Friday, January 21, 2011

Reflections abound in "Black Swan"

Black Swan” is a surprisingly frightening movie.

The story may appear straightforward or even familiar – shy, young ballerina wants challenging dual role of the White (read “pure”) and Black (read “the dark side”) Swans in the company’s new production of “Swan Lake.” The old Queen of the company is on her way out – in ballet, Winona Ryder (as Beth Macintyre) is apparently old, no matter how many times dancers say that Dame Margot Fonteyn danced into her fifties – and whoever wins the coveted role in “Swan Lake” will share the star’s dressing room with her, amongst other things.

That Natalie Portman’s Nina wants out of the corps de ballet is obvious. Not a joiner, not outgoing, she doesn’t socialize at all, she doesn’t even sit with the other dancers. She happens to share a dressing room with them, no more. The other dancers, while physically disciplined, appear “normal.” They go out, they have fun, they have boyfriends and girlfriends, and they don’t spend much time in the bathroom vomiting whatever they’ve eaten.

Nina’s only “friend” is her mother Erica, who has already done a number on the daughter for whom she “gave up” her career. This is a juicy role for Barbara Hershey, whose Erica is an odious terrifying witch in Nina’s sleeping and waking hours. She is overbearing and keeps all too tight a rein on her daughter. When Nina wins the leading role, her mother comes home with this gigantic cake, all pink and white like Nina’s little-girl bedroom. Her daughter would never eat such a thing, but Erica throws a fit when Nina initially refuses. It’s a cake for twenty, when these two women clearly have no acquaintances with whom to share it. Between whatever natural shyness she may have had and the upbringing by her mad mother, Nina is incapable of normal social intercourse, let alone eating dessert.

The flip side of Nina is Lily, the new kid, an audacious free-spirited dancer newly arrived from San Francisco and perfectly played by Mila Kunis. Kunis is just delightful as Lily, who is brash, confident, enjoys the pleasures as well as the discipline of her body. While Nina strives for technical perfection in the dance, Lily is having a good time, every day of her life. What Thomas Leroy, the director of the ballet company played by Vincent Cassel, needs is a combination of these two women. Alas, this doesn’t exist – perhaps this dual role is one of those which requires youth to physically do the job, but greater maturity to capture all the nuances of good girls as well as naughty ones. Cassel manipulates all the girls vying for the leading role in his ballet, and continues to do so even when he’s cast Nina in the coveted lead.

Once cast as the the two swans, Nina disintegrates before our eyes as she rehearses for the roles. The White Swan she could do in her sleep, but she must work for the sexuality and freedom and emotional maturity to portray, to live, to dance the Black Swan. This is where the film goes all out with extraordinary images and action and brilliant editing. There is blood, water, skin tearing, then puckering like a chicken’s, subtly at first, then blatantly until Nina’s transformation into the Black Swan is phantasmagorically complete. It’s gorgeous.

This is a 21st century film, perhaps a psychosexual thriller. Director Aronofsky’s characters are blatantly sexual, manic, disturbed in various manners. Lily, not disturbed, tries to draw Nina out and/or sabotage her, pick one. But the club scenes with these two young women are wonderful, giving Ms. Portman a chance to find the inner Nina. Along the way, Aronofsky does lovely things with reflections in mirrors, windows, Nina’s mind. Nina will see or experience something, we go along with her, then suddenly it’s clear she was hallucinating. This begins early on, and grows through the film. Sometimes Nina appears to see her mother’s face, sometimes her own, sometimes others. Lily’s heat infuses and confuses Nina. It's a blast.

Nina has needed a friend like Lily all her life -- that slightly dangerous friend who was delighted to be alive. Nina only lives as she performs “Swan Lake,” and by then it’s too late. This is not to say Lily’s in the slightest bit trustworthy. But Nina would never have found the Black Swan in herself without Lily.

This film is a roller coaster ride, although sometimes the viewer won't realize it until it's too late. So I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but some things cannot pass. Although I found the film very powerful, I must take issue with the ending, where reality and fantasy overlap where they could not. The intent is clear throughout, but I’m sorry, had Nina’s fantasy actions been perpetrated on herself, there’s no way she could have danced the second and third acts. Call me grumpy.

