Painting the Screen: A Review of Loving Vincent

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s Loving Vincent is the world’s first oil painted film. Over one hundred artists contributed to its animation, creating a series of 65,000 oil-painted frames in Van Gogh’s neo-impressionist style. Well worth the effort. The result is both striking and bizarre. We enter the world as Van Gogh saw it, crooked, swirling, and filled with feeling.

Loving Vincent is not so much a biopic as a murder mystery. The majority of the plot is set after Van Gogh’s death. Postmaster Roulin (Chris O’ Dowd) sends his son Armand (Douglas Booth) to deliver a letter to Van Gogh’s brother Theo. Though Armand fails to find Theo, he becomes obsessed by the ambiguities surrounding Van Gogh’s death. Armand questions Dr. Gachet, Adeline Ravoux, and Dr. Mazery in search of answers, and these familiar faces from Van Gogh’s portraits come to life. Ultimately we are given the impression that Van Gogh might well have been shot. “Blame no one,” says Vincent on his deathbed.

Whenever an artist/filmmaker makes a bold decision with method or technique, we are left to wonder whether it was a brilliant innovation or if we had been duped, lured in by the weird and wonderful at the expense of meaningful content.

Is this film a gimmick or a masterpiece? The storyline, which offers little character development, seems like an excuse for an ambitious artistic experiment. We never get inside Van Gogh’s head, but we see the world through his eyes.

Still, there is something refreshing in using Van Gogh’s vision to create distance from his inner life. Van Gogh has been pegged as the quintessential tortured artist; we have turned him into an archetype, a cultural meme. For the most part, we are content with this two-dimensional rendering, as it is romantic, and familiar, and it allows us to identify our own darkness with possible brilliance. But Kobiela and Welchman resist.

In an online review of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ MoMa writes: “To know van Gogh is to get past the caricature of the tortured, misunderstood artist and to become acquainted instead with the hardworking, deeply religious, and difficult man.”

This, Loving Vincent achieves. We are spared the director’s rendering of Van Gogh’s inner life, which no one but Van Gogh himself could ever hope to express. Instead, the camera turns outward. He is brought to life through the eyes of other characters; Van Gogh assumes a social identity and we see in him what other’s see; he paints in the rain, he’s shy around women. By allowing others to imagine Van Gogh through his own aesthetic, Kobiela and Welchman seem to suggest that all individual perceptions are as slanted and emotionally charged as Van Gogh’s. In fact, this is what makes the mystery of his death so difficult to solve. Everyone has their own story.

But perhaps Loving Vincent’s greatest achievement is that it provides its audience with an entirely new experience of familiar images. We move through Van Gogh’s artworks. There are moments on screen that approximate specific paintings, I can recall an almost replica of Van Gogh’s ‘Marguerite Gachet at the Piano’. But then we are given more. We are given a perspective of Marguerite as Van Gogh approaches her window, we watch as she moves towards it, and we stand by her side as she smokes a cigarette. We occupy new spaces in the rooms Van Gogh had previously painted and we discover his subjects in different contexts.

As I thought about the effect of Van Gogh’s work on screen, I recalled Walter Benjamin’s essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In it Benjamin looks at film’s potential to radically change our relationship to all arts. We stand alone as individuals before a painting. But we view films in a theater, surrounded by others. Nobody walks out of a film and feels unqualified to judge what they have seen. Film, as a medium, invites us to form collective conceptions, to feel collectively.

A collective viewing of Van Gogh’s work (or its likenesses) feels particularly meaningful in 2017. Van Gogh is now a canonical artist. Seeing a work by Van Gogh is not simply about enjoying a painting, but about taking part in a larger movement, participating in cultural memory and conversation. Surrounded by others in the theatre we can feel ourselves doing just that, on more than one level.

While we have grown to appreciate impressionist painters as masters of fine art, we do not often look to animators with the same kind admiration. The crew of artists involved in this film approximate Van Gogh’s style, sometimes very closely, but their work remains unique, a variation on a theme. In the end Loving Vincent is not only a nod to the work of Van Gogh, but a loving ode to the art of animation; animation as masterpiece.

