixes the just-the-facts camera of Wiseman (no interviews, no narration) with more conventional documentary style.

Latest of this type is “The Paris Opera,” conceived by director Jean Stéphane Bron, which shows a year-in-the-life of one of France’s greatest artistic operations, and it is fascinating (This film is not rated, runs 110 minutes, and has French subtitles).

Leading the operation is director Stéphane Lissner, a phlegmatic fellow who must make all the parts work and must make them work in two contexts, because the collective “Paris Opera” is split between two venues, the Palais Garnier and the Palais Bastille. He must contend with tricky schedules, disaffected unions, the Ministry of Culture, fiscal pressures, and other outside forces to make sure the show goes on.

And the show that goes on is captivating. In varied segments, we see prepping and performances of the Schoenberg opera, “Moses and Aaron,” the classic ballet “La Bayadere,” the Opera’s Youth Orchestra, and ongoing productions of “Rigoletto” and “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” A series of amiable professionals (e.g., singers Bryn Terfel and Gerald Finley) interact with the youthful and brilliant music director Philippe Jordan, a conductor with panache to spare and a paragon of the creative spirit.

There are also intriguing sub-stories. One features a young Russian baritone, Mikhail Timoshenko, who is selected to participate in their Youth Academy and who plunges in—knowing no French—to learn his craft. He radiates enthusiasm 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—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 folk, and—to sweetly wrap up the show: the custodial crew cleaning up the theater stage and seats…

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.