Importantly, although I very much like Ms. Portman’s work here, I think much of the credit for the impact of her performance belongs to the director (the aforementioned Darren Aronofsky), editor Andrew Weisblum, and director of photography Matthew Libatique. Directorial choices and camerawork amplified Ms. Portman’s portrayal: The cuts, the speed, the growing madness we see are all due to the people behind the camera, not before it, so I cannot quite understand the superlatives abounding out there for Ms. Portman’s Nina. Considering the other work offered us in 2010, while Ms. Portman has done her job well, she has not done a better job than, for instance (and I’m only taking the time to note one), Jennifer Lawrence. What Ms. Lawrence does alone (that is, without camera work or effects) in “Winter’s Bone” is worthy of superlatives. “Black Swan” is much more fun to watch than a film like “Winter’s Bone,” but that doesn’t make its glamorous leading lady a better actress or her performance superior to many others in films with less advertising.

Do see “Black Swan.” It provides chills and some thrills and some terrific work by writers, actors, dancers, technicians, and all other contributors to film. It turns us in on ourselves and makes us question just how thin or thick that line between sanity and madness is.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light. Too many things go bump in the dark.

Stars Shine on and in "John Gabriel Borkman"

Ibsen is tough. His plays are long, dense, and melodramatic. The Abbey Theatre’s production of “John Gabriel Borkman” presently running at the BAM Harvey Theatre is 2 hours and 40 minutes long (with intermission). The night we went, I was beginning a nasty winter cold, so when I learned the play’s intended length, I drooped.

However, this tight production featured three shining stars in the theatre firmament, and they kept this piece from becoming deadly. It didn’t hurt that this new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play is concisely written by Frank McGuinness and deftly directed by James Macdonald. Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan, and Fiona Shaw lift Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman” above itself. It’s still melodrama, but it’s the best melodrama imaginable.

The set-up: It has been many years since bank manager John Gabriel Borkman’s arrest and imprisonment by the state for embezzlement. He lives incarcerated now in his own house – his wife downstairs, himself upstairs. The house is in fact owned by his sister-in-law, Miss Ella Rentheim. It's a visit by Miss Ella that starts the action of the play.

Alan Rickman is the titular John Gabriel Borkman, a 19th century Bernie Madoff who insists that, had he been left to his own devices for one more week, all his investors would have their money. Rickman moves like a big cat trapped in a dark Norwegian cage, pacing predictably over his wife’s head. And occasionally growling.

Fiona Shaw plays Borkman’s wife Gunhild, a woman who whines the livelong day of the ills done to her and her perfect son by this man. Reputation, of all things, cannot be restored for a convicted thief (she refers to him as “the bank manager,” “him,” never by name). She leans slightly forward as if she carries a weight on her shoulders, balanced by the bustle.

Lindsay Duncan’s Ella Rentheim was Borkman’s first and only true love, and she stepped in to buy the entire estate at auction when Borkman went to jail. Everyone lives now on her dime. She also took in the young son, Erhart, for several years, and developed a close relationship with him.

Where Borkman was once the contested property of the two sisters, this uncoveted role has been transfered to the son, whose heart, soul, and loyalty are the prey of Ella and Gunhild.

The triangle of Borkman, Gunhild, and Ella has been at odds for decades, and the one day and night in which the play takes place is the culmination of all the years, all the emotions, all the blame, all the lies, all the truths.

I first saw Lindsay Duncan 24 years ago when she starred in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” with Alan Rickman on Broadway. She was luminous then and she still is. He was grace and lethality then, and he is now, although he’s not the same kind of dangerous. Fiona Shaw brings the excitement of a fulfilled character every time we see her, with an oddity, a twist, a quirk, always a real human being in a strange or terribly ordinary place. She opens and closes this play and is one of the few actresses who could assuredly be one of a threesome of stars and not just a third wheel to the Dynamic Duo of Rickman and Duncan.