Diversity in Kid’s Cartoons

It was announced recently that the new version of The Powerpuff Girls would be introducing a fourth member, Bliss (voiced by Olivia Olson), and that she would be black. Reactions were mostly positive, with a few noting that the way she was characterized in the show made her out be a stereotype of an angry black girl and some also saying that her inclusion felt a bit like tokenism. It’s a fair criticism.

I was, like most people my age, a huge fan of The Powerpuff Girls growing up. It was rare to see female cartoon characters who got to run around, fight villains, and save the day as they navigated girlhood. For me, it was a really big deal to see such representation. But I’m white, so I never really felt that I couldn’t be like them, nor did I lack cartoon characters who look like me. So for all her faults, it is something that a major kid’s cartoon is choosing to include a dark-skinned black girl who will also run around, fight villains, and save the day, even if her portrayal is a bit problematic.

I think now, more so than before, creators of children’s cartoons have realized the importance of diversity and inclusion. Representation is especially important for kids, as they start to form their sense of self, and especially for kids who aren’t white, who are disabled, who aren’t straight and/or cisgender, or are otherwise marginalized.

The Powderpuff Girls: Bubbles, Bliss, Blossom, and Buttercup

Take a show like Steven Universe. The show revolves around its titular character, Steven (voiced by Zach Callison), who is being raised by three female humanoid jewels (known as the Crystal Gems), and spends his time saving the world and subverting masculinity. There are numerous characters of color, and the show has been widely recognized for its multiple portrayals of queer characters and relationships, non-binary characters, and its ability to frankly discuss consent, gender roles, masculinity, maturation, and anxiety. And yet, the show never really veers into the territory of tokenism, instead letting the identities of its characters simply be a fact of the show. It’s one of the few shows on TV for children that has multiple queer characters, and doesn’t bother with the same tired tropes that most adult shows still haven’t stopped using.

For even younger audiences, there are also shows like Doc McStuffins. The show premiered in 2012 and has been going strong ever since. The premise is that the main character, a young African-American girl named Dottie McStuffins (currently voiced by Laya DeLeon Hayes), who hopes to be a doctor like her mother and practices on her toys that come to life from her magic stethoscope, and who she treats injuries and illnesses each week.

Doc McStuffins

Comedian W. Kamau Bell explained the importance of a show like Doc McStuffins on NPR last year, saying: “And so that’s the thing. It’s not a fantasy…Like, it’s not about wouldn’t it be crazy if I was a doctor? It’s clearly a little girl who wants to be like her mom who is a doctor. And they go to her – and there’s episodes where they go to her mom’s private practice and shows that she’s the leader of this practice, and there’s other black women there…And the dad, who we also see, Marcus McStuffins, he’s always at home, so he looks to be a stay-at-home dad…These are things that break down stereotypes and traditional narratives with, like, yeah, that’s what black dads do. We have gardens of vegetables, and we hand out strawberries. That’s what we do. That’s what black dads do.” 

Or, take the show Elena of Avalor, which revolves around a teenage Latina named Elena Castillo Flores (voiced by Aimee Carrero), who rules over a magical kingdom called Avalor. The show is notable not just for having a young Latina protagonist, but also for putting her in a position of leadership, and giving her power, agency, and some cool magic powers. If you’ve ever doubted the power of representation, I’d like to point to this incredibly sweet clip that was floating around Tumblr recently of an actress at Disneyland playing Elena speaking to a little girl in Spanish.

That’s why all this representation matters. It’s not for me to write about it (although that’s a nice bonus), or for people to argue about political correctness or identity politics. Diversity isn’t just some grand idea or social justice buzzword. It’s a real and important way to ensure that young children get to see themselves in media, in positive portrayals, even if they aren’t always part of the majority.

