Friday, March 11, 2005

Pazuzu's Petals! A review of "Million Dollar Baby"

Join us as we once again open the torn, chewed, and feces-smudged pages of the BigHominid's diary...

I went and saw "Million Dollar Baby" today, and am happy to report that Eastwood's flick deserved the Oscars it got. True, there's some healthy discussion about the ethics of the characters in the film (warning-- link contains huge spoiler; my response to that post is here), but whatever your opinion of the characters' actions, I think you'll find the film deeply engaging, as I did.

In my mind, the best of Eastwood's films (in terms of acting) was 1993's "In the Line of Fire," directed by Wolfgang Petersen. I haven't seen much of Eastwood's work (acting or directing) since then, having missed "Absolute Power," "True Crime, and "Blood Work." I did, however, see 2000's "Space Cowboys," which I found disappointing on multiple levels. What shocked me most was that the Eastwood of that film looked doddering and palsied. It was hard to believe he'd aged that much since 1994. Eastwood read his lines as if he'd half-forgotten them... I was cringing while I watched.

"Million Dollar Baby" showcases a much more lucid Eastwood, which is reassuring. I'd thought for a while that the iconic Man With No Name had gone the dissolute route of Peter O'Toole and Richard Harris, or that he was publically succumbing to Alzheimer's Disease, but no. Fans can rest assured: Eastwood knows where he is, both in front of and behind the camera.

Eastwood's later films have focused on themes of old age and regret, and "Million Dollar Baby" is no exception. He plays Frankie Dunn, a crusty old trainer who knows only boxing, but seems to be afraid of success. His friend Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman) is an ex-boxer with an old eye injury for which Frankie-- who was his "cut man" years ago-- feels responsible. Into Frankie's gym comes Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), an over-30, inexperienced boxer with a yen to fight. It takes some doing, but she endears herself to Frankie and he trains her for success. The film is the story of these three characters, Frankie, Eddie, and Maggie, as they go through thick and thin.

Eastwood's direction is laid-back as always; he's one of the most unpretentious directors around, whatever his on-screen persona (compare his style to that of Steven Spielberg, at times the directorial equivalent of Robin Williams). Morgan Freeman, here packing on some distressing poundage, gets a golden moment when he shows a younger boxer what he's made of. He plays Eddie Dupris effortlessly, just as he does with all his roles. Hilary Swank handles her difficult, athletic role convincingly, even when the part demands little more than facial expressiveness. And Eastwood turns in a fine performance that makes use of a little-seen tool in his acting bag of tricks: his eyes. I've never seen Eastwood's eyes nearly as open and vulnerable as they are in this film. You get used to the Dirty Harry squint he carries with him from movie to movie (even in "In the Line of Fire"), or the mean-ass glare he perfected years ago. But in "Baby," we see an Eastwood rubbed raw by life. Hats off to the man. I was impressed.

Eastwood knows his way around lighting, itself practically a cast member in this movie. Scenes are often muted and shadowy, but the subdued moments make a fine contrast with the bright klieg-glare of fame as Maggie starts to win major fights. If the movie suffers from deficiencies in fight choreography and plausibility, these deficiencies are minor and forgivable.

I found it best simply to follow the emotions of the story. It's not a raw movie, and it's not exactly sentimental in the conventional sense (especially given the fate of Eastwood's character); it's more a gentle tale of grit and heart and love, a story for grownups told by the consummate grownup.


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