Cathy Belton, as the divorced (shocking in the time period of the play) woman Mrs. Wilton, came in too high, at the height of her game, like a musical theatre actress starting at the top end of her range with nowhere else to go. She continued in this vein, as if seeking applause, trying to play as big as Rickman, Duncan, and Shaw without quite knowing how to go over the top without appearing to overplay.

The eagerly anticipated Erhart Borkman was fine – Marty Rea played kindly with the women who each wanted to smother him, was barely civil to his father, and warm with Mrs Wilton and Miss Foldal. Erhart is in high demand, with expectations from his mother, his aunt, his paramour. Mr. Rea is appropriately at sea amongst all these women pulling him this way and that. He will long earn his living in the theatre with few people knowing his name. He didn’t stand out amongst the stars here, but that wasn’t his job, and he knew it.

We wondered why the maid spoke in an Irish accent, forgetting that this was a production by Ireland’s Abbey Theatre. Whatever accent, Joan Sheehy as “Malene” had that mixture of subordination and familiarity an old family retainer needs.

Frida Foldal, the young girl giving music and naïveté to John Gabriel Borkman, was played demurely by Amy Molloy. Or perhaps brilliantly. She had no special something, but the character hasn’t. Frida is the girl that fades into the background in the room, the girl who wants to dance at the party but acquiesces to play the piano so that others may dance. She always will. That her character came through so clearly to me tells me that Ms. Molloy did her part well, serving the play. No shimmer or sparkle, since the character has none.

Finally, John Kavanagh embodies the role of Vilhelm Foldal, the sad sack friend of John Gabriel Borkman. Vilhelm is the would-be poet, and father of the wallflower behind the piano. Vilhelm is as naïve in middle age as Frida is in her youth. He cannot see what is right before him, even when Borkman cruelly tries to drive the message home. The story gets uglier and uglier, with everyone with any money at all (therefore excluding the Foldals and the maid) behaving terribly in the past and the present – let’s call it a sliding scale. The machinations of Mrs. Wilton are as nefarious as the fiscal manipulations of Borkham all those years ago.

These more-than peripheral characters serve as a glimpse of reality of the rest of the world of which John Gabriel Borkman, Gunhild Borkman, and Ella Rentheim have no clue. Their world has always been self-centered, selfish, and pointless. Mind you, the world around them isn’t so great either.

The story of the play is convoluted – neither life nor melodrama is simple or linear. “John Gabriel Borkman” requires exposition to explain the play’s forward movement, and I tend to think I’d hate it but for this production’s nimble pacing and superlative performances.

There is, however, a problem in the second half, near the end. The play’s already over, but it continues. No amount of whirling snow blown around the stage will change the fact that it’s time for the play to be finished. Everything’s been said, everything’s been done, everyone’s been left by their vain hope for change. Drop the curtain.

Whatever weaknesses of the play – its dated style, the unpleasantness of characters with whom one cannot really identify -- one thing will always resonate: Alan Rickman’s melodious voice.

Am I a fan of Ibsen? Yes and no. His plays are important in the history of theatre, and many a fine play that followed would not have been produced without Ibsen having come before. Ibsen’s plays were very bold, even scandalous, and searingly honest, in a time when such attributes in a theatrical production took actual courage. Watching those plays now, however, is rarely fun. Nevertheless, kudos to the Abbey Theatre, adapter/writer Frank McGuinness, director James Macdonald, for giving us a production that was fun to watch. Their production made the time far more than bearable, and the actors almost made me care about their archetypal characters.

And let’s not forget the other artists. Fine design all around: Set design by Tom Pye, lighting design by Jean Kalman, costume design by Joan Bergin, and sound design by Ian Dickinson.

This production of “John Gabriel Borkman” is worth your time, and it’s running at the BAM Harvey Theatre through February 6. Good productions of Ibsen in your lifetime will be rarities. Catch this one while you can.

I will close with my favorite line from the play: “Winter can drag on.” Can’t it just.

~ Molly Matera, hoping you’ll log off and go to the theatre.