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5 of the Best Animated Movies This Year

Most of us seem to tend to think of animated films as something for children, that they lack the same emotional depth and/or sophisticated plotting of live action. This is simply untrue. Animation is not merely for children. It is an exciting storytelling vehicle with its ability to suspend rules of reality and show anything you can imagine. It’s an under-appreciated medium. But it is gaining recognition and acceptance as a true art form. Here are five of the best animated films that came out this year.

Have A Nice Day

This Chinese dark comedy, written and directed by Liu Jian, feels a bit like a classic Tarantino film with the same quirky style and irreverent violence, but still maintains its cultural roots. The plot of the movie revolves around a young chauffeur in a small town in China who steals a bag with a large sum of money from his boss, and the reactions of those about town who learn of the theft. Jian’s sharp script has characters poking into each others’ desires and motivations all under the shadow of the money and the personal and societal expectations placed on them.

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea

I think we sadly still have this idea that “weird” is a negative term, so many of us may feel reluctant to try out something weird or shy away from anything just a little too bizarre or confusing. That’s why I love this film (written and directed by Dash Shaw), whose plot centers around an ordinary high school suddenly sinking into the ocean and the attempts by the students and staff to get back to the surface. This is exactly the kind of premise that can only be accomplished in animation. The movie doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about how exactly it happened, but instead uses the bizarre circumstances to ask how exactly these totally ordinary people react to the totally extraordinary.  

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Based on the book The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, this fantasy anime tells the story of a young girl who suddenly finds herself with magical, mysterious powers. While Mary and the Witch’s Flower isn’t actually a project from the famous Studio Ghibli, it does have the same animation style and magical themes present in most Ghibli films. That’s because it’s a work produced by Studio Ponoc, a very new Japanese animation studio founded by several former Ghibli employees. Not to mention, the movie was directed by Hirosama Yonebayashi, a former animator and director at Ghibli. If you’re looking for a strong female protagonist in a magical setting, this is the movie for you.

Lu Over the Wall

This visually stunning anime film, directed by Masaaki Yuasa and written by Yuasa and Reiko Yoshida, tells the story a young man named Kai living in a small fishing village who meets an eccentric mermaid called Lu and proceeds on a wondrous adventure with her. While the premise may seem a little familiar, the movie makes up for it with beautiful animation and incredible visual imagery (giant water cubes with boats teetering off the edge, among other things). Yuasa is known especially for his fantastical, colorful animation style, and in this film, his talent and ideas perfectly shine through.

In a Heartbeat

Most of us can probably remember the heart-pounding, butterflies-in-the-stomach, red-cheek feeling of having our first crush. Nowhere has that been so perfectly depicted as in this American short film by Esteban Bravo and Beth David and produced by the Ringling College of Art and Design. Without a single word of dialogue, this four-minute film runs us through a whirlwind of emotions, led on by an anthropomorphic heart, and gives us a lovely, happy ending, a rarity for any film with LGBT themes and protagonists. If you’re ready to be taken on a roller coaster of emotion and sweetness, watch this right away.

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Novella’s Fall Movie Preview

As we fully immerse ourselves in summertime, we also find ourselves bombarded with summer blockbusters — big-budget, questionably written, made-for-popcorn flicks that have folks heading to theatres in droves to watch some action and enjoy the intense air conditioning. Right now, however, we’re going to look past those blockbusters and into the future — the future meaning the fall. Fall, in the movie world, is a mix of winter blockbusters dropping, independent movies finally getting distribution, and documentaries seeing the light of day. We’ve pulled from all three of these categories to bring you our fall movie preview.

Note that movies times are always subject to change, but these are the current release dates for the films below.

Dolores — September 1

© 2016 Sundance Institute | photo by George Ballis.

