Monday, January 31, 2005

Million Dollar Baby

Million Dollar Baby (Director: Clint Eastwood)

MILLION DOLLAR BABY is the 2004 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Best Director (Eastwood), Best Actress (Hilary Swank), Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman)

This is Eastwood's 26th directorial feature, according to my count. I haven't seen a lot of Eastwood's early work, but I love Unforgiven and liked Mystic River very much. He's got a lot of well-known features and some notable missteps, but he's doing very good work at his age. This is based on F.X. Toole's collection of short stories, Rope Burns. Baby got a limited release on December 15 and opened wide last weekend.

With this film, I've seen all the Best Picture nominees. I can say that between this and Sideways, I'm going to have a terrible time picking my favorite of the year. This is a superb drama, filled with heartbreaking performances. How to be a man reviewing this film after there has been so much said about it? I'll take a stab.

Veteran trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), after being fired by his long-time fighter, reluctantly finds a project with female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank). Maggie has all the toughness and drive it takes, and it becomes apparent after several early fights that she is clearly a higher class of boxer, all of which is going to lead to a title bout with a dirty boxer named The Blue Bear. Dunn is the father figure Maggie never had, and she plays the daughter figure (his real daughter returns his letters marked "Return to Sender").

Ahh, but there's demons. Dunn used to be a "cut man" for former contender Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Freeman), who works and lives at the gym Dunn runs. Dupris is blind in one eye, and Dunn blames himself for not somehow stopping the fight that caused it. His guilt runs his handling of his fighters, which obviously leads to frustrating mismanagement. However, Maggie is something special, and her conduct gives Dunn a second wind in managing her.

Unfortunately, critics have been caught up on this "twist" that occurs later in the film. It may be the most controversial debate in film this past year, after you consider the hoopla of Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11. First off, we know a twist is coming, so now when you watch the movie, you'll see something that signals what it's going to be. I don't know how you review the film properly without mentioning it, but somehow this could have been handled better. I wish the early reviews could have been more subtle, like, "The film takes a turn in the final act," and then an opinion could have been expressed as to whether that turn fits the movie or not.

As is, we're getting advance word that this twist "comes completely out of left field and changes the picture entirely." It's an overstatement. I sort of wish I could have been the first person not intimately involved with the production to see this film, and see how I would have reacted to it. Some say this turn hurts the movie, but I'm not one. I think it is completely necessary. Without it, it would be just another sports movie. We'd compare it to Rocky. I think Eastwood has been around the block enough to know not to make a film that echoes another classic film.

As for the performances, I think Eastwood does deserve his nomination, which means I clearly think Depp should have been left off for Giamatti. His face is so expressive, and seemingly filled with every burning feeling in the book. Hilary Swank is awesome in this. Her character has so much integrity, and she just sucks you in from the moment she hits the screen. Morgan Freeman? Isn't this guy the best actor to never win an Oscar? Much like in The Shawshank Redemption Freeman has a narrative role, but he's the everyman character who establishes the balance of the picture, and who better than Freeman to be that?

What a great film. I'll be thinking about it for some time.


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