The Morning After

Apparently the trauma of neutering/spaying belongs only to the humans. Yesterday morning, bright and early, each kitten wandered innocently into the cat carriers I had put out, and I wickedly locked them in. Once the kids were locked away, I could feed hungry mama Millie.

The truck from the Toby Project was parked a block from the foster mother’s apartment. The vehicle is a portable clinic, and large cages containing feral cats were being loaded in when I arrived. I shivered for my kitties. They’re so little! Growling big cats were not going to keep them calm. The clinic was busy all day long and I went back for Wilbur and Chick at 3 pm. After a bit of a delay – there were a lot of females that day, and they take more time – I was able to go in and get my kitties back. A rather dazed feral cat looked at me from her cage. A jolly mixed breed dog happily greeted me from his – unfortunately I couldn’t bring him home with me. My kittens were handed to me in their carriers. They were awake, but groggy, and looked just fine. Each burrowed into the towels I’d stuffed into the carriers.

Once home, suddenly Wilbur was far from groggy and tried rather madly to open his own door. Silly animal. Chick was a lady about the whole thing and left her carrier in a genteel manner. Suddenly all was normal – they were prancing about, going to all their usual spots, as if they’d never been gone. Chick even rolled over and gave me her belly – all shaven with a small knitted incision.

Mama Millie, however, was not so happy to see them. Initially excited at their return, once she got a whiff, she started hissing at them.

So, morning after, they’ve eaten normally, no one has barfed, they’re as affectionate as ever, and the mama is still hissing. This too will pass. We’re good.

So, by the way, is the Toby Project (, which provides free and low-cost spaying and neutering in all five boroughs. Please help if you can.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Time to shovel some snow.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Trauma Day

Tomorrow’s the big day for my darling kittens: Chick (girl) and Wilbur (boy) are getting “fixed.” Glad as I am to have kittens to play with, I’m a firm believer in birth control for our feline and canine populations. There are too many animals in need of homes to allow those we catch to put more unwanted animals out in the streets, alleys, and parks of the city. My kittens were rescued from Forest Park in Queens, along with their mom Millie (already spayed since her rescue).

Nevertheless, theory and practice are disparate parts of the whole. These animals have given me so much pleasure and so many hearty laughs, I’m terrified of any change to them. I know it’s absurd, I didn’t say my reaction was rational. This month they turn six months old, a mere two months since I got them when they were far from tiny yet so little! Wilbur is now long and tall but his meow is short and high pitched – adorable. Chick is still small and doesn’t even attempt to meow – I’ve no idea what that means. The siblings and their mother meet me outside my bedroom door every morning, as interested in the forbidden space as in me. Actually I think it’s the window with southern exposure that really excites them.

Tomorrow, the boy’s procedure will be pretty simple and external, and shouldn’t create any noticeable change to his behavior at six months of age.

The girl’s procedure, however, is invasive, and I’m worried. She’s so little, she’s so cute, she’s so affectionate, she offers her belly for rubbing without hesitation. Her mother does not – OK, Millie the Mama is 2 (ish) and had two litters before her rescue and subsequent spaying, and is not as malleable as her rescued kittens. Of course, she was an adult before she was “domesticated.” Millie is an aloofly affectionate cat. She lies down at my feet in the bathroom, the living room, and chooses to stay in whatever room I’m in. I can pet her back, rub her head, nose, throat, neck, ears to a limited extent. But never the belly.

If this operation (for Chick’s spaying is an operation) is done well, her behavior should be unchanged after a few days of recovery. I’ll bring her home loopy from the anesthesia, I’ll keep her sequestered with me to be sure her brother isn’t too rough with her (which means a litterbox in the bedroom, oh joy). Not that she doesn’t ordinarily give as good as she gets, because she does. He’s already bigger than she is, but she is invariably faster and braver than he. Their affectionate natures are pretty equal and quite physical. Too cute.

I am so far from a strategic thinker that the mere thought of cutting the three of them off from water and food after midnight preparatory to the kittens’ surgery tomorrow is almost devastating. How absurd is that. No wonder I cannot satisfactorily diet.

