Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Boston Boxers; Operatic Cowboys; And Everywhere Snow...

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Short-takes on a snowbound evening, safe at the kitchen table as the wind howls outside...

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"The Fighter"

While watching "The Fighter" last weekend, I said to myself, "What a perfect movie for a Saturday matinee!" I had been avoiding seeing this one, thinking that it would be a retread of so many other boxing movies.  True, the film really didn't offer anything new, and the final sequence was right out of cliche-ville.  But on the whole I liked "The Fighter" more than I expected to.  It is entertaining and extremely well-made, with a story that is engineered for maximum crowd-pleasing.  I don't know that I would elevate this into any kind of award-winners' circle, but there is much to recommend to anyone looking for a fast-paced, character-driven true story. It's like spiced-up comfort food.

The true story of Irish Micky Ward's road to the welterweight championship, it's a sometimes exhilarating look at working-class Boston families, small-time crooks and addicts, neighborhood personalities and hangers-on, buoyed by a crackerjack  music track (SO good!) and some of the most inventive editing of the year (along with "Black Swan").  The film effectively focuses on Micky's well-meaning but destructive family, especially his mother and older half-brother Dicky Ecklund, and the usual love-interest with an intelligent and feisty bartender, well-played by Amy Adams.  On the downside, I am officially done with movies about quirky Boston working-class families, athletes, criminals, or geniuses.  And if I never see another film about boxing, that's fine too. 

I would have kept the film more in the realm of realism; but the movie goes soft near the end, and I often was confused by its tone, verging as it often does into cartoonishness in its depiction of Wards home life.

I am usually lukewarm about Mark Wahlberg; after "Boogie Nights" he failed to capture my interest (and that includes "The Departed").  I must say that I enjoyed his performance here more than I did anyone else in the cast besides Amy Adams (who I loved, as she did her Janis Joplin dry-run), and that includes the two highly-touted performances poised for top Hollywood accolades.

I watched in disbelief as Christian Bale mugged and chewed the scenery for the first twenty minutes. I realized that he was portraying a real-life loose-cannon and crack addict (former boxer Dicky Ecklund). But man, a little bit of him was going a LONG way; so it came as a relief that the script gave him a prison epiphany, a chance to clean up, become a nice guy, and save the day.  I can't fault Bale's performance; he transformed himself and finally won me over, even when the script lost its believability in the second half. There's a warmth hidden under the shtick, and toward the film's finale there's some coiled sexual heat and tender emotion welling just beneath the surface.

Melissa Leo not only chews the scenery, she swallows it, regurgitates it and chews it some more.  Once again, she more than meets the demands of the script as a headstrong mother and amateur manager to her son. But all too often she behaves like a Moe to seven Stooge-like daughters, and it was here that I had real trouble taking the movie seriously.  Her best scene is a shouting match with her ex-husband in their kitchen; and there's a strange and moving sequence in a car when she joins her wayward son Dicky in an old Bee Gees Tune, "I Started a Joke".  Here the movie tells us all we need to know about their mutually destructive relationship that survives out of love. 

The final title match is predictable, and everyone suddenly becomes lovable (the film actually cuts away before screen adversaries Leo and Adams hug each other after the final victory).  But in the spirit of action-filled, broadly-played and sharply-made family athlete sagas of old, "The Fighter" has earned its place among the best Saturday matinee films ever.

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"Girl of the Golden West"

Last Saturday Mark got us tickets to the Lyric Opera's production of Puccini's "Girl of the Golden West". Here was something truly unusual: a high opera, sung in Italian, about the California Gold Rush and the Old West.  The sets were of saloons and cabins in a snowy woods, and a miners railroad yard.

The opera does not have many well-known show-stoppers, or arias that have been popularized like "Carmen" or "La Boheme".  Still there was one recurring theme that sounded so much like a famous musical phrase in the Broadway musical "Phantom of the Opera" that I figured Mr. Puccini had been lightly plagiarized.

This opera was first performed in 1910, so it was great fun to see the Old West from the perspective of an Italian musician before the influence of Western movies. I suppose there were western dime-novels to draw from. 

Maybe the movies got their inspiration from this opera...how often have we seen the hero about to be hanged, only to have the noose shot and the victim fall to safety?  Puccini, I would imagine, had never seen this in a movie...maybe he invented this well-known western staple.

The cast was fine, especially Deborah Voigt as Minnie, the saloon owner with a heart of gold; Dick Johnson  as Ramerrez her secret lover; and the darkly sexy Marco Vratogna as Jack Rance, the Sheriff and villain.

It was a wonderful winter evening among a packed house, all of us retreating from the cold and reveling in a lighthearted and beautiful musical work evoking the American Western legend.

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We are in the middle of what's being called the worst blizzard in Chicago history.  I am not a fan of snow; but the College has already called and told me we are closed tomorrow; and so I will have an honest-to-goodness snow day. After a few hours clearing the 2-foot drifts from the driveway...it's playtime!  Quite a rough night on Lake Shore Drive though.....


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