Two new films — “Loving Vincent” and “Marshall” — aim to tell historical crime stories in original ways.
Before I talk about the drama Marshall, a moment to catch up on a film that has been in theaters for a week. Loving Vincent tells a crime story of sorts about the death of my Dutch compatriot, the painter Vincent van Gogh, in a small French village in 1890. It is not the most compelling story out there — a little melodramatic and far from new. But directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman have created the most beautiful, enthralling piece of cinema I have experienced in a long time.
I don’t know how else to say this: the movie is entirely painted. Calling it animated doesn’t do it justice. A team of expert painters, using van Gogh’s post-impressionistic style, created thousands of portraits and landscapes, based on the movements of actors and the look of sets. Then the original art work and the acting were combined to create a stunning, Van Goghish live-action effect. It took my brain 10 minutes to adjust, then I was completely transported to the artist’s world by watching that world through his eyes and his art.
The characters, the action, and the story move and sound like cinema. But seeing Loving Vincent is unlike anything out there. It is a visual experiment, an experience, both separate from and deeper than regular film. “We cannot speak other than by our paintings,” Van Gogh wrote in a letter: the perfect motto for this strange and magical film.
Another key figure in modern history is presented more traditionally in Marshall, directed by Reginald Hudlin. This is the story about the early professional years of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice, who served from 1967 until 1991.
With grace, Chadwick Bozeman portrays the young lawyer Marshall, who represents the NAACP in civil right cases around the country in the 1940s. The film zooms in on one of his most famous cases. “The most sensational sex mystery in history,” as one newspaper called it at the time.
Thankfully, Marshall aims not to tell the lawyer’s long life story. Instead it becomes a tight, deep, and entertaining courtroom drama in which race and class play big roles, mostly avoiding the clichés that often plague biopics about historical figures we admire.
Joseph Spell is a black driver working for a white family in Connecticut until he is put in jail, accused by his employer’s wife of rape and attempted murder. It promises to be a big and scandalous case. The NAACP jumps in to help Spell and help the organization’s reputations as it works against segregation and discrimination.
The legal and cinematic fun begins when Marshall hires a local Jewish lawyer, Sam Friedman, to help him out. Friedman is both clueless and afraid, a minority himself, suffering blatant anti-Semitism in this waspy community. The poor guy is played by Josh Gad and he steals a big part of the movie with his witty, self-deprecating portrayal of a lawyer in over his head, struggling to stay afloat, ultimately helping Marshall defy the odds.
Gad shows up in five films this year, including Beauty and the Beast and the lovely A Dog’s Purpose. With this role he proves why he is one of the hardest working men in Hollywood today.
Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us) reaffirms his reputation as one of the truest, most talented actors of his generation. His Joseph Spell is the key to the story, both in the courtroom and in the flashbacks with Kate Hudson as the supposedly battered wife. Brown overpowers Hudson — not as an attacker, but as the better actor. Faced with vicious prosecutors and a far from dispassionate judge, Brown’s Spell holds his own with nuance.
It made me wish, actually, that Brown had played Marshall. Chadwick Bozeman earlier portrayed Jackie Robinson (in 42) and James Brown (in Get On Up). Like those two biopic roles, his performance here is adequate. But there is a reason that both Gad and Brown steal the limelight from him, even though their roles and screen time can’t compare.
Still, director Hudlin made a film to see. He directed many TV shows, including episodes of The Office and Modern Family. At age 56 Hudlin has now made his first feature, and he has pulled it off.
Marshall opens nationwide Friday. It is rated PG-13.
Loving Vincent is in theaters nationwide. Information about this unique project can be found here.
Marshall trailer (screenshot)