Dolores Huerta, the American activist and co-founder of the country’s first farmworkers union, lived an extraordinary life. She fought against gender bias and for unions while raising eleven children. Her incredible and inspirational story is told in this documentary directed by Peter Bratt, which premiered at Sundance and is now set for North American release on September 1st.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle — September 22

Whether you hated or loved the sheer ridiculousness and camp of the first Kingsman movie, you have to admit that it was memorable. The exploding heads scene stands out in my mind as a particularly visceral experience. This September, the long-awaited sequel, directed by Matthew Vaughan, will hit theatres, bringing together the original British cast with some American newcomers, namely Channing Tatum and Julianne Moore.

Blade Runner 2049 — October 6

Many have high hopes for this hotly anticipated sequel to the science fiction classic Blade Runner, which originally came out in 1982. A cult classic, Blade Runner is based on the story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick and is a milestone for the genre. In Blade Runner 2049, Harrison Ford reprises his role as Rick Deckard and is joined by Ryan Gosling as a younger, but somehow just as world-weary, cop. Directed by Dennis Villeneuve, this is one that may be polarizing for die-hard fans, but will definitely be entertaining.

The Florida Project — October 6

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Sean Baker, the director behind the runaway hit Tangerine, turns his lens on a different subject: kids. The Florida Project centres around a group of children who are homeless but have days filled with child-like wonder and excitement. It looks like the rawness and unusual beauty of Tangerine will be present in The Florida Project. Having premiered at Cannes, an early review called it a “near-perfect film.”

Happy Death Day — October 13

Happy Death Day may or may not be a good movie. It may fall into the elusive category of “cultish horror hit” but in all likeliness may become another unmemorable slasher flick. However, the structure of this is unusual: a college student relives the same day and has to solve her own murder. I’m hoping for some kick-ass final-girl moments and the same type of black humour and cultural commentary found it the Purge movies, which come from the same production team. Director Christopher B. Landon did, however, direct the last three Paranormal Activity movies, so what we may get is a lot of jump scares and pitched screaming.

Marshall — October 13

Chadwick Boseman takes on the role of lawyer Thurgood Marshall in this biographical drama directed by Reginald Hudlin. Marshall famously became the first African-American supreme court judge, but this movie centres around an early case: his defence of a black chauffeur against his wealthy white employer on accusations of sexual assault and attempted murder. Josh Gad also stars as Samuel Friedman, the young Jewish lawyer paired with Marshall on the case. Oscar fodder? Potentially. But it’s also the kind of content production companies need to be paying attention to.

Thor: Ragnorak — November 3

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is expanding. Constantly. These guys put out sequels faster than the Wrong Turn flicks did in their prime. The latest Marvel drop has us back with Thor who we last saw in The Dark World, a not-so-great follow-up to a not-bad first movie. This time around, though, Marvel’s taking a different approach. They’ve got New Zealand director Taika Waititi at the helm and a promising ’80s vibe. I’m hoping for tons of references to classic ’80s sci-fi and fantasy, but even if you’re not keen on that, might I point you in the direction of Chris Hemsworth on a big screen for two hours?

The Killing of a Sacred Deer — November 3

Yorgos Lathimos’s film The Lobster was a critical hit. Dark, weird, and funny, it was described as “brutal and rapturously romantic” by Rolling Stone and received over 70 award nominations. This November, Lathimos returns with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman as a couple that takes in a teenage son. The summary is purposefully vague, but early reviews are rapturous and regular moviegoers like myself are definitely curious to see more of Lathimos’ work.

The Shape of Water — December 8

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Guillermo del Toro, the man behind both hits and flops, is undeniably creative and ridiculously good at creating atmosphere. His latest has yet to have a trailer or a full summary, but it’s been described as more romantic than del Toro’s other films. It features Sally Hawkins as a cleaner that comes across a scientific experiment in a 1960s research lab. We can assume, given the director, there’s got to be some kind of monster action involved.

Star Wars: Episode VIII — December 15

Le’s face it, Star Wars is here to stay. It’s one of the biggest, most iconic movie franchises of all time, and while the new Disney additions to the canon were met with mixed excitement from Star Wars fans, the franchise shows no sign of slowing down. Last year’s Rogue One was a stand-alone in the franchise, but now we’re back to where Episode VII left off, with the reappearance of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. This episode is directed by Rian Johnson but of course still has George Lucas credited on the screenplay. You can bet I’ll be in the theatre on opening night for this one.

