Sunday, March 20, 2005

Million Dollar Baby

Million Dollar Baby
Directed by Clint Eastwood
2004, rated PG-13
4 stars

When Clint Eastwood wants to make a film, then Clint Eastwood makes a film. He’s been an extremely successful actor, from the TV series “Rawhide” in 1959, to A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), to the major Oscar winner Unforgiven (1992), right up to Space Cowboys in 2000. Eastwood has also directed several major hits, such as Mystic River in 2003, and produced as well as composed the scores for several of the movies he’s acted in. Thus, it came as a fairly big surprise when his newest idea for a film was initially turned down by Warner Brothers. Apparently, there had been too many boxing films made recently. The Hurricane (1999), Ali (2001), and Girlfight (2000) had already covered the boxing theme, and there just wasn’t room for one more—so thought Warner Brothers. How wrong they were. Eastwood pushed forward with his film, and convinced Warner Brothers to split the cost, and the risk, with Lakeshore Entertainment, went ahead with Million Dollar Baby, and won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, as a result.

Clint Eastwood also stars in the film as boxing manager and trainer Frankie Dunn. Frankie owns a training gym, filled with would-be boxers and punching bags. Frankie’s friend Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a half-blind, once-great fighter, works as janitor at the gym, giving subtle encouragement and kindness to the underdogs who come across his path. Such is the case with Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank). All Maggie wants is to be a fighter, and to have Frankie be her trainer and manager. After months of persistence and endurance through Frankie’s stiff rejections, Maggie finally convinces him to take her on. Battling her way through younger, fitter, more experienced fighters, and the problems in her family life, Maggie begins to work her way to the top of the boxing world. Frankie’s admiration slowly grows into fatherly love, and he begins to see Maggie more as a surrogate daughter than as a prize fighter.

Swank’s performance as Maggie is excellent. After putting on nearly 20 pounds of muscle for the role and undergoing hours of rigorous training, Swank immerses herself in the role completely, and really deserves the Oscar she won for Best Actress. Her determined stare and calculating approach really brings her character to life. Freeman and Eastman are also good in their own ways, but really only serve as backup for Swank, who completely steals the show. Jay Baruchel also makes a great comic relief as Danger, the hilarious little guy with big dreams.

Eastwood’s boxing-match sequences give him a chance to show off his stuff. With the camera sometimes drawn back to show the whole ring with excited audience, sometimes up close with the boxers’ struggle, and sometimes observant from the side as a member of the cheering fans, each shot draws the audience into that world of sweat and violence. Outside the rink, however, Eastwood tends to be a little heavy-handed with the metaphor. The dark, moody lighting which continually shows only half of any person’s face is so obviously symbolic that it diminishes the effect of the attempted message. It happens so often in the film that it makes you think Eastwood didn’t quite know how to get the stage lights to work.

The theme, although at times fairly typical, has its unique moments, and culminates in a thoroughly surprising twist. The ultimate ending, however, has a rather deflated air, with a weak summary, and blandly ambiguous final shot. Overall, however, the film is enjoyable to watch, with attractions for feminists and boxing fans—or feminist boxing fans—alike. This is Clint Eastwood’s baby, and that’s definitely worth something, if not the full million.

Sideways

Sideways
Directed by Alexander Payne
2004, rated R
5 stars

The stagnation that occurs during middle-life is not a typical theme for films. Not surprising, considering how difficult it would be to make such a film appealing or interesting. Everyday life tends to be uninteresting; the characters have lost the alluring beauty of youth, and everything has become so routine that any action is just glanced at and promptly forgotten. Yet Alexander Payne has managed to create a film whose plot centers around this theme—not only that, but he has made a good film whose plot centers around this theme.

Paul Giamatti plays Miles Raymond, the perfect prototype of the middle-aged loser who looks back on his life and can see nothing but, well, nothing. As a marriage present to his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), Miles takes him on a tasting tour of California wine country a few days before the big event as a last fling at youth—and for Jack a last gasp of freedom. Jack stands as Miles’s personality opposite. Where Miles is depressed, self-conscious, shy, and whiney, Jack is overjoyed, or at least happily satisfied, with everything, self-confident to the point of complete egoism, and obnoxiously outgoing. Where as Miles had been looking forward to a nice time with his best friend, Jack saw the trip as his best opportunity for freedom—most particularly free sex—before getting tied down. This sexual fixation of Jack’s annoys Miles considerably, as Miles has still not recovered from his own failed marriage and subsequent divorce. On their excursion through numerous vineyards and bottles of wine, the pair meet up with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wild, wine-loving, biker chick who hits it off with Jack immediately, and Maya (Virginia Madsen), a more reserved and refined personality who strikes up a more tentative and moderate relationship with Miles.

Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most excellently executed, part of Sideways is the multiple layers of meaning present in almost every discussion. As each different type and vintage of wine is tasted and analyzed by each character, so is each personality revealed and developed. The intricacies of taste and smell, and even the process of raising the grapes and making the wines, all stand as extended metaphors for each character. Each actor carries these conversations with such natural ease, its easy to believe that such exchanges are unscripted. Every actor fits into his or her role perfectly. Paul Giamatti portrays the finicky temperament of Miles perfectly, with a moody slouch and refined whine that brings his character to the forefront. Thomas Haden Church gives an excellent performance as Jack, with every cocky facial expression and sexual innuendo piled up so as to form a perfect caricature. Madsen and Oh also do well with their roles, and Madsen has an excellent monologue brilliantly demonstrating the onion-like layers of meaning in every sentence.

On the whole, Sideways is simply filmed, with a few interesting montage sequences thrown in to add color and keep the story moving. However, the grainy, washed colors so characteristic of independent films gives it character, and a more personal feel. The audience feels as if they are getting a personal view into the lives of real people, but on a wholly more believable level than any reality show. These characters are far from perfect, but in all it is their faults that make them endearing to us as viewers. These personality flaws and tics are also what make them hilarious to watch, and it’s easy to laugh at their sometimes goofy and childlike behavior.

Sideways gives an excellent look into the psychological occurrences of middle-age. The main characters are not handsome or even fairly good looking; they have little to offer for redeeming qualities, and yet they act at times just like teenage boys barely past the hormone imbalances of puberty. The film is superb in its acting, layers of meaning, and overall feel, but some audiences may find it slow and slightly tedious to watch. However, it provides wonderful insight into each character’s personality—and you might learn some interesting things about the delicacies of wine along the way.