Fingers crossed for my kitties.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Disappointing Illusion

Sylvan Chomet (director of “The Triplets of Belleville”) took a story and original screenplay by Jacques Tati, adapted its Czechoslovakian location to Scotland, and gave us The Illusionist.”

The Illusionist” is a melancholy film. The illusionist of the title is fading out of time. He has lost his audience in Paris, and we travel with him past the White Cliffs of Dover to London. The time of the story is the late 1950s, with early rock-n-rollers sharing the stage – the house, overflowing with young people, is rocking for the band. When the illusionist finally goes on for his act, most of the audience is gone. I wondered if the theme of the film would be that rock-and-roll killed everything else around. The rock-n-rollers are hilarious counterpoint to the somber, staid illusionist, whose tricks are as sad and tired as he is. Even his rabbit does not want to be there.

We follow the lonely illusionist on a long northbound train ride from King’s Cross Station, so I wondered if he was heading to Hogwarts. He passes the general area and goes ever farther north, to the Hebrides, where he debarks the train and rides a boat then a jeep past sheep and cows to a magical hilltop village from an even earlier time – although they do have a jukebox. Here the people work hard but appear awfully happy – many of them are quite drunk, but happy drunk. The illusionist, hired to perform at the local pub, receives his very best reception so far. A young chambermaid, Alice, is amazed by the illusionist’s tricks, which she thinks are real. She cleans his clothes, going beyond her responsibilities. When she trips over her shoes, the sole detached from the upper, he buys her a new pair of red MaryJanes. This is it for her. When he leaves for his next gig, she follows him.

They behave as somewhat aloof father and daughter and live in a theatrical hotel in Edinburgh -- she gets the bedroom, he gets the couch. The illusionist works to support the two, including upgrading Alice’s wardrobe to thoroughly impractical dresses and shoes. The man keeps working and working at any job, as the market for magical acts faces extinction. People in the theatrical hotel disappear one by one – first the mannequin, then its ventriloquist, the acrobats, the clown. It’s fascinating and terribly sad.

The artwork is magnificent, the “lighting” moving time forward endlessly, the softness of times past making it all look sweet, and naïve. When the girl grows up and finds a beau, the illusionist moves on, leaving her to find her life, and telling her that there is no such thing as magic.

While I wondered at the beautiful, slow, profound story-telling, I found myself, on occasion, wishing something would happen, wishing Tati or Chomet had made another choice here, or another choice there. That the young girl would be something slightly magical herself, and not so drably realistic. But this is a story of life, in all its loneliness and disappointments. The film includes chuckles, but is not sweetly or sharply amusing as one might have expected.

If you’re depressed, do not see this movie. “The Illusionist” is an extraordinary piece of animation telling a dolorous tale of time passing.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer…I need to play with the cats to cheer up!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

True Grit of The Fighter

Happy New Year to all, hope your sidewalks are shoveled, your cars dug out, your heaters working, and your new year starting off with hope and brightness and clarity and all good stuff.

I’m not much for celebrating New Year’s Eve – amateur night in bars is not my style. My celebration started on the first and second days of January 2011. I gave myself a movie for each. One I looked forward to because I like the Coen Brothers, the other because a friend of mine is in it.

January 1, 2011: I came away dissatisfied from the Coen Brothers’ remake of “True Grit.” Both the original film and this one were based on the same original source material, a novel by Charles Portis. I freely admit that although I remember that I saw the original film, I really don’t remember much about it, so my dissatisfaction is not comparative to the original. Remakes on principal annoy me, but I trusted that the Coen Brothers had some reason to remake this one.

That settled, now what? The story is filmed beautifully, what with vast and imposing spaces of the post Civil War west showing quite clearly how very small and powerless we all are. It’s a frightening place from our vantage point of “civilization,” and those who survived it may not have been 100% or even 99% pure. This makes for lots of interesting character possibilities, and we get those.

True Grit has a clear story line. Characters are introduced, sketched, shaded, filled in with quiet natural tones. A backstory is provided, a premise, and a goal for journeys’ ends. All that was necessary to accomplish was accomplished, and that we are not altogether happy with all the characters’ ends at the close of the film doesn’t mean the story wasn’t told, or that its end wasn’t reasonable.

