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Recent Movies: Selma; Goodbye to Language; Leviathan; Opera: Die Walkure

February 27, 2015

Recent Movies

Selma

The focus of this film is the 1965 march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, the state capital.  The purpose of the march was to protest the lack of voting rights given to black citizens despite their legal right to vote.  As Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the main protest leaders, the film also focuses on his personal life.

David Oyelowo is a perfect choice for the role of King.  He easily portrays the great leader’s ability to deliver great speeches while he  also shows genuine vulnerability in King’s home life where his mission has obviously taken a toll on his marriage and family.  Oyelowo gives a very well-rounded performance.

Director Ava DuVernay has done a superb job of taking an important historical tale and turning it into a very moving drama.  Whether it be the camera movements and editing during crowd scenes (some of which are violent) or the use of low lighting in interior scenes, the viewer is carried through this special story with wonderful technique.

Regarding the violent scenes, DuVernay seems to know exactly how much is important to show and how much is enough.  Those scenes are never in-your-face, gratuitous, or unnecessarily prolonged.  Many other directors could learn from this principle.

The conclusion is truly magical.  While it does not pretend that the struggles ended (as recent events have shown), it takes a grand moment and turns it into the celebration and glory it truly deserves.  As a testament to the great collective spirit of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement during one of the most inspiring decades in recent history, “Selma” moves the spirit in the best of ways.  Truly exhilarating and inspiring.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * * 1/2

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT:   Directing by Ava DuVernay

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Goodbye to Language

In this French-Swiss film, various vignettes are used to follow the lives of two couples and the dog of one of those couples as they occasionally philosophize.

Because this film is written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, it is obligated to be as incomprehensible as possible to the average viewer.  As I have seen many of his films before (some of which I have liked), I was prepared for an odd experience.

A synopsis on Wikipedia was helpful but it made me feel I had missed something.  However, conventional plot is not a Godardian purpose.

If the intention is to create a dream-like experience to affect the subconscious mind, then the film does rather well.  However, I still expect at least a minimal amount of understanding what I am watching.  Luckily, the film was mercifully short at just an hour and ten minutes.

RATING:   * * 1/2

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Leviathan

In a small Russian coastal town, Kolya (well played by Aleksei Serebryakov) owns a beautiful seaside property that is inherited from at least two generations.  The town’s corrupt mayor and the various sleazy elements of bureaucracy that support him attempt to confiscate the property for a cheap price and use the property for a development project.  Kolya’s loose temper and alcoholism frustrate his struggle.

The first section is intriguing in its exposure of deviousness in high places.  The mid-section takes an unusual turn which is at first frustrating because it appears to be a typical subplot device – that is, until its repercussions take over as the main plot.

There is another frustration when a very smart character does something uncharacteristically stupid, thus changing the outcome of the story.  However, the impact of “Leviathan”, depressing as it is, at least does the successful task of getting the viewer (me at least) out of one’s head and into one’s feelings which linger well after the film’s completion.  Be warned, though.  These are difficult feelings.

Before seeing this movie at my local cinematheque (TIFF Bell Lightbox inToronto), two staff members warned me of the impact.  Their summary of the film was “vodka and despair”.  How true.

Nearly every character drinks way too much vodka, especially Kolya, and the unfolding events in the last section are despair indeed.  The film also takes a good swipe at corrupt Russian bureaucracy and the Russian Orthodox Church.  This itself is courageous but we are unlikely to see such films again.  The country’s Ministry of Culture was upset by how Russia’s people and church were portrayed in “Leviathan”.  Guidelines have now been set to ban such movies in the future.

RATING:   * * *

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Opera

“Die Walkure” but Richard Wagner by the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto

This mythical opera (the second in the four-part Ring cycle) involves various encounters among gods and mortals.  Its three acts could be summarized as follows:  Act 1 – mortals vs. mortals;  Act 2 – gods vs. mortals;  Act 3 – gods vs. gods.

The first act is beautifully sung and moving.  While the story is slow moving, it still has a positive impact.

The second act, the longest, lasts too long in the middle section particularly a solo by the god Wotan despite the fine singing by Johan Reuter.  It concludes well though with unexpected plot twists.

Act 3 is the production’s grandest.  The last half-hour or so is a touching scene between Wotan and his daughter Brunhilde (Christine Goerke who is superb).  It’s not just their singing but also their silent movements (as well as those of Brunhilde’s eight sisters) that turn this scene into a genuine tear-jerker.  The impact of the silence of the performers is enhanced by the staging, the lighting which includes a circle of sixteen torches, and the magnificent orchestration but Johannes Debus.  What a truly unforgettable finale.

RATING:   * * * 1/2

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Dennis Bowman

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