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My Scientology Movie (2015, John Dower)

My Scientology Movie almost ought to be called Our Scientology Movie as much of the film plays like a buddy movie between documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux and ex-Scientology chief enforcer Marty Rathbun. Theroux doesn’t want to make a buddy movie with Rathbun, he wants to go and tour the Scientology campus and interview Scientology head man David Miscavige. Who’s also Tom Cruise’s BFF. But more on Tom Cruise later.

Only Miscavige doesn’t give interviews and Theroux can’t tour the campus. So then he starts talking to the only people he can—ex-Scientologists. He meets up with an actor, Steven Mango, who used to be a member and gives Theroux some of the scoop. Rathbun comes in once Theroux comes up with a plan to make the documentary without interviews of any active Scientologists. He’s going to take existing interview footage of Miscavige (along with leaked, wacky, kind of scary really promotional videos from inside the Church) and hire actors to do scenes as Miscavige. Rathbun’s going to be there to help cast the part, since he was that aforementioned chief enforcer. He got things done for Miscavige. Like hiring private investigators to stalk people. After Rathbun fell out with Miscavige, he left the Church and wrote some tell-alls and pissed them off for years. Including during the filming of this movie. They show up to harass him, which gets to be one of the wackier ways the Church responds to the documentary. On one hand, whenever they’re dealing with Theroux without Rathbun, they threaten Theroux with made-up laws and promises to drop a dime so the cops can come out, read Theroux’s permit, leave the scene. Watching Theroux address the never-identified as Church employees Church employees is fairly disquieting, as the Church employees come off like they’re Bond henchmen. Only Blofeld never shows up. Oddjob never even shows up. Theroux’s biggest back and forth is with a woman hired to pretend to be producing a documentary about “people” and film Rathbun and Theroux from across the street.

Most of the interactions Theroux has with the Scientologists come off like candid camera moments. Not the ones Rathbun has with them—like I said, they’re chill with Theroux with Rathbun, but when Rathbun’s all alone, they go wild. Theroux’s got a reserved take on Rathbun—it’s not a functional buddies buddy flick—but Rathbun comes off really sincere. All of the ex-Scientologists do, especially when they’re trying to show Theroux how stoic they can appear (thanks to all their Church trainings).

So Theroux and Rathbun first do a casting call for Miscavige, eventually going with the utterly fantastic Andrew Perez. Theroux runs a pretty chill in-movie movie production where the actors don’t really seem to worry about much except having a good time; only Perez is always on. He’s always intense. You get to watch him prepare for this performance and then give it. His brief Miscavige “moments” are the tapioca balls in the film’s boba. They’re just so good. It’s immaterial to the film whether or not Perez nails not just “the scene” but his process leading up to it, but he always does. So good.

But even though Theroux’s getting the Church’s attention, it’s not getting him anywhere getting on campus much less an interview with Miscavige. He and Rathbun are just going to have to keep going with their reenactment production. They want a Tom Cruise, because there’s this disturbing promotional video Cruise did for the Church and it’s like couch-jumping then stopping to rip the couch apart with your bare hands and maybe bite a cushion just to be sure. Rob Alter is the Tom Cruise. He’s good too.

And Theroux’s interviewing other ex-Scientologists. One (Marc Headley) takes Theroux (and Movie) on some road trips, which then become a regular occurrence because Theroux really pisses them off whenever he shows up at the movie production company compound.

Like, it’s a Roger Moore James Bond movie. It’s like if they’d done Diamonds Are Forever with Moore. It’s goofy. Then you remember it’s real and it starts getting really scary. Because the Scientologists aren’t out to destroy the world or turn it into a giant diamond or whatever, they’re trying to save it from itself. Movie knows it has to frequently remind it’s real life. It’s not fantasy. At all.

Lawyers get involved, sending Theroux what amounts to a high school trash talk note about his new friend Rathbun. So Theroux tries to respond to the letter and can’t get anyone to take it. So the Church’s lawyers want to send trash talk notes but not receive presumably lawyerly responses?

So maybe it’s like a conspiracy movie spoof and a seventies James Bond movie.

And Theroux—despite having a lot of dry laughs—isn’t out to do a hit piece. Not an exceptional one. He doesn’t get into any rumors, any conspiracy theories, blackmail theories. There’s nothing about how Battlefield Earth is just a thin fictionalization of Church history. Theroux’s really interested in how Church founder L. Ron Hubbard saw himself as a big-time movie director because he directed the Church’s inspirational movies. Theroux’s looking for a Hollywood connection, especially since the “clearing” procedures the film shows (advised by Rathbun) often seem like acting class exercises. Theroux can’t quite get there, but when he can’t make it, it’s not like he falls back to easy targets. He does it straight and… ahem… clear. He tried to make this movie, he couldn’t for these reasons, here’s what he did.

My Scientology Movie raises a whole lot of questions and provides very few answers. Theroux, director (and co-writer) Dower, editor Paul Carlin, cinematographer Will Pugh, they make a great picture. Awesome music from Dan Jones too. Jones never takes anything too seriously and the “sci-fi movie” motif he brings back time and again is more endearing than a dig.

It’s superb.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Dower; written by Dower and Louis Theroux; director of photography, Will Pugh; edited by Paul Carlin; music by Dan Jones; production designer, Alessandro Marvelli; produced by Simon Chinn; released by Altitude Film Distribution.

Starring Andrew Perez (David Miscavige) and Rob Alter (Tom Cruise); presented by Louis Theroux.


