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Recent Movies: Captain America: The Winter Soldier; The Lego Movie; Finding Vivian Maier; Opera: Roberto Devereux

May 19, 2014

Recent Movies

Captain America:  The Winter Soldier

This big-budget epic has the title superhero and his peers trying to fight off an enemy spy agency that is working within a broader international spy agency based in Washington D.C.  One of its agents is known as The Winter Soldier.

Like many other big-budget films, this one does a superb job in the technical aspects particularly the aerial camera work and the special effects.  However, like many other modern big-budget films, the technical effects have taken over to make up for a screenplay that is too busy and sometimes difficult to follow.  Even the battle scenes seem too busy at times.

While film-making has become more sophisticated since computer-generated imagery, one still yearns for a better balance in action scenes like those from older films.  The special effects were less sophisticated than today but they did much better with the “less is more” principle where story was concerned.

Rating (out of four stars):   * * 1/2

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The Lego Movie

This animated feature follows an ordinary-living construction worker who is accidentally pulled into a group of people that includes superheroes.  Their goal is to stop the evil President Business from destroying the world.  The animation takes place in a massive Lego construct.

The early part of the film has a clever pace though it seems to depend too much on cartoon violent slapstick for cheap laughs.  While there are better humourous moments elsewhere in the film, it seems to miss opportunities to satirize our modern world.  It seems to get close to doing so but then stops short.

One such example is the rightly named character President Business.  He is so mean-spirited, narrow-minded, vicious, and bullying that he could easily have been modeled after certain political leaders of today.  There were missed chances to show how such a character is destroying Earth’s environment.  Instead, the film seems more to follow a far-out science-fiction fantasy premise.

I know I’m of the dissenting opinions here as the film is very popular with high critical acclaim.  Still, I could only like “The Lego Movie” to a point.  In any case, I did appreciate its message that “ordinary” people might be smarter than what most people would think.

Rating:   * * 1/2

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Finding Vivian Maier

John Maloof is the co-writer/director (along with Charlie Siskel) of this documentary which is about Maloof’s discovery of thousands of negatives from photographs taken by Vivian Maier shortly before her death.  Maier had earned a living as a nanny in Chicago and took street pictures as a “hobby”.  Her superb photos have made her famous posthumously.  This film follows Maloof’s search to learn more about Maier’s life and work.

After seeing this film, I couldn’t help but compare it to “Bill Cunningham New York” (2010).  Both were about eccentric and very talented photographers who were born in the late 1920s.  Each had a preference for photographing the average Joe and Jane on the street.  (Likewise, each has now had a fascinating documentary made about them.)

Despite their similarities, there are noticeable differences.  Cunningham earned a living using his photographic skills in another capacity (the fashion world) whereas Maier did not earn anything for her photos.  Also, those who were asked their opinions about Cunningham gave glowing praise.  While some praise was given to Maier, it was also clear that her eccentricity extended to cruelty and harm.

These paradoxes are only part of what makes “Finding Vivian Maier” such a fascinating film.  We viewers see the great talent behind the photographs many of which are displayed in the film.  We also learn of a human being who could be equally fascinating and repellent.  While some could only speculate about the circumstances that lead to the life she had, Maier was clearly someone who lived as well as she could in difficult circumstances.  While some would describe her work as a nanny as “menial work” (a repugnant yet common way many describe how others earn a living), she might have preferred to express her talents anonymously without being placed in the limelight.

“Finding Vivian Maier” is about a discovery of a very mysterious person.  Much of the mystery is resolved but there is so much more yet unresolved.  This, plus the great style of storytelling used in the film, are what make it one of the best films so far this year.

Rating:   * * * 1/2

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Opera

“Roberto Devereux” by Gaetano Donizetti at the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto

The title character is accused of treason during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  Elizabeth presumes Robert to be her lover though he really loves Sara, the queen’s favourite friend.  Sara is married to the Duke of Nottingham who ranks highly in the Queen’s court and considers Robert to be a close and loyal friend.  Hearts must break and heads must roll.

The performances of Jose Brus (Devereux), Allyson McHardy (Sara), and Russell Braun (Duke of Nottingham) make this a spectacular production.  However, Sondra Radvanovsky, in the role of Elizabeth, raises this experience very close to the heavens.

In solos, duets, and trios, all performers reach great heights.  Yet their singing is matched with powerful passion in their acting as well, making it easy to sympathize with everyone caught in the love quadrangle.

Many moments were memorable but the standout was Radvanovsky’s hitting strong high notes followed by soft deeper notes and making it seem easy.  This was truly an unforgettable production.

Rating:   * * * *

 

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