Then what was amiss?

I pondered this on a walk after the film, then an hour or so of scribbling left me still vaguely dissatisfied without knowing why. The acting is uniformly excellent. The script gives Jeff Bridges as U.S. Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn a great many witty lines, and Bridges is masterful. He didn’t have to win me over after John Wayne – I am not now nor have I ever been a fan of the man. Bridges’ Cogburn showed the unfunny side of the drunken lawman, but Cogburn, and Bridges, can spin a yarn, so we’ll all follow along. This is a plum role for Bridges, and he milked it and played it and is superb. He is rough and gruff, his timing is right on, and his odd chivalry toward Mattie in contrast to his demeanor is intriguing.

The time is sometime in the 1870s, with winter coming on; the place Fort Smith, Arkansas, bordering with Oklahoma, then “Indian Country.” The film’s opening and closing scenes are narrated by an adult Mattie Ross, whose reasonable father was unreasonably gunned down by an angry and very stupid drunk with more than one name depending on what state or territory was looking for him. Was that not, after all, part of the point in taking part in the opening of a new frontier: creating a new identity, and persona? Possibly for people capable of thought, but that would be a different book. The killer in this story is easily identified and well known. Everyone in Fort Smith knew the fellow as Tom Chaney, whereas the Texas Ranger called him Chesford. Mattie’s father was gunned down away from home, so no one is outraged and out for blood. Daughter Mattie rides up on the train, a proper, slim young girl of 14, with a black servant. She is determined to get justice for her father.

Hailee Steinfeld was just perfect, remarkably repressed, strong, simple, and true as Mattie. The girl’s a powerhouse and I look forward to watching her grow up in coming years and films.

Matt Damon was the amusing and annoying Texas Ranger Mr. LaBoeuf (pronounced LaBeef), although this particular Texas Ranger was, well, rather odd. Granted the character was originally from Virginia, not Texas, but he appeared out of place.

Barry Pepper as a dangerous and sometimes gentlemanly outlaw was excellent, and Josh Brolin as the very stupid killer adds to his growing list of finely crafted disparate characters.

Despite the many fine performances in the film, it felt like tiny slivers of the story were left out, adding up to a whole missing something terribly important in between the lines. And the fact that the child Mattie kept reverting to statements of law and righteousness, assuming everyone around her would relinquish their intents of wrongdoing in face of her logic and purity, and almost everyone did as she wished, was bothersome. The proper speech patterns lacking contractions of many characters smacked of actors reading out of an Owen Wister story. Perhaps something between the vicious language of “Deadwood” and the proper language of “The Virginian” was needed.

The panorama of the unsettled west fills a viewer with awe. To be alone – heaven forbid without a healthy horse! -- in that territory is tantamount to a death sentence. No wonder horse theft was a hanging offense. Oddly it appeared to be a big deal that Tom had ridden into the Indian Country, when the dangers were all from white folk and Nature.

True Grit” was made up of fine bits and pieces, moments, performances which added up to a lot of pleasing elements in this film. But not a whole. Something was missing.

January 2, 2011: I think tonight, after seeing “The Fighter,” I know why “True Grit” did not work for me. The journeys of the latter were arduous, physically challenging and dangerous, and yet… there were no surprises. The journey was hard, and losses were many, but the protagonists ended up pretty much where I expected them to.

Not so in “The Fighter.” The journeys are arduous, physically challenging and dangerous, but “Nature” is not the enemy. The action of this story takes place in “civilized” cities and towns in modern times. Apparently “The Fighter” is based on a true story, but I don’t know it – nor, I suspect, would anyone outside Massachusetts who didn’t follow boxing -- so there were no foregone conclusions. Director David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” surprised me. For one thing, it’s a “boxing movie,” and I liked it. And hated it. And liked it.

Christian Bale gives an absolutely brilliant, scintillating, heart-wrenching performance as the junkie ex-fighter Dicky Eklund. Mark Wahlberg does fine work as the downtrodden and put-upon younger brother Micky Ward, also a fighter, who hasn’t got a chance in hell with Dicky hanging around his neck. Which of them is the title role? That’s up to the viewer.

