Though he lived and died in relative obscurity, Dutch post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh had all the right ingredients to become legendary by modern standards. He was reclusive, mysterious and yes, more than a little troubled. He was incredibly prolific, often completing more than 200 paintings a year in his prime. He shot himself in the chest at age 37 and died two days later (yikes). And, of course, he was incredibly creative and passionate about his particular brand of artwork, which often featured vivid colors and bold, energetic brush strokes. Now regarded as "the world's most expensive artist", a majority of Van Gogh's surviving works reside in his public museum in Amsterdam. Carefully framed under glass, these paintings range in subject matter from colorful, unique portraits to boldly-composed landscapes. Vincent Van Gogh: Brush With Genius (2009), produced for exhibition in IMAX theaters, pulls back the curtain on this curious creator and his recognizable body of work.
It's true that Van Gogh documentaries are practically a dime a dozen, but Brush With Genius attempts to paint a different picture in just under 40 minutes. Without question, the main selling point here is Van Gogh's original work: it's been filmed in 70mm and, in many cases, from a few inches away. You can't even get this close at the museum, so those who don't visit Amsterdam regularly should consider Brush With Genius an acceptable alternative. The documentary is also presented as if Van Gogh himself were speaking to us: narration is done in first person and clever visual touches are used to see things through his eyes, including rack focus and the "filmed reproductions" of several famous works.
During this criminally short documentary about a criminally short life, Van Gogh tells us about the generosity of his brother, Theo (an art dealer who often donated money and art supplies), his trouble with women and the joy he felt when painting outside. We're also reminded that some of Van Gogh's most prolific months were just before his death...and, shockingly, that he only sold one painting during his lifetime. Though seasoned art history buffs won't learn anything new, this visually stunning documentary is worth watching for the images alone. Portions of the narration---and the director's tendency to show us the film being shot---are more than a little melodramatic, but Brush With Genius should be considered a visual showcase first and a documentary second. The Blu-Ray arrives from Image Entertainment and, for obvious reasons, demands the advantages of high definition.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Brush With Genius is simply jaw-dropping from start to finish. From beautifully-framed images of the French countryside to dazzling close-ups of Van Gogh's paintings, you'll want to pause the film at just about every moment. The colors practically leap off the frame---and after learning that great care was taken to faithfully reproduce the original colors seen on canvas, Brush With Genius feels all the more impressive. Digital problems, including compression artifacts and combing, are non-existent. I haven't given out a lot of five-star video ratings over the years, but this one's too good to ignore. Simply put, you'll want to put a frame around your screen.
The audio, on the other hand, is a little disappointing in some respects. Not that this DTS-HD Master Audio mix (available in English, French, Spanish and Japanese) isn't impressive, because it most certainly is. "Van Gogh"'s narration and the film's unobtrusive score never fight for attention, and a few segments feature tasteful rear-channel effects. Here's the problem: film excerpts from a behind-the-scenes featurette (see below) are presented in French with optional English subtitles, but the English narration during the film doesn't quite match the translation. Not only that, but English subtitles haven't been included during the main feature, which can get a little frustrating when trying to decipher "Van Gogh"'s heavy accent. This isn't a deal-breaker, but it's a problem that could've easily been fixed.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The artistic menus showcase an animated collage of Van Gogh's work and feature simple, easy navigation...but the text sure is small. The 40-minute main feature has been divided into 12 chapters, initial loading time is fast and the Blu-Ray is apparently locked for Region "A" players only. This one-disc release is housed in a standard EcoLite Vortex case and includes no inserts of any kind.
Bonus features are slim but helpful; leading things off is a Behind-the Scenes Featurette
(19:28) with the co-director, co-author, composer and others. The film's visual style is discussed in moderate detail, from the occasional "filmed reproduction" of various paintings to the privilege of seeing many of the originals up close (and without glass!). Though it runs a bit short like the film itself, this featurette goes one step beyond traditional behind-the-scenes pieces and should be watched immediately afterwards. It's presented in 1080p and includes removable English subtitles during certain segments.
Next up is a beautiful Slideshow of several dozen Van Gogh paintings (4:15), which is set to music and can be infinitely looped for wine-and-cheese parties. Though no zoomed-in details of the paintings are provided, most of them use the full widescreen frame. Also presented in 1080p, thank goodness.
Last but not least is a gallery of 13 Trailers for other IMAX films on Blu-Ray, including "The Alps", "Super Speedway", The Miracle of Flight", "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea" and more. Although I usually skip trailers, these are also presented in 1080p and look amazing. My wallet curses you, IMAX!
Many documentaries about Van Gogh have been produced over the years, but Brush With Genius earns a few points for attempting something a little different. Traditional "biographical" narration is largely avoided; what we get instead is a peek inside the artist's mind and imagination, not to mention a whirlwind tour of his most prolific years. It's not without a few faults, but Image Entertainment's Blu-Ray includes a flawless video presentation and a few engaging bonus features. A rental may be in order first, but visually-minded viewers will have no problem watching this more than once. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.
REVIEWER'S NOTE: The above images are reduced in quality from the original Blu-Ray screen captures and do not represent their native 1920x1080 resolution. Bandwidth ain't free, y'know.