RECENTLY

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Loving Vincent (2017, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman)

Loving Vincent is the story of the man in the yellow suit (not to be confused with the Man in the Yellow Hat, which is sort of unfortunate because monkey) and his quest to deliver Vincent Van Gogh’s last letter.

The title comes from how Van Gogh signed letters to his brother–“your most loving brother.” The man in the yellow hat, played by Douglas Booth, has a letter for Theo. It’s a year after Van Gogh’s death. Little does Booth know his quest will reveal Theo’s died as well. Upon that discovery, Booth heads to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh lived for the last two months of his life.

There, he finds himself in the middle of a mysterious suicide, which Booth turns into an unsolved murder. Loving Vincent, the film, is very wishy washy on having any kind of opinion on the matter. In fact, as Saoirse Ronan chastizes Booth, you’re not supposed to fixate on how Van Gogh died, but how he lived. Oddly, until that point (and even a little later), the film fixates on how Van Gogh dies. It’s constantly pivoting to avoid having to fixate on his living.

First and foremost, the flashback sequences are always narrated–Van Gogh appears all the time, played by Robert Gulaczyk–but he’s never the protagonist, always the subject. The film, I might have mentioned earlier, is the first entirely handpainted motion picture. Ninety-five minutes, 65,000 frames, all oil painted. The actors were filmed in front of green screens. Booth’s quest looks like a Van Gogh painting. In fact, his quest just introducecs him to the other subjects of actual Van Gogh paintings so it’s a Van Gogh painting subject team-up movie.

Except the flashbacks are entirely black and white. And very, very realistic. And directed in an entirely different manner than the present action of the film. There’s a lot of first-person camera work in the flashbacks, which makes things rather urgent, but never visually interesting. Visually competent to be sure, but never visually interesting. All the visual interesting stuff is in the present, for feckless Booth to encounter.

If Loving Vincent were more concerned with being educational–if it were purely educational–it’d be a lot more successful. Instead, the writers–co-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman as well as Jacek Dehnel–settle on this didactic tone at the end, condescending to Booth for his interest. As well as the audience’s because if they’re not interested in what Booth’s interested in, there’s no narrative. The movie ends with a song–addressing Vincent Van Gogh–about how he’s now loved, even though he wasn’t when it mattered. Again, if it were an IMAX movie, if it were educational… sure.

But as historical fiction? It’s a bit much.

The direction is a lot of the problem. Kobiela and Welchman are dull in the present. They set up shots like paintings, which then look like paintings, but they’re dramatically inert. You watch Loving Vincent for the visuals (and the visual references), not much else. Except, of course, Chris O’Dowd showing up as a fifty year-old Frenchman with a huge beard (bigger than Van Gogh actually painted it) and O’Dowd’s charming Irish accent.

The accents–well, no one except Gulaczyk has what could might called an authentic accent. It’s a bunch of British actors playing French people with distinct British accents. Gulaczyk might not even being doing a Dutch accent, it might just be his Polish accent, but at least it’s not English.

Acting-wise, Booth is okay. He gets better as the film goes along. The first act is rough as the film sets him out on this quest. John Sessions is fun. Aidan Turner’s all right. Jerome Flynn is all right. He’s not in it enough after all the emphasis the narrative puts on the character; he plays Van Gogh’s doctor for those last two months. He also suffers from the most egregious style shift. In the same scene, thanks to different painters (there were 125 painters who worked on the film), Flynn’s head changes size dramatically between shots.

In the bigger supporting roles–the above actors really only have one scene, except Booth, of course–there are Saorise Ronan as Flynn’s daughter and the object of Van Gogh’s affections, there’s Helen McCrory as Flynn’s disapproving housekeeper, and then Eleanor Tomlinson as the innkeeper’s daughter (where Van Gogh stayed those last two months). McCrory’s an evil harpy without a character. Her animation is also overly brusque, like she’s not worth the attention. Even though the film uses her multiple times as an expository tool.

Ronan’s not great. She’s okay. Eventually. Her animation gets a lot more attention, but none of it to rendering any kind of visual performance. There’s nothing to meet Ronan’s dialogue delivery.

Tomlinson’s great. She and Booth have actual chemistry, something Loving Vincent’s lacking the rest of the time. It’s because Tomlinson even gets a character. She’s got more depth than anyone else, including “protagonist” Booth. Booth gets some backstory and subplots, but nothing consequential. The movie’s not about the characters, it’s not about the crossover, it’s about how the audience cares too much about how Van Gogh died and not enough about how he lived.

So it’s weird the movie’s all about how he died.

The oil painted frames are the draw. Though the film never does anything with it CGI couldn’t do. And the decision to avoid trying to show Van Gogh in the world as he saw it (i.e. his paintings) is a major cop out. One the film tries to cover with a couple readings of his letters.

Again, as a purely educational film, it’d be awesome. But with the attempted narrative? A beautiful technical achievement. And not much else.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman; written by Kobiela, Welchman, and Jacek Dehnel; directors of photography, Tristan Oliver and Lukasz Zal; editors, Kobiela and Justyna Wierszynska; music by Clint Mansell; production designers, Matthew Button, Maria Duffek, and Andrzej Rafal Waltenberger; produced by Sean M. Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, and Welchman; released by Altitude Film Distribution.

Starring Douglas Booth (Armand Roulin), Chris O’Dowd (Postman Joseph Roulin), Jerome Flynn (Paul Gachet), Saoirse Ronan (Marguerite Gachet), Eleanor Tomlinson (Adeline Ravoux), Helen McCrory (Louise Chevalier), John Sessions (Père Tanguy), Aidan Turner (boatman), and Robert Gulaczyk (Vincent van Gogh).


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