Micky Ward finally does amount to something which he freely admits was due to Dicky’s teachings. This crowns his achievements with honesty and humility, and one wonders how this nice guy came out of this family. Wahlberg’s Micky Ward grows up in the film. Everything is against Micky, the entire town of Lowell, Massachusetts, weighs on his shoulders, his huge trashy family drains the life from him. But he makes it. That’s a storyline that has worked since stories were first told around a dying campfire.

The miraculous thing, though, the journey, the change, is Bale’s Dicky. His portrayal of the has-been fighter who has devolved into a crack addict is harrowing and infuriating. Dicky is hateful, as is his willfully blind and trashy mother Alice (a terrific performance by Melissa Leo). We root for Micky to be free of these people, but he is too kind and weak, so the only way Micky can be free is for Dicky to destroy himself and end up in jail. He is still the cock of the walk there, he still demands the spotlight and the focus, it’s always all about him. But he does straighten up. He kicks his addiction, and he stays clean once out of prison. The amazing journey is not the hero’s journey. It’s his big brother’s journey, acquiescing to other people’s rules and discipline while instilling his own, stepping out of the spotlight, staying on its shadowy edges just close enough to give his brother the extra push he needs to fulfill his dream. Which is also Dicky’s dream, and the brothers’ mother’s dream, and the dream of Lowell, Massachusetts.

I don’t like boxing. I find it an ugly “sport,” I find the people watching it and cheering it to be vulgar, horrible creatures, shouting for damage to be done to another human being just to satisfy their bloodlust, while being sure they don’t take any risks themselves. The spectacle is revolting. And yet, and yet, here’s “another boxing movie” that is about much more.

And maybe that’s what was missing from “True Grit.” Maybe Rooster Cogburn proved he had true grit, but who doubted it? What did he have to prove to whom? Were any of his actions in any way surprising? Were any of Mr. LaBoeuf’s actions surprising? Were any of Mattie’s? Not really. There were changes in these people’s lives, and Mattie’s changes and growth were accelerated, certainly. But was any one of them a different person (including all the dead people) than they were when we met them? I think not.

I have not read the novel True Grit. Maybe the flaw I see in the 2010 version of the film was in the 1969 version, and maybe it’s in the novel. It’s an adventure. Mattie’s goal is to see justice done to the murderer of her father. She would accept society’s justice of a trial and a hanging, unlikely as that would be, and certainly takes it into her own very capable hands when that is required. Is this a surprise? No, it’s a foregone conclusion.

The Fighter” is a drama. And it works. Excellent performances all around – including my friend Steven Barkhimer (misspelled as ‘Barkheimer’ in the film’s closing credits!!) as an HBO producer of a documentary about crack addicts – including Dicky. Amy Adams does good work as Micky’s courageous (when you see Micky’s family of sisters, you’ll understand that) girlfriend, who gives him the confidence and strength he needs to stand up to his family; Jack McGee is excellent as Micky’s intimidated but always there and solid dad, George Ward.

Interestingly, the two characters I disliked most in the film, Alice and Dicky, lead me to laud those two performances with superlatives. Melissa Leo’s Alice was as unmotherly as a woman with nine children can get, she brought out strong emotions in me -- I hated her almost as much as I hated junkie Dicky. And the daughters she raised! They are why humankind invented birth control.

Mr. Bale is an actor who immerses himself in his roles. Here he is gaunt, broken, his eyes haunted. A young cousin of mine is a stepdancer, and I’ve seen him dance around the house instead of walking, rehearsing his choreography. Bale’s Dicky moves his body as if he’s in a ring, his shoulders moving forward, to the side, back, his hands are always boxing, jabbing. He looks at people sideways for years; by the end, he looks directly into his brother’s face as their goals are truly joined. He’s riveting.

An interesting start to the new year for me: A film for which I had some expectations didn’t meet them; a film I expected to dislike surprised me.

The Fighter” has lots of grit. Go for it.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Those kittens have been doing something all the while I've been writing this...