Phantom Thread — December 25

Photo by Glenn Kilpatrick, The Whitby Photographer

Daniel Day Lewis’ final film before retirement reportedly has him playing couture designer Charles James in 1950s London. Little else is known about the movie; plot summaries are vague at best, but the combination of Lewis with director Paul Thomas Anderson has everyone in a tizzy. The last time the two worked together was on the critical hit There Will Be Blood, which earned Lewis an Oscar for his performance.

The Breadwinner — October

Cartoon Salon’s newest animated film is a Canadian-Irish-Luxembourgian collaboration, with Angelina Jolie as a producer. The film is set in Afghanistan and tells the story of Parwana, a 12-year-old girl who poses as a boy to earn money to help her family. Forget the idea that animated movies are made solely for children, The Breadwinner is one that could be appreciated by everyone.

Act & Punishment — November

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Back in 2015, Russian director Yivgeni Mitta documented the punk band Pussy Riot after their release from prison and subsequent rise as activists. Now, the movie has finally been picked up for North American distribution to be released this November, coinciding with a soundtrack release and international tour. After all, Pussy Riot started as a band, and they still are, but they’ve also become so much more.

Bright — December

So we’ve got Netflix. We’ve got Netflix and Will Smith and Joel Edgerton and a modern fantasy directed by David Ayer. Little else is known about this movie, except that Smith plays a cop and Egerton plays an orc. Also, there’s this world where magical creatures live alongside humans. Netflix has hit a comfortable place where it is producing both good and bad content, but not enough is known about Bright to know where it may stand. That being said, Max Landis, writer of the sci-fi cult hit Chronicle, penned the script, so things are looking promising.

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Revisiting Studio Ghibli

Seita and Setsuko in Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies

Often, even with new films in its roster, a cinematic retrospective does not necessarily make new claims. However, though I’ve seen most of them before, I never pass on a chance to watch Studio Ghibli’s works again. Its animated films of frighteningly detailed worlds are so immersive that, watching an establishing shot in the middle of a film one feels as though he is watching an actual video footage of a city; and revisiting a film feels like revisiting an old playground. Be it fantasy — Tales from Earthsea, Princess Mononoke, etc. — or drama — Graves of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, etc. ̛— the drawn in pen realities of Studio Ghibli’s and their semblance of the physical world render the viewer helplessly captivated, a convert to the many possibilities of animation as a medium.
And in the hands of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the possibilities include clear messages about the environment, war, and humanism. Their films have clear morals but are not didactic. The two, seventy-nine and eighty-one respectively, are by no means pedagogic. They speak, instead, as though they have secretly acquired a direct line to the audience’s innate capacity for empathy, kindness, and humility.

Over the course of a few weeks that spanned Spirited Away: the Films of Studio Ghibli at TIFF Bell Lightbox, I watched a dozen animated feature length films. It was an exciting opportunity to revisit childhood favorites like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and to be introduced to the studio’s newer talent, Goro Miyazaki. In its third year, the retrospective coincided with the Holidays and the more acutely distressing dredges of 2016’s and the foul beginnings 2017’s political landscapes and certain incontinence of powerful men. Perhaps this is why Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Miyazaki’s latest The Wind Rises (2013), two war films, stood out.


The plot of Grave of the Fireflies is simple: Seita, a young teenager, and his little sister, Setsuko, try to survive in the last months of World War II when U.S. firebombs devastated Japanese cities across the islands. Early in the film, their mother dies of serious burns. After being maltreated at their aunt’s, who is cruel with the need to feed them, the brother and sister move out to an abandoned bomb shelter by the waters. The animation reaches an emotional level seldom reached in live action war films. It focuses almost entirely on the love and connection between Seita and Setsuko. The nondescript bombers flying overhead are less representations of a particular nation or even of a particular war so much as they are forces beyond the siblings’ control that shape their lives. Around Seita and Setsuko are townspeople who become increasingly cruel as the bombing continues.

