it’s impossible for a filmmaker to tell a story that is properly received.
Real substance and plotting are not only tough to market, but are also bound
to enrage someone. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, for
example, was released last year and, even without a theatrical trailer
playing in standard multiplexes, was condemned before it was released. When
its distributor, Newmarket Films, did put it out to the public, most liberal
critics, out of their own anti-religious political beliefs, said that it was
an awful film. However, all Mel Gibson, who co-wrote, directed, and
self-financed The Passion wanted to do was tell a story: the story of
Jesus’ final hours. I’m amazed that so many people actually saw it; experts
assumed that it would be far too controversial to do well at the box office.
It is now February of 2005 and the same thing that
happened to The Passion of the Christ has happened to Million
Dollar Baby, albeit on a smaller-scale. This time around, the tables
have turned. Most critics are praising the film, and it is the religious
right-wingers, namely the usually-insightful Michael Medved and the
very-popular Rush Limbaugh, who are discouraging moviegoers from seeing it.
However, unlike those who wrongly accused Mel Gibson’s motion picture of
being Anti-Semitic and without artistic merit, Million Dollar Baby’s
opposition has decided to use a more tactical and maddening strategy:
spoiling the film’s ending and making it sound sacreligious. In truth, all
Clint Eastwood, like Gibson, wanted to do, in making his film, was tell a
story. The task has, once again, proven to be a terrible struggle. I can
only hope that Million Dollar Baby, one day, garners great success,
and its silly opponents are forgotten. Sweeping at the Oscars would be a
great start in turning this wish into a reality.
I went into Million Dollar Baby knowing the
ending, as I had listened to Medved’s radio show when he unprofessionally
let The Cat out of The Bag. I can only imagine how impacting its conclusion
would’ve been for me, had it been a surprise, considering how much it did
affect me. Warner Brothers is marketing it as a standard boxing movie, as
they have no choice but to do so, in order to not spoil a crucial plot
development in the film’s third act. I am here to announce that is anything
but conventional. I could rattle off adjectives and tell you what it
actually is, but a thesaurus won’t do Million Dollar Baby justice. It
is a knockout of a motion picture, a masterpiece that will be forever
remembered. Do not, under any circumstances, allow anyone to spoil it for
Million Dollar Baby is narrated by Scrap
(Morgan Freeman), an old friend and apprentice of Frankie Dunn (Clint
Eastwood), a boxing trainer. Scrap lives in a small room in Frankie’s gym,
keeping a watchful eye on everything that happens there. He allows each of
the lines in his voice-overs to flow freely, providing nothing more and
nothing less than his own impressions on the events which take place in
Million Dollar Baby. The story of the film is about a poor girl named
Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), whose father died when she was young and
left her to the bickering bunch of trailer-trash that was the rest of her
family. A waitress since the young age of thirteen and now thirty-one,
Maggie has hopes of becoming a professional boxer. She insists that Frankie
train her, as she knows that he is the best of the best when it comes to
what he does, but he is resistant, saying that he doesn’t train girls.
However, with the help of her own persistence, in addition to Scrap’s, he
eventually gives into her wishes. Maggie had been a fighter outside of the
rink for her whole life, but Frankie trains her to be one inside it, as
well. She throws each of her punches with the hope and desire of crafting a
life that she takes pride in.
As a director, Eastwood has never been better. His
efforts in last year’s Mystic River were stirring, but that film was
merely child’s play, in comparison to Million Dollar Baby. Unlike
good filmmakers who consistently deliver with the same old shtick,
Eastwood’s work is distinguishably great because it is always evolving and
improving. Within the confines of a very simple structure, he has crafted a
devastating motion picture by simply being a masterful filmmaker. He
uses techniques which trigger the strongest possible emotional
responses—vivid visual motifs, a narrative ambiguity that allows viewers to
mold their own impressions of the characters’ behavior, plot development
that occurs naturally but is always unexpected—never stepping out of line.
Million Dollar Baby’s story is naturally unrefined and hard-edged,
even while Eastwood makes sure each of its elements are in place. His work
represents a stunning achievement.
Eastwood the Actor and Morgan Freeman are superb
in their roles, but Hilary Swank is the real force in Million Dollar Baby’s
cast. Calling her work multi-layered would be an understatement. In all of
the years that I have gone to the movies, I have never found a character
that I have rooted for more than Maggie. This is entirely to Swank’s credit.
Unlike so many other people who come from rough backgrounds, Maggie has
aspirations and ideas. She has learned from the mistakes and denial of the
trailer-trash that once surrounded her. Maggie is impossible not to admire,
a true protagonist who is an entirely good person. This is the main reason
why the movie is as powerful as it is. At Swank’s lead, it plows through
emotion up until its very last frame rolls. Even though she had to put
audiences through The Core first, Swank’s participation in Million
Dollar Baby makes up for the mediocrity of that picture, and then some.
I could sit here and list more of the greatly
rewarding aspects of Million Dollar Baby, forcing you to read on for
ages, but I’m not going to. Such an exercise would only drain the strong
emotional punch out of the movie, for both me and you. What can I say other
than that I recommend seeing it? If you chose not to, you will miss not only
one of the best films of 2004, but also one of the greatest of all time.
Eastwood is in the filmmaking industry to tell stories, defying the current
expectation that all motion pictures must follow cookie-cutter formulas and
always be jolly in their executions. In Million Dollar Baby, he does
so with flying colors.
-Danny, Bucket Reviews
(Posted in 12.28.2004-2.5.2005 Update)
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