There is a scene in the movie where Seita is caught stealing food. The farmer not only beats him, but also drags him down to the abandoned bomb shelter to confiscate previously stolen goods. A few scenes later, Seita steals from evacuated houses as firebombs fall from the sky. On his way back to Setsuko, he cheers on the bombers. Cruelty begets cruelty in Grave of the Fireflies; everyone becomes both victim and perpetrator. When the war ends, people who have evacuated to safer cities return to Kobe on a sunny day. Four young, well-dressed women enter a three-storied mansion. One of them says, “I missed the beautiful views!” as she looks out to the bucolic landscape with the abandoned bomb shelter barely visible beyond the shimmering water. And beyond the trees, on top of a hill, Seita prepares to cremate Setsuko who’s died of starvation.

Jiro from Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises

Miyazaki’s last film, The Wind Rises, is a fictionalized story of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautic engineer behind many of Japan’s warplanes used during World War II. The film is intersected with beautifully drawn and colored dream sequences in which Jiro speaks with Giovanni Caproni, the famed Italian engineer, who mentors the ‘Japanese boy’. And parallel to his pursuit of building ‘beautiful planes,’ the movie tells of Jiro and Naoko who meet during the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.

The film presents Jiro as an artist in a floating world — Japan in the tail end of the turbulent Taishō era, reshaping its cultural and national identity in the face of a visibly more powerful and modern Europe and the U.S. Jiro and his friend, Kiro Honjo — of Mitsubishi G3M bomber —, repeatedly lament the ‘backwardness’ of his country. Case in point, Japanese planes are transported by oxen for testing on fields. Part of the drama of the film therefore lies in pitting the difficulty of building a full metal plane in Japan that also meets certain standards of weight, speed, and safety to Jiro’s genius. A mackerel bone inspires. Naoko’s love fortifies. Jiro eventually succeeds in building what is later to be known as Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

Mitsubishi A6M Zero Fighter Planes

In many ways, the film is beautiful. But more importantly, the film evokes complicated feelings. For one, I am perplexed not by its portrayal of Jiro as a relatively powerless and apolitical agent in history — he was one and there were many others —, but for the striking absence on screen of the consequences of Jiro’s pursuits. Not only is Jiro, the artist engineer, unconcerned with the moral implications of his creative process, but the movie, too, despite its access to hindsight of almost century-aged quality, is unconcerned.

In answer to continued outcry from both South Korean media outlets and Japanese nationalists — for lionizing Jiro and for unpatriotic intentions, respectively —, according to Mainichi Shimbun, Miyazaki stated: “I wonder if [Horikoshi] should be liable for anything just because he lived in that period.” The director’s previous works have been so consistently concerned with the moral implications of daily behaviors that this response is confusing. His heroes — Ashitaka and Sen in Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Sheeta and Pazu of Castle in the Sky — choose the world over solipsism, action over passive consent. They are not only self-aware but aware also of their surroundings. The looming disaster of war and environmental crises in these movies are avoided precisely because the heroes choose to act. (That no film dealing with Kurt Tank or the humanity of a Nazi or Vichy collaborator is likely to have tiptoed its way into the Academy on the shoulders of Disney raises questions on the way Japanese movies are received in North America. Whether they are seen through the extended lens of exoticism as proposed in Madame Butterfly is a question for another review. For now, recourse to mutterings for appeasement.)

The Wind Rises takes its title from a line in Paul Valéry’s poem, the Graveyard by the Sea: “The wind rises…we must try to live!” Jiro certainly cannot be faulted for having been born in that period. Neither can Miyazaki be faulted for wanting to portray his subjects in a light he saw fit. The movie certainly has much more to offer than politically charged queries. But one wonders if trying to live in turbulent times isn’t more synonymous with trying to understand how one should live when ordinary laws and moral rules become inadequate.

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